Nietzsche has something to say about everything. Including Facebook Distraction, an ‘impulse’ whose ‘vehemence’ we seek to combat, and for which he has found ‘not more than six essentially different methods.’ (‘The Dawn of Day‘, trans. JM Kennedy, Allen Unwin, 1924, Section 109)
It’s 630 AM or so; you’re awake, busy getting your cup of coffee ready. (Perhaps you’re up earlier like the truly virtuous or the overworked, which in our society comes to the same thing.) Your coffee made, you fire up your smartphone, laptop, tablet, or desktop, and settle down for the morning service at the altar. Your eyes light up, your antennae tingle in pleasurable anticipation: Facebook’s blue top ribbon features a tiny red square–which squats over the globe like a ginormous social media network–with a number inscribed in it; single figures is good, double figures is better. You look at Twitter: the Liberty Bell–sorry, the notifications icon–bears the weight of a similar number. Yet again: single figures good, double figures better. You look at GMail: your heart races, for that distinctive bold lettering in your inbox is present, standing out in stark contrast from the pallid type below; and there is a number here too, in parentheses after ‘Inbox’: single figures good, double figures better.
That’s what happens on a good day. (On a really good day, Facebook will have three red circles for you.) On a bad day, the Facebook globe is heartbreakingly red-less and banal; Twitter’s Liberty Bell is mute; and GMail’s Inbox is not bold, not at all. You reel back from the screen(s) in disappointment; your mood crashes and burns; the world seems empty and uninviting and cold and dark. Impatience, frustration, anxiety come rushing in through the portals you have now left open, suffusing your being, residing there till dislodged by the right kind of sensory input from those same screens: the appropriate colors, typefaces, and numbers need to make an appearance to calm and sooth your restless self. We get to work; all the while keeping an eye open and an ear cocked: a number appears on a visible tab, and we switch contexts and screens to check, immediately. An envelope appears on the corner of our screens; mail is here; we must tear open that envelope. Sounds too, intrude; cheeps, dings, and rings issue from our machines to inform us that relief is here. The silence of our devices can be deafening.
Our mood rises and falls in sync.
As is evident, our interactions with the human-computer interfaces of our communications systems have a rich phenomenology: expectations, desires, hopes rush towards with colors and shapes and numbers; their encounters produce mood changes and affective responses. The clever designer shapes the iconography of the interface with care to produce these in the right way, to achieve the desired results: your interaction with the system must never be affectively neutral; it must have some emotional content. We are manipulated by these responses; we behave accordingly.
Machine learning experts speak of training the machines; let us not forget that our machines train us too. By the ‘face’ they present to us, by the sounds they make, by the ‘expressions’ visible on them. As we continue to interact with them, we become different people, changed much like we are by our encounters with other people, those other providers and provokers of emotional responses.
Every weekday of my two years in boarding school bore witness to the implacable ritual of the mail from home: run to the teacher’s staff-room, ask for the day’s letters and postcards–sorted into piles corresponding to your ‘house‘–and then, surrounded by eager supplicants, call out the names of the lucky ones. At the end of it all, some schoolboys would walk away beaming, a letter from home eagerly to be torn open and read; yet others walked away crestfallen, left to look on longingly on those who had been lucky enough to have been the recipients of those postal missives. Perhaps our family had forgotten about us; perhaps we were ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Perhaps we did not matter; we were not important enough to be written to.
After I left boarding school, I continued to correspond with some friends by mail; I waited for their letters too, with some of that old eagerness. I would run down, time and again, to our building’s post-box, looking to see if the postman had brought goodies. This search was suffused with an irrational longing; I would check even the day after I had received a letter from my most frequent correspondent, somehow hoping he might have written two letters in a row. Sometimes I would check multiple times in a day when the the post-box remained empty; perhaps the postman had been late on his rounds, perhaps there would be two deliveries that day.
When I moved to the US, my mother wrote me letters regularly. The nightly check in the post-box, or, if my roommates had returned home before I did, on the table in the kitchen, quickly became another persistent ritual. I wanted to read her words, see her handwriting, establish contact with someone I had left behind, who I knew longed for me, and who I longed for in turn.
