The image we present

By Andreas Laudert, April 2020

On the poster I pass daily, I see the face of a politician. I don’t see their eyes – I see how they want their eyes to be seen. I don’t see their smile – I see how they want it interpreted. I don’t see the background landscape against which the photo is taken – but that the background sends a message. I feel empathy with the human face that is exposed to everyone’s looks and thus loses its innocence, and that is how I feel – I may well be oversensitive – about all faces in an advertising context, even portraits on CD or book covers. I always see the calculation. Is my perception overwrought – or my reflection?

Photo: © photocase.de

Symptoms

As we move about in public we present an image. The look of everyday life has changed as we are all now bent over our mobile devices. We wonder whether there is something wrong with us if we don’t have the desire to inform the world that we are just baking an apple cake or happen to be in the centre of Berlin. We often think – with satisfaction or critically – about the effect we are just having on others, anticipate how others see us and continue to relate to the mainstream even when we diverge from it. How often, sitting in the underground quickly sending an email or googling something because I wanted to be in the picture, have I thought about myself: now you’re sitting there like all the others and are typing on your smartphone. I did not like that idea. Mostly my excuse is that the picture I present has been deliberately chosen by myself.

A Waldorf teacher told me excitedly about an Instagram post by an author whom she was following which gave a backstage impression before she went on stage. I tried to understand what was so memorable about that. For my colleague, posts were impressions “like being in the street” which, instead of being shared in a cafe, were exchanged digitally. For me it made a difference whether someone just happens to point something out to me which appears in the streetscape and then disappears again without being saved and is restricted to the person with whom one shares the moment – or whether someone is deliberately generating attention, making a literally automatic assumption because they have followers. This turns the street, to stick with the image, into a catwalk. Of course we look at one another, sometimes secretly, sometimes openly; it is human to use the public space also as a stage. But it is precisely the incidental and purposeless nature of the street which turns it into a place of secret encounters, of the promise future relationships, of interaction without comment, and of an in-between social space where I can see, forget, linger and even secretly follow someone as in Lukas Bärfuss’ novel Hagard.

A will impulse underlies every post. We stage everything we do or see, give it a framework and distribute it because it serves a specific narrative. If I imagine my life to be a novel and that I am being observed by a narrator god, existence is transcended by transfiguration; photographic art also bears witness to this. But when every interaction becomes a performance – it is no coincidence that “performance” means both the staged appearance and the more general term – and everything is examined for its effect, then “life” is no longer anything other than the medium of my self-promotion, the outer frame for the picture that I want to communicate; and uploading it is an expression of my wish to influence it.

Manipulation as a matter of course

A relaxed relationship with our own portrait and the care we take before we release it is healthy. This development does not have to be judged as a pessimistic reflection on our culture.

Ultimately this is the next stage in what the media are as a word: means. But there is the point of hyperbole, the moment in evolution when a tipping point is reached. We intervene strongly with the will in everything today because it should optimally correspond to our ideas, aesthetically and morally. Manipulation becomes a natural technique of social interaction. This structural understanding between the creators and recipients of images is manifest in the influencer. By following them, we signal: influence me! This sets aside the concept of manipulation. We act with a wink like accomplices although theoretically we reject such a conspiracy. Everyone suspects that the family idyll communicated by selfies is not all that it’s made out to be, that stars look quite ordinary in private, and Tinder is humiliating – the casually swiped away, rejected faces – but we use all these things because they are so disencumberingly honest and practical and the flesh is willing. Self-optimisation delights the spirit, self-education less so.

Anxiety determines us

The acceptance of the power of others coincides at the same time with a new safety thinking, new type-faces. Emojis, for example, are also symptoms of a lack of relaxation about things, we hope the recipient of an SMS will know what we mean. The grinning faces are precautionary measures – just like gender neutral formulations have replaced the confidence that when we talk about man in the sense of humankind we can assume the other sex is also included. The formalisation of equity, the imperative impulse that the right image should always be evoked, are rituals of protection which destroy the scope for interpretation, the in-between spaces in which encounter becomes possible at all. Yet this middle is important, the I activity of sender and recipient, the skill of sensing resonance.

