Weightless Words on the World Wide Web

Guy Debord, writing in the 1960s, analysed the supplanting of the active and directly lived life of society by the ‘spectacle’, with which members of society passively identify and which they consume. Debord made clear that the spectacle—the mediation of social relations by images—isn’t merely some supplement to society, but that it lies at the heart of our society’s unreality.

I’ve discussed Debord’s work before in various places and have emphasized the ways in which the Internet, and social media in particular, reinforce and extend the dynamics he observed. On social media, the identification with the spectacle is redoubled, not least through the role played by the ‘second screen’. While the ‘first screen’ is the screen upon which we watch a film or TV show, the ‘second screen’ is the screen with which we share our responses and identifications with the images of the first screen on social media.

This ‘second screen’ tightens the spectacle’s control over us and increases our alienation from directly lived reality by further incorporating the self into the spectacle. In the realm of the spectacle, alienated from the solidity and weightiness of reality, the self is highly performative, defined almost entirely by its chosen self-expression and identifications, rather than by any given nature or belonging. The selves that result are fragile, reactive, and unstable.

In this realm, we are defined by appearances, by the images that we project of ourselves within the shared spectacle. You are defined, not by your behaviour over many years in the concrete world, by your family relations, or by your deep belonging within your community, but by the cultural artefacts you like and by the way you align yourself with your words. Whereas the dominance of appearance was necessarily constrained in the past by the sheer weight and immediacy of the concrete world in which we acted, the Internet, as a disembodied and virtual realm cut off from the concrete world, enables appearance to eclipse everything else.

I was brought to think about this again today when reflecting upon the amount of emotional and physical energy expended online in the analysis of, reaction to, and identification with various cultural artefacts, especially by Christians. I have yet to watch the film itself, so haven’t been looking out for them, but I must have seen at least fifty reviews or articles in response to The Last Jedi, a number of them written by Christians. I have encountered countless other reactions on social media and elsewhere.

The glutinous agglomeration of ‘takes’ that social media coughs up after the release of every major cultural product is a telling indication of just how closely we have come to identify with our entertainment consumption. This proliferation of takes reveals a sort of incontinence of speech, probably a result of the sapping of gravity from the realm of discourse and our disconnection from the world of action. When words weigh little they are easy to pronounce. When the online spectacle is our primary reality, what else is there to do but to speak incessantly and incestuously? Like a balloon filled with hot air and untethered from the ground, the solidity of the earth will gradually retreat from our view as we float higher and higher into the thin atmosphere of a realm forgetful of gravity and concreteness.

Where there is little concrete reality that we share in common, the importance of big movies and other such aspects of the spectacle as means of forging community is considerable. A film like The Last Jedi is a global phenomenon and, in the world of social media, it affords us a means of identifying with and against others by means of our shared consummation and various responses to it. Donald Trump is another such spectacle. One of the prominent ends of people’s performative responses on social media to his incompetent governance is the creation of community between people who have little else in common. The hostility to people who are not obsessively absorbed in and vocally preoccupied in this spectacle, illustrated in recent criticisms of Taylor Swift, can be quite revealing of how powerfully this spectacle dominates people’s minds.

If you want to understand the increasingly febrile obsession with global politics and entertainment media in our society, it will be difficult to do so without taking the part played by social media into account. Performative consummation of global politics and big entertainment events are primary means by which we can feel connected to and involved in a larger international community. Without this spectacle in common to obsess over, we wouldn’t have that much that we could all talk about. We would have to focus on more local and concrete issues in the communities we physically inhabit. And that would clearly be terrible.

I’ve been bewildered by the sheer strength of feeling that many ostensibly grown-up human beings can have about franchises such as Star Wars or the various movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, both of which are essentially juvenile entertainment of somewhat uneven merit. I like many of these films, but the vehemence of many people’s responses to them suggests that our consummation of pop culture is playing an unhealthily large role in the formation and expression of our identities.

