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Beme Me Back to the 19th Century

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Last week’s release of Casey Neistat’s new app, Beme, has been met with fawning media coverage, and most of it falls headfirst for the premise that this is a tool that allows social media users to access—and exhibit—our “real selves.” According to Neistat, the app works like this: instead of the “highly sculpted, calculated, calibrated” forms of self-presentation fostered by Facebook, Instagram, and the like, Beme allows users to show themselves as they “really” are—unsculpted, unfiltered selfies. It’s about being “raw,” as the latest Buzzfeed article on Beme tells us—18 times. Beme also claims to allow you to experience reality more directly, to reverse the current norm of seeing the world “through your phone” as opposed to “through your eyes.” How? By removing the element that supposedly triggers our curatorial instinct—“self-awareness” and “self-consciousness.”

So what does authenticity, in the world of social media, and more broadly, as an existential pursuit, really mean? The ideas promoted by Beme to create access to the authentic self were systematically debunked almost 200 years ago by the French novelist Stendhal.

On Beme, you achieve this magical lack of awareness by posting four-second videos, which, like SnapChat content, disappear into the ether soon after posting. These videos are rendered further authentic by the fact that you don’t post them for “likes” or “hearts” visible to your entire online community. Instead of fawning praise that accumulates publicly, Beme followers who are particularly taken with your chef-d’oeuvres send you “real-time selfies,” which disappear along with the videos. Beme also claims to allow you to experience reality more directly, to reverse the current norm of seeing the world “through your phone” as opposed to “through your eyes.” It does so by turning the sensor over the earpiece of your iPhone into the start-button for your video: just touch your phone to your heart and let your spirit soar—or, erm, record—so that you can “maintain eye contact,” “keep staring at the sunset,” “keep watching the rock concert, while still being able to share.”

The Beme concept has three basic premises that underwrite the sales pitch that it creates authentic self media:

The first is that authentic self-presentation is disrupted, or sabotaged, by two primary evils: self-awareness, and awareness of public opinion.

The second is that personal authenticity, as measured through your experience of reality, is interrupted when you relate to the image or idea of reality, rather than to reality itself.

The third is that to “be” authentic, you must stop “performing.”

Neistat enacts this final rule in a promotional video by peppering his language with filler expressions like “you know,” by filming himself from unflattering angles, and, after proclaiming Beme to be “one of the most liberating interactions I’ve done since getting this device,” by taking a big juicy bite of a crunchy apple. (Do we really have to watch you eat? Is it really more authentic to start snacking in the middle of the video promoting the business you’ve just launched?)

Stomach-turning or not, these three premises jibe perfectly with our general understanding of the definitions of sincerity and authenticity—especially as they’ve been treated by literary criticism. In this realm, our definitions of the terms date back to Lionel Trilling’s 1971 text, Sincerity and Authenticity, which contrasts sincerity’s social aim with authenticity’s autonomous goal. Sincerity requires you to be true to others, while authenticity demands that you be true to yourself. These definitions, based on the distinction between the social and the autonomous, have been universally upheld by subsequent generations of literary critics and philosophers of authenticity, from Charles Taylor’s The Ethics of Authenticity (1991), to Jacob Golomb’s In Search of Authenticity: From Kierkegaard to Sartre (1995), to Charles Larmore’s The Practices of the Self (2010).

But the main problem with these definitions is that they hold only insofar as the possibility of an autonomous, self-determining self remains uncontested—and this idea of a “true” self was debunked in the late twentieth century by the advent of French Theory. When Derrida et Al declared that there is no self, existential authenticity becomes a futile pursuit.

This, however, is something Stendhal could have told us a century and a half earlier. Born Marie-Henri Beyle in 1783, Stendhal dedicated much of his work to proving these points during the height of his career in Restoration France.

