The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment of the 16th to 18th centuries brought about social upheaval in the Western world. Drastic shifts in place, ideologies, and technologies allowed for new subject positions, as well as new rituals and practices, a transformation of the world towards the invention of new modes of relation. Visual culture in particular offers rich forays into new modes of social relations evident in visual meaning-making. Newly devised architectural innovations, like the panorama and the arcade, made amenable the ritual viewing of both objects and people, and offered a new subject-position: the flaneur, or leisurely city stroller. We might say the flaneur, as a subject, both viewing and knowingly being viewed, is re-manifested through social media; just as the modern urbanite strolled through an arcade to both view and be viewed, so too do we browse through newsfeeds and digital channels, interpreting the identities of others and self-curating profiles with the gaze of the fellow browser in mind. The body as commodity is today on display in our digital spheres and, as hyper-visible subjects. We are afflicted by a social panic and sense of anxiety. Constant scrutiny of our “data selves” for imagined audiences and intolerance of inauthentic marketing foils has produced a sense of jadedness and fatigue among netizens, called to perform and self-police the digital body.
As a cultural phenomenon, we can track new modes of countervisuality as a reaction towards pressures to self-curate, and glean an emergent sense of post-authenticity: of a refusal to be interpolated as laboring creators of marketable, data-minable profiles. Under inspection here is the “normcore” movement, an ironic style rooted in non-style and a kind of postmodern fashion phenomenon gaining traction among youth in an age crowded with performed authenticity. These cultural phenomena warrant inspection not only because they are our historical milieu—they reveal that the digital is and can be a site for constant re-negotiation and performance of identities. Digital subjects in the age of the “post-authentic” are not just prone repositories for coded meaning, but are both self-asserting agents and audiences able to re-codify images.
Modernity and the Gaze in Flux
Modernity—as a western, contemporary lifestyle—emerged as an outgrowth of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, and the Enlightenment. What facilitated a burgeoning sense of modernity were both new technological innovations and the societal shifts that entailed galvanizing processes of mechanization, urbanization, and democratization: modern life became characterized by both awe and anxiety, and was enduringly marked by flux. The modern man witnessed dislocation and urbanization, emergent new class structures and relations between individuals in close proximity, and new rituals and social conventions.
We can look to visual technologies in particular as placing bodies in concert in novel ways, molding certain epistemes rooted in ceremonial viewing. One such technology was the arcade, a succession of arches often serving as an overhead structure for department store spaces. Accommodating the flaneur—a bourgeois leisurely stroller of the city, a new subject-position borne out of newfound free time afforded by urban life—and dispatched to organize and display mass-produced commodities, the arcade was a liminal space both public and enclosed, a social sphere that was cohabited by numerous unfamiliar faces.
An architectural framing of the department store as a kind of hall buttressed by windows facilitated specific tracks of movement: a meandering flow of both feet and eyes about both displayed commodities and fellow amblers. As a mundane ritual, the modern man consciously entered the arcade to both view and be viewed, not unlike the commodities they beheld. Entering an arcade was bundled with a tacit understanding that, as a flaneur, you were volunteering yourself to a cross-fire of scrutinizing gazes. A performative element was therefore always implicated in the knowing subject’s movement. One garbs themselves, postures themselves, and presents themselves deliberately in this public sphere, as a mode of communication in and of itself.
In her “The Mobilized and Virtual Gaze in Modernity,” Anne Friedberg cites another modernist innovation, the panorama—a 19th century structure that offered sprawling 360 degree paintings for public viewing, employing realistic techniques of perspective and scale to offer an immersive sense of landscape—as facilitating a “mobilized virtual gaze.” The panorama as a visual architecture, she claims, “provided virtual spatial and temporal mobility, bringing the country to the town dweller, transporting the past to the present,” effectively rendering a “perfect illusion,” “a spectacle in which all sense of time and space was lost” (258 Friedberg). The convergence of two different planes of existence—the viewer is at once both within a city and landscape—offered a cross-referencing mode of understanding and constructed a naturalized sense of presence. The panorama was an apparatus that re-presented distinct realities and implied that these images of landscapes could very well be placed alongside cityscapes in the real through a communal and technological conceit: the imagination of viewers was captured by the visualization of space through this structure and through ritual suspension of disbelief. Those who engaged in panorama viewing and arcade window-shopping effectively were made amenable to new modes of looking and codifying, and were doubly interpolated as both viewer and viewed.
