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Biopolitical Incursions of Self-Fashioning and Revaluing Life through Social Media in the Context of the War Between Russia and Ukraine. Part I

58 (2022) Водещ на броя: Ива Манова
Oana Serban
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Biopolitical Incursions of Self-Fashioning and Revaluing Life through Social Media in the Context of the War between Russia and Ukraine.

Part I

Oana Șerban

University of Bucharest, Faculty of Philosophy



Abstract: This paper tackles the role of social-media in performing biopolitical incursions into the so-called “immunization” process that harmed communities and collateral victims of the Russian-Ukrainian war deal with, in overcoming abusive actions policies applied by aggressors. My argument is that within the era of post-truth, social-media transgresses a biopolitical turn through which affected communities and their supportive actors create a new social contract based on preventing violence, combating fake-news, and increasing real interest for truth beyond political narratives and mediatic appetite for drama. The first part of the article deals with the Nietzschean roots of self-fashioning and self-constitution practices that are easily commutable into the virtual environments provided by social-media that concentrates on content that excessively aestheticizes life. The second part of the article highlights Nietzsche’s philosophy as proto-biopolitics that has at its heart the intention to explore life between masters and slaves, between aggressors and victims, between dominant social actors and excluded communities. Engaging Foucault’s, Agamben’s and Esposito’s biopolitical arguments, I will explain to what extent the traumatic experience of war reframes a digital social-contract that, by means of networking and virtual self-fashioning, reconsider the value of life, the experience of premeditated death, the responsibility behind guilt and the need for an authentic and uncompromised memory, by placing at their core the interference, uses and abuses of social-media.

Keywords: biopolitics, war, aestheticizing life, Bildung, self-creation, social-media, Russia, Ukraine.


Virtual self-fashioning: a (post)Nietzschean inheritance. How does the social-media influence our situation of being-into-the-world?

The topic of aestheticizing our identities through virtual instruments is quite broad and from one point almost impossible to synthesize in monolithic philosophical concepts, either ontological or moral. However, the social-media networks are inspired by a principle supported by Nietzsche’s attempt to deconstruct traditional metaphysics and its modern undertakings, from Descartes to Schopenhauer. We need fiction in order to persevere into our existence: truth, by itself, has no power to produce authentic life. Therefore, appearances, cultivated through Apollonian and Dionysian physiological perspectives on our world – one representative for unconscious mental processes, dreams and illusions, the other one exponential for instinctual appetites for movement, sexuality, and musicality – transgress the 2.0 world, being highly engaged into the virtual processes of producing images of ourselves. It is relevant Nehamas’s reading on Nietzsche’s philosophy, who criticizes a “model” advanced for understanding world, objects and people, that “turns out to be the literary text and its components”: “his model for our relation to the world turns out to be interpretation” (Nehamas 1985: 91). Pippin considers that a too aestheticized reading of Nietzsche’s conviction is “dangerous” for recovering the original philosophical aims of his project (Pippin 2014: 118), but that this is the most appropriate philosophical path to understand why postmodernism inherited from the Nietzschean tradition the reinforcement of Ancient, Greek imperatives of self-knowledge and self-realization (more specifically, epimeleia heautou, as care of the self, and gnothi seauton, as knowing oneself).

Interpreting the world – or instagramizing it – supports a Nietzschean reading, rooted into the modern tradition of perspectivism. There is no unitary comprehension of this world: there are multiple evaluations and reconsiderations of it, because each of us has in “himself not one immortal soul but many mortal ones” (KGW, V 2, 57, GS. sec. 11). Particularly, this is why we are “human, all too human”. In short, for Nietzsche, the world behaves as an imaginary construct depending on the struggle between “the real truth of nature” and “the lie of culture (sec. 19; KGW, III 1, 54-55): live experiences are fables that advocate our consciousness to advance a decentralized, plural perspective on becoming. In the Gay Science, Nietzsche insists that “You must become who you are” (KGW, V 2, 197; GS, sec. 270), but social media tends to relate our own authenticity and perspectivism on world with the others’ prejudicative hermeneutical horizons and moral prejudgments. At a first glimpse, we are not far from the conflict between the morals of the slaves and that of the masters: one has to fight to impose his perspective, by imposing a certain will of power. But at a closer and a more attentive look, we will notice that virtual selves follow Zarathustra’s depiction: “That is what I am through and through: reeling, reeling in, raising up, raising, a raiser, cultivator, and disciplinarian, who once counselled himself, not for nothing.” (4KGW VI 1, p. 293; Z IV 1)

