Update November 2020: Based on this post, I have written a longer academic article which can be found here.
The Coronavirus pandemic quickly became an infodemic. It is not just fake news, but the sheer amount of information that we are provided with on a daily, minute-by-minute basis on newspaper websites and social media is staggering. It might be harmful and beneficial for us at the same time. Social media traffic is said to have increased across most parts of the world ever since countries introduced rigorous lockdown measures. Users post, share, and like constantly and unsurprisingly all we seem to talk about is COVID-19. In fact, talking about anything else seems strange, inappropriate, out of touch. Reflecting about our times of a global health crisis, it struck me what we post and that our posts not only reveal something fundamental about our psyches (are we calm, scared, in denial, disavowing reality, blaming someone) but about social media themselves. Some have said that the Coronavirus has brought out the best in many of us online and that social media are now truly social: we talk to each other, post encouraging messages, send hope, but also give each other strength in times of catastrophe and death everywhere. At the same time, there is so much uncertainty and the unknown: When will this be over? What will the world look like? Crystal ball gazing on a massive scale.
The world in its current state seems split. Divided along harsh, brutal and clear lines, boundaries and borders: the healthy and unhealthy, the young and the old, the vulnerable and non-vulnerable, the recovered and those still at risk, the dead and the living. As we self-isolate, quarantine, practice social distancing, and seem so far apart, we move closer on a virtual level through Zoom, Skype, Facetime, or social media chats, meetings, conferences and parties. We feel, as Sherry Turkle diagnosed about our contemporary technoculture some time ago, truly alone together in such times. However, I want to argue that there are other ways of looking at the distances, division or separation that seem to have come upon us. Psychoanalysis can help us see them and our responses to them differently.
Many also wonder what the world is going to look like after Coronavirus has ended, or if our world is going to change in particular ways and that we may lose loved ones, old habits, secure jobs, or in fact parts of ourselves to the virus. Letting go of the old or routine ways of living has felt like a sharp cut through all our lives. We are being told that it is now or never: stay at home, do not go out, flatten the curve. All or nothing. ‘Essentially: coronavirus has ruined communication forever, and, intellectually, Britain will never return to a time before it. We are two weeks in.’, Joel Golby claims.
In this piece, I want to specifically think about particular psychodynamics which I see emerging as patterns across many social media posts but also our experience of the current crisis in general. Those dynamics can best be explained through the object-relations psychoanalyst Melanie Klein and her concept of the paranoid-schizoid position. I want to argue that those dynamics are both expressions of our inner worlds and that they are immanent to social media interfaces and infrastructures.
We are currently going through grief on a planetary scale. So far is certain. We share it online, because that is something one does today. Yet, something about our outpourings on social media makes me feel uneasy. When I think about the many posts I have seen in the last few weeks, two have remained very visible in my memory. One is a type of post that I have seen many times recently. Someone very graphically and vividly reminds us all that the situation is in reality far worse, that some new statistics of rising cases or death toll in a particular country is in reality much higher, that the worst is yet to come, that all the measures a government has introduced are too little, too late. The post speaks like a Cassandrian prophecy that could be true, might become true, or might be exaggerated. Who knows? All that matters for the individual is the momentary scale of apocalyptic catastrophe – and they might be absolutely right. ‘I know and I am going to tell you why.’, the user of such a post seems to say as they link to yet another article that updates us on global death figures. Such kinds of posts might be necessary to wake up the others, including myself perhaps, who are in denial, who think that everything is not all that bad, or that hope is on the horizon, or that we will get through this.
The paranoid-schizoid position, a concept developed by the Austrian-British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, can help to further analyse such mechanisms. I do not mean to negate the kind of posts that I am describing, but to offer a particular form of (hesitant) critique and how we may move beyond them. For Klein, the paranoid-schizoid position refers to a universal stage in the infant’s life. According to her, children from birth up to six months of age split the world and themselves into binaries, most fundamentally: bad and good. In this stage of development, splitting is necessary because it protects the good parts (or objects) from the bad. The main anxiety the infant feels is paranoia as well as hypochondria. Everything that is hated is also experienced as persecutory. The paranoid-schizoid position also means that everything good is idealised and regarded with love and affection.
For Klein, the paranoid-schizoid position is a defence mechanism against an existential feeling of threat that the infant may face, but also against experiences of early frustration, anxiety or trauma. It is used as an unconscious way to make sense of the world and may often persist, or momentarily emerge, in adult life.
In that sense, we live in paranoid-schizoid times where the world seems to be overshadowed by death and the population is itself split: those who have the virus and those who do not (yet or anymore). Such posts as the ones discussed above would then only seem as natural responses to a world that has itself turned into a schema of healthy and unhealthy, before and after, good and bad.
