In 1975, Roland Barthes was asked by the French newspaper Le Monde to respond to three questions about the principle function of the intellectual in society. He concludes his reply by asking three questions of his own: “What would be the worth of a society that ceased to reflect upon itself? What would become of it? And how can we see ourselves except by talking to one another?” In our time, the many hours each day in which the “average user” spends on social media makes it appear as if our society is reflecting upon itself. Rather than ceasing to reflect, perhaps our cascading responses constitute the opposite: unceasing reflection. As for talking to one another and seeing ourselves by talking to one another, the platform would appear to extend possibilities as never before. Moreover, we can be whoever we want on this medium. The chance (all of chance) is ours. Except of course it isn’t.
“Reflective consciousness,” writes Richard Shiff, “works to make sense—to dream a coherent meaning, giving order and structure to the projections of reality that continue to accumulate.” Reflective consciousness thus serves a vital function in enabling us to comprehend—to put together and understand—the projections of reality we encounter. He also notes that “once a cultural order (an ideology, an imaginary) is securely in place, reality becomes a distraction.” Our current situation prompts the question: what happens when “a cultural order (an ideology, an imaginary)” manufactures reality as a distraction?
This could be one description of how the social media, or as Richard Seymour rightly calls it, “the social industry,” functions. The social industry produces the cultural order that purports to be “reality.” This is how ideologies function, generally speaking. What is new is the scale on which this is currently being achieved. Because the social industry effectively creates “reality” on such a massive and intrusive scale, “reality” is no longer a distraction to the cultural order. “Reality” is the cultural order. What is more, distraction is the mechanism through which the cultural order accumulates: this “reality” commands our attention by distracting our attention from elsewhere.
In 1968, Barthes introduced the term “the reality effect” to describe the way in which superfluous or disjunctive elements in a novel signalled what lay outside the novel, namely, the lifelike or the real. In his book of 1968, The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel; The Novel as History, Norman Mailer discovers that “the history,” meaning the reality of the 1967 March on Washington, “is interior.” Although the cultural order was producing a language, “totalitarianese” or “technologese,” which “succeeds in stripping itself of moral content,” he observed, meaning existed outside of its meshes—in the interior of those who marched. Here, reality exists apart from the cultural order, and so Mailer’s claim that “the history is interior” produces “the reality effect” in his novel.
What we have today is a situation in which the category of the real is no longer outside of ideology, it is ideology. Susan Sontag once called attention to the way the movies shape our lives, citing our penchant to describe an event by saying, “it was just like a movie.” Like Barthes and Mailer, Sontag could presume a critical position outside the movie house, as it were. Now, however, we are firmly inside (if not locked in) the house, using the technology provided, making the movie of ourselves. Those who edit the movie of ourselves with their responses to what we have made of ourselves are likewise using the technology provided. And it is a restricting technology, as we know. Character limit is just the tip of the iceberg…
Our life is no longer “just like a movie.” Instead, “the reality,” meaning what happens on the platforms of the social industry, makes our lives matter or not. Responding incessantly to the industrial-scale of the chatter is like the endlessness of the self-depictions we post, in this respect: rather than simply a sign of burgeoning narcissism, as is often said, is this not a sign that the interior is no longer real? Is the endlessness of our engagement an acknowledgement that reality no longer exists apart from the industry we are attempting to inscribe ourselves into?
Let’s conclude by asking three questions of our own: In our time, is it no longer the reality of things, no longer chance, but the ruses of chance (shaped and directed by algorithms) which force themselves upon our recognition? What reality directs the dream of reality, now? What would be the worth of a society that unceasingly reflects upon itself yet never reaches itself, reaches only the “reality” that stands in for what might have been itself?