Three thousand years ago, the Olmec of the Mexican lowlands wore mirrors made from iron ore around the neck. The mirrors were so polished they could reflect pictures and start fires. The Scythians, proud of their elaborate hairstyles and manicures, always carried mirrors. The Etruscans made mirrors the way Americans make hamburgers and game shows. Toddlers recognize themselves in mirrors. How? So do apes, it seems, and there is evidence that dolphins, whales, and elephants do, too. What does it say of the nature of a brain that it can recognize its own encasement? To look in a mirror is a profoundly human act, even when it is the orangutan doing it. One is forever haunted by the question of what one is.

What is the nature of the self that knows itself to be a self? A solipsistic, infinitely regressive concern, what one is, who one is, the wonder and fear of it leading brilliant minds into tiny corners from which they seem unable to escape. I am me because I know myself to be me, but how? The urge to claim a space for the self collides and colludes with the urge to construct a self to fit the space. We are not entirely in charge here. Even in our most intimate meetings, we are presenting a version of ourselves; to interact is to script. We are literally putting in an appearance every time we meet; there is a fragment of me that has never relaxed around another human being. How can we know, how can we be known, when all this knowing and striving to be known is done by fragile beings in the midst of arriving and departing? For the briefest of seconds we meet, and then are lost again. The immutable opacity of relationship is as rippled and broken as the pond into which our ancestors gazed. Self-consciousness is the human condition.

The philosopher Walter Benjamin was deeply struck by a key moment in the early 20th century. Theatrical performance was a living art, never the same twice, experienced in the moment and then consigned to memory. The nascent technology of film changed everything. Was performance still the same when it was captured? Is a film of a play still live theater? Benjamin saw the way the camera controls and manipulates the actor. Onstage, the actor has control; nothing is done without the actor’s consent. With film, the audience has control—invisible control, which is power. He wrote, “The representation of human beings by means of an apparatus has made possible a highly productive use of the human being’s self-alienation.” An actor can’t help but feel estrangement from the camera “of the same kind as the estrangement felt before one’s appearance in a mirror.” Film captures—everything. “Now the mirror image has become detachable from the person mirrored, and is transportable,” he wrote. “The screen actor never for a moment ceases to be aware of this.” Film calls into question every value of the stage, deforming the frame created by a stage. Film invokes new boundaries, placing the viewer (perpetually now a single person rather than the group) inside, holding the edge of the fourth wall closed but never forgotten. I suspect that Benjamin would find reality television frightening in its ability to create a consensual fantasy. He thought film functioned the way fascism does, inserting itself into a culture so quietly that one barely has time to notice that everything has changed.

There are people who feel real only when they are being watched; perhaps this has always been true. In our current age, this means only when they are being filmed. Hannah Arendt said, “Our modern identity crisis could be resolved only by never being alone and never trying to think.” From Benjamin to All Access and YouTube may be a long path, but it is a pretty straight one. We are saturated not so much by screens, though constant surveillance is now a fact of public life, as we are by the awareness of screens. I am not at ease here; I put masking tape over the camera on my laptop. How ill at ease? I read user agreements. When a friend says to me, “Your privacy hackles are really up,” my only response is, why aren’t yours?

We are conditioned not to do or say certain things in public. Cameras are everywhere. Everywhere. To have privacy means to carve a small space out of the public sphere because otherwise we conspire in our own surveillance. But what I see are people who simply engage in private behavior in public, unconcerned with making a space for it. I see people who aren’t alive except on camera and I see people who do seem to be entirely relaxed around others. Perhaps they have perfected the appearance of relaxation. (Such is the nature of acting.) In ordinary life—whatever that means anymore—the camera we think about is the one in our hands. We don’t forget the endless gaze because we have become each other’s camera. I look at you; you look at me; we record ourselves looking. I can never look at me, but I can imagine what you see when you do. And that image is always removed from what I really am. I can never know for real how I appear to you. We may not always know the words, but we know it, this flinching from the longed-for closeness of another. We know our struggle with both the mask and its slippage, with the sense of being caged in a body—caught, mute, the perpetual loneliness locked inside. How do I look? is nothing more than Where do I belong? And to whom?

Excerpted from The Lie About the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze by Sallie Tisdale (Gallery Books, October 2021)

For more on The Lie About the Truck, listen to Sallie Tisdale discuss the book on Tricycle Talks.