A Brave New (Non-Private) World Critic-at-large John Powers discusses two new works — one a documentary, another a novel, that blur the lines between public and private lives.

A Brave New (Non-Private) World

A Brave New (Non-Private) World

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The documentary We Live in Public tells the story of artist Josh Harris and his girlfriend Tanya Corrin, who lived in an apartment where everything they did was broadcast over the internet to viewers. weliveinpublicthemovie.com hide caption

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The documentary We Live in Public tells the story of artist Josh Harris and his girlfriend Tanya Corrin, who lived in an apartment where everything they did was broadcast over the internet to viewers.


Near the end of 1910, London had its first big exhibition of post-impressionist art. Viewers were startled, even shaken by the paintings by Cezanne and Van Gogh, which threatened and sometimes shattered their sense of the world's solidity. The show prompted Virginia Woolf to make her famous claim that "human character changed on or about December, 1910." After Cezanne, not to mention Freud and Einstein, people in the West never saw themselves in the same way.

Woolf's words came back to me again recently when I put aside a very entertaining Brazilian novel in order to catch a prizewinning American documentary — only to discover they were both struggling with the same vast, if elusive subject. They're both concerned with another major change in human character, one happening almost exactly a century after Woolf's great turning point.

Ondi Timoner's We Live in Public is a breathless film about Josh Harris, an early dot-com millionaire with aspirations to being an artist in the Warhol vein. Harris is known for two projects. The first was a hugely ambitious 1999 "be-in" called "Quiet", in which dozens of people spent a month living in a communal bunker where every piece of behavior — even going to the toilet — wasn't merely caught on surveillance cameras but could be watched on TV by everybody living there. The result of this totalitarian exercise was a collective freakout.

Harris himself was the one freaking out in his second project, We Live in Public. He and his girlfriend, Tanya Corrin, lived in an apartment where everything they did was broadcast over the internet to viewers who then commented on what they saw — including the couple's inevitable breakup.

Harris' projects raise all sorts of fascinating issues about how digital technology is redrawing the boundaries of the self. As its possibilities enter people's heads, they redefine what belongs to me — what is me — and what belongs to the world.

Harris would get no disagreement from the unnamed hero of Anonymous Celebrity, a sardonic new novel by Ignacio de Loyola Brandao, a writer I've admired ever since I lugged his novel Zero around Brazil 20 years ago. While that earlier book was about military dictatorship, this new one dissects a subtler new form of present-day authoritarianism: our media culture that divides the world into celebrities, whose every movement is thought worth reporting, and the anonymous herd, who mean less than nothing. (Read an excerpt.)

Zippily translated by Nelson H. Viera, the novel tells the story of a little-known actor who dreams of killing a super-star so that he can take over the man's roles and, more important, take over his fame. He prepares himself to be famous by studying how 24/7 media colonizes our psyches — from the products we buy to the buzzwords everyone suddenly starts using. This wannabe killer is training himself to be as perfect a celebrity as Angelina Jolie, who he considers a genius at crafting her persona. You see, for him, the self is not something private and interior. It's a construction whose worth only comes from public consumption.

Now, like so many people dealing with the emergence of huge cultural changes, both Timoner and Brandao get hyperbolic and overheated. We Live in Public prizes voyeuristic pizzazz over analysis, while Anonymous Celebrity is, at bottom, a series of manically entertaining riffs. Neither offers the historical or cultural perspective that might illuminate shifting ideas of the self.

That said, both Brandao and Timoner are onto something real. Although it's hard to nail down, information technology is transforming our whole image of the self. It's also whittling away old notions of privacy, from those surveillance cameras that now follow us everywhere, to the unnerving algorhythims that let Amazon predict our tastes, to the friends I've had to yell at to keep them from quoting my indiscreet jokes on their blogs. Like it or not, we all do live in public more than we dreamed we would even 10 years ago. And the question is, Do we embrace this new world or do we run away screaming — even knowing that someone may post our screams on YouTube.

Excerpt: 'Anonymous Celebrity'

Anonymous Celebrity
By Ignacio de Loyola Brandao
Paperback, 420 pages
Dalkey Archive Press
List price: $15.95

It's delicious not to be ordinary. Not to be a common man.

Not to have good sense.

Not to be levelheaded, decent,


And, therefore, stupid. Ignorant.

Not to be sensible (what a horrible word), and therefore foolish. Silly.

Not to be the same as everyone else. To separate oneself from the masses (it rhymes with asses) who live a humdrum, morbid, sickening daily life. You've all probably read how the extraordinary, the famous, the celebrated, the legendary all suffer. They're anxious. The price of fame is too high! It's not worth it! But that all just comes from jealousy. Resentment.

Makes you want to laugh. Burst out laughing.

Sure, we suffer. But we suffer differently. We suffer with pleasure. People follow all our problems in the news--our depressions, headaches, our cheating and being cheated on, our sadness, unhappiness, sickness, pain. People read the papers and are on our side. It's lovely.

Though at the same time, there's also the satisfaction that comes from seeing the famous, the celebrated, the idolized suffer--seeing them depressed, ruined, bankrupt, fucked up, decadent.

Yes, some ordinary people want us to die out, want us to get out of the way. Even I feel that way sometimes when I read about rivals of mine who have become more successful.

But what's the problem if the masses only want me because of my fame, my celebrity?

I don't have any complexes. I'm not neurotic. I don't even go to a shrink. What matters is that they all want and idolize me.

I don't insist that they love me, nor even that they like me. It's not necessary. Just so long as they recognize and admire me.

I insist that you be envious, respectful, and jealous. I am what I am and you are nobody. Nothing. Worthless. Dust. Particles. Corpuscles. Specks.

