Facebook has made us all Nietzcheans

One of my favorite philosophers is Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was an iconoclast, better known for tearing things down than for building them back up again. He famously declared that God is Dead. But he also targeted other important concepts for assault; one of them was the idea of a ‘self’. The self, like God, does not exist. It is rather a projection, an imaginary construct, a useful illusion.

This was one of the most powerful ideas in the twentieth century. Such disparate intellectual movements as existentialism, behaviouralism and identity politics draw on Nietzsche’s notions of reflexive self-creation in the absence of a genuine self.

What’s interesting to me is that this idea, which was thoroughly controversial when Nietzsche proposed it, is by now common sense. I blame Facebook.

For my generation, and especially for the generation just a few years younger than me, it is almost impossible to ignore the fact that we construct our “selves”. We spend substantial portions of our days interacting with people’s obviously cultivated personas. Social media demands that you engage in an active project of self-creation, self-definition, and self-promotion.

Foucault, who called himself a Nietzschean, spent most of his career denying that there was anything in the world that he could value. But toward the end of his life, he began advancing a notion of aesthetic self-creation. That is to say, the activity of consciously giving oneself identity and one’s life meaning not according to artificial religious or ethical principles, but rather according to the principle of beauty.

In this solution to the problem of where to find meaning in modernity, Foucault was shockingly prescient. What is in Foucault’s terms quite abstract – aesthetic self-creation – has been made by technology thoroughly banal. It’s “maintaining you social media presence.” It’s “developing your personal brand”. (Foucault would of course thoroughly resist the capitalist implications of the latter. I don’t mean to imply that Foucault would in any way condone social media, which represents a much less radical project of self-creation than anything he had in mind.)

This is a major shift in how Westerners think about themselves and the world. Nietzsche made a radical claim about nothing less than what it means to be human. In our age, we often implicitly accept Nietzsche’s position, and certainly do not find it radical. It is somewhat radical to suggest that even offline, people are constantly projecting an edited version of themselves. But I think this becomes less and less controversial every day. Indeed, we are now obsessed as a society with ‘authenticity’ – as a bulwark, I think, against this tendency. But the result of this obsession has simply been that marketers and politicians now strive to be more authentic. Indeed, the Tea Party leaders, simply by existing and embodying their political ideology, are quite a bit more authentic than most New Yorkers just living their everyday lives. (I mean that they claim that, but I also mean that that is probably true.) In a situation like that, the notion of authenticity cannot be long for this world.

Technology is driving this change in how we think about ourselves. As I discussed in my post about telemarketing cyborgs, technology helps us to breaks things apart so that we can “optimize” and control each of the parts. Assembly lines allow us to break the construction of a car into a thousand steps, and then perfect each one of those steps. Each step can itself become a goal – a whole other assembly line can figure out the best way to build the robot that paints that car door. Social technologies perform the same function for social processes. By social technologies, I do not only mean communication technologies, but also sets of practices – like a sales pitch or catchy headline (“We all use Facebook every day, but I bet you’ll tear up when you hear what it’s doing to our souls” is an example of a headline written according to a “social technology” perfected by upworthy).

The internet does, however, represent a quantum shift in the ability of these social technologies to be incorporated into our daily lives. The “environment” of the internet is an environment of conscious social manipulation. The decision to retweet something is always already a strategic calculation – there is no way to avoid thinking “will my followers like this” – the way that a politician might always think “will my voters like this” every time they speak. And having become aware of that question, how do you avoid seeking out “best practices” – strategies to help you accomplish whatever your goal is?

I think it’s obvious that I’m troubled by this. But I’m not unduly pessimistic. I think I belong to the generation that sits precisely on the cusp of North American society’s shift to an internet-based society, and I think that is such a radical shift that our basic philosophical concepts – our most profound wisdom about the universal features of the human condition – are struggling to keep up. That is, quite obviously, unsettling. It’s confusing, and it means that a lot of our inherited wisdom – our shortcuts for living a good, meaningful life – needs to be reexamined. But you are reading this on my blog, which is my own personal form of cultivated self-creation. So it would be hypocritical of me to claim that this is all a bad thing.

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3 thoughts on “Facebook has made us all Nietzcheans

  1. This is more of a question for clarification than a contention. I understand that Nietzsche is associated with aesthetic self-creation, but I have trouble understanding why. Rather than granting human beings the agency to create themselves according to a perceived principle of beauty, doesn’t Nietzsche remove all agency from the ‘self’? Consider aphorism 120 from Daybreak: “To reassure the sceptic. – ‘I have no idea how I am acting! I have no idea how I ought to act!’ – you are right, but be sure of this: you will be acted upon! at every moment! Mankind has in all ages confused the active and the passive: it is their everlasting grammatical blunder.”

    Facebook makes us feel like we are able to carefully craft and manage a mask that we show to our social group — that is, we can choose what we look like to other people. In person, there are involuntary mannerisms that give away more than we might like; over the phone, we may pause for too long before answering, we may say ‘like’ too often, etc. But this is not the case on Facebook, where a skilled user can portray exactly what she or he wants to portray.

    So I definitely agree with you that Facebook makes us more conscious of ourselves as self-fashioners, but does this really make us more Nietzschean? It seems to me that Facebook allows us to feel more control of our “selves” than ever, blinding us to the Nietzschean insight that the self is less like an actor and more like a thing acted upon, or the location of that action.

  2. Hey Zak, Thanks for the comment! I agree with everything you said, and I think you make a really nice point by pointing out that Facebook actually accentuates, rather than undermines, the illusion of agency.

    So it seems to me that what you are pointing to is a difficulty not fully worked out in Nietzsche’s own thinking. On the one hand, he is deeply critical of any idea of a fixed identity, self, soul, or agent. He insists that it is a result or byproduct. On the other hand, when you start trying to sort out Nietzsche’s positive project, he seems to turn back to some veiled notion of agency. We are called precisely to the “Will to Power,” which represents an expansion, and not a negation, of the individual will (or perhaps an expansion-through-negation. Nietzsche is exhausting.). The Overman seems to be characterized by his relentless activity; he takes up the challenge laid out in that passage in Daybreak – that we are acted upon more than we act – and responds to it by making even the passive into the active. In other words, he wills even those things which are quite obviously not subject to his will in any usual sense – like the Past. This expansion of the Will is a kind of ideal for Nietzsche, even while he dismantles any ordinary understanding of agency. You might say, for Nietzsche, the choice is to will nothing and be simply passive, or will everything and be simply positive. He chooses the latter.

    My main point was the Facebook makes Nietzsche’s first point obvious. That you are not acting, but merely acted upon, is a difficult notion. But that your Facebook profile is not acting, but merely acted upon, is self evident.

    My second point is that, as the line between our on- and offline identities blur, we become engaged whether we like it or not in something like a project of self creation. This project is less radical and less profound than anything Nietzsche had in mind, but it shares a sense of “groundlessness” or the ever-changing ground. What does your true social profile look like? It’s a nonsensical question.

    Does that clarify? There’s still lots to be unpacked here. I’m aware, for example, that Nietzsche is by no means the only philospoher to think about the self as an actively created project. I just think that his influence is felt in the modern social sciences, where “constructivist” approaches have been gaining popularity in the last 20 years or so – in part, I would argue, because the internet helps them make intuitive sense to people.

  3. Pingback: The Age of Anxiety | The Abstract

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