What we call the ‘body' refers to a substratum encapsulating consciousness and identity rather than our mere physical mode of existence. Social media, in this respect, becomes an instrument in showing the way bodies express themselves in form of social norms, fashion and aesthetic madness
According to Foucault's interpretation of the historical relationship between the body and authority, humanity in the 20th century wants liberty and freedom from authoritarian interference and enforced body policies. This desire necessitates resistance to all tools of oppression while evaluating one's relationship to authority to create awareness. If we leave aside all classic tools of oppression and interference formed as part of the relationship between the body and authority, we see that today the nature of authority and interference has changed entirely in its the advent with social media. It is possible to assess the relationship between the body and social media, which has eradicated many social codes while creating new templates and limitations, with a Foulcaultian analysis.
Gunther von Hagens's "Body Worlds" collection, which was first exhibited in Germany in 1995, attracted significant attention and toured the world before arriving in Turkey in 2010 where it was acclaimed during its long stay. The "Body Worlds" exhibition did not present the human body from the outside, but it rather went beyond the body's limit of the skin, which forms the perception of outside and inside. Von Hagens utilized modern technology to skillfully remove the skin, laying bare the muscles, organs and veins that form the body.
There were many complaints filed based on claims that the bodies used in the exhibition were collected through illegal means and that most were not donated, but were those of the homeless. Still, millions around the world, including school children, were captivated by what they saw at the exhibition. Let's put aside controversies surrounding the exhibition, one realizes that once the skin is removed, the body can go beyond its aesthetic meaning and become a medical item. Consequently, the unity of muscles, bones and veins is not linked to what psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan describes as 'orthopaedic wholeness' in his mirror theory and, therefore, neither to a body. The body is actually a form of socially value-added existence bounded by skin. That is why no body can be perceived as beyond the values added to it. The boundary delineated by the skin does not only transform the body into a social being, but also creates for humans an area beyond which one cannot trespass.
While running, seeing, hearing, eating or drinking, one is acting within upper and lower bounds. In this way, the body becomes a concept within social space, and once we act, we realize this concept through our actions. In this respect, the body is more than just an entity that can be examined in the temporal sphere, but also the reflection of the constantly changing metaphysical sphere and being. In other words, it unites features of existence such as pleasure, desire and temperance while forming the reflection of this same existence even when there is no body. One can see social media as a stage erected between the body's metaphysical reflection and the existence of ego.
Lifestyle as a disciplinary factor
Bio-politics until now has focused on formulating solutions and developing policies by assessing the body's casual actions. However, this never dampens casual actions. In today's world, the increasing number of tools of domination, being, authority and the individual reside on a complicated platform. It is sometimes a part of authority while at other times it is the object that is dominated. Tools that impose control on the body these days usually promise a happy life. And while doing this, rather than the disciplinary tools utilized by the authoritarian systems of the past that openly imparted lessons, it pledges freedom. In other words, lifestyle has become the new disciplinary tool. Moreover, a lifestyle's extensions in social media allow such control for a broader mass of people and, consequently, present an environment where individualization is impossible. Political authorities used to utilize the body for conscription, imprisonment, education, healthy living and abortion among other things, but now it is in the orbit of the new wave of fashion and aesthetics madness.
In recent years, social media has also taken up the role of the objectifying arm of consumer society, which has spread since the end of World War II. Nowadays, the teachers, bureaucrats and media's role in domination is taken up by the desire to belong and to be seen and noticed. For instance, if one takes a look at Instagram, one can see that those who have become individuals in their assigned spaces are objects of innumerable equations, living beyond themselves in a social world. Bodies, which are presented as part of a mysterious environment and can be reached anytime one wants, seem unreal.
