Thursday, August 10, 2017

One Hundred and Thirty

We are limited beings; limited in space and in time. Cogito, ergo sum, said Descartes, and the first time I remember thinking – the first time I became aware of myself as a thinking being – I was asking why I’m limited to being this person, in this place, thinking this thought.

I wasn’t asking why I wasn’t someone else, somewhere else, thinking something else. I was acutely aware of being myself, and knowing that self was more than it appeared to be.     

I knew that, like Whitman, I contained multitudes. I was also part of a multitude, one cell in a body composed of cells. But if the microcosm mirrors the macrocosm, tat tvam asi, why was I aware of being only this cell, and not others? 

Easterners say the self is an illusion. Westerners say the same thing, though they don’t realize they’re saying it. All Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato, said Whitehead, and Plato said change is an illusion - only that which is eternal is real - therefore we, who exist for only a limited time, in a specific place, aren’t real.

I’ve always known this is true, and false. Everything is true in one context, and false in another. What we say is changed by how we say it.

As I grew older, I became aware that other people didn’t seem to know this.

Their existence wasn’t a puzzle to them, as mine was to me. Americans seemed to believe that who and what they are is self-evident. Emigrés, who struggle to translate what they know from one language into another without falsifying it, know better.

We know nothing, or as near to nothing that the difference hardly seems to matter; yet that difference, like the 1% difference in DNA between other primates and us, makes us human.

The most ignorant among us are those who don’t know they’re ignorant. Or rather they pretend not to know it. They tell themselves that if they don’t know everything, they know everything worth knowing, and presume to teach the rest of us what they think they know. These fools fool no one except other fools.    

These thoughts were inspired by an article in the latest issue of the LRB, which arrived today.

The article’s about Facebook, the most famous, because most successful, of the websites purporting to be virtual communities providing virtual friends for people like me, who have no real friends.  

They're successful because real communities no longer exist. 'There is no such thing as society”, said Baroness Thatcher, telling us what we already knew (Politicians are among the people ignorant enough to believe they know everything worth knowing, so they always learn these things long after everyone else does). "There are only individuals". And she told the truth because she, and people like her, destroyed what little was left of society, leaving only the market, in which individuals buy and sell each other.

The article calls Facebook the greatest information gathering tool in history; but that information isn’t the so-called news it delivers to its members, which is mostly propaganda and rumor. It’s the information Facebook gathers about its members, their likes and dislikes, and sells to advertisers, which makes its employees millionaires. 

Online social media do this better than the print media, but both do it. Newspapers and magazines don’t make money by selling information to their readers, but by selling information about their readers to their advertisers.

Online social media aren’t successful because they’re reliable sources of information. They're successful because they pretend to be communities. People turn to these websites because they hunger for the real communities that no longer exist; and they keep returning to them, as addicts return to their drugs, because that hunger is never satisfied.

What most people crave isn’t information, much less the truth, but community. We’re social animals, but our society teaches us to be anti-social, to invent an individual self that’s not just indifferent, but actively hostile, to the other individuals of which our society is composed.

Or rather it used to teach us to be actively hostile to others, to see them as our competitors in a war of all against all. Now it teaches us to compete passively, as children compete for their parents' attention, as consumers ask their masters to do for them what they can't and/or won't do for themselves. Either way, we're selfish children, refusing to work together for the common good, which allows others to do what they please to us. They rob us, and our refusal to defend ourselves makes us their accomplices.

The turning point in Facebook’s early history, according to the article, came when Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel invested $500,000 in the company. 

In college Theil majored in philosophy, and believed in Girard’s theory of mimetic desire.

According to the article, Girard said when our need for the necessities of life, such as food and shelter, are satisfied, we look to the other members of our community to see what they have that we might want. The author says “We don’t know what we want or who we are; we don’t really have values and beliefs of our own; what we have instead is an instinct to copy and compare”. 

Theil saw Facebook as mimetic desire in action. Its members don’t know what they want, so they look at their online 'friends' to see what they have, and decide they want it, too.

I haven’t read Girard since I was a child, but this seems not entirely false. Neither is it entirely true.

It was obvious to me, even when I was a child, that Girard’s theory of mimetic desire is itself an example of mimesis, his response to Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex. Both describe a triangular relationship between two males and a female, archetypically the nuclear family of father, mother and son.

In Freud’s version, mother and infant son are one. The infant sees no distinction between his body and his mother’s, until he becomes aware of his father as his rival for her. Then, and only then, does the infant become aware of himself as a separate individual – separate from his mother, who belongs to his father.

In Girard’s version, self-awareness comes at a later stage in the child’s development. The son becomes aware of himself by comparing himself to his father, who is not his rival, but his ideal. He admires and respects his father, and wants to be like him, which includes having a woman like his father’s woman.

It was obvious to me, even when I was a child, that neither Freud’s nor Girard’s theory was entirely true or entirely false. One seems true, and the other false, only to people who think a statement must be either true or false, but not both.

People don’t know who and what they want because they don’t know who and what they are. Neither do they know their society well enough to know what they can reasonably expect from it, and what they must do to get it.

They also don’t realize their needs change as they change. The last thing a person with a full stomach needs is more food, but most people are now obese because they don’t know what they need or want. Food satisfied their hunger at mealtime, so they keep eating.

I'm tired of eating. I know this society has nothing that can satisfy my hunger.

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