Monthly Archives: September 2013

social media, philosophical cynicism, and Foucault’s The Courage of the Truth

Here are a bunch of passages I pulled from Foucault’s March 14, 1984, lecture on Cynicism, from The Courage of the Truth. The Cynics’ effort to live a true life through rejecting all social conventions in the most public way they could manage seems to me to have some bearing on social media practice as a kind of ascesis, as a kind of quest to “live the truth” through unrelenting self-documentation and exposure.

Foucault highlights the confrontational potential of “Cynic scandal”:

Cynic courage of the truth consists in getting people to condemn, reject, despise, and insult the very manifestation of what they accept, or claim to accept at the level of principles. It involves facing up to their anger when presenting them with the image of what they accept and value in thought, and at the same time reject and despise in their life … In the case of Cynic scandal—and this is what seems to me to be important and worth holding on to, isolating—one risks one’s life, not just by telling the truth, and in order to tell it, but by the very way in which one lives. In all the meanings of the word, one “exposes” one’s life. That is to say, one displays it and risks it. One risks it by displaying it; and it is because one displays it that one risks it. One exposes one’s life, not through one’s discourses, but through one’s life itself.

In other words, talk is cheap, and philosophy concerned with truth must venture a personal stake. Offering that stake itself is more significant than whatever practices it is staked on. It is easy to be distracted by the way social media seems to promise us the chance to turn personal experience into discourse, communication, crafted narrative; this makes it seem important to analyze the content and form that results from social media sharing, rather than the practice itself. The promise of self-gratifying narrative-building, identity-building, is an alibi to excuse sharing practices — or in the context of Cynical practice, a betrayal of the practice’s potential as ascesis. 

“Exposing” life is not the same as constructing an identity. Sharing experience in some mediated form can be about the self-destructive practice of mediation — how it corrupts, degrades, nullifies, empties our personal experience. Sharing can be simply volunteering or staking the self for ridicule, purging, nullification, ritual flaying, self-branding of a different kind. It is not automatically “building a self” in terms of narratively structured cultural capital.

A self is not a sum of content; a self is a practice.

The Cynic’s maxim is the Delphic injunction to “alter the currency.” Foucault emphasizes the ambiguity and open-ended potential of this proto-Nietzschean demand to “revalue” value, including the purpose and value of attention. What’s key for me is that this revaluation is a process, a practice that needs to be lived in time; it never is accomplished once and for all and in one direction. Social media can be conceived as living the ongoing transvaluation of attention — it’s laureled and debased, made more spendable, and then less. 

Foucault explains how cynical practice pushes honor and truth-telling to an extreme at which its radical honesty becomes indistinguishable from a “shameless life”

The kunikos life is a dog’s life in that it is without modesty, shame, and human respect. It is a life which does in public, in front of everyone, what only dogs and animals dare to do, and which men usually hide. The Cynic’s life is a dog’s life in that it is shameless. Second, the Cynic life is a dog’s life because, like the latter, it is indifferent. It is indifferent to whatever may occur, is not attached to anything, is content with what it has, and has no needs other than those it can satisfy immediately. Third, the life of the Cynic is the life of a dog, it received the epithet kunikos because it is, so to speak, a life which barks, a diacritical (diakritikos) life, that is to say, a life which can fight, which barks at enemies, which knows how to distinguish the good from the bad, the true from the false, and masters from enemies. In that sense it is a diakritikos life: a life of discernment which knows how to prove, test, and distinguish. Finally, fourth, the Cynic life is phulaktikos. It is a guard dog’s life, a life which knows how to dedicate itself to saving others and protecting the master’s life. Shameless life, adiaphoros (indifferent) life, diakritikos life (diacritical, distinguishing, discriminating, and, as it were, barking life), and phulaktikos (guard’s life, guard dog’s life).

To draw a parallel, social-media practice is this mode is shameless in terms of self-promotion as well as exhibitionism, and in drawing enemies via trolling etc. Social media also makes these confrontations easier to stage, diminishing their cost, requiring that the stakes be increased somehow to register, to figure as “true life.” It may be that even mundane sharing takes on through its increasing momentum some of the urgency, some of the risk and portent, that stems from this  implicit and structural need to increase stakes.

for life truly to be the life of truth, must it not be an other life, a life which is radically and paradoxically other

Hence apparent digital dualism may be an inarticulate attempt to posit an other, philoshical life alongside lived ordinary life. A doomed effort to live the truth without risking it.

Correspondence is a practice of the true life as unconcealed life, that is to say, as life under the both real and virtual eye of the other.