This unhealthy fixation on entertainment media is also seen in the increased politicization of our films, especially among modern progressives. For millennial progressives and members of the generations that succeed them, for instance, representation of women and minorities in entertainment media has become an obsession. Every cultural artefact will be pored over, with the representation of each identity grouping scrutinized closely. This is as true for many of the people reacting against the ways that pop culture is being shaped by ‘political correctness’: many of them just want a different form of politicization, rather than to break our unhealthy cultural obsession with entertainment media that drives such demands. If you are complaining that a film-maker has ruined your childhood, perhaps it is time to grow up.

As a result of these obsessions, contemporary pop culture artefacts are often scrupulously alert to such issues, concerned to squeeze in as many identity groups as possible, to depict them favourably, and to conceive of themselves as emancipatory gestures and forms of resistance to prevailing power structures. As a result, political and social justice subtexts are seldom far beneath the surface of a modern pop cultural artefact. And in so politicizing their cultural output, their producers are only responding to the ways in which their artefacts are being consumed.

The fact that this involves departures from the character of concrete reality that become ludicrous as they assume conspicuousness in the aggregate—such as the ‘strong female character’ trope—is irrelevant. The spectacle isn’t supposed to resonate with concrete reality; the spectacle is people’s reality. This is one of the key reasons why identities behave so weirdly nowadays. Emancipatory gestures on the screen are profoundly significant for people who spend much of their free time in front of screens, so much so that they often eclipse concrete forms of freedom or bondage. To call this escapism would be to miss the fact that this alienated reality largely is our society, not an escape from a concrete, grounded, and weighty society that still exists intact.

All of this brings me to the phenomenon of Christian commentary on and engagement with entertainment media, politics, and the social spectacle more generally. While there are doubtless things to be gained from reflection upon our cultural artefacts, I fear that most of the effort that Christians expend in their ‘takes’ and responses to these things merely serve as expressions and intensifications of our hopeless absorption in the society of the spectacle. In these Christian ‘takes’ and cultural commentary, we seek morally to metabolize a specious entertainment culture to which we have become hopelessly addicted. We spend our days as glued to and preoccupied by the entertainment on our screens as everyone else and watch the same things as everyone else. We just produce Christian takes at the end of it. While film and TV analysis can be illuminating, for instance, much of it is currently enabling our collective failure to grow up.

And entertainment media is merely a more intense manifestation of the more general phenomenon of the dominance of the spectacle. For Christians, this can involve a preoccupation with incessant theological or political discourse and posturing, especially online, in which an excess of fine words supplants the concrete reality of Christian discipleship. This is a real danger for many of us—I speak to myself here before anyone else—yet it is a danger that we seldom register as clearly as we must. As I’ve argued in the past, we are all almost unavoidably virtue-signallers online—our words are only lightly tethered to concrete reality and hence increasingly serve primarily as means of self-identification and alignment.

Posting something like this online, the danger is that it will merely be caught up in the same dynamic. People will like and share it on social media, thereby displaying something about their identities and values, while continuing to participate in the spectacle more or less unquestioningly. Perhaps some will write their own appreciative or critical takes in response, and we will all continue the games of ideological alignment that we play out every other day.

If anything of what I’ve said in this post rings true in your personal experience, I would request that you refrain from the instinctive action of sharing it, a pseudo-action which easily substitutes for making a genuine change. By all means share it, but please don’t do so until you have taken an initial and determined step—just one step, whatever that step might be—to assess, to arrest, and to break the habits that sustain the power of the spectacle in your own life. The alternative is merely adding to the vast multitude of weightless words that fill social media. And what use does Christ have for that?

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Culture, Ethics, On the web, Politics, Society, The Blogosphere. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Weightless Words on the World Wide Web

  1. jamsilver says:

    Difficult to see society changing course.

