‘We Live in an Atmosphere of General Inexorability’: An Interview with Jia Tolentino

Jia Tolentino talks about what kinds of personalities thrive online, why she is suspicious of her own self-narrative, and the pervading sense that everything’s spiraling out of control.

 

 

Hope Reese | Longreads | August 2019 | 10 minutes (2,578 words)

 

Should we trust what we think we know? That question lies at the heart of Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, critic Jia Tolentino’s debut essay collection, in which she draws on her life experiences — from being raised in a Texas megachurch to starring on the teen reality-TV show Girls v. Boys: Puerto Rico — and uses them as a lens to explore the blurry line between what is real and what we present to our audience, regardless of whether we are journalists, actors, or Instagrammers. Tolentino, formerly a Jezebel editor and currently a staff writer at The New Yorker, is skeptical of the structural forces that compel us to craft a perfect image of ourselves, and Trick Mirror examines the implications of our many modern façades.

I spoke with Tolentino about her nine-essay collection on the phone while she was in New York City, ahead of her book launch. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Hope Reese: You write in the introduction that you suspect you’re fooling yourself. When did you start feeling that?

Jia Tolentino: For some of my essays, I ended up going back to my old journal a lot to factcheck myself and see if I was remembering things correctly — which, you know, sometimes I wasn’t. And I started thinking about this idea of being able to tell myself certain stories about the world I lived in, or my friends, or myself. I suspected that the ability to convince myself of any given story always seems really essential — and, also, suspicious. It was the act of writing itself that made me aware of it.

You feel yourself marshaling and solidifying an argument or an idea. And the thing that makes me the most suspicious is, basically, the natural tendency to solidify a narrative that makes you look good. That sort of runs through the internet essay and thereafter. It seems like the natural thing is to tell yourself a story that absolves you of your mistakes. I’m most suspicious of that feeling when it intersects with self-flattery.

Are there any overarching things that you feel you’ve learned about yourself in the process of writing this?

It’s a really interesting question — why have I not asked myself this? I didn’t figure out anything brand new about myself, but one thing that did emerge, that was reiterated by writing it, is that I’ve always been thinking about the things that I’m still thinking about in some way. And writing about them. I’m always afraid of false certainty about things and I was [at first] more afraid that by writing these overly long essays about things that I cared about that I would sort of shut the book on them — kind of reach a premature fixity on them. I realized that I’m not actually smart enough to do that. I learned that I’ll probably still always be thinking about all of this. And I’ll never be sure of conclusions beyond whatever I’ve already drawn.

I was really afraid with that ecstasy essay that by writing it down I’d be polluting this thing that’s really personal to me — that’s an ongoing drive and mystery. It’s really comforting to realize that my writing about something is not a powerful enough force to change the essential questions that are still there.

It seems like the natural thing is to tell yourself a story that absolves you of your mistakes.

You tie “selfhood,” and how we present our identity, to broader economic forces. You write that “selfhood has become capitalism’s last natural resource.” When did selfhood start becoming monetized? Does it parallel the rise of social media, or is it earlier? And are we moving in one direction? Is it too late to stop the way that we are monetizing selfhood?

That question, “Is there only one direction?” — I think it’s the operative one for so many things right now. Like, is there only one direction for climate change? We live in an atmosphere of general inexorability. It feels like the mechanisms that are governing the world are operating at such a velocity, with so much force and so much speed, for so much time….like, it’s a time thing. It’s already so far rolling down a hill, there’s no stopping it till it crashes. That’s what a lot of things feel like to me. With climate, obviously, it would be possible for us to radically change our policies and do something real, but it doesn’t often feel, on a day-to-day basis, like that’s going to happen. And that feeling creates the problems, et cetera.

Celebrities have always had commodified selfhood. And, obviously, these things about identity and performance are native to the way we interact with the world — we’re generally trying to make a certain impression on people. The idea of performing an idea of ourselves isn’t new at all. The thing that the internet changes, starting with blogging and then getting formalized as social media — with the companies that commodify selfhood being the biggest upstart companies in the country — the difference is that most people’s lives now are refracted through mechanisms of celebrity.

