It’s late, really late. You’re still scrolling through Facebook/Youtube/Instagram/TikTok. Your back hurts, your neck aches, you’re worn out. You’ve accomplished, you feel, nothing. In fact, where did the minutes, the hours go? (Of course, you know where). Then, something catches your eye. Scroll. Click. Scroll. Click. Repeat. You want to stop, but you don’t. You can’t.
We’ve invented terms—doomsurfing, endless streaming, mindless scrolling—but they don’t capture everything on display above, since what’s reflected here is in fact our entire form of life. We tend to think about the rise of social media, with all their addictive qualities, largely in moralistic terms. Failing to curb social media use beyond normal limits is some sort of moral failing. (And what are the normal limits now?) We blame ourselves or we blame the corporate entities behind these platforms. But what if the failure in question is a deeper failure of our entire social order?
Clearly, there are economic forces arrayed to keep our attention. As the social theorist Shoshana Zuboff notes, rather than being the product within such an economy, we are the object from which profit is extracted: our engagement with the content of online platforms and the data that can be extracted around that engagement create wealth for the new billionaire class. Zuboff terms this “behavioral surplus,” where the data that surround our scrolling—what we’re drawn to, when, how quickly, in what order, on what topics, in relation to what histories, on view from which places, and so forth—are exactly what is monetized.
But powerful psychoanalytic currents also underpin this economic model.
Psychologists of various stripes have drawn our attention to the phenomenon of masochism, which I gloss initially, just as the idea that there are psychological configurations or pathologies that may cause us to seek out and to derive pleasure from suffering. This is a sort of “second order” claim about our actions; we may do some particular thing because we have a broader commitment to or pull towards something else. Masochism may thereby underpin a range of actions.
I suggest that masochism best accounts for how and why we use social media. Note that unlike standard psychological explanations of the rewards associated with social media or with the neurophysiological underpinnings of the same (as in the Zeigarnik or Ovsiankina effects), masochism is a deeper explanation that contextualizes affects amidst broader social currents. To the extent that our pleasures and displeasures are social and historical, masochism is a reflection on society, on our form of life.
In the scholarly literature on masochism, there are two broad currents. On the one hand, masochism is understood as originating in some sort of basic human drive. Thus, for example, at times, Sigmund Freud, conceived masochism as the product of an aggressive drive that comes, by various psychoanalytic paths, to turn against itself. Masochism thereby originates from a basic sexual drive that can come to be satisfied in a range of ways. On the other hand, Alfred Adler, initially a colleague and then a critic of Freud, maintained that masochism is best defined by a longing for power due to feelings of inferiority or helplessness. The pleasure one gains from making oneself suffer satisfies in one swoop both the feeling of inferiority and the concomitant desire for power. On this view, masochism is entirely rational (even if unconscious) and doubly so in certain social contexts where an agent has been disempowered.
Thinking about the rationality or irrationality of masochism raises interesting questions about the relationship between psychoanalytic theory and society. If masochism is indeed a rational response to certain social configurations, then a certain psychological pathology may in fact be caused by how we have configured the world around us. This thought was of great interest to the Frankfurt School, a collection of mostly German-Jewish intellectuals at the turn of the twentieth century, all of whom fled the Nazi onslaught and subsequently invented the very notion of “critical theory,” which is now so much in the news. Their project can be understood as a synthesis of Marx and Freud into a unified critical consciousness about contemporary society.
Erich Fromm, one of the school’s early associates, suggested that the masochist is a character type produced in modern society by the experience of powerlessness and precarity fostered by capitalism. Masochism is thus the psychological byproduct of a culture that prioritizes rugged individuality even as it flourishes in conditions of ultimate powerlessness. With small modification, this is a variation on Adler’s view: the problems associated with capitalism—its competitiveness and associated scarcities—are “solved” via suffering. Through agony, I assert my power even as I acknowledge my powerlessness. Fromm noted, however, that the pleasures to be had are illusory, ephemeral: the cycle always begins anew since the swelling of the ego is also its destruction.
Theodor W. Adorno, perhaps the most famous member of the Frankfurt School, diagnosed in Fromm’s understanding of masochism a problematic conformism: in conceiving masochism as a rational response to the pathologies of late capitalism, Fromm and others allegedly reified social structures, giving them the illusion of permanence. Seeing masochism as a rational response struck Adorno as a mistake, one that robbed psychoanalysis of its critical potential. For Adorno, Fromm’s basic story about masochism was not wrong: capitalism surely does produce conditions where our powerlessness may lead us to derive pleasure from our destruction. This may be so much the case that we might be said to seek a complete annihilation of our ego, opening the grim possibility that to avoid such destruction we’d be willing to substitute an external ego—an external authority—for our own. (It is not by accident that some of Fromm’s keenest contributions to the Frankfurt School consisted of writings on authority). A proper analysis of capitalism, however, demands that we acknowledge how the ego is itself a historical achievement, by no means a guarantee.
