contemporary culture is the opposite of solipsistic

In a piece about the concept of “relatability,” inspired in part by Ira Glass’s dopey complaints about Shakespeare, Rebecca Mead writes:

to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

Relatability is indeed a somewhat troublesome lens through which to look at art, and given that Glass’s take on Shakespeare was the hottest of hot takes, I’m happy to read some criticism of both. But this is odd. Selfies are the opposite of solipsism; they are the creation of a perspective that is entirely alien to the person taking them. None of us can naturally see our own face. We build mirrors precisely to get outside of our own perspective. We use the camera to put ourselves in the position of other people. Call that what you’d like, but it isn’t solipsistic.

Complaints that we’re all self-obsessed are evergreen, but I think that they badly miss the point in our current technological moment. Rather than being obsessed with our own point of view, I think we are instead in an era in which we are obsessed with the gaze of others. Yes, we are watching others watch us, and so there’s a second order sense in which we are still the subject of our own drama. But rather than being uninterested in the point of view of others, I think we have constructed an immense digital apparatus to focus on little else. There’s the obvious culprit of social media and blogs (like this one), where the opinions of others are fed to us in an endless stream. But there’s also Most Emailed lists, Netflix and Amazon recommendations (based on “people like us,” whoever that might be), algorithms that measure popularity or “virality,” online reviews, crowdsourcing…. All of this, I think, has consequences for what it means to be a person, and I am afraid not that we’re too much ourselves but that we’ve forgotten how to be, without instantaneous information about how other people are.

In a piece on the internet phenomenon that is performatively hating Zach Braff, Noel Murray writes:

I think the phenomenon Fritz is describing is just an unfortunate byproduct of how the cultural discourse has developed in the Internet age. Even though we live in an era of fragmentation, where people can more easily seek out and enjoy their own niche entertainments or opinions, the conversation online often seems to presume—or to push for—a monoculture. It’s almost as though we’re all anxious for some certainty: a point of view shared so widely that dissenters are singled out as freaks or morons. Often that means that movies most people don’t feel strongly enough about either to defend or dispute get defined by a passionate few, who want to make sure that the default position on a film like Garden State is that it’s an abomination.

Of all of my many petty complaints about online culture, this is the one that bums me out the most: that a set of technologies that enable limitless diversity in tastes seem to push towards numbing consensus. Take, for example, the phenomenon of the perfect “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the people who punish critics for spoiling one. I find this totally bizarre: critical unanimity on any piece of art means that criticism has failed, because a critical establishment that does not represent a diversity of opinion must be one that has systematically excluded a particular point of view. And any artwork that everybody likes must be, in a certain deep sense, toothless and unthreatening. More and more, I find that the middlebrow projects that receive the most unified, unbroken praise are fine but boring, crafted to be critic-proof, beautiful but safe.

Undoubtedly, human beings paying attention to what other human beings think is a good thing. Perhaps this type of chronic obsession with the hive mind is a necessary precondition of a new era of empathy and consideration. If so, I’ll gladly make the trade. But I worry about what it means to exist as a thinking individual when the subtle conditioning of other people’s opinions is a constant. And I’m worry about these passionate young writers who seem deeply uncomfortable with being disliked, when being disliked is a natural consequence of writing things worth reading. What I think is possible, and worth fighting for, is a culture where we strive to understand one another, but can achieve that understanding, recognize disagreement, and live comfortably with the mutual rejection of someone else’s opinion.


  1. The liked comment reminded me of something Dan Drezner once said about teaching. I don’t have a link on it because it was a ways back and before I got better at archiving things and

    In essence, a student had with a late assignment or didn’t turn one in at all and was actively apologetic and seeking forgiveness in a way that struck Drezner as odd. He’d just given the student a poor grade on that part and moved on, there was no animosity or sense of betrayal on his part. He similarly couldn’t imagine himself doing the same in the students shoes and his fellow instructors had seen the same thing and were similarly puzzled. I made note of that because it seemed natural to me.

    So good post, as the funny thing is how much this critique doesn’t line up with the generic critique of the next generation. It’s not just a concern of the opinion of one’s peers thing, although those connected into various social systems are more often ones own age.

    Side note: I do want to try out a paper and pencil RPG about that sort of thing someday called Freemarket. Basically a post-scarcity space station with a social media based economy.

  2. Does this, “Of all of my many petty complaints about online culture, this is the one that bums me out the most: that a set of technologies that enable limitless diversity in tastes seem to push towards numbing consensus,” mean that you agree with the quote you offer above by Noel Murray?

    Interestingly, I’ve been trying to get my head around how the “individual” became the “group” serving as the voice of the individual; that is, once you join a group or several of them, your interests are co-opted by those groups and any conflicts that arise among those divided interests tend to create a kind of confused silence in the inability to “favor” one group (or interest) over another, even if there is good evidence to do so.

