Disembodiment, dimensionality, and dominion
Escapism is the antithesis of Existentialism. Existentialism, a philosophy that claims existence precedes essence, establishes that we come into existence and then decide the meaning of our existence, rather than the meaning be predetermined. It entails an engagement with the actual world, and an “existential crisis” generally results when a person discovers that actuality doesn’t match with what that person thought constituted reality, shattering beliefs and preset complexes. This is a painful experience; it causes anxiety. (Un)fortunately, to avoid this crisis, the modern person can view everything as a potential photograph, tweet, posting, text, etc. In this way, the modern can “stand outside” the world as a viewer, making the world something humans conquer rather than something which puts humans in their place.
Perhaps in Eden humanity held dominion over the world, but now the world seems to hold more sway. In protest, humanity perhaps digitized itself and the world to reestablish the rules of Eden. Problematically, this dominion is a form of Escapism, an act of denial rather than courage and engagement. It disembodies us, for whenever we escape the world, we escape ourselves.
Off and on, without conscious thought, we increasingly cannot help but view everything as a potential tweet, Facebook post, and/or picture. Consequently, we transform the world into something we can capture rather than something that captures us. Today, our imaginations seem to capture the world rather than the world capture our imaginations. We have moved into a position of control from a place of humility.
To face the world is to face a(n) (apophatic) nothingness. To make the world face us enables us to keep our back turned to life as the void stares into the back of our heads and transforms into a monster.¹ Never facing reality, we might never see the need to equip ourselves with the capacity to create purpose (versus images) and thus rise to life’s occasion. If we faced the nothingness, we might realize there was nothing to fear. Denying it, we can come to fear ourselves, thinking that we fear the void.²
By acting as if the (apophatic) world is something we can manage and capture, we can outsource our cognition and abstract ourselves into (a) non-reality (for, in reality, the world cannot be captured), setting up an ever-worsening existential crisis. In this state, we can be motivated by our anxiety to take more pictures and generate more posts to further dominate the world and push off the worsening crisis. Equipped with countless technologies, we can feel more able to deny the inevitable than ever before, and then we can fall ever-deeper into abstraction. (To allude to A Philosophy of Glimpses, we can use technology to ironically avoid apophatic “lack” in favor of effacing “nothingness.”)
Technology reconfigures our “toward-ness,” our “orientation toward the world.” Websites on which we can rank restaurants can make us experience restaurant as “rank-able” while also making us feel that such establishments “ought” to make us happy rather than we learn how to be made happy by them. Instagram can make us approach sunsets as phenomena that we are responsible for translating into digital information for the world to experience, as if the picture of a sunset was as wonderful as the direct experience of a sunset, as if sacrificing the experience of wonder for a representation of it was rational. Websites on which we can share pictures of parties we attend can fashion lenses we wear when we attend those parties: we see everything there as things we can share with loved ones who might be hurt if we don’t help them feel part of the fun. Everything can be commoditized. Everything can be exhibited. And where there is a “can,” there can quickly be a “should,” and thus we can feel pulled along by invisible and “moral” strings.
Everything is now a potential “post” which can be “liked,” which to say every experience is now an opportunity to draw attention to something and to give others something to which they can respond. The more friends a person gains on Facebook, the easier it becomes to achieve responses, “likes,” and to avoid actuality with comments, pleasure, and jokes. Consequently, interaction can become inauthentic, founded on denial, not because digital friendship is inherently fake or bad, but because the digital can tempt us to sacrifice the actual and often succeeds (the abstract is problematic without the concrete, as the concrete without the abstraction, to allude to Hegel). Certainly, digital friends can be as close as real ones if engaged with authentically (only a given person can know whether he or she is real online, though keep in mind that no one thinks they aren’t) — the point is that to live is to live with risk.
Every experience today seems susceptible to blogging and commentary: opinion can be attached to everything. We can always approve, disprove, and comment, for good and for bad, and broadcast our judgments and declarations. Facebook has made it easy to see the faces of crowds without actually encountering people (seeing others is no longer necessarily “a labor of love”), and comments and opinions are always allowed. People can achieve the sensation of seeing friends without taking intentional time out to do so, and when tired, people can tuck friends away. In not inconveniencing us, people can provide us with an illusion that friendship and love are easy, and so when they become hard, we can dismiss the connections as having spoiled, though really such difficulty can be through which relationships achieve authenticity.
