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The Facebook Supremacy – Part 1

Related Posts: The Facebook Supremacy – Part 2Owning the Means of Connection,
The Koons Moment, Sacrifice and the Dream of Form

For a few years before the 2016 election I was a pretty faithful Facebook user. Photos of my dog, my family, birthday greetings and posts announcing events I was participating in or that I simply liked—seemed like a harmless and very convenient way to stay connected. It wasn’t just superficial either—sometimes there would be non-trivial exchanges of ideas about politics, culture, important issues of the day. It felt good to post a little thought sequence about this or that, and have people like it. Hey, I have to confess, it gave me a little lift to check back and find that a post had been liked by, say, a hundred people. And Facebook was pretty prompt in giving me ways to refresh popular posts like that so they’d attract more likes and shares. And then the 2016 election happened and I began to see the shadow side of all that…and some of that shadow was pretty dark indeed. Increasingly Facebook revealed the way it enabled, not just the warm and fuzzy, domesticated aspect of sociality, but also its friend-or-foe violence. Long time friendships suddenly devolved into exchanges of insult and invective, my own little social network fractured by hatred and the primitive dynamics of prestige. Even worse was the increasing sense of manipulation and a vague paranoia, as if everything I encountered on the portal, good or bad, were subtly tilted in the direction of authoritarian domination. It was like being in a trap that drew closer no matter which way you pulled.

Those familiar with poststructuralist social theory will understand the shiver of alarm I felt on reading recent interviews in which the billionaire Facebook investor Peter Thiel celebrates the work of the philosopher Rene Girard. Girard, who I’ve written about several times on TQ, was an important presence at Stanford when Thiel was earning various degrees there. In Business Insider and other publications, Thiel cites Girard as a crucial influence, describing how fascinated he was by Girard’s account of imitative behavior and “triangular desire.” Girard uses the term triangular desire to describe the way we come to want what we see others want. If we did not model ourselves after others, Girard believes, we would have no idea what we should want, or even who we are. At the root of identity Girard locates a void, a void we will do anything to fill because of the soul-crushing, hollowed-out anxiety—also known as original sin, alienation, lack—it gives rise to. Mostly what we do to fill this void is imitate others in a competitive mode. As Americans we’ve been taught to celebrate competition because of the inspiring innovations that it provides—vaccines for world health or cell phones as global communication devices—but Girard saw its darker aspect. Unchecked, according to Girard, mimetic competition leads directly to civic violence, bloodshed and war.

To Girard, consumer capitalism runs by keeping mimetic violence at a homeostatic equilibrium, and this fragile stasis periodically breaks down into spasms of apocalyptic mayhem such as the two world wars. In desperate flight from the groundlessness of identity, humans compete for emblems of solidity and grounded-ness that only amplify the mimetic frenzy in others. Before long the escalating violence can no longer be peacefully sublimated and must be directed outward toward some foreign Other (North Korea, anyone?), or burst out into a revolutionary bloodbath. What is it that, to Girard, can stave off these kinds of mimetic crises? The victimage mechanism of scapegoating, in which the violence of all-against-all is directed at a single figure selected more or less at random, who is murdered, and then worshipped as a salvational divinity. Citing evidence from the historical record, Girard maintains that societies who did not happen upon the victimage mechanism simply did not survive. With nuclear weapons in the mix, Girard calmly endorses Jesus’s prophesy in the New Testament of a “second coming”—the ultimate scapegoat, Jesus merely saw with clarity that, unless the species overcame the dynamic of mimetic violence, another reckoning was certain to arrive.

Thiel is a very wealthy man and he made much of his fortune investing early on in one of those marvelous new inventions of capitalist competition—Facebook. As it turns out, in fact, when Mark Zuckerberg made the rounds in Silicon Valley looking for venture capital, Girard’s ideas were central to the potential Thiel saw in the fledgling company. “Social media proved to be more important than it looked,” Thiel told the New York Times in their obituary to Girard, “because it’s about our natures.” Combining Girard’s insights with the ideas of the Neocon thinker Leo Strauss, and also the fascist political philosopher Carl Schmitt, Thiel embraces a missionary libertarianism. What Girard found to be a cause for alarm, Thiel celebrates and attempts to enact. An enthusiastic activist on behalf of the alt-right, Thiel today publically celebrates our current president, perhaps even provides him with Girardian insights into maximizing his influence. Thiel is currently being considered to mastermind an overhaul of the US Intelligence system (a mimetic echoing, perhaps, of the hawk-like captains of SigInt played by Chris Cooper or David Strathairn in the Bourne Supremacy series.) In keeping with the elitism of Strauss—as ordinary mortals most of us are unprepared to handle the truth and so must be lied to—Thiel seems circumspect about how he reconciles Girard’s dark vision with a celebration of unfettered capitalism. Somehow Thiel strips the Catholicism off of Girard’s ideas (Girard was what he called “a practicing but non-believing Catholic”) and tricks them out to valorize his brand of aggressive anarcho-capitalism. Very quickly Thiel’s savvy tech-sector investment seems to have borne the kind of fruit Girard might have predicted—in the unnameable figure currently occupying the White House, the Facebook election of 2016 has bequeathed to the human species a mortal threat of apocalyptic proportions.

