I am beset by faces I cannot trust. They glower at me from billboards, they simper at me from screens, and look! There goes one now! Baring her teeth in the room where I wait to have the tender center of my tooth drilled out.
Poor, dental stock-face. Tanned, beautiful, and stuck serving as the background to a message that reads like an omen from a spambot prophet: “THIS IS YOUR MOUTH. THIS IS YOUR HEALTH.”
I question her over my magazine:
“Do you smile at the toothaches of the Ohio Valley because you sympathize with them? Or is your face meant to be taken as a model — as if, after the cement sets and the credit card clears, we lumpy waiting-room inhabitants will be bestowed with a similar tan?”
Her smiling jaw remains locked.
In truth, stock-photos have no more relation to the product, idea, or college campus they peddle than a screw has an intrinsic relation to a bicycle. They are both fundamentally replaceable — the photographed face may have and may yet and probably already is being used to peddle something else. And while replaceability is desirable in a screw, it’s a screwy quality to look for in a face, which is irreplaceable — the face being the place where the unrepeatable person manifests herself. This sale of the irreplaceable to the market of replaceability used to be called prostitution. For the last seventy years or so, we have called it advertising.
Saint Thomas Aquinas argues that if, in the sexual act, “it is not as a wife but as a woman that a man treats his wife,” then that man commits a sin of lust. In the stock-photo, we treat all imaged wives, husbands, daughters and sons, not as an unrepeatable thou at the center of a unique web of relations, but as anonymous women, men, and children who have no meaning or life outside of the arbitrary unity of their face to the promotion of toothpaste and new phones. Lust need not arouse the flesh. There is a lust that is a sin of omission; a bored, constant scan of human flesh and its reproduced image that errs in the eyes of God insofar as it succeeds in the eyes of advertisers — by not seeing the person. For there is nothing quite like recognizing the person in the stock-photo that ruins the effect of an advertisement: If our response to a man glowering over his six-pack is “ain’t that Jimmy’s boy?” — we’re hardly likely to buy his underwear.
Love is aimed towards the particular. But stock-photos and the whole modelling-advertising mechanism that rely on them show the particular person as something general. This is for the rather obvious reason that, if the person is a somebody, then their product isn’t for everybody, but if a person is just anybody, then who knows — their deodorant might just work for you too.
Love, considered as a gaze that demands an encounter with a particular person, runs contrary to the logic of the stock-photo. A people in the habit of loving each other would be resilient to the convincing aura of advertisement; a people in the habit of lust and indifference would provide an easy market for anyone who needs to peddle an iPad by putting it near an “anybody” face. Lust, then, is structurally important to the continuation of an economy based on the constant manufacture of new products for the consumption of as many people as possible. Love, in its attention to individuals and particulars, is the enemy of such an economy.
Woe unto us loveless roaches, but a more fiery woe upon the heads of those who have built up a world in which it is rare — precious and rare! — to find a visual field free of anonymous, relation-less, nameless and repeated faces, smiling at their hamburgers, weeping over their depression, and so on.
I know that we are past the time — far past — when we might have made a protest for truth in advertising. If a man were to express outrage over the fact that the warm, loving, interracial family did not, as implied, enjoy their new phone plan — in fact, that they weren’t a family at all! — we’d regard him as an anachronism, a savage spewed out of the forest. We’d explain, draping an arm over his hairy shoulders, that “a core feature of our existence is to be surrounded by the expressions of anonymous men and women that bear no intrinsic relation to what they appear to express.” Still, I dream of a lawyer who will one day interpret the Federal Trade Commission’s laws defending “truth in advertising” with a broad understanding of “truth.”
“Your honor,” he’d say, taking out a pack of cigarettes, and fiddling for his lucky one. “Most advertisements are not, in the strict sense, true. Most operate under the arbitrary application of face to product, implying a relationship of person to product that doesn’t, in fact, exist. We would therefore like to sue all of the corporations. The money accrued will be put towards building up a new city, one where man gaze out on vistas uncluttered by the blank expressions of models peddling new phones and unnecessary evolutions of the blender.”
It would be a tough sell. We make stock of ourselves now. The effect of social media has been to extend the sphere of advertisement from its already bloated place in the market into our personal lives. This is not simply to say that our personal acts of seeking communion with our neighbors are now sold to merchants who turn our words into ads; not even to say that our attempts to love our friends and family are now spliced with the insinuating come-on’s of corporations. Social media provides us with both the impetus and the ability to become like unto the stock-photo, to imitate our advertisements by becoming advertisements ourselves. It does this by altering communication from its previous mode between person-to-person to its new form of person-to-public, demanding that we become a little more like anybody-and-nobody to appeal a little more to anybody-and-everybody. It encourages a new, mercantile mode of social life, in which product is the “self,” the currency it seeks is its own affirmation, and the provision of every man with his camera-phone engages the world in the feverish activity of devising new advertising campaigns for the business of personal display.
Within this new mode of social life, all outward expressions (from pictures, to thoughts, to videos, to “relationship changes”) lose their intrinsic connection to our inward dispositions. It takes an act of faith to believe that the photo expresses the person; that their status update indicates their status; that their words convey their meaning; that the hashtag summarizes their allegiance; that their expression has its roots in real feeling. The fact that we communicate ourselves in and through photos has generalized the state of distrust we experience when we wonder whether Ms. Big Smile really likes root canals so much. We now wonder and worry about the authenticity of everyone — including ourselves.
This is why social media use rises concomitant with use of emojis, memes, reaction gifs, and other forms of uncreative expression. When the culture of distrust becomes the very mode in which we communicate, we use images to extrinsically signify emotions we do not feel and expressions that our faces do not make — smiles, sticking-out tongues, loud, hyperbolic clips from TV shows, and all the rest. And this is why all social media use tends towards the desecration of language into hyperbole, a feat that advertisement achieved long before we all logged on. Because the field is a field of distrust, over-the-top expressions are put in place to pierce through the malaise and convince a numbed audience of the authenticity of this or that feeling. The social media age is an age of “epic fails” in which “everything is awesome” because because it is an age in our communications take the form of advertisements — desperately trying to milk a trusting response out of what is, structurally, an untrustworthy relation. (Of course, the net result of hyperbole is a further deadening of the literary senses, until a generation is developed who wouldn’t know the “epic” if it dragged them through seven mythical islands; who wouldn’t know the “awesome” if it killed them on Mount Sinai.)
Loving one’s neighbor has always been a necessity. Now, as we make men extraordinarily wealthy by turning our personal identity into salable products, love takes on a kind of urgency. The Apostle Paul argued that “love believes all things.” His words are a lifeline for our age. Even through the malaise of stock-presentation, ready-made reactions, distrust, and indifferent lust, love despises generalities, holds on to uniqueness, and believes in the presence of the unrepeatable person in her infinitely repeatable image. The game has changed, but the rule is the same: Love your neighbor in the stock-photo and pray for the unknown thou, smiling at you in the waiting-room.