Experiences now aren’t necessarily things we undergo and lose but things we readily record: evanescence, which might be necessary for beauty, is fleeting. Parties, for example, are often not so much attended as they are shared. Consequently, we can feel transcendent of the pressures to engage with reality. There is no longer such a thing as a party free of the sensation that it should be recorded (perhaps to remember the charm, to leave artifacts for future generations, etc.), and it’s now as if there has never been a party free of the possibility of “saving it” (like a paycheck). Before the invention of Twitter, it wasn’t possible to engage with entities or experiences as potential tweets; now, it’s impossible to engage with them as anything else.
Technology helps us comprehend and understand the world around us, and so it makes sense that technology changes the very way we are “toward” the world. By fathoming everything as potential “posts,” our understanding and sense of how we are to engage with things shifts. Technology, in some way or another, always impacts the “toward-ness” of being, and whether this is good or bad depends on the technology in question and the mindset it fosters.
The invention of a technology doesn’t make it inevitable that a given individual will fall into varying modes of “toward-ness,” though it does mean an individual will have to combat or resist the urge to view the world as a thing to be digitized. Perhaps it is inevitable that the majority, according to “the spirit of the age” (zeitgeist) will take up technological modes of “toward-ness,” but whether a given person does so will depend on the individual in question. Ultimately, it cannot be said for certain whether technology is good or bad, only that it changes us. With every invention, the world is never the same.
Alluding to “Read(er)” by O.G. Rose, we “read” atoms into chairs, cats, etc., which is to say we “translate” lower and higher dimensions into our dimensionality (it’s in our being). Yet, what we “read” into being is not necessarily to our liking: what we actually make doesn’t always fit what we’d like to make. Similarly, what is real doesn’t necessarily fit what we think is real, though both “come unto us” because of our “reading”-consciousness. It is because of the space between our ideas and the subject of our ideas that existential crises are possible.
Technologies, like video-cameras and cellphones, enable us to escape our experiences by allowing us to record them (as if we put them in a case). They also give us the illusion that we can “read” reality into different dimensionalities from our inherent and natural calibration. The photograph is frozen (like a world without time); the tweet and Facebook page are one dimensional; the video is repeatable and stoppable (as if time is controllable). Technologies help us feel like reality can be reformatted and as if we can respond to an existential crisis by “changing the channel”; consequently, the imperative to learn how to overcome anxiety can vanish (making us unprepared).
Technology has equipped us to combat reality. Threatened with being overcome by actuality and thrust into an existential crisis, we have fashioned works that frame, capture, and translate the world into different dimensionalities than ourselves. Consequently, in abstracting the world into something “other” than us, its “lack/nothingness” becomes increasingly incomprehensible, distant, and less threatening, in the same way that the suffering of faraway children doesn’t grip us as does the suffering of children nearby. In viewing every sunset as a potential photograph, we can approach them “as if” they are one dimensional. The sunset is of a higher dimensionality than this, but keeping it one dimensional, its beauty doesn’t readily overwhelm, capture, call, or threaten us. Rather than listen to the summons of beauty into humility, we (un)intentionally silence it by thinking of sunsets as commodities to be hung on walls and appreciated when convenient. Beauty fills us not with awe but pleasure; no longer does beauty easily suspend us into experiencing it. With our homage of the photograph, beauty has become digestible.
Existence precedes essence, but rather than try to fashion meaning for our lives, we often fashion representations. Through this act, we can attempt to escape our responsibility to fashion purpose and consequently neglect our existence, challenging it in its asking of us to rise to the task of anxiety with a meaning we craft and live out. Even those who believe in God can live meaningless lives; everyone, from believers to atheists, are challenged.³ Unfortunately, most of us now ascribe to a new philosophy, a philosophy which establishes that existence precedes digital existence, and that makes the digital and recorded the essence of the actual. We have outsmarted the reality in which we are a part.