We all behave as such in social media: as some individuals became influencers (not for free), almost anyone becomes an Author, has an opinion, provides a critique, more or less reasonable, on any topic. Beyond texts, images raise identities and, in the end, communities. Social media reengages the Nietzschean faith that truth has to be recreated, that is never given, but discovered and continually constructed, so that both its Author and its receptors are engaged in an active self-constitution. Beliefs are turned into local truths, provisional consolations of our will, easily engaging creative knowledge. Implicitly, there is something Romantic at stake: a Schillerian Bildung transgresses the production of virtual identities in which interpretation bounds texts and images, discourses, and figures, so that the only universal truth is that we create reality as an ongoing performance with multiple actors playing interconnected fictions. On the one hand, Nehamas is right: interpretation as manner of self-creation engages, in its Nietzschean understanding, the Aristotelian shift from potentiality to actuality, confronting two difficulties: that of upgrading capacities that have to “flow into being” and that of tailoring becoming as dependent on inherent and future capacities, “making the creation of the self be more like the uncovering of what is already there” (Nehamas 1983: 393). Social media allows individuals to substitute capacities with appearances that “flow” in our “feed”. Continuous metamorphoses overcame both the text and the image: Nietzsche’s Zarathustra reached the condition of Sisyphus who endlessly reinvests himself without reaching an end. “Poets lie too much” (KGW, VI 1, 106-107; Z. II. 2), but also users, who discover new ways of life as their self-invention is a continuously grasping and ongoing becoming. The Nietzschean framing of self-creation inspires fashioning our virtual selves by addressing an alternative to perishable, real identities: we are different in social media, but somehow, we remain represented by a virtual narrative that continues even though we are no longer alive. Such digital immortality is what encapsulates Nietzsche’s argument: “But the way is open or new versions and refinements of the soul-hypothesis; and such conceptions as ‘mortal soul’, and ‘soul as subjective multiplicity’, and ‘soul as social structure of the drives and affects’ want henceforth to have citizens’ rights in science.” (KGW, VI 2, 21, BGE, sec. 12)

On the other way, Nietzsche advocates for dropping traditional, monolithic understandings of a nuclear identity, and to substitute such decadent understanding with a progressist attitude of self-creation that blends fashioning glimpses of our daily live, in a personal interpretation supported by our Ego as ultimate support of our experiences. Blending so many pieces of an existential puzzle requires “to give style to one’s character” which is, according to Nietzsche, “a great and rare art” (KGW, V 2, 210; GS, sec. 290), that everyone performs as there is no singular taste to be followed. The internet splits between Great Authors transgressing endless metamorphoses and vulnerable masses that endure “the weakness of will”, akrasia. And yet, we do not live The Twilight of Idols, as influencers continue to conquer the sphere of practical rationality, popular wisdom, and public life. Are we entitled to assume that the influencers of social-media networks offer us “the expression of maturity and mastery in the midst of doing, creating, working, and willing – calm breathing, ‘attained freedom of the will’” (KGW, VI 3, 79)? According to Nehamas, it is difficult to pursue such practices being tributary to “the internal division in a person’s preference scheme”, or to track exactly how desire adapts to thought and from it derives action. Somehow, Nehamas regards public life as a two-fold world, one of failure and one of success, and each self-constitution depends on fashioning creatively life through perspectivism so that success – whatever that means within a community – can be easily achieved and recognized by others. “Success can again be described in the terms of our political metaphor: ‘L’effet c’est moi: what happens here is what happens in every well-constructed and happy commonwealth; namely, the governing class identifies itself with the success of the commonwealth’ (BGE 19).” (Nehamas 1983: 407)

From these arguments we can derive a series of statements that can easily frame the theoretical background of our current research, aiming to analyse how social-media networks determine us to revaluate life and reconsider self-fashioning at the edge of our biological – zōē, and cultural life – bios.

(1) Social-media networks function as enclosed societies: they reunite multiple communities and therefore, the “social contract” between users reflects the morphology of a digital commonwealth.

(2) The morals of virtual life lie between success and failure: perspectivism and continuous self-reinventing are the core-pillars of living online.

(3) Self-creation is not immune to discipline: creation is a disciplinary disposition that takes us from actualities to potentialities but by following a practical rationality through which will, thought and actions are normalised.

(4) Being “better” for your community means remaining compatible with the citizens of the virtual commonwealth, meaning satisfying plural and interconnected perspectives on the world. Our fragmentary consciousness encapsulating the pluralism of our beliefs, instincts, and behaviours, deals with multiple alterities, fragmented at their turn.

(5) Life becomes “the sum of its interrelated effects” (Nehamas 1983: 410), but it is freedom and its continuous practice that allow us to live differently.

