Fantastic column today from Giles Fraser at The Guardian. Very Rene Girard! My bolding.
Christmas cards used to be about mangers, kings and shepherds. Then they became about robins. Then about reindeer. Now they are about us. "Religion has gone away," said the novelist AS Byatt "and all we are left with is ourselves, so we have to be interested in ourselves. And we can be psychoanalytically interested in ourselves or sociologically interested in ourselves or interested in why we wear these clothes rather than those, or we can put ourselves in reality houses on the television."
On one reading of this phenomenon – call it the secularisation thesis – the change of the look of our Christmas cards reflects a transference of interest from fantasy to reality. But reality, of course, is always a slippery idea. Take an extreme example: the celebrity family, the Kardashians' 2013 Christmas card. Costing a quarter of a million dollars to produce, this ghastly orgy of celebrity self-indulgence required an extensive stage set and the services of elite fashion photographer David Lachapelle. It features glorified images of curvy bodies posing next to huge gold dollar signs, set in some hideous pink and neon dystopia. Is this reality?
To be fair, it was ever thus. The first Christmas card was produced by Sir Henry Cole in 1843. It too was nausiatingly self-satisfied, showing three generations of the Cole family looking prosperous and well-fed, all raising glasses to the card's recipient. It too was produced by a celebrity image-maker, John Calcott Horsley from the Royal Academy. Flanking the central image of the family were scenes of philanthropy. This was how the Coles wanted to be seen: wealthy and generous. What the recipient sees is smug.
For Byatt, "the map of the world provided by Christian belief had gone and this means how you say who you are has become very very difficult." I'm not sure I completely buy this. I suspect it's always been difficult. As the Cole card suggests, we have long been concerned to tactically position ourselves towards others, whether religious or not. But Byatt is surely on to something that those with a weak sense of internal self-definition find their identity in the gaze they elicit from other people. It is not I think therefore I am, but I tweet therefore I am. In such a world, I exist in so far as I am told that I exist by the attention of other people.
The French psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan says something similar in his idea of the mirror stage. When the child becomes fascinated with her own reflection in the mirror, she sees a coherent self, a self that is together and somehow integrated as one. But it is a sense of self totally at odds with her own internal incoherence and uncoordinated bodily dysfunctions. This discrepancy between the image and the emerging subject is often resolved in favour of the image. This reflected self becomes a controlling source of how we think about who we are.
All of which is turbo charged in the age of social media. As Byatt contends: "The word Facebook is very interesting, because it means it's a mirror. And you need a mirror because you haven't got a picture. You need a mirror to tell you who you are." In other words, social media is all about "exchanging constant reassurances that you exist". So, as a sort of digital fasting, I'm going to give up social media for a while. The problem is that we have become terrorised by image, constantly fretful to manage the self that is reflected back to us, neurotically checking how many followers we have, at the mercy of other people's sense of who we are. Once we followed the star. Now we follow the stars, hoping they too might follow us. But maybe, just maybe, the star itself is a better guide. And, best of all, it doesn't always lead back to me. Which is perhaps why I think, counter-intuitively, it may be more about reality and less about fantasy.