Nietzsche On The Interpersonal Dynamics Of Social Networks

This afternoon, I sat down to read through the portions of HumanAll Too Human (Section VI – ‘Man in Society’ or ‘In Relations with Others’) that I had assigned to my Social Philosophy class, and once again, was struck by how acute and perspicuous so many of its aphorisms are–especially when it comes to anticipating the awkwardness and gaucherie and pretensions of our online social networks.

For instance, on the business of avatars, Nietzsche offers the following:

294 Copies. Not infrequently, one encounters copies of important people; and, as with paintings, most people prefer the copy to the original.

On the burdens of the kind of ‘friendships’ that are now increasingly common on social media:

296 Lack of intimacy. Lack of intimacy among friends is a mistake that cannot be censured without becoming irreparable.

On the kinds of knowledge and posturing that social networks encourage and facilitate:

302 Preference for certain virtues. We lay no special value on the possession of a virtue until we perceive its complete absence in our opponent.

305 Balance of friendship. Sometimes in our relationship to another person, the right balance of friendship is restored when we put a few grains of injustice on our own side of the scale.

On the ways and manner in which we express ourselves in meeting spaces online:

303 Why one contradicts. We often contradict an opinion, while actually it is only the tone with which it was advanced that we find disagreeable.

307 When paradoxes are appropriate. At times, one can win clever people over to a principle merely by presenting it in the form of an outrageous paradox.

On kinds of humble bragging:

313  Vanity of the tongue. Whether a man hides his bad qualities and vices or confesses them openly, his vanity wants to gain an advantage by it in both cases: just note how subtly he distinguishes between those he will hide his bad qualities from and those he will face honestly and candidly.

On being embroiled in pointless disputation and flame wars:

315 Required for debate. Whoever does not know how to put his thoughts on ice should not engage in the heat of argument.

317 Motive for attack. We attack not only to hurt a person, to conquer him, but also, perhaps, simply to become aware of our own strength.

326 Silence. For both parties, the most disagreeable way of responding to a polemic is to be angry and keep silent: for the aggressor usually takes the silence as a sign of disdain.

On the provision of a performance space by social networks:

325 Presence of witnesses. One is twice as happy to dive after a man who has fallen into the water if people are present who do not dare to.

And its associated lack of privacy:

327 The friend’s secret. There will be but few people who, when at a loss for topics of conversation, will not reveal the more secret affairs of their friends.

We should not be too surprised; we import, into our online meeting spaces, the dynamics of ‘offline’ interactions that have always been visible to the acute observer of the social scene. As Nietzsche undoubtedly was.

A Paradigmatic Example Of A Philosophical Dickhead

Over at the Rough Ground, Bharath Vallabha has an interesting and critical post on the institutional biases implicit and explicit in the ranking of philosophers. He takes as target a recent poll that ranked the Top Twenty Anglophone Philosophers. Vallabha notes the lists’ most prominently featured institutions and philosophical traditions, its narrow emphases, and goes on to conclude:

At its root what “Anglophone philosophy” picks out is not a language or even a philosophical tradition (like Logical Positivism or Ordinary Language Philosophy), but simply the network of departments which are considered to form a unit. Therefore “Anglophone philosophy” is just another way of saying: “doing philosophy this way, what we do, at these departments.”

Unsurprisingly, given Vallabha’s recent persistence in making this–and related–critiques of the institutions of academic philosophy, his post provokes the following comment from ‘Anonymous’:

I think you’re getting to be a broken record on this topic. We get that you think it’s all about the sociology of institutions and connections, and not intellectual content, but have you really argued that or just asserted it? Can you name an Indian philosopher in the last fifty years who wrote in English and explain why his (or her) work was important, indeed, as important as any of those in the top 20 or the top 30 on the list?

When Vallabha responds, offering reasons for why he makes such a critique and cites as an example of an ‘important philosopher’, J. N. Mohanty–a philosopher I can bet good money Anonymous has never heard of–Anonymous comes back with a series of rapid-fire questions. (Picture, if you will, this querulous questioner at an academic seminar.)

