Finding New Ways to Hide in Plain Sight

March 18, 2014

Hazlitt regular contributor Navneet Alang writes about the weirdness and wonder of modern techno-culture. He has a PhD that is technically in English...

The body is a text. To communicate with another human being is to consider them as a book. Unable to see into their souls, we encounter others as collections of signs: a smirk or a crinkle around the eyes, a hand placed on a cheek—words upon words as we try, in futility, to express to one another what we think and feel. The soul may be irreducible, but to be human is to reduce it nonetheless.

How, then, should we feel now that the text of the body has become machine-readable?

To be machine-readable is to have bodily signs always on the verge of becoming data, that looming term that seems to at once connote both depersonalization and subsumption into the seething mass of the computerized mind. The amalgam of symbols and signs that comprise the self—everything from our clothes to our communication to our skin—can now be interpreted and understood by a dizzying array of algorithms and cameras. Whether the camera that knows if you’re smiling, or Google’s gentle reminders that it is following your every move, to be alive in the 21st century is to be under surveillance.

Still, a response is afoot. Some of it is of the art project variety, which is how these things should start. T-shirts that baffle and confound Facebook’s face-recognition algorithms are a stark reminder of the ways in which the self rendered digital is always going to be sucked into a system—and that avoiding such recognition is not a question of being invisible, but illegible. It’s a way of hiding in plain sight, a visual equivalent of speaking in a language that the foreman or the master cannot understand.

It’s strange, then, that after decades of moving toward an ever more conspicuous readability of the self, to mark out in dress and style and dialect who we are, that we’re witnessing a turn to obfuscation as a mode of individualism; this is the very trend lying behind the much-discussed idea of normcore. Outlined in a clever, insightful essay by Fiona Duncan in New York Magazine, normcore is ostensibly a shift in fashion toward a kind of deliberate blankness, one that recognizes either the increasing impossibility of true uniqueness, or that one might not be read by others at all. No ostentatious individualism for the normcore faithful, but, rather, a decided shift toward the camouflage of appearing to be ordinary.

As a fashion trend, normcore might be easy to dismiss. Sarah Nicole Prickett does as much with just a paragraph, suggesting that for all its theoretical intrigue, normcore is in fact a retreat available solely to the young or the white or the privileged. Neither does it actually evade identity, because the body always stands out as a primary marker; “compare a poor black dad in ‘dad clothes’ to a trill white girl in ‘dad clothes,’” says Prickett, and the impossibility of it all becomes clear.

All the same, there is real theoretical intrigue, to which Duncan is careful to draw attention. If normcore is, in a way, a kind of reaction to surveillance, it is, in another sense, a response to pace. As Duncan points out in her essay, “the cycles of fashion are so fast and so vast, it’s impossible to stay current.” As the body is consumed by digital systems of understanding, so too are style, language, and trends absorbed into a miasma of both interpretation and change. At this moment in history, it’s impossible to separate out the ways in which the body is read by both mechanical systems of surveillance and semiotic systems of culture. We are read too much, and we read too much, and it all happens too quickly, and the result is a constantly shifting symbolic context in which selfhood is both erased and pinned into place.

It’s why Rorschcam is such an interesting bit of culture right now. An art project by James Bridle—who himself is credited with much related to the so-called New Aesthetic—it takes the view from cameras scattered around New York and quadruples the image so as to turn each into a kind of hyperrealist Rorschach test. It is the system of surveillance, aestheticized, turned into something like art.

The other day, a friend “took a selfie using Rorschcam: he located himself on a camera and then uploaded the resulting image. It was a weird thing, to playfully locate the self using the apparatus of surveillance—cool, yet somehow unnerving. Thinking about it now, though, it seems not so much like a statement of individualism as a laying bare of individuation—the processes by which we, like Abraham in the face of God, each say to the world, “Here am I!” Here, through the eye of the other, I assert my identity—which is what fashion is about, but what being human is about, too: we have no choice but to present to the world, and for at least the last fifty years or so, we’ve taken pains to present our aesthetic differences in a perhaps-futile gesture to “be ourselves.”

But what is the individual in an era in which individualism itself is a commodity passed through ever-faster cycles of marketing? And what is the individual in the absurd paradox of technocratic capitalism, a structure that homogenizes the world even as it demands uniqueness—that asks you to make yourself readable while pushing you to want to be invisible?

The failed desire to hide that is normcore still speaks to a yearning: a desire to be visible, but not legible; unique, but not uniquely identifiable. What, in those competing pressures, will give way first, the surveillance state or individualism? A machine that reads signs and symbols, or the self as an amalgam of those markers?

For all the gloom, though, Duncan’s essay provides a glimmer of hope: that wrapped up in normcore is a desire to move past the fetishizing of difference. Uniqueness, after all, may always require a trip to the store, forever demanding differentiation through consumption. In recognizing “a look designed to play well with others,” however—in a movement that marks out in aesthetics how, to a series of unfeeling cameras, we are all identical bodies waiting to be read—is it possible that, paradoxically, we will find in fashion that it is only when we recognize what we have in collective common, that anything will change?

Hazlitt regular contributor Navneet Alang writes about the weirdness and wonder of modern techno-culture. He has a PhD that is technically in English Literature, but was really just about Twitter.