Sunday, October 03, 2010

Combined and Uneven Socialization: Remarks on The Social Network

Several years ago, I taught at a small liberal arts college. The college was over an hour away from where I lived. Not an especially long drive, but the drive through the frozen tundra of central Maine was boring as hell. So I tried books on tape to deal with the commute. I was teaching Philosophy of Film one semester, basically a Deleuze course, and I thought it would be interesting if I found some book on film to listen to while I drove. I basically wanted to offset my theory with something a little more concerned with the practical matter of making film. The best that the library could offer was something by Sidney Lumet. I am a fan of Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict, so I decided to listen to it. I do not remember much of the book, mostly stories about the making of various films, but Lumet did talk about how much he hated what he called “Rubber Duckie Stories”; simple stories of single event offered as psychological motivation. Basically, someone steals a child’s rubber duckie and he becomes the rubber duckie killer, or something to that effect.

As I have written here and elsewhere (numerous elsewhere’s in fact), Marx’s critique of “so-called primitive accumulation” could be understood as a critique of psychological causality. The idea that moral qualities, such as thrift and greed, are themselves sufficient to drive history, to constitute the formation of capitalism. I will quote the entire passage here just because I love it so (Marx can write some dull passages, but when he hits it, he really hits it).

“This primitive accumulation plays approximately the same role in political economy as original sin does in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote about the past. Long, long ago there were two sorts of people; one the diligent, intelligent, and above all frugal elite; the other lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread by the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential. Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort finally had nothing to sell except their own skins.”

What does this have to do with The Social Network? First, it is necessary to contextualize the film a little bit. One can reasonably imagine that behind the film there is a massive drive to turn every social phenomena, every fad, into a major picture: break dancing, skateboarding, and even the forbidden dance of the Lambada (did anyone actually do that?) have had their respective films. There have been rumors of a facebook film in development for years, most of which, like the rumored facebook stalker film, sounded ridiculous. Although it is worth noting that part of the reason that a facebook movie sounds ridiculous is that the internet is just a much more efficient machine at capturing attention, at turning activities into webpages and hits. Texts from Last Night, Cats that look like Hitler, Passive aggressive notes, ugly tattoos, there is a website for all of them. Movies might try to capture trends, putting parcour in a James Bond film, but they are generally too slow, lumbering dinosaurs compared to the fleet footed internet.

David Fincher’s film answers this corporate demand, but does so in the form of what is largely a biopic. However, as the film’s trailer suggests, this story of Mark Zuckerberg (facebook’s founder) is supposed to be a story of us, revealing something of how we have been changed by social networking. Zuckerberg’s obsession with status and almost pathological inability to connect are supposed to explain our tendency to confirm that friend request from someone we hardly know and the fact that all of these “friends” leave us feeling very alone. History is psychology.

This is especially true in the scenes that bookmark the film. In the first, which has been discussed countless times, Zuckerberg’s girlfriend breaks up with him, telling him that he is an asshole. Much of the rest of the film is dedicated to confirming this conclusion. This traumatic break-up drives Zuckerberg to create Facesmash, a website that allows men to rate women based on their looks. This basic thesis, that the internet is driven by misogyny (its original sin) is confirmed latter in the film when we meet Sean Parker (creator of Napster) who also has a break-up story. The internet is presented as compensation for lost love. Zuckerberg’s particular failed romance also concludes the film. The last scene shows him, successful but alienated from his friends, looking up the girlfriend from the first scene, and clicking “Add as Friend.” Friending an old girlfriend is the new Rosebud.

I actually like the last scene. It is one of the few points in the film that actually touches on something of the social experience of facebook. Its tendency to render every social relationship present: we don’t have memories anymore, even regretful ones, we have embarrassing search histories. There is something tragic to the image of the creator of facebook hitting refresh again and again, waiting to see his request for a friend confirmed. All of his wealth and power means nothing at this point. ("A friend request, a friend request, my kingdom for a friend request.") However, for the most part the actual “social network” remains off-screen. What motivates and drives it, and drives our participation in it, is only alluded to in the psychology of the characters. We cannot completely fault the film for this, a film of people checking their email status, looking at pictures of their secret crush, and “liking” LOL cats would be horribly boring.

This is not true of all of the scenes in the film. The scene in which Zuckerberg unleashes Fasesmash is interspersed with scenes from one of the legendary parties of the final clubs in which women are bused into campus to party with the future elite. The camera cuts from isolated men, or men in small groups, rating women on the internet to actual women, ready and available to the frat boys. This scene could be read as part of the film’s Revenge of the Nerd’s plot, a more high concept staging of the eternal struggle of nerds versus jocks, in which the latter always get the girls. However, it also could be read as a statement about the internet itself. Not just how much of it is driven by sex, or the spectacle of sex in a kind of pervasive voyeurism, as Matteo Pasquinelli has argued, but how social networks are driven by the fantasy of actual sociality. Everyone appears to be having more fun than us, and we forget that we are part of that appearance too. When Zuckerberg says he wants to put the college experience online he does not just mean the social relations in college, but the interplay between inclusion and exclusion, the constant feeling of missing out: the idea that the next click could get you to the real interesting party.

It is in scenes like this that the film departs from its “Rubber Duckie” narrative, situating the social network within the social relations that it exploits, and the social drives that it cultivates. These are always secondary, however, to the pathologized psychologies of its protoganist. Which raises the following question: given that the film has been universally praised, not just as well shot and acted, but as revealing something of the present, as our Citizen Kane (?), why are we so willing to recognize ourselves in this image? Why do we, or at least most of the critics, see ourselves in Mark Zuckerberg?

1 comment:

Hasana said...

Great post, homie. I think the rubber duckie suggestion is an interesting and funny way to set up the discussion, though it seems that the revenge has something to do not only with misogyny (though surely porn driving all media revolution is still at work here in an intimate and sadistic twist -- it must be women you know) with the exclusion of Jews (deep history at Harvard). Not sure if there is something more interesting to the Winklevi/ Zuckerburg battle but it seems relevant.