Jonathan Franzen: Read Some Erving Goffman. Please!

Jonathan Franzen’s NY Times Op-Ed, “Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts,” is one of the most e-mailed articles and is also one of the most shared articles on my Twitter and Facebook feeds. And it hurts.

Let’s start here:

I may be overstating the case, a little bit. Very probably, you’re sick to death of hearing social media disrespected by cranky 51-year-olds.

Yes. Next?

My aim here is mainly to set up a contrast between the narcissistic tendencies of technology and the problem of actual love.

Wait. What? Why is technology narcissistic? Although he starts out talking about his “sexy” BlackBerry Bold, he really means Facebook. One is a piece of hardware, the other a piece of social software accessed via that device. If, for the time being, we assume that Facebook is narcissistic, does that mean that all technology is narcissistic? What is narcissistic about a telephone, a device which allows you to speak to other people? Sure, your conversations may be about yourself, but that’s because you’re narcissistic, not because your telephone is.

But let’s give Franzen the benefit of the doubt. He isn’t making a deterministic argument, but a softer argument about how technology subtly influences us. The nub of his arguments seems to be that the technology’s sexiness facilitates narcissism.

Consumer technology products would never do anything this unattractive, because they aren’t people. They are, however, great allies and enablers of narcissism. Alongside their built-in eagerness to be liked is a built-in eagerness to reflect well on us.

There is some truth to the claim that all consumer products are designed to reflect well on their owners. At least the designers of those products want us to make that connection, and it is important to some people, but I’ve never been convinced that it is as widespread a connection as designers and advertisers would like us to believe. I think the opposite is true as well: people tend to reflect themselves back on whatever technology they happen to own. Still, let’s give this one to Franzen. But again he slips from the sexiness of the phone to the sexiness of the Facebook interface… (Does anyone actually think the Facebook GUI is sexy?).

Consumer technology products would never do anything this unattractive, because they aren’t people. They are, however, great allies and enablers of narcissism. Alongside their built-in eagerness to be liked is a built-in eagerness to reflect well on us.

It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.

Speak for yourself kiddo. I friend people on Facebook because they are my students, colleagues, research collaborators, high school classmates, etc. In other words, for a whole lot of varied reasons. I certainly don’t think of it as a private hall of flattering mirrors. But OK, I like it when people “like” my photos, glib comments, and the links I share. I get my little shot of dopamine. Sure. But so do I when someone gives me encouragement at work, or says something especially nice on a student evaluation form. If Facebook is any different it is because I get to give and receive such encouragement to a much wider social network than those I encounter daily at work. The very opposite of narcissism.

But I suspect that most people e-mailing, liking, and tweeting the article (oh, the irony) do so because of the next section:

The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.

Suddenly there’s a real choice to be made, not a fake consumer choice between a BlackBerry and an iPhone, but a question: Do I love this person? And, for the other person, does this person love me?

There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.

OK. Hold on a second. Are you saying that being phony is purely a product of the “techno-consumerist order”? Read some Erving Goffman. Please! Everyday life is full of various degrees of self-presentation. This is true of all societies, living under all levels of technological development. Tell me that being “cool, attractive, in-control” wasn’t important for pre-internet Balinese! Does that mean that they were incapable of love? How about writing letters, or (dare I say it?) novels? How is carrying around a Franzen paperback any less a part of the techno-consumerist order?

But all this isn’t what pissed me off. No. What really pissed me off was the last bit. The bit about birdwatching.

And so, yes, I kept a meticulous list of the birds I’d seen, and, yes, I went to inordinate lengths to see new species. But, no less important, whenever I looked at a bird, any bird, even a pigeon or a robin, I could feel my heart overflow with love. And love, as I’ve been trying to say today, is where our troubles begin.

Because now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again. The news on that front was no better than when I’d decided to quit worrying about it — was considerably worse, in fact — but now those threatened forests and wetlands and oceans weren’t just pretty scenes for me to enjoy. They were the home of animals I loved.

Well, you know what? When you keep lists of birds you are using technology. Yes, keeping lists is a type of technology – one of the oldest in fact. But we’ve moved beyond that. Here’s a small list of some current technologies which might help you with your birdwatching. And you know what else? These technologies might even help the birds.

5 thoughts on “Jonathan Franzen: Read Some Erving Goffman. Please!

  1. There is a big bit of nostalgia in this, so when they (the neo-luddites) speak of anti-technology, I am pretty sure they mean “modern technology”. That is why it sounds so paradoxical when writing letters should be better than writing e-mails (identity creating through technological affiliation), but when you read between the lines and add the “modern” before the “technology” the reasoning actually starts to make sense. They don’t want to get rid of all technology (which would be impossible), but actually want to use specific kinds of technology.

    That said, it is not hard to understand that the tendencies for homology of entire Internet is existentially narcissistic (one sees one’s Self at best in The Other only). Adding to that the capitalistic aspects of control on the Internet, we can also see that speaking has become more important than listening. And I gotta admit, my iPhone and FaceBook is not very good for taking in information, rather than actually give information (most of the time rather useless information like “I am in bed writing on FB”, but even when it is pertinent information like “Politicians use scare tactics so don’t be afraid” I am always doing PR-bureaus and News-bureaus a favor by doing their work for free).

    I want to communicate (in a reciprocal manner), but I do not care as much if someone else wants to.