(6) Self-becoming depends on a personal taste – that Great Style of our existence – that distinguishes weak from empowered wills in their process of humanizing life.

(7) The author and the character are different: social-networks leave less room for distinguishing them or for separating life from the impression of an artwork, to which both the text and the image contribute.

This Nietzschean framework is relevant for setting the roots of a philosophical undertaking of our virtual identities. It is not a particular social network that I would like to address, but rather the common mechanism shared by any of these multiple platforms: the correspondence between text and image. Sometimes disproportionate – as it happens on Facebook walls, where is more text and less image, or on Instagram, when pictures provide the main experiences of users and long texts seem unappropriated – otherwise balanced, as it happens on blogs, the relationship between text and image leads to the Nietzschean self-constitution and fashioning. In fact, there is a textuality that social media provides and invests in making users dependent on them. Life is turned into a text or a memorable picture, requiring interpretations (comments), instincts (reactions), and a sensus communis (sharing). In fact, if there is any spiritual exercise – as the Ancient Greeks would name it – to be identified as a self-constitution method within virtual environments provided by social networks, which is “lifelong self-narration” (Pippin 2014: 120), that stands both for self-identification and self-realization.

But before giving style to our existence, we tend to impregnate style to nature, to objects and to their subtle interaction: “arranging” or “making things beautiful” converts us into “poets of our life” (GS 299). First, this model of relating to oneself and to the world is, according to Pippin, reflective: it argues that self-relation should be placed to the forefront, and acquired through introspection, observation, and attentiveness. Second, as we construct our identity, we achieve a “self-knowledge: since in no sense reportorial, has to be understood as self-constituting” (Pippin 2014: 122). Aestheticizing life means investing this knowledge into a public and endless process of making things beautiful in times of nihilism. We provide aesthetic justification to our existence through self-narrating practices that borrow artistic means. Nehamas considers that interpreting life, in Nietzsche’s understanding, means aestheticizing it by two overlapping processes: one of decision-making, the other of deliberating actions. Mutatis mutandis, social networks use “artistic decisions” for actions of self-narrating life and exposing to the world. All decisions “are straightforwardly artistic” (Nehamas 1996: 233). But if identity turns out to be in this digital environment the narrative coherence of so many texts and images that provide an aestheticized, fragmentary understanding on life reflected by events, by what values are we going to cherish life by itself? The Nietzschean answer seems to be freedom. Mastering selves means empowering them with the practices of an aestheticized freedom, that from will to thought and thought to action impose artistic canons. In this regard, I find Pippin’s argument quite convincing and easily commutable into a critique of the self-narrating model provided by social media: there is a rationality that transgresses self-constitution, relating our identity with finitude. Such reason is always invested with a historicized social practice, in Hegel’s sense, through which “the entertaining, offering, rejecting of considerations that count as justifications at a time and to a community” (Pippin 2014: 125) bridge impulses and roles of being into the world within social structures. From such standpoint, a crucial dilemma for pre- and post- virtual environments arises, whenever it comes about living by models and coining models by living: “But in the narration of an actual life, either life is being treated as literature, and we have our aestheticism problem again; or literature, writing, is only ‘a model,’ but if the strictly aesthetic principle of unification is not the one relevant ‘for life,’ what would correspond to it?” (Pippin 2014: 125)

My assumption is that social media provide self-criticism models that cover both directions: life is treated as literature and therefore the character of a text or the protagonist of an image must be as aestheticized as possible, while the unification of such instances becomes relevant for life as they emerge from competitive narratives about oneself. The only thing that has changed is that self-creation tends to be less by personal standards and more by parameters embraced by “the crowd”. “Outsiders” have never been a priority for Zarathustra, whereas in Greek tragedies the chorus always assists a drama, an intrigue, a monologue about fate and its resolutions. The great public on social networks no longer holds the privilege of “elites”, of those who keep the truth and assist it. “Become what we recognize”, not “become who you are”: that is the new moral and aesthetic imperative of the virtual commonwealth, which outshines the traditional Socratic commitment to authentic life. Moreover, if initially, the unity of our identity is not conceived as a goal, but as an outcome, obtained by performing habits proper to our “character traits”, in the 2.0 world, identity is a goal that leaves the impression of unity. It is something Proustian in our virtual behaviour, that Nehamas calls a vicious effort: we compose our autobiography by pictures or texts as we are living our life, but we equally write our autobiography, to make more obvious the process of self-creation. Pippin tracks down the two paradigms advanced by Nehamas in his criticizing models of self-narration and experiencing perspectivism – “Literature instead of Life” and “Life as Literature” – and reaches the conclusion that they support indissoluble connections. Last, but not least, the Nietzschean hypothesis that resentment will inevitably emerge from the reflections of the masses, is relevant for targeting the audience’s reactions to self-creation. Nowadays, masses adapt reflexes to the literary self-narration by impulses to like or dislike a content: to this literary storytelling, they counterpose interpretations that go beyond an ad literam spirit. Augmenting or falsifying meanings extracted from self-narration; audiences perform like masses lacking will of power. The motivation of their reaction is resentment, which turn the author and the public into incommensurable “Socrates” and “Nietzsches” (Pippin 2014: 131), voices who pretend that self-constitution depends on the Other, on the Agora, on transposing self-governing into the power to govern the others, and individuals insisting to abolish such connections for a total, plastic model of freedom. In the end, as Pippin observes, “virtually no one succeeds in being the poet of his own life” (Pippin 2014: 130). This desirable position enforces a public life-orientation encouraged by “contents” that puzzle identity, in time, by gathering instant posts, images and reactions to events.

