The Mimesis of Isolation

I’m waiting at the Flushing Ave M stop going into Manhattan — it is pouring freezing rain. As the wind blows, I’m looking down at my phone, trying to hide from the rain inside the snug hood of my winter coat. It is the end of March and I’m not entirely sure why it is still this cold outside.

Since I first woke up, and for the 33rd time this morning, I have opened Instagram and checked for new likes and new posts. I’m wondering: did that post 2 days ago receive any more likes? How does it compare to the rest of the photos I’ve taken this week? How does the grid look? Is it symmetrical— should I make sure to post another photo today? Or one tomorrow?

The above-ground platform begins to wobble and the tracks are vibrating — at last, the M train going into Manhattan has arrived. I lock my phone screen in anticipation of boarding the train and finding a reclusive spot that seems “safe” for this 15-minute ride out to Essex Street. It is morning rush hour so the train is a bit full . My efforts at finding some tiny pocket of solace from the madness of the machine will be in vain.

A quick scan of the train car indicates that most of the other passengers are in a similar predicament. Not entirely sure where they should sit or stand, each person is awkwardly staring at their phone being sure not to bump into or speak to another human. What a mess that would be; causing a ruckus, a scene, a forced dialogue. If there is something I have learned in five years of mass transportation in New York City it is that we are all just a bit afraid of each other, only feeling comfortable in this proximity with the mediation of a digital screen.

I, too, am standing here with earbud headphones on but I’m not playing any music or listening to the latest podcast. In this city, these headphones have, along with my phone, become an extension of my human body. To leave the house without either item would inflict high levels of stress and anxiety that no one on this crowded train would want to see. It is, of course, more acceptable to wrestle internally with your own demons than succumbing to them and piercing through that thin glass wall of public decorum.

This mandate to mitigate personal stress and anxiety has become a full-time job within itself and the compensation is pure isolation and the inability to share (physical and emotional) presence with other human beings. In fact, the amount of work we are all doing outside of wage labor has exponentially increased in large thanks to digital technologies which demand 24/7 engagement.

If you’re awake, you must be looking at a screen. If you’re asleep, you must have scheduled posts that will update those followers on the other half of the world while your body physically slumbers — your online presence must be ritualistically updated at every possible moment and at all costs. While this is certainly indicative of 21st century consumerism, the term itself has become quite the misnomer because all this wasted time is also productive. However, not all productivity is created equal and it would be a grave mistake to assume, as Western Civilization has (violently) asserted, that all progress is linear and inherently of value.

* * *

“The weak, depressed, self-critical, virtual self is essentially that endlessly adaptable subject required by the ceaseless innovation of production, the accelerated obsolescence of technologies, the constant overturning of social norms, and generalized flexibility. It is at the same time the most voracious consumer and, paradoxically, the most productive self, the one that will most eagerly and energetically throw itself into the slightest project, only to return later to its original larval state.”

The Coming Insurrection, Invisible Committee (2007)

* * *

The train is now arriving at the Essex Street station and it is here that I will have to transfer to the J Train which goes downtown to the Financial District. Waiting at this platform can either be quick and painless or it can be excruciatingly slow and painful. Today is one of the latter days.

It takes a small amount of Events to occur in the morning for the fuses of strangers to mix like a powder keg. The fact that it is cold and raining had already put most passengers (myself included) on edge but now we are stuck here waiting at this platform for what seems to be an eternity.

Fifteen minutes pass and still no train has come — the middle-aged man next to me has begun to pace frantically. When we first got off the M train and stood here he began reading the morning newspaper and seemed calm but the anxiety of waiting has caused him to repeatedly crumple the paper underneath his arms and, just as quick as his frantic pacing, he unfolds and crumples it back up, again and again and again  until it is no longer legible.

Finally, a train begins to appear — you can see the headlights in the distant tunnel and suddenly everyone tenses up. As it gets further into the station it becomes obvious that this is another M train; the middle-aged man let’s out a loud sigh. “This is fucking ridiculous!,” he shouts as everyone with earbuds in (myself included) pretends they couldn’t hear. "What is wrong with this guy?!"

When the J Train finally arrives at the station, I board the train and find a spot against the opposing sliding doors. You can see in everyone’s body language that those who saw this man distraught on the platform are keeping a careful distance from him on the train. It’s not that anyone thinks the man will actually have a violent episode on this train but there’s a subtle recognition that no one desires to be so intimate with instability.

New York City functions, in its totality and in its particulars, as a smooth operating machine — or so the city planners and PR managers would like to have us believe. In many ways our entire society functions on this mythos; everything has its place and disturbances are increasingly rare with the latest technology. And to the extent that these technologies have become logical extensions of our physical bodies, we also tend to believe in this mythos on an individual level — we would like to think that we are more or less stable beings, floating seamlessly through the currents of our day with little to no scratches or bruises. But when there is a disturbance, even minuscule in scope and silly in perspective, it can be as wholly devastating as a genuinely tragic and impactful Event.