How many millions of people like you have no one, absolutely no one to want them? Don't you think our old-fashioned ideas about loneliness and happiness ought to be revised a little?

Because no matter what you say, it's always the anonymous who suffer most.

It's practically impossible for a celebrity to go out into the street, to a bar, to have a peaceful meal in a restaurant, to go shopping, to take a walk in a mall (there's a mall that pays me just to walk around and be seen in it--what's it called, again?), to go to the movies, to see a show, to go to the theater, without being recognized.

But surely it's worse to go out onto the street and have nobody recognize you--for no one to know who you are.

To have nobody staring at you with curiosity, nobody asking for your autograph or telephone number, nobody flirting with you, kissing you, nobody pointing at you, nobody envying and admiring you. Nobody following you, nobody photographing you with one of those disposable cameras they make for tourists.

It would be better never to have been born in the first place than to have to walk the streets unrecognized. Is there even a difference?

It's only the fact of being seen and known that makes me real, that makes me certain that I am, that I exist, that I am here.

It's wonderful to be seen, to be recognized. It's the mainspring of my life.

It's wonderful to be loved and hated--because, yes, there are people who detest me, despise me, people who'd even like to spit on me.

I wonder: has any celebrity ever really been spat on, really spat on--had a mouthful of phlegm emptied out on him?

What would that be like, do you think?

To feel all that rage splatter over my skin, seething because of my success, my fame.

Still. Anyone who'd spit on me like that would be a worm, a larva, a microorganism.

An insect to be squashed.


There's a crucial moment when a celebrity finds himself separated from the world of the anonymous.

The moment when you find your name inscribed on the same tablet as the other great legends of our time. Lots of people have good, memorable names, of course, but they're still in an uncomfortable position--still vulnerable.

The crucial moment is when a newspaper reader or television viewer asks: Who's that? What does he do?

If no one knows the answer, you've been entered into the catalogue of the damned, along with the rest of the herd, those people who swarm over everything but mean less than nothing. You've become nothing more than one of those charming, smiling, amusing, talkative, well-dressed hangers-on who snap up invitations to every event, who become friends with everybody, but have no trade, profession, career, occupation, or specific function. They make appearances, that's all--fodder for the gossip columns.

The other day I overheard a chilling definition of this type of minor character: "Every court has its fool--kings had them, once upon a time, and today the powerful still keep them around."

Modern clowns: they cheer us up, entertain us; they know how to drink, how to treat a lady, light a cigarette, laugh at a joke, dance all the steps from the bolero to techno, snort cocaine; they're well informed, at ease with computers, subscribe to all the financial magazines, buy Wallpaper, Arena, and Spruce, read all the society and political columns (even though they have no views of their own); go on and on about the latest trends, know all the up-to-date slang.

Well-dressed, well-groomed, maybe gay, probably parasites; the women always chic, with tiny bodies, maybe fashion models, probably whores, maybe lesbians, probably asexual, still probably orgasmic when they get to appear in photographs, when they see themselves in magazines; usually tacky, behind the times, but always considering themselves indispensable at parties; interesting, good sports, accepted by everyone, circulating in every social circle. People who drop the names of important people, who socialize with financiers and CEOs, theater directors and producers, promoters, executives, politicians, scoundrels, swindlers, bank presidents, secretaries of state, ministers, cabinet chiefs (few people really know just how powerful a cabinet chief is).

A really famous person has to be careful not to mix, not to blend in. He should tolerate these court jesters, yes, but if he can, it's better to avoid fraternizing with them. They'll say you're their friends.

Still, we who play the game have reached an understanding, a gentleman's agreement, in which their deceit is accepted and embraced, and as such the truly famous will always applaud the audacity of these nonentities, admire their facade.

People in the know are able to distinguish, to separate real fame from the mere appearance of fame.

I want to be in the know. I intend to research, to delve into this lifestyle. These entanglements, this labyrinth separating hangers-on from a true celebrity.

I intend to do this, to acquire these skills, in order to better combat the machinations of my enemies, as well as to plot my own. To better trap my many enemies, that is, because in my new life they are legion, and they all work together: lying, cheating, fucking each other, and making my life difficult.

It's war. And war doesn't allow for any compromises, any passivity, conformity, or comforts--unless of course you're the self-destructive type and want to make sure you fail.

You have to plan your every move in your sleep and wake up in the morning still planning, because it never stops: there's always another day, needing another stratagem, day after day after day.

What's really deadly, a gradual suicide, a slow-acting poison, is the life I'm leading now. Just existing. Not yet a legend. I spend the day imagining, planning, mapping out what I intend to become.

Because I suffer like few human beings have ever suffered, secluded here in my room, my dressing room, Room 101a shameful place, though spacious enough (a bit old, it's true: the walls are peeling), almost a suite, surrounded by the books and notebooks containing the details of my grand design, my plan to achieve what is, after all, my true destiny.

I would love it if the press would tell the world what a bastard I am. The gossip, the arguments, my name spoken at every table.

They could say that I'm a hick, a crude fucker, completely feral,

perverted, a pedophile, a crook,

a sadist, rustic, rude, a shit,

a rat, morbid, the anti-Christ, the devil himself,

a faggot, a son-of-a-bitch, a pederast, a barbarian,

out of control.

Wouldn't bother me at all.

What breaks my heart, what leaves me sleepless, is that my fame is still being kept from me.

I know what you would say, Leticia; with that sarcastic grin--you always smiled when you wanted to hurt me a little: Sensible? So who's talking about good sense?

From Anonymous Man by Ignacio de Loyola Brandao. Copyright (C) 2009 by Ignacio de Loyola Brandao. Published by Dalkey Archive Press. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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