In a nutshell, my intention is not solely to tackle the Nietzschean background of social-networks and to accuse a genealogical encounter between moral and aesthetic practices of self-constitution and techniques of virtual self-fashioning our identity. Beyond such commutability, it is important to understand that a virtual identity is a continuously upgrading product (as a work of art that never ends in terms of an authentic creation), with an ontology that gathers the interdependency of a biological entity and its correspondent consciousness. Virtual identities depend on a real body and its digital avatars: we will drop, for the purposes of the current research, the inflictions of real and virtual ontology, as the main purpose of this analysis is to understand the biopolitical setup of self-fashioning and revaluing life through social media. “Zōē” – our biological life, correspondent to a “real condition”, and “bios”, a cultural, nonorganic life, correspondent to the consciousness and mentality transgressing the virtual identity, merge into one-way direction of exploring the phenomenon of being-into-the-world. My thesis is that by doing so, social-media develops a biopolitical potential that, at a first glimpse, offer multiple insights on the management of population – inhabitancy, residency, and territorial disposal (by tag locations and info profile), political adherence (especially during elections), safety and health status (marking safe after an earthquake or monitoring COVID). However, biopolitics also concerns states of exception such as war. The way phenomena such as propaganda, manipulation, or fake-news flood social-media once users engage the war experience – either as victims or as aggressors – depends on the competitive narratives raised by practices of self-constitution: dialogues, confessions, images, and debates, all contribute to tailor and define values and beliefs of combatants. We shall see to what extent the experience of war determines us to revaluate life and reconsider self-fashioning practices through social media that proves to be a valuable biopolitical asset.

A biopolitical setup of social media in times of War: “scrolling” self-constitution and competitive narratives from Russia and Ukraine

Before taking an attentive look at instances that reveal how the narrative of the war between Russia and Ukraine change the self-constitution practices in social media, we should clarify why such endeavour involves the hypothesis that virtual environments engage a biopolitical potential. Biopolitics is considered here in the terms coined by Agamben (1998), Foucault (2003) and Esposito (2008).

