On the Manufactured Face of Facebook
The French-Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas said that when human beings are in ‘the living presence of one another’, when they are ‘face to face’, they cannot so easily perceive each other as merely abstract things or objects—they cannot reduce each other to some idea, argument or prejudice. The ‘face to face’ mode of social interaction speaks volumes without ever saying a word. It discloses fundamental and mutual obligations not visible behind the electronic veil of modern social media. The face of the other demands a more thoughtful, forgiving and ethical response—it demands more of us. Why?
I think it is because when we are face to face we are allowing ourselves to be vulnerable before one another. The sense of our own vulnerability allows us to perceive the other as equally vulnerable. This, in turn, makes much more apparent an implicit ethical obligation described so aptly by Immanuel Kant: that we must endeavour to treat the other never merely as a ‘means’ but always as an ‘end’—as deserving of respect and consideration.
In a world where violence or the continuous threat of violence is ubiquitous; in an emotive culture where shrill, dismissive replies are the order of the day or when hate and rage appear as almost ‘normal’ responses, the living presence of the other as a person to whom I am ethically obliged is wholly negated. This is the world we now live in—a world where we are becoming existentially and socially indifferent to the ethical obligation we have to others—a world where it is quite possible to dismiss, ridicule, rant and rave behind the ersatz anonymity of electronic media.
The ‘face’ of Facebook is not the face of the other, but predominantly a reflection of our own face. It asks us to react (like, dislike) through the digital logic of 0’s and 1’s. It pre-programs and structures our responses and reconstructs the parameters of social interaction and emotional response through complex algorithms. In a word it mathematizes the lifeworld, a real world that in actual face to face relations makes ethical demands upon us to treat others as complex multi-dimensional beings—as beings who have certain capacities, gifts, strengths and potentialities, but who also have weaknesses, prejudices and vulnerabilities, not to mention deep convictions, defining loyalties and cherished relations with others.[i]
Facebook allows us to forget the existential depth of the other. It encourages us instead, to promote ourselves as a product—to put our ‘profile’ up front again and again, where all can see it and applaud (like). It is the place where the social and affective dimensions of the human have been colonized and reconfigured through the steering mechanisms of what Chomsky has accurately described as ‘private corporate tyrannies’. In this sense Facebook is just one more indicium of a world where alienation, isolation, loneliness and self-promotion have all but eclipsed solidarity, belonging and ethical obligations towards others.
The shallowness of Facebook, Instagram or Twitter as mediums of social interaction has become all too evident in present time of pandemic. It is so clear at a time when we are asked to distances ourselves from others—when we are prevented from gathering together to talk, share a meal, watch a film, go for a walk, see our relatives, sit with a sick friend, gather for a wedding or, sadly a funeral. These are all meaningful human social interactions.
When they are taken from us we recognize, at once, just how important and necessary for human well-being authentic social interaction is. Perhaps that is why I am less and less inclined to use the phrase ‘social’ distancing. It is exactly social relations of caring, togetherness, empathy and solidarity that reminds us that we DO NOT want to socially distance ourselves from others.
Physical distancing, yes, that makes sense given the virulence of COVID-19. But it is precisely because we care about each other and the health of our community that we practice physical distancing. That is the paradox of Facebook and indeed, capitalism. The latter precisely depend on the authenticity of deeper social and community relations in order to advance their agenda, while at the same time exploiting and inevitably diminishing social relations for the sake of private profit.
[i] The notion of mathematizing the lifeworld derives from Edmund Husserls later work The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Husserl claims that science is able to understand nature through mathematical sciences. The problem is this mathematization of nature has come to include human beings—and what Husserl describes as the ‘lifeworld’. The lifeworld is the world that is lived and experienced individually and collectively by human beings. It is the dynamic and temporal horizon within which we experience each other and the world as meaningful. When science and technology measure and mathematize the human, they reduce the lifeworld to an abstract number and wholly diminish human experience and moral consciousness.