Social media concretizes the necessary gaze of others necessary to live ethical life, true life under watchful gaze of a judge.

For the Cynics, the rule of non-concealment is no longer an ideal principle of conduct, as it was for Epictetus or Seneca. It is the shaping, the staging of life in its material and everyday reality under the real gaze of others, of everyone else, or at any rate of the greatest possible number of others. The life of the Cynic is unconcealed in the sense that it is really, materially, physically public.

“There is no privacy, secret, or non-publicity in the Cynic life,” Foucault says, and that sounds pretty familiar—like a lot of the complaints about ubiquitous social media. But in the Cynic context, this has more positive connotations.

The Cynic dramatization of the unconcealed life therefore turns out to be the strict, simple, and, in a sense, crudest possible application of the principle that one should live without having to blush at what one does, living consequently in full view of others and guaranteed by their presence.

That is reminiscent of Mark Zuckerberg’s comments about integrity, or Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s comment that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to be afraid of.” Of course, using proprietary tech platforms to conduct your ascetic radical disclosure is good for tech companies and communicative capitalism.

But the desire to have an audience as an ethical guarantee of personal selfhood is also a significant motive for users.

So: indifference towards all those humiliating situations, and even an active seeking out of humiliating situations, because first of all there is the side of exercise, of the reduction of opinions, and then also there is the fact that, within the accepted humiliation, one is able to turn the situation around, as it were, and take back control of it.

Social media and masochism

Reading anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll’s book on gambling, Addiction by Design, has started me thinking of how machine gambling works as an analogue for social media: Both facilitate an escapism through engagement, an immersion in immediate risk-taking routines that obscures the larger existential crises. (A lot more about that in this post.)

Both also seem like masochistic practices adopted to escape or offload the burden of self. That makes obvious sense about gambling machines, which narrow subjective experience to immediate and arbitrary reward seeking, but perhaps seems like a paradoxical thing to claim about social media, given that they ostensibly serve to build up, circulate, and store the self (or at least the carefully curated tokens of identity).

This 1988 paper by psychologist Roy Baumeister, “Masochism as Escape From Self,” may help in addressing that apparent paradox. He argues that masochism is essentially the shadow of individualism. The pressures of having a unique self — the “high-level self-awareness” and high-pressure decisionmaking involved — can become aversive, and lead to an intensification of the desire to escape from self.

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He adds later that “there may even be a cyclic escalation, in which the more responsibility and esteem a person accumulates, the more difficult and exhausting it is to sustain them.” He also notes that “high levels of esteem and agency produce the most complex and elaborate selves, which may also be the most burdensome selves. As a result such individuals may seek the strongest modes of escape—such as masochism.”

Much of social media is a calculated effort to “accumulate” esteem and grant agency. It seems plausible that the intense self-consciousness of ongoing social-media use (certainly a “recalcitrant social environment,” despite its responsiveness) could trigger an intense need to escape from self. Social-media use intensifies self-consciousness through a deeper awareness of the contingencies and vulnerability of our identity, leading to a greater need to escape from it, or at least suspend our consciousness of it.

Somewhat less plausible maybe, though I still believe this is worth exploring, is the possibility that the escape from self that social-media necessitates is often sought through an intensification of social-media use. Not only would this let us keep obeying the imperative to “express ourselves” and build out our all-important online reputations and networks, but it would allow us to address the anxiety of self-consciousness in the environment that prompts it. To address and control how social media makes us feel would seem to require deeper engagement with social media, as in a negative feedback loop. Social media, in other words, has affordances to make “self-construction” masochistic and self-negating (as well as addictive, or self-affirming, or strategic).

According to Baumeister, masochism allows people to escape the self by orienting them on the immediacy of physical experience and by allowing them to dissociate through the creation and inhabitation of a “fantasized identity”:

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Those points about fluid identity and physicality seem not to correspond to social-media use; social media seems detached from physical reality (the “digital dualism” illusion), and sites are frequently committed to imposing real-names on users. But social media can be visceral. Your pulse can race, your stomach drop, as you check to see what has been said about you, to you. You can find yourself unable to tear yourself away from a screen in a chat, held cruelly in suspense as you wait for a response to a message that seems dumber and more misreadable as it hangs there. And as much as real name policies are imposed, alternate identities proliferate, even within the same profiles. The “real-name” identity anchors the creation of fantasized identities, gives them an online baseline from which to differentiate, become operant.