Here Adorno is following Freud, for whom the ego was an achievement (in his words, “a coherent organization of mental processes”). Modern consciousness—a consciousness that conceives itself as autonomous, free, individual, unique, and so forth—did not always exist. It is a byproduct of a lengthy process of evolution, involving a disenchantment of the world, a concomitant waning of religious authority, a consolidation of market economy, a withering away of feudalism, and so forth. The details here are surely vast. The important point is that any such achievement might be lost or revealed to be transitory, a weigh station to something else. This thought both captivated and troubled Adorno, especially the idea that our contemporary society might in fact be producing conditions where the achievement of modern consciousness could become impossible. This led Adorno to speak of the “horror of the abyss of the ego,” a horror that is central to understanding the monetization of masochism involved in contemporary social media.
To get a grip on this point, note that when Freud spoke of biological drives, it led him oftentimes to ignore social and historical conditions, since drives exist in each one of us regardless of these conditions. Freud is thereby oftentimes viewed as a political conservative, and his liberal heirs have frequently aimed to argue how our drives are in fact historically produced. Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School took a different path: agreeing with Freud, they saw the drives as ahistorical, and exactly because they had a foothold outside of history, Adorno thought they could serve as a sort of barometer in the present moment. Bringing the drives into focus could reveal how the pursuit of their satisfaction becomes pathological within contemporary social conditions. (This is the great theme, in many ways, of Adorno’s remarkable book, Minima Moralia, which shows at every step how contemporary society—even in the pursuit of our most basic necessities, like, say, having a home—warps these basic drives). On such a view, for example, Freud’s famous Oedipus complex might be seen not as a universal feature of human experience, but, rather, as an indictment of the bourgeois nuclear family, and Freud could then be enlisted towards feminist aims (a tack pursued by Juliet Mitchell in her famous work, Psychoanalysis and Feminism).
For Adorno, it was exactly because basic biological drives stood, at least in part, outside of any particular history that they could always reveal the failings of a historical era or social configuration. As he was fond of saying: “woe says go.” In other words, the impulse towards happiness that expresses itself in the idea that something isn’t presently right, even if not fully formed or yet capable of expression as in nascent social movements, always potentially suggests more than what is currently the case. Drives point beyond the present to a future where forms of wrongness might not exist. Utopian ideals can anchor our criticism of present society. Think of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech as much as the vision in the Book of Isaiah of swords being turned into ploughshares. These claims are underwritten by basic impulses.
The monetization of masochism might be seen as intimately implicated with the constitution of such impulses. When I scroll through, say, Facebook, my agency and my world are just the newsfeed, where my options are already always finitely circumscribed (from “like” to “angry” to “comment” to “block” to “scroll”). Impulses beyond these options are barred to me by design. Relations within social media are circumvented and homogenized, no matter how much they’re billed as unique or individual. The newsfeed is collated; it is a sort of cage, even if an allegedly customized one.
While “ours,” the newsfeed is never set by us. None of the algorithms by which we are processed in social media are. Their origin is always only the profit motive. It is not inappropriate, then, to speak here of an analogy to fate. I am made an object. In the words of data theorist, Colin Koopman, I am fastened to my feed, as are you. And the fastening, because it occurs under the sign of the profit motive, has one imperative: to excite you, to have you come back for more, whether that means making you laugh or making you cry. You are, after all, the source of profits, but the only you that exists is the you fashioned by these profits.
There is, thereby a distinct psychoanalytic economy, a term theorists use to capture the interplay between drives: our ego is stroked (call this a narcissistic feature: this is your feed, your likes, your desires) even as it is discarded and made an object. Facebook or Instagram is in control: scroll, and you’ll get more of you. But you are nothing more than what the algorithm says you are.
While profit is the objective feature of the algorithm (what it is), its core subjective feature is masochism (how it is experienced). Inflate the ego (here’s content that’s you), even as you deflate and destroy the ego (you just are whatever we say you are; you just are our profits). Everything is levelled out, made commensurate, homogenized, giving credence to the lie that everything is commensurate. You respond to the latest underwear ad or a funny cat video in the same way that your respond to the death of a friend or to the protests of the oppressed. To become who you are is to acknowledge that you are only what social media says you are.
In a grim mirror image, things are not much better when you log out: authoritarianism is on the rise, democracy on the decline, and economic precarity is the norm. Our powerlessness is ubiquitous, and it is no accident, then, that social media’s star has risen in such a world. Our pleasure and our agony, sometimes merging into one and the same, reveal the extent to which social media both give us the power that we crave even as they show us our powerlessness. Here, as Adorno worried, the self can hardly be said to exist.
Without a turn towards genuine democracy, which requires a confrontation with late capitalism, social media serve an important function, as a sort of proxy for both our powerlessness and our desires for power. Strikingly, the form of social media as a mass phenomenon is such that it mimics the possibility of such a genuine turn towards democracy. But until that confrontation, until such a turn, we remain, all of us, masochists.