MYSPACE AND LEGENDARY PSYCHASTHENIA
We have barely begun to consider the importance of Roger Caillois’s 1935 claim that ‘from whichever side one approaches things, the ultimate problem turns out in the final analysis to be that of distinction’ (1).
Caillois’s essay, ‘Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia’ is a remarkable, unclassifiable masterpiece. From a reflection on insect mimicry, Caillois develops an entire surrealist-naturalist metaphysics, linking entomology, sorcery and abnormal psychology in a unique vision whose implications, one gradually realises, extend far beyond its apparent subject matter to encompass the whole field of social relations, personal identity and corporal existence. Building from the smallest things – from the physiology and behaviour of insects – it’s an essay that expands out to fill and explain our own world. Celeste Olalquiaga, thought so. In her 1992 book Megalopolis she recognised the value of Caillois’ concept of psychasthenia for understanding our relation to and experience of the contemporary urban environment (2). But Caillois’ reflections on space and identity find another, perhaps more powerful and disturbing, illustration today in the our relationship to cyberspace and in particular the world of online social networking. This is what I want to explore here. I want to suggest that Myspace, Facebook and their ilk represent, not a flowering of self and individuality but its psychasthenic absorption, renunciation and loss.
Of all the distinctions that organise our life the most clear-cut, Caillois argues, is ‘that between the organism and its surroundings’. Or at least, he says, ‘there is none in which the tangible experience of separation is more immediate’. It is this topic that brings him to insect mimicry – to the morphological and behavioural adaptation of a living form to resemble and simulate its environment. All current explanations for mimicry are inadequate, he suggests. The limits of mimicry as self-defence are obvious, for example, when one realises that inedible species are also mimetic; that predators are not fooled by the tactics, happily ingesting camouflaged insects, and that the protected species risk being eaten by each other. In the sad case of the Phyllia, for example, insects ‘browse among themselves, taking each other for real leaves’. Caillois’s initial explanation focuses on sympathetic magic, on mimicry as ‘an incantation fixed at its culminating point’: as a spell that has ‘caught the sorcerer in his own trap’, leading the insect into ‘an assimilation to the surroundings’. It is this last point that interests him most. How does this assimilation to the surroundings occur? Caillois’s explanation is astonishing: it is, he says, ‘a real temptation by space’. In some way the organism itself is overcome by its surroundings – is less than its surroundings.
The visual nature of mimicry also leads Caillois to suggest that it has to be understood from without, as ‘a disturbance in the perception of space’. Within a perceived and represented space the mimetic organism is lost. Dispossessed of its privilege it ‘no longer knows where to place itself’: 'The feeling of personality, considered as the organism’s feeling of distinction from its surroundings, of the connection between consciousness and a particular point in space, cannot fail under these conditions to be seriously undermined; one enters then into the psychology of psychasthenia, and more specifically, of legendary psychasthenia'. Psychasthenia can be defined, therefore, as a disturbance in the relations between personality and space, and, more specifically, as a ‘depersonalisation by assimilation to space’.
Janet’s writings on schizophrenia shed light on this process for Caillois. For the schizophrenic, he says, ‘space is a devouring force’: ‘space pursues them, encircles them, digests them in a gigantic phagocytosis’. The insect experience of their environment and the schizophrenic’s experience of space are, therefore, linked. Each is assimilated and in each too this process is accompanied by ‘a decline in the feeling of personality and life’. The mimetic process occurs in one direction, Caillois says, as, ‘life takes a step backwards’, towards an earlier organic and even non-organic state. Thus ‘the generalisation of space’ takes place ‘at the expense of the individual’. Bewitched and overwhelmed by the greater power and the temptation of the environment the individual organism is lost. Caillois’s conclusions are Freudian: ‘alongside the instinct of self-preservation, which in some way orients the creature towards life, there is generally speaking a sort of instinct of renunciation that orients it toward a mode of reduced existence’. The ‘attraction by space’ leads to a thanatophilic movement blurring the frontier between the organism and their milieu.
