Mortification of the Flesh

Facebook’s metaverse v. the so-called “meat-verse”   

For the past few months I’ve been in Berlin, where as part of a fellowship I am ostensibly writing a novel and bothering economists about narrative frameworks for economic transformation re: climate change. My main activity so far, however, has been catching every non-corona’d virus Germany has to offer. I got a throat thing, stayed home for a bit, then got back on my bike. Then I got the flu, had some Gemüsebrühe, and got back on my bike. Next I got strep throat (not a virus, I know, I know), took a round of penicillin, and got back on my bike. Deductive reasoners here might blame the bike. I blame Berlin. 

I would have thought this city has a special grudge against American novelists of Slavic descent, but after a year and a half of living the greenhouse life, basically everyone is sick. If only we could escape into some more permanently isolated yet still social Eden! Flus and Covid are the scourges of what Zuckerberg and ilk call the “meat-world” or “meatverse,” the in-the-flesh realm that stands contra and inferior to FB’s recently announced “metaverse”: a complete virtual reality that sounds basically like the internet, except that you can better escape your puny corporeality.  

There’s something medieval to the terminology of the “meatverse” here, enough so that it got me Googling actual verses. Here’s Romans 8:13: "For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” This passage from the Bible and others like it once supported the Christian theology of “mortification of the flesh.” Think hair shirts, self-flagellation, fasting—Monty Python-esque corporeal self-punishment of all sorts. 

As I have written about elsewhere, I grew up unbaptized in very Catholic spaces, where previous centuries’ preoccupation with “mortification of the flesh” lingered on in the mortification of sexual desire, particularly with respect to women. School life was characterized by the kinds of binaries usually associated with Catholic youth told to repress lust: on the one hand, abstinence and right-to-life clubs; on the other, teenage pregnancy and drugs. In the various Catholic institutions I attended, ‘mortification’ had drifted from its original etymology (actual death to the flesh) to the more contemporary valences of humiliation and shame. And maybe shame stands behind most of our more hypocritical behaviors, faith-related or not: if hypocrisy is a state of denial, then while in it we must necessarily be covering something up. 

So, good for Zuckerberg, who’s nothing if not a little data god, and who is always hiding something! He’s on the right track for consolidating divine power: hinting at the shame of our own physical existence is an excellent way to keep us confused and desperate and at each other’s throats. But for all my very complicated feelings and suspicions about Catholicism, I also recognize that genuine faith often offers balance: from another view, Catholic mass is nothing but the worship of flesh. “If I believed what you Catholics believed,” I remember someone saying to my junior-year English teacher, whom I adored, who was a believer, and who also happened to be the only openly gay woman I knew at the time, “I would crawl down the aisle.” The speaker was referring to the fact that during mass the little communion wafer really does become the body of Christ, the wine really does become blood. This is the source of all sorts of technicalities and shenanigans, i.e., small children thinking they’re going to hell because they accidentally allowed the communion wafer—literally Jesus, meant to melt on the tongue and definitely not to be chewed—to touch a molar. 

For ye - for Me - of little faith: This is just plain magic, and I don’t mean that condescendingly. It’s precisely this kind of magic, I think, that has led so many novelists (myself included) to be fascinated and moved by Catholicism, despite the many awful choices the Church has made regarding the treatment and exploitation of human bodies the world over. Western novelists have been fascinated by all kinds of faiths, sure. Hesse was enthralled by Buddhism; Christopher Isherwood became a devotee of Ramakrishna. But there is a special wealth of surprising conversions to Catholicism by novelists who, from the outside, would have seemed to experience a great deal of cognitive dissonance in joining the Church. The short list includes Muriel Spark, Oscar Wilde, and Graham Greene. And I don’t think it’s entirely out of line to suggest that part of the attraction is rooted in Catholicism’s relative mysticism, occultism, and superstition. Unlike in some Protestant denominations, as a Catholic, you can still worship saints; you can worry about wafer v molar placement; you can recite the rosary on planes, because whatever you want to say about Bernoulli’s principle, I know that it is me & my rosary who are keeping this sucker aloft, and no amount of AP physics will convince me otherwise.  

This attraction to the occult and to ritual—to the mystic in all of us that the Enlightenment never quite stamped out—reminds me of this sentiment from Yeats, who was an outright magician. Yeats practiced magic for years in a proper guild in Ireland and credited it as a major influence on his work: 

“Now as to magic. It is surely absurd to hold me “weak” or otherwise because I choose to persist in a study which I decided deliberately four or five years ago to make, next to my poetry, the most important pursuit of my life…If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book, nor would The Countess Kathleen have ever come to exist. The mystical life is the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.”

Back to the meat-verse:

Who wants to spend time down here when you could escape into some magical, mythical realm a little larger than yourself — a realm not unlike a poem or novel — instead? Bring on the metaverse of Facebook’s VR. 

Or, you know…

While there may be some similarities between Zuckerberg and a medieval monk’s rejection of the pleasures of the flesh, I am here with the un/controversial opinion that Zuckerberg is worse. To someone of genuine faith, mortification of the flesh—in the original sense—has some kind of reciprocity, however uncomfortable, with one’s interior spiritual state; it admits of the existence of a soul. Facebook’s ambition to make a world where individuals are “surrounded by content” in a 3D space where we can own stuff, marry, form virtual relationships, etc., seems more like an emptying out—or at a least crowding out—of any interiority at all. (Adam Wilson imagined the logical conclusion of these corporate ambitions extremely well in his novel Sensation Machines; see our interview here.) You leave the meat-verse behind to become an empty vessel ready to be stuffed with the kind of content FB’s algorithms and advertisers provide. There are those who would even argue this is a solution to the climate crisis: the metaverse “decouples” continued economic growth and the use of natural resources. 

