The weapon of every tourist is the camera. This is how tourists enter every church, temple, and museum, every viewing platform in a national park. Shielded by their camera, they scurry on, unseeing, as soon as the necessary minimum has been accomplished. In the service of future memories, they ruthlessly toss away the present and sacrifice the dignity of seeing to the archive. In the flashbulb storm of the visiting group, the object of visual desire loses the last little bit of aura that remained to it. Visitors who have managed to shoot a photo behind the back of the guard hasten onward with a gleefully impish expression, as if the same photo did not exist on the Internet, always available and a hundred times better.
“Standing face to face with one of the great wonders of the world (let us say the patio de los leones of the Alhambra), the overwhelming majority of people have no wish to experience it, preferring instead that the camera should.” What Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben described in 1978 in his essay “Infancy and History” is true, by now, even of rock concerts, which many fans, in the expectation of a good photo for their friends on Facebook or Instagram, now follow only on the little screen of their raised smartphone. Can one not experience more without a medium? Can we still experience anything at all?
The proofs that are borne back from There and Then bear witness to the missed Here and Now. So you were there! Then you could have seen this: the smile of the Mona Lisa that has looked into thousands of eyes; the perhaps really last concert of the Rolling Stones. But for looking there was no time, and above all not enough courage. Yes, courage, for the eagerness of the photographer conceals more than ignorance or the intent to provide evidence of the place we have been to.
There is also the fear of the object. Of standing in front of it breathless, unmoving, contemplative (as people used to say). Of being regarded and reminded by it. “There is no place that does not see you,” wrote Rainer Maris Rilke, beseechingly, in his poem about a famous Apollo statue, leading up to the famous last line: “You must change your life.” What if you don’t know what to say to that? What if you feel the pressure, or the emptiness? “See Venice and die,” we are famously commanded. What an absurd saying, in our “experience society”. Whether it is Apollo, Mona Lisa, or St. Mark’s Square, the moment’s aura vanishes when confronted by passionless satisfaction and the dinner plans that follow the picture-taking. When we are unable to grasp something, we hold on to it. What we can take home as a photograph is exorcised. That there are better photos in the Internet is no argument when what matters is not having the most beautiful photo, but, Kafka suggested, “We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds.”
The defence would argue for the photograph as an occasion for thought, with whose help the photographer will later do what he has no time or desire to do in the experiential moment, namely, construct a personal relationship to this object, this situation. Since, however, it often does not come to this even after some time has elapsed, Kafka’s remark holds true – with the additional note that time and quantity have an impact. For it is one thing if we consider the case of the person who brings only two or three images home from vacation, buried in a roll of 36-exposure film, to which on the next vacation three more photographs will be added. What a surprise, years later, when the film is developed! What an experience of recollecting – how she returned surreptitiously, each day, to this motif that had immediately struck her; how, shortly before departing, she finally took the camera along. What insight, now, as she studies the photo, into why it was so important to her then.
Without the increase in value that results from this reduction, the photo is a betrayal of the present to the future. The person who only perceives things through the camera is always acting as the advocate of a future viewing. At least, this was still true when there were still photo albums or slide evenings for examining the booty that had been seized from the past. Even this hardly amounted to a salvation of the missed moment, but at least the accompanying story made the experience somehow whole. Today, when there is a camera in every telephone and the slide show brooks no delay, but instantly – minus the narrative effort – appears on the social network, the time for future recollection has gone missing. The archive of images fills up too quickly for us to have the energy it takes to return back to them. The more photos we take, the less we see.
As for being filled up, technology is once again attempting to solve the problem that technology brings with it. Apps compress the past by creating a film made up of the best second of every day (1secondeveryday.com), or remind us to be reminded, by pointing us, every day, to the photos and updates (on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) we took exactly a year ago (timehop.com). Other apps provide training in storytelling in the form of “visual stories” (photos with textual commentary), which can be shared on various platforms (storehouse.co; steller.co). Memory aids like these present themselves as the solution to an organisational problem. Not only do they turn Proust’s famous Madeleine digital by automatically rather than involuntarily invoking irrelevant mementos, such memory devices also ignore the fundamental motif that Kafka and Agamben identify in the urge to document the present. Agamben’s formulation should be taken seriously: We prefer to let the camera experience what we are going through. This is not about postponing perception to a time in the future, but about delegating it to other authorities.
