The Tribulations of the Internet Age through a Neo-Freudian and Marxist Lens
Marxist and Freudian theory are like second cousins. They belong to separate nuclear families of thought closely intertwined in the theoretical discourse of the generations who followed. In the twentieth century, many of the great thinkers seeking to understand human nature found themselves unable to avoid one school of thought when studying the other. And it makes perfect sense why. To put it too simply, Freudian theory thinks about the human individual, how and why we become who we are, specifically through understanding our faults and struggles. Marxist discourse considers the broader social system, specifically the historical and economic mechanisms of inequality. Yet metaphorically speaking, the ideological lines are blurred because Freudian theory simply cannot avoid zooming out to the tree and Marxist theory can’t avoid zooming in to the leaf in order to best understand their respective focuses. Utilizing both schools of thought offers an incredibly nuanced analysis of any given aspect of human nature and civilization.
Any time history, and with it the daily experience of humans, changes, it is vital to analyze the implications. The twenty-first century has brought with it technological innovations that have completely transformed the way we live, interact, and struggle. These changes have happened more rapidly than any other paradigm shift in civilization. Applying a Marxist critique of capitalism paired with a Freudian understanding of individual psychology offers an immensely insightful understanding into many aspects of the Internet age. Whether it’s the mechanisms of fashion consumerism, the role of photography and wearable technology, or the rise of neurosis and narcissism through social media, the melding of Neo-Freudian and Marxist thought provides an astute lens to address many of the issues that plague our society of the Internet age.
A vital text for understanding many of these issues is Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. Written in 1979, Lasch’s seminal text suggested that a pathological shift in America had occurred in the 1970s. He contrasts the sixties, which was defined by radical political movements, with the seventies, which had a much more individualistic tone. The decade marked an ideological shift in how American society contextualized itself within history. A sense of impending doom, a result of the devastating wars of the century and looming nuclear conflicts, created a lack of consideration of past and future generations, replaced with care for only the current moment. His use of “narcissism” does not simply describe traits of selfishness and self-love but rather is a clinical description rooted in Freudian definitions that relate to libidinal drives, ego development, initiated in infancy experiences. Essentially, Freud defines narcissistic experience as the need for external approval of an internal fantasy of a powerful self, all originating from repressed feelings of self-hatred. In utilizing Freud’s clinical definitions, Lasch identifies the cultural traits that exemplify this pathological state in everyday life, ranging from “the fascination with fame and celebrity, the fear of competition, the inability to suspend disbelief, the shallowness and transitory quality of personal relations, [to] the horror of death.”1 Lasch proceeds to use this psychopathological definition of narcissism to explain many aspects of culture, personality, and economics that came to the fore in the 1970s. When extrapolating these examples to the twenty-first century, specifically the past decade of the 2010s, the revelation of cultural narcissism is only magnified, and its economic manipulations become quite evident.
One such manifestation of narcissism on which Lasch homes in is the increasing ubiquity of recorded images and the effect that they have on an individual’s basic relationship to reality. Referring frequently to Susan Sontag’s explorations in her collection of essays On Photography, Lasch sees the use of images as a new means of self-validation. The proliferation of photos of the self is a manifestation of narcissism “not only because it provides the technical means of ceaseless self-scrutiny but because it renders the sense of selfhood dependent on the consumption of images of the self, at the same time calling into question the reality of the external world.”2 It is quite startling that these comments were made before the internet, before social media, before everyone had a camera in their pocket at all times. If the use of images in the 1970s was rooted in narcissism, the ubiquity of narcissistic traits Lasch described have certainly since become universal. Posting pictures of oneself online for every notable event in life has become the rule, not the exception. A Gen-Zer who does not participate in creating and publicly sharing media content that documents their lives considered an outlier. The aspect of photos as prompts for “ceaseless self-scrutiny” is undeniable. Social media has become an incubator of self-esteem issues. A recent study of American and Australian women aged eighteen to twenty-five revealed that “greater overall Instagram use was associated with greater self-objectification, and that relationship was mediated both by internalization and by appearance comparisons to celebrities.”3 These findings are only amplified when recognizing that both social media consumption is on the rise and can often become an addiction. 4 Lasch’s notion of dependence to images in confirming reality is so prevalent in this social media age that it has even become a viral meme. The phrase “pics or it didn’t happen” is an extremely common response to any online post that claims that something occurred but doesn’t provide photo evidence. It is the informal tagline that formally means, “Unless you can provide a picture of the occurrence, the occurrence did not happen.” This is not a niche phrase. It is a universal one used without awareness of its deeper meaning: Social media is shifting the very nature of reality perception. Christopher Lasch could have never imagined how prophetic his claims on the role of images would come to be forty years later.
