Much of the literature of the 20th-century said Americans, though living in a ‘land of possibility’, are fated to confine themselves. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim, “there are no second acts in American lives,” anticipated the dilemma of countless 20th-century protagonists with fantasies of reinvention or escape. In Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock wants to become something “different” and new but he can’t quite figure out what it is he wants to become. In John Updike’s Rabbit Run, Robert Angstrom tries to leave his constraints — family, profession— but ultimately returns to his hometown and ‘high school-basketball-star’ reputation. In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman is plagued by hallucinations of the past, each of which highlights his failed potential. His only reprieves are long drives through suburban Connecticut. The road, for him and many other American characters, provides comfort; it suggests escape and opportunity while having an easy route back to security. Willy’s briefcase restrains him like an anchor and directs him back home. Similarly, many other American heroes are unable to realize fantasies of new possibility and find divers tropes coiling them back to their old identities.
In the current century, we seem even more determined to silence any possibility of reinvention. Formerly, you could decide how big a part your past played into your present. Geographic location determined how often you’d run into figures from past-lives (old classmates, neighbors, exes). Now, the specters of our former lives, intimates or strangers, visit us daily — in photos, statuses and updates. What’s more, unless you do a lengthy Facebook-friend clearing (I often hear people promise this but seldom see them actually do it), you never leave a larger network of people; you just inherit more people for you to watch over and to be watched by. Thus, social-media is like a living and expanding yearbook. It encourages you to scrutinize irrelevant and distant people via one-dimensional, exchangeable portrayals while being expected to subject yourself to the same treatment. In light of the scrutiny of an expanding audience, we can only narrow our presentable image. The larger the group, the more complexity one concedes to be a part of it, leading us to curate a more refined and confined personas. Given our inherent weirdness, this can only create a more neurotic fissure between self and presentable self.
Now you may think that there is an obvious escape. That there is the possibility of not using Facebook. Of course, many of us consider this until we look at the costs of abandonment: the worry that present-day media has made people so short-term minded that some friends will forget about you; the worry that ‘users’ will think that you have corpses to conceal by not having an account; the worry that participation in Facebook creates an illusion of camaraderie that necessarily demands scorn to those outside of it (to maintain camaraderie), so that those that do not belong to it receive scorn; the worry that people won’t be able to reach you; the worry that you will miss out on scandals; the worry that Facebook is such a reliable mirror to judge yourself against that your conscience will be missing a certain voice — a certain ‘choir’. In short, the same reasons that keep people from leaving their social situations preclude them from leaving Facebook. Thus, the curtain doesn’t drop — people continue to view you as you view them. The costs of escape (the ostensible resolution to this problem) are too high and people do not choose to enter into the second act. We find another reason to confine ourselves, this time due to fear of negative public opinion.
So, today, the ‘one-actness’ and ‘one-dimensionality’ of Fitzgerald, Nichols, Updike and Miller’s world has been exacerbated. Unlike 20th-century confinement, there are no roads of reprieve; our smart phones remain in our pockets. I’m led to think of the final scene in The Graduate, where Ben and Elaine have just escaped Elaine’s wedding and thrown away the respectability they held in their former social scene. They sit in the backseat of a crowded bus. They laugh at their newfound liberation until, upon seeing the confused gaze of their fellow passengers, they are quickened to seriousness and reconsideration. One set of judging eyes has led to another, compounding the self-consciousness of escape.