When it came to putting perceptions into storage, the camera itself was never that effective. Left to machines, “delegated enjoyment” runs empty. What is needed are addressees who have an equal capacity to perceive, which is why there was ultimately the slide show or the hope of being able to show the images to someone, sometime. Social networks make it possible to delegate enjoyment to partners of equal value, without incurring any time lag at all. The trick of digital media lies partly in the cost-free nature of the photos, which encourages more intensive use of the camera as protection from the demands of the present, and partly in the pact with the social, which lets the delegating of experience appear as communication, rather than repression. Facebook and Instagram are the logical consequence of the situation diagnosed here: They destroy the present by holding onto it. The next step in this coping strategy is Snapchat, which goes so far as to abandon the archive.
The delegation of enjoyment aims at a double salvation: from the challenge of the object as Rilke conjures it up, and from the lack of passion that Agamben supposes exists “face to face with one of the great wonders of the world”. Delegated enjoyment does not signify the negation of pleasure, but the fear of it. This is not the fear, or wiliness, of Odysseus, who according to Homer had himself tied to the mast and stopped the ears of his crew in order to get past the Sirens without damage – a form of disciplined enjoyment whose spirit would later inform the invention of fat-free whipped cream and non-alcoholic beer – but fear of the sense of inadequacy, the void you might feel internally, to which the challenge “You must change your life” could be addressed; or the fear of the silence of the Sirens that Odysseus experiences in Kafka. We escape from this feeling through the busyness of communicating on the social network, which demonstrates our capacity to act in the moment of helplessness.
Agamben refers to Benjamin’s reflections on the loss of longer-term experience (Erfahrung) and its replacement by merely incidental lived experiences (Erlebnisse) in the essay “Experience and Poverty.” According to Benjamin the problem was being solved by the souvenir that was brought home from the scene of the event, as complement to “the defunct experience which thinks of itself, euphemistically, as lived experience.” The souvenir provides an “honourable” form of liberation from experience, through which people may “make such pure and decided use of their poverty – their outer poverty, and ultimately also their inner poverty – that it will lead to something respectable.” Photography becomes an expanded form of “respectability,” which, as something a person herself has created, can even be personal.
On a social network, ultimately, collective feedback elevates this act of personal communication. It may rarely extend beyond shares, likes and one-syllable commentaries (“cool”, super”, “wow”, “envy”), for the social network is subject to the laws of the attention economy. But the communication fulfils its function all the same, by making the current moment part of the time of the social network in a threefold process: 1. by taking the photograph at the original location; 2. by feeding it to the network; 3. by responding to the feedback that starts as soon as the image is uploaded, and then by responding to the status reports of the others.
Incessant reporting on oneself turns out to be the best defence against oneself, as we send the moment of lived experience “home” to the network. The camera is not an apparatus for seizing spoils, it is the shield we hold up to avoid taking even a moment away from the busyness of communicating. Documentation of the present takes place in the interest of getting through it, not of remembering it at some future time. It is the constant barrage of information and demands for attention that sucks us dry, and that we can no longer live without. The present is not only no longer enough; it is also always too much, thanks to its non-relation to the rest of time. The “cruelty” of the moment lies in the sequence of moments that, no matter how intensive they may be, mean nothing.
The lack of passion is something we experience not only when we are confronted with works of art or the forces of nature, but in our everyday lives, as well, which have assumed an urgency that is continuous and at the same time completely banal. The restless apathy, the sense of being lost in a formless sea of events is salvaged by sharing this Here and Now with friends on the social network. We are catapulted out of the lived, experienced moment into the communicative parallel world of the social network: technologies of sharing as technologies of self-avoidance.