Intensive sharing on social media, then, can cease to seem a building up of a self but its dissolution. That’s not merely in the sense that the more information there is in an archive, the harder it is to assemble into a coherent identity; it’s also a phenomenological dissolution: the acts of engaging with social media become points of narrowed attentional focus, akin to the masochistic myopia that Baumeister notes in the literature. He cites Elaine Scarry to point out that pain apparently destroys our will to consider symbolic meanings and abstractions — the essential components of social identity.

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(It’s a little troubling that Baumeister gathers some of his data for the paper from letters to Variations magazine; if he were writing now, he could collect much more raw material, so to speak, from Tumblr’s many masochist blogs.)

Each act of social-media participation plays on the level of symbolic meaning and identity, but awareness of the ongoing ramifications of this may be so overwhelming as to need to be deferred. More sharing defers that recognition while exacerbating the problem, in part because of that knowledge — the humiliation potentially inherent in sharing can evoke a sharp psychic pain of vulnerability that overwhelms itself. Sharing also figures as a gesture of seizing control of the moment in which pain and humiliation will be administered, and the anxiety can also be diverted to a “fantasy” version of the self that is being elaborated in online platforms and thereby disavowed. (The online self, the avatar, is vulnerable, not me — even if that avatar bears my real name and I occasionally identify with it fully and proudly.)

Baumeister’s analysis hinges on distinguishing between a qualitatively “high” and a “low” level of self-awareness. Judging by the following description, the “high” level sounds a lot like conventional, neoliberalistic use of social media to establish one’s flexibility, fitness, and capacity for projects by building up a network and an archive of self. The “‘low” level sounds like the zoned-out flow experience Schüll associates with poker-machine compulsives (more from me about that here).

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In social media, the archive can take on the roles of what Baumeister calls the “high-level awareness of self” so that we don’t have to and can lapse into self-annihilating flow instead by attuning to its rhythms of checking, updating, responding, waiting. Those rhythms are easier to find if we post a lot and post intense or risky or embarrassing things that can desubjectivze us through humiliation and/or pain. The platform’s constrictions take on the function of bondage, restricting autonomy to a limited set of actions.

But the key to social media’s masochistic potential is in how it seems to guarantee an audience. Baumeister notes that “use of mirrors or even audiences in S&M probably also intensifies the immediate, low-level awareness of self. Through the mirror or audience, the masochist’s attention is drawn to his or her immediate condition and predicament…the witness confirms the loss of self by conferring social reality.” Social media, of course, is both a mirror and an audience at once.

Masochistic acts of sharing are meant to invoke an audience, but not for the continuous, archived self — not for the ongoing, identity-signifying connotations of what is shared. Instead the audience is invoked to energize the obliteratingly powerful affect of the present moment by seeming to confirm its humiliating reality, the fantasy identity crystallized in that moment. One puts an aspect of oneself (actual or invented) out there to dream of it being mocked, and that pain of mockery disassociates us from the deeper vulnerabilities of the “real self” that is being deferred and protected for the moment.



Never Been Any Reason – Head East

Oh my gosh, it’s just perfection. Absolute perfection. It figures that the epitome of classic rock would be a song by a band that no one remembers and never really had any staying power. An exuberant hymn to the powers of a good woman’s love. This is the song you want to play during your first kiss, during your Donkey Kong high score, during that moment when you realize hope is not lost and redemption is just in sight in the guise of that person at the bar, that person whose path you inexplicably crossed again, or that one special person you wronged terribly who has, inexplicably and incredibly, forgiven you. And yet, this doesn’t truly get at what Head East accomplished with this song, let alone does it let it stand apart from countless other rock tunes that are a sonic buoy in a sea of dissonance. I must asservate that “Never Been Any Reason” nails it in an almost spiritual way in which very few have from that amazingly composed synth symphonic opening, the staccato guitar riff, slow and steady, doggedly persistent and yet a wee bit anxious, the plaintive vocals thirsty with longing, pensive and yet strong, giving way to that choral cry of salvation that gives me goosepimples each and every time: “Save my life, I’m goin’ down for the last time/ Woman with the sweet lovin’, better than a white line/ Bring a good feelin’ ain’t had in such a long time/Save my life, I’m goin’ down for the last time.” This is proto-pinball music. The originator. Each time I hear it, I light up in all different places just like the electric mappings of a pinball game board. And you should, too.

For Your Pleasure: Pinball Music

Something I wrote for a book called This Image

From Natasha Dow Schüll, Addiction by Design. 

