June 14, 2019

I Believe This Is My Festival

During Joni Mitchell’s performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival (memorialized in this documentary), after already having had to stop for a few moments so that someone having a bad drug reaction could get medical attention (he was “making a sound like the damned, a low bellow” Mitchell explains in retrospect), she is interrupted by a bearded guy exuding some very Manson-esque energy. He had been crouching onstage behind her, a bit like Bob beside the bed in Twin Peaks. He sidles up to where she is sitting at her piano and grabs at the microphone to make an “announcement,” as some other men — casually dressed, one shirtless, looking not especially like security guards — run over to try to escort him offstage. “Desolation row is this festival,” he manages to say before is forcibly pulled away.

Mitchell goes over and tries to talk to him as the men restrain him; in the film you can see her holding his hands and trying to hear him out. Then she walks away in apparent frustration, shaking her head and waving her arm behind her as if to repudiate everything. The documentary cuts away then to show the man offstage now, still struggling and protesting. As he is being pulled away yet again from a different microphone, he shouts, “I believe this is my festival!”

I think about this guy a lot, especially when I have a social media app opened and I’m poised to start complaining about how commercialization has ruined something that was already commercial to begin with. I believe this is my festival! I’ll shout in my head, as I am trying to find words for some sarcastic tweet. I imagine a bunch of men dragging me away from my keyboard as I am trying to peck out the letters of my highly important announcement. In the film, after the man is told that he wasn’t being arrested, he calms down and coolly explains his intentions, like an official at a press conference. “Lots of us are uptight,” he says to the recorders and mikes pressed around him. “We’re uptight about commercial music co-opting our festival.” Later in the film, a different agitator appears on stage and declares, “I love music but this festival business is becoming a psychedelic concentration camp where people are being exploited!” I imagine that some of the things I’ve written about social media would come across like that to people of the future if anyone actually read them.

Earlier this week, when a tweet circulated of four images from Instagram of purported “influencers” visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, it had a distinct “I believe this is my festival” feel. The tweet was basically fake news: As Taylor Lorenz details here, three of these images came from accounts that are not widely followed and one of the images was old. The tweet was designed not to shed any light on something new happening but to gratify those already invested in the idea that influencers are shallow, self-involved, and disrespectful, and that they are ruining sites with their crass commercialism. Their same behavior that destroys experience in the real world also reproduces narcissism as aspirational on Instagram, assuring that the problem will spread and become even harder to avoid. We’re uptight about influencers co-opting our tourist spaces! The tweet seemed like a concern-trolling sneer at selfie-people breaching decorum: They seem to think it is their festival, the tweet implies, which is meant to suggest that it is not a festival at all. Instead it conveys a different subtext: But it is my festival!

Essentially, the tweet indulged in what it projected onto the influencers it tried to shame: It was a ploy to get retweets and likes from those who share its prejudices, and outraged replies from those who don’t. Either way, engagement! It allows everyone on Twitter to enjoy the decontextualized “influencer” images under the auspices of condemning or defending them — teaching the controversy, so to speak. Rather than being a vicarious tourist, one is making an important moral point about etiquette or evolving modes of self-expression and self-documentation.

This venerable strategy of disavowal likely emerged simultaneously with techniques of representation. Pleasure — especially the pleasure taken in objectification, in consuming life or experience in an image, in a thing, as media — is always looking for redemption from itself. The enjoyment in looking at something like the Chernobyl selfies (or HBO’s Chernobyl) is predicated on an alibi: What I enjoy in seeing the images is precisely the pretense that I am not enjoying it but transcending someone else’s enjoyment, someone who is looking at them wrong, in some more basic or inappropriate way. I’m not one of those people watching Chernobyl for retro Soviet costumes and set design. Not at all. I’m learning important lessons about nuclear physics and bureaucratic failures!

The Chernobyl selfies give me an immediate sense of participation in a phenomenon and a place that everyone seems to be talking about; in a sense they directly depict that thrill of feeing like a “self” — my projected self into the random person in the selfie — who is bound up with something so much larger. Yet that random person absorbs the blame for the vanity that I am projecting into the image in order to relish it, and then I relish that transference maneuver as well.