The medial centre of this flight from experience is the photograph, as that element of the social network in which the delegation of the moment to external authorities is materialised. The photo, consequently, holds a melancholy that is different from the one we find in Roland Barthes. For Barthes, photography was a melancholic medium because every photo is potentially a document of death: It presents a Here and Now as a more or less distant There and Then. On the social network, the photograph loses this impact due to the shortened span of time between the moment when it is taken and its viewing. The photograph becomes less a document of death than a not-becoming-alive, since it represents the moment that is captured less as something that once existed and is now lost than as something that has been refused.
The “Kodak moments” that Kodak’s campaign promoted in the 1970s were moments that belong to the camera not because (as Kodak saw it) the camera is holding onto them, but because (in the view expressed here) they are being abandoned to it: delegated to, “experienced” by the camera.
This betrayal of the present no longer happens in the service of something that will become present once more at a future time. What happens, instead, is that at the moment of communication the individual finds herself simultaneously inside and outside of all three forms of time. If, in earlier periods, people wrote about the past in a Now that anticipated a future reading, now on our social networks collapse all three temporalities into one. What we experience is simultaneously captured and perceived by others. All three temporalities coincide on the social networks. The permanence of lived experience (as an imperative of the experience society) assumes (under the imperative of self-representation) the permanency of a report. Life is lived in the form of sharing. From this perspective, the obsessive self-representation on social networks is an expression not of vanity, but of suffering – and of solidarity, which we experience via the brief but certain attention of the others.
The social network proves to be a community of need, adversity, or affliction, a “machine” for dealing with the present, in which each act of communication responds to the lived experiences of the others, and – a “group cuddling” by likes – “takes care of” their experiences as a kind of labour of love. …
One way to explain Facebook’s psychological relevance for late- or postmodern humanity can be found in Goethe’s Faust, where the hero’s restlessness based on conviction – Faust’s pact with the devil is in fact a wager: never to “plead with the passing moment” but always to continue to improve himself and the world – serves as the counterpart to postmodern restlessness (for this discussion see my book Facebook Society). Another variant is James Joyce’s Ulysses as read by Tiqqun in their Theory of Bloom.
Leopold Bloom, the main character in Joyce’s novel, is the “last man” and “rootless man,” the man of “non-participation” and “non-belonging.” The “fundamental tonality of being” embodied in Bloom is to be found in the subject’s “withdrawal from the world, and vice versa.” No longer wedded to earthly or heavenly goals, man (i.e. Heidegger’s “man”) “cannot take part in the world as an inner experience.” Unlike the Romantics, he also lacks “the recourse of an interior desertion”: “All attachments are replaced by that of surviving.” It is the flight into distraction and spectacle, as a kind of “existential tourism,” that promises salvation. “The spectacle has relieved Bloom of the burdensome obligation to be.”
Bloom’s salvation lies in his capacity to become more and more intoxicated by less and less. Against this withdrawal into the society of spectacle, Tiqqun calls for revolt, with a rhetoric that feels as purely justified as Saint-Just in German playwright Georg Büchner’s play Danton’s Death (1835), when Saint-Just defends Robespierre’s revolutionary terror with high-flown words about the mission of history. Anyone who takes into account the losses of the French revolution and the following revolutions – all made in the name of improving the world – will be sceptical of future revolts and perhaps even speak – as French philosopher Jacques Rancière in “Aesthetics and its Discontents” – of the “disaster of the promise of emancipation” that “[wakes] us from a sleep-filled life of consumption only to throw us headlong into fatal utopias of totalitarianism.” Herein lies the absurdity and aporia of the present: Consumer culture signifies not only distraction from the responsibility of being, but also, and at the same time, liberation from cultural, national, and ideological references, as differences. As Tiqqun notes, “And this Common resulting from the estrangement of the Common, and formed by it, is nothing other than the true Common, unique to men, their originary alienation: finitude, solitude, exposure. There, the most intimate merges with the most general, and the most ‘private’ is the most widely shared.”
