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A Brave New (Non-Private) World

Near the end of 1910, London had its first big exhibition of post-impressionist art. Viewers were startled, even shaken by the paintings by Cezanne and Van Gogh, which threatened and sometimes shattered their sense of the world's solidity. The show prompted Virginia Woolf to make her famous claim that "human character changed on or about December, 1910." After Cezanne, not to mention Freud and Einstein, people in the West never saw themselves in the same way.

Woolf's words came back to me again recently when I put aside a very entertaining Brazilian novel in order to catch a prizewinning American documentary — only to discover they were both struggling with the same vast, if elusive subject. They're both concerned with another major change in human character, one happening almost exactly a century after Woolf's great turning point.

Ondi Timoner's We Live in Public is a breathless film about Josh Harris, an early dot-com millionaire with aspirations to being an artist in the Warhol vein. Harris is known for two projects. The first was a hugely ambitious 1999 "be-in" called "Quiet", in which dozens of people spent a month living in a communal bunker where every piece of behavior — even going to the toilet — wasn't merely caught on surveillance cameras but could be watched on TV by everybody living there. The result of this totalitarian exercise was a collective freakout.

Harris himself was the one freaking out in his second project, We Live in Public. He and his girlfriend, Tanya Corrin, lived in an apartment where everything they did was broadcast over the internet to viewers who then commented on what they saw — including the couple's inevitable breakup.

Harris' projects raise all sorts of fascinating issues about how digital technology is redrawing the boundaries of the self. As its possibilities enter people's heads, they redefine what belongs to me — what is me — and what belongs to the world.

Harris would get no disagreement from the unnamed hero of Anonymous Celebrity, a sardonic new novel by Ignacio de Loyola Brandao, a writer I've admired ever since I lugged his novel Zero around Brazil 20 years ago. While that earlier book was about military dictatorship, this new one dissects a subtler new form of present-day authoritarianism: our media culture that divides the world into celebrities, whose every movement is thought worth reporting, and the anonymous herd, who mean less than nothing. (Read an excerpt.)

Zippily translated by Nelson H. Viera, the novel tells the story of a little-known actor who dreams of killing a super-star so that he can take over the man's roles and, more important, take over his fame. He prepares himself to be famous by studying how 24/7 media colonizes our psyches — from the products we buy to the buzzwords everyone suddenly starts using. This wannabe killer is training himself to be as perfect a celebrity as Angelina Jolie, who he considers a genius at crafting her persona. You see, for him, the self is not something private and interior. It's a construction whose worth only comes from public consumption.

Now, like so many people dealing with the emergence of huge cultural changes, both Timoner and Brandao get hyperbolic and overheated. We Live in Public prizes voyeuristic pizzazz over analysis, while Anonymous Celebrity is, at bottom, a series of manically entertaining riffs. Neither offers the historical or cultural perspective that might illuminate shifting ideas of the self.

That said, both Brandao and Timoner are onto something real. Although it's hard to nail down, information technology is transforming our whole image of the self. It's also whittling away old notions of privacy, from those surveillance cameras that now follow us everywhere, to the unnerving algorhythims that let Amazon predict our tastes, to the friends I've had to yell at to keep them from quoting my indiscreet jokes on their blogs. Like it or not, we all do live in public more than we dreamed we would even 10 years ago. And the question is, Do we embrace this new world or do we run away screaming — even knowing that someone may post our screams on YouTube.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers
John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.