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"Television’s artifice no longer mediates: in order to for us to be entertained now, someone has to do something to us, hurt us or praise us, talk about us or leave us. This need to be done to, to be acted upon, is masochism. Reality television was sadism. Social media is masochism.”
By Helena Fitzgerald
One of the thrills of adulthood is that no one can see you. You can slough off identity, move to a large city, and get lost in the open-ended possibilities of anonymity. But the cloistered intensity of social media has pushed us to redefine intimacy back toward the adolescent. As Zadie Smith argued in a recent New York Review of Books article, Facebook’s private-in-public mode of operation traps us:
It feels important to remind ourselves, at this point, that Facebook, our new beloved interface with reality, was designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations. What is your relationship status? (Choose one. There can be only one answer. People need to know.) Do you have a “life”? (Prove it. Post pictures.)
The juvenile mentality built in the medium pushes us to broadcast our private lives and expect that the details we share will be obsessively dissected. We sense, more or less consciously, that with the capability to broadcast our lives comes an obligation to be entertaining.
As we begin to consume one another’s lives and even our own lives as entertainment, the most important person to keep entertained is, of course, oneself. Recently, a friend told me about a recent evening: She came home, checked Facebook, checked Twitter, checked her email, and said, “There’s nothing on the internet tonight.”
But of course that’s not true. Every fraction of a second, the internet is cluttered with new material too endless to contemplate. Something’s always on. When we say nothing’s on, what we mean is nothing’s on about me.
Once, when we felt like procrastinating, wanted to avoid confrontation or even emotion, we would turn to television. Television, unlike the internet, doesn’t know you’re alive. Television doesn’t know who you’ve loved, why you loved them, or when you stopped loving them. A sad plot line might move you, and one resembling your own life might feel personal, but the actual facts of your life, the reason for your sadness or identification, would remain private, locked up in memory.
Television also had the potential to serve as a kind of emotional practice. Watching fictional characters survive their difficulties prepares us for what we know is coming, offering us scripts by which we can manage our expectations and future reactions. As teenagers we’re drawn to music about love and loss, about breakups before we’ve gone through any, death before anyone we know has died, loneliness when we’ve never yet lived alone, and the repeated phrase “I’m so sorry,” when we haven’t yet done anything we truly regretted. We’re drawn to music about these things not because we know what they feel like but because we don’t. We want to go through them vicariously, fly the flight simulator before entering the cockpit of the fighter jet.
But we no longer rely on the made-up events of made-up people’s lives. Thanks to social media, we are no longer obliged to disguise our voyeuristic impulses. Voyeurism has been culturally legitimized. We can turn to the real events of our lives as we have retold them and to the reactions they have prompted. On the internet, our personal lives have become our television shows. Rather than turn on the television to see if anything was happening in made-up people’s stories, we now switch on the internet to see if anything is happening with our own emotions.
When our relationships end, we announce them to the internet. When we begin new relationships, we announce them for everyone, including the last person we loved, to see. We become our own voyeurs; we are hiding in the bushes outside our own windows, watching the drama unfold within: Infidelity, disinterest, distraction, and new love overtaking old loyalties — not in any scripted narrative but unfolding in real time and happening to us and to the people we know — make up our entertainment.
Reality television was the intermediary step toward this change. We were still watching strangers, but the fact that they were not actors imitating feeling began the switch from symbolic catharsis to voyeuristic narcissism. The internet is the final step. We watch the events of our lives play out in status updates, in tweets, in comments, responses, likes and apparent silences, as though they were reality television. But television’s artifice no longer mediates: in order to for us to be entertained now, someone has to do something to us, hurt us or praise us, talk about us or leave us. This need to be done to, to be acted upon, is masochism. Reality television was sadism. Social media is masochism.
Our solipsistic, willing and eager self-commodification has arguably had some positive effects. Far from numbing our emotions or dulling our personalities the internet has made us highly attuned to our emotions, reactions, and relationships. When forced to consider ourselves as a product, as marketable as a dress or an iPhone, we see ourselves in stark and minute relief. We no longer have the luxury of unselfconsciousness.
But if we are more ourselves because we are more aware of ourselves, it’s because our interactions and attentions are now blatantly and ceaselessly narcissistic. Such constant, unremitting narcissism turns quickly into masochism.
In Coldness and Cruelty, Gilles Deleuze argued that the combined term sadomasochism was inaccurate. The two impulses of sadism and masochism were, he claimed, much too distinct to be encapsulated as a single drive, in a single word. The masochist is interested in coldness, in infinite denial of gratification, while the sadist is interested in cruelty, the degradation and subjugation of an individual by means of the Law and its punishments. A key distinction between these two, both in de Sade and Masoch’s original texts and Deleuze’s later reformulation is that the sadistic impulse — the desire to hurt — concerns the other person, while the masochistic impulse — the desire to be hurt — concerns the self.
Masochism is a kind of self-annihilating narcissism. Unremitting narcissism is a kind of masochism as well; the narcissist denies him or herself the relief, the gratification, of unselfconsciousness, of getting up and walking away from the mirror. Finally, when understood simply in terms of sexual experimentation, masochism is someone choosing to experience pain for the purpose of entertainment. There it’s sexual entertainment. When applied to our experience of the internet, it’s emotional entertainment. We hurt ourselves in the hope that it will be interesting. One’s own pain rarely fails to hold one’s own interest. If the internet is causing you emotional pain, then there’s something on the internet tonight.