You have not explained why Mohanty’s work was important, other than saying it bridges traditions. Why is that important? And how is that comparable to, for example, Kripke’s contributions to modal logic and our thinking about meaning and reference? What important philosophical theses are due to Mohanty? Can you state them for us?

Anonymous’ opening comment was a very good example of a very particular style of doing philosophy–one I am intimately familiar with thanks to my experience attending philosophy colloquia. Here, Anonymous opens with an accusation of ‘overkill’; no reasons are given for this characterization. Instead, it is assumed emphasis and persistence are philosophical sins (especially when they concern the ‘sociology of institutions’, an unimportant issue to be sure.) Then, interestingly enough, for someone familiar enough with the content of Vallabha’s posts to say they sound like ‘a broken record,’ he asks “Have you argued it or just asserted it’? Perhaps Anonymous can tell us why–i.e., offer reasons why he thinks Vallabha is only asserting and not arguing. Then, we have some aggressive interrogation, mixed in with a healthy dose of disbelief: “Can you name an Indian philosopher…” Clearly, if an Indian philosopher writes a post critical of the Anglo-American tradition in philosophy, it must be because he is upset about Indian philosophers being left off some exalted list. And, of course, if Anonymous hasn’t heard of them, they don’t exist.

There is a masterful engagement here with the content of Vallabha’s post that suggests a really well-trained philosophical mind–one perhaps keenly honed on modal logic and repeated readings of Naming and Necessity. Having thrown these rhetorical firecrackers, and thus in his exalted mind, having scattered the advancing forces of critique directed at the high temples of Anglophone philosophy, Anonymous does not stick around to offer, gasp, reasons for his skepticism and disdain in response to questions put to him by Martin Shuster:

Anonymous – can you explain why modal logic or thoughts about meaning/reference are important? Why are they more important than thinking about how to bring together disparate traditions and people, or indeed whatever (other) issues Mohanty thought about? Thinking about how to bring together traditions might do much to alleviate human suffering, and one could argue then, that it is far more valuable than advances in modal logic or theories of reference.The thing is, either philosophy–understood here in the broadest sense as self reflection and critical thought–is important or it is not. If it is, then there is no way to decide, in advance, which issues are more important than others, and therefore which figures.

I’ve written a couple of posts before on the discursive environment in academic philosophy. They were titled On The Lack of Women in Philosophy: The Dickhead Theory and The Dickhead Theory of Academic Philosophy, Revisited. In those posts, I was indulging in some hand-waving, referring to a class of academic philosophers without naming names or citing paradigmatic examples. Well, I still don’t have names, but I do a have a paradigmatic example.

Anonymous is a dickhead. And he–I use that pronoun advisedly–is not alone.

Shyness, Introverts, And Receding To Older Personas

A few days ago, I wrote on my occasional avoidance of company and/or conversation–with friends, acquaintances, and implicitly, of course, with strangers. In concluding, I wrote:

On those occasions when I do carry out such deft evasions, I am reminded that despite writing in public spaces and despite taking up a career that requires me to stand in front of groups of people and talk, I retain at the core of my being, traces of a self quite familiar to me: a shy person who often prefers the company of a book to that of a fellow human.

This “shy person” was far more visible when I was a child. Then, I was considerably uninterested in entering my peer groups, and was also reluctant to spend much time in the company of adults other than my parents. My friendships were almost invariably made, not with groups, but with other lads who seemed similarly afflicted with a case of shy-itis. Two years spent in a boarding school forced me to emerge from this self-imposed shell, inducing a change that was visible to many who had previously known me as  a tongue-tied resident of social margins. (c.f the stuttering phase of my life.)

Moving out from home and migrating–two events that were rolled into one for me–further imposed a veneer of extroversion upon the older introverted self. I was forced to advocate for myself, to seek new relationships, and of course, I responded, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, to explicit and implicit pressures to assimilate.

But I don’t think I ever felt wholly comfortable with these changes. Even if the transformation which they seemed to have induced was so comprehensive that my suggestion that I was ‘essentially’ a shy person was invariably greeted with skepticism and disbelief. And more unkindly, as a kind of posturing.

