How social media changes our perception of reality

Lona Moutafidou teaches the courses “Poetry and Psychoanalysis” and “Trauma Narratives” at UNYP. Lacan’s mirror stage theory, briefly discussed in this article, forms part of the theoretical components of the “Poetry and Psychoanalysis” syllabus.

How does an ancient philosophical allegory intersect with a psychoanalytic concept from the 1960s? How could this inform social media usage?

     The Allegory of the Cave, written in approximately 380 BC, by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, is probably among his best-known contributions to the field. The allegory centers on a group of men who, since childhood, have lived in a cave, shackled by their necks and legs so that they are unable to look anywhere else except in front of them. Behind the backs of the prisoners, a fire burns. Between the prisoners’ backs and the fire, there is a small walkway and a short wall. Puppeteers walk along the walkway, holding small artifacts such as statues just above that short wall. Incapable of moving or turning their heads, the only thing that the prisoners have been able to see throughout their lifetime is the shadow of those objects projected on the cave wall, in front of them, in the glow of the fire coming from behind them. The images of the real objects that the puppeteers carry consist, in the perception of the prisoners, solely of the shadows of the objects. The spectral image is thus exchanged, Plato would argue, for the real thing. If, according to the allegory, a prisoner succeeds in liberating himself and goes up to face the real light coming first from the fire and then from the sun, there is the risk of being blinded. To add insult to injury, if the liberated prisoner returns to the cave, no one will believe him, and he is in danger of being killed by the non-believers. 

    Talking about a different kind of reflection, but always spectral, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan introduces his mirror stage theory in Écrits, in 1966. The theory features an infant between 6 and 18 months of age, looking at themselves in the mirror, held by some support, either human (for example a caretaker) or not (a baby walker). The infant then engages in a series of gestures in front of the mirror. Because of the lack of motor capacity at that stage in life, the unified image reflected in the mirror contrasts with the feeling that the infant has of their uncoordinated body. After a short moment of aggression against the image, tension is resolved as the infant greets the reflection with elation, conveniently accepting it as their own, enjoying the otherwise fake spectacle of totality and self-mastery that the specular image conveys. It is after this moment, as Lacan later adds, that the babies sometimes turn themselves to the adult carrying them, looking in the latter’s eyes for a confirmation of a process which, for the infant, started with aggression and ended in jubilatory misidentification. The adult, the Big Other, poses as the final arbiter, capitalizing, with their approval, on the infant’s need for imaginary self-affirmation.  

    Is there any parallel between the shadow of objects posing as the real things themselves in front of the prisoner’s eyes, and the spectral image that an infant meets in the mirror? What could connect the puppeteers and the adult Big Other to social media usage nowadays? 

     A. S. Ferguson argues in “Plato’s Simile of Light. Part II. The Allegory of the Cave” that “the purpose of the cave seems to be to keep the prisoners engrossed with the shadows. I say the purpose because all the signs point to its being contrived by human minds for human ends. The bonds that hold the prisoners fast and the shadows that enchain their interest, so that fetters become unnoticed, are devised by men. Equally the wall, the puppets, and the fire are artificial things, serving the ends of the showmen.” The scholar interestingly adds: “It seems an entertainment but is a prison, and whether the inmates will or not, their whole world is the shadow-play . . .  But the inmates of this place do not even desire to leave their prison; for they know no better life” (Ferguson, 1922, p. 16 emphasis mine). Could this lack of desire to leave the prison point to people’s addiction to massive social media usage, especially during lockdown? Is, first and foremost, social media and Instagram usage essentially a prison, posing, spectrally, like a form of entertainment in front of the users’ eyes? Is the life projected on our mobile phones’ screen a shadowy reflection of another, real life, coming from behind our backs? Where is reality located, after all? 

     Going back to Lacan, “the mirror stage is a drama …which manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality … and, lastly, to the assumption of an armor of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject’s entire mental development” (Lacan, 1989, p. 36, emphasis mine). If our entire mental development is subject to a misidentifying process, what is the relation of the virtual side of ourselves, featured on the mobile phone mirror feed, and the “concrete” one posing in front of it? The pictures and stories uploaded could really capture our life in Lacan’s “captation” modality, a word which fuses “capture” with “captivation”, hence fascination with imprisonment. Lacan’s Big Other, whose approval, whose “likes,” comments and reactions we admittedly nourish upon sometimes, could be the filter through which we measure our self-affirmation, our self-approval, a disorienting process which ends, precisely, on “the assumption of an armor of an alienating identity,” projecting itself against the fake social media “fire wall”.

     During the pandemic, staying at home is inescapably linked with extensive social media usage. And while some habits and addictions die hard, it would probably be beneficial to be aware of how certain aspects of these mechanisms work. Indeed, there is a sharp distinction between using, and knowing why and how to use, platforms like Instagram at the present critical moment. Comprehending the underpinnings of our passive and active roles in the social media world, our possibly being at once Plato’s prisoners and Lacan’s infant, depending on the virtual puppeteers and the Big Other’s approving gaze and feed, can help us become aware of our designated place and space within the social media mechanism itself.

Written by: Lona Moutafidou

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