I never quite got over that craving for that touch, that contact, that reminder that someone had reached out.
The years rolled by. I discovered email. And the checking, the search for confirmation, grew and grew. Now, I check email–on all four of my accounts–constantly. There is a work account, a personal account, a blogging/social media/Twitter account, and lastly, an old work account, that for some inexplicable reason, I have not shut down. And there are Facebook notifications, Likes, comments, link shares, mentions, replies; there are Twitter mentions, retweets, favorites, replies. I check and check and check. On and on and on. It’s the first thing I do in the morning; it’s the last thing I do before I turn in to sleep; it’s what I do in the middle of the night if I cannot fall back to sleep after being disturbed–perhaps because of a bathroom break or my wailing toddler. (Like last night.)
I look at my inbox and see the count is at zero; my heart sinks. I see there are only spam or administrative emails; I am enraged. I post a link to a blog post and see no ‘likes’, a minuscule number of views; I am crestfallen. I see no replies to my tweets, no mentions; I feel anonymous and ignored.
But when people do reply, and I reply, and they reply, and on it goes, I’m exhausted and seek to withdraw. Words spring to my lips but I feel too weary to transmit them through my keyboard back ‘out there.’ I crave attention and then shrink from it when it arrives. I want to ride this train, but I want to get off too.
Vallotton is not so much an autobiographical artist as an artist who coolly and procedurally recognizes that his own emotional difficulties might supply him with viable imaginative material.
Vallotton wouldn’t be the first or last artist to recognize this, of course. Writers are among the most notorious exploiters of their autobiographies as source material for their works. So much so indeed, that many a writer has to strenuously object to critical assessments of their work that insist on viewing it as mere revisitation of their life’s previous narratives.
There is another kind of artist who draws on his “own emotional difficulties” to “supply him with viable imaginative material”: the neurotic. Here, the afflicted soul, familiar–at unconscious, subconscious and conscious levels–of the many traumas and crises that have thus far impinged on his life, uses them to construct all manner of fantasy, again, at varying levels of availability to his conscious self. There are daydreams aplenty, many revisitations of conflict, and lastly, and most interestingly of all, the construction of an elaborate mythology around daily life, the events of which acquire a distinctive hue because of their coloring by these repressed and available memories.
The neurotic, or the depressive, can thus become a tragic hero of sorts–to himself. His past now has a value all its own; it is that which has made his present dramatic and invested it with a poignant quality. He can now conceive of himself as a traveler through a landscape of trial and tribulation, bravely weathering the many storms it sends crashing down on him. He carries a heavier burden than most, he tells himself; his steps are slow and measured in recognition of this crushing load. Sometimes he is Sisyphus, sometimes a composite mythical figure constructed from heroes and saints alike.
There is thus value in this kind of self-conception, this kind of self-portrait. The afflicted life is dramatic and heroic; the resolved and cured life not so much. Small wonder then, that when lovers urge their neurotic partners to get help, to seek palliation and cure, so as to bring relief to their troubled relationship, the neurotic resists. His afflictions, which torment him so, are what make his life not humdrum. They are what render him unique and set him apart from the boring, teeming masses.
The neurotic is aided in his endeavors by the artist. Novelists devote great works to the forensic examination of flawed characters, carefully dissecting, and yet bringing to life, the tormented and the tortured. Artists graphically depict the sufferings of the damned. Those in pain are the subjects of works of art. The neurotic sees his life, this limited span of time here on this benighted earth, as his canvas, his blank page. The materials with which it these can best be drawn and written and brought to life are at hand: his past life, his troubles.
Who needs a cure when an illness can give so much meaning to an otherwise ephemeral and transient life?
There are times when I hear my little baby girl crying yet again–perhaps when she is hungry, or tired, or needs a diaper changed, or perhaps worse of all, has been ‘put down’ to sleep for one of her daily naps–and the thought crosses my mind that it makes perfectly good sense for our species to be one afflicted by ‘common unhappiness’ throughout our lives. How could we not, when we spend so much of our initial time on this planet wailing and bawling, expressing our terror and anger at this unfeeling, uncaring and mysterious world?