The most obvious case of this was the middle-aged man on the platform but as I began to continue watching how everyone was reacting to him it became clear that all of us are equally as disturbed and unstable as him. One could argue that we are even a bit more repressed as the expression of our anxieties have become passive, muted, and unacknowledged. If nothing else, the man had expressed a uniquely human outburst of emotion and reminded us all that we are, in fact, still human beings. Perhaps this is what had frightened us all the most.

I stood there remembering that while I was on the platform for that excruciatingly long twenty minutes, I had probably tapped my foot in anxiety about a thousand times a minute. I had opened and closed Instagram, Facebook and the iMessage app just as rapidly, switching back and forth between them all at an unconscionable pace. This whole routine has become a sort of Traveling Security Blanket that gets me through the franticness of the city mostly unscathed (or so I tell myself) as I’m heading into Work and back home at the end of the day.

* * *

At face value these digital technologies present a world in which individual expression and mass communication are limitless. Not forgetting that global capitalism is, first and foremost, a hierarchal economic and political power arrangement, the Internet and digital media have created the illusion of an interconnectivity that encourages human solidarity beyond all individual and class interests — it is not only a force of Good but the potential environment in which the unheard, the unseen, the downtrodden and the dispossessed can collectivize and become a revolutionary force for liberation.

Neoliberal privatization (of schools, of work, of leisure, and of the environment) over the past forty years has left us no physical place in common to return; no place that exists wholly outside the confines of what the capitalist work world demands and needs; no place where strangers can meet and make autonomous decisions of how to live directly in common with one another. It is because of all of this that, at first glance, the Internet and advanced technologies appear as a radical alternative presenting possibilities heretofore closed off for many previous generations in this period.

A basic historical critique of capitalism describes the process by which it introjects the needs of the market into the needs of the working class — the radical attempt to have a worker identify with his estranged wage labor to the degree at which he would not revolt but instead would see the needs of the business as his own, leading to an increase in productivity and big financial gains for the business, CEO’s and investors who do not raise wages but often actively work to lower them.

The problem in the early industrial period was that this labor was physical and exploitative in ways that could not be ignored for too long. When it was obvious that the system was not satisfying the vital needs of the populace (food, water, shelter, healthcare), they revolted en masse. Workers not only began to demand higher wages but also fought for a life free from labor in order to increase leisure time.

The classic capitalist conciliation was the 40-hour work week and at this time, for larger sections of the population, going to the factory for eight hours, five days a week, was a small price to pay in order to live ‘freely’ on nights and weekends. Sure, we were consistently alienated from ourselves (each other, and our environment) through abstract wage labor but this also presented a form of isolation where we could return home and decide for ourselves what our own needs and desires should be.

However, as industrial society continued to advance and capitalism had secured itself in all corners of the world, the relationship the working class would have to its repressive, isolated existence would fundamentally change. While capitalism still does not (and can not) fulfill the truly vital human needs of the global population (food, water, shelter, healthcare), advanced technologies have created an overabundance of goods and services that generate satisfaction and pacification.

The factories have all been closed (read: shipped elsewhere) and work is mechanistically being turned from full-time labor into a wholly superfluous network of machines, part-time gigs and internships. The performance of Work is no longer painful — we do not toil or physically suffer, the work is increasingly mental and social. Wages have not changed but the Consumer Culture has become all-encompassing and it offers greater accessibility than ever before (and also more debt than ever before).

Perhaps more significantly, leisure time has ceased to be qualitatively different from (and in opposition to) the time we spend at Work. The Internet and digital communications certainly help to enable reclusiveness and alienation but because they are at the same time presented (and enjoyed) as tools for interconnectivity and limitless individual freedom their repressive qualities go largely unnoticed. It is precisely this reason that one could argue that rather than offering revolutionary potentialities, the Internet becomes one of the largest tools of assimilation — while it offers digital forms of escape it cannot, on its own, offer material changes in the established society.

* * *

“Introjection implies the existence of an inner dimension distinguished from and even antagonistic to the external exigencies — an individual consciousness and an individual unconscious apart from public opinion and behavior. The idea of ‘inner freedom’ here has its reality: it designates the private space in which man may become and remain ‘himself.’
Today this private space has been invaded and whittled down by technological reality. Mass production and mass distribution claim the entire individual, and industrial psychology has long since ceased to be confined to the factory. The manifold processes of introjection seem to be ossified in almost mechanical reactions. The result is, not adjustment but mimesis: an immediate identification of the individual with his society and, through it, with the society as a whole.”

One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse (1964)

* * *

I am an accounting manager for a restaurant group that currently has six restaurants across Manhattan. It is popular and quite successful and for the last three and half years I’ve (mostly) enjoyed working for the business. I’m not ashamed to tell others, especially prospective lovers, what I do to a make a living in this city (unlike my first job as a phone operator at a call center) but I’m still always careful to state that this is not my life’s work; that I’m much more interested in critical theory and art such as photography, film, and music.

