Between Thanatos and Eros: Erich Fromm and the psychoanalysis of social networking technology use

South African Journal of Philosophy 38 (2):136-148 (2019)
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Social networking technologies have become a ubiquitous framework for social interaction, serving to organise much of the individual’s social life. Such technological structuring affects not merely the individual’s psyche (as a psychotechnics), it also affects broader aspects of society (as a socio-technics). While social networking technologies may serve to transform society in positive ways, such technologies also have the potential to significantly encroach upon and (re) construct individual and cultural meaning in ways that must be investigated. Erich Fromm, who psychoanalytically describes humans as a product of their society and the economic systems within that society, may provide insight into the influence of social networking technologies in contemporary society. He sees the relationship between the individual and society as being in a constant state of dynamic change. Utilising Fromm’s psycho-societal insight, social networking technologies are shown to conflate and confuse the relation between Thanatos and Eros – the Thanatos of a lifeless and consumerist agenda-filled mechanisation, and the Eros associated with social engagement. Thanatos and Eros are tied together via social networking technologies. This results in, firstly, social networking technologies functioning predominantly to further capitalist agendas through the monetisation of these technologies – particularly in terms of linking commodity fetishism and the foundational social drive of the individual. Secondly, social networking technologies mechanise human action according to predictable behavioural paths through the use of these technologies, especially in terms of how socialisation is possible via these technologies (shaping how platonic and romantic relationships may take place in the contemporary world). Such a mechanisation of interpersonal engagement contrasts with Erich Fromm’s assertion that interpersonal relations (vis-à-vis love) are not “mere emotion”, but rather represent an interpersonal creative capacity and interplay. Fromm’s psycho-societal insights will show how contemporary individuals may take independent and responsible rational action to establish accountable and psychologically beneficial ways of engaging with others through social networking technologies.

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