Although Caillois’s essay has attracted its own form of fascination upon generations of readers, few have yet recognised its significance for understanding our contemporary electronic media. Perhaps the closest media theory has come is Jean’s Baudrillard’s prescient analysis of our wired and networked lives first put forward in his 1983 book, Fatal Strategies and appearing also in his 1987 text, The Ecstasy of Communication (3). Baudrillard’s entire theory is built upon a critique of contemporary mediated relations as merely simulations of human communication (or what he calls ‘symbolic exchange’) (4) and this is expanded in this text as he describes the implosion of the private and public spheres and its implications.
We simultaneously suffer, Baudrillard says, a ‘forced extraversion of all interiority’, as everything once private unfolds upon the screens of the world and a ‘forced introjection of all exteriority’ as the world’s events and people and places penetrate the private realm. Writing years before the rise of the internet as a public medium Baudrillard describes the development of a ‘private telematics’ in which the individual is ‘promoted to the controls of a hypothetical machine, isolated in a position of personal sovereignty … in the same position as the astronaut in his bubble’. Electronic technologies, therefore, transform our habitat ‘into a kind of archaic closed-off cell, into a vestige of human relations’ whilst we interact by remote control. Interior space ceases to be the stage of the self and its drama but instead becomes ‘a receiving and operating area’ and we are reduced to being merely ‘terminals of multiple networks’.
Baudrillard admits that this is close to ‘science fiction’. It is perhaps closer than he realised: E.M. Forster had already suggested this in his 1909 short story, ‘The Machine Stops’ which depicted a world of individuals closed off in their rooms away from all real contact, all connected by a web-like communicational machine (5). The rise of the internet as a popular, everyday medium, however, casts a new light on these ideas. Baudrillard’s 1980s vision of the path of a society where ‘everything becomes immediately transparent, visible, exposed in the raw and inexorable light of information and communication’; where a ‘pornography’ of the real dominates is now all too easy to recognise. Like Caillois Baudrillard also draws upon the figure of the schizophrenic to explain the impact of all this. Ours is ‘a new form of schizophrenia’, he says. The emergence of ‘an immanent promiscuity and the perpetual interconnection of all information and communication networks’ leads to ‘a state of terror which is characteristic of the schizophrenic’, that of ‘an over-proximity of all things’: 'In spite of himself the schizophrenic is open to everything and lives in the most extreme confusion. He is the obscene victim of the world’s obscenity. The schizophrenic is not, as generally claimed, characterised by his loss of touch with reality, but by the absolute proximity to and total instantaneousness with things, this overexposure to the transparency of the world'. Stripped of a stage, Baudrillard concludes, the schizophrenic ‘cannot produce the limits of his very being’: ‘he becomes a pure screen, a pure absorption and resorption surface of the influent networks’. In Baudrillard we find, therefore, an electronic fulfilment of Caillois’s psychasthenia. Integrated and assimilated into the networks of communication and crossed by their content and output the individual self physically and mentally disappears.
It’s not surprising that these ideas have rarely been related to the emerging world of online life and communication. The dominant voices within the literature on cyberculture and new media have been those that have granted the reality of online relations, the potential offered by the net for self-expression and play and the genuine communities that they give rise to. Sherry Turkle recognises the contemporary culture of simulation but has famously argued for the psycho-therapeutic possibilities of online identity play. The ‘self’ she valorises may well be ‘multiple’ and ‘distributed’ rather than a natural real-life given, but her conclusion that the online world is a space of self-expression and an aid to greater ‘self-knowledge’, ‘personal transformation’ and ‘growth’ clearly indicates that for her the self is strengthened by its virtual connections (6). Harold Rheingold follows a similarly McLuhanist path in emphasising the reality of online relations. ‘To the millions who have been drawn into it, the richness and vitality of computer-linked cultures is attractive, even addictive, he wrote in 1994 (7). The ‘hunger for community’ inevitably leads to the building of online communities, he argues, replacing those public spaces lost in real life. The online world, therefore, is restorative: it is a tool restoring sociality and allowing the full expression of public, individual life.
