The Convivial Society, No. 26

The Social Unconscious

“Existence in a society that has become a system finds the senses useless precisely because of the very instruments designed for their extension. One is prevented from touching and embracing reality. Further, one is programmed for interactive communication, one’s whole being is sucked into the system. It is this radical subversion of sensation that humiliates and then replaces perception.  We submit ourselves to fantastic degradations of image and sound consumption in order to anesthetize the pain resulting from having lost reality.” — Ivan Illich, "To Honor Jacques Ellul" (1993)

I've thought recently that everything you need to know about the cultural consequences of digital media can be extrapolated from Walter Benjamin's 1936 essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," if only you substitute "the self" for "the work of art" and "digital reproduction" for "mechanical." This is obviously not true, not entirely anyway, but bear with me. 

At one point in the essay, Benjamin noted, “commentators had earlier expended much fruitless ingenuity on the question of whether photography was an art – without asking the more fundamental question of whether the invention of photography had not transformed the entire character of art …” Likewise, we might say, commentators have expended much fruitless ingenuity on the question of whether the digitally mediated self was a "real" self without asking the more fundamental question of whether digital media had not transformed the entire character of the self. 

The best known element of Benjamin's essay is probably his discussion of a work of art's aura, which amounts to something like its materially specific, historically situated uniqueness as well as the inability to collapse a certain distance between the object and the subject. Benjamin calls the aura of a work of art “a strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be.” The aura, moreover, is a function of what Benjamin calls the "here and now." It involves the authenticity of the work of art—there can be only original—and something like its authority. At least that's how I read it. 

“What withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art," Benjamin explains, "is the latter’s aura.” Mechanical reproduction displaces the work of art from its native context and sunders that strange tissue of space and time that renders the unique apparition of a distance which cannot be overcome. So it is with the experience of the self in the age of its digital reproducibility. For example, when I encounter digital reproductions of the self, my own or that of others, they are neither here nor now. Moreover, the digitally reproduced self is subject to modes of perception that collapse the distance that amounts to the strange tissue of space and time, what we might think of as the total effect of its wholeness, its more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts quality. 

There are at least two consequences. First, because the online reproductions of the self are devoid of its aura, they do not elicit the moral recognition that attends the embodied self in the here and now. I can tear a reproduction of a Rembrandt without repercussion and without hesitation; I cannot do so with an original. So I might feel myself at liberty to tear into a digital reproduction of the self in a way that I would not with a person in the here and now. 

Secondly, my own experience of the self is disenchanted. My own Romantically inflected sense of uniqueness, the presumption of some ineffable essence that is me ... all of that is challenged in the wake of our digital reproducibility. The self rendered computable, legible to the tools of computation, the self we must inhabit in digitally mediated contexts is a deflated self, one whose aura has dissipated. In the face of digital media, the modern subject beats a hasty and chaotic retreat. 

But this is not the aspect of Benjamin's essay on which I wanted to focus, rather it is on the idea of the optical unconscious. Benjamin was rather taken by the capacity of film to reveal what the unaided eye could not perceive: 

"With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. And just as enlargement not merely clarifies what we see indistinctly 'in any case,' but brings to light entirely new structures of matter, slow motion not only reveals familiar aspects of movements, but discloses quite unknown aspects within them ... Clearly, it is another nature which speaks to the camera as compared to the eye. 'Other' above all in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious ... It is through the camera that we first discover the optical unconscious."

What I propose is that just as photography revealed aspects of reality that would not have been otherwise apprehended by the naked eye but which were nonetheless always there, so, too, does digital media reveal aspects of our social experience, which, in some respects, were always present but not always perceived:  the social unconscious, if you like. There is one important caveat, though. What is captured and rendered legible by digital media is never simply what is there otherwise. The social is mediated by digital technology often in such a way that it is transformed in character and quality. 

I have in mind here a variety of different effects, but they all amount to a heightened awareness of the mechanics and machinations of social life. Take, for instance, something as simple as the identity of those with whom I might associate. When I moved to a new city to take my first job right after college, there was no practical way for someone I might meet for the first time to peruse the names and interests of my high school and college friends. My analog social network, something which I myself might not have been able to competently map, was simply not immediately accessible to new acquaintances. Unless I was taking deliberate steps to prevent it, my social networks are now accessible and searchable. 

Consider, too, the presentation of the self. To some degree, we have always managed our impressions, as Erving Goffman put it, in keeping with the nature of our social settings. An attentive observer who followed me around from one such setting to another might be able to identify these often subtle modulations of my self presentation, modulations to which I myself might have become oblivious. But now that social life has been digitized, I become keenly aware of myself engaging in the work of impression management and I know, or at least I suspect, that everyone else is involved in the same work. Given the assumptions many of us bring to this situation, the consequence is that we experience the self as an artificial construct or worse an extended and self-interested manipulation of social relations. 

The digitization of social life has also made it possible to trace the movement of ideas and influences making it impossible to think of ourselves as spontaneous, much less original actors in our own dramas. Again, keen social critics might have been able to trace such lines, giving critics their characteristic if possibly feigned air of detachment, but now we are all overtly conscious of the flows of social capital and we have receipts.  

In each case dynamics which had been shrouded in forgiving shadows of obscurity have now become newly transparent. Transparency is recently regarded as a virtue, of course. What do we have to hide anyway? But this is misguided. Transparency of this sort can be unforgiving and unrelenting. It can exhaust and demoralize. It threatens intimacy and risks transposing our relationships into a social Darwinist key.  

In an essay on education, Hannah Arendt made the following observation: "Everything that lives, not vegetative life alone, emerges from darkness and, however strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all." In a similar vein, Romano Guardini wrote, "Life needs the protection of nonawareness." Similarly, the psychologist Harry Sullivan quipped, “If you tell people how they can sublimate, they can’t sublimate.” 

