Private Parts, Public Incidence: Living in the era of "Snapchat"

I've been thinking recently about the deconstruction of the private vs. public binary. Private versus public, like many of the things I talk about on this blog, was an issue that had deep roots in postmodern ideology and that seemed especially prevalent in terms of feminist theory. The infamous idea, promulgated by Betty Friedan in her 1963 book The Feminist Mystique, for instance, that "the personal is political" aims, at least in part, to divest gendered (read: female) experience of its private/public dualism. But the issue proved equally important in certain influential artistic circles of the mid fifties, sixties, and seventies, notably that of the Robert Rauschenberg/Jasper Johns/Merce Cunningham/John Cage aesthetic, as these (to varying degrees) discreetly homosexual artists challenged the dichotomy of private versus public self (and perhaps by extension, to put it reductively, the notion inside versus outside closetedness). Particularly for Jasper Johns, the artwork often directly confronts issues of public versus private idiom, revealing and concealing by turns their corresponding "selves." Johns' 1955 Target With Plaster Casts (below) is a cogent example

ImageTo quickly unpack the painting (and I'm not an Art History expert, though I did examine the painting and other Johns works in a graduate A.H. course last year and I am quite  interested in contemporary work) there are several critical issues at play. First and most prominently, the painting depicts very much what its title suggests: a target underneath several casts of body parts which are in boxes that open and close. This structure immediately foregrounds the idea that the "body is a target" in the most blatant sense, but further suggests that the body is on display for public viewing - indeed, the public self as a unique entity is threatened - not only because it is subjected to the gaze, but because it is in some ways indistinguishable from a separate or "safe" "private self" which might be hidden from public conscience, but never fully nor perpetually, by opening and closing the boxes. The liminality of the body's positioning therefore makes it an uneasy target and it further disrupts the "wholeness" of the body on display, an deconstructive effect which is actualized  through the segmented body parts. There is also a distinctive sense of "manhood" on display as the most  provocative cast is of a green phallus and therefore a consummate (no pun intended) "private part" is put up for public consumption. To me, this on one hand might suggest that Johns is articulating manhood as a mere ruse or performance, for when the box is closed the notion of "manhood" is rendered private, unknowable and unseeable. On the other hand however, it gives us permission to collapse the distinction between what is permissible in private or in public discursive spaces: the private is public, much like the personal is political, because there cannot be a strict separation between the two spheres.

In some ways, the Internet has become the ultimate manifestation of this idea. Through various social media platforms, we have increasingly progressed to a point where there is very little distinction between what is appropriate for public and what for private consumption. Undoubtedly, the public self we so often issue online (via Facebook or Twitter) is a kind of ruse or performance; nevertheless it is hard to fully distinguish from some, if not many, aspects of our otherwise "private" selves.

I therefore find the idea of the new-ish app Snapchat, which allows you to share pictures for no more than ten seconds with a second party - particularly interesting. Like Johns' Plaster Casts, there is a distinctive tension inherent in the app between public and private; the app seemingly allows for both options, like the boxes which grant us permission to see and to keep hidden. But perhaps Snapchat, unlike Johns' work and the work of others at the time, is a reaction to and against the now normative collapse of the private and the public. Perhaps Snapchat signals that we have been so inundated with the private made public, that we are seeking in some ways to reinstate such a division, and to tease out what is permissible for public consumption and what should remain "behind closed doors." Does the fact that we crave a way to get our private parts (and that's to say nothing of the "sexting" that often occurs via snapchat) or selves out of total public circulation signal a revert to a more conservative social ethos? Who knows. But it does seem interesting that what may have seemed "shocking" (Johns painting or Friedan's assertion) roughly fifty years ago has become so entrenched in our cultural climate that is largely mainstream, accepted.

And so, once again, my mind has led me to a weird place, one without any inherent conclusions, and just some wild musings.

I'll end then on an unrelated note by linking to an article from the NYT that I liked, as it speaks to my last post on Lolita and which is especially timely with the Oscars airing tomorrow (so many good choices this year, but more importantly, SO much Bradley Cooper....)