Sontag, Proust and Social Media Presence

I only got to about page 100 of French novelist Marcel Proust’s whopping seven volume love story, Remembrance of Things Past, before admitting defeat. Yet there were still snippets of it that inspired deeper thought on my part. One quote in particular, contemplating whether it’s possible to truly know somebody as a whole person, successfully sparked a small existential crisis in me over the intricacies that make up individual personalities,

‘If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion, indeed it is only one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion.’

This idea, that our knowledge of those we feel we know well, and even knowledge of ourselves, is incomplete and pieced together by representations, impressions and shared moments is powerful and poetic. But it’s also particularly daunting when read in a time shrouded by public performances of the self. After all, so much of social media’s charm is the control it gives us to present a perfectly curated version of our existence to the rest of the world.

The quote reminds me of Susan Sontag’s extensive writing on photography and its power to define who you are and ‘determine our demands upon reality’. Like Proust’s contemplation, Sontag’s theory that we build an understanding of ourselves and others through photography in the modern era, can be interpreted as a poignant insight into how we use social media to represent our personality and lived experiences, despite both being written in times where online platforms were non-existent.

The work of revered American academic, Susan Sontag, critically analyses multiple parts of modern life and the human experience. In 1977, she published On Photography, a collection of essays that had originally appeared in The New York Review of Books.

Reading On Photography now, its belief that photography has created an ‘aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted’ seems almost prophetic, and perhaps more apt to our current culture than to the time of its original release. Just like Proust’s suggestion that we are only ever granted a glimpse of the whole individual, Sontag’s claim that a photograph is a ‘pseudo-presence’ (an appropriation of ‘the thing being photographed’), is an incitement to look deeper for meaning.

Now, as somebody who needs to keep away from social media whenever I’m going through a period of fragile mental health, these insights are particularly moving. It’s too easy to scroll through social media posts and feel as though your own life or personality is somehow lacking.

Sontag and Proust are reminders that it’s futile to draw conclusions about yourself and other people’s existence based purely on what they are allowing you to see.
As Sontag argues, the ‘unlimited authority’ photography possesses in contemporary society is not actually warranted. We presume a photograph is an impartial ‘experience captured’, and we use them as a means of confirming our reality. Yet it shouldn’t possess that level of power because it’s only a representation and it does not automatically equate with truth.

Our social media platforms, and the endless web of beautiful images it surrounds us with, are only fragments of much more complex realities. We are more interconnected than ever, yet when we fail to recognise that all online presences are only representations, we risk feeling fuelling a harmful mindset that we’re the only ones who sometimes feel broken or unfulfilled.

Basing ideas about who a person is or what one’s own life ought to look like on any representation is flawed. As Proust and Sontag point out – our existence remains too layered and intricate to be adequately portrayed by one channel. Maybe I’ll always find social media a little triggering during bouts of loneliness and intense vulnerability, but at least I can attempt to put it into a rational perspective thanks to Proust and Sontag.

[This piece later appeared in Discord zine’s final edition]