Battling Our Cultural Anorexia
Franz Kafka wrote one of his most important works near the end of his life, a short story he titled A Hunger Artist, published in 1922.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, “fasting artists” — basically, living skeletons — were exhibited at fairs and circuses. People paid a price to see and marvel at them. In Kafka’s story, crowds lose interest in the main protagonist, a stricken hunger artist. He is dragged out of his cage and replaced by a muscular and menacing panther.
Our fascinations wax and wane with the mimetic tide.
According to René Girard, Kafka’s story is an allegory of our entire culture. He wrote this about it [words in brackets mind]:
“Certain trends were visibly at work in our culture [even in 1922] long before they influenced our alimentation, and the current prominence of physical anorexia and its bulimic variations must be regarded as an essential moment in the tragic and grotesque revelation of what is happening to us, which is much more significant than an epidemic [pandemic] that would hit us at random, or a bizarre cultural fad [insert your favorite here] unconnected with the general evolution of our society.”
I’ve been thinking about this lately as I continue to hear variations, even book-length ones, of the “social media is ruining our society” arguments. I’ve begun to wonder if it’s just a subtle version of the scapegoat mechanism. Sure, social media has had negative effects. I’ve written about some of them in Wanting. But those of us who use it are attracted by something that is fundamentally good. What that good thing is, though, is not the subject of this week’s newsletter.
The thinning and thickening of desires is the theme, and I’d like to briefly explore that theme across eight specific domains. As far as social media goes, though, I would propose the following perspective: