The Strange Pull of the (recent) Past

I have been teaching internet ethics to my high school students, or more specifically, applying a few theories of ethics to social method as well as research into “ethical” psychology such as narcissism, cyber-bullying, and “catfishing.”  This led to the discussion of curated identities and how much students are abandoning facebook for instagram and snapchat, and we watched the film Catfish from 2010.   The normal media buzz being confirmed in the a-scientific ways that anecdotes confirm these sorts of things.   It struck me that Catfish, which seemed old to me looking at its pictures of facebook, but also new because it was released just after I left the US.

Being an expatriate, an immigrant, or a general diasporado seems to periodize your own life much differently than when you are in your own culture.   There are radical disjunctions:  you return to states of being functionally illiterate in your home country, you feel alien to that country, and the longer you are gone, you feel alien to home too.   This displacement is wonderful for analytic detachment and inspiration, and it leads you to being much less withholding of friendship and love to people who should themselves even slightly worthy, but also much less willing to be causally friendly with anyone.  The emotional investment would be too high as the time you will spend together is definitely limited when you just move on in one or two years.  That said, it makes one’s alienation seem more profound as navigating the implicit norms of a culture, which you are not entirely foreign nor native, difficult.

The interesting role Facebook has played is that it has allowed me to interact with my “home culture,” or at least people who share a first language with me, more regularly.  At first this was a comfort, but one gets very addicted to the dopamine one gets from the interactions.   In the last two years, however, facebook’s algorithm and my pattern’s of engagement, seemed to lead to the very myopia I used to rant about on my wall or in my editorials for the North Star.  Since I did so much work in activist circles, I noticed that with the exception of my very closest friends, facebook removed people from my regular interaction pool.  It enforced itself in the way political activism in person had done: a set of people engaging and fighting over small differences.  The policing of language and counter-policing.

Today I even saw a post that did this:

Denial: liberalism
Anger: anarchism
Bargaining: syndicalism or something
Depression: apoliticism
Acceptance: Marxism

It’s as bullshit as the five-stages it is making fun of, but its not real need for even trolling debate.  I personally angrily accept the political economic realities, and I suppose it leads to a politics that swerves between critical analysis and grumpy-old-man-ism.  I am not old even though in leftist/Marxist years, which I feel like should be accounted for in something like dog years, I am beginning a rather old man.   Regardless, there was a time when I would have passionately delved into that debate delineating between kinds of Marxism and an anarchism and maybe even kinds of liberalism.

I have a penchant for both unpleasant truths and mild pedantry.

This, however, seemed like another form of self-imposed alienation.  A kind of repetition compulsion that comes from the fact that one doesn’t want to believe the unpleasant truths right in front of our faces.  For me, though, its more than that: It was a way of engaging with ideas that formed me and with a culture I am from.  Capitalism may be a totality dominated by a few states–in fact, I think that is almost in self-evident assertion that even most of the true believers in capitalism get–but there is a specificity to my world and the activist world I grew up in, left, and returned to.

During Occupy, I told the story of my brief bouts with poverty, my divorce, and my successful attempt to re-enter academia only to discover that there wasn’t a way for me to pay for it.  That was my late twenties.  In the end, I walked away.  I cashed out my meager investments and pension I couldn’t keep to get some medical work done as I didn’t have a job.  I sold my books.  I filed for divorce after eight years of marriage.   My ex and I had separated, and we are close.   I got a job in South Korea, and started my current adventure. It was both terrible and liberating.

Recently, I was mocked for politicizing my personal depression by another leftist.  A reference to the sadness I felt when my brother, earlier this year, tried to commit suicide by cop, failed that, and then shot himself in the face.   He survived.  Many people thought I was romanticizing depression.  He had no insurance. He was truly working class as was our parents. It was tragic, and it was the result of poverty and depression. To be told I was politicizing and romanticizing my depression by a twenty-something student and I actually was just trying to pull anything out of the what seemed like a hopeless situation.   Of course, I was politicizing it because my brother’s mental health may not have been socio-politically created, but its particular lack of treatment and the relationship to the police definitely were limited or over-determined by parts of political economy. Those facts exists in a social context regardless whatever neurology plagues my brother.

The above is why I have rarely used my personal life in my writing except to distance myself from it.  Which is why the charge that I was a “airing my laundry” in public was so interesting, and such a tell.  It was a rationalization to deal with someone that many people in activist circles find both personally and politically disagreeable.    Aiming ressentiment at me is like projecting one’s declasse alienation unto a generic “proletariat” that one has abstracted to the point of not even clearly defining as a collective agency, it is a means of avoidance.

The political debates on facebook, however, were some of my means of avoidance.  I have too many projects in many ways: I teach 40 hours a week.  I am writing a book. I have written and am having to “market” a book of poetry.  I edit on entire podcast, half of another, and appear regularly on two more. I love everything about that but the audio editing. (Right now, there is a file a third edited that I taking a break from because if I heard one more “urmm” in my own voice, I may pillage a border town or something).  I devote a few hours a week to improving my Spanish and to learning Arabic as I will need it in the future–at least at the survival phrase and reading street signs level. I edit a another wordpress magazine on arts and culture.  Still Facebook was always there in the background, always waiting for a acerbic commentary or a semi-witty pun.  Always ready for a fight.

There is a narcissism in that.  There is a narcissism in this too, but it is a productive one, I hope.  The confluence of events leading up to that lead me to finally today declare a facebook fast and to stop thinking about my image-curating. I am out in the world. A small circle of people know who I am.  They think they know a good bit about me because I drop anecdotes cryptically or make vague references to my daily life.

I didn’t delete my facebook as I curate two show pages, and need it to contact people for work.  But avoiding it I see that have more time, although I still need to sit-down and prioritize my output.  Particularly given that I haven’t been getting my poetry out there.

I also need to separate out my past activism from my thought: to analyze and psychologize in its current context.  There is a tendency of older “radicals” to just waive it all away.  To hide.  To get caught up in the daily life of middle age unless one is an academic.

I don’t want to do that, and in periodizing my life, I have seen that I too was guilty of using macro-level unpleasant truths to avoid micro-level ones.   The point, in the end, is to separate it out: to see that one’s motivations are materially and socially motivated just like everyone else.  We tend to see ourselves as sui generis in our political and philosophical will.

My longing for the recent past has distracted me from both those psychological truths  and made my political analysis guilty of myopia.   I guess the truth of the manner is there is almost no way to know if there even is an “authentic self” or an “authentic politics,” but some things are more alienating than others.

My facebook fast is temporary and will be aided by both the need to complete work for myself and to travel: I will be going to Mexico city.  Then I have two and half months before returning to the US for a month, then leaving for Egypt for my next contract job. We will shall see if in this time I can continue working through my current blend of nostalgia and political doubt without either ressentiment or complete and utter resignation.


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