“June twenty-ninth. I gotta get in shape. Too much sitting has ruined my body. Too much abuse has gone on for too long. From now on there will be 50 pushups each morning, 50 pullups. There will be no more pills, no more bad food, no more destroyers of my body. From now on will be total organization. Every muscle must be tight.”
One of the thrills of adulthood is that no one can see you. You can slough off identity, move to a large city, and get lost in the open-ended possibilities of anonymity. But the cloistered intensity of social media has pushed us to redefine intimacy back toward the adolescent.
The juvenile mentality built in the medium pushes us to broadcast our private lives and expect that the details we share will be obsessively dissected. We sense, more or less consciously, that with the capability to broadcast our lives comes an obligation to be entertaining.
Once, when we felt like procrastinating, wanted to avoid confrontation or even emotion, we would turn to television. Television, unlike the internet, doesn’t know you’re alive. Television doesn’t know who you’ve loved, why you loved them, or when you stopped loving them. A sad plot line might move you, and one resembling your own life might feel personal, but the actual facts of your life, the reason for your sadness or identification, would remain private, locked up in memory.
Television also had the potential to serve as a kind of emotional practice. Watching fictional characters survive their difficulties prepares us for what we know is coming, offering us scripts by which we can manage our expectations and future reactions. As teenagers we’re drawn to music about love and loss, about breakups before we’ve gone through any, death before anyone we know has died, loneliness when we’ve never yet lived alone, and the repeated phrase “I’m so sorry,” when we haven’t yet done anything we truly regretted. We’re drawn to music about these things not because we know what they feel like but because we don’t. We want to go through them vicariously, fly the flight simulator before entering the cockpit of the fighter jet.
On the internet, our personal lives have become our television shows. Rather than turn on the television to see if anything was happening in made-up people’s stories, we now switch on the internet to see if anything is happening with our own emotions.
When our relationships end, we announce them to the internet. When we begin new relationships, we announce them for everyone, including the last person we loved, to see. We become our own voyeurs; we are hiding in the bushes outside our own windows, watching the drama unfold within: Infidelity, disinterest, distraction, and new love overtaking old loyalties — not in any scripted narrative but unfolding in real time and happening to us and to the people we know — make up our entertainment.
We watch the events of our lives play out in status updates, in tweets, in comments, responses, likes and apparent silences, as though they were reality television. But television’s artifice no longer mediates: in order to for us to be entertained now, someone has to do something to us, hurt us or praise us, talk about us or leave us.
In Coldness and Cruelty, Gilles Deleuze argued that the combined term sadomasochism was inaccurate. The two impulses of sadism and masochism were, he claimed, much too distinct to be encapsulated as a single drive, in a single word. The masochist is interested in coldness, in infinite denial of gratification, while the sadist is interested in cruelty, the degradation and subjugation of an individual by means of the Law and its punishments. A key distinction between these two, both in de Sade and Masoch’s original texts and Deleuze’s later reformulation is that the sadistic impulse — the desire to hurt — concerns the other person, while the masochistic impulse — the desire to be hurt — concerns the self.
Masochism is a kind of self-annihilating narcissism. Unremitting narcissism is a kind of masochism as well; the narcissist denies him or herself the relief, the gratification, of unselfconsciousness, of getting up and walking away from the mirror. Finally, when understood simply in terms of sexual experimentation, masochism is someone choosing to experience pain for the purpose of entertainment. There it’s sexual entertainment. When applied to our experience of the internet, it’s emotional entertainment. We hurt ourselves in the hope that it will be interesting. One’s own pain rarely fails to hold one’s own interest. If the internet is causing you emotional pain, then there’s something on the internet tonight.