Over the years, I have noticed a creeping exhaustion with the effort required to maintain this persona–which you would only describe as being ‘inauthentic’ if you insisted on being reductive–of the gregarious extrovert. Even if that maintenance brought in its wake many goods. For instance, I have made some very good friends, relationships with whom have endured over the years;  I have been able to enter into a long-term, stable romantic relationship (which is, obviously, challenging, as these things invariably are); and of course, I have been enriched a great deal,  intellectually and emotionally, by the many conversations and personal encounters that I have experienced over the years. (Almost all of my academic work is co-authored; my collaborations were essential to my work. I find myself thinking aloud, in company, in ways unknown to my solitary self.)

But these ‘gains’ have not been earned easily. And much like an athlete might find it hard to persist with high levels of excellence in her performances over the years, so do I find myself disinclined to push myself as hard as I  once did, to persist with an older energy, in a kind of ‘social performance.’ I look, occasionally, at the sidelines, at the benches, where some relief from the burdens of social expectation awaits. I feel, ever so gradually and yet distinctly, an ebbing, a receding, a return, to an older place of repose and comfort.

This does not mean, again, that I disdain human company. I think it just means that I’ve become more selective about the avenues where I will expend my social energies.

On Avoiding Company And Conversation

Yesterday afternoon, after I had finished teaching, as I hurried to the Flatbush Avenue subway station to catch a train for my evening workout, I saw a Brooklyn College colleague out of the corner of my eye. I walked on; I did not want to say hello; I did not want to stop and talk. This was not because I disdain the perfectly pleasant company of my fellow academic; rather, I simply did not have the energy to engage in conversation. Conversation would entail: first, the exchange of pleasantries and niceties, and then later, quite possibly, an intellectual engagement on which I would have to stay on my toes. Conversations can be exhausting. At that moment, all I wanted to do was sink into a seat on the subway and read a book. I meant no insult or rejection to my colleague. I just wanted to be alone.

I indulge in this sort of ‘anti-social’ behavior  quite often. Sometimes, I will see a neighbor on the street, and will walk past them if they have not seen me. Sometimes, I will carry out the same avoidance on campus, briskly threading my way through a gaggle of students that now provides cover for my escape. Sometimes, at that same Flatbush Avenue subway station, I will see a colleague sitting in a subway car, and will walk on to the next one. (Not always, of course; often, I enjoy catching up with friends whom I haven’t seen in a long time.) This avoidance behavior seems to occur the most often on trains; I suspect this is because my time on trains affords me some precious reading time and I’m loath to spend it on conversation. On occasion, it’s easier to justify this shrinking from social encounters: I enjoy varying degrees of comfort with the many acquaintances in my life, and with some of them conversations can suffer from some awkwardness, some shuffling of the feet, some looking for a quick way out. In those cases, it’s easy to justify my turning away, my pressing on.

I feel some guilt about this behavior. I seem to be disdaining encounters with fellow human beings, preferring my own company; I seem to prefer remaining lost in my own thoughts, my own reveries; I seem to prefer solipsism. It’s entirely possible that some of the folks I ‘ignore’ have seen me despite my attempts to remain incognito and have been offended. I may have insulted and slighted the more sensitive of my friends. I mean no harm, no offense. I’m a man of limited resources–emotional and intellectual–and conservation comes easily to me in these circumstances.

On those occasions when I do carry out such deft evasions, I am reminded that despite writing in public spaces and despite taking up a career that requires me to stand in front of groups of people and talk, I retain at the core of my being, traces of a self quite familiar to me: a shy person who often prefers the company of a book to that of a fellow human. Sometimes, I’m just too tired to talk, too tired to navigate the shoals of social encounters. Sometimes I’d much rather read.

Once again, no offense intended.

The Dickhead Theory Of Academic Philosophy, Revisited

A little while ago on this blog, I posited something I jocularly termed The Dickhead Theoryas a possible explanation for the lack of women in academic philosophy (“there are too many dickheads in philosophy”). In response, one male reader commented:

At the risk of unjustly downplaying its particular effect on women, I’ll note that the dickheadishness of professional philosophy affects men too. It’s one of the reasons I left the field. To succeed in some philosophical fora seemed to require not only the *willingness* to wave one’s dick in the way you describe, but an outright love of doing so. I don’t find oneupsmanship to be a very appealing motivator, which put me at a disadvantage.