Rheingold was writing at an early stage in the development of virtual communities. Many people at the time of the book’s publication had not even heard of the World Wide Web and its regular experience was popularly limited. Since the explosion of the net, of domestic installation, of high-speed access and the spread of basic computing skills the ‘social web’ has rapidly developed beyond the early bulletin board systems, forums and discussion groups Rheingold discussed. The most famous contemporary form of ‘social networking’ is that typified by websites such as Myspace and Facebook. Their success is due to their combination of hosting facilities and functions that were either previously difficult for non-specialists to produce (personal web pages) or spread across several systems (email, messaging, photo hosting, blogs etc.), combined with their word-of-mouth growth through real-life networks. At the heart of Myspace and Facebook is the personal profile: the potentially global expression and promotion of the self.
The first thing we see when we look at a Myspace or Facebook page is the profile: each page is a constructed, promotional self. Writing in an age when the media disconnection of the two was clearly limited, Caillois saw the sense of self as depending upon a connection between consciousness and a point in space; when that was lost, psychasthenic absorption occurred. On an obvious level the experience of cyberspace is the experience of that disconnection as the self surfs an electronic network divorced from one’s point in space. With personal webpages and social networking profiles that self no longer even returns to its user, remaining behind as we log off. The self is set free as a profile, fixed to another point – to a non-space existing only as proprietal code within an electronic network – and subsequently lost to us. And we do this voluntarily: just as Caillois writes of the ‘temptation by space’ so the popularity of social networking sites tempts and traps each new user. And each new user, confident in their control as they construct and daily manipulate their promotional self, is, like Caillois’s insects, caught by its own spell, trapped by their own incantation.
But more important than this loss of self to the virtual world is the loss of self – the loss of any trace of individuality – in one’s assimilation to cyberspace and incorporation into the network of near-identical profiles. The schizophrenic experience of space as an overwhelming force is realised online: cyberspace devours the individual and their individuality.
Insect mimicry provides the best way of understanding this as it is fundamentally a morphological issue. Morphology in biology is the outward form – the shape, colour, structure, pattern and appearance of the organism, as opposed to physiology which is the study of the physical, mechanical and biochemical functioning of the organism. In cyberspace morphology dominates. Online, it is appearance that constitutes reality and this is especially true for social networking sites. What counts is the personal profile – the appearance of the self rather than the functioning of the actual being. The physiology of cyberspace, like the physiology of the organism is hidden: what we interact with is the outward form, the polished websites and functions that make up the network rather than the underlying, internal source code.
Social networking sites exemplify this. Once the construction of a personal webpage required some degree of programming expertise. Today the social networking user merely interacts with, manipulates and fills-in pre-programmed templates and applications. What they produce is a template self : their choice of templates, their provision of information to fill out and give shape to their profile and the applications they add and accumulate in a further process of ‘personalisation’ constitutes their online self and its social identity. Thus, just as the Phillidae and the Phasmatodea morphologically conform to the templates of nature – the leaves, sticks, branches and bark of their environment – so the networking users morphologically conform to the world they inhabit, simulating and assimilating themselves to its structures, colours and patterns.
The result, following Caillois, can be defined as a depersonalisation by assimilation to cyberspace. Each new profile adds to the pages, the scope and the social power of the networking environment, not to the sum of individuality. Each new profile represents not another flowering of a unique and special self but its capture and diabolical conformity to its devouring environment. As in Caillois, therefore, cyberspace is generalised at the expense of the individual. Each added page renders all the others more and more alike. Each friendship creates a sliding metonymic movement along the link to another individual whose difference is negligible, and each link followed to another self reduces that individuality still further. The more profiles you surf the less individuality you experience.
Each new profile adds, therefore, not to self-distinction, but to the background. Each user becomes, not as they assume, a self distinct from the background but only a background for every other user: their mimetic incorporation is so complete that other users can hardly make them out. Just as the Phyllia, seeing only themselves, browse among an indistinct background of their own taxonomic cousins and real leaves, so each unique and distinct user is only the background that others browse and feed on.