This is a rather superficial thought, especially when you consider that it is infected with the genetic fallacy: an infancy of tears does not necessarily entail an adulthood or even a childhood similarly afflicted. But still, one of the most common reassurances offered to anxious parents in this domain–to address the speculation expressed above–that “They all turn out pretty well in the end, don’t they?” isn’t particularly, well, reassuring. For I, like many others, do see ample evidence of psychological, psychic, and emotional dysfunction in the world of adults, dysfunction that one is all too easily tempted to posit as an explanatory factor for the visible and vivid failings on the political and moral fronts of our times. You’ve heard it before: a helpless being, terrified and alone, at the mercy of his hopefully-benign-and-loving caretakers, matures via a long process involving repeated traumas of separation, abandonment, rejection, and harsh disciplining, into a deeply conflicted, neurotic, self-and-other destructive entity. The world becomes the stage for the resolution of his neuroses; we, the sufferers of his miserable thrashings about.
In expressing this worry, this fear that the childhood experience of utter helplessness and sporadic, gut-wrenching anxiety and panic might translate into long-term afflictions I’m merely joining the ranks of generations and legions of anxious, guilt-ridden parents. (In seeking to use these experiences to explain the pervasive sense of ‘things falling apart’ in the wider world, I’m leaving the parents behind and flirting with a rather more ambitious crowd of theorizers.) The problem, of course, is that it is all too easy to engage in that most common of human activities: to try to imagine, for a moment, what another human might feel like, given the presumption of a roughly similar inner life and outwardly directed first-person perspective. Our success at doing this forms the basis for our empathetic experiences and underwrites the resilience of many of our personal relationships and codes of ethical conduct. And so, we cannot but speculate on what it might be like for a baby: alone, surrounded and enveloped by a sensory field of unknown dimension, subjected to pains and discomforts and discombulations. Comforts, too, yes, especially of the breast, the cuddle, the hug, and the kiss, but the mystery and terror of it seem overpowering and dominant.
Perhaps the only reassurance that I can offer myself at least, is that the baby’s perspective is nothing like mine, that she does not have the experiences that I do, equipped with language, a richer arsenal of concepts (especially ones like ‘fear’ and ‘anxiety’), and perhaps most importantly, more extensive experience with the unwillingness of this world to offer any confirmation that things will just turn out just fine. Perhaps the baby’s fears are mild ones, just expressed loudly and piercingly; perhaps the real fears are the ones we experience when we’ve grown up enough to understand more of this world of unconscious action and unforgiving consequence, of laws drafted without human consultation.
We can see here that the problem of the true and the false rationalisms [Utopianism] is part of a larger problem. Ultimately it is the problem of a sane attitude towards our own existence and its limitations–that very problem of which so much is made now by those who call themselves ‘Existentialists’, the expounders of a new theology without God. There is, I believe, a neurotic and even an hysterical element in this exaggerated emphasis upon the fundamental loneliness of man in a godless world, and upon the resulting tension between the self and the world. I have little doubt that this hysteria is closely akin to Utopian romanticism, and also to the ethic of hero-worship, to an ethic that can comprehend life only in terms of ‘dominate or prostrate yourself’. And I do not doubt that this hysteria is the secret of its strong appeal.
One thing Popper does well in this passage is instantiate irony. Here, in a chapter, which is an ode to non-dogmatic rationalism, he flirts with an especially dogmatic attitude towards existentialism. This produces an exceedingly peculiar piece of writing. After noting that the problems under consideration, those of true and false rationalisms, are part of a ‘larger problem’, that of devising the appropriate orientation to the basic fact of existence, Popper seems to suggest too much is made of it by the new theologians i.e., the existentialists. Thus, this problem is fundamental, but too much is made of it by other theorists. There clearly is no pleasing some people. It gets worse. Not only are the new theologians guilty of making perhaps too much of this problem, they do so neurotically or hysterically. It is more than extremely curious that Popper, the arch-critic of Freud and psychoanalysis, should have picked two terms straight from their vocabulary to show just how severe his criticism is, how acute the pathology under consideration is. He does not explain why these terms, in particular, apply. Are there symptoms of interest on display that might help us make up our minds? Popper does not explain too, why one of the central theses of a doctrine amounts to an ‘exaggerated emphasis’ on its claims by the proponents of the doctrine. How is a thesis to acquire centrality without emphasis?