And then, just a couple of days ago, I received an email–from a male graduate student–which read:

I have to admit, I was happy to see someone suggest this.  At my undergrad, I seldom if ever came across this sort of behavior in philosophy classes or seminars – something I now recognize as a blessing.  Coming to [XXX] on the other hand, I was admittedly rather shocked at the prevalence of this sort of behavior among the students.  You mention that this behavior is possibly a deterrent to would-be women philosophers.  I think this is probably right.  But I must admit that I too – a male – also found this sort of behavior discouraging, and I’ve heard other male colleagues express the same sentiment.  Also, I’ve even seen this behavior exhibited by female colleagues.  I suppose that what I’m trying to say is that I see this as a problem not just for women interested in philosophy – though as I said, I think this probably is a problem in this respect – but also for the profession in general. [name of institution, er, redacted]

Both my interlocutors are correct: the “dickheadishness of professional philosophy affects men too.” Male philosophers are not a monolithic bloc, and indeed, neither are women philosophers, some of whom, indeed, do display the same obnoxious behavior I complained about in my original post. Many of the former demographic do not find the atmosphere of ‘philosophical debate’ to their liking, conducted as it often is, in a manner that seems deeply counterproductive to the idealized notion of philosophical inquiry. Love of wisdom seems a very distant notion in these abrasive exchanges.

My second interlocutor then goes on to ask:

Given that you mentioned this problem publicly, I wonder whether you have any opinions on how to change this aspect of the culture of our profession?  Also, do you think it is a problem many other philosophers take seriously?

Second question first. I do know many academic philosophers take this problem seriously. Certainly, the philosophers I cited in my original piece do, and some others have even taken public vows to treat their colleagues with more respect in academic settings. (See for instance Carrie Jenkins’ Day One post; but see too, the reaction it provoked). But we should also acknowledge that being a dickhead is not likely to get you much professional blowback–especially if you have a few OUP or CUP books. The incentive schemes of academic philosophy are not set up to recognize or reward non-dickheadish behavior.

There is another problem, perhaps more fundamental, one which I’m not sure can be addressed. Philosophical activity is often, fundamentally, understood as the presentation and refutation of arguments. It is presented as an essentially adversarial activity: we critique, we analyze, we take apart, we seek weaknesses, we probe for openings in arguments. If an argument can be refuted or made to seem untenable then so much the better for it. (Indeed, the intensity of the inquisition is valorized.) As such an entire vocabulary of trial and examination, of survival and fortitude, is imported. I think this has a great deal to do with the some of the behavioral patterns on display. There might be alternative conceptions of philosophical activity but they do not have much play in academic philosophy–at least, as far as I can see.

Social norms in a community can be changed; we can indicate, with varying degrees of disapproval, whether some species of behavior is praiseworthy and worthy of encouragement. Much normative weight can be attached to such praise or condemnation. But if our very activity is understood within a framework that is fundamentally about conflict, then we might be fighting a losing battle. (No pun intended.)

Addendum: My Brooklyn College colleague Serene Khader comments:

Feminist philosophy is a place where alternative norms are very much alive. The paradigm supposes that we are involved in a collective enterprise and trying to figure out the truth together. We scrutinize arguments by saying things like “can you help me see how to get from x to y” and “maybe it would be helpful to you to consider this objection.”

Facebook and Writers’ Status Messages

My last post on Facebook led me to think a bit more its–current and possible–integration into our lives, especially those conducted online.

As ‘net users are by now aware, almost any site you visit on the ‘net features a Facebook button so that you can indicate whether you ‘Like’ the page and thus, share it with your ‘Friends.’ Of course, in so doing, you also leave a digital trail of sorts, indicating what you have read, what music you have listened to, which videos you have viewed, which jokes you found funny, and so on. As Eben Moglen put it rather memorably at a talk at NYU a few years ago, (and I quote from memory):

In the old days, the East German Stasi used to have to follow people, bug them, intimidate their friends to find out what they read, what they got up to in their spare time. Now. we have ‘Like’ buttons that do the same for us.

