I had dinner alone the other day. More to keep my mind occupied with a constant stream of digital stimuli than anything else really, I decided to turn on the news. I moved my laptop from my working desk to my dining table (a good three steps) and put it down where someone else’s plate might have been. A lady with a kind, remarkably smooth face was telling me that over the past year there has been an increase in demand for plastic surgery . Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Discord, Skype, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp Calls and Face Time – with the rise of the role that video-calls play in our lives nowadays, our tendency to look into shop-windows and briefly see our own reflections while walking down the street has been amplified into staring at yourself while speaking with others, lengthily and structurally.
I am reminded of Oscar Wilde opposing Aristotle’s ideas on mimesis. Contrary to the latter’s classic statement, Wilde argues that “Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life” (921). Since, he states, life has an imitative nature and, as artists construct beauty, the people will grow to be beholders of that same grace.
Meanwhile, to reduce screen time, my friends and I have started sending each other voice messages to keep each other in the loop of what’s happening in our lives. Some of them have pointed out how they feel like narrators, giving an account of their dailies as though hosting a podcast. The act of telling, perhaps even living, has become performative. Hearing our own voices, seeing ourselves in the right-hand corner of a screen: we are the audience of our own lives in a more literal sense than ever.
I recently heard myself describe a particularly nice bit from my own phone-recorded anecdote as having been: “just like a movie.” I later wondered how much of this instance being memorable in a moviesque manner was my own doing – and how much the movies? What would Oscar have thought of this phrase? Would he have chuckled, thought to himself, “how silly,” considered me naïve, and said: “You imitate the movie, far more than the Movie imitates you.” What would he have said, had he heard that the faces seen in Zoom-meetings, do not look like the ones we are used to seeing there? Like those we were taught are beautiful by the artists who usually direct our screens, but instead are increasingly becoming altered?
In his 1990 novel Vineland, Thomas Pynchon has his characters experience the very same concept. They are glued to their TV’s, overloaded with references to the time’s televised culture, seemingly living a life much like those they have to tear themselves away from. But there’s another way in which imitation is striking in this particular novel – the book starts to imitate the medium of television itself. “Vinelanďs structure recalls, for example, what Kate Moody describes in her Growing Up on Television: ‘Television’s most successful techniques- short segments, fast action, quick cuts, fades, dissolves- break time into perceptual bits’” (Meinel 452). The literary counterparts of these techniques, such as quick sequences of flash forwards or flashbacks, make up Pynchon’s work. Television’s taking over.
Now, the fast pace of the Television Era is being surpassed by social media. Endlessly scrolling has brought to life tactics such as clickbait, the use of algorithms, and ads screaming to grab your attention in a second. Documentaries such as The Social Dilemma (Orlowski, 2020) make us aware of the addictiveness of this quick social-reward system, but at the same time a Netflix documentary needs those very systems to even gain attention. Without Netflix algorithms or the many insta-stories on the film, I may not have even know of its existence. Inherently ironic. That’s not to say it’s not the right way for the documentary to gain attention, moreover on the systems carefully tracking and recording our data, or the spread of conspiracy and misinformation. How better to realise the dangers of the screens, while watching a screen? As the film’s theme song – a specially made version of I put a spell on you – suggests, I’m not sure if I’d been enchanted by the same urgency had I walked into a book-version of the research in a library or store.
The screens – may they be the small or the big – have influenced our experience of life to a point of a potential no-return. From telling your family members to put away their phones and be present during a meal, to full train rides being spent not looking up from a phone while your book is in your bag and the view is out the window. Not knowing whether to believe the news articles you come across. Concerts, experienced with a red rec. button pulsing in the right-hand corner. To quote Vineland once more: “her camera taken away, no weapon of witness but her eyes” (273).
But – there’s also staying in touch with international friends or being able to see far-away family members. Finding online communities one may finally feel they belong to while geographically in a place where that’d be experienced as impossible. Being able to do research from your bedroom. To spread music, art – literature.
As a digital platform, naturally we are part of all this. I’ve been typing this on my laptop, blue light-filtered glasses on my nose and my ‘nightlight’ turned on, procrastinating writing about every ten minutes by checking messages, swiping, or scrolling. If you’re reading this, chances are low it’ll be on anything different from a phone, tablet or computer screen. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it, can we?
As you’ve probably gathered by now, our theme for March and April is Square Eyed // Vierkante Ogen. Paratext would love to hear your take on our second bimonthly theme of 2021 and we heartily invite you to contribute. Admittedly, there has never actually been a reported case of anyone’s eyes going square from sitting too closely to a screen, or for too long a time, but in today’s daily life, the repeatedly uttered phrase seems to become more and more of a true threat. We invite you to write, record, or otherwise create anything you may associate with this theme in the broadest sense – screens, physiology, digital society, whatever may pop up in your creative mind’s eye (whichever shape that one may still have). Let’s go meta. Square Eyed//Vierkante Ogen.
By Marlon Schotel
Hawkins, Jay. “I Put a Spell On You.” At Home with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Epic Records, 1958. Spotify.
Meinel, Tobias. “A Deculturated Pynchon? Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland and Reading in the Age of Television.” Amerikastudien/American Studies, vol. 58, no. 3, 2013, pp. 451-464.
Pynchon, Thomas. Vineland. Vintage Books, 2000.
“Vierkante Ogen, kijken naar een scherm slecht voor de ogen?” Mens en Gezondheid, 30 July 2014.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying: An Observation.” The Works of Oscar Wilde. Collins Clear Type Press, 1948, pp. 909-931.
 NOS Journaal, 09-03-2021.