The Year in Avatars

What are the selves we paint out there but a kaleidoscopic refraction of our multiple desires for who we wish to be?

Hazlitt regular contributor Navneet Alang writes about the weirdness and wonder of...

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What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small.

As the kind of ordinary, emotionally balanced man who can go years without crying, each time it happens is an event. Although I spent most of 2015 uncharacteristically weeping over something like a breakup, this year things returned to normal. Tears only came once, and in exactly the way they’re supposed to: There I was, “free associating” with my psychoanalyst about the week’s events, when suddenly I hit upon a phrase that stuck in my throat. The words I struggled to get out—“then there’d be no one!”—revealed that, even at nearly forty, I’ve been so unwilling to cast off my family because it’s in them I locate a vision of myself as good, worthwhile, okay.. When I finally said it, I broke.

It has always been like this for me. When I land upon the right words to reveal the thing I’ve been desperately repressing, they are like a key that unlocks a dam (I’m assuming this is how dams work). Once, after a four- or five-year drought, in a piazza in Sicily, the phrase “I just want someone to tell me I’m doing okay” drew out wracking, overdue sobs, putting all my fanciful talk of not caring what others think to rest. Another time, it was confessing to my then-girlfriend about our impending move from Edinburgh to Ireland: “I’m scared.” So much for my need to be alone; I was just afraid of commitment. These are embarrassing examples, ones that I should probably keep between my therapist and me, but they are what they are.

For those who cry for more ordinary reasons—from stress, or heartache, or binge-watching Lovesick on Netflix which, I swear, is a good show even though it was originally called Scrotal Recall—this year’s tears were capped off with a new, slightly more puzzling form of sorrow: the victory of Donald Trump. People were sobbing at their desks, weeping on their couches, miserable about what was, for many of them, a political result in a foreign country. Nonetheless, the election felt like an upending, a rupture, as if a series of failsafes had in fact failed. It wasn’t just the obvious—that among presidents, Trump seems both uniquely unqualified and genuinely stupid, or that he seems to have both unleashed and endorsed the very worst of the American id—but that one’s understanding of a certain order in the world, and a trajectory to history, had been shaken. Simmering unspoken beneath it, too, in my social circle of mostly academics and journalists, was an anxiety about who was controlling the narrative—not so much the worry that the inmates were running the asylum as that the Gamergaters and 4channers were.

What, then, were we collectively repressing? This was the social equivalent of my personal mini-breakdown: a sudden realization that we are sustained by an external vision of ourselves that, when shattered, brings down everything else with it. The outer world is like a sky punctuated with constellations, each bright set of pinpricks a little sense-making apparatus. A speech by a politician here, a film that “just gets it” there, and soon you have an astrology, a political cosmology. Here are my beliefs reflected, fragmented, and scattered onto the public mirror, and from them we then collect a sense of what is the right way and the wrong way, good and bad.

Of course people voted for Trump: he’s the manifestation of the will to power, and being human is, save for a very precious few, almost universally experienced as disempowering. People didn’t just want a representative for their ideas or their thoughts about policy—they wanted a representative for their feeling of control. 

Much of Hindu mythology rests on this back and forth between a self and a self-projection, a personal and collective consciousness. The various Gods each appeared as various avatars, worldly manifestations that highlighted some aspect of the deity as circumstances saw fit. Rama, he of the famed Diwali story of Rama and Sita, was the seventh avatar of Vishnu, not quite a God on his own, but a rule-bound warrior. Krishna, on the other hand, is said to be the ultimate avatar of Vishnu, worth worship all on his own. We, too, carry a pantheon of potential selves within us, and perhaps one of them is our Krishna, a more idealized version than the rest. The avatar is the aspirational pole of self-development, the guiding star for our wish to become something more than ourselves. It is an odd perversion, though, that people with overactive inner lives are so deeply affected by their outer projection of themselves. In the era of the front-facing camera and the profile pic, however, the avatar is perhaps more fundamental to our sense of self than ever. Social media has mapped out this dynamic in a more immediate way. What are the selves we paint out there but a kaleidoscopic refraction of our multiple desires for who we wish to be?