  2. Aaron Siver says:

    Thank you, Alastair, for taking time once again to reflect and share. It was edifying. I certainly would have enjoyed it as conversation face to face in a couple armchairs.


  3. ‘Lo, what great heaps of littleness around!’ (Alexander Pope)
    I don’t think I have re-read Pope since I was at school but, having read your piece about ‘weightless words’, here I am reading Pope again – thank you for another thought-provoking article, Alastair!

  4. Pingback: Weightless Words on the World Wide Web « Reformed faith salsa style

  5. Ian says:

    Is it me, or are the last few weeks the first time we have heard, from those involved in developing social media themselves, how damaging and harmful it is for communication, truth and human flourishing? I wonder if there are the first signs here of the turn of a tide of opinion…?

    • People like Tristan Harris have been working in this area for a while. However, this movement has gained a lot more momentum and prominence recently, which is encouraging. I’m also heartened to see the work of Michael Sacasas and other Christians in this area gaining a wider audience.

  6. Geoff says:

    1 TS Eliot

    Humankind cannot bear very much reality

    Time present and time past
    Are both perhaps present in time future
    And time future contained in time past.
    What might have been and what has been
    Point to one end, which is always present….

    Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
    Cannot bear very much reality.
    Time past and time future
    What might have been and what has been
    Point to one end, which is always present.

    2 PaulSimon Kodachrome

    When I think back
    On all the crap I learned in high school
    It’s a wonder
    I can think at all
    And though my lack of education
    Hasn’t hurt me none
    I can read the writing on the wall

    They give us those nice bright colors
    They give us the greens of summers
    Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day
    I got a Nikon camera
    I love to take a photograph
    So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away

    If you took all the girls I knew
    When I was single
    And brought them all together for one night
    I know they’d never match
    My sweet imagination
    Everything looks worse in black and white

    They give us those nice bright colors
    They give us the greens of summers
    Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day
    I got a Nikon camera
    I love to take a photograph
    So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away

    Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away
    Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away
    Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away
    3 The Unbearable Lightness of Being : Milan Kundera

    4 The tyranny of entertainment, the OCD of instant gratification, the baselessness of boredom, the death of delayed gratification are manifestations of the solidifying of dystopian hyperreality. Ichabod, indeed.

    5 But, Mary treasured and pondered

    Luke 2: 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

    21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.

    6 The wonderful weight of words of glory, of the Word of God, made manifest indeed. Kabod.

  7. Wenatchee The Hatchet says:

    I would suggest, Alastair, the problem with saying devotion to these media franchises keeps people from growing up because of their immersion in entertainment is potentially an assertion that could be made in bad faith. Any new atheist polemicist could reply that if you’re worried about people devoting their lives to endlessly discussing and debating the ethical implications and cultural significance of fairy tales, then you shouldn’t be talking about Christian theology, the Western grandfather of all such talk. If Christ is not risen then Christians are more to be pitied for endlessly discussing the significance of stories about something that didn’t happen than a Star Wars fan, who could quip that he knows perfectly well none of this stuff happened, which makes him superior to a Christian who imagines Jesus even existed. I’ve come across Star Wars fans who, as atheists, propose that at least they KNOW none of this stuff really happened, whereas Christians claim the fairy tales they discuss really did take place.

    I think the real problem we can observe in Star Wars fandom or blue/red political partisanship or football devotion is more straightforward than people not “growing up”. These are the real cults of religious observance that have so supplanted Christendom in the West that Christians who aim to be culturally relevant feel obliged to show they’re aware of these cults and try to use them as gateways to discuss Christianity. Where a fundamentalist a century ago might say all this pulp fiction narrative was an idolatrous distraction from real piety contemporary Christian cultural engagement attempts to show itself even more savvy in the mythologies than those producing the franchises by imposing Christ typologies on them.