    I found this from Erich Fromm in a book by David Potter called “People of Property”:

    “In order that any society may function well, its members must acquire the kind of character which makes them want to act in the way they have to act as members of the society or of a special class within it. They have to desire what objectively is necessary for them to do. Outer force is to be replaced with inner compulsion and by the particular kind of human energy which is channeled into character traits.”

    Potter also has an easy called “The Quest for National Character” which explicates Tocqueville’s assertion that “The principle of equality…[prohibits the American] from thinking at all,” and that “freedom of opinion does not exist in America.” We come to value independence yet are drawn to conformity by fear of despotism. And “the enormous weight with which the opinion of the majority pressed upon the individual, Tocqueville said, the person in the minority ‘not only mistrusts his strength, but even doubts of his right; and he is very near acknowledging that he is in the wrong when the greater number of his countrymen assert that he is so. The majority do not need to force him; they convince him.'”

    Note the WAF (women against feminism) backlash as an example perhaps.

  3. Perhaps this type of chronic obsession with the hive mind is a necessary precondition of a new era of empathy and consideration.

    Yeah, that’s what I hope, taking the long view.

    What I think is possible, and worth fighting for, is a culture where we strive to understand one another, but can achieve that understanding, recognize disagreement, and live comfortably with the mutual rejection of someone else’s opinion.

    That too. Or to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

  4. I agree with your critique generally but have less of a problem with Mead’s use of ‘solipsistic.’ Seems like a good bit of evidence for her thesis to me. This hinges on your definition of the word, or I guess on which definition of a certain type of word a writer uses, and whether using such words consistently is worth some confusion.
    In the selfie, a person decides to execute the photo by himself, then contorts himself into an odd posture to shoot it, using the camera in a way it was not designed to be used (though apparently phone designers have taken notice now.) He gets a photo that intentionally puts him in the center of the image, essentially substituting the photographer for the primary subject of whatever triggered the urge to record the moment. Selfies may arise from the narcissistic impulse that is discussed here, or they may just be proof of conformity, but they seem to me to meet the basic, non-clinical meaning of of solipsistic–placing oneself in the center of the system. Maybe that’s where the ‘sol’ came from.
    I don’t think Mead suggests that selfieing is evidence that a person is deluded into believing he IS the center of the world. She is writing one of those word rants like Safire always wrote. I think she means to put ‘solipsistic’ in the same place as ‘narcissistic’–in a class of words that can have a clinical value but are used in common parlance to drive critiques of occasional behavior, whether individual or group. If so then the question to me is whether the use of the word is consistent, and whether the writer has given the reader ample indication that she favors a more precise, less histrionic definition.

    After all, the idea of ‘solipsistic’ includes a decision point for the subject, and that fits neatly with the choice to shoot a photo and to compose it, just as ‘narcissistic’ includes a moment when the subject is choosing to do something–perhaps to linger in front of a mirror longer than the audience considers appropriate. Or maybe Safiristic, to get all anal over somebody’s word choice, then to make the critique more piquant by using words that borrow their juice from medicine.


    1. On the other hand,

      Man taking Facebook selfie posing with handgun dies after shooting self in the head

      From Raw Story, today


    2. Dave,

      Words can and do change meaning, but I’d argue that this is a case where the change is not helpful. Solipsism doesn’t mean self-centered, it means that your own perspective is the only one you can be sure of. There’s many other terms available instead, such as the aforementioned self-centered and narcissistic. I’d also put “preening” out there as perhaps one that gets at the concept even better. However, I think we should discourage writers from inaccurately using fancy words when other terms, perhaps with less oomph, are available. Word meanings can change, but it’s not like the original use of solipsism has gone away.

      Any number of people will come across the idea at some point in their life, perhaps when high, and it’s helpful to have a word ready for them.

      1. Forgive me for quoting Emerson (and then Melville) but I suppose one cites what one studies. Can we but help the view that one can, at best and with great skepticism about even this, only comprehend what’s in one’s own noggin?

        RWE has this, which I think cannot be too little considered as the entire point of his voluminous writing…”but man is insular and cannot be touched. Every man is an infinitely repellent orb, and hold his individual being on that condition.”

        Melville offers us the arc of repetition in cognizance of the self in Moby Dick: “There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:—through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?”

        1. Douglass,

          Well put. I believe that’s an excellent set of quotes for those arguing the positive case for keeping the meaning of solopsism. If we cannot be certain of what is outside our nogging, we certainly should not put great weight on the opinions of others as filtered through social media.

          1. no worries! superadded “s” doubles the insight.

            I’ll apologize for saying “cannot be too little considered” for meaning simply “should be considered”!

            I think that Melville’s “common doom” intends to note that so many of us stop at adolescent doubt.

  5. “a set of technologies that enable limitless diversity in tastes seem to push towards numbing consensus”

    It occurs to me that Tocqueville would not be surprised by this.

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