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.