Nothing that I talk about is new in the slightest, but the mechanisms through which the phenomena is happening are new — this idea that we can all commodify selfhood is not only readily available to everyone, but in a lot of ways mandated. Even if you’re not trying to make money off of your personality profile and your decisions, Facebook is making money off of reselling that profile to other people anyway. So there’s a sense of the inescapability of commodified selfhood that I think is new.

You started blogging very early, and your relationship with the Internet facilitates some of your work. How do you look at the way that you package yourself online? Has writing about these issues made you change your own branding, based on the problems you describe?

My main strategy for how I am online is just never to think about. I try to interact with the Internet the way I want to interact with the real world, which is as honestly as I can and as unselfconsciously as I can and as openly as I can. It’s always seemed sort of natural to me that the way that you package yourself for the Internet is the way that you would package yourself in an everyday interaction, right? There are a lot of natural subconscious processes that are trying to make you decent and fun to interact with. I’ve always thought that the point at which I’m consciously thinking about my internet presence is the point at which it’s all over. That’s when the nightmare really takes hold.

My best strategy to deal with constantly interacting and drawing so much of my professional foothold from these platforms that I think are destroying my brain is like, don’t do anything online out of a sense of obligation — just like be as chill as you possibly can be.

You write that in real life, there’s a performance and then a backstage — but the Internet doesn’t have a backstage area. So what is that doing to us? And how do you personally deal with that issue?

There’s a certain personality that can interact with the Internet without too much friction — like someone that is already extremely open, extremely extroverted, and the same. I’ve been the same forever. The reality TV essay was a reminder of that. I’ve been the exact same since I was four. I’ve had the same personality and the same way of interacting with the world as long as I can remember. I’m a really open book and I am pretty consistent.

The Internet wants you to be the same to all people at all times. And I don’t think that’s good for people. And I don’t think it’s good for me either — but that’s how I’ve always been. My faults and problems in my life and personality happened to make me able to interact with the Internet with a minimum of thought. It doesn’t matter to me that I don’t consciously feel whatever is, you know, degraded, from the lack of a backstage — because in life I don’t need one.

That being said, you don’t have a backstage on the Internet if you cede your whole life to it. And most of us still don’t. I seem extremely online because I write about the Internet all the time. And when I interact with it in a personal way, I’m very open. But in reality, I tweet maybe once every day, maybe once every two days. I have all of these blockers that keep me from being on social media too much.

I reveal a lot about myself when I write about myself, but there is a lot about me that I don’t write about and will never. The Internet wants us to be attached to it all the time, but plenty of us are like, “well, I refuse to do that.” Plenty of us still do have a backstage that we have insisted on in our personal lives, which is kind of heartening.

You and your parents, who are from the Philippines, moved to Texas from Canada. In Texas, you were raised in a religious — and, in many ways homogenous and conservative — environment. How did this upbringing shape you as a writer?

I think they shaped me in a really strong and indelible way. All the stuff that people have been talking about [recently], the “Go back to your own country” thing. Well, no one ever made me feel particularly welcome. By the time I left that school, I never needed to feel comfortable because I always felt comfortable no matter where I was. I didn’t need someone to tell me I belonged anywhere because no one ever did. And I just insisted that I did.

There was a period in online feminism, maybe five, six years ago, where disagreements would be seen as sort of cataclysmic. And I never felt that, or understood it. I edited a ton of personal essays, and in the comments, people would be like, “I wouldn’t have done it that way.” I was always like, “of course you wouldn’t have done it that way.” A state of disagreement was extremely natural to me. I am completely nonplussed by someone completely disagreeing with me or thinking that I’m a piece of shit. My upbringing gave me this incredibly high bar for discomfort.

I’ve always thought that the point at which I’m consciously thinking about my internet presence is the point at which it’s all over. That’s when the nightmare really takes hold.

