I have never read a book by Maya Angelou.
However I must confess when Maya Angelou died I immediately felt I needed to Google “inspirational quotes Maya Angelou.” I knew my social media timeline would be flooded with them and I didn’t want to be caught empty-handed with my cultural pants down as it were.
How could I post a picture of my dinner in Kolkata on Facebook while the world was RIPing Angelou? What would they think of me?
For the record the Google search yielded 513,000 results in 0.27 seconds. That’s a lot of Maya Angelou to choose from even for the most Angelou-ignorant.
Once when a legend died, the problem was what to say if you hated him. But to have an opinion, good or bad, about a legendary literary figure you had to read her.
Now for instant and innocuous insight you can just Google her. Once you faked sorrow. Now you fake familiarity.
Of course a few of us forget to do even that and trip in our haste to be the early mourner at this virtual wake. A good friend confessed she routinely confused Maya Angelou with Toni Morrison.
Even worse others on Twitter thanked Angelou for refusing to sit in the back of the bus so people could be free today. I am not sure if Rosa Parks would have been shocked or amused.
Apparently these feisty old black ladies all look alike.
But most of us do our due diligence—at least one Google search. My social media feed is flooded with Angelou quotes. I have no idea how many of my friends have actually read Angelou. Or like her. Or for how many of them an Angelou quote is just a social media must-have fashion statement. In the virtual world it’s almost impossible to tell the real from the pretender.
When Gabriel Garcia Marquez died last month, it was much the same. Everyone wanted a piece of the Nobel prize winner to claim as their own.
This is part of what The New York Times calls “faking cultural literacy.” “Data has become our currency,” writes Karl Taro Greenfield. “What matters to us, awash in petabytes of data, is not necessarily having actually consumed this content firsthand but simply knowing that it exists—and having a position on it, being able to engage in the chatter about it. We come perilously close to performing a pastiche of knowledgability that is really a new model of know-nothingness.”
It’s not unique to our age. But it’s never been such a pandemic. And that’s largely because it’s never been easier to fake it. At one time it might have been embarrassing but unavoidable if we had to admit we had not read anything by an Angelou or a Garcia Marquez. We could try and save face by talking about a film based on their work if we happened to make that connection. But there was no easy way to pretend. But now that “pastiche of knowledgability” is so temptingly close at hand, we can search it on our phone and be instantly able to nod our head and add our two bits to the conversation. Of course those are the only two bits we know. And we didn’t know them two minutes ago. But they will suffice for the brief period we need to stay culturally afloat as the Angelou wave washes over our social media timelines.
It’s in fact almost a waste of time to actually read Maya Angelou since most of us will only need her for that one status update.
But oh, the pressure to make that status update count. It has to be the most profound. The most poignant. The most throat-catching one. And it certainly has to be a rare gem, the one that will demonstrate to our friends and followers that our knowledge of Maya Angelou is not just Wikificial. A little knowledge is no longer a dangerous thing. It is a good thing. An essential thing.
The barrage of information that assaults us from all sides has exponentially increased this pressure to always seem on top of it. As a journalist you don’t want to be caught in an editorial meeting clueless about the story everyone else is discussing knowledgeably. So you nod along as you desperately and covertly search on your annoyingly slow PDA.
When a legendary figure dies, everyone has to have their Nelson Mandela tribute handy whether or not anyone has asked them for it.
But Mandela, at least was a political figure. His life was writ large before us. We did not have to read books about him to be impressed and moved by him. Cultural figures however require a level of homework that no one needs to do anymore. I don’t know how many of us had actually read Chinua Achebe but we all RIPed him with enormous feeling when he died as if in our own worlds things had just fallen apart as well.
It’s the relentless performance anxiety of being on social media that forces us to have an opinion on everything important.
Except of course the more we do it, the more we are trapped in some hologram version of ourselves. Each bit of cultural literacy we fake gets added to the make-believe intellectual gravitas of our persona. And it makes confessing ignorance the next time around that much more difficult. He who mourned Achebe cannot be clueless about Angelou.
And so we tweet on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into our dissimulation.
As Angelou said … Actually I don’t know what she said. I’d have to Google that first.
Sandip Roy is the Culture Editor for Firstpost.com. He is on leave as editor with New America Media. His weekly dispatches from India can be heard on KALW.org. A version of this story appeared on Firstpost.com.
First published in September 2014.