In his 1976 book The Tourist, Dean MacCannell argues that this kind of disavowal is intrinsic to tourism, which he regards as the prototypical form of consumerism in the era of commodified experiences. “Touristic shame is not based on being a tourist but on not being tourist enough, on a failure to see everything the way it ‘ought’ to be seen,” he argues. “The touristic critique of tourism is based on a desire to go beyond the other ‘mere’ tourists to a more profound appreciation of society and culture, and it is by no means limited to intellectual statements. All tourists desire this deeper involvement.”

At the Isle of Wight festival, Joni Mitchell too had something to say about tourists. After she’s interrupted by the “I believe this is my festival” guy, she launches into a notorious tirade (in my mind anyway) about how the festival goers are acting like a bunch of tourists. I’ll quote it here in full, because I think it speaks directly to what MacCannell is arguing, while adding in the tension between celebrities and the masses, who in their fandom oscillate between vicariously identifying with larger-than-life individuals and using famous people as an organizing pretense for depersonalizing group solidarity. She abruptly stops playing the piano and says this:

Will you listen a minute? Now listen. A lot of people who get up here and sing — I know it’s fun, you know, it’s a lot of fun, it’s fun for me — I get my feelings off through my music. But listen, you’ve got your life wrapped up in it, and it’s very difficult to come out here and lay something down when people — it’s like, last Sunday I went to a Hopi ceremonial dance in the desert and there were a lot of people there, and there were tourists, and there were tourists who were getting into it like Indians, and Indians who were getting into it like tourists. And I think you’re acting like tourists, man. Give us some respect.

Mitchell’s exasperation at a being thrust into a impossible situation and watching some idealistic notions about freedom and love and music unravel basically before her eyes is palpable and fairly sympathetic. But whenever I watch this, I mainly feel affronted: What makes her not a tourist at this Hopi festival? Who made her a judge of who is sufficiently reverential? She is performing MacCannell’s touristic critique of tourism, by way of a commodified experience of indigenous people — an experience that she is then disavowing and in part apparently blaming on the Hopi themselves. It feels like an egregious lapse of judgment, a precursor of her myopic decision to pose in blackface for the cover of her 1977 album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. On top of it all, she is saying, No, this is really my festival, this is for musicians to “get their feelings off” without too much distraction from adoring fans and their investments. The fans are supposed to be there to help the musicians have fun and feel admired and respectfully take what the musicians deign to give them without making the “tourist” mistake of making it about themselves somehow.

Because of her fame, Mitchell is a tourist attraction wherever she goes — she implicitly likens herself to the Hopi ceremonial dance. But that doesn’t make her less of a tourist; that makes her by MacCannell’s logic the ultimate tourist, situated atop the hierarchy of commodified experience and in a position to lay down judgments about it. But my point here is not to condemn Mitchell so much as to look at the critique of influencer selfies from a different perspective. The impulse to ridicule them is not a repudiation of what they stand for but the apotheosis of it — it implies that you would be the one at the Hopi dance digging it in the correct way; not that you wouldn’t be dropping in at the Hopi dance at all.

In other words, “selfies” don’t add anything newly narcissistic to the established dynamics of tourism; it’s just a way to remind oneself that you’re having a touristy moment, cheaper than a souvenir. But what seems new to me are the social media networks on which they are shared, which are both tote boards for tourism and touristic destinations in themselves. Instagram is images of the festival and the festival itself. Lorenz argues that Instagram “has become the default way for many, especially young people, to share and document their lives,” but because images on Instagram are “inherently formatted for consumption rather than reflection,” this leads to an “awkward” situation when it comes to experiences of “solemn places.” Posting on Instagram is felt to be necessary as a way to “realize” life experience — this is my festival — but the intense commercialism of the platform palpable in its metrics, its conventional image tropes, and the prominence of life-style marketing in “influencer culture” turns these posts into poses, into grief tourism.

The question then is why participation in Instagram specifically has become so integral to self-documentation and personal remembrance that users can’t be held accountable for participating in it and also can’t shift its norms and apparent values. It’s not as if there aren’t alternative platforms that don’t have the same commercial overtones, that frame image sharing as something less intrinsically aspirational, something intended for smaller groups of friends and not broadcast to anyone on the platform by default. There are places to share images that are less susceptible to context collapse, to the kind of adversarial repackaging typified by the Chernobyl tweet. Isn’t using Instagram instead of or (more likely) in addition to those other sites an endorsement of the platform’s priorities? A desire to participate precisely in an attentional ecosystem that values the dynamics of “influencing”? A demand for the festival rather than the group chat?

