How do you win the game of personal branding?

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A Review of Michael J Seidlinger's The Laughter of Strangers

True story: A young PhD student decides on a whim to write the New York Times in response to an article.  To her surprise, the message is published as a letter to the editor and quickly becomes the number one search result for her name online.  Embarrassed by the language and tone of the letter which she never expected to be published, she decides to game the search algorithm and repeatedly click on lower-ranked search results for her name. The stratagem works, and eventually the Times letter gets bumped down. The PhD student, essentially, played the game of personal branding, silencing alternative voices that could have been seen as her brand.

Is this how you win at the game of personal branding?  The tactics for displaying a personal brand online are numerous, but only some are successful. The rest, you might say, make it into Michael J Seidlinger’s The Laughter of Strangers

Seidlinger’s main character is celebrity boxer Willem “Sugar” Floures, a man with numerous professional opponents who all boast colorful and varied aliases: Black Mamba, Executioner, Storm, Jersey Devil, Kid Perfect. Yet as we proceed through the novel, we realize that these alleged opponents all share the same real name: Willem Floures—the same as the narrator. The play on identity leaves readers to arrive at their own interpretation: do the opponents really exist? Is Sugar hallucinating? At the same time, whether they exist or not, the reader becomes aware that they represent multiple facets of Floures’s identity.

In this treatment of repeating identities, the novel serves to advance the debate on philosophical concepts of lightness and heaviness taken up by Friederich Nietschze and Milan Kundera over the past 130 years. Nietzche, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra published between 1883 and 1885, wrote that the concept of “heaviness” or “eternal recurrence” leads to the most elevated state of being. Heaviness posits that our actions are repeated infinitely across existence, and therefore each action has infinite repercussions. There is the possibility, according to Nietzche, that accepting this reality leads us to take our actions more seriously and brings us to a higher plane of existence. Kundera’s lightness, on the other hand, posits the opposite: we live only once, and our actions are therefore light and unburdened. Kundera is ambiguous about the benefits of lightness his 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, pairing “lightness” with “unbearable.” 

If it is possible to take the concepts of lightness and heaviness further, Michael J Seidlinger (who styles his name with no punctuation after the “J”) has done so. The opponents of boxer Willem Floures are, in essence, himself, endlessly repeating. This is heavy. Yet at the same time, they are so light that they evanesce and disappear. Through the labyrinthine and, at times, agonizing turns of the novel, we are not sure if they existed in the first place. If they did, they challenge Floures with their multitudes and the consequences of his actions toward them: “There are three more of me, tied up, taped up, and watching, judging, worrying about what will become of me,” he muses.  Floures must constantly evaluate himself, and when he harms an opponent, he only harms himself ad infinitum.  Heavy. But at the same time, the famed boxer is left to trip through media interviews and fade into obscurity no matter his attempts. Light. The lightness resides inside of the heaviness, and vice versa. We may believe that we undertake our actions only once in this life, but notwithstanding that assumption, these actions have endless repercussions for our own image, our own reflection in the mirror, our own brand. Our reflection is refracted many times over in the wilds of the internet. 

When Floures evaluates his opponent’s capabilities, it is actually him peering into his own identity. Just as when we display our personal brands via social media, we are most likely playing games with multiple versions of our own identity: untagging a particular photo, associating ourselves with a given event, optimizing search results for our name.  In this way, personal branding via social media is just a momentary snapshot of the larger struggle to define ourselves philosophically.  This helps us understand the silent but ongoing battle inside of social media and how it plays out in the ancient and physical sport of boxing. 

The Laughter of Strangers offers a bold and Kundera-esque foray into the unbearable lightness of floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee—the bee that could die once it stings. The boxer attempts different strategies in the fight to win the game of personal branding, the first one being the generation of shock bait.  Floures, or at least his draconian manager, Spencer Mullen, recognizes the importance of shock value in preserving a public persona, so the two concoct a story in which Floures has committed homicide and release it to the media.  “It takes a single sentence to turn the attention around onto me, limelight and thrill: I KILLED A MAN,” Sugar muses.  Predictably, a swarm of press coverage follows the fake disclosure, but then dissipates.  For the author, scandal only goes so far in winning the game of personal branding. 

Another way in which the boxer attempts to control these competing identities is by silencing them. More specifically, he systematically kidnaps them and ties them up in his basement: “I look over at them as if they’ll be able to explain what’s going on to me, all taped up, starving, parts of me dying slowly.” Silencing these voices and causing an opponent to vacate his title does nothing to slow the decline of the boxer’s reputation, however.  “Vacated title means I am in the running but who knows if I’m the best I can be. Someone else is sure enough to be a better fit.”

The most pathetic tactic Floures attempts is simply giving up.  He stumbles clumsily through media interviews, lamenting, “I had a statement prepared, but I must have left it behind, somewhere, maybe resting on a table somewhere.”  In front of a large studio audience, this personal branding tactic does not prove very successful, either. 

Despite the profusion of strategies, what nearly escapes the boxer is that the key to remaining relevant is in refinement and invention.  “All I’m left with is myself,” Sugar bemoans, “free from self-improvement but fixed in time with nothing to look forward to without looking back.”

At times it seems that our online personas are destined to become nothing more than a graveyard, a landfill for multiple competing identities in an endless game that simply cannot be won.  In that sense, the right question is not even how to win the game of personal branding, it is in the larger philosophical question of how we can assume heaviness and lightness in our own identities.  Enough of using shallow techniques to generate audience reaction, The Laughter of Strangers seems to suggest. Let us instead consider what framework we adopt to determine what has repercussions in life, and what doesn’t.

Andrea Longini hails from Pittsburgh and lives in California, producing pabulum of many varieties.