Given Thiel’s apparent readiness to put his Girardian ideas into action in ways that effect us all, we are called to look a little deeper at what is really going on in Girard’s “triangular desire.” It is tempting to reduce the concept to a fancy version of plain old envy, and this is indeed what Thiel does, positioning men like Bill Gates as Girardian victims (Gates was the target, you see, of anti-trust litigation). In the case of envy we know what we want, and we know that we don’t have it; with triangular desire, as Girard stresses again and again, we do not know what we want, or even what we ought to want, and so we copy the desire of the Other. Unlike envy, triangular desire, in other words, is a flight from the fundamental groundlessness of human identity. This is why the fire that burns in triangular or “mimetic” desire does not lessen when we obtain any particular object—it is the desire itself and the identity it seems to ground, not its object, that we seek to own. This unreal, phantom quality (someone else’s desire can never be owned, after all) is why rich men are often the very greediest of men. The money they obtain only fuels a thirst for more money.

For Girard, the Judeo-Christian tradition is distinguished by a rejection of the sublimated violence of the scapegoat mechanism, culminating in the figure of the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus Christ. This totalizing view of the dynamic made Girard into an odd presence in the world of critical theory, and also an odd kind of Catholic practitioner, a practitioner fully aware of the projected, historically situated source of the transcendent deity he bent his knee to on Sunday mornings. Competitive mimesis hardly ceases when it comes to the realm of thought and discourse, but rather raises the stakes of ideological conflict. It is not so much that I over-identify with my thoughts, for example, but rather that I am addicted to the solidity they seem to give me. What forced Girard to this position is the conviction that the fundamental groundlessness of identity—that which drives the imitative violence Girard describes—is by definition intolerable to the human. There are, however, non-sacrificial religions that respond to this groundlessness in a very different way. To Buddhists, for example, it is the effort to ground our identity that gives rise to suffering and, in its most extreme form, social violence. Engage with the groundlessness directly, embrace it in fact, and your suffering begins to resolve into an expansive and energizing experience of joy.

To understand more about how Girard’s dark vision pertains to social media, let us turn to another Silicon Valley icon who played a central role in Facebook’s rise—the charismatic digital bad boy Sean Parker. At an Axios event in November 2017 Parker, who served as a Facebook’s director in its initial phase, gave voice to growing alarm at the social media’s spread: “It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other,” he said, “It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” Parker went on to explain that when Facebook was being developed the objective was: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” It was this mindset that led to the creation of features such as the “like” button that would give Facebook users “a little dopamine hit” to encourage them to upload more content. “It’s a social-validation feedback loop,” Parker concludes, “exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”[i] In Facebook and other social media networks we find ourselves pressing up against evolutionary boundaries—small flaws and peculiarities in the ways our nervous systems evolved are today amplified into lurid threats with orange hair and delusions of grandeur. As it happens, scientists are beginning to shed light on these evolutionary oddities, many of which center around the role neurotransmitters such as dopamine play in regulating our behavior. Every public figure today understands that taking a position on a wide range of important issues will instantly bring a flood of emails promising the most vicious kinds of social violence against them. The disembodied and abstract nature of the medium seems directly proportional to the violence of the expression, and of course this violence is being intentionally cultivated, shaped and directed by those with the means to do so. And yet, at root, the power of these men is based on very familiar affects, affects linked to neurotransmitters whose effects we can, in fact, learn to counteract.