There must be, it seems, a mean between a light that withers and a darkness that deprives of life. We seem to have inadvertently created systems that tend toward the former. My intuition is that something about this surfacing of the social unconscious lies behind a great deal of our disorders, at least the disorders of the public sphere. In any case, it seems to account for why the old lines seem so apt: 

    "The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
     Are full of passionate intensity."


The title of Benjamin's essay has also been translated as "the work of art in the age of its mechanical reproducibility." You can read a translation by Harry Zohn here

News and Resources

  • In "The Work of Art ...," Benjamin quotes another rather interesting, very short essay, Paul Valéry's "The Conquest of Ubiquity" (1928), in which Valéry anticipates the internet: "Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual- or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign. Just as we are accustomed, if not enslaved, to the various forms of energy that pour into our homes, we shall find it perfectly natural to receive the ultrarapid variations or oscillations that our sense organs gather in and integrate to form all we know. I do not know whether a philosopher has ever dreamed of a company engaged in the home delivery of Sensory Reality."

    Valéry writes eloquently about the blessings of ubiquity but seems unable to imagine its burdens. 

  • Princeton's Arvind Narayanan on how to recognize AI snakeoil. On a company that claims to assess job suitability based on body language and speech patterns: "Common sense tells you this isn’t possible, and AI experts would agree. This product is essentially an elaborate random number generator."

    I wonder about the "common sense" aspect, though. Whose common sense? Given what experiences? How common is it? See, for example, the Harvard Business Review: "A lot of companies use focus groups and surveys to understand how people feel. Now, emotional AI technology can help businesses capture the emotional reactions in real time — by decoding facial expressions, analyzing voice patterns, monitoring eye movements, and measuring neurological immersion levels, for example. The ultimate outcome is a much better understanding of their customers — and even their employees."

  • I may not have put some things exactly as this author does, but I appreciated the concept of "joint attention": "Any possibility of joint attention evaporates since everyone is looking at different things — he’s looking at his image, she’s looking at her image, he’s adding to his Instagram stories, she’s presenting her own video livestream of the show for her Facebook friends. And the lack of joint attention means there’s no possibility of the heightened sense of reality establishing itself, either. You find yourself wondering why you bothered coming out at all.​"

    I found this valuable because, returning to the notion of "common sense," there is a sense in which our experience of reality, as Arendt noted, was constituted intersubjectively. It is not that common sense is common in the sense of widely distributed, it is common in the sense that it is commonly held. Reality is always shared reality. Digital media appears to excel at the fabrication of very narrowly held realities. 

  • Double Trouble: "Chasing one’s data double is a lifelong project. Regardless of how effective it is, it gives me a sense of control in a digital space that’s simultaneously wholly personalized and wholly alienating."

  • "Facial recognition technology in schools: critical questions and concerns."

  • Jon Askonas reviews Arthur Holland Michel's Eyes in the Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare and How It Will Watch Us All: "Michel’s story thus displays the ethical problem of technological development in high relief. A small group of engineers came together to build a powerful weapon to meet the needs of war. In so doing, they have shifted, for everyone, the balance of power between citizen and state, between individual and corporation, and have eroded to the point of extinction what little remained of the natural rights of privacy, all around the world." Had the pleasure of meeting both reviewer and author recently, I commend both to you. 

  • Evgeny Morozov considers the challenges of dealing with "fake news": "It’s one thing, in a typical postmodernist move, to celebrate 'situated knowledges' and 'multiple epistemes', refuting any appeals to the one and only truth; a visit to a grad school seminar in humanities will confirm that this kind of language is still very much alive in academia. It’s quite another to do it while also building a system to algorithmically enforce the truth through the zealous application of bureaucratic rules and regulations that would make Otto von Bismarck look like a carefree bricoleur."

  • On 1,000-year-old windmills that are still working in Iran. 


At one point several months ago, I had intended to devote an installment of the newsletter to John Ruskin and the attention he has been getting, especially by those, like Alan Jacobs, who've been interested in Ruskin as a resource for navigating our technological culture.

In a recent reflection on Ruskin, Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote, "What matters is his sight, his sense of particularity, his love of detail." This is reflected, of course, in his sketches—of the Cathedral of St. Lô in Normandy, for example. I'm inclined to think that renewing our capacity to attend to the world has become something like a moral imperative.

In 1993, Illich observed, "Therefore, it appears to me that we cannot neglect the disciplined recovery, an asceticism, of a sensual praxis in a society of technogenic mirages. This reclaiming of the senses, this promptitude to obey experience, the chaste look that the Rule of St. Benedict opposes to the cupiditas oculorum (lust of the eyes), seems to me to be the fundamental condition for renouncing that technique which sets up a definitive obstacle to friendship."

If I may run some of the above observations together, I'd say that renewing our capacity to perceive well, virtuously even, and to do so jointly so as to re-establish a shared reality may be a way of recovering something like what Aristotle called political friendship, a friendship grounded in a world held in common. 

Recently Published

I finally posted again to the blog, Nine Theses Regarding the Culture of Digital Media. I do think, however, that it may be the last post. The Frailest Thing has been around for ten years, and it feels like time to let it go ... we'll see. 

Very much enjoyed my time in D.C. a couple of week ago, especially the opportunity to meet a few of you in person. The talk I gave will appear in the next issue of The New Atlantis. My thanks again to Ari Schulman and Jon Askonas for the invitation. 

Also in the works is a piece for Real Life, which should be out in December. 

Happy Thanksgiving to those of you reading in the US, and to the rest of you, holiday or no holiday, may there, in fact, be much in your lives for which to be grateful.