This past week, James Franco was "caught" propositioning a seventeen year-old Scottish tourist via Instagram and text message. The Internet subsequently exploded with speculation that the scandal was a cynical concoction, just a clever bit of performance art-cum-free publicity for Franco's forthcoming film Palo Alto, whose plot (based on a Franco short story from the collection of the same name) details a high school soccer coach's illicit affair with one of his female players. If you have a lot of time and even more patience, you can read the intricate conspiracy theories alleging that we're all being played for fools, or (alternately) that the whole brouhaha merely proves that Franco is celebrity swine. You can also find subtle variations on these two themes, for instance in an article on Slate that begs Franco to "just" be a creep rather than that far more odious manifestation of eerie eccentricity, a performance artist.
In keeping with the theme of this column, however, I'll offer a third hypothesis: That the real question is, why should we care whether James Franco's a creep?
I don't say this as a moral observation, since the fact that Scottish teen Lucy Clode (if any such person exists) is above the age of consent certainly doesn't clear Franco of the taint of impropriety. This is a high-schooler on holiday with her mom, after all, and the celebrities we most admire refrain from cynically exploiting their positions for sexual advantage. Nor am I offering up some holier-than-thou nonsense about how we shouldn't hold celebrities to a higher standard than anyone else, or shouldn't care about their personal lives at all. It's no more unreasonable to titter about what Brad and Angelina are doing than it is to marvel at Michelle Obama's latest dress; it's natural to be interested by those we believe have more interesting lives than we do, even if, admittedly, that sort of interest saps our energies for more productive, ennobling, and (not for nothing) interesting endeavors.
In any case, if we're to be enthralled by the lives of the young and famous, James Franco isn't a bad place to start. Whatever else he may be, he's undoubtedly an interesting man. In addition to pursuing four graduate degrees simultaneously and requesting public financing for his film projects despite his enormous wealth, Franco has also made some of the most interesting meta-art of this century and done yeoman's work as a philanthropist, not just including work on behalf of young filmmakers but also the fight to cure AIDS and eradicate illiteracy.
So the reason to set aside the question of whether James Franco is a creep has nothing to do with whether the man himself is of natural interest to self-anointed celebrity-watchers; no, the main reason not to care whether Franco is or is not a creep is that it's far more interesting not to know than to know. Whatever your opinion of fellow budding auteur Shia LaBeouf—who Franco infamously defended in the New York Times after the former plagiarized several individuals and then plagiarized his apologies for those plagiarisms—he's certainly a more compelling figure now that he appears to have become an icon of American metamodernism than he was when running away from explosions in slow-motion with Megan Fox in the dismal Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Some may quibble here and say that the only thing worse than being a self-indulgent artist is being a self-indulgent wannabe artiste—as LaBeouf would indeed be, were his stunts not partly inspired by an entirely serious artistic philosophy originating in the most respected salons of Western Europe—but the argument here isn't that LaBeouf is interesting because he's (alternately) the genuine article or a phony, but that he's interesting because in the Age of Information, the only mysteries left are those no amount of information can dispel.
It's widely known among metamodernists that Shia LaBeouf did not, in fact, write the "Metamodernist Manifesto" that now bears his name, which was in fact written three years ago by British photographer Luke Turner; likewise, it's widely known to committed metamodernists that metamodernism isn't particularly interested in plagiarism like LaBeouf's, nor are the "metamodern" influences LaBeouf has publicly cited (like postmodern poet Kenneth Goldsmith) actually metamodernists themselves. But when does it stop mattering what someone intends, or knows or doesn't know, or (in the case of Franco) is or is not—when the ambiguities they leave in their wake are not only intellectually provocative and ethically instructive but also pretty damn entertaining? Which was more interesting to you: Joaquin Phoenix's bizarre appearance on David Letterman at a time when we believed the Academy Award-nominated actor had retired from acting and inexplicably taken up rap, or the movie it turned out he was putting on that act for, 2010's I'm Still Here, which managed even a middling 54% on Rotten Tomatoes only because, at the time it was released, the jury was still out on whether it was a documentary or performance art?