At the end of the day, my job does not define me and does not, in itself, consume my entire existence. I have been able to separate the needs and goals of the workplace from my own personal needs and for the most part I’ve maintained a healthy balance between them.

For a great many of us, we do not find our identities within the workplace any longer nor are we required to — our identities are much more commonly wrapped into our social media Profiles and overall online presence(s) rather than our wage labor. While I’m sure this cannot be true in every particular case (brutal manual labor still does exist), I think in totality our mental and physical faculties are exploited more by culture than by our workplaces. Repression seems to be the most effective exactly at the point in which we believe culture and technologies are proffering the opposite — escapism.

When I leave work at the end of each day, I immediately plug those headphones in and turn up the music as I excitedly walk towards the subway station. In the three minute walk, I have switched back and forth between Instagram and Facebook about fifty times and have sent out messages to all kinds of friends indicating The Day Is Over. While sitting at a desk for eight hours or longer working for someone else is certainly no indication of freedom, it remains to be seen if my time spent outside of Work will be any closer to that realization.

Currently, on the days when I am particularly “unproductive” (and there seem to be more of those days than I care to admit), I will binge watch a few episodes of some shitty television show, watch a film, or listen to a record. The bulk of this time is still spent staring into my phones screen. No matter how many times I have looked at it in the last five minutes, I will still feel that urge to refresh the page and check for new notifications and new posts. It is such a mindless activity that I often will not catch myself doing it until another hour has passed by and I realize that I still have the TV on pause — watching a 30-minute program can often take three times as long between the all the stops-and-starts of my obsessive social media cycles.

Meanwhile, having not done anything for myself in this whole evening after Work besides consume bullshit on the Internet, I am in no better place than a factory worker who toils for 12 or more hours a day and barely gets a meal and some sleep before the next brutal shift. The isolation bubble I slip into after Work is not qualitatively any different despite all the illusion that I’m making the choice to consume this or that media or to like/dislike this or that post. It’s a different kind of hell which still feels like work (even when it clearly isn’t) and immobilizes me just the same. It’s hard to see what good could come out of such a vicious cycle.

* * *

An argument can be made for the importance of maintaining some form of individual isolation — the ability to truly escape the capitalist work world, even if only for a brief moment, does a lot for increasing an individuals mental clarity and gives space for the generation of qualitatively different needs and desires. But we must also question whether the tools we are currently using are generating this sort of individual freedom or are they preventing it? At what point do they become repressive forces for the maintenance of the established society rather than effective means for changing it?

A typical rebuttal offered at this point might justify the Internet and mass communication tools merely on an informational basis. In terms of consciousness, these tools are beneficial in generating an awareness of global events almost as immediately as they occur. This has been a crucial aspect of fundraising efforts created in the wake of mass tragedies and natural disasters while also offering mass exposure to social issues that are (still) largely ignored by mainstream media and news.

But this ground has also been ceded to capitalism and the analytics and algorithms of Google and Facebook are perfect examples of how unfettered human expression can still be filtered and mediated in a way that steers public discourse and opinion, rather than influencing or changing it.

Of concern for Herbert Marcuse, half a century ago, was the shrinking of space for the development of individual freedoms that go above and beyond the status quo — the ability to refuse to go along and remain in opposition to public opinion and behavior. While I technically have access to more information at my fingertips right now than most of humanity ever had access to in their lifetimes, the Internet still enforces social behavior and discourse in ways that are far more assimilating than they are liberating.

I can choose to post whatever I want — I can choose to share cat gifs and mindless memes or I can choose to share news of the latest US Drone Strike that killed dozens of unarmed civilians in Yemen — but the algorithms built into the largest online networks and media giants actively work against the generation of discourses that are not already Trending or that exist outside the confines of all of our user-generated filters.

I have been using Facebook as a networking tool since 2006 when I first entered college and began building a social circle of friends that I met in classes and on campus. As the function of Facebook changed and it became the all-encompassing social force that it is, I have added as “Friends” my entire family, everyone I’ve met even if only briefly, and a whole range of strangers I’ve never had the time to meet in person. As more and more information and connections began to flood into the Feed, Facebook started suggesting that I curate what I want to see (and this would help the algorithm learn over time what should appear first and what shouldn’t appear at all).

This has been decades-long tireless work and so much of our “free time” is liking things, following/unfollowing people, sharing photos, music, videos, and memes— doing all of these things that are not fulfilling our individual, vital, human needs but are instead perpetuating an easy, mindless, time-wasting existence. In the last analysis, this generates social and political complacency and it is precisely this fact that militates against the emergence of a truly revolutionary force which can imagine (and fight for!) a world without destruction and without cruelty.

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An earlier version of this piece originally appeared as part of POLEMIC(X).