August 22, 2019

WORDS | 'Trick Mirror' – Jia Tolentino Maps Out 'Self-Delusion'

"I'm capitulating to everything I hate." ¹
Jia Tolentino | Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion
Photo | Andrew Jacobs
The New Yorker staff writer and culture critic Jia Tolentino, sometimes hailed as the voice of our current social media generation, has so eloquently captured the inherent lie and con behind both the internet and greater culture's duelling perceptions or realities of millennial life. Her first book, a collection of nine varying but intrinsically linked essays called Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, is a thoughtful and measured retelling of her experiences covering a culture of self-deception, contemporary feminism, conflicted political identities, and modern life as a digital native.

The thirty-year-old Tolentino's background is just as interesting as her work. Born in Toronto of Filipino parents but raised in the evangelical Southern Baptist megachurch culture of Houston, Texas, she went to bible study daily for most of her childhood before attending university (at age sixteen) and volunteering in the Peace Corps for a year before grad school and becoming a culture writer in New York City.

Her conservative upbringing was most famously responsible for her confessed love of doing ecstasy and getting lost in rap music chronicled in the popular article, "Losing Religion and Finding Ecstacy in Houston" (excerpted from the book). She retells how she tried to create the bliss and absolution of faith and structured religion through the euphoria of drugs and embracing counterculture.

Beyond her experiences navigating American culture on and offline, Trick Mirror tries to focus on large, all-encompassing topics by delving into very specific case studies and news stories. Common themes of monetizing the self and exploiting our attention spans inform how we live today. For good (mostly convenience and easy entertainment) and mostly bad, we must live in the exhausting world the internet has created.

She goes on to chronicle how being online has turned our lives into a performance of being idealized versions of ourselves all the time and how the internet is an ultimately cheap substitute for real-life. We have voluntarily redistributed our free time into unsatisfying micro-installments spread throughout the day. How Tolentino explicitly discusses the ramifications of this due to the whims of the overpowerful capitalist structures that created these digital platforms that are now impossible to control or regulate.

While not all of the nine essays are equally as compelling, all are meticulously researched and expressed. I was partial to the first chapter where Tolentino recounts the birth of online culture before venturing into her experience as a sixteen-year-old reality television contestant on Girls v. Boys: Puerto Rico.

How the first essay, "The I in Internet", critically examines the inextricable quality of the internet that makes and takes away from our collective sense of self. She delves headfirst into the madness of the architecture of self-identity online comparing it to a neverending job interview where we pretend to be who we want to be forever and a sort of online performance for our audiences that never leaves.

Trick Mirror is all about contextualizing the future from our past and providing context to just how badly we've f*cked up the present. Her recounting of Web 1.0 and explanations of blogging etiquette is a refreshing primer on how we got here. It's impossible to understand the toxic nature of today's internet and social media landscape without the relatively naïve beginnings of sharing ourselves online.

Tolentino pinpoints the breakdown of internet culture around 2012 through a confluence of events and digital practices. The original digital dream has died. We're now attached to our smartphones and the online world has become an ugly reflection of our own alienation. Furthermore, this is how scammer culture, the trademark practice of millennial life, became so ubiquitous and flourished beyond catfishing or our social media lies.

Her examination of scammer culture as the true American dream is so detailed and thoughtful, it makes you question your own role in perpetuating a charmed life that's unattainable without duplicity. She remarks that "scammers are always safest at the top" and how it's the easiest path to seemingly having it all without really doing anything.

Another remarkable effort is Tolentino's exploration of her culpability and complicity in avoiding delusion. Her success and career would not exist without the current status of modern life she decries. Her background made her uniquely qualified to comment and critique our current problematic existence. She dissects her own position in monetizing her brand of feminism.

What's at the core of Trick Mirror is a direct questioning of "now what?" after realizing what a terrible, toxic culture and world we currently live in. What does survival look like? Tolentino, of course, offers no answers and only explanations, histories, and list of scams or cons inherent in our moment in time.

Trick Mirror is a map. For Tolentino, writing is her way of shedding self-delusion. What about the rest of us? The "trick mirror" she speaks of highlights "the illusion of flawlessness" while reflecting back onto ourselves a constant state of self-flagellation. She so eloquently reveals the terrible nature of offline life by reflecting the inherent self-deception of living online. This is precisely why our ideas and ideals of our own identities are inextricably connected to self-delusion. It's a perfect book for our time.


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