The surveillance, the generation of data detailing our habits, our inclinations, our predilections, is indeed quite efficient; it is made all the more so by having outsourced it to those being surveilled, by dint of the provision of simple tools for doing so.

I personally do not get very creeped out by the notion of hitting ‘Like’ on a article that I enjoyed reading–though, struck by Moglen’s remark, I have not done so even once since returning to Facebook in 2010. I do however find it very creepy that Netflix asks me if I would like to share my movie viewing preferences with my friends on Facebook; that seems excessively invasive. 

In any case, I do not think the limits of this kind of ‘integration’ of Facebook with the information we consume and the software we use have yet been reached.

Here is at least one more possible avenue for Facebook’s designers to consider. Many ‘net users access it via an ‘always-on’ connection. Thus, even when they are not actively using an Internet application–like say, a word processor, or a spreadsheet–they are still connected to the ‘net. In the not so distant future, these programs could be designed–by close cooperation between Facebook and the software vendor in question–to supply information about our usage of these applications to our ‘Friends.’ On a real-time basis.

Thus, for instance, when I would open a file on my word processor, my ‘Friends’ would be so informed; they would then learn how long I had continued editing, how many breaks I took, (and of course, if those breaks were online, they would be told which pages I had opened, and how long I had spent there), and so on. Our software would come with this feature turned on; you would have to opt-out or customize your sharing.

This way, all those status messages we are often treated to on Facebook: ‘Hooray, first draft complete!’ or ‘Finally got five hundred words written today’ or ‘I just can’t seem to get anything written today’ could be automated. Extremely convenient, don’t you think? Examples like this–for other kinds of applications–can be readily supplied, I’m sure.

Facebook and Impoverished Sharing

A few days ago, on this blog, I excerpted a couple of passages from Richard Klein‘s Cigarettes are Sublime, and wrote of a little episode in my life centered on smoking cigarettes as a way to kill time.  Once I had written the post and published it here, as is usual, I posted links to it on my Twitter feed and my Facebook page. As I did so, I wondered if I should tag the friend of mine who had gifted me the book almost twenty years ago–he is on Facebook too, just like me. My tagging of him would be a kind of public acknowledgment of his gift, maybe even a late thank-you to add to the one I sent his way when he first gave me my birthday gift. Perhaps I could tag him in the comments space, writing something like:

Hey D___: remember you bought me this book for my birthday in 1995? Well, I’ve read it – nineteen years later!

I didn’t do so but I’m still tempted to–somehow it seemed like the ‘reasonable’ thing to do on Facebook. For such tagging, such calling-out, is eminently the norm on Facebook.  If you post something on your Timeline, and if any of your friends is somehow potentially interested in–or, as in my case–connected somehow–to the subject of your post, well, then, you tag them, you alert them–you ‘share’, you ‘link’, you ‘network.’ Of course, when you do so, you do so publicly.

In an alternative universe, I might have written my blog post, and then separately emailed my friend to let him know that I had finally reached up into my bookshelf, read his witty inscription, and read the birthday gift he had so generously purchased for me (on a graduate student’s salary, no less). That epistolary interaction might have turned into a longer one if he had replied, perhaps with a reminiscence or two about that period of genteel semi-poverty, perhaps with a rueful acknowledgment of how long cigarettes had been a presence in our lives. If I had done my tagging on Facebook, we might have had the same interaction but in public, not in private. Its content, which we might have imagined more appropriate for email, would have been visible to all our ‘friends.’  Or perhaps we might not have had the same conversation; perhaps we would have found an unhappy middle-ground where, subconsciously aware of our ‘audience’ we would have made our exchanges less revealing, less forthcoming. And yet still remained in the public eye, not moving our correspondence to email.

The structure and features of Facebook are–as I’ve noted here previously–set up to shift a great deal of communication, previously imagined to be private, to public spaces, available for inspection by your ‘friends’, all in the name of sharing. Its impact on privacy is much talked about; one of the dimensions of that impact is how we may subscribe to its sharing model while retaining some of our intuitions about what we consider shareworthy, thus impoverishing our interactions with our ‘friends.’