    But more and more I think that the Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universe cults are too easy to spot because they present themselves straightforwardly as essentially religious or utopian cults. Roddenberry made no bones about the social engineering goals of Star Trek in the promotion of liberal, secular, humanistic values. More sneaky are those meta-level art religion cults that present themselves as more grown up. You can take or leave Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel or DC franchises but if in a room of college-educated arts fans you say that Clementi wrote piano sonatas that more fun than Mozart you’re going to find out that you’ve violated a religious taboo about which composer is presumed to be better. 🙂

    Wagner’s ideas about art and religion and revolutionary art had it that art was going to fulfill the role that had previously been played by the dead dogmas of religion (Roger Scruton’s book out this year on Wagner’s Ring Cycle hammers away at this idea). What’s ghastly to highbrow and middlebrow tastes is that the immersive art religions of contemporary society that bind people together aren’t operas by Wagner, poetry by Mallarme, or music by Beethoven, it’s Star Wars, Star Trek and properties distributed by Hasbro. While A. O. Scott believes in Better Living Through Criticism what that amounts to, as I see it, is that for middle and highbrow tastes art religion mutated in the last two centuries into something more worthy of the class distinctions, art religion has been modified into a meta-art religion of arts criticism.

    But I’m not sure that means that Roger Scruton is really better, in the end, for writing hundreds of pages about the metaphysical truths in Wagner’s Ring cycle that transcend religious dogma and how new Ring productions ironically try to subvert the literary value of Wagner’s ideals than an angry fan is about Luke Skywalker not being the real Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi. It means that the 19th century artist’s ideal of an art religion that would supplant Christianity has emerged in the 21st century as pulp fiction, athletics and a variety of other things that seem shameful to people with highbrow aspirations. And that’s not saying there’s no reason to be ashamed, really, just that I think we should hesitate to dismiss the lowbrow art religion as keeping people from “growing up”. If the Star Wars cultists from forty years ago hadn’t grown up enough to pay their own bills we wouldn’t be seeing Episode 8 in theaters now (for those, you know, who still want to see Star Wars movies by now).

    It may be a bit cynical of me but when I see trailers for The Post all I see is a superhero story for “grown ups” about how journalists did battle against the Nixon administration. The gap between The Post and a Star Wars film in terms of moralizing doesn’t seem “that” big to me these days.

    I’ve been comparing notes with cal throughout the year on the trajectory of American/European art religions. What’s galling for middlebrow and highbrow sensibility is that while there’s art religion in our age it’s not Wagner opera or poetry by Mallarme or novels by Proust, it’s Star Wars, Star Trek, Transformers and My Little Pony. That was not, to put it mildly, what the visionary poets and artist seers had in mind in the early 19th century when they foretold that a religion of art would replace Christianity. I don’t think the potency of pop culture is that it keeps people from growing up, it’s more clearly manifest in the inter-generational cults that have formed around these pop culture franchises. The toys that a generation played with decades ago were part of an art religion that seems daft and insipid to some, but the power of those toys as talismans for imagination was that it invited a child to play out new adventures. The middlebrow and highbrow art religions are less potent because they quite literally don’t have toys to play with but canons to digest. But the idols of middlebrow and highbrow art religion aren’t any less tempting just because they don’t literally sell toy lines to go with them. For that there’s books of essays by Pauline Kael or Roger Scruton. 🙂

    I DO agree there’s a pernicious influence in these pop culture franchises and the media used to promote them, but I would say the problem isn’t that these things keep people from growing up, it’s that these are cults that are so pervasive that Christians reverse-engineer their way of discussing Christ and Scripture so as to feel they’re being culturally engaged.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      I’m quite unpersuaded by this; it is a facile comparison that simply doesn’t hold. It is one thing to be passionately existentially devoted to fictional worlds primarily aimed at a young audience and produced by heavily commercialized mass entertainment; it is quite another to be passionately concerned with a faith, with its claims to truth about the world, to the importance of weighty action shaped by it, to the formation of society around it, to understanding and following its ethical direction, etc. Such a faith may be misguided, based upon myths without any foundation, but the people engaged in it, for all of the mistaken beliefs they might hold, aren’t LARPing, but are engaged in a serious and committed quest for truth in the real world.