A more understated example that Lasch provides to show the culture of narcissism in the 1970s is the changing role of the doctor. This example too can be extrapolated to our current era to reveal, not only the narcissistic underpinnings of much of our health-related technology, but also the economic manipulation perpetuating it. Lasch suggests that narcissism manifests in “anxious self-scrutiny” revealed in an increased dependence on medical exams:
Doctors have made a cult of the period checkup … and have implanted in their clients the notion that health depends on eternal watchfulness and the early detection of symptoms, as verified by medical technology. The client no longer feels physically or psychologically secure until his X-rays confirm a clean bill of health.5
Here, Lasch is revealing that the age-old saying “if it ain’t broke, dont fix it” has been abandoned in the medical field, and the reasons are inherently narcissistic. He suggests that we no longer trust our own body to tell us when something is wrong; rather, we require the narcissistic quality of outside validation. Questioning the validity of the periodic checkup in our era is a startling claim. In the current age, the importance of a yearly medical checkup is nearly a foregone conclusion. Yet, when considering the modern rise of wearable fitness tracking technology, the narcissistic underpinning appears more valid. Initially, fitness tracking technologies such as pedometers, heartrate and blood-pressure monitors, and calorie trackers were utilized and marketed in the context of fitness and disease treament. They were for athletes who needed this data and patients who needed monitoring for a medical condition. They were used when working out and taken off when finished. However, as the technology advanced, most notably in the form of sleek, aesthetically pleasing watches or wristbands, the market changed. These fitness watches became a universal necessity to be worn at all times. No longer was the dedicated athlete the only person in need of detailed health statistics, but the everyday person was now incentivized constantly to track their health. Lasch’s notion that doctors implanted the idea “that health depends on eternal watchfulness and the early detection of symptoms” is perfectly reflected in the world of wearable fitness technology. Now most smartphones also have these health tracking features. You no longer need even to seek out the product, because the product seeks you out. This is where the Marxian economic aspects come into play.
As just stated, there is a narcissistic quality to fitness tracking. The concept of “surveillance capitalism,” formulated by social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff, refers to the fact that the profits of many technology companies are contingent on cultivating data through devices like wearable fitness technology, ultimately showing that perpetuating narcissism is inherently rooted in the modern capitalist business model. The Internet age brought with it a shift from industrialization-based capitalism to information capitalism, resulting in data becoming the most valuable commodity fueling the profits of the world’s biggest companies. In her groundbreaking 2014 book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Zuboff explains (in a Marxist fashion) that “surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into [predictive] behavioural data.”6
Translated into the Marxist vernacular, websites and apps and “smart products,” owned by media and technology companies, become means of production, and all user data is the commodity. Even though the data provides some benefit in actual user-experience improvement, the vast majority is transformed by purveyors into advanced “prediction products” that utilize the personal data to predict future consumer action. The prediction products are sold in what Zuboff calls “behavioral futures markets,” in which data collectors, prediction product makers, and predictive data utilizers all profit. Although initially centered on profiting from basic user data such as likes, comments, and search history, surveillance capitalism has pushed further, by camouflaging the information exploitation under the guise of technological advancements called “smart” products. Not only fitness trackers, but cars, clothing, watches, and cameras were among the countless products turned into surveillance devices. Advertised as “smartwatches” under the guise of user health benefits, these devices were in reality just another product that allowed for hyper-specific data collection that would be used to generate hyper-targeted ads.
In sum, surveillance capitalism has major Freudian-Marxist underpinnings that explain the underlying mechanisms that enable such manipulations to occur consensually. Extrapolating from Lasch’s (Freudian-rooted) concept of cultural narcissism reveals modern technologies’ predation on this cultural trait to sell more “smart” products. In addition, extrapolating from Zuboff’s (Marxist-rooted) observations of modern technologies’ exploitation of user data reveals the profit incentives for selling “smart products.”