    The real funny part is, the illusion of freedom given to us by the innovation of the Internet was only a brief pause from the 500 to 5000yr old norm of speaking as more important than listening. So it is not like something has recently been taken away from us, by modern technology. This in turn means that it is not something about our modern technology today, and that people have almost always had the same arguments against modern technology. I mean, just look at the Amish…

    When I hear someone be anti-technology without the modern part, I feel that it is as absurd as the notion of anti-intellectualism. Anti-intellectualism would logically be that people actively try to un-learn things, and un-teach things, which by itself should sound like an enough paradoxical endeavor. The only salvation is to “translate” what they really mean.

  2. Does anyone know if other countries are as obsessed with pathological narcissism as the US is (the apparent removal of ‘pathological narcissism’ from upcoming DSM notwithstanding)? There is currently, and has been for several decades, multiple critiques of US culture as dominated by excessive self-love; the critique could be rooted in worries about the ‘softness’ of liberal and progressive social ideals, or it could be, as in the present case, rooted in the idea that techno-consumerist culture, reaching its apotheosis in America, is driven by narcissism. For example see:

    What’s consistent across many of these critiques is not the ’causes’ that account for this narcissism, but the idee fixe, as it were, that the US is uniquely narcissistic.

  3. Your detailed critique notwithstanding, Kerim, I think it’s important to keep Franzen’s audience in mind. This was a commencement speech, meant to move, tug at heart strings, etc. It does a good job of that, and if we allow it to be what it is, to fulfill its generic mission, then I don’t think it’s really necessary to take him to task for making the claims he’s made. (I did have to read the bird-watching part twice, however, because it struck me as a non sequitur.)

    I’ve spent the better part of this year around youth in Spain, not the U.S., and many of them engage daily with social media as well as new technologies (as you point out, software and hardware). Their communication/self-presentation practices through these media have struck me as quite aware-of-the-mirror, as it were. Most every photo is carefully posed. Is it narcissism? I wouldn’t make that claim. Nor would I make the claim that social media/new technologies presuppose self-involvement. Instead, these media offer new avenues of self-presentation, phoniness, what-have-you: the stuff that’s always been around and that Goffman lays out in his analyses. They make it easier for more of us to see more of it more of the time, so there’s a saturation element to this experience, as well.

    In the end, I see nothing wrong with an attempt to remind young and old alike that life is tough and ‘real’ relationships are ‘real’ work. (Mightn’t Goffman, with his keen understanding of our social slights-of-hand, have agreed? Don’t answer that… it’s a hypothetical, and I know he was a character.) I was actually a little surprised by your reading of this article as “anti-technology,” because I read it as a call to develop passions/activities alongside those that come easiest — e.g., checking Facebook — and to complement cursory, fleeting interests with sustained dedication to one or two things. Sounds like anthropology, to me.

  4. Given your keen critique of Franzen’s remarks, I wonder whether Franzen’s sense of net-narcissim can be salvaged to theorize about emerging cultural trends. Doesn’t the increasingly widespread ability to click “like” on a post have ramifications on our social structures and, as Dr. Elias Aboujaoude* suggests, our psychology? I’m not vouching for either Franzen or Aboujaoude, but the conditioning involved in the click seems worthy of some consideration.


  5. ” ‘Real’relationships’ are ‘real’ work” as M.Taha reminds us above. Work is not just about conflict, as the article examples. It is also about forgiveness, reconciliation, silliness, and sorrow.

    I believe it’s a red herring to oppose virtual and face to face relationship work.
    For the last several years, students in my introductory cultural anthropology have done fieldwork projects regarding the ways in which communications technology are part of relationships in college students. Recently, the hypothetical question regarded the assertion by anthropologist Amber Case, that we are becoming “cyborg.”

    Overwhelmingly, students have found that to be true–even those who felt “old fashioned” or “anti-technology” at first.

    Ways in which virtual technology have supported relationships:
    Long distance relationships with loved ones are increasingly done via Skype–face to face and yet distanced.
    With other students relating to relatives far away, phone calls permit intimacy through hearing tone of voice and speech patterns, dialect, etc.
    Facebook is used in a variety of ways: some are sel-proclaimed addicts; others have stopped it–it’s so “high school”; others use it to stay connected to those with whom they are not that close.
    Texting is for those who are physically nearby: roommates, friends, teammates:
    Texting is for multitasking (can be done as one chats, attends lectures, watches video on tv or hulu, etc)
    Texting is for polite communication: it doesn’t have to interrupt an ongoing activity as would a phone call.

    Email is for professional contact with professors.

    Ironically, students feel as though they are being forced into a constant online presence: professors increasingly use distance learning software in face to face classes-posting syllabi, assignments, and other resources; using email through the distance learning site; posting quizzes online; requiring students submit papers through, etc. Library databases are the site for research–not the stacks.

    As Amber Case has asserted, students find that they have two selves to manage: their online self and their face-to-face self. They have no choice as professional life is increasingly virtual. And as Amber Case asserts, we are all adolescents in learning how to manage an online self.

    Whether we like it or not, we are learning how to be passionate and engaged complete humans in these two spheres of life. And surprisingly, my students are as ambivalent about this as the rest of us–perhaps in different ways.

    One of Dr. Case’s fears is that, with the pressure that maintaining virtual relationships brings us to be involved 24:7, we are losing the opportunity for quiet, self-reflection–in some ways, the center of our thinking-feeling selves.

    What some of my students say: blogging is for self-reflection! Gone the inner, private self of meditations.

    Linda Dwyer

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