What fascinates me about machine gambling is how it shows the way a project of self-actualization can become one of “self-extinction"— that self-actualization can be self extinction. 

Schüll argues that machine-gambling addicts become hooked on the "zone” that machines can take them to, in which the contingencies and inconveniences of human contact are eliminated, the pressure of being rational and entrepreneurial in one’s life is suspended, and money’s value is inverted. In short, it is a temporary antidote to the pressures of neoliberal subjectivity — the calculating, rational self who must constantly hustle and perform affective labor and prosume. Machine gambling distills those pressures and thereby converts them into their opposite (much as  extreme rationality becomes irrational; extreme libertarianism becomes authoritarian, etc.)

I’ve argued before that social media is a platform for building and exercising neoliberal subjectivity, but that seems inadequate to describe the way it’s also used as an attempt to mitigate and control feelings of social risk, as I addressed here. Social media replicates social vulnerability while distilling it within a venue where it can seemingly be played with; it takes the contingencies of sociality and makes them something we can interface with directly. Thanks to social media, we can believe that we control the time and place where we confront our social risks, our status uncertainties, our fears of exposure. (In fact, it may just make us less prepared to address those risks when they arise outside the social-media platforms.)

The compulsions of machine gambling resemble the compulsions of social-media checking, and the affects these behaviors are trying to contain, control, evoke, master, seem similar. But whereas, if Schüll is right, machine gambling is about mastering/escaping from the feelings brought on by economic precarity, social media use is about mastering feelings of privacy risk, social exclusion, coinciding fears of over- and underexposure. We don’t want to be “unwilling avatars,” yet we also don’t want to be excluded from the social realm as it is reconstituted in fluid, intertwined, networked platforms.

Schüll sees machines as offering a pure escape from the pressures of sociality: “The immersive zone of machine play, by contrast, offers a reprieve from the nebulous and risky calculative matrix of social interaction, shielding her from the monitoring gaze of others and relieving her of the need to monitor them in return.” Nothing could seem further from the realities of social-media use, which is built on mutual monitoring, lateral surveillance, calculated acts of sharing to build a personal brand, and so on. But that is precisely what makes social media a powerful way of mastering the contingencies of such surveillance — on social media, privacy fears are"distilled" into a near-absurd essence, concentrating them in a realm where they can be amplified, toyed with rather then ruled by. You can interact, alone, on your own terms, with a machine as a way of being social.

So the “zone” of social media is a paradoxical hybrid of the asocial, desubjectified zoning out brought on by fusing with a gaming machine and the action-seeking hypersociality of exhibitionists. Intersubjectivity is negated by the social-media platform, which gamifies social interaction and makes it something that one plays alone on a smartphone. Social risk and the scary contingencies of personal interaction are mastered by the platform’s transformation of other people’s unpredictable attention-granting behavior into the social-media game’s “reward schedule.”

People can zone out into rituals of checking for signs of having been noticed, which, by Schüll’s logic, helps cultivate our indifference to it. If we are truly trapped in an attention economy, then compulsive social-media use represents an attempt to devalue the attention currency, the way gambling devalues money, makes it useless for its customary purposes.

it is possible for a sense of monetary value to become suspended in machine gambling not because money is absent, but because the activity mobilizes it in such a way that it no longer works as it typically does. Money becomes the bridge away from everyone and everything, leading to a zone beyond value, with no social or economic significance. In the zone, instead of serving as a tool for self-determination, money becomes an instrument for “sustained indeterminacy,” as Livingstone puts it. Peter Adams clarifies the nature of this indeterminacy by arguing that machine gamblers seek through play to transcend the limits of finitude: constraints of space and time, the gaze of intersubjectivity, and the bounds of personal mortality.

I think social media has this effect on attention. It’s not sufficient to say that social-media “microcelebrities” are starving for fame and will go to extreme, transgressive lengths for attention. We both want attention and to be free of attention’s control over our lives, free of the insecurity it provokes. So attention in social media works differently for users (even if it serves the same economic function for marketers and ad brokers), leading to “a zone beyond value.” Attention on social media is not expected to provide the same conventional rewards it provides via traditional media. It instead triggers that transcending of limits mentioned above. It addresses the psychic damage inflicted by precarious sociality—the result of social recognition and support having been depredated by its absorption into the service economy.

If anxieties about attention have to do with establishing identity, with constructing a self, then social media addresses those anxieties by making the experience of getting attention dismantle the self, dissolve us into flow, even as social-media use builds our identity up as a data profile. The data profile becomes rich but hollow, uninhabited phenomenologically by a subject.