Stendhal was famously obsessed with le naturel—that is, with sincerity and authenticity, though this second term doesn’t figure in his lexicon.  His naturalism was inherited from Rousseau, the father of Romanticism—the literary movement whose main preoccupation was with being sincere. But if Rousseau was the first proponent of sincerity, Stendhal was the pioneer of authenticity. For Stendhal, the difference between the two virtues was primarily one of self-awareness: while sincerity is naïvely blind to the self’s inevitable consideration of public opinion, true authenticity incorporates this annoyingly persistent consciousness.  Stendhal’s “rules” of existential authenticity can be traced across his œuvre. The most important rules are directly opposed to the ones laid out by Neistat and Beme:

1. There’s no such thing as a spectator-free performance. While Rousseau’s effort to escape “le regard d’autrui” (the gaze of other people) was to run off into the wilderness to live in solitude, Stendhal understood that this was a useless tactic. This is because even if you manage to, as the saying goes, “dance as if nobody’s watching,” and to “sing as if nobody’s listening,” there’s a slight hitch, which is that you can still see and hear yourself. In my work on Stendhal, this is what I call the “self-spectator.”  So when Neistat asks, “How would I look if I were just talking to myself in the mirror?”, Stendhal’s writings provide a good answer: “Well, you’d look like you were watching yourself talking to yourself in the mirror.” (Taxi Driver, anyone?) Even if you manage to lose your audience, you’re still performing for yourself.

And though Neistat dismisses ‘likes’ and ‘hearts’ as inauthentic vanity-grabs, he reveals that even his “autonomously authentic” self still craves social recognition: “Getting reactions is my favorite part of the app. There’s just something so satisfying about being able to see people actually watching what you share.”

2. There’s no such thing as “direct,” or “authentic,” contact with the real. Ironically, for Stendhal, the concept that proves this rule has been widely interpreted as evidence of the opposite. “Stendhal Syndrome” has come to refer to those moments when you experience a work of art so intimately, so authentically, that you literally “lose” yourself—that is, you lose your self-consciousness—in the ecstasy of “sensations célestes.” The original anecdote comes from Stendhal’s account of visiting Giotto’s frescoes in Florence. But if you look carefully at the text, you realize that the moment was not at all one of “uninterrupted” access to the real. On the contrary, Stendhal’s frenzied delirium results from “l’idée d’être à Florence”—the idea of being in Florence, rather than being in Florence itself.

Nevertheless, it’s the idea, or the image, of your experience of reality that Beme claims to allow you to bypass. Neistat asks, “If I’m in the stands at a U2 concert watching Bono, how can I capture this moment without interrupting it and making it fake?” Beme’s response: by being able to film without looking through your camera. Stendhal teaches us that experience of reality is never not interrupted by our idea of experiencing reality—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

3. There’s no such thing as not performing. For Stendhal, being authentic has generally understood in opposition to performing: for his fictional heroes, there is nothing so vile as histrionic personalities who don’t live life so much as play-act their way through it—and yet, these same authentic heroes themselves cannot stop performing. Neither can Stendhal himself, as a narrator, and this is the reason 20th century poet and philosopher Paul Valéry famously dubbed Stendhal’s naturalism as an insincere “comédie de sincérité”—a performance of sincerity. But the reason Stendhal’s performance of naturalism is not merely a nineteenth-century version of Neistat’s mid-narration bite into an apple is, again, a matter of self-awareness. What Neistat professes to renounce is what Stendhal doubles up on. Stendhal’s sort of self-awareness loops back around on itself, so that each ostentatious display of authenticity is imbued with a second level of meaning. Instead of saying, as Beme would have you do, “This is me when I’m not performing,” Stendhal suggests that the more authentic route is to say to your “followers”: “I see that you see I’m performing—so enjoy the show.”

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Hadley Suter recently completed a Ph.D. in French Literature from UCLA; she is currently turning her dissertation, “Stendhal’s Theater of Authenticity: The Performance of le Naturel in the Para-Fictional Works of Marie-Henri Beyle,” into a book.

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