Parallel Visual Architectures and Conceit of Identity
Today’s digital sphere can be conceived of as a visual architecture drawing from the heritage of the arcade, and offering perhaps a more salient “mobilized virtual gaze” than the panorama. There are parallels to be made between the anatomy of social media platforms—networks such as Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook—and the architecture of modernist viewing receptacles. As an uncannily shared feature, nearly all digital platforms for community engagement offer some kind of newsfeed or dashboard, a scrolling vertical pathway of images and stories —harkening similar to the sauntering of the flaneur and the intuitive pathway devised by the arcade’s design. Just as the flaneur might physically move and stop to stare at a commodity, consult with a fellow browsing friend, or halt to inspect a fellow flaneur, we as netizens have the luxury of self-determined pace: the ability to halt and scrutinize, to place a moratorium on browsing by bringing about a conversation, or to speed past content deemed unworthy of our attention. One’s social media profile, we might say, is representative of the calculated presentation of the modern woman that frequents the arcade,
We might even claim that the profile of the user—replete often with albums and archives of images composing a self-determined self—functions as a portal into the self, drawing visual fields and narratives out of virtual spaces. Friedberg’s notion of the “mobilized virtual gaze” should be invoked here: the profile offers multi-moment representations of the self, which are cross-referenced and clustered to constitute a given identity. Social media profiles involve a world-making; the self is enlivened by micro-ecosystems of visual identifiers that must be brought into order for one to experience it, recalling the communal suspension of disbelief involved in the spectacle-making of the panorama. If we are to participate in and inhabit these designed physical or virtual structures of viewing, it is presupposed that we take these images—even if we might with a grain of salt, —as offering some level of information-content worth our attention, some degree of veracity and some currency warranting our gaze. The contemporary flaneur then is a doubly-identifying digital netizen, hailed as both content-browser and self-curator, a producer and consumer of imagery.
Docility, Labor, and Authenticity
If we are to humor this parallel—that social media is a contemporary answer to modernist modes of social viewing—then we might inspect the epistemes and consequences of these technologies. Just as we can study how the flaneur’s movements are guided by both designed situation and public ritual, we can dissect and contrast the flow of the internet browser. First, there are distinctions to be made between the visible criss-crossing gazes of flaneurs in commune under an arcade and the network of anonymous eyes under the virtual community of the internet. There is a sense of hyper-visibility and an anxiety that comes with exposure to a nebulous murk of individuals online. Though there is a stricter sense of self-control for the netizen—who is able to disclose and to even retroactively self-edit their profiles — Still, there is the sense that, just as we might view others at our own discretion and leisure, so too might eyes be tracking us. Even with the strictest privacy settings which might delimit an audience to a scant few individuals, there is only a hazily vague sense of who actually is sizing up your profile at any given moment, and why. We can contrast this to not only the flaneur in the arcade—for whom the viewer was physically in the flesh, in the same occupied space as them, and could be engaged in face-to-face contact—but also Friedberg’s concept of the “mobilized virtual gaze.” Where the flaneur was aided by the panorama as an apparatus to envisage entire landscapes, and where our digital profiles certainly aid us as consumers of virtual imagery, we as creators of visual content can only take shots in the dark in imagining an audience to which we can respond in anticipation. The “imagined audience” here is unimaginable, and there is a tension regarding how exactly to proceed online.
It might be more fitting, then, to consult a different architectural structure as an analogy: not just the arcade but also the Panopticon, a fictitious architectural structure, discussed by Michel Foucault in his seminal Discipline and Punish: The Birth of a Prison, which modeled a punitive means of societal control. The Panopticon is a circular building with a central control tower, with surrounding visible prisoner cells. As a metaphor for how power functioned, the Panopticon adds psychological gravity to modern punitive systems, with prisoners powerlessly unaware of and therefore consistently perturbed by the prospect of an omniscient eye. Where in days past, public executions and spectacle-making might have proliferated, Foucault asserts that the modern system operates on the subliminal. Contrary to the spectacle, it is invisible and achieves efficient self-regulation and the “making docile” of bodies to the service of labor. The digital self-curator finds common ground with the anxious Panoptic prisoner: both are at the mercy of a judgmental gaze that neither can reliably perceive. To address a holistic audience that cannot ever be visualized in the full, the digital subject often preemptively attempts to address those whom he might expect to view his content—as a kind of precautionary self-auditing to avoid judgment. As an autonomously governing structure, popular social media channels have an architecture bound up surely in invisibly functioning power: self-expressive agency is at once granted to social media users, and simultaneously robbed through implicitly designed, self-regulating mind-play.
