The Observer and the Observed

Ellis, Andrew
Completion Date: 

“The Observer and the Observed” analyzes Facebook as ‘an experience’ as defined by John Dewey. Charles Baudelaire's usage of the term flâneur, one who walks to experience the urban landscape, is used as an additional lens to explore and compare the modern day virtual navigator.

”To the perfect spectator, the impassioned observer, it is an immense joy to make his domicile amongst numbers, amidst fluctuation and movement, amidst the fugitive and infinite…to be away from home, and yet to feel at home; to behold the world, to be in the midst of the world and yet remain hidden from the world.”
Charles Baudelaire

One of Facebook’s intrigues is to awaken a curiosity within the user to communicate with others. However, interaction with the interface falls short of 'an experience' as explained by John Dewey. The navigation through profiles provides the user with superficial histories of a person that never materialize into either a complete story or a conclusive journey. The thrill is in the freedom of movement and gazing passively into another world or another person’s life. It ultimately fails as an experience because there is no depth. The end is very much like the beginning and its attraction is the cyclical pattern of observation.

Dewey discusses “an experience” as a unity of a continuous flow of events with pauses but no holes (38). This is an important element of “an experience” as it illustrates the essential movement and rhythm of the one having the experience. The movement is in the expectation and anticipation of finality; that it will conclude. In an experience with new media objects, our interests control our selection of the narrative, for example, clicking on a hyperlink or killing an enemy in a video game. The thought processes of the event or experience happening is inconclusive until there is an adaptation between the person in the experience and the entity or object. “Interaction of the two constitutes the total experience that is had, and the close which completes it is the institution of a felt harmony”(Dewey 45). This structure creates a consonance and balance resulting in an experience.

Facebook does not have a sense of a before or after. There is no other narrative except for the inconclusive one the observer has in his own response to the people he sees. These responses are infinitely incomplete but endlessly intriguing. The lure of amassing more and more connections and inviting them into ones space is addictive. It easily becomes an equal exchange of glances in one’s metaphorical and virtual living room (that has been tidied up for guests). One can roam though Facebook’s countless profiles and peer briefly into another person’s life without real interaction.

The shift from small traditional communities to modern society, signify a change in an individual’s behavior. There is a compensation for the loss of identity in a small community by placing oneself impersonally in the multitudes (Manovich 269). On Facebook, users choose to show themselves to an audience. The addiction of the social profile is that one becomes uninhibited and moves through a virtual space by inserting themselves into the group; free of the constraints of day to day life.

The term flâneur comes from Charles Baudelaire to describe one who walks to experience the urban landscape. The flâneur operated as a non-identity; an artist of roaming the streets and enjoying the masses. He had the privilege of always being home without ever being home. His mobility through the public sphere was accessible to him as an anonymous observer. "The movements of the Baudelairean flâneur produced a "mobilized gaze," a moving nowhere, neither here nor elsewhere" (Friedberg 30). The modern day flâneur, or virtual navigator, has this same kind of motivation, to wander aimlessly through the pages of the Internet while remaining hidden. He is now at home with his ability to mirror his feelings or follow his aesthetic observations, not by only observing but with an endless supply of data and links to click on. “Like Baudelaire's flâneur; the virtual flâneur is happiest on the move, clicking from one object to another; traversing room after room, level after level, data volume after data volume.” (Manovich 274)

The virtual gaze of the flâneur or observer is a drift through the infinite pages of information. He does not know exactly where he will begin or end up and the mouse and hyperlink becomes his compass. A user of Facebook has this quality. His access to data is unlimited and he can drift through the personal information of everyone he passes by. However, he can go no deeper than the qualities another user chooses to show.

Facebook provides a user with personalized advertisements of an individual. It is an organized patchwork designed to blend profiles in an equal space. Everything is on the same plane of existence with no center. A user cannot advance in the sense that a new level is achieved as in a video game and one cannot stand out anymore than the next. It does however have two simultaneous curiosities from differing aspects of the Internet. Facebook has become a tool that breaks down all hierarchies but it is also a communal space where everyone spies on one another. As Lev Manovich states: "A western artist sees the Internet as a perfect tool to break down hierarchies and bring art to the people. In contrast, as a post-communist subject, I cannot but see the Internet as a communal apartment of the Stalin era: no privacy, everybody spies on everybody else, always present are lines for common areas such as the toilet or the kitchen." (Foreword X)

The flâneur, in a sense, is looking through apartments and has not, and never will, find the one to stop and stay at. His walk is not planned but it is purely horizontal. There is not the need to deepen the experience of going beneath the surface. A Facebook user has the right to invade and knock down doors into others’ lives. Strangely, these doors are left open. They no longer need to be knocked down. The objective is to always let everyone else know exactly where and what one is doing with minute-by-minute updates of that activity. Someone observing these updates can participate by writing comments onto another users profile. They assume a position, not of authority but as a participant while creating their own narrative about someone else's life. However inaccurate it is, is irrelevant because Facebook is their own space to envisage the story.

Perhaps the only realization and undergoing with Facebook is that one has stopped living their life in order to see how others are living theirs. Dewey suggests that life is a collection of histories and plots; that “an experience” has no holes or mechanical stops. Facebook has only holes and does not provide the opportunity to enter into the real stories of one other. We see only a series of two-dimensional characters with likes, dislikes, and habits. The continuous observation is frustrating. It becomes an unresolved exploration and comparison of character traits without ever choosing a definitive path to follow.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2001.

Dewey, John. Art As Experience. New York, New York: Penguin Group, 1934.

Friedberg, Anne. Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1993

Baudeliare, Charles. Selected Writings on Art and Artists. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1972.

Editor’s note: Students were asked to examine a dynamic media object in light of John Dewey's definition of “an experience” which he defines in Art as Experience, Chapter Three: Having an Experience.

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