Paranoia lost

I wanted to revisit the subject of paranoia and social media that I wrote about in the previous post, and not merely because I forgot to link to this video of the Kinks playing “Destroyer.” The obvious association between social media and paranoia is to invoke the panopticon and Minority Report–style surveillance and predictive pre-emption. Those are certainly genuine concerns, but I was trying to get at something different: that social media are a collective expression of universal paranoia transformed into a reasonable approach to everyday life. You don’t defeat Facebook by becoming paranoid; becoming paranoid is the prerequisite for embracing it and is its characteristic affect.

Jane Hu recommended that I read Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick*’s

*not Edie Sedgwick
essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” (in the collection Touching Feeling), in which she argues that “paranoia tends to be contagious” and that it “tends to construct symmetrical relations” of mutual suspicion and strategy: “It mobilizes guile against suspicion, suspicion against guile.” This tempts people to a kind of endless paranoia arms race.

The notation that even paranoid people have enemies is wielded as if its absolutely necessary corollary were the injunction “so you can never be paranoid enough.”

Sedgwick is hopeful that critics can avoid this trap of embracing a paranoid epistemology as the only one warranted by contemporary reality (and all its open conspiracies to perpetuate injustice and inequity), but points out that the paranoid style tends to crowd out the alternatives. I think that social media makes escaping that epistemology much harder. That seems apparent from the recent media reports of how not having a Facebook account suggests you might be a psychopath or how someone without a Facebook account should be considered undatable, as this noxious Slate piece recommends. Kashmir Hill noted that “Continuing to navigate life without having this digital form of identification may be like trying to get into a bar without a driver’s license.” In other words, Facebook has convinced everyone that a person should be licensed in some way before they can participate in society. To qualify for friendship and intimacy, you must first make a public display of your conformity. You must show your willingness to stalk and be stalked.

Such is the generalization and naturalization of everyday paranoia. It’s assumed as a natural and reasonable thing to want to do, to demand the ability to research and validate the past history of someone, and to see that as prudential rather than paranoid. Social media promises a society in which anyone can and probably should investigate anyone, rationalizing a social hermeneutics of suspicion through the provision of the means to execute it. Paranoia is built into the culture, to the extent that we all embrace social media.

That suggests that paranoia has lost its power to critique that culture, if it ever had that power. Sedgwick argues that its “faith in exposure” has always been flawed; social media’s illusion of benevolent transparency seems to confirm that. Sedgwick notes that when critical paranoia fails to anticipate some change in its analysis, it has a ready response in “we weren’t paranoid enough.” Similarly, when social media fail to pre-empt some transgression they help sensationalize, the solution seems to be more surveillance and self-disclosure (sometimes laundered as “sharing” and “tolerance”), more subsumption of everyday life by social media.

It’s a bit like how the internalization of cool into the fashion business means that nothing can be cool merely by virtue of being outside that system. Fashion defines cool; once something becomes recognized as cool that merely means it has been incorporated. Social media contain paranoia in a similar way: If you stake a paranoid claim, there is always a social-media tool ready to absorb the impulse and redeem it. Mere exposure has diminishing critical power. So ad hominem attacks on writers seem an ordinary response to arguments we don’t like. Potemkin postings seem like a good idea. Defensive liking and friend requesting are all normalized. Yolo. Pics or it didn’t happen. Et cetera.

Social media leave us with a sense that our paranoia (soaking up the sum of our criticality) should be generally directed at one another — it should aspire to that symmetry Sedgwick noted; follow everyone who is following you — and when it is aimed at something systemic, it should make use of the internet’s unprecedented power to easily link disparate things. This turns the paranoid impulse into curation, which is regarded not as pathological or antisocial or even deriviative, but as the healthy expression of personality in a hyperconnected age.

If you are an optimist, you might regard that as a sign that social media can turn the paranoid into what Sedgwick calls “reparative,” an interpretive approach that can “assemble and confer plenitude on an object that will then have resources to offer an inchoate self.” Unlike paranoia, reparative reading is “additive and accretive.” The way Sedgwick describes it via camp makes it sound a lot like what in music criticism was called “poptimism,” a term perfectly calibrated to make me want to dismiss it. Sedgwick notes that “the vocabulary for articulating any reader’s reparative motive … has long been so  sappy, aestheticizing, defensive, anti-intellectual, or reactionary that it’s no wonder few critics are willing to describe their acquaintance with such motives.”

But there seems to be very little campiness in the way most people perform their identities in social media, and real-name policies and context collapse and everything else seems to militate against the possibility, staving off the threat of reparation,which ultimately is about repairing what capitalism wreaks on human community.