From a perspective less rebellious than the one expressed by Tiqqun, this communality of loneliness, beyond shared values, is not the problem but the solution. For only at the zero point of a connection with reliable beliefs are human beings so reduced to the most human attributes – “finitude, solitude,” in Tiqqun’s formulation – that a community beyond shared points of view, and hence also beyond the exclusion of “others,” becomes thinkable: the community of communication. It is such a community without commonality that, at the same time, French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, in his essay “Being Singular Plural”, proposes in light of political terror, social violence, and nationalist aggression. An “inoperative community” without “‘perspectives’ or ‘views’ in view of which we have disfigured humans [les hommes] and driven them to despair.”
If we apply the Theory of Bloom to the current era of social networks, we find that escape is now sought less in intensified experience (as in the case of Faust and his Romantic alter egos), or as “existential tourism,” than in the communication of the experiences. The social networks generate a society precisely out of individuals’ alienation from all reliably meaningful bonds. Tiqqun’s philosophy has no place for this type of approach, particularly not when the “salvation-bringing” medium is as vehemently committed to consumer culture as Facebook. Other people, of course, see this differently and treat the social networks, either hesitantly or with enthusiasm, as a new model of community.
For these observers, as German media theorist Siegfried Zielinski puts it in his book “[…After the Media] News from the Slow-Fading Twentieth Century”, “individuals, woven into and lost in the techno-social network”, are understood as a community whose activity consists in nothing other than “the longing for the opposite number of one’s own existence and action,” for “the thou, the recognition by his gaze, even if this gaze, in its concrete realisation, may be imagined.” The perhaps erroneous impression can be ignored as long as the feeling of community actually occurs; the decisive thing is the feeling of community based on a common practice of media usage, rather than shared opinions. If the telematics dispositive has formed the basis of the identity, then a feeling of community is being generated, not by shared interests, but by a shared medium.
This difference can be understood with the help of the “imagined community” described by Benedict Anderson, which is created not primarily through its shared contents, but by the shared use of the same language. It is the medium, rather than its contents, that creates the community. The members of the community communicate with it in a dual sense: as a means, but also as its addressee. The social network Facebook is the (imagined) community to which we feel we belong when we communicate with the (real) community of our Facebook friends. Facebook is the “language” that creates community.
The result is speaking for the sake of speaking, commonly known as “small talk,” or, as Vincent Miller has it in his 2008 essay “New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture”, “phatic communication”: “Communication has been subordinated to the role of the simple maintenance of ever expanding networks and the notion of a connected presence”. Such reduction reveals its political value if linked to Nancy who rejects “to set idle chatter in opposition to the authenticity of the spoken word, understood as being replete with meaning” and demands “to discern the conversation (and sustaining) of being-with as such within chatter”, as a wish “to maintain oneself as ‘with’ and, as a consequence, to maintain something which, in itself, is not a stable and permanent substance, but rather a sharing and a crossing through.”
Is Facebook, which so mercilessly defiles every individual action with advertising, suitable to serve as the bearer of social hope because it succeeds in creating a community without consensus? Is there true life on the false network? The answer ultimately touches on questions of principle that lie beyond the phenomenology of the digital media. What is it possible to hope for, if the postmodern end of the project of modernity leaves only commerce as a system of relations, and the return to ideology or religion is marked as a failure in historical-philosophical terms? Does the ruse of reason lie in technology?
The ideas presented indicate that more than a decade after the founding of Facebook it is time to ask questions that are not satisfied by all the right answers. We should discuss the possibility that on a social network like Facebook – beyond and in spite of its incriminating business model – a community is forming that is as non-commercially oriented and non-utilitarian as is being suggested here. We should, in contrast to the view presented by Tiqqun, no longer think of the sharing of the most private things philosophically, as a common thrownness and lostness, but sociologically, as activity on the social network: as (willed) communication of the private. We may consider the “communism” of this sharing grounded in lack as what is common to all: finitude, loneliness, thrownness.