“I feel seen.” Spend time on social media and you’re likely to come across this expression. Often, it’s used in a joking fashion. I’m a thirty-eight-year-old literature professor who tries, unsuccessfully, to win his students over by referring to the latest Taylor Swift album. Later that day, I see a GIF of the actor Steve Buscemi pretending to be a high schooler on an episode of 30 Rock. “How do you do, fellow kids?” the GIF reads, as Buscemi, fifty-five-years old, moseys over to some teenagers, skateboard slung over his shoulder, baseball cap on backwards. Immediately I tweet out the image: “I feel so seen.”
The expression also can be, and often is, used with great seriousness, usually with regards to issues of identity and representation in art. To offer one example, in 2021 Lin Manuel Miranda posted on Twitter about the origins of his musical In the Heights: “I started writing ‘In the Heights’ because I didn’t feel seen. And over the past 20 years all I wanted was for us—ALL of us—to feel seen.” In this context, to feel seen is to have your experience or identity reflected back to you. Through this reflection, your experience or identity is publicly acknowledged. Through this public acknowledgment, your experience becomes—or at least feels, and feeling is the barometer here—more real.
This understanding of the relationship between identity and art—namely, that art is in the service of identity—is one of many vexing aesthetic and philosophical issues explored by Brandon Taylor in his new novel, The Late Americans. The book follows a rotating set of grad students—poets, dancers, musicians, mathematicians—all living in Iowa City (Taylor himself attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop), most of them gay (Taylor is, too), several of them Black (like Taylor). This makes the novel, Taylor’s second, seem like a work of autofiction, but it’s not. As the Jamesian title indicates, Taylor is after something different and more traditional. The Late Americans is a novel of finish and style. It sees fiction not as serving identity but as exploring issues of moral concern. It’s hot after blessing, beauty, and meaning even while it often finds the world hurtful, ugly, and empty.
Taylor’s characters want to be seen: not in the way that “being seen” is talked about on social media but in the way that theologians use words like providence and grace. His characters long to have the very hairs on their head numbered, to have their lives matter, even while they doubt that such loving attention is forthcoming. They desire what the writer Joy Williams calls “that great cold elemental grace” yet fear that they’ve come too late for their desire to be satisfied.