For that one does not resist him, this itself is a sign of decadence. The instincts are weakened. What one ought to shun is found attractive. One puts to one’s lips what drives one yet faster into the abyss.Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner
What we put to our lips today are an endless series of clicks. Each click serving to keep life itself at bay for awhile. For anyone who has experienced it cannot deny the timeless quality that accompanies floating through a series of YouTube videos and tweets and articles and blogs and image searches all with a kind of polyrhythm which emerges from the act itself. You never fully consume any one of them but glide to and fro as if at a table of snacks to graze upon. In the outside world, time is indeed passing upon your body but you are unaware for awhile. There is a hypnotic pull to this temporary oblivion.
In her book Addiction by Design, sociologist Natasha Dow Schull writes of slot machines that “It is not the chance of winning to which they become addicted, rather, what addicts them is the world-dissolving state of subjective suspension and affective calm they derive from machine play.” Stepping into a slot machine is meant to be like stepping into a warm glow. Gamblers want to get lost in a flow, to engage in world dissolution.
As Chris Hedges notes in his article on slot machines, this is the same effect produced by the variety of screens which we gaze into on the subway or in our homes. Part of the inestimable pull is the intoxication of having a dissociative state one can enter rapidly. Idle moments between forced drudgery can easily be filled with any form of stimulation you desire. The stimulation, the entertainment, whatever it may be, this the content. And the platforms and their engineering constitute the flows. The flows interlace with one another as one hops around, experiencing usually only a mild friction between uninterrupted streams. The sudden loss of internet connection when trying to watch a video triggers a similar state as that of someone on the slots who suddenly wins but finds themselves irritated and angry by the interruption of their calm and mindless state.
The same basic ideas are at play in the construction of World of Warcraft, or Diablo, or any number of such games. There is a finely-tuned mathematics of triggering dopamine hits at just the right intervals to drive repeat use. As Meta-Nomad discusses, this entire operation consists of a mathematical modeling of biochemistry designed to produce addiction. Addiction usually means profit. If there were any country today not under the influence of these things I wonder if we would have our own version of the Opium Wars in order to get them to start using smartphones? Much is often made of the necessity for internet and a basic smartphone to be a human right, available freely to all. The argument is that it is necessary to have these things in order to secure a job and to stay integrated into our society in a productive way. We love the freedom of choice, yet here no one has the right to choose.
According to Byung Chul-Han, what is fundamentally lacking from the screen image is the gaze. There is no chance for an irruption of the real, no chance for an encounter with the other. It is a feast of consumption with no danger of the uncanny turning to gaze upon us. He interprets our mass production of images and digital media as a defense against the world, as a defactifying of the world.
How much of the production that occurs in the world is indeed the production of such images? Globally, pornography alone is a $97 billion industry. There is an incomprehensible amount of resources feeding into the production of this endless feast for the billions of atomized individuals in the world to compulsively consume. And while the real never confronts one in the porn image, the porn image is itself produced using the raw material of the bodies and lives of countless people. Human beings are as valid a raw resource as any. Ex-porn star Sharon Mitchell tells Chris Hedges “… they are not looked at as performers. They are looked at as commodities. They are looked at as body parts that are going to be edited into a product that’s going to make money.”
And here we aren’t merely only dwelling on the pornography industry itself. Hedges notes that “Fashion takes its cue from porn. Music videos feature porn stars and pantomime porn scenes. Commercials and advertisements milk porn for shock value. The grainy sex tapes of vacuous celebrities from Pamela Anderson to Paris Hilton enhance their allure as porn icons.” Even then, the images need not even be pornographic in this literal sense. Let one who is old enough consider the average episode of the Jerry Springer show and the complete debasement of human beings played out therein for the idle entertainment of anyone at home during the day. Harvested and displayed human degradation, people stripped of all dignity, for momentary stimulation. We consume as we ourselves are consumed.
Some industries may appear more brutal than others, but one aspect of the image industry is that in almost all cases its primary raw material are human lives. One can think of and find a multitude of examples which are currently proliferating throughout the world. While the images produced allow us to live in a state of numb dissolution on break at work or at home in the evenings, these images can only exist because of a global, monstrous harvest. The image produced has been entirely emptied of that intensity of the real, of the gaze. This intensity of the real that is entirely denuded in the final product is that which stands beneath the images. The defactification of the world which Han points out lies precisely in this.
Production and consumption are essentially additive modes which are predicated upon an idea of infinite supply of resources and infinite space for storage of the refuse of old products. Infinite growth, infinite extraction, infinite addition. Like the feed, nothing is ever destroyed but merely buried as more and more is piled on from a multitude of currents and flows. The pile grows ever larger but constraints are not a part of the worldview that production and consumption operate within. They are as divorced from the resistance of the real as the screen image.
There is nothing in such a world like what Heidegger describes when he meditates on Van Gogh’s peasant’s shoes: “The shoes vibrate with the silent call of the earth, its silent gift of the ripening rain, its unexplained self-refusal in the wintry field.” Or, in the Qur’an: “Have they not seen how many ˹disbelieving˺ peoples We destroyed before them? We had made them more established in the land than you. We sent down abundant rain for them and made rivers flow at their feet. Then We destroyed them for their sins and replaced them with other peoples.” (Q 6:6) The exegesis in the Study Qur’an adds: “God may choose to allow disbelievers or wrongdoers to dwell in comfort and prosperity for a while, leading them to think that they have been blessed with good fortune, in this case in the form of abundant rains and rivers, before unexpectedly destroying them for their sins…”
Characteristic of the builders are destruction and creation, both of which are essentially generative capacities for clearing away the old and constructing the new. While production and consumption are additive, creation and destruction are cyclical. Things pass away and new things generate in their place. While the mode of production and consumption comprehends itself as standing above all things as their master, as the processing machine for an infinite amount of resources in an infinite amount of space, the builders stand in awe of the might and power of God which is beyond their ken. The builders’ self-conception is one of finitude and limitation. The builder is constantly experiencing the resistance of the real and presence of the gaze. Every wall and tower is meant to stand but is also understood in its being as a tenuous thing. Unlike the swarm, it constitutes a thing in space and time. The appreciation of ruins is the appreciation of the nature of these constructions. The builders struggle to make a society which can provide safety. But they understand that this is possible only insofar as it is allowed by God. Eventually all things are destined to pass out of this abode.
In a healthy people and time, this passing is attended by a growth of the new. Each generation seeks to shepherd the next and show it how to take up the mantle. The greatest remedy for the mid-life crisis is to mentor someone young and prepare them for your own position in life. This requires of us a steadfast relationship with the reality of life and death, natality and mortality, politics and metaphysics. When life is understood it is not despised. On the contrary, if understood it can be embraced.
But builders have been replaced with the swarm, destruction and creation with consumption and production, mentorship and the passing of the torch with societal narcissism, natality with anti-natalism, mortality with dissociation, politics and metaphysics with stimulation. Where people once engaged in great struggles in order to build worlds, we now dissolve them.
Once one has developed a keen eye for the symptoms of decline, one understands morality, too—one understands what is hiding under its most sacred names and value formulas: impoverished life, the will to the end, the great weariness.Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner