Impossibilities: The Internet Lies to Me So Wonderfully

This photo alone is a tidy bit of visual primary historical documentation: three "Modern" femmes smoking pipes on a beach in seeming defiance of societal gender norms. The photo's historical relevance carries little weight for media farming, however. Independently, it would not generate enough interest to garner wonted "re-posts" on Tumblr or to produce repeated "pins" on Pinterest. Therefore, someone re-imagined this photo as having greater significance than it denotes beyond its direct and firsthand fundamentals. It is captioned in a vague albeit authoritative way:

Rosa Luxemburg, Simone de Beauvoir, and Emma Goldman at the beach, 1930s

Around International Women's Day this image became ubiquitous on all forms of social media. It is easy to see why: the photo identified three female social revolutionaries with easily recognizable names (though not as quickly identified visually, especially since it is a "youthful" image) being coyly rebellious and accessible in their downtime: YOLO 1930s-style. Even I bought into it at the moment, re-posting the image and caption on my Tumblr (see link), but I should have known better. Anyone with a passing interest in Modernism, social reform, or Feminsm should have known better. However, most of us were all hopped up on the fantastical squee of the impossible cool (as well as that particular subset of swoon: AWESOME PEOPLE HANGING OUT TOGETHER) to look at the photo and caption rationally.

In 1919, Rosa Luxemburg was murdered by fascists when Simone de Beauvoir was only 11. de Beauvoir never had a personal relationship with Emma Goldman who was 37 years her senior and died in 1940. Although it would have been "possible" for two of the females pictured to be de Beauvoir and Goldman (although none of the females seem to fit her age), it seems very unlikely especially since one could debunk Luxemburg from being photographed with them in the "1930s". Nevertheless, this is a perfect example of "brand recognition" (e.g. names of famous folks, often dead) being used to represent wishful thinking on the Internet in order to generate "buzz" (up-votes, re-pins, re-posts or what-have-you).

Remember when GAP used that black and white image of Jack Kerouac in a campaign that stated “Kerouac Wore Khakis” as a way to persuade consumers to buy their product and, by proxy, become more "free" like the wayward author pictured? That image became a cultural imprint and introduced a specifically-crafted image of Keroauc to the masses. GAP's presentation was a grift that overly simplified their dead spokesman, but at least the image they used in this swindle was actually of the person identified. Kerouac will always be wearing khakis in the subconscious of a particular age group. In the female image being discussed here, however, with it's widespread imprint on internet consciousness, the "subjects" are dealt a hand that is far less appealing than being subjected to an eternity as a symbol for casual Fridays. These three women, who are not even the subjects of the photograph, have had their individual identities re-purposed in digestible homogenization for flash cultural consumerism. In this case, Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman and Simone De Beauvoir are reduced to cute girls whose acts of rebellion were "precious" and prettily done. Such an act is as dismissive as it is dishonest to their impact and achievements.

Final Thoughts: In MEIN KAMPF, Hitler wrote: "[T]he big lie ... is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily ". This photo is going to have a legacy as "a photo of three female social revolutionaries " because it has been rendered as "true" through the act of "Repeated Assertion". It doesn't matter that people are pointing out that the photo is misidentified because the "proof" is based on the initial spread of information and is based on that primary information being shared again and again. On one hand, I am glad to see the names of these three women all over the Internet and I hope it will make more people aware of who they were. Unfortunately, I don't think many will ever look beyond the image. Most people will be satisfied "knowing" Rosa Luxemburg, Simone de Beauvoir, and Emma Goldman were gal pals who smoked on a beach together once. Such easy acceptance is what depresses me, but I can't say it surprises me.