Another fascinating outgrowth of the Internet age is the inception of Hypebeast culture in the fashion industry. “Hype” is defined by Urban Dictionary (the most reputable source in this context) as “getting excited about something not that exciting, or additionally a clever marketing strategy in which a product is advertised as the thing everyone must have to the point where people begin to feel they need to consume it.”7 A Hypebeast, in turn, is defined on Dictionary.com as, “a mostly derogatory slang word for someone, usually a man, who follows trends in fashion, particularly streetwear, for the purpose of making a social statement.”8 The streetwear brand Supreme is the epitome of hype culture. What first started as a simple skating apparel brand selling quality clothes prominently adorned with a box logo of the brand name, turned into a global phenomenon worn by celebrities and “cool kids” everywhere. The seasonal releases of a limited supply of clothing and accessories create a high demand reflected in the resale prices, which are almost always two or three times higher than the original retail price. Supreme’s most desired releases almost always come from collaborations. While collaborations often create unique products, sometimes a collaboration results in a product with seemingly no uniqueness that would justify the bolstered prices. A perfect example is the Nike Air Force 1 Low Supreme White.
The original Nike Airforce 1 is one of the most popular and commercially consistent sneakers in the world. One cannot walk down a New York City street without seeing at least one pair. It is nearly universally retailed at ninety dollars. The Nike Air Force 1 Low Supreme White is the exact same shoe, except for the small placement of the supreme logo on the side. The retail price of the Supreme edition was ninety-six dollars. However, like nearly all Supreme products, they sold out instantly and now can only be purchased on the resale market for an average two-hundred dollars. Marxist and Freudian theory offer great insight into this confounding situation.
Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism describes the mysterious abstraction that occurs in a capitalist society when an object becomes a commodity. Foundational to this concept is the contradictory dual state of any given commodity. The commodity itself is a completely physical and tangible thing, yet at the same time relies on social material relations in order to be exchanged. When a laborer creates an object, the privatized nature of capitalism means that the relationship between the maker and their creation is severed immediately upon completion of the creation. Now, once brought to market, the only self-evident value of an object is its “use-value.” The exchange is now completely alienated from social relations and solely reliant on the exchange of one thing (the object) for another thing (money). Once the commodity reaches this level of alienation from its physical maker, people assume the value of the object is inherently embedded in the object itself. This blindness of not realizing the value of the object is the result of another person’s labor is the fetishism of a commodity. This is the foundation in understanding the process of how a commodity slowly deviates from its rudimentary, yet intrinsic use-value into its bloated exchange-value. And nowhere is this deviation seen more strongly than in streetwear fashion. The price of an item is almost never derived from its quality.
Hype essentially acts as a second additional step in ascribing an artificial value to an object. As commodity fetishism alienates the original labor done to create the object, hype adds another whole dimension of abstract value, by creating a commodity that offers consumers status. Hypebeasts are the archetype of a consumer who is completely unaware of the true use-value of a commodity, with no recognition of the labor that has gone into its creation. Hypebeasts are a product of the fetishizing and alienation of commodities that capitalism perpetuates. No one is buying the Supreme edition of the Air Force 1 for reasons of functionality. Nor are they justifying paying double for any significant aesthetic reasons. Visually, most passersby won’t even notice the difference. People buy the Supreme edition because of what it means, symbolically. Its desirability is rooted in an individual’s attempt to project an idealized image of themselves, through symbols. In general, hypebeasts purchase items not because of personal style preference or needs, but to project a desired identity. Brand connotation is the priority, and wearing clothing from a brand also adorned by celebrities, specifically athletes and rappers, is an attempt to convey that same desired status.