Another Foucauldian concept might help us better understand the role of docile body-making in the context of visuality: in his chapter “The Body of the Condemned” in his Discipline and Punish, Foucault extrapolates on the concept of “biopower,” a regulation of masses of people under society. He describes the body as being “directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it… [they] force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs.” With the lattermost points implicating labor, ritual, and the emission of “signs,” the codified performance of the digital subject can be understood as being harnessed and inspected. If we extend “biopower” as an analytic to us as constituents in social media spheres—just as with the arcade’s window-shopping displays—we realize there is a commodification at hand and a market relevance to these digital communes.
Algorithmic Identity, Influencer Culture, and the Normcore Movement
In his “Style is an Algorithm,” Kyle Chayka intersects the idea of “biopower” signifiers with de-humanizing algorithms. Promising “an ideal version of cultural consumption tailored to our personal desires,” the algorithm ironically robs us of what visual theorist Roland Barthes cites as a kind of arbitrariness of certain trends. Chayka posits that the algorithm diverges from this sense of spontaneity because it banks upon data selves as mineable reservoirs of information, rehashing a data output as a averaged yield of data sets. Remarking specifically upon the Amazon Echo Look’s fashion-evaluating function, Chayka asserts: “...the device is trying to match me to some universalized average, not my individual style, whatever that might be. It doesn’t know me at all — it can’t tell what kind of clothes I’m comfortable in nor how the clothes I wear will function as symbols outside, in the place I live, in the contexts of class or gender.” We are placed into a labor of culture-creation, contributing to the very products that are resold to us. The “signs we emit,” following from the concept of a Foucauldian “biopower,” are harvested, organized, and corralled into usage by a market who doggedly follows our virtual trails—and funnels these scraps of data to postulate an average of our alleged virtual identities. As groomed and disciplined docile bodies, and as self-regulating to produce relevant content, we create the inputs for our own consumption.
Chayka also corrals into conversation, from Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, notion of the aura—an innate quality of art based on specific socio-historical context, which is lost through reproduction—and its bearing upon marketable images in our digital space. Paralleling mechanical reproduction’s tendency to remove something’s aura, Chayka declares that a crisis of authenticity inevitably emerges from our algorithm-centric commune: “...‘new’ or popular styles will be increasingly optimized for their algorithmic reproducibility (in other words, designed to spread meme-like over digital platforms) instead of their originality.” We see veritable traces of this in influencer culture. Media theorist Crystal Abidin has written extensively on influencer culture and the genre of selfies as a kind of straddling of both artifice and reflexivity. In her article “Layers of Identity,” Abidin remarks upon a kind of authenticity—comparable to the aura that Benjamin discusses—that is sought after with attempted re-instantiations by social media influencers. Abidin describes a sense of disdain towards the genre of the influencer selfie, which is conceived of as a salable, advertorial commodity. The netizen, Abidin suggests, is canny and sees through a contrived sense of authenticity—past a “false aura,” we might say—of the influencer selfie, prompting influencers to in turn take on more complex modes of artifice-masking. She describes how authenticity in the purview of the social media consumer does not mean just being barefaced and candid; if she is to retain the trust of her follower base, the influencer “must actively juxtapose this stripped-down version of themselves against the median and normative self-presentations of glamour, to continually create and assign value to new markers—faults and flaws, failures and fiascos—to affirm the veracity of their truth-ness.”
