Toward a theory of forms
For a long time, my Facebook name was Jack Duluoz. Like a quaternary Bret Easton Ellis character, I went to prep school in Pasadena, California. I was around sixteen years old. At the time, my pseudonym was enough of a deep cut to signal as esoteric: Jack Kerouac’s alter ego in The Vanity of Duluoz (1968), a writer’s bildungsroman set at least partially in the rarefied air of another elite institution – the New York high school Horace Mann. But any name could have worked.
(I could have told you I was Oedipa Maas or Hélène Kuragina or something completely absurd, like that I lived in Brentwood in the 1990s, where I was too blithe and fashionable to concern myself with literature or perception and its consequences, but the receipts are out there. You’d know I was lying.
I went to parties, succumbed to the obligatory fantasies and vices of adolescence; not in a blithe, fashionable way, but because I had something to prove. When I thought about writing, I did it to look like a certain image of a person.)
In the rarefied air of Pasadena’s Polytechnic School, I wasn’t the only person with an avatar. Online, everyone I knew donned costumes around sixteen. To use a pseudonym was a rite of passage in the college-preparatory ecosystem – so your Common App wouldn’t be going in with any extra supplementary information, so the university admissions counselors who searched your name couldn’t point to underage drinking or bikini pictures or political arguments in old comment threads as an indication of questionable ethical standards – a gesture that bought into the dream that you could remain undetected, and that to be undetected was to be free – an impossible prospect of not being known, of privacy.
This is what we were directed to believe: One mistake, on record, can ruin your life.
In 2017, the year I graduated high school, ten incoming Harvard freshmen were rescinded for their circulation of obscene memes in a group chat for new admits called Harvard Memes for Horny Bourgeois Teens. After the hammer fell, one of them posted about it on Wall Street Oasis (Reddit for aspiring finance bros) because he wanted to know if it’d interfere with his long-held dream of being an investment banker.
I didn’t see it online; I saw it in math class. Months before the story broke, X sat down next to me and showed me an email he’d gotten from Harvard’s Southern California admissions coordinator.
For real? I said, then: What did you do?
I don’t really know. It’s not good –
We were just kids – sure, with archives at our fingertips; kids blessed, like the rest of our generation, with limitless information, the contemporary promise that everything could be made available, unearthed, discovered, aggregated, retrieved; that nothing under the sun would ever be unknown again.
Nothing is off-limits. That includes you. You don’t even have to do an arguably bad thing (assault, vandalism, the distribution of obscene memes), you just have to make a mistake (nudes; your private thinspo Twitter; your boys’ group chat; a bad, or doctored, picture) and wait. It’ll resurface someday, when you’re least expecting it, or maybe when you are. Doesn’t mean it won’t take you down anyway.
Everyone always told us: The internet is forever.
People who are in their early twenties now are among the first people who grew up on the internet. We came of age in public. In a sense, we are all micro-celebrities.
Welcome to Life in Polarized Times: for every user who cancels you, there are two more on the other side who will love you for whatever you did.
In the aughts, no one knew that celebrities had feelings too. Eviscerating starlets was our national pastime. With hair, Britney was the Princess of Pop; without, a meth addict clutching an umbrella. We called her a Bimbo of the Apocalypse. We called her a lot worse. We were gladiatorial, cruel: America’s sweethearts pitted against their own sanity, and one another. Onscreen, then online, even the smallest transgression became breaking news.
It’s like this now a little bit for everyone. One mistake really can ruin your life.
Today, we live in a culture of mistakes. In 2007, a paparazzo snapped Britney at her breaking point because he was paid to sniff out vulnerability and sell the elusive moment back to the public. We, on the other hand, have cameras everywhere. Where there aren’t cameras, there are observers. Everyone is always telling their side of the story.
You have never been safe; you never will be. Remember those girls at that baseball game? Caught in 4k. No matter where you go, you’re under constant surveillance – or potentially under constant surveillance, which we all know is the same thing.