Such exemplary posts that alert us, then, could be seen as paranoid by some. And they may sometimes not seem far off from conspiracy theories about COVID-19 which have also flooded the Internet. Paranoia has a purpose, Josh Gabert-Doyon writes:
‘We act paranoid as a defence against loss. The loss and blocked mourning felt during the AIDS crisis led to paranoia and conspiratorial thinking. As a cultural phenomenon today, we may think about paranoia as a collective way of dealing with the feelings of depression and loss that accompany a despairing political situation. We’ve entered a break in time, where the old world before the disease becomes irretrievable.’
While it may be paranoid-schizoid of myself to critically discuss social media, because I am actually defending against dealing with the reality, I nonetheless regard the excessiveness with which sentiments of death and despair are pushed out into the public sphere as problematic and too schematic.
They point to an underlying, far bigger, problem and dynamic which has to do with the technological workings of social media. The social media critic Geert Lovink has argued that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Weibo, and other platforms have not created real feelings of community. They have isolated users and greedily feed on their individual anxieties, anger, alienation, as well as hopes of love, care and communication. I have called such dynamics dis/individualising elsewhere. Social media are businesses that depend on targeted advertising. They sell individual user data to advertisers. Real, communal characteristics of social media are at best underdeveloped or are lacking altogether, because they are deemed unnecessary by the platforms. Such an interface structure becomes all the more visible in a time of crisis. Our feelings are exploited rather than truly cared for. Social media are not built on community or capaciousness but on the individual.
The second social media post that stuck out for me was a tweet in which someone asked Twitter users not to tweet photos that showed them wearing masks. This should be observed in order to protect others against trauma, because they may have encountered masks in traumatic situations (e.g. in medical treatment). A tweet that on the surface seemed to be about protecting those who may be triggered by seeing protective face masks. While the tweet may be understandable, I would argue that it points to the same problematic splitting mechanism we see everywhere today: it named something (masks) as bad for some people and subsequently asked everybody else to banish this bad practice. We may debate whether the tweet could have been actually adhered to by others, the point is its underlying binary of good vs. bad. A binary that is reproduced by the very functioning of social media where I can either see everything or very little. Public or private accounts. A more complex working of social media, in this case Twitter, where those who would not want to see photos of masks could restrict or disable them, is not possible. It is not desired by social media. If in times of COVID-19, the choice is only to tweet death or to tweet life, it seems like we are running out of options.
Even the positive and uplifting memes, videos, or gifs that now make the rounds on our newsfeeds and timelines reproduce the binary logic of splitting. One image shows:
Of course, it is okay, but what about those who feel strangely productive or feel they are able to carry on as normal? In their open letter to psychoanalysts on Facebook, Marcus Coelen, Patricia Gherovici, David Lichtenstein, Evan Malater and Jamieson Webster recently wrote:
[W]e find many patients who are doing fine or even doing better, who like externalized chaos, or whose melancholia is abated by the nearness of death and reproach; those who are used to doing their own thing and who find their anxiety and sadness contained and cohered by the pervasive force of a virus that shuts all down.
Such an observation may be applicable to many of us, not just patients. The above image is another instance of splitting because it disavows, while seemingly being about the opposite, any other responses to the Coronavirus epidemic where individuals may feel productive, or may tell themselves that they are productive. Being productive is not okay, the image tells us, because we are in the middle of a global pandemic. In its very understandable wish to make space for uncertainty, contradiction, and unproductivity, the image shuts out any other responses at the same time. It is consistent with the current social media logic of the paranoid-schizoid.
Towards a Depressive Position
What then might a response be to what I have discussed?
For Klein, the paranoid-schizoid position is momentary and the young infant moves to the so-called depressive position after the first six months. The depressive position refers to the individual’s ability to let go of splitting. The world is perceived in a more realistic manner and others are recognized as separate and as existing in their own right. The other is acknowledged as one who both gratifies and frustrates. The depressive position may be accompanied by feelings of guilt, grief or the desire to make whole again, to repair what was damaged in the paranoid-schizoid position. Eventually, the ability to empathise with others is formed.
Moving towards the depressive position, both in general and in relation to social media, would allow us to see the horrifying reality of the current crisis as well as signs of hope, joy and love within it. The depressive position makes room for ambivalence and uncertainty. Everything exists side by side. It means we need to let go of clear-cut narratives and stories. An obstacle on this route may be social media companies because they do not want ambivalence. Ambivalence specifically goes against binaries. Advertisers need certainty, clear emotions and sentiments.
Whatever the world may look like in the weeks and months to come, it is not as split as it is often portrayed. We should embrace the good and bad elements and the fundamental uncertainty of it all.
Jacob Johanssen is Senior Lecturer in Communications (St. Mary’s University, London) and author of Psychoanalysis and Digital Culture: Audiences, Social Media, and Big Data (2019, Routledge). He is Co-Editor of the Counterspace section of Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society.