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.


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