Essay by Alexander Stern: “Something once expressed, however absurd, fortuitous or wrong it may be, because it has been once said, so tyrannizes the sayer as his property that he can never have done with it.”
So observes the German social theorist Theodor Adorno in his 1951 book Minima Moralia. Although he is reflecting on the transformations of individuality and interpersonal relations in the industrial society of the late 1940s, Adorno sounds almost as though he is discussing Twitter, particularly the way tweets are taken as immutable expressions of a person’s essential being. Thoughts tweeted in the distant past are exhumed to torment people who have risen to prominence. People engage in ritual apologies for innocuous tweets that offend overly delicate sensibilities. Some insufficiently prudent souls even end up losing jobs for tweets that are hardly controversial.
While all of this seems to be very much of our time, one of the many unhappy products of our highly mediated lives, the provenance of Adorno’s observation suggests that the distance between what we say and who we are—between ideas and identity—has been shrinking for a long time. The consequence of that shrinkage is not just that it can dehumanize. It also distorts democratic discourse, turning it into a war of all against all. Without the distance between self and thought, self and utterance, we are unable to entertain, probe, or debate ideas. We are unable to change our minds or to persuade others. We are not even in a position to form our views in thoughtful, disinterested ways. But there may yet be a way out. Precisely by codifying and accelerating the collapse of the distinction between ideas and identity, Twitter might ironically be alerting us to the absurdity and shallowness of intellectual life practiced on its terms.
How exactly did we come to this pass? The simple answer, for Adorno, was that utterances—and those who utter them—have taken on a commodity character, in Karl Marx’s sense of the term. Commercial products, Marx thought, began to evince a strange quality under industrial production. They no longer appeared to be the result of a social process mixing labor and material but took on a fetishized glow that hid the specifics of their production and endowed their mere materiality with a quasi-mystical sheen—the kind that makes teenagers covet Air Jordans, for example. The amplification of this fetish character is, indeed, the explicit aim of contemporary branding….(More)”.