Masked Performances

For we postmoderns, dreaming of totality is no longer experienced as the objectivity of revealed wisdom or housed within the lone subjectivity of the exalted individual creator. The sense of meaning that a dream of totality provides now emerges in interdependence and interactivity, in an endless series of moves in a virtual, and increasingly public state of mind. And these moves toward meaning include the constant erasure of images, ideas, and identities. Our contemporary experience seems to resemble the transparency, and also the masked quality, of a parallel series of as-if installation and improvisational art spaces, in which we are the installations and the improvisers, both revealed and hidden.

One way to understand this is to consider, for example, a Facebook profile as a type of theatrical mask —as both an experiment in identity and an expression of essence. Both masks and profiles are vehicles for catharsis and also the artifice that conceals those emotions. Masks belong to the mythic arts of drama and storytelling—as do social profiling, avatars, and blogging. Masks have always portrayed the human life drama in all its manifold aspects, especially the compelling dream and often treacherous search for what we like to call the real, true self. Distillations of powerful emotions—love, envy, rage, disgust, joy—are given impersonal artistic form in a mask. As a mask obscures the individual wearer, he or she can access the universal emotions that the mask evokes. As with traditional masks, a profile mask provides this same access, as well as powerful protection from emotional states that might be overwhelming if experienced directly, “in your face.”

The intrigues, the grand masquerade, the face saving, the Greek chorus, and all the drama that take place within social media networks like Facebook are no accident and not inconsequential. Social profiling is a ritual as surely as any other masked performance. The big differences are that whole cultures now participate in the ongoing virtual performance and that the context doesn’t appear to be a sacred one—although the devotion and attention paid to social networking often belies this assumption. On the one hand, we can applaud, for as Oscar Wilde quipped, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell the truth.” On the other hand, we might ask ourselves what is it that we are protecting ourselves from so strenuously, what is it that needs the filter and catharsis of so much theater and masking? And on the other other hand—rare enough—there are also still those who are most themselves when they remove the mask completely.

From chapter 6, Virtuality and Its Transgressions: the Masking and Unmasking of Imagination, pages 177-179