But the dogmatism doesn’t end there. There is no argument to make the case that this ‘hysteria’–whatever it might be and however it might be manifested–is indeed as similar to ‘Utopian romanticism’ as Popper claims it is. What is the evidence for such a claim and why is this term is applicable to the attitude Popper is describing? Perhaps we are to be reassured by his statement that he has ‘little doubt’ about it. Popper then switches to posing a false dichotomy: that the existentialist ethic insists on comprehending life in terms of either domination or prostration. Popper seems to be making some vague gestures here toward Nietzsche, but this, prima facie, does not seem like a very coherent reading of him. Finally, to deliver the finishing touches, Popper then again reassures us of just how he does not ‘doubt’ that the aforesaid ‘hysteria’ is the reason for existentialism’s ‘strong appeal.’
All in all, this is not a distinguished display by Popper. Passages like these are not uncommon in philosophical polemics; I only note this one because its placement renders it especially incoherent.
[She] is a very ordinary middle-class woman, with banal expectations of life and an urge to dominate her surroundings. Her character is remarkable only for an unusual deficiency of natural feeling.
But what follows these lines is a perhaps more interesting set of observations:
Emma is trite; what happens to her is trite. Her story does not hold a single surprise for the reader, who can say at every stage, ‘I felt it coming.’ Her end is inevitable, but not as a classic doom, which is perceived as inexorable only when it is complete. It is inevitable because it is ordinary. Anyone could have prophesied what would become of Emma–her mother-in-law for instance. It did not need a Tiresias. If you compare her story with that of Anna Karenina, you are aware of the pathos of Emma’s. Anna is never pathetic; she is tragic, and what happens to her, up to the very end, is always surprising, for real passions and moral strivings are at work, which have the power of ‘making it new.’ In this her story is distinct from an ordinary society scandal of the period. Nor could any ordinary society prophet have forecast Anna’s fate. ‘He will get tired her and leave her,’ they would have said of Vronsky. He did not. But Rodolphe could have been counted on to drop Emma, and Leon to grow frightened of her and bored.
Where destiny is no more than average probability, it appears inescapable in a particularly depressing way. This is because any element in it can be replaced by a substitute without changing the outcome; e.g., if Rodolphe had not materialized, Emma would have found someone else. But if Anna had not met Vronsky on the train, she would still be married to Karenin. Vronsky is necessary, whereas Rodolphe and Leon are interchangeable parts in a machine that is engaged in mass production of human fates.
This is certainly an acute way to capture the contrast between a tragic fate and a merely pathetic one. It also, quite perspicuously, makes us cast Anna Karenina as the heroine of an existential drama, one not driven to her destiny, but one who remains in command till her tragic end. Societal compulsions may seem to have exerted inexorable pressure on her life, and made it hew to a precise trajectory, but as McCarthy notes, there remains a great deal of surprise to be found in each fork of the path she traveled. This sense of surprise ensures Anna Karenina works as a suspenseful novel; we are aware of tragedy looming, but still unclear about its exact contours. Of course, even in Emma’s case, her ‘end’ is not precisely determined, but that she would be forever condemned to her relentless, misery-making dissatisfaction seems preordained. In so doing, Emma resembles nothing as much as Freud‘s neurotics, destined to endlessly, helplessly, repeat a recurring pattern, and indeed, finding their only comfort in its reenactments.
Note: Excerpts from the 1964 Signet Classic edition of Madame Bovary featuring a translation by Mildred Marmur, a foreword by Mary McCarthy and excerpts from Gustave Flaubert‘s trial on obscenity charges in 1857.