On the Contemporary: Kate Zambreno and Reality Bites

This fall, Open Space will feature a series of reflections by artists, writers, and curators on “the contemporary.” Today’s piece is by Kate Zambreno, author of the novels O Fallen Angel (Chiasmus Press) and Green Girl (to be reissued by Harper Perennial in January 2014). Her critical memoir Heroines was published by Semiotext(e)’s Active Agents.


Still from Reality Bites (1994, dir. Ben Stiller)

It was recently announced that Ben Stiller is bringing back the 1994 film Reality Bites as a TV show. I was obsessed with the film when I was studying journalism in Evanston, Illinois, in the mid-to-late nineties. As a sophomore I played the VHS on repeat throughout the day. Then junior year, I lived off campus in a slummy party house nicknamed the Crooked Pillar, for its slanted center column. The house’s inhabitants were like the film’s archetypes. There was me, who styled myself the Winona with a pixie cut (those red lips, the plain black tee), involved in a toxic triangle with a business prodigy (whose Wiki page now lists him as a devotee of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism), and my floppy-haired boyfriend, a tortured frat-boy painter who dropped out of school to work at an Internet start-up. Then there was my flamboyant best friend, a theater major, and her much older best friend, a gay opera singer who even worked at the Gap like the Janeane Garofalo character. He actually turned out to be a con artist, but that story is for another time.

Even though the apartment didn’t have a TV, we already had internalized the ethos of MTV’s The Real World, this constant playing of roles that preen authenticity. Like the documentary the Winona Ryder character makes of her friends posing for the camera and revealing private moments, we would take turns filming ourselves with a video camera, getting high and asking each other detailed questions about ourselves and our sex lives, an ongoing revolving-door drama which we would also hear loudly (thin walls). We didn’t watch the tapes, except directly afterwards on the camera’s view finder, but still craved to document our selves, desired to be witnessed and watched. I thought at the time that this bravado we performed — for each other, for the camera — was a form of authenticity, of revealing our vulnerabilities, as opposed to thinking of what we were doing as acting out our personas, in an attempt to construct public selves, to be recognized. The irony that I didn’t catch at the time is that the film Reality Bites merely simulated authenticity, and was always a Hollywood product, despite the satirical fake studio treatment at the end of the film rushed out when the Winona Ryder character refuses to “sell out” her quasi-vérité film.

This performance of persona is now even more a part of our contemporary moment and feeds into our expanding surveillance culture. We now know that we are being watched online, by the government and corporations, but we also watch each other, and ourselves. And we desire to be watched. I’ve been reading over and over Giorgio Agamben’s essay “Identity without the Person,” in his new collection, Nudities. In it, he notes that persona originally meant “mask,” and it is through wearing or performing this mask that the individual achieves recognition from the outside, which is necessary to construct his or her social identity. He traces this back to the Stoic philosophers. Agamben quotes Epictetus: “The time is coming when actors will believe that their masks and costumes reflect their very selves.” The Stoic philosophers read the gap between the actor and his mask (he must play the role, but cannot completely identify) as an ethical one.  Now, I’m not convinced that this is an ethical issue, but the gap between self and mask in our contemporary culture where we spend so much of our time behind screens is worthy of further examination. Ours is a culture of almost constant self-consciousness as we increasingly construct ourselves as if from the outside. I am aware how much time I spend lately online, and I wonder whether this leads to an alienation from my private self (“depletion” is the term for this process Tao Lin’s narrator uses in his most recent novel, Taipei). I know this has something to do with the need for recognition, which is after all a social need, a need for communion. But certainly my persona — what I write online, in public — does not reflect entirely my real self. But what happens when I am not witnessed, recognized, performing? Is there a worry perhaps I will not exist, in my relative anonymity?

There can be a psychosis to this constant awareness. You see a grotesque of this with child stars who unravel publicly, because they never learned how to exist without that gaze, how to be alone with themselves (what selves?) without the mask. Lindsey Lohan, recently on Oprah’s chair discussing her reality show and the rehabilitation of her image — which in our therapeutic culture necessarily involves confessing and being disciplined in public: “Real Life is Boring.” Because it is. But what is real life if no one is there to watch it?

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