      There are also some very important differences between contemporary pop culture and the sort of art to which you are comparing it. Wagner can certainly inspire deeply unhealthy obsessions in its audiences (and historically he clearly has), but Wagner’s work functions principally as art, rather than as entertainment. While entertainment is chiefly measured by its capacity to provide a pleasurable and relatively undemanding experience for its audience—and, for its creators, a profitable return on their investment—art is measured by the intrinsic ends of creation and transformation.

      Wagner’s music, like other such art, is demanding of its audience, rewarding of close and rigorous attention, challenging for its performers and interpreters, pushes and explores the potential of its media, and advances a vision for the world. Art can often be entertaining, but merely moving an audience isn’t enough. Art is measured by much less forgiving criteria. Entertainment aimed at highly demotic tastes, particularly when aimed principally at a juvenile audience, seldom explores deep and serious themes, or at least seldom does it particularly well. Wagner and others make demands of their audiences that a Marvel or Star Wars film seldom do.

      Art that pushes its audience deliberately to refine and develop their tastes, to understand the medium and its potential better, etc. is different from the heavily commercialized worlds of Marvel and Disney. Wagner wrote his music to be performed by musicians of incredible talent for audiences of refined taste. This, of course, doesn’t mean that there isn’t cutting edge art in a Star Wars film. The cinematography, special effects and CGI work, and many aspects of the film production will be pioneering, but this is not what audiences are being drawn to see, nor what is being showcased.

      The same work can be assessed as entertainment and as art. There are people who will study the Harry Potter books for their artistic merit and find much in them worthy of praise, for instance. However, this is not the posture that most take towards them, which is important here. Assessed as art, the Star Wars films are not particularly great. The acting is rarely outstanding, the writing isn’t particularly great either. The special effects are state of the art, but they are being appreciated for their entertainment value, rather than assessed for their artistic merit. Nevertheless, as entertainment, the Stars Wars films are brilliant. We are fans of them for a reason. Entertainment shouldn’t be discredited merely because it is entertaining, nor should we pretend that good entertainment does not require great skill of its creators. However, we go badly wrong when we fail to distinguish entertainment from art.

      It is quite possible for a person who grew up on Star Wars to learn to judge it as art, not merely as entertainment. This will require a significant change of posture towards it, requiring gaining knowledge and undertaking personal growth in taste and judgment in a way that appreciating it as entertainment really does not. Appreciating art requires wisdom and maturity, while being entertained does not. What such a person will soon discover is that George Lucas was indebted to pioneering artists such as Akira Kurosawa and that, despite the fact that Star Wars might be considered peerless entertainment, it really isn’t peerless art.

      Pop culture, as entertainment culture, can prevent people from growing up, to the extent that what we read, watch, and listen to doesn’t challenge us to grow deeply in understanding, taste, and discernment and leaves us preoccupied with that which is merely entertaining and pleasurable. Cultural artefacts that primarily aim to please and affirm their audiences can arrest growth, whereas works that encourage and reward a posture of artistic discernment help us all to grow up.

  8. cal says:

    I don’t see how the ‘second screen’ is much different than how Kierkegaard described the phenomenon of the crowd. The difference is in size; for Kierkegaard and analysts of rallies and mass-movements, there was nothing inherently weighty about being around other people. In fact, the opposite was true, as a mass of people became weightless as the individual dissolved into a surge of feeling.

    And I don’t think you grasped the nature of the Christian “hot take”. I don’t think it’s buying into the mass-media pop-culture reality as much as it is seeking to utilize it as a medium of evangelism. Writing these articles contains the hope that non-believers or fence-riders will click as much as Christians who look for ammunition to bring Christ to water-cooler talk. Now, there might be a real problem with that kind of evangelism, but it needs to be more broadly conceptualized. The same thing that propels Christian hot-takes is what motivated a Clement of Alexandria to say that Hellenic philosophers were the equivalent to the Hebrew prophets.