You argue that when someone calls another person “terrible” — I’m assuming you mean calling out online — that they end up promoting their work. But you also have a section in your book where you essentially call Trump terrible. Is the media still perpetuating the problem of giving Trump too much attention?

Yeah, absolutely. Trump could do whatever awful thing and we’d still be out there saying, “Trump’s decision to murder somebody further reinforces his message of division. What we need right now is to come together.” It’s still this rhetoric of like, “Guys, guess what? Trump’s a fucking racist.” As if we didn’t know this in the 80s. It’s like, yeah, no fucking shit he’s racist. I don’t know the last time I read anything new about Trump, barring the actual reporting on his taxes and his businesses, which is a different story. I’m grateful for that.

I do think we’re in that same trap. It’s like, what can you say? Even writing about sexual assault, which I have done and I’m like, every time I do it, I’m trying to find some way to say even just the tiniest new thing, because like, what the fuck can you say? This is the way the world is structured and you know, these people are in power right now and you know, there’s nothing new you can say. And so I’m acutely aware of this problem and like, yeah, I mean I’m under absolutely no illusions that I’m saying anything new with anything I wrote about Trump. It was an essay about scams, and I couldn’t write it without talking about Trump. But you won’t catch me on Twitter saying Trump’s a racist. It’s been sitting in the back of your throat, for anyone with a heart and a brain, for three years. And he’s still doing what he’s doing.

On the subject of feminism, you say that “feminism has not eradicated the tyranny of the ideal woman, but rather has entrenched it and made it trickier.” Can you talk about that idea?

Capitalism and patriarchy are so similar in so many ways and one of the ways that the structures of capitalism manifest in patriarchy is this idea of a hierarchy. Like, true feminism is egalitarian and corporate feminism is still very much structured around success and superiority. Even if it’s couched in different language, like, “look at this role model who’s killing it!” there’s still this hyper-focus on success and achievement and wealth.

Take the beauty industry and the advertising industry in the mid-century, all run by men, convincing women to look good and dress well to attract a man. Beauty demands keep escalating. It’s now seen as a feminist endeavor to take care of yourself! Look hot! Be killing it! The real work of feminism would be the opposite of this. But these old patriarchal demands have just rebranded themselves as feminist self-care and identity performance.

The other thing is that patriarchy idealized a woman who is flawless. Feminism still has a hunger to idealize women and put them on pedestals. I think there’s a danger in putting women on pedestals, because it’s really just a site of anxiety about when and how women can be pushed off of them. With the idea of the ideal woman, feminism has just changed it, not eradicated it. What I think feminism should do is actively work against the idea of an ideal, because it’s an inherently competitive and punitive one.

I say this as someone who spends a lot of money on dying my hair and stuff. I’m completely part of the system that gives me these anxieties.

I find it interesting that you also criticize the body positivity movement for the emphasis on beauty as paramount.

It’s completely double-edged. It’s 100 percent a good thing that we consider the beauty ideal as wider than it was. But still the idea is that it’s important for everyone to be beautiful. The mandate that you should love yourself. Bodies matter more and more and more, always. What a lot of women hunger for is for our bodies to matter less.

You’re also critical of “empowerment,” and “self-care,” which you also say have a double-edge.

That word drives me nuts. It’s rooted in liberation theology. And now it’s become this empty word. It’s like “badass.” It’s a huge red flag for me when someone says the word “empowering.” It’s not a word applied to people who need it. It’s been completely co-opted by a corporate structure. You don’t talk about fucking empowering men.

And self-care — it’s the misuse of these incredibly important ideas. The way I could use it as in, “I had a rough week, I need to order in and get a face mask so I can continue to work really hard and look pretty.” It’s used by people who already have a lot of comfort that want life to be as comfortable as possible for them, as if that’s why we’re alive on earth.

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Hope Reese is a journalist based in Louisville, KY. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Village VoiceVox, and other publications.

Editor: Dana Snitzky