I’m not talking about cancel culture, which is less relevant here than it seems. In a cancel culture, you are punished – stripped of power, ostracized – for your transgressions. The lucky in-group calls this accountability; the out-group, censorship. Depending on where you sit in relation to the aisle, it’s either about morality or control.
Welcome to Life in Polarized Times: for every user who cancels you, there are two more on the other side who will love you for whatever you did. Besides, cancel culture only speaks to effects – getting rescinded, losing your job – which can be crucial, but are not causal.
Mistake culture is about the conditions of mass information. Unlike cancel culture, which is about content, mistake culture is about forms – the informatic environment by which the self is known and policed – more than it is about the consequences of said policing. Information doesn’t build or repair; it only smooths, optimizes.
We are perpetually informed of everything. In turn, we give freely of others and ourselves. We upload the images that train the latent text-to-image diffusion model; we sign away the rights to our conversations, our eye movements; we readily confess our sins to the ears in the walls.
The sheer volume of information available to us has driven us to an extreme self-consciousness: a collective obsession with self-definition and self-presentation. We cannot escape; we cannot come out; there are our mistakes, embedded in the press of persistent information, the chains of immediate communication that connect and bind us: our social, satiated selves.
From The Mylady Maker Collection
At sixteen, I learned this theory of forms. I could build a self in any image I desired so long as I stayed within the lines: so long as nothing I did – nothing I do – contradicted the form I’d chosen. I could perform Audrey Horne, NFT pfp, abstracted nonexistence, or I could perform myself: a bricolage of idols, ideas, observed qualities.
These are all stage names.
Perhaps this is why informatic networks do not keep us honest – by reinforcing the constructed nature of the self, mass information has all but obfuscated the Real.
Mistake culture and non-ethics, or: A theory of forms:
This is what it means to have too much information about everyone: To be good, you have to appear to do nothing wrong. To be good is not to be measured by what you do, but by what you don’t do. If you want to be good, you are always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
In my junior year of high school, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden was required reading. More than a few people selected that horribly overused line as their yearbook quote: And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.
Mostly, I think, people start off wanting to be good. Mistake culture couldn’t exist if we didn’t care about goodness – in others, in ourselves – but we do (if out of misplaced empathy or schadenfreude or conviction), and this is where we’ve landed – to be good is to be perfect, consistently right. You can be right a thousand times and wrong just once – our informatic conditions magnify the flaw in the image until it eclipses the image, until the flaw is all we see – and so our mistakes have come to mean what we really mean.
Mistake culture has changed things. In our age of mass information, the prospect of atonement has been replaced with an infinite recursion of sins that will never disappear.
What I mean is this: when was the last time a good take saved your life? Here is a moment in which goodness is defined by the absence of mistakes, not by their expiation.
Steinbeck’s theory of goodness, rooted in the Old Testament, allows for and even privileges atonement: our perpetual struggle against the sin in the world, in you, and your chance to repair it. Besides Cathy the sociopath (born without conscience or empathy, a chance aberration), Steinbeck’s characters make and regret mistakes. While they encounter goodness via the image of goodness – passed down in stories, ideas – they learn to be good only through experience: redemption, practice.
Mistake culture has changed things. In our age of mass information, the prospect of atonement has been replaced with an infinite recursion of sins that will never disappear. This phenomenon entraps us in a theory of ethical forms – illusory images in which goodness is more of an idea than it is a lived and learned experience.
In Ancient Greek, the word εἶδος refers to the perfect, abstract essence of a type of thing rather than the material reality of any discrete item. From it, the Greeks derived another word, ἰδέα – each type of thing has an idea, which means an essential ideal, which can be gestured at in flashes, but never truly seen on the surfaces of the revealed world. Blink and you’ll miss it.
Paradoxically, the problem of visibility is crucial to the εἶδος and the ἰδέα. For the εἶδος of a thing to be called into practical (Real) existence, to be understood and consumed, it must be visualized: its existence is quite literally predicated on sight (εἶδον, the root verb – to see).
Yet you cannot see an idea. It belongs not to the realm of the material, but the conceptual. Any attempt to render it visible necessarily falls short of its form: its perfect image, its ideal.