    All of this is to say that while we’re in an epoch of virtual communication and globalism, it doesn’t seem that much is fundamentally different, and a larger genealogy of the spectacle and the crowd, as well as missionary strategies, is called for rather than condemnation. Otherwise it comes off as a kind of Tory fantasy of a past that was stable and functional against the ravages of modernity. But I don’t think that’s what you intend.

    And I agree with Wenatchee that there is some literati head-shaking due to common cultural bonding around star wars and not the Ring saga.

    • cal says:

      As an addendum: I realized I missed the date of Debord’s original research, and I should clarify/qualify that I’m not so skeptical of the his claim so much, as to whether what we have today is so much more different that it is set for a meltdown of public rationality and debate. I think the same complaint of weightless words could be ascribed to critics of pamphleteers in the 17-18th century. I think it’s too soon to tell what phenomena like internet in the age of globalism has done/is doing/ will do to Human social relations. I don’t think its virtual medium is categorically different than past things. Though appeals to the masses, the majority, the people, the world, are manipulative as they are dishonest, and the internet as an aggregate of the invisible all can create a false sense of presence in the same way a crowd or a magazine has, though the mechanics are different.

    • Thanks for the comment, Cal.

      There are definitely connections between the phenomenon of the second screen and that of the crowd, as the second screen makes us more susceptible to herd dynamics. However, there are also significant differences.

      First, there is the dynamic of spectation and appearance, which is at the heart of the relationship to the screen. The crowd can produce mass feeling, but it doesn’t produce the same sort of abstraction and replacement of directly-lived reality by appearance.

      Second, the second screen establishes the self more directly as appearance or as a part of a spectacle in a way that neither the screen nor the crowd do.

      Third, the second screen dramatically increases the intensity and the extensity of crowd dynamics, producing dynamics that aren’t characteristic of smaller and less extensive spectacles.

      Fourth, there is a difference between forces, such as crowd dynamics, which can sweep individuals off their feet and forces that primarily lighten individuals themselves through abstraction. While the crowd does lighten the individual in a few respects, the main problem is that the individual cannot easily withstand its surging power. By contrast, the screen, whether or not crowd dynamics are at play, does lighten the individual through abstraction. This makes crowd dynamics much more likely to overwhelm us, but the weightlessness isn’t caused by the crowd dynamic itself.

      I read plenty of Christian ‘hot takes’ and I can assure you that most aren’t operating as a medium of evangelicalism. Most are presuming a Christian audience. And the parallel between Christian hot takes and Clement of Alexandria is a strange one. Clement’s take was a decidedly ‘cold’ take, whereas the ‘hot take’ is analysis or response produced rapidly after an event or release of a new cultural product as part of the process of socially metabolizing it. In many respects, our hot takes have made many in the general public more critical consumers of entertainment, but the hot take is primarily about our consumption of entertainment and our self-representation in the socially-saturated online environment through our response to it.

      I suggest you read Debord on the spectacle. The second screen is a radical intensification and extension of the dynamics he mentions as the second screen enables individual to project themselves and be presented within a shared spectacle. The spectacle has mediated social relations for quite some time, but never before has it so powerfully mediated our relations to our very selves. The second screen enables a new level of reflexivity in our relation to the image to arise, which is categorically different from that which proceeded, even while continuous with it.

      The problem here isn’t common cultural bonding around Star Wars. There is nothing wrong with such bonding in principle, just as there is nothing wrong with enjoying sports. However, when movie and sports entertainment become as integral to our identities and cultural life as they are today, something has gone wrong. Music aficionados may share an appreciation for the Ring saga, but their form of appreciation is of a rather different kind from that which characterizes the intensity of our bonding through mass commercialized entertainment.