The need to assure ourselves of our existence in the world through pictures of a successful life may hide panic and an all the greater insecurity – the desire nevertheless to retain the picture we project, the worry that there is nothing higher behind what we upload. Did digitalisation produce this need – or was it present in us before? Did we project it to the outside as the result of an inner disposition? What is the situation with the images of the human being as such, with the concepts we have of the soul life? The contoured imagination appears to be withdrawing in favour of concepts similar to infantile transfer pictures which abbreviate and trivialise reality as likes and lack any depth. In the hater I have already accepted the hate, and the thumbs up presumably wants to say that there is still some leeway for differentiation.

Perfection is all

A rhetorically omnipresent reference today is perfection. In the perfect bagel or date, the idea coincides with what actually happens; it nourishes the hope of being able to return to a paradisiacal state of reproducibility and availability of everything and everyone: we can always turn to where (perfect) life is just happening so that we can react with maximum flexibility to the shifting attention and correspond in a timely manner to what is needed. Perfection – in this light – is the spiritual. It is always the non-material, the thing that is absent because I cannot be in two places at the same time. In English, “perfect” is the past. Clearly the spiritual dies into matter on incarnation, into the conditions of earth: we carry it within us as a model to which we return when we die.

But if I constantly compare what destiny has given me with something better and more perfect, with the idea, with something that has been thought up in advance, then I am longing (back) for something that cannot be achieved on earth, at least not at the push of a button, because I have been born as a human being. The human being is born perfection – but perfect is only something they can become. In the face of this wise paradox, wishful and ultrasound images represent a false security. True flexibility, “perfect” – because comprehensive – freedom is only offered by the I which can shape destiny with sheer inexhaustible and creative sovereignty.

The space in between

So perhaps there is a connection between the images which insert themselves between people and the world through social media and our fear of real commitment in precisely this social sphere. Perhaps the panic about falseness, about missing something, touches on the fear of powerlessness, running out of options which we live through on incarnation. Birth means restricting ourselves to one body, one gender, one origin, the loss of control and overview. But we want to control the way we come into the world, see for ourselves, and keep producing more images to shield ourselves and always keep an eye on life. Are these indicators of a shift into a parallel world – or the shadows cast by a transformation in which the creatures become the creators, the audience become actors, from ones who by nature are identical with themselves to ones who empathetically keep identifying themselves anew?

After all, what we left behind “in paradise” as the spiritual world remains around us as an image that keeps shining through. We are also icons, translucent. Every relationship we fail to deepen on earth, every identity we cannot accept, persists as a promise, a seed. What if for some people today what we became at birth feels abstract and like dead because the one who thought it up was (allegedly) not ourselves? Whereas the picture we bear within ourselves of what we want to be and wanted to become still lives concretely within us? Thus I might have been born as a woman but am filled with the perception actually to be a born man. I really only understand myself as the other and what lies in between: I become who I am through identification. I approach myself in the other, see myself in the mirror of the one who became what I am not. The potential of the whole of humanity lives in the I because it is its archetypal image, epitome and future seed. This threshold appears close to us today, as a memory from before birth, as an intimation of what follows after death. Both gates stand wide open in the midst of the unfurling biography as a “feeling”.

The (educational) art will be calmly to protect those in-between spaces in which the inner human being looks up while their physical eyes are under a spell, the free zone where we are private and public, shaping, woman and man, receiving and giving. We are media, the world sees itself through us. Children are by nature addicted to immediacy, everything must take place here and now. Yet at the same time they are the purest expression of patient becoming.

About the author: Andreas Laudert is an upper school teacher for German and ethics at the Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg Free Waldorf School.

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