The comparative nature of desire that is so vital to hype has been immeasurably inflated by social media. Instagram has become an echo-chamber of idealization. A scroll through an average user’s posts projects a lifestyle almost utopian in appearance. Although most users are aware that Instagram is a place where people show their best selves, most don’t internalize that fact, resulting for many in an immense feeling of inferiority. We can’t help but compare our lives to the curated ones displayed online, and the feeling of inferiority that this creates is inevitable. Lacan’s “The Signification of the Phallus” offers an explanation on the nature of desire that can help to understand the dangerous mechanisms of social media. Lacan, who built on Freudian thought, sees desire as out of the control of the individual human being, because we are born into a world of prearranged linguistic structures. These structures completely mediate our inner feelings, causing us to be able to access them only through the already established structures. He goes further, saying that even our unconscious desires are linguistically structured. Juliet Mitchell’s introduction to Feminine Sexuality helps to clarify the implications of Lacan’s understanding of linguistic structures:
Thus any satisfaction that might subsequently be attained will always contain this loss within it . . . .The baby’s need can be met, its demand responded to, but its desire only exists because of the initial failure of satisfaction.9
Lacan suggests there is a point in infancy where a failure of satisfaction by the mother initiates an eternal incapacity for complete satisfaction, and this is where desire comes from. When considering this process in relation to social media, it becomes clear that the dangers of social media lie in its perpetual nature. When a user posts, there can never be complete satisfaction. And this feeling is only increased through the comparative nature of a user timeline. The cycle is as follows: A user will post a picture of themselves. They will receive likes and comments that help them to feel satisfied with themselves. The user will see other posts and compare themselves and their own posts, creating a new desire for satisfaction. And they post again, repeating the process. Complete satisfaction cannot be achieved, without completely disengaging from the platform. And the last thing that Instagram wants users to do is disengage. This ultimately means that Instagram’s success is contingent on high usage rates. And high usage rates are contingent on an insatiable feeling of satisfaction. This inability to satisfy desires is perpetuated by the comparative nature of the app. Put it all together and it becomes clear that Instagram’s success is contingent on perpetuating self-esteem issues.
The theoretical realm of Marxist and Neo-Freudian discourse offers an expansive view of various pitfalls of the Internet Age. Christopher Lasch’s identification of a collective pathological narcissism of the 1970s can be extrapolated to the current age when considering social media and photography in general. His theory of narcissism’s relationship with medical practices can be combined with Shoshana Zuboff’s notion of Surveillance Capitalism to reveal how narcissistic culture is utilized by technology companies for profit. In the realm of streetwear, the Marxist concepts of commodity fetishism and alienation clarify how and why hypebeast culture exists. Hypebeast culture intertwines with social media, and using Jacques Lacan’s theories of linguistic structure in relation to desire and satisfaction reveals just how vital self-loathing is for social media companies like Instagram’s success. All these extrapolations leave one with quite a bleak picture of the Internet age. If we think of the internet as essentially a new dimension of human experience, it is disconcerting to see many of the issues that plagued the past few centuries manifest themselves in this new era. But in many ways the Marxist-Freudian lens makes it easy to see the bad more than good. Identifying problems is always easier than identifying solutions. It is vital to recognize that a core value of both Marx and Freud was the importance of awareness. Marx called it class consciousness while Freud invented the entire field of psychoanalysis in this pursuit. Never has there been a time when we had more access to the full spectrum of perspective than in this Internet age. At its worst, the Internet age has created a new world for all the problems of civilization so far to manifest in a mutated state. But at its best, this new era of civilization has the potential to unify a world that so often makes it difficult for people fully to perceive, and thus accept each other.
- Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (W. W. Norton, 2018), 176.
- Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 48-49.
- Jasmine Fardouly,Brydie K. Willburger, Lenny R. Vartanian, “Instagram Use and Young Women’s Body Image Concerns and Self-Objectification: Testing Mediational Pathways,” New Media & Society 20, no. 4 (Apr. 2018): 1380–1395.
- Hayley Tsukayama, “Teens Spend Nearly Nine Hours Every Day Consuming Media,” The Washington Post, April 8, 2019.
- Lasch,The Culture of Narcissism, 48.
- Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for the Future at the New Frontier of Power (Profile Books, 2019), 8.
- Urban Dictionary, s.v. “Hype,” accessed April 14, 2021.
- Dictionary.com, s.v. “Hypebeast,” accessed April 14, 2021.
- Juliet Mitchell, “Introduction,” in Feminine Sexuality by Jacques Lacan and the École Freudienne, edited by Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (Macmillan, 2000), 6.