These bodies that believe they will reach true freedom once they free themselves from limiting factors such as rightness, wrongness, ethics or morality, are bounding themselves to that Instagram profile, irrespective of the factors they freed themselves from. Freeing oneself from control mechanisms does not mean the body is free or that the person has become an individual. When a pleasurable feeling such as eating dinner or a desire is presented rather than the body, a person shows the value he or she gives to such emotions. For example, no one shares a photograph of themselves digging into a piece of chicken despite the possibility of the person enjoying eating that way. Or no one shares a photo of a dinner at a dingy restaurant at a fishing village, even though such a meal may have given the person intense satisfaction. Instagram users do not share their desires and pleasures uncensored. That is why everything on social media is beautiful, orderly, full, objectified and happy - especially happy. This is because everyone is happy to the extent allowed by their lifestyle, which has become the disciplinary agent of our age. In reality, the way such feelings are experienced affect no one and the messages expressed are manipulated and enforced. Messages expressed in a disorderly way can be the sad falling leaves on an autumn day, coffee and a good book are just the perfect prescription for fatigue.
Demands within these disorderly messages are reflected in the photo caption likes, shares and responses. In this way undesirables are pushed aside while everyone becomes acquainted with that which is desirable. The likes a photograph receives become a control mechanism for next photo that is posted.
Unfollowing as a method of punishment
Social media is a platform where everyone undergoes their personal revolution in terms of social norms. Its most powerful weapon is a being's fake substance - severing the link between identity and character while identifying an area of action beyond norms for those who preserve this link. Even in scenes where the body is unseen, the focus is on trying to uncover the personality's secret identity, status, ego and individuality. In such an environment where norms and objects become blurry, do our bodies become solely a metaphysical reflection?
At this point, we witness social media jumping from the virtual to the real world. The failure to ensure what is illegal in the real world is not illegal in the virtual world results in the colossal problem of insults, swearing and suicides caused by social media. One has to admit that the often reported stories of people finding their significant other over Facebook or other social platforms are also examples of this jump. However, if the virtual becomes real by truly affecting our lives, it is also imposing a control mechanism. One is left with the feeling that one is dreaming or confusing reality with the virtual.
In this respect, social media in its current form transforms accepted rights into wrongs, eradicates borders, destroys privacy, removes redlines and supposedly provides an environment of freedom. However, it also has the potential to present new rights and draw new borders. It first facilitates new habits and transfers these habits to rights to create its own area of esthetics and ethics. Those who cannot adapt or conform are faced with being "unfollowed" or even "blocked," a new method of discipline. Rebelling against so-called settled themes, angry at society within the classic concept of freedom, distant from religion but totally conforming to social media, this being's factory settings are being reset. Social media is forming a new super-identity and imposing character limits, profile space, image size, likes and blocks on an individual who surrenders to becoming objectified. Opinions attracting responses, being approved or disapproved, happen in a very confined area and time space.
An individual's search for peace, shelter and his or her need for sharing being liked are confined to a small space, waiting to be approved, while one's ego loses its gray lines and become polarized. Moreover, this happens in an environment where everyone believes "the king has no clothes." Such relentless freedom does not necessarily allow reality to match rational room of action. For instance, a person who never commits a crime in reality may be involved in acts that may be construed as insults, swearing or abuse on social media. Because in this environment the borders mentioned earlier are removed but individuals stuck between the body's rationality and reality's impossibilities, they find themselves pushed to extremes.
This is because all outside influences that limit freedom are limited to the virtual world. The body enjoys going beyond its own limitations in its internal world. This is true for the building of ego, communication, pleasure, virtue and interactions. Eradication of borders in respect to attitudes affects the way people interact with their cellphones, computers and even the way we use our thumbs. This may be pushing individuals toward a never-ending vicious circle of freedom. The body, imprisoned by a photo or a profile, was able to define new limitations beyond time and space. Just as Foucault said, while the demand for freedom is a form of resistance independent of outside limitations, the individual, through his or her interactions on social media, imposes new lines, rules and windows while trying to escape from assertions impossible to execute or even imposed by norms. Having been entirely estranged from nature, violating the body's borders, demolishing convictions and rules of engagement, the individual becomes a prisoner of the dominating culture of image, lifestyle and a narrow concept of aesthetic perspective.
About the author
Meryem İlayda Atlas is Editorial Coordinator of Daily Sabah. She is board member of TRT, the national public broadcaster of Turkey. Atlas also serves as a visiting scholar at Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University.