Marshal McLuhan once observed that the world was becoming “not a global village, but a global theater.” He meant that Shakespeare’s observation that “all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players” is increasingly true — that the self-consciousness of postmodernity is the self-consciousness of a person playing a role.
Postmodern theories of the person state this openly: They posit that there is no fundamental human identity and that a personality is just a series of personas, masks and scripts that a person adopts to function in the world. These internal dramatis personae are designed not to express an authentic interior self, but to form comfortable relationships with one’s environment, and particularly other people.
It is difficult to imagine a more perfect description of the state of a human soul that has been consumed by the vice of vanity. Vanity, derived from the Latin vanus (emptiness), is the vice of exteriorizing one’s sense of self-worth, concentrating on the outer limbs and flourishes of human life to the exclusion of interior development. The vain man becomes “puffed up,” that is to say, he becomes an ever-swelling bubble of superficial appeal which conceals an internal vacuum.
The present age is well adapted to the cultivation of vanity. It is an age of surfaces and screens, a period in history in which the appearance of popularity takes precedence over profound interpersonal communion. As in television, advertising and the highly commercialized art world, image supersedes substance.
When people lose their sense of the fundamental value of a human life, the consequence is a profound interior angst. External accomplishments become the measure of personal worth, and if a person is not able to achieve much, it becomes necessary to create the illusion of accomplishment. This is observable, for example, in the practice of conspicuous consumption, whereby people attempt to gain social credibility and popular esteem by purchasing goods that confer status. In many cases, actual wealth becomes less important than the appearance of wealth, and people will go deeply into debt or buy wildly unconvincing mock-ups of expensive goods in order to simulate success.
In a world where people know each other well, the trompe l’oiel of postmodern social posturing would be profoundly unconvincing. It is only the erosion of community, and the loss of meaningful relationships, that allows these effects to succeed. In a world of Facebook friends and hook-ups, it is increasingly difficult to judge others based on their real qualities, and so, people adopt roles to gain social acceptance and purchase the costume and accouterments to go along with these roles.
If it were merely a matter of play acting in the social sphere, vanity would be a superficial spiritual problem. The difficulty lies in the fact that people’s lives are increasingly public. The private sphere has been exploded by a wealth of communications technologies that cause the deepest layers of personality to rise to the surface, where they are easily infected with the disease of superficiality. The constant self-publication inherent in the various forms of “sharing” that take place within the realm of electronic media moves the intimate life of the person into the limelight. There it is subjected to a voyeuristic scrutiny, a one-sided gaze that creates an overweening sense of self-consciousness.
As the intimate aspects of human life become routinely publicized and criticized within the public sphere, people become increasingly insecure. Sociological studies attempt to reduce human experience to a series of statistics and present their audience with a portrait of the “average” man. It is very difficult to overcome the temptation to check and see if you are measuring up. Those who find that they are different often self-publicize not merely in order to gain popular acclaim, but to obtain the reassurance that their experience is not abnormal.
People living under these conditions adapt by allowing the roles that they play to erode their identities. The craving for exterior validation creates a feedback loop in which the vain man is constantly checking his own reflection in the mirror of his electronic contacts. The architecture of the Web lends itself well to the production of measurable popularity and allows people to easily compare themselves with others. Just as the vain woman of the past obsessed over her personal appearance, the vain man of today obsesses over his Internet presence. His sense of self-worth is established and cemented by the number of points of contact that he is able to maintain within the social network.
With the advent of the Internet, the conformity that was generated by the more uniform mass media of the past has started to collapse under its own weight. Instead of a single norm, there is a proliferation of subcultures which purport to privilege individuality. More often than not, however, the countercultural movements within society are even more rigid in their aesthetics, their dress code and their social expectations than the mainstream culture that they are supposed to be critiquing. Those who seek sanctuary within a certain non-mainstream group often find, to their frustration, that the very conformity that they were hoping to escape has driven them into a narrow cul-de-sac.
Finding himself entrapped by social expectations, what is a man to do? There are only two possibilities. Surrender to the power of image, adopt the tribal symbols of one’s chosen subculture, and become a living avatar, a false self that can be safely presented to the world; or detach oneself from the pressures of constant superficial social contact and develop an interior life that is genuinely private.
The latter approach allows the identity to be rescued from its own vain pretensions, but it cannot be accomplished without intimacy and silence. The kind of relationships that allow the cultivation of genuine self-confidence cannot take place within the public sphere.
The anonymity of urban life and the even greater anonymity of e-space are inimical to authentic interpersonality; it functions as a sort of virtual contraceptive that renders encounters with other people “safe” at the cost of making them sterile.
This does not mean that the new technologies cannot be used. In many ways, the Internet generation is better off than the television generation, because, although the ’Net is rife with opportunities for vanity, it also offers the possibility of genuine relationships, as opposed to mere celebrity worship.
The temptation to superficiality can be overcome provided one takes the time to prepare himself in solitude, as Christ did in the desert, before entering the turmoil of electronic public life.
Next time, we’ll examine the relationship between lust and vanity: the desire to be consumed.
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer at VulgataMagazine.org.