Life as a toxic cyborg

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There’s a podcast series by Jon Ronson called The Butterfly Effect, which looks at the way digital technology has upended the porn industry. Ronson describes at one point being on the set of a porn shoot, with some male actors getting ready to perform. In the 1970s, the porn industry had employees called “fluffers,” whose job was to make sure the male stars were properly aroused before shooting a scene. Those jobs don’t exist anymore; today, porn actors use video on their phones to achieve the same end.

Think about that for a second. Here you have a young man, getting ready to have sex with — let’s say for the sake of argument — a young woman, who is literally right there before him, naked. But in order to get himself in the mood, he has to look at a video on his phone of a woman — maybe that very same woman! — having stage-directed sex in another porn video, much like the one he’s about to perform in. The actual, physical, naked woman he’s about to have sex with is somehow inadequate to stimulate him; his libido needs the simulated, digitized version on a screen to make it “real.”

This is just one particularly vivid example of how the digitized social simulacrum we now inhabit has annihilated the human body as the primary subject of our social existences. Teenagers today are having less sex than they did in prior generations, and remain virgins for longer. This is not because they’re more virtuous than they used to be, or less horny. It’s because sex, like everything else, has become subsumed by the internet; it’s now just another online experience. For them, sex is an image on a screen. The image is no longer a mere representation of sex, as it was most people reading this were kids, but almost the thing itself.

That may sound very postmodern, and it is. But it’s second nature to someone who grows up in a world in which all of social life is principally online — where the internet is the place you make friends, lose friends, bully others, get bullied, flirt, fall in love, develop intimate bonds, break up, and move on. Your physical presence isn’t required for any of those vital social events; why would sex be an exception?

On the surface, it’s hard to reconcile this picture of our disembodied social existences with the profoundly biological reality we’re living through today. Never before have our bodies been more central to our daily lives. We are forced to perpetually regard our flesh-and-blood selves as potential biological weapons — the bodies of others even more so. Every mundane decision we make is now shaped, to some extent, by questions of how to manage the physical proximity of our corporeal bodies with other corporeal bodies. It’s become so ingrained that even from the sheltered safety of our living rooms, we watch casual physical interactions in pre-pandemic movies and TV shows — people who just met each other shaking hands, casual acquaintances hugging, unmasked strangers grazing each other in crowded subway cars — and wince. The pandemic is anything but virtual; never before have we been so consistently and consciously aware of ourselves and those around us as physical sacks of bodily fluids.

But in another sense, they’re actually quite compatible pictures. In our digital social worlds, the body has increasingly been reduced to an appliance. It’s a physical vessel that houses our consciousness, which, sadly, due to current technological limitations, cannot yet be uploaded onto the internet. Until that Transhumanist Day of Rapture arrives, our biological bodies, plopped in front of the glowing screens of our laptops, have to suffice as the soft, moist instruments with which we shape and project our actual, more socially realized “selves” that reside in the digital ether. In the plague-infested physical world we inhabit between screen sessions, meanwhile, our bodies are more extant than ever, but no more human than the coiffed and shaved, tungsten lit, color corrected bodies of porn actors. Instead, they are the inverse of that fantasy version of human corporeality: they’re receptacles of infection, vectors of disease. In the age of Covid, the relationship we have with other human beings in public is as empty and mechanical as the “relationship” horny teens have with cam girls. Our twenty-first century bodies are, more than ever before, mere biological objects, tools of joy or agents of sickness and death, bifurcated from our “selves” which are transmitted not in person but online.

I probably write too much about Foucault on this Substack, but I can’t help it: the world keeps conforming to his descriptions of it.

In 1976, Foucault wrote an essay on “noso-politics.” “Nosos” is the Greek word for disease, as in “zoonotic.” “Noso-politics” was Foucault’s neologism for the emergence of a new form of governmental power designed to control disease. (Later, Foucault expanded the term and called it “biopower.”) Of the emergence of noso-politics in eighteenth century Europe, he wrote:

Medicine…assumes as increasingly important place in the administrative system and the machinery of power… The doctor becomes the great advisor and expert, if not in the art of governing, at least in that of observing, correcting and improving the social ‘body’ and maintaining it in a permanent state of health.