      • cal says:

        My comparison between the Christian hot-take and Clement of Alexandria was not on the question of the hot take itself, but in the motivation driving it. Hot-takes are about remaining relevant, and the purpose of it is both to “equip” Christians to “engage the culture”, but also for the purposes of interacting with purported non-Christians either directly through a hoped for click or, more likely, indirectly through Christians readers whose acquired cultural savvy will allow them to bring Christ into their conversations. There’s definitely an evangelist component to the replication of the phenomena that is everywhere else. And that’s what I meant in comparison to Clement of Alexandria; he was engaging with the newest philosophical syntheses of Middle Platonism in hotbed Alexandria and making a case for Christianity being the superior synthesis of all the Greek teachers. There is a shared sense that a medium, whether pop-culture or high-brow philosophy, can be repurposed and reassessed to the glory of God. Of course, it’s debatable whether that’s actually a good idea or a disaster of compromise and confusion.

        Thanks for the Debord recommendation.

  9. Hi Alastair
    I read this a few days ago and then yesterday (reading Schindler on Plato’s cave) came across this.

    “Those at the bottom of the cave are the spectators of the images of images, [viewing this as] severed from reality. . . . the content of their experience is purely conventional, without roots – as far as they can possibly be aware- in physis [‘nature’]. Plato depicts them as prisoners. They are bound in such a way that they are incapable of the slightest movement, even of turning their heads. Nothing with which they make contact has any direct relation to reality . . . The voices they hear – even their own- come to them not directly from the mouths of others, but only in a disembodied form, as reflected off of “the screen” at the bottom of the cave, which we might refer to as the “wall of phenomenality”. This analogy shows us what appearance [spectacle?] looks like wholly considered in itself; it is sheer relativism.”

    Schindler goes on to remark on the imprisonment as Sheer “self-relation”, immobile with respect to all others, and notes Heidegger’s point that any true perception requires movement.
    He also (writing in 2008) notes the similarity withTV screens. How fast things have remained the Same 🙂

    In my own ponderings I’d already come to the position of understanding the Modern Man as The Unmoved Mover.

    As Schindler points out, ‘If Plato were to give a title to the “movie” these prisoners are forced to watch, it would no doubt be “Man is the Measure”’

    Thanks again for your stimulating posts

    Happy New Year from New Zealand, where the year has already turned (8:12pm GMT)!!

  10. Tim Enloe says:

    I am curious if you see a difference between social media and blogs – especially intellectual ones – in terms of the “spectacle” phenomenon.

    Prior to social media, I blogged a great deal about some pretty weighty matters of history and philosophy and the like, and often had some good discussions come of those posts. Indeed, a learned a great deal from reading your blog way back then.

    When Facebook started becoming big, I reluctantly joined because most of my family was getting on it and it seemed the best way to keep in touch with them since none of us lived anywhere near each other. Then I started teaching full time, and found the demands of that job so excessive that I could no longer take the time to write heavy content blog posts like I used to. I found that Facebook filled that role well for a while, as I was fresh from grad school and could actually manage to write good, solid things on it out of that formative background.

    As the demands of teaching increased, though, and I got farther from immersion in academic works, I found I easily succumbed to what you call “the spectacle.” My mentality became increasingly reactionary and my tone increasingly strident in tune with the fast-paced, shallow nature of the medium. I’ve tried to turn that around in the last couple of years by slowing down posting and using FB more for sharing substantive articles by others and quasi-academic podcasts by myself,, but nowadays, I am not really sure if there is a difference between writing some quasi-academic post on Facebook and virtue-signalling to like-minded friends, all of part of the spectacle.

    Your posts about the Internet the last year or so have made me seriously question my own involvement on it, so much so that I deleted my Facebook account about 6 months ago and stayed off all social media for a few months. But I soon got back on, mostly because I “missed” the feeling of connectedness with my intellectual friends, most of whom no longer blog much, but are very active on Facebook. Anyway, a bit rambly, so back to the point – do you see much of a difference between intellectual blogging and virtue-signalling as part of the spectacle? I have to believe you do, else why still blog yourself.