I realized too late that my avatar was fucked from the start. When I was seventeen and finally mustered up the confidence to ask out a girl I liked and she said no, I could have nursed my wounds and moved on. But, like so many young men, I turned my hurt into anger, which I then directed at myself. “So she lost an asshole for a friend,” I told friends who asked why I’d cut off contact. We actually ended up dating later, but by then the damage had already been done, and I’ve never quite recovered from the self-inflicted wound. The North Pole of my identity is like corrupted software, faith and forgiveness replaced with self-doubt and bitterness. Every week I tell my therapist that I consider myself useless and stupid, he tells me I’m delusional, and I briefly catch a glimpse of what it might be like to imagine oneself as “okay.” Seven days later, after my psyche and the world have worn me down, I return to the same leather chair and we repeat the same stupid conversation again.

But avatars are not just personal. We seek out public ones, too, and this year seemed to bring that into stark relief. In the aftermath of the election, in which the hope of so many was blown apart, there was a thrashing about for explanations, a mad rush to explain why reality did not match the mental picture we had of it. In that confusion, over and over again, was the maddening question, “How did people vote for this man?!” Something broke in people’s understanding of what a public figure was meant to be. Here was someone who was everything one should not be, and yet tens of millions of people said, “Yes, I want this man to lead.”

But was that part really so complicated? People do not simply want figures who enact policy: they want an avatar for their desire, a representation for a collectivized wish to enact the power that they do not have individually. People voted for Trump because politicians are avatars for overcoming the limits of self; I can’t change the world, but I can support someone who seems to best express the way I want it be changed. Of course people voted for Trump: he’s the manifestation of the will to power, and being human is, save for a very precious few, almost universally experienced as disempowering. People didn’t just want a representative for their ideas or their thoughts about policy—they wanted a representative for their feeling of control. It’s been infuriating to watch people either refuse to understand this, or moralize and wish it away with a dismissive wave of the hand, as if a basic, unavoidable political reality were an inconvenience to the ideological coherence of a narrative. A vote for Trump was like a prayer—not always rational, perhaps, but an act of faith placed in some greater power—and a refusal to at least grapple directly with that seems a failing of historical importance.

But if it is a historical blind spot, it’s the aggregate effect of something altogether more personal. There is, in the face of a rupture, a desperate scramble to re-impose order, to suture the wound to a Weltanschauung. I get it. This year, I was on both TV and radio for the first time and was, in the most obvious way possible, seen by others. I could not, however, even bring myself to look at or listen these appearances. I was terrified that instead of the usual me and my avatar, some mix of my actual self and who I imagine myself to be, I would see myself as I am: broken or dumb or unattractive or any other number of things. That, I couldn’t stand. My avatar may at times be so much less than I really am, dead weight dragging me down, but in another sense it is also much more: much smarter, more desirable, somehow more complete than I am today. So I avoided the clips, even though I know they’re probably still online somewhere now. I am holding on to a thread of hope that I am not, in fact, the person that I am, and for now, I’m not ready to explode the illusion.

*

I’ll go to therapy this week and I’ll talk about this. It will be another minor revelation for another session, something to sustain the feeling that I am getting better and the efforts are worthwhile. But if I am ever to be happier, I’m going to have to actually look at myself at some point, and start to make peace with who I am. It’s probably something I’ll do. I mean, just a few months ago I swore I could never be on TV, and then I was, and I’m told it went okay. After watching the show, my dad said, “You did us proud.” I was deeply glad to hear it, but it wasn’t everything. Sometimes, bit by bit, it gets better. You get better.

But confronting what’s true isn’t just about some abstract symbolic relation—between a self and an avatar, an inner imagination and an outer projection. It’s about feeling. It’s about desire, the unconscious—about things that people don’t quite have words for. That’s what it is to be human: not neat categories in which identity and moral evaluation are juggled like parts of an equation, and then put together in a sort of rhetorical algebra, but figuring out the difference between one’s thoughts and one’s desire, and then figuring out how to improve. It isn’t that, in the search for better avatars, an emphasis on strict notions of identity or calling wrong things wrong isn’t necessary. It’s just that it doesn’t capture everything that’s true and that matters.

It feels reasonable to say that we are entering a phase of history that is as strange as it is unexpected. But thus far, except for the rarest of voices, it seems that in the aftermath of that cataclysmic election, everyone is saying the same thing now that they said a month ago, a year ago, or a decade ago. It’s as if the whole world is suffering from the same neurosis as I am: afraid to look at a crisp, high-definition picture of themselves, for fear of what they may see. But when you keep running from what’s true—when you insist on returning to the same patterns, resisting the plain reality in front of you—you’re left broken. The thoughts and feelings build. Tears accumulate, unshed, just waiting for that moment of release. At some point, somebody has to say the damn words.

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