Today, with digitizing technology, we can feel as if we can judge reality in terms of how much it can be commoditized, and as if we can determine the worth of the world around us by the degree to which it is “like” our digital and digestible representations. The unreal world is realer than the real world. The fake is our objectivity; the real, our subjectivity.⁴ In making this switch, we can attempt to draw the whole world “outside of itself,” as we use digitization to draw ourselves out of what can cause us angst. Because memory is unreliable, the more we exist in this paradoxical age, the less we remember a less captured time and the mindset that accompanied it. The more time passes, the more the mistaken becomes our standard of judging the accurate.
Like earlier generations that believed essence preceded existence, we are once again attempting to be free of angst through a metaphysical reordering. We have escaped the “lack/nothingness” of the world by fashioning a digital version of it, made in our image(s). Rather than an essence of our making, it is an existence of our making. We have answered the challenge of Existentialism by denying Existential existence for digital existence which is one with its essence; in the digital, existence is essence, while in our analogue world essence must be made and given to existence. In the analogue, we must figure out how to create and realize an essence that “meets” the “given” world, while in the digital the existence we create expresses the essence of our intentions. In the analogue, there is a puzzle to solve which there is no guarantee we can solve; in the digital, all is finished. We have fled from the possible freedom found through anxiety in favor of a freedom of our own making; we have fled from the world to our world; we have fled from our image to our images.
The actual world physicalizes as the digital one digitizes. When we encounter beauty in the world, we are attracted toward physicalization; when we encounter beauty online, we are attracted toward abstraction. When we digitize actual beauty, we abstract it into that which then attracts us into disembodiment. What we digitize always tempts us in this way; if we can avoid the temptation and rather use what we digitize to remind us to be “toward” the world, then the digital can prove to be good. However, this is a difficult temptation that requires great character to resist. Tragically, the less concrete and authentic we are, the more we can view nihilism as a subject for jokes on 4chan. Rather than viewing beauty as a summons to engage the actual more deeply and so achieve authenticity, we can view it as a chance to create a new representation, so abstracting ourselves and the world further.
Beauty needs representatives, not just representations. We would benefit from regaining the ability to look at a sunset and not think about taking its picture, from mastering photography rather than be mastered by it. People have been making representations and images of the actual world for centuries through paintings, statues, etc., but representations used to take hours to craft and complete. We can now be “insta-artists” and, no longer requiring intensive labor, our creations are no longer readily “labors of love.” Everyone can now become a “creator” without striving to become one, and when it comes to representing the world, we can become thoughtless. In this sense, we must become more “loving”; love helps approach authenticity.
There is nothing wrong with photography, tweets, etc. as long as they direct us toward deeper engagement with the world and the actual, rather than inspire us to look away.⁵ We must regain the capacity to embrace beauty and so become more concrete, rather than try to flex dominion over beauty and forgo our reality. In doing so, we can master digitalization and cease being mastered by our inventions. The more we capture beauty before we are captured by it, the more we are disembodied, and the more actuality is lost. Beauty and the world must move us to lift ourselves up, rather than move us to pull it down. Life is short, but if we learn to experience it, life can be a beautiful vapor versus a vapor of which we left behind a vapor.⁶
¹Allusion to Nietzsche.
²Allusion to Kierkegaard.
³However, perhaps one must believe in God for any meaning a person fashions to ultimately be meaningful rather than ultimately a form of denial (like a drug).
⁴Inspired by Baudrillard.
4.1 According to Baudrillard, reality has been replaced by symbols of reality, and these symbols hide the fact that reality is no longer relevant. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. all accelerate this deconstruction and “precession of simulacra.”
⁵Without Facebook, this paper couldn’t be shared with so many so quickly: Facebook has done much good. Moralizing about technology isn’t the interest of this paper, but rather on marking others aware of how technology transforms our understanding of the world, potentiality, and “toward-ness.”
⁶If readers scan this article, they might suggest that their “toward-ness” has been influenced by the internet, hence perhaps proving a claim of this paper.