In this digital age, we’re confronted with the weird reality that the average person spends most of their waking life in front of a screen. The more time we spend in front of a screen, the less time we spend with each other sharing physical space, sharing real experiences. Experiences that shape who we are. So our identities become less what we experience – the conversations, the hugs, the high fives, the stink eyes, the laughter – and more what we see on a screen – the movies, the shows, the charts, the graphs, the emails, the memes, the videos, the blogs. More and more, the screen determines who we are, and not our relationships with real people.
On the other hand, the screen enables us to see more of the world around us – the world we can’t experience. In the essay “The Movies and Reality”, Virginia Woolf describes video in this way: “We see life as it is when we have no part in it.” In addition to transcending time with video, the internet allows us to meet people we’d otherwise never have the chance to meet or be in the same room with a person in another country. When my parents sold their home and traveled the world for two years after they retired, they bought an iPhone and took me on virtual trips with FaceTime to Spain, China, and Australia. My sister-in-law lived in Germany for a few years and one year on Thanksgiving, I walked her (well, not her, her face on an iPad) around the house so she could have conversations with her family. We turn to television, the idiot box, for the same reasons we pick up a book. To see what’s happening out there beyond our small, limited reality. While the screen takes us away from each other, it is home to some of the greatest art ever created. I manage a pool in the summer and I told one of the lifeguards in the break room to get off their phone … talk to somebody. It’s a nasty habit you develop as a teacher. He replied, “I’m reading a novel!”
We interpret the language all around us – the language in conversations, the language of politicians, the language of novels, the language of songs. How do we interpret the language and images of the media? What images unconsciously become our understanding of reality? How does the media teach us what to accept as the status quo? How do we understand the images presented to us and the images we present of ourselves and our experiences? Who are we in real life and who are we online? Are we ourselves, or a construct of ourselves? Is a photograph or video a representation of the truth, of what exists, or is it just a presentation of one person’s reality? Who is that person and what reality do they want to depict, or create? What’s real and what’s not? Is it a real video or a “deep fake”? If most of our perception is a construct, does it matter if media is fake or real?
I asked my students to wrestle with some of these questions after reading “The Videotape” by Don DeLillo and “The Enormous Radio” by John Cheever. According to the narrator of “The Videotape”, “the camera shows [children] that every subject is potentially charged, a million things they never see with the unaided eye.” Video captures time, freezes it, and puts it in a bottle for us. Every image comes to us charged with symbolic meaning. Video lets us put time away in a drawer. It lets us take a microscope to some reality we did not experience. Really look around each second, like if we tap on it with a stick, the truth might jump out at us. The internal truth of what the person in the image really feels. Another way of capturing consciousness, however futile our efforts. After the narrator describes a murder accidentally caught on camera, he ends with an accusatory sentence: “The tape sucks the air right out of your chest but you watch it every time”. When do we accept violence as useful and heroic or condemn it as evil? Why do we love to watch ridiculous, hurtful, impulsive, or ignorant human behavior? Everyone loves to watch a good train wreck because after the video ends, we’re not them. We’re normal.
In “The Enormous Radio”, by John Cheever, a couple buys a new radio that broadcasts the private conversations in the apartments in their building. They overhear conversations about money, illness, affairs, you name it. They realize that the person they see around the neighborhood is not the person they hear on the radio. We see a person, and we imagine who they are. Stereotypes, gossip, culture, and the media try to tell us who they are based on how they dress or speak. But when we get to know someone, we throw all that out the window. They are not an image anymore, they are not an abstraction on a screen. They laugh, they wink, they burp, they wave, they roll their eyes, they stare at their shoes, they scratch an itch.
We’re reading other texts that involve the transformation of a self. The narrator of The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison feels as if he does not exist because he is Black:
Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination -- indeed, everything and anything except me.
Literature is full of imaginary realities that help us see the truth. Gregor in The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka is a bug, and Gulliver in Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift feels like he is the opposite of everyone he encounters on his journey. But when you look closer, you realize these ridiculous, fictional worlds contain incredible truths about not just who the writer is, but who we are. The reader must walk into the writer’s room, sit down, and listen. Only then will we see.
The Teacher's Workshop
professional development for high school English teachers