The Peripheral Self and Video Chat

One of Sartre's great insights was that the self that we can observe in reflection is not the true self. The true self eludes its own gaze, remaining visible only on the periphery of whatever experience one is absorbed in. Self-consciousness is the pre-reflective sense of peripheral awareness granted us by this peculiar structure. This does not preclude the ability to 'step back' and regard our own experiences. I may be absorbed in the activity of looking at a painting, but I also have the ability to think of that entire experience. Whether in recollection or by freely imagining, by observing my own experiences I perceive their subject-object structure, and in this way I 'reflectively' know myself. But this is not myself, for if it were myself, then who is the subject of this very act of recollection, or imagination? We quickly see that the pre-reflective self that is constantly absorbed in its own activity can never be adequately grasped. We can understand its structure by experiencing its elusive character, but we cannot clearly and distinctly perceive it in the same manner that we perceive the objects of our everyday experiences.

Do you not find that you experience this very same structure, in a surprisingly concrete fashion, when speaking with someone on Skype, or any video-chat program? Of course, this is a metaphor, but hear me out and see if you see Sartre's structure reiterated in this seemingly mundane experience. When chatting with a friend using some standard program, a window pops up with his image. I see him there on my screen, the window containing him appearing as a window into his environs. Clicking the 'full screen' option here only makes the experience I am describing more vivid. Now, after full-screening, my laptop is less a computer than a post-modern telephone- a sleek version of the ones we saw in all of the movies, audio-visual in nature. The camera trained on me is embedded directly in hardware that presently frames my friend's face. Looking directly at his face on my screen, I look (nearly) directly into the camera, thus presenting my face on his screen in a like profile. But here is the peculiarity: included in my image of my friend is a small inset- usually in the lower left corner- which shows how I appear on his screen, to me. That is, as I look at my friend in the center of my screen, always there, in the periphery of my view, is me. This mirrors Sartre's story, for this peripheral image is me only if I do not look at it. So long as I am absorbed in the conversation, looking at the center of the screen where my friend resides, allowing his surrogate electronic eye to capture my face head-on, the image in my periphery is in fact faithful to how I appear on his screen- how I appear to others. But the moment I turn my eye from his face and look over at my own, the moment I 'step back' and regard the entire experience, the self that I identify as 'me' in the image has been fundamentally altered. It no longer appears as it does to others, for it cannot look me in the eye. I look over at myself looking over. I turn to catch a glimpse of the self which I know is mine, only to find that it has already turned away.

This structural similarity to the Sartrean self makes video chat a strangely alienating experience, but this is easily remedied. Go to the options menu and disable the peripheral self. Now, might we extend the remedy?

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