At the heart of mimicry is similitude and simulation: a mode of resemblance to the model and the efficacious production of this resemblance. In social networking this mimetic process takes several forms, from the voluntary incorporation of the self into the environment, to the forced conformity to the profile templates and the choice of applications that, more often than not, follows and mimics those that ones’ ‘friends’ have added and recommended. What this produces is a resemblant self: a self that resembles not its originator but instead all the other virtual selves. What one constructs has a far close morphological relationship with all other profiles than it does with the being outside who constructs it.
The result is a remarkable similarity in every profile. On Facebook, for example, the simplified and pre-set background, colour scheme and page layout makes each profile a minor –and insignificant – variation on all others. Down the right-hand side one finds one’s status, personal details, min-feed to oneself of personal ‘news’ about what you yourself have done, followed by one’s ‘information’. Here the user constructs lists that signify their self and its unique tastes and personality: one’s activities, interests and favourite books, film, TV programmes and music.
Each user’s list is different to every others and yet each user’s list is indistinguishable. What appears is not one’s innermost core of meaning, memory and experience, but only a seemingly-random collection of popular cultural products displaying, like a Borgesian classificatory scheme, no apparent meaning for any outside observer. As we move from one profile to another, each list merges into the next and the banality of all inputted information becomes obvious. Asked what one ‘likes’, there is nothing of significance in any reply. Regardless of the personal meaning one attaches to one’s choices and even the cultural connotations implied by them, all are nullified by their appearance. Preferences become merely references that take their place in a personal list linked, through one’s profile, to all other lists in the network and every choice becomes no different to any choice. Ultimately the over-production of ‘information’ fuels an implosion of meaning. Again, therefore, every new list added to the network represents not a flowering of individuality but its assimilation and renunciation. Individuality reverses into anonymity. Distinction disappears and depersonalisation follows.
One’s photographs too are indistinguishable. Again these are added to personalise the profile and to represent those unique and individual experiences and moments that comprise one’s life. In practice there is little to choose between any of them. Images of yourself; images of yourself posing with friends; images of yourself out in the evening; images of you and your friends partying; images of yourself holding a drink; images of yourself and your friends holding drinks; images of you and your friends laughing; images of you and your friends at home; images of you and your friends on holiday, relaxing or chilling. Each image takes its place within a set of predictable conventions and connotations and each ‘album’ of images conforms to the totalitarian social dictates of the network in its desperate attempt to over-signify one’s personality; one’s pleasures and one’s centre of an aspirational scene or set of experiences. Like the profile applications and lists of likes, the user’s photographs blur and merge into a generic, imagic background. What one hopes will add to one’s distinction only adds to ones depersonalisation: how many images of friends posing with drinks are there already on Facebook? And there is no hope here of resistance. Even the refusal to post a photo, the use of alternative images or attempts at an artistic subversion of the form merely take their place within a pre-coded representational system as part of the normal range of allowed responses.
All of this contradicts common sense. Received wisdom sees social networking as a defining contemporary means of expression of the self, an outpouring of individuality and a remarkable display and cataloguing of difference and unique experiences and tastes. All of this should signal ‘distinction’. The obviously competitive nature of the profile and its choices and images as each user attempts to display themselves, their personality and life should lead us to conclude, following Veblen and Bourdieu, that a remarkable symbolic struggle for status and recognition is happening here. Never before has personal ‘identity’ been so vigorously and completely displayed. But the self that is constructed and displayed remains a simulation, a ‘personalisation’, as Baudrillard argued in The Consumer Society in 1970 (8) that is only a conformity to and adoption of a pre-programmed set of differences from which one chooses one’s self. It is a semiotic process in which pre-set differences are chosen and combined to construct the self as a fashioned sign-object. This semiotic labour is never over. Networking users condemn themselves to a perpetual labour of virtual self-grooming, updating, communicating, adding, removing, informing, displaying and saving their changes. For years to come they will be found sending each other an octopus and starfish, writing on each others walls, commenting on each other’s blogs, tagging their photos, changing their musical tastes and updating their status. The rest of their lives may be spent serving their own simulacrum, renouncing their life as they invest it into their virtual self.
