As a lover of contemporary cultural theory, I've made myself entirely incapable of functioning properly as a well-oiled cog in the system. Don't get me wrong, I'm just as much of a cog as everyone else, with my Facebook profile and airborne seat in the Twittersphere. Hell, I run a webzine for god's sake. I buy new shoes. I go to the movie theater. I buy packaged meat. I'm just as much of a consumer of objects and images as everyone else - the only difference is that I've had the horrible privilege of having access to thinkers like Debord, Adorno, Horkheimer, Hardt and Negri, who have succeeded in crippling me into the partial realization of who and where I am. I've been searching, ever since I laid my hands on Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire, to find a plausible way to defect, but I have yet to discover the cure for the post-postmodern predicament; our recognition of our movement from being, to having, to appearing in a succession of images in contemporary culture, moving from internalizing Guy Debord's concept of the spectacle to creating our own narcissistic image-based intro-spectacles, keeping us all in a state of lulled anti-thought. Ironically enough, this crippling realization has turned me into a consumer of ideas - heading out to find copies of Anti-Oedipus with my debit-card in hand, touting my high-brow penchant for theory alongside it's cyclically maddening effects. So what do we do?
Well, if you ask Hal Niedzviecki - writer, culture commentator, editor, prominent member of the Canadian independent literary scene, and author of ten books of fiction and non-fiction to date, including Ditch (Random House), The Program (Random House) and Hello, I'm Special (City Lights) - he'll tell you that we turn to peep. As the privileged bratty children of the Western world, we have a whole lot of leisure time to fill, and what have we chosen to fill it with? Ourselves. We just can't get enough of ourselves. In his latest book, The Peep Diaries, Hal Niedzviecki seeks to uncover the contemporary phenomena of a new breed of image-love, based exclusively on the banal images of ourselves and others.
I had the pleasure of peeping into Hal's concept of peep, and here's how it went:
What the hell is peep culture?
Well my argument is that we're moving from a pop to a peep culture. Pop (popular) culture was all about getting a mass audience to spend their entertainment and leisure time watching a handful of supposedly mega-talented performers. In peep, instead of watching that handful of anointed performers, we are watching each other. Peep culture is a mass media culture in which we spend our leisure/entertainment time watching each other go about our 'regular' lives, rather than watching performers.
What inspired you to delve into the nature of peep?
After I wrote my previous nonfiction book Hello, I'm Special I realized that I had only just explored the surface of the move to a conformist individuality in which everyone is perpetually selling him or her self as an exciting, vibrant rebellious product worthy of consumption. I wanted to go further. The rise of everything from blogs to Facebook to Twitter provided inspiration.
Why do you think modern culture has adopted and internalized scopofilic/voyeuristic/exhibistionist tendencices? What does this say about contemporary lifestyles?
Modern life is comfortable but deadening in the way it divides us. We're workers, consumers, student numbers, statistics. We live alone or in single family situations that maximize opportunities for us to be alone. We drive everywhere and when in public we block out others with our ipods or pdas. We're taught that privacy is super important and that the more barriers we can put between us and others, the better off we'll be (and be seen to be). But actually we're social creatures and we are happier in the group, in almost constant contact with others. So in order to bridge the gulf that modern society has created between people, we are turning to peep.
Why do you think society touts solitude and personal independence to such a deadening extent, with the reverse effect?
Society doesn't tout anything. In many ways we are the after thought of the system. The system seeks order through bureaucracy and dispersed nodes of power that permeate every aspect of life. Modern society, then, gives us order and its benefits - comforts, conveniences, health care - but actual everyday life is in many ways a weirdly secondary consideration. To succeed we don't fight the system, we seek to be absorbed into it, we seek to become person-products. we seek to become conformist rebels, hollywood heroes who are against the 'system' yet also epitomize it.
Why do you think people have been so eager to objectify themselves as products in peep culture? What's the allure?
The allure is the example and possibility of celebrity. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we have the model of the celebrity in our minds. The celebrity is a product-person who has the best of both worlds - total attention to everything they do, and complete privacy in their mansions, private jets, and exclusive lifestyles. We want that too.
How do you think technology has contributed to the growth of peep culture?
Peep, like its forefather pop, would not have been possible without technology. At the same time, peep (and pop) would likely not have emerged without technology, since it is technology that has created so much of the social isolation that makes people feel the need to peep.
Is peep culture restricted to the Western world? Or is this a global phenomena?
Peep is global in the sense that people are using these new conduits in similar ways wherever they are widespread and available. Those societies that are still left on the planet which are pre-industrial or otherwise not yet post-industrial don't peep because 1) they don't have the technology and 2) they don't need to because likely they still retain some sense of inherent community. But some of the great peep characters have come from abroad like dog shit girl in seoul and China's little fatty.
How has peep manifested itself specifically in Canadian culture?
The great canadian peep icon is a quebec fellow known around the world as the star wars kid - he was the first person to have his private moments sent around the world and turned into mass amusement for all. Canada also has the highest percentage of Facebook users per capita in the world. we are very into peep which makes sense since we live in a very beuracratic atomized society dominated by big urban communities and cars. We like to thing we're a rural small-town type country but that's just a myth. The reality is that peep is very prevalent in Canada.
Ah! Considering Canada has the highest percentage of FB users per capita, what does this say about modern Canadian culture? Is this a reaction to being Americanized, globalized, or something else?
I don't think it's a reaction - it's just the reality of Canada as a highly mechanized, atomized, postmodern culture vs. the myth of Canada as a caring small town nestled in mountains amongst the natural elements.
For more cultural critique, I'd recommend picking up the book, published by City Lights Books, once it's released this month. I had the pleasure of reading it prior to its release and it's absolutely full of goodies for the discerning cultural cripple or consumer, including partial histories, relevant references to the technological mediation of social relations via social networking sites, and a vast exploration of the micro manifestations of this meta-phenomena.
If you're in Toronto on the 19th of May, hit up This Is Not A Reading Series at The Gladstone Hotel for the book launch, interrogate Hal yourself, and take a peek into the nature of peeping, how and why we're doing it, and decide for yourself how this widespread scopophilia has - and will - change the way that we understand ourselves and each other.