‘Quality of Life’ is a problematic performance

Self-presentation fails in Student Life video online

| Managing Editor

Student Life published an article last Wednesday and entitled “Quality of life echoes Princeton Review ranks, University admins say.” Accompanying it online was a video of student reactions to our school’s new ranking as the No. 4 university in the country in “Quality of Life.” I think the “reactions” in this video bring up two important points about Wash. U. and perhaps the universe: the pervasiveness and odiousness of vapid performativity and a frightening lack of interesting things to say.

One gleans from watching the video a really odd sense of students projecting a certain version of themselves toward the camera’s lens and, by extension, the video’s audience: The interviewees seem to take a big breath, look up at the sky to summon their words and then launch into an automaton-like imitation of a real person saying what he thinks about this new ranking. There are a number of moments when the interviewees are saying something grammatically quite simple, but at which they pause and need to collect their thoughts, even if very briefly, before moving on to the next part of the clause. Their eyes stare at the camera hypnotized but also, quite clearly, calculating.

It’s not that Student Life chose to interview a bunch of deadbeats. It’s that there’s been this internalization of the video camera’s gaze developed in light of the knowledge that all of us now have, of what things look like on television and in the movies. (I’m cribbing most of this from David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram,” so you know.) We’ve become hyperconscious of the power of audio-visual media, and we more or less understand that it textualizes life, taking the stupid, insignificant stuff we say and making it the only thing people know about us. As Wallace puts it, “we receive unconscious reinforcement of the deep thesis that the most significant quality of truly alive persons is watchableness.” And because we are so thoroughly shot through with this idea, we can’t function when we are actually on camera. We look like robots.

Is there a solution to this? Maybe watch no/less television. Maybe cultivate in yourself contempt for the video camera rather than a nervous reverence. But one thing I know will be a step in the right direction is to, emphatically, get an opinion. Or a style. Or an ability to analyze interestingly. The students in this video (to whom I should by now be apologizing profusely) also display a real inability to articulate anything of real interest. It is largely the gaze of the camera that precludes good thoughts, I know; camera anxiety extends not just to manner but to content as well. But this video watches like a Wash. U. propaganda piece. Interviewees said, “The food is good, the dorms are nice, people are nice,” etc., which is positive because it means people like it here and that, theoretically, they really value the good things they have.

The real problem with these declarations, I think, was the lack of enthusiasm with which they were delivered. Students listed aspects of the school that were “good” as if by rote, and if there was enthusiasm, it was performed. This “good” evaluation sans enthusiasm is very unsettling to me. It indicates that students in fact expect the good—that “good” is their baseline—and that though they verbally acknowledge that we are very lucky to be here, their emotional state does not correspond. When they say they are “happy,” they mean they are going through their lives and everything is going fine.

In my mind, when we are a part of something as “good” as these students claim it to be, we should be emotionally (not just verbally) ecstatic every morning we wake up. We, as students, should re-evaluate either the way we describe this place or the way we really, actually feel every day. “Good” is not baseline.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.

Subscribe