Spinoza on Junk Society, Social Media and Status Quo
|Date:||29 June 2018|
Despite its name, junk food is good, tasty and appealing to many people [*]. Many people consciously decide to eat junk food simply because they just like it. Doctors say that junk food is unhealthy, and that a junk food diet is going to have bad consequences in the long run [**]. Perhaps. But junk food is good now, and human beings are famous for being capable of thinking about the future, but then not caring much about their thought, especially when it’s their own future. A common justification for choosing junk food has to do with ‘freedom’. One should be free to decide what she wants to eat. No matter how others judge that. To interfere with this decision, and with freedom, is to harm a sacred value of our Western capitalist society.
However, it takes little reflection to realize that food decisions are not private decisions. The moment an individual starts living in a society (which, in most cases, means the moment she was born), the actions of that individual have repercussions for and consequences on others. The industry that produces junk food is often based on exploitation of resources and labour. Moreover, the health costs for dealing with the diseases caused by junk diets are also (more or less, depending on the kind of welfare system) incumbent on the whole society[***]. These are just a few external costs, which the individual might not pay directly, but that are payed by the whole society (aka, each of us). So, no, what you eat is not your private choice.
This thought is a follow up on my previous post on Spinoza for a #PlantPoweredCommunity. In this new post, I’d like to take this idea one step further and argue that the same arguments that apply to food apply to society as well (or, I should say, ‘ways of being social’, but I’ll just say society for short). For many people, junk society is good, tasty and appealing. In fact, many people consciously decide to immerse themselves in junk society because they just like it. Spinoza would say that junk society is unhealthy and that a junk life is going to have bad consequences in the long run. Perhaps. But junk society is good now, and Spinoza died almost four centuries ago. Who cares? And, moreover, why is this Spinoza guy popping up here again?
When Spinoza was around 24 years old, he faced a life crisis. He didn’t care much for being excommunicated, but he did care for deciding which kind of life he should undertake. That was not entirely clear to him yet. A trace of his troubles at that stage are presented in the prologue to the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect. Here, Spinoza argues that the three classical goods that people mostly seek (pleasure, wealth and prestige [honor]) are at odds with genuine happiness when they are sought for themselves. Concerning prestige, in particular, Spinoza remarks that a great disadvantage of it is that “we must direct out lives according to other men’s powers of understanding—fleeing what they commonly flee and seeking what they commonly seek” (TIE §5). Seeking prestige leads to externalizing, in one way or another, the identification of your own good and your understanding of happiness: the answer is not within oneself, but in what others say. This is particularly troublesome not just because common people may have a misleading or distorted notion of the good and of happiness, but because the logic of prestige leads the individual to endorsewhat others take to be the values that one should endorse. In exchange for recognition, one gives her own assent to the status quo.
According to Spinoza, seeking glory, prestige and recognition is one of the deepest desires of human minds. This is understandably so: human individuals needto live within a society and thus are deeply affected by the way in which society can regard them. Spinoza has a great deal to say about the logic of social affects. In general, he would even venture to say (at least, this is my reading), that, without appropriate social interactions, individuals cannot fully develop their own rationality. However, this does not mean that anyform of social life is intrinsically good. The details of Spinoza’s account will wait for another post, perhaps. Here, I’d like to apply Spinoza’s account to today’s obsession with social media and show why it would feature, in Spinoza’s view, as junk society.
There are many different kinds of social media, and I do not want to target any in particular. I shall thus consider a generic social media (SM). People (which becomes immediately users) are free to join SM, create a profile on it, and share all kinds of material (images, audio, texts) with other users also on SM. Different users can express approval for the material shared, or can just ignore it. They can also comment and, if they wish, engage in discussions about it. Finally, SM runs on a kind of hardware that is implanted in the individual’s bodies, so since they join SM they are constantly connected via SM, independently on whether they are also physically connected in time and space outside of SM.
SM is the heaven of one’s desire for prestige, glory and recognition. Getting any of these gratifications is extremely easy and evident, since it just takes a few other users to approve any material that one shares on SM. A picture of a cat will do. However, SM satisfies also higher desires, since it allows to engage in ‘serious’ conversations on ‘serious’ topics. One may try to develop arguments, start campaigns, aggregate consensus for praiseworthy causes, plan to make the world a better place. In all these cases, the reward system remains the same: approval from other users, sharing of materials, comments.