The ambiguities that lie behind these actors' behaviors suggest not that ignorance is sublime, but rather that the particular breed of ignorance born when either of two diametrically opposed possibilities is equally possible is, in fact, one of the only avenues of transcendence left for us. Whether it's trying to determine if Alison Gold's now-infamous song "Chinese Food" was sincere or a parody, or trying to make the same determination regarding this song, we increasingly find the most rigorous challenges to the status quo to be, rather than those that entrench long-abandoned principles or deconstruct still-conventional structures, those that remind us that the phrase "Information Age" is and always will be a misnomer. The idea of the Information Age is perpetually dangerous, not because it permits us to act lousily both anonymously and with impunity—though it does—but because it deludes us into believing we know much more than we actually do.
For all the social media hoopla surrounding James Franco and Shia LaBeouf, and all the "news articles" detailing the latest escapades of both actors, the newsflash the Information Age denies us is this one: We don't know the first damn thing about either James Franco or Shia LaBeouf. All we even think we know is the fraction of what James and Shia choose to let us see which media filters then permit us to discover online. This distillation is then further filtered through our own ability to comprehend lives and contexts entirely foreign to our own. And because what James and Shia choose to let us see is undoubtedly dictated by inscrutable personality traits and obscure eccentricities inherent to both men, the sincerity or insincerity of any data relating to Franco or LaBeouf is not only unknown to us but also (to quote Donald Rumsfeld) unknowable.
We can watch films in which either Franco or LaBeouf is featured and know whether we've enjoyed each actor's performance; we can decide for ourselves whether we find either man attractive or charismatic; we can choose to be titillated or bored by either one's shenanigans; but ultimately, "James Franco" and "Shia LaBeouf" are merely constellations of data that make us feel things we do or don't like to feel. James Franco is not a realizable human being to me, nor is Shia LaBeouf, nor could they ever be until I had met them several times and observed first-hand all those human quirks the "Information Age" makes it harder rather than easier to access: body language; intonation; treatment of strangers in real-time; split-second reactions to unexpected stimuli; the ability to listen; general temperament; private fidelities and infidelities; and so on. The biggest lie of the Information Age is that it's the age of actionable and reliable information. Our need to know whether James Franco is respectful to women and capable of distinguishing between a child and an age-appropriate peer is merely our need to cash in on the promises implicitly made to us by the Age. We think that we ought to be able to know things, so we insist that we do—even when we manifestly don't. Or else, as in the "Lucy Clode" imbroglio, we chase the rabbit down the rabbit-hole in a vain attempt to locate "truth."
When I consider how misinformation (or merely information that's impossible to confirm or deny) can empower me by denying me access to ready conclusions—that is, by keeping me in a state of suspended intellectual and emotional titillation—I realize that, unless I get to know James Franco or Shia LaBeouf personally, the value of the terms "James Franco" and "Shia LaBeouf" is really no more and no less than the quality of the ambiguities they leave in their wake. To observe the same phenomenon in another public sphere, I can, for instance, dislike U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) because he's an obvious fraud—which he undoubtedly is, even according to members of his own party—but I can also dislike him for being an uninteresting compendium of data in a world in which parcels of data constantly compete for my attention. The fact that Ted Cruz doesn't really require my attention is attributable not only to his political rhetoric being conspicuously unjust and destructive, but also to the fact that it's all too easy to slot him into my mental diagram of the American superstructure.
We are, all of us, powerless in the face of so much data. We can't distinguish its value, and pretending otherwise diminishes us. The best course of action for those of us hoping to weather or even transcend this generation of unaccountable hot air is to watch, when we have time, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on "Cosmos" (a television program that deals only in data that's been subjected to the scientific method), and then, whenever we don't have time, let the generative ambiguities of data-dumps like "James Franco" and "Shia LaBeouf" power-wash us clean of all our false ambitions.
Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.