Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Exposed: affairs of the look-at-me generation
The hole where a building collapsed into the high street a few weeks back has a kind of pathos to it. No one was hurt. It’s not that. Nor was the building itself terribly special. Old, by Sydney standards, and sandstone, but really just another terraced shop-house in the inner-Sydney style.
It’s not even about the money. No, it’s more the kind of pathos you get when a moth larva is ripped too soon from its cocoon, or a saucy conversation between lovers is suddenly strung up for global headlines. It’s part embarrassment, part pity. Pity for the cruel exposure of a soft, private thing unshelled.
The house in question was old enough, and in Sydney unusual enough, to be one of a clump of back-to-back terraces. Without so much as a night-soil lane between, back-to-backs have not just side walls but a rear boundary in common. So the block becomes something like an elephant herd, where each house has only its eyes and trunk exposed to public gaze. Slowly, in the protected centre, a fetid communal privacy accretes. There, pretty much anything can happen, so long as it’s consensual.
A couple of centuries of such build-up produces such an encrustation of unapproved lean-tos and dunnies, granny flats and patios, smokehouses and sleepouts that the sudden removal of any herd member, but especially a corner member, exposes any number of activities never intended for public gaze. Nothing criminal – although who’s to say, actually? – just a cruddy collection of erections, a hammock, an old love seat and a caterpillar-green dunny with the toilet rolls still net-hung from the ceiling.
Not criminal? Hell, it’s not even offensive. Not in Surry Hills, sometimes pronounced Sorry Hills (not in deference to Keating’s Redfern speech), where every nicety and nuance of human anatomy and sexuality is regarded as flauntable, night and day. No, what’s touching about the exposure is some breach of the public-private power balance, a balance central to our sense of our selves as human beings.
We live in a world that thinks itself blase on this. Not only have we spent a hundred or more years ridiculing the way an exposed ankle, unguarded look or escaped vowel could generate intense, even life-threatening passions, from lust to jealousy to shame. Not only do we regard it as a matter of pride – and more than pride, freedom – to display emotions, acts and anatomical intricacies that other eras and cultures regard as deeply shaming.
Now, with the possible exception of Marcus Einfeld, we see all publicity as good publicity. We crave the celebrity that our predecessors shunned. We grumble about government surveillance and invasions of privacy but, in fact, privacy is the last thing we seem to want. Anonymity is anathema. Increasingly what we seek is the right, and the opportunity, to self-expose.
This is what sustains the vast arena of cyberspace, threaded as it is with such expectant openings for self-exposure as YourFace, MyTube, SpaceChook, WeLube and NastyBook.
At one level, it’s all part of the continuing story. Humans have probably always devoted enormous energies to recreating the self for public consumption. We’ve probably always been torn between the safety of the herd, with its stifling infringements on privacy, and the yearning for anonymity and freedom.
But this is different. The new exhibitionism, signifying what The Guardian’s Marina Hyde calls “almost total collapse of the private into the public”, has commentators intrigued. Why – apart from obvious but at best partial motives like sex – are young people in particular so willing to expose not just their re-made, idealised selves but also their failures and vulnerabilities to an unfiltered, often hostile audience? Why, indeed, do they think the world cares? And why do they so readily view themselves as merchandise in some global market, making the internet – as one young blogger told USA Today, “a way for me to reach more people with who I am”?
Some answer that the blog generation, being overparented, has never known privacy (and therefore needs none). Others blame 20 years of parental emphasis on teaching self-esteem, without the skill-base that might justify it. It could be just the unguardedness of youth, or the Warhol-inspired expectation of fame for all.
In part, it could be the medium itself. For some reason, email and the like feels intimate, and private, even when – as on Facebook – the exchanges are actually semi-public. And it may be this false gloss of privacy that diminishes perceptions of legal force, leaving many a young blogger astonished when some random victim of their none-too-subtle criticisms threatens suit.
Whatever the reason, the last time our culture got into serious trouble over the public-private issue was when modern architecture wanted to dematerialise buildings. We hated it. We kicked and screamed but eventually, in the words of the wife of a Melbourne architect who shall remain nameless, “I got used to getting changed in the closet.”
Perhaps that’s it; the next step in blog-olution. Learning to change in the closet.