Mistake culture is preoccupied with images – ideas rendered visible, whole, cohesive, autonomous. Images are pristine, tyrannical; deracinated, divorced from real, embodied experience and sold separately, they offer the precious illusion of personal sovereignty. Yet by eroding the perfect image, mistakes have a way of leading back down to the Real, which – invisible, non-fungible, constantly in motion – is the domain of the thing that lies beneath.
John Everett Millais, Joan of Arc, 1865, oil on canvas, 82 x 62 cm
Living at the end of history and progress, you may find it disappointing that the highest available form of good is to be so mistake-averse as to live unnoticed. You may try, instead, to recreate yourself in the images of heroes past – to incur risk and confrontation regardless of the contemporary consequences. Jesus overturned tables at the temple. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.
To do this is to imitate a readymade. You are not finding your way through the world, but conforming to a mirage. At your best, you can only be like Jesus, or like Joan; nevertheless, it’s easier to act in the image of some kind of morality – the idol, the icon, the pseudonym, the avatar – to put on the predetermined costume of the Imaginary ideal.
Mass information privileges the perfect image over the Real, which is always imperfect. Information breeds conformity – in behavior, in self-production – because it is efficient. There is no time to discover and experience when you can perceive and replicate.
Non-things – scraps of data, rumors, trends, sound bites, references – thrive in abstract registers. Like ideas, non-things move through the world rapidly.
We perceive things primarily with regard to the information embedded in them, writes the philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who uses the term non-things to refer to the digital order (Imaginary) that has overtaken the earthly order (Real).
Unlike that of an idea, a thing’s existence does not depend on its visual representation. A thing has material qualities. It is tangible, rough; it can be internally contradictory. Things are versions of essential forms – an Eames chair is an example of the form chair just as a tortilla chip is an example of the form food, or the form triangle – but they do not define forms in and of themselves.
Non-things – scraps of data, rumors, trends, sound bites, references – thrive in abstract registers. Like ideas, non-things move through the world rapidly. They are fluid, integrated, networked; they shape our understanding of reality. Per Han, information may or may not be true, but its onslaught is designed to provoke affects – furor, excitement – rather than reasoned responses. Trust, promises, and responsibility are, Han writes, time-consuming practices.
This is the beating heart of mistake culture. Everywhere we look, there is more salacious information – a writhing, beckoning mass of non-things – and we can no longer trust what we see. Count the fingers and the teeth. Images, names, histories betray us; facts reveal themselves to have been constructed. Wait, it’s all Ohio? Always has been. Our attentions are rapid, schizzed, constantly fed and constantly starved.
We may be skeptical, but we are easily fooled. Our paranoia about ourselves and our mistakes extends to each other. Everything can be fabricated. It’s safer to judge than to investigate.
It is difficult to perceive the invisible Real; it lives behind the screen of the perfect image, which blocks us from seeing it. The Real self only appears by the light of our mistakes: down the deconstructionist path of psychoanalysis, by the slip of the unconscious mind.
Here, we come to a new system: what I call non-ethics.
Non-ethics are Imaginary ethics: the image of goodness (ideas of Jesus, ideas of Joan) that supplants the actual thing (real Jesus, real Joan). Like non-things, non-ethics are hollow, ethereal, empyreal; perfect images of goodness that demand from us, in the dogged, omnivorous tongue of information, an impossible perfection.
In our system of non-ethics, what matters most is not being good but being right: adhering perfectly to a perfect form. To live by perfect forms is to live on the outside of everything.
At sixteen, I learned how to demonstrate character: how to perform its image for an audience before I’d developed it in myself. Like prep school, information makes life easier. You are smoothed, optimized. While you are exposed, you are handed the rulebook – the object is to play by it, and to win. The object is to hide in plain sight.
In service of the contemporary attention span, non-ethics become symbols; you learn which to conform to and which to avoid. Implicitly and explicitly, you learn the right behavior, to use the right names for things – to have the right impressions, the right expressions, the right politics – to become a series of shibboleths and agreements.
I was a punk. I did ballet. I was a VSCO girl, coquette, anarcho-communist, LOSER Joan Didion.
