Chris Hayes uses the super hearing ability of the fennec fox to paint a picture of life on social media.
Imagine, for a moment, you find yourself equipped with fennec-fox-level hearing at a work function or a cocktail party. It’s hard to focus amid the cacophony, but with some effort you can eavesdrop on each and every conversation. At first you are thrilled, because it is thrilling to peer into the private world of another person. Anyone who has ever snuck a peek at a diary or spent a day in the archives sifting through personal papers knows that. Humans, as a rule, crave getting up in people’s business.
But something starts to happen. First, you hear something slightly titillating, a bit of gossip you didn’t know. A couple has separated, someone says. “They’ve been keeping it secret. But now Angie’s dating Charles’s ex!” Then you hear something wildly wrong. “The F.D.A. hasn’t approved it, but also there’s a whole thing with fertility. I read about a woman who had a miscarriage the day after the shot.” And then something offensive, and you feel a desire to speak up and offer a correction or objection before remembering that they have no idea you’re listening. They’re not talking to you.
Borrowing from Alexandre Kojève’s discussion of the masters desire for recognition by the slave, Hayes suggests that the star desires recognition from the fan. However, as the star does not recognise the fan’s humanity, all they can ever receive is attention.
We Who Post are trapped in the same paradox that Kojève identifies in Hegel’s treatment of the Master and Slave. The Master desires recognition from the Slave, but because he does not recognize the Slave’s humanity, he cannot actually have it. “And this is what is insufficient—what is tragic—in his situation,” Kojève writes. “For he can be satisfied only by recognition from one whom he recognizes as worthy of recognizing him.”
I’ve found that this simple formulation unlocks a lot about our current situation. It articulates the paradox of what we might call not the Master and the Slave but, rather, the Star and the Fan. The Star seeks recognition from the Fan, but the Fan is a stranger, who cannot be known by the Star. Because the Star cannot recognize the Fan, the Fan’s recognition of the Star doesn’t satisfy the core existential desire. There is no way to bridge the inherent asymmetry of the relationship, short of actual friendship and correspondence, but that, of course, cannot be undertaken at the same scale. And so the Star seeks recognition and gets, instead, attention.
The Star and the Fan are prototypes, and the Internet allows us to be both in different contexts. In fact this is the core, transformative innovation of social media, the ability to be both at once.
In this sense, the ‘star’ can come in many shapes and sizes, it is for this reason that we all have the prospect of being ‘famous’.
This relates to Brendan Mackie’s discussion of podcasts and parasocial activity.