This sheds some light on the analogy between junk society and junk food. In both cases, there are a few kinds of tastes, they are very strong and evident, almost standardized, and one gets them all the time. Approval on SM is like the taste of junk sweets. It’s a bunch of sugar with some flavour. The flavour is there as a trick to get more sugar. Junk food knows that down deep you’re after sugar, not after flavour. So it gives you sugar, in different flavours. Junk society knows that you’re after approval, so it gives you approval, in different flavours. The more you engage with it, the more you buy into this assumption and make it your own. The problem is that this dramatically restricts one’s own capacity to taste different things. Once one gets acquainted with junk food, other ‘normal’ food tastes like sawdust. Once one gets acquainted with junk society, other forms of social interaction become boring, difficult, and unrewarding, except as an occasion for complaint or discussion on SM.
The problem with sugar is not that one’s body does not need it, but rather that it also needs a bunch of other things, and that it is not designed to take huge doses of it in highly refined form. The problem with approval on SM is not that one doesn’t need social approval, but that one needs many other forms of social interactions. Excessively high doses of the kind of refined, concentrated approval generated on SM induce dullness to other forms of social interactions. According to Spinoza, varietyis the key to a healthy life and diet (the two go together). The best realization of this search for variety is embedded in Spinoza’s notion of hilaritas, which is produced when all the human body (and mind) are equally affected by the same empowering experience. Junk food, and junk society, are more like the opposite of hilaritas, namely, titillatio, which is the abnormal excitement of certain bodily parts only. The problem is not with these parts being affected and excited – the problem is with the fact that this excitement is not balanced within the whole body. It creates an existential synecdoche. The titillatioof glory and other social passions is extremely dangerous especially because the mind is already, by constitution, so prone to them. The slope into addiction then becomes extremely easy and smooth. And this happens bothwith junk food and with junk society.
Fair enough. Would Spinoza ban SM and forbid individuals to use it, then? I don’t think so. Already in the TIE, Spinoza admitted that the quest for prestige may play a role, if it is confined within certain limits and if it does not become an end in itself. Perhaps there are contexts in which seeking prestige is necessary. Perhaps there are contexts in which some junk food should be permitted, and in which some junk society may help. Who knows? Having more options is often better than having fewer. What Spinoza would stress, I guess, is the purpose and the way in which one uses SM. One may have several purposes to use SM as a means of reaching specific goals (share information, sell products, manipulate people, demonstrate how cute cats are, etc.). However, in order to avoid to be caught in the mechanism that leads us to seekSM as a means of recognition and approval of oneself, it would be necessary to withdraw from any personalattribution on SM. One should realize that users on SM are precisely users, and notpersons. One should decline to take seriouslypersonhood as it is constructed via SM. What is on SM is just stuff on SM, which, within the game created by SM, aims to refer to ‘real’ persons in ‘real’ life (as junk food pretends sometimes to be ‘real’ food). This is just part of the game, and necessarily so.
Émilie du Châtelet, in her Discourse on Happiness, wrote that one could not be happy without being susceptible to illusions. As she writes: “would we have a moment of pleasure at the theatre if we did not lend ourselves to the illusion that makes us see famous individuals that we know have been dead for a long time, speaking in Alexandrine verse?” I think that a lot is going on in du Châtelet’s reasoning here. Elsewhere in the Discourse, she also states that, given the current condition of the society she lives in, in order to obtain glory (which, according to her, is “the source of so many pleasures”) women can do nothing else but engage in intellectual activities. She also states that it is foolish to pretend to change the world and alter one’s social status. I think that du Châtelet’s reflection on the necessity of illusion is some form of adaptive preference. In an oppressive society, where one risks losing everything for the attempt of going against the status quo, it’s better to be susceptible to the illusion that one’s status is fine after all, and there are at least somedegrees of glory that one may reach in it.
Junk society, just like junk food, is a vehicle of the establishment, of the perpetuation and enforcement of the status quo. By reducing one’s sensibility to the alternatives, by playing with one’s deep desires for social recognition, and by offering such recognition in an extremely easy, cheap and rewarding form, junk society (like junk food) is immediately satisfying. The price of this satisfaction is to endorse the means of satisfaction, to legitimate it by using it, and to protect it by continuing to use it with others. And this is where Spinoza would tell us again that, from the fact that we need somesociety, it does not follow that we need thissociety. Perhaps it is hard to decide which kind of society we need, and to decide how to improve the society we live in. But insofar as we are aware that society is nothing butthe cumulative effect of our collective and coordinated actions over time, we do have some control on society. Society starts ruling us when we decide that society is a given. This may be a satisfying illusion. This may be good and tasty and appealing. It may also be full of cute cats. But it is deeply unhealthy.
[*] See statistics here.
[**] For health issues caused by junk food, see here.
[***] About the hidden costs of food see here.