(Perfect forms differ wildly. Having the right politics does not mean being politically correct. None of you are inoculated against it. Depending on who you’re around, you can describe yourself as a leftist or a Marxist or neocon or frogtwitter or based, and that will mean your politics are correct.)
You can also give up. What’s the point in trying to be good if good means having been completely unimpeachable forever? You’re not actually good, but who is? At least you can be right.
At sixteen, we didn’t change our profile pictures, just our names. Our avatars never hid us. They barely provided the illusion of obscurity.
In theory, you can be anyone online. You can be Jack Duluoz or Jack Kerouac or Nobody, or a thousand different people at the same time. We live in constructed spheres of ourselves – the self is no longer something to be unearthed, but an image to design and inhabit.
I was a punk I did ballet. I was a VSCO girl, coquette, anarcho-communist, loser Joan Didion. I knew how Joan of Arc felt. Stories taught me how to live. Aesthetics first; then tastes, then feelings; then, properly oriented, I approached everything else. Over and over, I designed my ideal persona toward an imaginary non-ethic of how to be, and every time I made a mistake, I’d start again. You can verify all of this because I did it in public, because that was the point.
If you reinvent yourself, maybe they can’t pin your past on you. You ain’t fuck me, you fucked the old body. Fuck up? Get canceled. Canceled? Find people who don’t care. It’s post-rationalist. Just a prank, bro. Change your AVI. You can always survive.
But as a wise man once said, the body keeps the score.
A secret garden
Information is a tensile web – it pulls you back in, even as you pull away. It is a new sickness to have to be seen.
What if I want to get off this ride? I’m tired of information, but I am tied to it.
Forget performance; I am trying to experience.
I don’t want to chase another perfect image. For this to work, you need to know me, but I don’t want to be honest about my life. I don’t want to tell you about my feelings, my experiences, which – without an ideal to hold them in place – might be found incongruous, disingenuous, or overly revealing.
Even now, I don’t want you to know anything real about me. Still, I am trying to tell you the truth.
Forget performance; I am trying to experience. I am trying to practice being good; to sketch out the arcs of my decisions before they land; to learn from my mistakes, and to atone for them when I can. I am trying to live beyond information – outside the shadow of myself, of all those older selves – or I am trying to figure myself out, for myself this time.
In an bid to remedy my condition, Y gave me a Nintendo DS. It is a beautiful object, a little simulacrum rendered in pale pink plastic; heavy for its size but more fragile than my hyper-contemporary phone (optimized in terms of indiscretion, weightlessness, prefab efficiency); a relic from an ancient informatic world.
Instead of gamifying life, DS games codify it. The best ones constitute digital chores: task-based and koanic, they retrain my tattered attention span. They are simple, circuitous, hermetic. There are no faces to wear, no avatars, no leaderboards. They are not even necessarily about winning.
Gardening Mama on the author’s Nintendo DS, 2023
My favorite game is called Gardening Mama. My stylus is an all-purpose instrument with which I handle the things of this plane: not exactly Real, but not Imaginary either. At each stage of my plants’ development, I learn the various, virtualized components of horticultural husbandry – cleaning, potting, placing, pruning – over and over again. Through crops of pixels (squash, apples, pansies), they reward the pure quotidian investment of practice over time.
I can practice forever; there is no audience, there are no consequences. I am guided to embrace duration, to see things to their natural ends. Softly, I find myself cultivated away from the cult of information, the culture of mistakes, toward the slower rhythms of a distant world.
Y’s dad tends a little garden. These days, I help out with planting; less than I want to, but more than nothing. I am less than perfect. Sometimes I cut roses instead of weeds.
One afternoon, when Y rescues a grounded bumblebee, I almost look at it as Steinbeck would, or maybe Tolstoy; to step into another perfect image, to be seen, saving small and precious creatures, clearing a season’s worth of leaves –
here, again – blink and you’ll miss it – the uninvited press of εἶδος, image, information –
and really, I have no idea. It’s Real outside; still bright, still green.
The internet is forever. So are you. This is the part where you close your eyes.