On the one hand, Foucault argued that modern technologies of power will control the distribution of individuals supporting disciplinary institutions responsible for the management of population. They impose biopower regimes, for security reasons, invokes in historical contexts as “states of exception”: pandemic, war etc. Foucault’s hypothesis is that the human body, conceived as representative for a biological species, is part of a political strategy that disciplines live and normalizes social interaction. Besides that, since the 19th century, politics applied biopolitics as a proper frame to exercise sovereignty as a public decision mechanism responsible “to take life or let live” (Foucault 2003: 245). On the other hand, such biopolitical dilemma that implicitly creates regimes of visibility for human bodies assumed as docile entities, reveals that modern politics is a direct consequence of the rise and evolution of “homo sacer” (see Agamben 1998), who engages technology not to bear rights, but to “bare life” (Genel 2006: 43). However, the phenomenon of life is not understood as a whole, but decomposed into an organic component, zoē, and a nonbiological component, bios. (...) In this regard, Esposito argues that the individuals cherish differently the role of zoē and that of bios, depending on the traumatic experience they have been subjected to. In fact, individuals pretend they are part of communities and societies. Communitas means a social group that gathers individuals based on a moral obligation in front of their sense of belonging. One has to defend the origins of a certain identity, be them ethnic or religious. Societas is based on a moral property or a possession that is shared by all members of a group: those who are left without a motherland or have their natal territories attacked understand that the major threat that they deal with is that raised against their society. In light of these arguments, Esposito considers that communities remain social models for private affairs, in the middle of which individuals recognize themselves as homologues based on their common identity, whereas societies borrow the model of a res publica, creating a sense of equality between individuals based on a common responsibility that they have, emerging from a free association (Esposito 2008: 6). However, when this common origin is threatened, Esposito observes that individuals perform an opposite process to communitas: they do not open toward the Other, but rather they close their borders, their social orientations, their trust in third parts of their society, transgressing the model of immunitas. Both communitas and immunitas join the radical “munus”, understood as something which is given, a form of donation: an identity, an origin, a religious belonging. People immunize against violence, aggression, dissensus: they react defensively, because they have to protect “the munus” grounding their social contract. The biopolitical argument is that life is something given: preserving the biological life of a community means immunizing it by all means, inclusively by securing its persistence in existence by morals, traditions, habits, values, beliefs. Moreover, all those communities that had their life attacked tend to behave, if immunization lasts longer than it is needed – either by prudency or by fear – as inoperative communities, following Nancy’s terminology. Historical wounds leave unhealed marks: once marginalized, such communities will always behave as peripheral, undesired alterities. “Community is revealed in the death of others” (Nancy 1991: 15): it becomes an immanent experience through which individuals accommodate their consciousness with the finitude. “Finitude is communitarian” (Nancy 1991: 27), and particularly this is why biopolitics raises immunization whenever collective death becomes “the testimony of the dissolution, the dislocation, or the conflagration of community” (Nancy 1991: 1). My argument is that immunization as a biopolitical attitude preserves biological life and its correspondent culture by targeting the Nietzschean understanding of a will to power that reacts in front of dominancy and secures a subject whose critique remains possible only as: a natural body, that has instincts to defend itself (the biological model, a lucid consciousness (psyche, the psychological model) and a self-constitution narrative, performed into an original language (the linguistic model).

Body, consciousness and language are biopolitical pillars of an aesthetic state of existence: they will be all and equally invested into an immunization process to fight against sublimation and repression. Biopolitically, a community reacts as “a confederacy of wills to power” (Faulkner 2003), Willens-Punktationen (Nietzsche 1970, VIII, 2, 11): life is interpreted by immunization, is valued, in order to deconstruct a master-type of existence by engaging a collective liberation for a slave-type. Narrating extinction is part of this biopolitical immunization, as it provides a powerful right to memory: “If something is to stay in the memory it must be burned in: only that which never ceases to hurt stays in the memorythis is a main clause of the oldest (unhappily also the most enduring) psychology on earth.” (Nietzsche 1989: 61)

It is exactly this Nietzschean principle that tailors social media reactions years later. The “carnival of cruelty” (Nietzsche 1989: 65) is revealed by social groups that pursue immunization but want their historical experience to be known, as it is a res publica: violence is a matter of public life, it has gain visibility in order to be deconstructed, rejected, criticized. On the one hand, as communities share their public stories, immunities continue to encapsulate a capital of traumatic experience. Over this pair of terms, communitas and immunitas, we might be able to overlap the Nietzschean understanding on internalizing harmful experiences on biological life (zōē) into our cultural life (bios):

“… All instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn inward—this is what I call the internalization (Verinnerlichung) of man: thus it was that man first developed what was later called his “soul.” The entire inner world, originally as thin as if it were stretched between two membranes, expanded and extended itself, acquired depth, breadth, and height, in the same measure as outward discharge was inhibited.” (Nietzsche 1989, 84)

Now, think about the role of social media in supporting this two-fold process, of revealing communities struggle by immunity processes. Images and texts shared by social media compose, progressively, an aesthetic educational claim: our consciousness, as good citizens, as responsible neighbours, as empathic human beings, exercise their sense solely within an aesthetic state, which used to be the utopia of Romantic philosophers. Functional politics is endorsed by aesthetic consciousness. We need an aesthetic “stimulus”, a “Reiz”, that could also be translated as ‘irritation,’ ‘excitation,’ ‘provocation,’ or else ‘attraction,’ ‘fascination,’ ‘charm’ (Faulkner 2003), and it becomes possible by overcoming metaphors provided by image and text. Instincts interpret stimuli: this is the key of understanding the biopolitical potential of social-media. In what follows, I will explain how this potential is raised and performed within online communities that tend to immunize in front of aggression and fake-news in the midst of the war between Russia and Ukraine that doubled the biopolitical context raised by pandemics with another state of exception, that of a conflagration. My aim is to understand how self-constitution practices modify depending on the competitive narratives that communities share about the experience of war and to identify to what extent communities of victims immunize or retrain their public, civil defence, to an aesthetic reaction.

Continues in Part II.