What the camera in Virat Kohli’s hotel room reveals about changed landscape of private and public

What are the borders between the private and the public these days? The eagerness with which so many of us willingly share our most intimate moments — grief, joy, anxiety — with complete strangers suggests that this is not as straightforward a question as that. And if it was ever an easy question to answer, the ways in which we now shape our beings through social media certainly makes it a complicated one. The recent outrage over the unauthorised video of cricketing superstar Virat Kohli’s hotel room in Perth — including glimpses of his private spaces and objects — is best viewed through an understanding of the changed landscape of the “private” and the “public” in our times. It is a topography shaped through our engagements with social media of different kinds.

The idea of a private life is, actually, a product of modernity. The ways in which we think of our private moments and selves has little or no resonance in pre-modern contexts, or in the current contexts where such ideas of privacy are not so prevalent. It is not unusual, for example, for there to be a bed in the lounge room of many Indian homes, particularly in semi-urban areas. The strict enforcement of the rules of the private and the public are much more fluid in India than, say, Europe. Ironically, however, what social media seems to have achieved is the refashioning of contemporary global existence in the image of pre-modern life. Human history rarely unfolds in a unilinear fashion, and Virat Kohli — whose outrage is entirely justified — finds himself an unwitting part of a great transformation in human self-fashioning.

The key complication as far as our relationship with social media is concerned is the simultaneous desire for publicity and privacy and the belief that the borders between the two are (and should be) within our control. This is a peculiarly modern phenomenon and the Kohli video — or its pre-modern equivalent — would have made little news at, say, an earlier time when the distinction between the private and the public was largely unknown. Hiring someone to perform your grief and paying another to breastfeed your child was the hallmark of a period where the private-public and the intimate-distant distinction was absent. The histories of this binary are deeply rooted in factors such as the rise of the nuclear family and new ways of seeing oneself as having an inner (private) and outer (public) life.

How we have imagined and experienced ourselves in the past is slowly being undone through social media. However, it is an undoing where we want to have a bet each way: We want a present that is a bit like the past — the self is public in all its forms — but also one where we demand the right to a private self. This is the conundrum of modern life, a context of social media profitability and the predicament of how to think about the Kohli video episode beyond the obvious fact that it was an act that was carried out without his permission.

If we move beyond the modern idea of privacy and our right to it — and also distinguish it from instances of symbolic violence concerning videos of young women that frequently surface — then there is another complicating factor. The great deal of hand wringing over the invasion of Virat Kohli’s privacy has been accompanied by seemingly endless circulation of the video clip. The line between outrage and enjoyment is as unclear as that between the alternating desire for publicity — that ethereal frisson of celebrity-ness — and revulsion over too much of it. But the “too much” nowadays is not really an excess. It is a part of the way in which we perform on social media to present our new selves.

There is, in fact, no way of defining what is excessive display of private life via public media as — very similar to the pre-modern period — this distinction itself is no longer valid. An important aspect of this blurring of boundaries, we should also remember, lies in the fact that there is money in zones of fuzziness. Media outlets both circulate the Kohli video and cry all the way to the bank over the outrage of invasion of privacy.

The new self that is produced in collaboration with social media — grieving relative, proud parent, sensitive poet, caring partner, engaged environmentalist — is a threshold self. It lives in worlds made out of materials drawn from a past where the distinction between the public and private were largely absent, as well as one where the demand for privacy is insistent. What is distinctive about our period is the desire to be both present and absent from public life and explicit and reticent about ourselves. We occupy these multiple thresholds, egged on by contemporary business models that both profit from proliferation of privacy and unfailingly outline their commitment to protecting it. We may not be victims or passive observers but these still impossible conditions to fulfill under most circumstances. And, as in the Kohli video case, it causes genuine hurt.

It is noticeable that there has, actually, been very little public (as different from media) outrage and we might even assume that many might consider the outcry somewhat puzzling if not passé. In an era when social media tells us that friendship is instant and our “friends” — whom we may have never met or ever expect to meet — ply us with the minutiae of their lives, perhaps those who invaded Virat Kohli’s room thought he was also an intimate who really wouldn’t mind the world wandering through his room and belongings. Maybe this is because a significant part of the “public” that is out there is the one made by different forms of media. And, perhaps also, it is the Instagrammable self that is considered more authentic and of greater depth and meaning than the non-Instagrammable one. It’s difficult to say. What we can say, however, is that the mixture of an older sense of the self, its commercialisation and our enthusiastic participation in both aspects is probably causing Kohli to be nostalgic about a present that can never be.

The writer teaches at SOAS University of London and is Honorary Professor at Shiv Nadar University, Delhi NCR

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