“As influencer culture trickles down and more average users attempt to emulate it, new norms have emerged,” Lorenz reports. “Posed photos are standard, particularly among younger users.” But why? Implicit in how Lorenz concludes — “most of these users are all trying to say the same thing: I was here” — is the idea that Instagram concretizes the reality of that “being there” because it theoretically sends the evidence out not to specific people but to the world, a kind of universal witness. It may be that a certain kind of self-realization that is now possible depends on this fantasy of the platform itself as a proxy for the entire world watching.

This, at any rate, would explain an observation from Nicole He that Lorenz quotes: “At some point Instagram switched its culture from ‘pictures you took’ to ‘picture of you.’” It may be that broadcast social media like Instagram (and Facebook before it) have raised the bar on what it takes to feel “real” to oneself. It may be that in the climate of continual connectivity, mutual recognition from friends isn’t sufficient to punctuate one’s experience with the sense that one is real, that one has objective presence in the world. Broadcast social media open a different horizon, a infinite slab of concrete into which one can carve one’s initials. The platform’s commercialism, rather than compromise an experience and the associated sense of self, certifies them with the universal language of advertising.

The photographed destinations become occasions to stage not only our relation to ourselves and our experiences but to the conditions of contemporary life, our integration with phones, networks, connectivity, technology. The tourist destination, the sacred site, is desired as a sanctioned reason to use the phone, to spark a connection to it and through it the “society” for whom one becomes realer, and which in turns becomes realer itself to that person. The “I was here” of the selfie plays equally with respect to the location and to the social network.

This updates MacCannell’s claim that tourism establishes one’s relationship to modernity. Being a “tourist” means being on the right side of modernity, one of the “tourists getting into it like Indians” rather than one of the “Indians getting into it like tourists.” Tourism gives us the sense that we control how we are seen because we are the onlookers, and in tourist selfies we are being watched watching. Being mocked for this completes the certification: No one is more modern, more of “the real world” it presumes, than someone whose authenticity has been challenged; whereas those labeled authentic are consigned to stereotypes, to being objects required to signify whatever experience they are consumed to represent. Being “real” in modernity means being a tourist; Instagram is a means for allowing every life moment to be packaged as a touristic occasion. And now that this infrastructure exists, there is no reason not to present one’s life as perpetual tourism. Failure to do so can seem like a breach of faith, or a loss of confidence — an absence that implies you have been the spectacle on someone else’s terms.

In a review of Richard Seymour’s forthcoming book The Twittering Machine, Jason Read quotes a passage that more or less sums that idea up: “The more society becomes dependent on social media to achieve everyday goals, such as socializing, entertainment, job-seeking and romance, the more it becomes logical, not pathological, to use them often and become anxious when cut off.” As Read explains, Seymour’s book is structured around the forms of subjectivity that social media facilitate — all the chapters are titled “We Are All ______.” Read highlights the chapters on “celebrities” and “trolls,” suggesting that these “indicate something of the dialectics of individuation and socialization in social media. The celebrity is a particular mode of individuation while the troll is the new figure of the masses, of the anonymous crowd.”

Read points out that celebrity and troll are opposites: “While the first is trying to be seen as individual, or who is individuated by the attention paid to their taste and opinions, the latter is made more powerfully by acting as part of a crowd.” If celebrities model the allure of individuation, trolling demonstrates its acute vulnerability. “The collective action of trolling is not just a particular imitation of affects, in which cruelty and glee are intensified by others, but one in which any individual identity and attachment must be effaced,” Read writes.

Even though these identities are opposed, they are not isolated from each other as discrete options. They are implicated in one another; they co-exist and structure each other. The desire to be Joni Mitchell and to be the guy from the crowd climbing on stage to tell her off on behalf of the crowd are simultaneous. The desire to be in the Chernobyl selfie and to share it with contempt are simultaneous. All of it is tourism, subjectivity on the model of the bourgeois West and its technologies for efficient and convenient communication. “There is a celebrity in all of us, a tendency to find validation in likes and retweets, and there is also a troll in all of us, an ability to find confirmation and community in being part of a crowd of righteous anger,” Read writes. “They both must be killed, and killed again.”

I don’t know how that kind of killing is done, and I’m not sure “killing” is the best metaphor, even if it feels likes the knives are being sharpened everywhere.