ALONE IN THE DARK
BY NAVNEET ALANG
Last.fm has tracked me listening to a song 54,351 times. The once-popular app, which traces your listening habits so it can recommend you new material, has after nine years instead become an archive of my music history. I can see which is my most played song (Bombay Bicycle Club’s “Rinse Me Down”), see that period of my life where all I listened to was Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, and be amazed by the fact that I have apparently listened to an Aziz Ansari comedy album 745 times.
But if the object Last.fm has produced is a library of my questionable tastes, it has also implanted a seed in me. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, I refuse to listen to music unless it has been “scrobbled,” to use Last.fm’s term. It is my own version of the tree-in- a-forest philosophy problem: if a song hasn’t been tracked by software, did I listen to it at all?
Something has happened to my consumption of art and ideas: I have internalized the outward-facing logic of social media. It’s not just songs, either. Whether books, articles, film, or TV, I am forever thinking about being seen consuming something, or publicly offering my opinions on it, or am simply cognizant of the fact that it’s all being tracked. Now, the persistent assumption that what I watch and read and think is a matter of public record has me wondering what it means to engage with art, not just alone, but privately—to ask what is lost and gained when the mythical ideal of relating to art in an ostensibly pure way becomes even more difficult.
For obvious reasons, privacy is a contentious issue in a post 9/11 world. When it comes to art, however, intrusions into privacy are often thought of more as distraction rather than invasiveness. The argument: that a private, solitary relationship between the individual and art is harder to maintain with a buzzing phone, and the absorption of social media’s call to share everything.
There is nonetheless something of a contradiction in the notion of “being alone with art.” How we approach a book or painting is in part determined by everything we’ve touched and been touched by thus far, and if anything, the digital era has made this phenomenon more acute: Immersed in the flow of the feed, we are inundated with opinion and interpretation, often coming to a film or book with a hundred competing perspectives in our heads. What’s more, we often turn to narrative art in particular out of a desire to broach the impossible divide between individual minds. In one sense, even the most solitary act of listening to a song or watching a movie is still a yearning to connect with the other. The private space inside of our mind is never really private.
What I do wonder about, however, is if in the tracked life of Last.fm or Netflix accounts that share to Facebook, that one kind of desire for connection can get conflated for another: that sometimes, rather than seeking out a meeting with other minds through art, I seek out that connection through performing my consumption of, or perspective on art. In short: the structure and logic of social media beckon me toward the public, rather than the private, in part because the former offers more immediate, more widespread reaction.
That isn’t wrong, necessarily. But it is an uncomfortable confession. And whether or not that constitutes a trend at large seems far too broad a question to answer with an anecdote. It does suggest there’s at least a risk that the feed—this place filled with desire, with life, with information, and the world outside—can at times make it that much harder to be alone with art.
A question, then: if I am going to actually allow art to change me, should I resist this impulse—and try and experience it privately?
Recently, I spent a couple of evenings watching Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour. The film, which chronicles a young woman’s torrid first love affair, stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, and both they and the director were all awarded Cannes’ Palme d’Or prize for what one critic called “the first great love story of the 21st century.” The film seesaws back and forth between a leisurely, almost pastoral examination of Adele’s life—time in school as a student, then as a teacher, and her hesitant socializing in between—and remarkably intense, explicit sex scenes and fights between Adele and her first love, Emma.
I finished the film deeply affected. Star Adèle Exarchopoulos said in an interview that “this is a film about skin,” and it’s surprising that such a small phrase can so lucidly and precisely sum up a three-hour film with a plot that spans ten years. Much of the movie is spent on close-ups of Adele’s face, and blown up on a screen, it feels as if it is at a distance that only a romantic partner might regularly see. Pores on skin; a snotty nose amidst wracking sobs of sadness; flushed skin while aroused; and the small changes in expression during a conversation—the film evokes the erotics of intimacy themselves as a visual and narrative theme. Ensconced in a dark, quiet basement while watching the film, the clichés of romance on film seemed to slip away, and I was left with the impression that love is both cataclysm and coincidence: an utterly ordinary thing that so often falls to chance and can, in the process, irrevocably upend your entire life. Alone in front of a screen, with my phone elsewhere and my computer off, the film punctured me.
It was only after I stepped back from the film and pondered what it might be like to talk about with someone else that doubt crept into my brain. The film, I discovered later, was controversial for its explicit sex scenes, and it was only in retrospect that I started to think about the male gaze—the concept from scholar Laura Mulvey that talks about the way both the film and the culture-at- large are structured for the desires of straight men. And after all, there I was, a single man nearing 40, watching a sexually explicit film while proclaiming “ah, such great art!” Had I, oh-so- temporarily cut off from the world, mistaken my sense of revelation for plain old male voyeurism? Or was there genuinely something there in my ostensibly “untainted,” solitary connection to this piece of film?
If there is no entirely private relation to art, it is equally true that there are degrees of solitary aesthetic experience. Stand-up comedy can be a deeply social thing, while reading a novel can be perfectly solitary. Yet the inverse can also also true, depending on context: book clubs make novels social, just as headphones can make comedy more solitary. The extent to which an experience with art is private isn’t inherent, but situational.
It’s a fact complicated by the fact that art affects you on at least two levels at once: both the affective and the intellectual, both heart and head. But while each can be transformative in their own way, perhaps it is fair to say that intellect is public and emotion is private—that the sea of ideas is a thing more of the external world, and the world of feeling more closed within the internal one.
What then are we to make of social media’s capacity to draw our attention outward? While watching Blue is the Warmest Colour, it turned out it was privacy that mattered to me, but because it was the emotional impact of the film that I needed more. There is still time now to contemplate what it means to have a camera linger so eagerly on the naked female body, still time to temper my love for the film with the skepticism of a critical, perhaps feminist eye. But the transformative effect of being affected by art—that is something that must happen in the moment, and it seems easier to do it not just alone while watching, but alone in how one approaches the piece, too.
One might be tempted to then say that the less mediated an experience with art, the better—that technology is just taking us away from what counts. But exhortations to “put down your phone!” are rarely helpful; who knows whether what a person needs in a given moment is solitude or to talk to a friend? Who knows if an experience with art needs a companion or the silence of solitude?
The answer is that only we know, but can only know in retrospect. The privacy of my experience with Blue is the Warmest Colour wasn’t a choice, not really. It was just luck. My phone and its relentless promise of other people and ideas happened to be elsewhere. It was just me in a pitch-black room, alone with moving images, two vivid characters, and the intimacy of skin. Perhaps there is nonetheless something to be said for that—not the purity of experience, but to wish for more such fortuitousness: to by chance dive into art blind, in the privacy of the dark, and re-emerge into the light, gasping a bit, with things seeming just that much different.
Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based technology and culture writer. His work has appeared in the The Globe and Mail, The New Republic, The Toronto Star, Hazlitt Magazine and more. He recently completed a PhD, and his dissertation was about an idea he calls the Holographic Self.