What is most ironic to me about Peter Thiel’s embrace of Girard is how the concept of mimetic or triangular desire actually undermines the idea that the economy is driven by the actions of rational agents maximizing profit and utility. Instead, what fuels capitalism is our desperate and futile search for relief from an indeterminacy that comes with being human and alive. Those who seem most successful are, paradoxically, often simply the most desperate to escape this sense of groundlessness. Devoting their lives to an endless battle they will never win, such men conceal from themselves and from others the reality of the situation behind lots of bling and bluster. If you buy Girard’s thinking here—and I largely do—then you’ll see how incoherent our commonsense ideas about the economy truly are. The rewards motivating gung-ho entrepreneurs are all situated in the social environment. But while all the rewards are from the social environment, the system is justified by a conception of rational agents defined as fully autonomous, non-social beings. The harsh, uncompromising individualism of Thiel’s brand of winner-take-all capitalism is actually governed entirely by a covert dependence on the social, haunted by its own lack of ground. We crave the elusive solidity we see in others but can somehow never access ourselves, and in pursuit of that phantom we think nothing of destroying the environment that actually sustains us. In Part 2 of this post I’ll look more closely at what it might mean to decouple behavior from triangular desire and other neurogenetic dynamics that no longer serve our interests as a species.

 

 

[i] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/nov/09/facebook-sean-parker-vulnerability-brain-psychology

Comments

  1. Michael Hacker says:

    Very interesting, Guy, and a nice tying-together of the social media ends. Depressing as well, so I hope the next post offers an easy way out!

  2. Interesting stuff, Guy — I wonder whether we might be able to work with the dopamine effect a little more consciously, as personal and social choices. If “likes” give us greater pleasure (the dopamine effect) and if that pleasure becomes addictive and puts us in ever greater pursuit of it, what could be a counterbalance? Meditation, I would think, but would that count enough on the evolutionary scale? Creative work — the idea of “flow?”Snuggling? Pets? I’m not being facetious — there’s quite a bit of evidence that those sorts of behaviors and exchanges also excite the dopamine response It seems as though there’s an underlying determinism in the Thiel/Girard ideas that serves less as a probe into human nature and more as a rationalization for “it is what it is” — i.e.,for some of the nastiest elements of capitalism. The idea that we are all empty and cannot be filled has been around and exploited for quite a while and by the same token scapegoating, sadly, isn’t unique to capitalism, or to a theory of desire (cf. Sacre du Printemps (i.e. appeasing the gods) to Naziism. I’m grateful for the insight that those little “likes” make us feel good — although I’ve ascribed it to the desire for popularity that was inculcated in high school! And that Facebook returns us to those adolescents when our frontal lobes hadn’t fully developed and so made us much more open to manipulation by emotion.

  3. RITA VALENCIA says:

    That Peter Thiel would have read Girard is so surprising that it makes me wonder if he maybe picked up To Double Business Bound unconsciously thinking that by reading it his business was bound to double and then he got bored part way through (never getting to the part where Girard draws his dark conclusions)…but figured it was good self promotion to say he had read it.
    “Like” your piece!

  4. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Thanks for the comments, Michael, Janet and Rita. Always interesting to hear what has resonated. Janet, I think your high school reference is spot on — that’s when these issues seem most urgent to us. And, yes, Rita — doubling your business — what could be more important in critical theory…! Oy…

  5. Christine Solnik says:

    Yes, in a similar vein, I believe that consumer products sell advertising as branding/image. It’s not the shoes that count, when they fall out of fashion so quickly, but being fahionable. This “social” sense of identity and self-worth is not only a symptom of our time but a product of it, obviously, as advertising and social media clearly tell use what and how we must be to be acceptable. This is more than Marx though–a Marxian perspective misses the slow evolution of “style” as substance, and the unique characteristics of “style” in the 21st century. I say “style” because its not a developed aesthetic sense, imo, but mere mimesis.

    I’m increasingly interested in hauntology, and recently a colleague reminded me that haunting is habit. Conversely habit is haunting. We are all haunted by the specters of the social media. However ghost is also spirit and spirit is, in some quarters life, more real than matter. What does this mean? Does it mean that Facebook has become life to us, a process of increasingly focused attention and exclusion per Henri Bergson. Or does it mean that we have left life behind in our zombified existence?

    Also I wonder, Guy, about your ideas on metallurgy in this context. What are the material aspects of this haunting and how do the social media perform the slippage between matter and spirit, if that distinction makes sense?

  6. Steven Lavine says:

    Terrific piece, especially Girard’s understanding of the outlet into violence and scapegoating.

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