As a kind of rhetorical sleight of hand, the social media influencer must both adroitly construct her social media post, and counterpose it against an oeuvre of “fake” social media posts—all to accommodate an imagined audience of savvy, jaded viewers, intolerant of shallow marketing schemes. With not only selective posturing, makeup and lighting, but also offerings of “behind-the-scenes” selfies and captions that deliberately acknowledge the disingenuity of social media, the influencer must bank upon new tactics to embody authenticity. Abidin offers up a definition of the influencer’s tacit labor: an absented and made-invisible affective labor that is “required to make a practice seem natural or effortless,” and an effort to disavow the self to produce “contrived authenticity.” In her “Unfit for Consumption,” Remina Greenfield remarks upon a similar code-switching tactic employed by women in the face of both capitalism and the male gaze: “For women in a capitalist consumer society, double identification and the ability to perceive and associate with the desirous ‘male gaze’ is a survival mechanism.” Maintaining that “the reality of women’s relationship to their images in the media is strategic,” and framing the female subject as being both a victim and an agent, Greenfield postulates a kind of calculated navigation: “A woman can recognize a beauty ideal as insidious and unattainable, while also acknowledging it as an expectation, the approximation of which carries tangible social benefits.” We can see the kind of “desirous ‘male gaze’” that Greenfield offers as being analogous to the digital gazes of skeptical netizens, desirous of authenticity among inundations of falsehood. Our social media influencers, too, mindfully strive towards an “unattainable ideal” in their artificial productions: they feign relatability and personability for social capital, knowing full well their real roles as marketers who claim no real “aura.” Both Abidin and Chayka track in their analyses a sense of suspicion and a predisposition towards doubt—nothing like the kind of communal suspension of disbelief needed in the enjoyment of panoramas. There is no longer any innocence; our panoramic “perfect illusion” is cracked and everything is, in a postmodernist sense, amenable to critique and dissection. Where the modern flaneur’s enraptured imagination proliferated, the skeptic’s incredulous gaze predominates today.
As a final foray, we can look to the phenomenon of normcore as not only capturing the general fatigued zeitgeist of laboring towards and chasing ephemeral authenticities—the normcore movement also offers a kind of countervisual refusal of normative rituals of identity-construction through images. In their satiric “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom,” trend forecasting and consulting group K-Hole captures a sense of weariness towards cultural calls for individuality, and a striving towards an unfettered youthful freedom. Moving away from what is cited as a kind of mass indie movement—the reproduction of the alternative and sub-cultural ad nauseam, proliferating into mainstream channels and being reproduced everywhere—the postmodern youth seeks a group identity and freedom in sameness. K-Hole asserts, “Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness. But instead of appropriating an aestheticized version of the mainstream, it just cops to the situation at hand.”
Garbed in cargo shorts and framed as “acting basic,” the normcore movement might be envisioned as an aestheticized reaction towards a sense of oppressive prescriptivism, rigid digital architectures, and burdensome obligatory performative labor—and rejects exactly that by refusing to be concerned with the authentic. Responding to crises of dying authenticity and misplaced auras in cycles of reproduction, the normcore youth chooses to be unfazed and beleaguered by the authentic, and in a sense opts out of being made a docile body for visual labor, by instead creating undifferentiated and inauthentic content. If the digital youth cannot see his viewer in the real, then the youth will be rendered invisible online too: with an erasure of distinctly emitted signs, a blending into the homogeneous masses, and a sporting of a non-aura. It’s as if to say the normcore youth counters normative visual architectures, as factories of signs and authentic-passing content, by opting out and wishing no part in the production of aura.
As real constituents and arbiters of meaning, normcore youth and social media influencers reveal that meaning cannot ever be assuredly fixed—and that digital spheres matter, as arenas for ideological contestation, contrapuntal readings, and re-codifications of identity. Try as architectures might to ordain certain tracks of movement and production, we nevertheless remain agents capable of resisting coercively assigned identities. There is a stake that should not be overlooked in studying visual codifications and architectures: virtual spaces ordain how we navigate and constitute ourselves as subjects in real spaces, and pre-determine the breadth of possible positions we are allowed to inhabit in social imaginaries. The visual functions as a testament towards social structures of feeling, but surely too as a incubatory space for burgeoning identity formations.
Abidin, Crystal. “Layers of Identity.” Real Life, Real Life Mag, 16 Apr. 2018, reallifemag.com/layers-of-identity/.
Abidin, Crystal. “Aren’t These Just Young, Rich Women Doing Vain Things Online?: Influencer Selfies as Subversive Frivolity.” Social Media + Society, Sage Publications. 11 Apr. 2018, journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2056305116641342#articleCitationDownloadContainer/.
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Prism Key Press, 2010.
Chayka, Kyle. “Have Algorithms Destroyed Personal Taste?” Racked, Racked, 17 Apr. 2018, www.racked.com/2018/4/17/17219166/fashion-style-algorithm-amazon-echo-look.
Foucault, Michel, and Alan Sheridan. Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. Penguin Books, 1977.
Friedberg, Anne. “The Mobilized and Virtual Gaze in Modernity.” Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern, University of California Press, 1994.
Greenfield, Remina. “Unfit for Consumption.” The New Inquiry, The New Inquiry, 18 Apr. 2017, thenewinquiry.com/unfit-for-consumption/.