The effort to control the spread of disease three centuries ago — an incontrovertibly pro-social aim, to be sure — had profound, lasting impacts on the way that political power was shaped in the modern age. One of the things it did was to help reify the conception of “the population” as a singular object to be studied, analyzed, manipulated, improved upon and controlled. This worldview was an innovation of modernity. Prior to the modern age, the state ruled over its “subjects,” but state officials didn’t tend to regard that collective as an organic being, with immanent tendencies and patterns and characteristics to be observed and acted upon. This was a novel way of perceiving social reality that was particularly conducive to the rationalized methods of social control that were the hallmark of the modern, bureaucratic administrative state, and that enabled a whole cascade of transformations. Foucault writes:

The project of a technology of population begins to be sketched: demographic estimates, the calculation of the pyramid of ages, different life expectations and levels of mortality, studies of the reciprocal relations of growth of wealth and growth of population, various measures of incitement to marriage and procreation, the development of forms of education and professional training… The biological traits of a population become relevant factors for economic management, and it becomes necessary to organize around them an apparatus which will ensure not only their subjection but the constant increase of their utility.

By assuming for itself the responsibility and prerogative of safeguarding “public health” — itself a novel concept — the state took on the enforcement of standards of hygiene, which meant tracking and regulating people’s behaviors in the intimate settings of their workplaces and homes. This was a significant expansion of state power, and it didn’t have to end with the subject of disease. It could, and was, expanded over time into myriad “social issues,” including crime, sexual deviance, economics, labor management — anything that could be framed as a trait of the population that could be managed through technocratic instruments.

Another thing it did was grant significant political power to those who possessed, through their educations, specialized technical knowledge. This new mode of behavioral micromanagement by the state required experts. In the case of public health, that meant doctors, epidemiologists, hygienists, hospital administrators, demographers, statisticians, and other credentialed specialists. As this mode of administrative management over the population evolved and expanded into new terrains — crime, mental illness and other social issues — new disciplines emerged, producing more specialists whom the administrative state bestowed with yet more political power, each within the parameters of their respective technical fields. This power, hitherto hereditary and restricted to the titled classes, was now open to anyone with access to the requisite educational training. “Meritocracy” was born, and along with it, what Pierre Bourdieu called “the state nobility,” and which we now call the “professional-managerial class.”

I’m under no illusions that the average vaccine/masking/lockdown skeptic has ever even heard of Foucault, much less knows a thing about his ideas. But the notion that the credentialed elite are delegated special political powers by virtue of their specialized knowledge is intuitively perceptible to everyone, and naturally breeds resentment, especially if those powers are being exercised aggressively and those elites are vocally contemptuous of the public. Rejection of this technocratic power is a vital political force in America, which the right has been capitalizing on for decades. It’s what’s behind the current resistance to vaccine mandates, masking rules and lockdown orders.

It would be a mistake to conflate this with rejection of the knowledge itself. Certainly there are those who sincerely believe that the vaccines don’t work, and that masking is an elaborate ruse. But my suspicion is that most skeptics are less committed to their rejection of the counsel being offered than they are to their distrust of the people doing the counseling. They suspect that we’re all being reduced to something less than human — to mere numbers on a spreadsheet, or to specimens to be corralled and sequestered and poked and prodded on a massive petri dish. And they’re not wrong; regarding its citizens as a massive agglomeration of interchangeable units is the very essence of noso-politics.

This is the subjective experience of social existence in 2021: creeping dehumanization. At home, in front of our screens, we experience ourselves and others as amorphous agglomerations of posts, tweets, DMs, avatars, and Ludwig-filtered vacation photos. We’re cyborgs, tethered to our earthly bodies but also detached from them, interacting with each other as astral projectiles floating through virtual space. Then, in public, we regard ourselves and one other as the biological equivalent of depleted uranium, our movements painstakingly micromanaged by bureaucrats in white coats.

On the one hand, it’s a dystopia. On the other hand, it has Uber Eats and pretty good high speed internet.