România post-pandemică și antidotul digital

Sonia Coman-Ernstoff: Image and Identity in the Post-Pandemic Digital Age

Image and Identity in the Post-Pandemic Digital Age

A reflection by Sonia Coman-Ernstoff, PhD

Organizations, like people, have a public-facing image. Such images tend to be carefully curated, typically to such an extent that they no longer reflect the deep-seated identity of what the image is supposed to represent. The internet and social media have taken this phenomenon to unprecedented heights. We all know that friend whose life is picture-perfect on Facebook, despite the imperfect, if not dire, circumstances of his or her “real”/ extra-digital life. No matter how we might feel about this calculated discrepancy, it is a choice that — so far — everyone is free to make.

Matters get more complicated when we notice the same discrepancy between public-facing image and deep-seated identity in organizations, from private companies to public institutions. With organizations, the sense of deceit is stronger because it raises more stringent questions of social responsibility and moral rectitude. For example, if our friends post pictures that lead us to believe that they’re enjoying Hawai’i’s beaches and volcanoes while they are, in fact, trapped in a hotel conference room and won’t get to experience any of it, it’s one thing; but if we end up buying a defective product that can endanger our lives and those of our loved ones because an online store misrepresented their merchandise, that’s an entirely different story. No doubt, an intentional lack of honesty is operative in both cases, and neither situation is consequence-free for us at the receiving end; but we can all agree that the severity and urgency of the impact is markedly different. What has allowed us — so far — to mitigate the risk of falling prey to such deceptions is the in-person “reality check.” We call our friend up; we go to the physical store to take that car for a spin before we purchase it.

The pandemic has brought all this to a halt. In the few months that have passed since this horrendous crisis took hold, we grew accustomed to lead our lives without the safety net of our “reality checks.” We see our co-workers on Zoom against fake backgrounds; some, like submarine cabins or galaxies, announce their artifice loud and clear; others, like an oak-paneled room shot from a country-living magazine, are more surreptitious. Is that our colleague’s dining room, or is it digital set design? We can – and do – buy everything, from food to face masks to apartments, online, (physical) sight unseen. Our trust in the digital public-facing image has increased exponentially — not necessarily because the image deserves our trust, but because circumstances have forced us to grant it.

This new reality is a problem that will only deepen if we, as a society, fail to address it full-on. As increasingly more aspects of our lives are moved to the digital sphere, we ought to ensure that the public-facing image is more of a reflection and less of a misrepresentation of the underlying identity of what is showcased. Rules and regulations play an indispensable role, of course, but putting those in place takes time, and we are seemingly in a losing battle with time. Per Marin Preda’s famous line in Morometii, “Timpul nu mai avea răbdare” (“Time had lost its patience.”) So, as we speed along, we all ought to infuse the rapidly changing digital culture with a sense of empathy and social responsibility. Attaching this ethical dimension to our increasingly virtual lives will help improve the physical AND virtual ontological health of our being-in-the-world. If this 21st-century pandemic has pushed us into a more profoundly virtual world — and it looks like it has —, it would behoove us to acknowledge the change quickly, to see the need for an “ethics of authenticity” (as imagined by Charles Taylor) in the digital sphere, and to address that need by rendering artifice transparent.

As with most things in life, art can help. Across cultures and throughout the ages, images embraced or rejected mimesis, aggregately creating an extraordinarily diverse repository of in-betweens. For example, the multicultural tradition of trompe l’oeil (“trick the eye”) simultaneously hides and reveals the behind-the-scenes of the illusion. Take a hyperrealist painting of a boy coming out of a frame that tricks you into thinking that you are seeing a real boy, until you realize that wouldn’t be possible, at which point your perception flips and you see the painting for what it is. (I am picturing, in my mind’s eye, Pere Borrell del Caso’s oil-on-canvas Escaping Criticism of 1874. Check it out.) These stages of reception may take only a few seconds, but they are nothing short of exciting. The playfulness of this artistic tradition encapsulates, for me, the nature of truth in representation: simultaneously fragile and essential. So is the rapport between our virtual and physical realities, now more than ever before. It is time to take a first step in the direction of building a healthy relationship between image and identity in the post-pandemic digital age, in Romania as in any other country for that matter. To that end, we need to err on the side of sincerity, transparency, and truth, and for that, we need to be equipped with visual literacy — the kind that enables one to see past the tricks of representation.


Scurtă biografie: Născută la Constanța în 1988, Sonia Coman-Ernstoff este licențiată a universității Harvard și doctor în istoria artelor de la universitatea Columbia, cu specializare în artă franceză și artă japoneză. A fost stagiară în departamentul de Pictură a muzeului Luvru din Paris și a lucrat ca bibliograf la muzeul Metropolitan din New York. În prezent, își continuă activitatea de cercetare la muzeul Freer al instituției Smithsonian din Washington, DC, cu scopul de a scrie o carte despre colecția de ceramică japoneză a celui care a fondat muzeul, industriașul Charles Lang Freer. Sonia pictează și scrie teatru și poezie, pentru care a primit numeroase premii în diverse colțuri ale lumii. Cea mai recentă carte a sa, intitulată Treceri, reunește poeme haiku în limba engleză, traduse în patru limbi și ilustrate de autoare. Cartea a fost nominalizată pentru premiul de carte Touchstone al fundației americane de haiku. Interesată de sociologie, Sonia colaborează cu profesori de la MIT și Columbia pe studii despre mecanismele care stimulează creativitatea și ingredientele sociale care asigură longevitatea unor stiluri artistice sau mișcări culturale.

Acest articol face parte din proiectul “România post-pandemică și antidotul digital”, o inițiativă a Fundației C.A.E.S.A.R.

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