psy_marionette (psy_marionette) wrote,
psy_marionette
psy_marionette

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Witnessing

Everyone's heard the wonderful quantum physics statement of "the act of observing changes the thing observed" in some form or another--it's the kind of sentence that writers and pseudointellectuals can really get behind. And, to be fair, there are moderately interesting philosophical ramifications to this...I just don't care. In the part of the world I'm concerning myself with, the effects of photons on the various flavors of quarks don't have a very noticeable role: instead, I'm going to think more on some various other associations with the concept of witnessing.

First, imagine two lovers having "pillow talk." You know, a private conversation in bed, possibly just before or after sex. It's a charming, honest moment (at least in the charming fairy-tale world where neither falls asleep and both people actually want to discuss the same thing), with a kind of openness that people rarely allow themselves.

Now, imagine a play in which two lovers are having "pillow talk." Suddenly the nature of the game has changed: it's something that's relevant and somehow contributes to a story, even though a decent playwright should still make it charming and open. The privacy is gone, but in the world of the show, it's the same delicate moment.

Now consider the same thing, but with someone listening in--say, from a closet, or through a window...the moment is as delicate, but the scene has changed from a sweet look into a private moment to an expose (with an accent on the last e...stupid typesetting makes it look like the wrong word) on a voyeuristic character.

Or, for an extreme example, imagine the same scene *yet again* but where the characters know they're being listened in on--and are either having the discussion for the purpose of talking, or trying to make it seem like they don't know they're being watched. Suddenly every sentence of the conversation is likely to change meaning and resonance--no longer is it a private sharing between two close people.

This thought experiment was kind of what made me start thinking about the idea of observation--actually, I was thinking about staging scenes, and how different levels of observation could completely change the staging. But then my mind started to wander...er, continued its constant meanderings from this starting point...and it occurred to me that even outside of conveniently staged fictions, this concept really hits our lives. The central idea, unfortunately, is so obvious I almost feel dumb for stating it baldly: who we think is watching colors our actions incredibly.

Were this a philosophy paper, I would probably cite Foucault, probably "Discipline and Punish" and his longwinded discussion on the "Panopticon" model of prison/school. As is, I'll leave that particular line open and instead discuss examples from life.

For instance, one of my Facebook friends started a blog, and kept updating his status with "Blog entry #n published. Go read it" or the like, and I decided to do so. It was pretty well-written and the posts were much less wordy than my own are (as just about anything besides...well, Foucalt, generally is), so I started reading his posts as they came out. One interesting thing about them was that they occasionally mentioned an anonymous cute guy in the math department: I didn't read anything in particular to this because we actually have a pretty decent-looking department here...until he mentioned a very specific incident that happened right in front of me, and mentioned that it was right in front of said math boy. And you just *know* he wouldn't have said that if he knew I was going to be reading those same words later that day.

In an even more extreme case, another friend of mine once linked me to his blog so I could read a poem he'd read...but in the dusty old archives of things he'd posted more than a year before, there was his entry for the day we'd met, and his exact thoughts (good and bad) about me, referenced by first and last name. Oops.

Now, in both of these situations, there was no harm done: I was flattered both times, and the embarrassment the guys felt when I pointed out that I read their words was minimal. But anyone who's seen a teen movie knows that there are plenty of personal recollections that, if released, can really hurt the people involved. Or, you know, there's students talking about a professor of the class just after he leaves the room.

I guess a common theme to all of this is the idea of honesty: you're more likely to be honest and thorough if you don't think the person it's about will know. Which, of course, can be a good thing or a bad thing--yes, I throw out the blanket maxim of "honesty is the best policy," because I don't believe it is. "Lying for personal gain tends to bite you on the ass" is probably more accurate, if less snappy...and yet again I digress...

Anyway, the culminating idea I have about the effect of observation on how people act goes back to Facebook, to an application called the "Honesty Box." You turn on the application, you get a little box on your profile that people can type stuff in, and you get it as an anonymous message when you log on. You can reply, and even have a conversation, but it never tells you who the other person is. I think it's a brilliant idea, even though my experience with it is limited (having had only *one* person put anything in mine).

Still, think about it: you're able to say what you want someone to hear, but without them feeling the horror of knowing that it was you that said it if they end up not wanting to have known. Being able to let someone know they're being a twit without putting your neck on the line. The excitement of being a Scarlet Pimpernel. But of course, knowing how people actually act, it's more likely that it'll all wind up as being variations on "I think you're hot but you'd think I'm a stalker if I said it directly, so I'm going to say it from the shadows instead so you won't know who the stalker is." It is, after all, on a social network.

Hm...my cynicism meter just exploded, so I think it's time to sign off for now.
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