This brings us back to Caillois’s most controversial claim: that this assimilation to space represents a thanatophilic process. ‘Life takes a step backwards’, he suggests, towards an earlier, less evolved and conscious form in a self-renunciation producing a ‘reduced existence’. The very experience of the internet confirms this. The exhaustion one feels after a period of time online is not physical strain but something more: an exhaustion with one’s interests and with one’s interest in life itself. If you look at profile after profile, list after list and application after application, your own self begins to renounce its spirit. And if you spend your life daily logged-in to social networking, checking your notifications, updating your self, responding to wall comments and playing with one’s own applications – adding to the force of the environment, not the force of distinction – you spend less and less time away from the screen.
In his 1995 book, Open Sky, Paul Virilio describes the rise of this ‘terminal citizen’ (9), a concept with an intentional double meaning. On the one hand he employs the term for the transformation of humanity into an electronic terminal, an ‘interactive being’ who is both a transmitter and receiver of information. His second meaning is more theological. For Christianity to be alive and to be human is to possess a soul, or anima. Movement and life have always been correlated. The traditional Christian explanation for when the moment of life originates has been the moment when the baby’s movement was first felt – the moment of ‘the quickening’. This moment when the movement of the foetus was first detected was thought to be the moment when the soul had entered the body. Anima and animation, therefore, are interlinked. For Virilio, to be without animation is to be without anima. The loss of movement as we voluntarily plug ourselves into a network to become a ‘static audiovisual vehicle’ and our ‘behavioural inertia’ as we interact with a virtual rather than with our proximate environment constitutes, for him, a loss of life: a thanatophilic renunciation. ‘Doomed to inertia, the interactive being transfers his natural capacities for movement and displacement to probes and scanners which instantaneously inform him about a remote reality, to the detriment of his own faculties of apprehension of the real.’ This, Virilio says, is ‘a catastrophic figure’, who has ‘lost the capacity for immediate intervention along with natural motoricity’. This is the Myspace and Facebook user.
We return at the end, therefore, to Caillois’s beloved Phyllia and Phasmatodea. Read through Baudrillard’s schizophrenic man and Virilio’s terminal man, we can see the immobile networking user spasmodically twitching at their keyboard is like the Phyllia twitching in the wind, simulating a leaf in the breeze. Renouncing real-life for the screen, blending perfectly into the background, their mottled profiles and uncannily similar applications rendering them invisible, the cyberphillia sit frozen: tempted and ultimately paralysed by cyberspace, losing their self and their life. ‘The ultimate problem turns out in the final analysis to be one of distinction’, Caillois wrote. With every page added to social network sites and every individual’s capitulation to the profile the species as a whole loses its morphological struggle for distinction from its environment.
(2) Olalquiaga, C. (1992) Megalopolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.
(3) Baudrillard, J. (1990) Fatal Strategies, New York: Semiotext(e); (1988) The Ecstasy of Communication, New York: Semiotext(e).
(4) See Merrin, W. (2005) Baudrillard and the Media, Cambridge: Polity Press; and Merrin, W. (2006) ‘“On the Horizon of a Programmed Reality”: Baudrillard and New Media’, at: http://evatt.labor.net.au/publications/papers/173.html
(5) Forster, E. M. (1909) ‘The Machine Stops’, at: http://brighton.ncsa.uiuc.edu/prajlich/forster.html
(6) Turkle, S. (1996) Life on the Screen, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
(7) Rheingold, H. (1994) The Virtual Community, at: http://www.rheingold.com/vc/book/
(8) Baudrillard, J. (1998) The Consumer Society, London: Sage.
(9) Virilio, P. (1997) Open Sky, London: Verso.