    • I’ve written about the shift from blogs to Facebook before, in posts like this one. I have extremely fond memories of the Internet prior to Facebook. I really don’t think many people reflect upon or understand how much Facebook changed things. I joined Facebook in 2005, when it was exclusive to college students in a small set of UK universities and various US ones. I left in 2010, by which time it was a radically different sort of beast.

      • Tim Enloe says:

        I had read that when you first posted it, but it’s a good read a second time through. You seem to have cultivated a sufficient network of relationships where you don’t have to be on Facebook to stay in touch. I’m betting a whole lot of people are NOT in that place, so it’s all the more imperative for those of us who are to try to figure out strategies to resist the spectacle while yet still being connected.

        Maybe private forums on Facebook is one way. Those can restrict discourse to, as you say, people who are at least moderately prepared to engage the topic at hand, and so avoid many of the problems you highlight.

      • Private forums on Facebook are non-ideal, but they are a lot better than many other options. I think we need to become a lot more mindful about the form of our networks, if we are going to create a healthier society. I’m interested in this sort of thing as a potential means by which we could restore a healthy sense of obscurity and locality to our interactions.

      • Tim Enloe says:

        I guess it is difficult, though, not to be cynical about all of this. I think it was Steven Wedgeworth not too long ago on Twitter who posted a link to something with the ironic commentary that although Twitter is not the best forum, “we still share stuff on it because we know that’s where you’ll see it.” (not an exact quote; I am going on memory). Same thing with Facebook, really. Unless one literally does nothing with it but the old half-joking “post pictures of cats” thing, one will be using an inherently distorted medium to try to get others to consider seriously that it *is* an inherently distorted medium.

        And does the fact that it is an inherently distorted medium actually necessarily entail that all political and theological discussions on it are simply spectacle and virtue-signaling? Perhaps the problem here is what you point out in one of your posts about the intensification of the “eavesdropping” phenomenon. If somehow, in theory, one could have a Facebook account restricted quite literally only to people one knows IRL (and perhaps even more specific than that, only serious intellectuals that one of knows IRL) it might not be such a problem discussing substantive issues on it. But it’s because everyone on Facebook has a great many friends that they have never met IRL, and likely also many quasi-anonymous “friends of friends” also not known IRL, that it’s impossible to restrict the scope of those who will hear substantive remarks about serious topics. But then putting it that way seems to bring it back around to your point about the early internet, how a great deal more agonistic interaction was possible because of the buffers that existed with higher anonymity.

        I really hope I’m not wasting your time with all this. What I mean to say is you greatly challenged me to think about how I use the internet, and you’re about the only one talking about this stuff, so that’s why I’m commenting on your blog.

      • No, interactions on such social media are certainly not merely a matter of virtue-signalling and the spectacle. Even if our interactions can never escape such things, they cannot be reduced to them.

        There is an extent to which careful self-regulation can enable us to function better in the compromised environment of social media. However, the systemic issues remain and will still affect how we are perceived and how others engage with us.

        In many situations, we just have to go ahead and engage, even in such compromised contexts. Staying off social media isn’t a solution, as it leads to other problems. For instance, it isn’t as if society exists just as it always has offline; not to be active on social media is to cut ourselves off from many friends and important conversations.

        Mindful, critical, prudent, and selective participation is really what we are left with. We need to know the weaknesses and dangers of the technology and also our own weaknesses relative to it and manage our use accordingly. We may need to be creative and improvise in our interactions, perhaps establishing new contexts where old ones aren’t serving us. Knowing when to switch to an email discussion or a Skype call is important, for instance.

      • Tim Enloe says:

        Thank you…I appreciate your time and the interaction. Very helpful!

  11. Pingback: My Writing on Jordan Peterson | Alastair's Adversaria

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