Last week, my Philosophy and Film class took up the theme of "documentary truth." In preparation for our Tuesday night seminar, students were required to choose one film from a list of documentaries (Grizzly Man, The Thin Blue Line, Night and Fog, Bowling for Columbine, Capturing the Friedmans, Man on Wire, Super Size Me, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib) and analyze that film in light of a couple of the assigned readings: Plato's Allegory of the Cave (from Book VII of the Republic) and a short essay by Werner Herzog entitled "On the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth." In addition to the film that each student chooses from that week's list, all of us watch at least one film in common every week. This time, our in-common film was the 2010 documentary Catfish, which tells the story of a 20-something New Yorker (Nev Schulman) who falls in love with a small-town Michigan woman on Facebook, but later comes to discover that he had been hoodwinked ("catfished") by his virtual paramour, who is in fact not a twenty-something model/musician/artist (as she purported to be) but rather a middle-aged woman, married with four children (two of which are severely handicapped and one who is in rehab). The film has since been transformed into a weekly television series on MTV, which follows the not-at-all-uncommon repetitions of Nev's experience. Catfish was a particularly fertile documentary for our class, not only because it provided us an opportunity to question what sort of "truth" documentaries (as opposed to narrative or fictional films) aim to tell, but also because Catfish is itself a documentary ABOUT the search for the "truth."
If you haven't had a chance to see Catfish yet, what follows will most definitely include a few (non-devastating) spoilers. Here's the trailer:
Our primary reading-- Plato's Allegory of the Cave-- is a standard text in Philosophy classes that mean to investigate the truth of our experience. It is particularly well-suited for discussing cinema, as the cinematic experience itself so closely resembles that of the cave-dwellers in Plato's allegory, who are captivated by projections of images of the "real," disinclined or unable to turn away from them, and who may (or may not) be missing out on the "truth" of what they take to be real and true. This is why, I think, so many philosophers employ films to aid them in teaching Plato's allegory. (The Matrix is probably the film most widely used for this purpose, but others include The Truman Show, Inception, Pleasantville, eXistenZ, and 1984.) After our screening of Catfish, several easily-anticipated questions/issues arose in our discussions: did the film present a true/real account of what actually happened to Nev? why did Nev's catfish (Angela) create her "fake" Facebook identity? what are the moral implications of Angela's deceit? how can we be sure that the people with whom we interact-- as friends, lovers, colleagues, even family-- are "really" or "truly" the same as their presentations of themselves to us?
It's that last question that I was hoping students would ask, and which makes the story of Catfish so interesting, in my view. Almost universally, I think, viewers find themselves immediately and intuitively inclined to reject Angela's "deceit" on moral grounds. It helps that Facebook is at the center of this whole story as well, since even Facebookophiles have a tendency to parrot the standard criticisms of that social-networking site when the differences between it and "real"-life social networking are exploited. Angela created, presented and maintained a persona that was not the "real" or "true" her, or so the story goes. But why, I asked my students (and myself), do we take our flesh-and-bones selves to be so much more true or more real than our virtual/digital selves? Maybe there's an argument to be made for the reverse, that is, that our virtual/digital selves are just as true and real, in many ways more true and more real, than our flesh-and-bones selves. And so, what follows are a few considerations-- undeveloped, unorganized, and incomplete, to be sure... but, still, I think, persuasive-- aimed to give you pause in thinking that Flesh-and-Bones-You (henceforth, the "material you" or MY) is truer than the Digital-You (henceforth, DY):
1. MY can only barely function in the world independent of DY. Perhaps one of the most devastating things that can happen to anyone today is to have his or her digital "identity" stolen. There is very little MY can do to prove that s/he is real or true without the help of DY. The banks, the grocery stores, the utilities companies, the courts, the police, the hospitals, not to mention Facebook and Google, only know DY (and care very little, if at all, about MY). It is almost impossible for MY to do almost anything without doing so in consort with (if not entirely as) DY. I'm sure we all have fantasies from time to time about going "off the grid," but that's nigh close to impossible these days.
2. DY is thoroughly, completely, and constantly archived. The archive of DY is permanent and (for the most part) unedited, hence more "objectively true." DY has a faaaar better memory than MY, partly because it never-- EVER-- forgets, but also because there are a host of institutions, networks, corporations, agencies and other DY's helping to contribute to the record any particular DY. Our organic memories, just like our stories of ourselves, are incomplete and very often not completely true. They're pruned and edited and massaged to suit MY's desire to understand itself as, to borrow Kierkegaard's phrase, an "actually existing individual." Between DY's and MY's autobiographical accounts, though, it's hardly a contest for which is more "objectively" true in the strictest terms.
3. In most cases, "you" are known by others more widely and operationally (i.e., to more people and to a greater functional degree) as DY than MY. This is, in some part, a repeat of point (1), but with superadded dimension of intersubjectivity. It's not just that MY can't function very well independent of DY, but also that many more people "know" only DY and not MY. I call this the "Harvey Phenomenon": you may think that your giant rabbit friend Harvey, who no one else can see, is real and true, but if you're the only one who knows Harvey, the rest of us are going to call him imaginary.
4. DY exhibits (and executes) far more of the multivalence of "personal identity" than MY can. Because DY is not so obviously tied to a single body, at a single point in space and time, it can take on many different-- and sometimes conflicting-- identities. What is more, DY can also operate anonymously or pseudonymously, and it is no less real or true when it does so. Consequently, DY is able to capture far more of the "performative" sense of personal identity (see Sartre, Butler, et al), which is not as singular or uniform as our bodies-in-space-and-time are.
5. More and more, DY shapes and forms MY as much as MY shapes and forms DY. Thanks to companies like Amazon and Google, the constantly updated archive of DY is able to track the preferences, patterned behaviors, standards and norms of MY. Almost imperceptibly, through the power of suggestion and positive reinforcement, DY then works to regularize MY, making it more standard and, thus, easier to predict. We like to think that DY is an ex nihilo creation of MY, and in part it is, but more and more the reverse is also true. DY can't (yet) create MY ex nihilo but it can create MY's patterns of behavior. What you read or listen to, what you buy, how you filter your news, who you befriend (or unfriend) and many more elements of your life (important or mundane) are created as patterns for MY by DY.
I'm still thinking on this, and I'm not yet ready to jump the shark and say that DY is the "real" or "true" you... but I'm thoroughly persuaded that it's folly to say DY is not a "real" or "true" you. And I'm almost persuaded to say that, in many but not all ways, DY is more real or true than MY. What is interesting about the film Catfish is that it shows, in the end, that Angela's so-called deception of Nev was not so much a veiling of the true and the real as it was an unveiling of such, for all parties involved. As sci-fi author Philip K. Dick once wrote, "reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." The great, terrible and inescapable existential truth of MY is that, one day, it will go away. Death is MY's ownmost possibility. Our organic, "natural" selves will cease to be real and true at our moment of death. But, even after MY is gone, Nature herself will still be ordered mathematically-- and the real truth of DY, which is nothing but ones and zeroes, will persist. DY, really and truly, may never go away. Even if you don't believe it.
One last thought: In the final scene of the film, Angela's husband (Vince) explains the film's title. Here's what he says:
Perhaps every MY, and not just the ones whose DY we find deceitful or misleading, is a kind of "catfish." MYs keep us agile, on our toes, fresh, thinking and guessing. And they may be our last organic stand against DYs' total claim on the real and the true.