The difficulty with most popular cinema these days is that it doesn’t know exactly where to start critiquing the world. Take the clever blockbuster that everyone’s talking about: “The Social Network.” Sure, charting the rise and rise of Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg from his time as a Harvard undergrad is fascinating, but for a story that doesn’t really ‘tell it as it is’ (take, for example, all the allegations that the truth was, in fact, distorted), “Network” seems confused about what, if any, conclusions we should be drawing.
Starting with a song whose lyrics go “I want to have control, / I want a perfect body, / I want a perfect soul,” the advertisement promises us a more revealing look at why exactly everybody wants to share their life over the internet these days. A pat topic, you may think, but at least you can look forward to a new viewpoint informed by history. And though watching Zuckerberg and friends sleep with hot coeds, go to bangin’ parties and, well, drink, for a couple of hours is fun, the answer to the problem that we get (exclusivity?) falls a little flat. Don’t get me wrong; I liked it — I wanted to be an internet geek by the end of it, and I even thought Harvard seemed kinda cool (silly me), but when the shock wore off, and I lay in bed awake, trying to piece my thoughts together, I felt a little cheated.
Why do people want to be perfect these days? Why do they want control? These two very different demands expose more of a dialectic in postmodernity than the entire film put together. It’s almost as if the team putting together the advert — and the people behind the parody “Twitter” advert on YouTube.com’s “Rated Awesome” channel — were more astute than the entire team that worked on the feature; they knew that these are the questions that people want answered these days.
So why do we all “want to have control” these days? Guy Ben Ner’s “Stealing Beauty” (2008), on ubu.com, is shot on a low-quality video camera in Ikeas around Germany without permission; as it moves from showcase room to showcase room (presumably as the team is kicked out of each Ikea), the film chronicles an Israeli family teaching their children about the values of private property (the youngest child has just been caught stealing). But in a world where the private has been elided (the wife catches the husband “masturbating in the shower” in an all-too-public Ikea as people wander past), what good is private property? Thoughts that don’t conform are to be shared and ideologised, or swept under a rug, and we’re always trying to look into the next-door neighbour’s yard. Ben Ner shows us a world where the private is now the public, and anyone trying to escape it is described as a “terrorist” by the patriarch of the family.
But escaping the world is exactly what having control is about, at least on a personal level. Not having control is submitting oneself to the dominant ideology, and having control is affirming one’s worth as a person. YouTube’s “slow stackin” (2008) by “amneiotj” emphasises this perhaps even better — a video of a “Blood” gang member performing an extraordinary dance with his hands (stackin’ gang signs), the film is similar to many others on YouTube as the protagonist proceeds to stack signs quicker and better than anyone else I can find. But then, in a final moment of artistic ‘jouissance,’ he rips his glasses from his face and reveals his identity. There, in the moment of pure perfection, pure conformity to the rules of the gang, he shows his face and becomes an individual, putting his middle finger up to the camera and shouting “woo hoo.” He has, for a moment, escaped the pervasiveness of hegemony.
The second question, about wanting “to have a perfect body,” is answered best, I think, by Guy Debord’s “Critique de la Separation” (1961), available on ubu.com. In the film, we are given a “false coherence” and a “false identification” with a girl we know nothing about. Yet the sensory stimulation has made us conform to her image at least mentally, maybe even copy what she does, in the manner of ritual in a church. We are just copying what has been chosen as perfect on TV, and Debord hates this “separation” between what we do because we see it, and what we do because we are we.
This basic opposition is, I think, a key cause of people’s uneasiness with late capitalism, a system that tells us “be who you want to be” and “don’t resist; this is how to be perfect” again and again, day-in, day-out. And, though I didn’t come to “The Social Network” expecting real, concrete answers, I at least expected it to try some out.