But we can take this further! To the overachieving monk, mortification of the flesh was about transcending earthly experience as a kind of pre-payment plan for entering heaven, a realm reserved for the soul’s eternal rest and that marks the end of all transactions. From the view of the metaverse, body and soul alike simply stand in the way of permanent commerce: transcendence affords salvation in the form of an eternal meta-data conduit. 

There’s nothing shocking or new about this and frankly there’s too much else that’s disappointing to even particularly care. I mostly just wanted to point out that Zuckerberg—with his single style of t-shirt and Silicon Valley life-extending asceticism—is a kind of backwards medieval monk suffering from a similarly severe case of evangelical tunnel vision. 

The Mortification of Social Relations

While I was down with multiple flus, mortified by my own fragility, I did a lot of reading. And since while on this fellowship I’m mostly reading about paradigms of economic transformation both historical and yet-to-be-experienced, and that invite analogies to energy transformation, I came across mid-century Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi—the socialist ying to Friedrich Hayek‘s neoliberal yang.

Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, first published in 1944, positions itself contra the claim by Adam Smith et al that capitalism is the organic expression of human nature (the logic of profit has some “reciprocity” with our souls). Human societies are and have always been organized around the logic of exchange and the profit-motive, Smith said, and the dawn of economic history lies with barter and exchange. A great deal of anthropological evidence (see David Graber’s best-selling Debt) and history debunks this myth. Polanyi also takes an anthropological approach, providing counterexamples to show that through the middle ages, social organization emerged not from individual motive for “gain,” but out of social relationships and patterns of reciprocity—the expectation, say, that a “gift” given today might be returned (but not recompensed) at some undetermined point in the future. Economic relations didn’t just mirror our social selves or social networks; they were a literal extension of them.

(You see where I’m going with this.)

In Polanyi’s famous formulation, until the Industrial Revolution, for most of history economic systems were therefore “embedded” in social relations. Afterwards, the paradigm was the opposite; social relations were subsumed into economic relations. (Think of the subsistence farmer who might help out a neighbor with supplies and possibly receive help in return—but not necessarily in kind or “on time”—versus a worker who seeks employment in an economy where it is illegal to pay someone in anything other than money.) The key here is that, contra the human nature arguments of Smith, markets didn’t develop naturally but rather were *created* through state regulation. In Polanyi’s famously provocative formulation: “Laissez-faire was planned.” This also stands contra the neoliberalism of Hayek, who overshadowed The Great Transformation for decades, and whose work was later leveraged in the 80s through the early aughts to argue that markets thrive without regulation. 

The opposite is true, Polanyi argues: markets can’t exist without regulation, because the state has to create the underlying conditions through which markets—again, not the irrevocable and natural expression of the human condition!—can emerge. 

Rates of Change

The value here lies in drawing attention not only to the fact that market economies actually require regulation, but that when markets bulldoze through society, pulverizing existing ways of life and demanding new economic conditions, they leave us actual humans no way to catch up or cope with new paradigms. The speed of transition matters, because social relations and paradigms threatened by the creation of new market conditions take time to reorganize and respond to these shocks.

This leads to some interesting conclusions. While neoliberals look with horror at those who would slow down an advantageous redistribution of goods and services (e.g., shifting resources from one economic sector to another), Polanyi points out that what strikes these folks as economic ignorance in fact has social value. He uses the example of pre-industrial England shifting land use from subsistence farming on the commons to the cultivation of wool (ie, shifting from farmland to enclosed pasture). The noblemen factions that argued against this shift—because among other reasons it had astoundingly negative and painful impacts on the poor—have gone down in history as economic imbeciles: in the long run, shifting from farming to raising sheep made the United Kingdom a far wealthier and eventually world-dominating economic force. But Polanyi points out that opponents of these measures served an important social function: slowing down a very painful economic transition that gave farmers some time to adjust. 

This sets the backdrop for his “double movement” theory, that market societies unfold as the tug of war between market expansion and citizens’ attempts to protect themselves against it.

After an Overdose of Cold Medicine, Three Takeaways: 

I’m just over halfway through The Great Transformation and life is still a fever dream, so more thoughts next time. But what feels especially important to me about Polanyi so far is that he: 

a) resuscitates the importance of social relations in market-based economies without reverting to arguments about natural law or human nature, e.g., that we are purely rational gain-seeking machines, or that if only we nurtured our better, more communal—ie MORE CATHOLIC AND CHRISTLIKE—selves, then we could all live happily ever after at the end of history and of capitalism; 

b) names the harm of market-based economies and their necessary commodification of land and people (“commodity myths”) without denying the enormous material gains markets delivered most people in the long run;

c) points to the importance of the speed at which economic transitions take place and emphasizes that the primary role of the state is not to organize labor or production outright (central planning in the extreme), but to mitigate through regulation and social programs the ecological and social destruction that markets cause:

“While production could theoretically be organized in this way [ie, through self-regulating markets], the commodity fiction disregarded the fact that leaving the fate of soil and people to the market would be tantamount to annihilating them.”  

A bit more on this third and final point. 

This idea about rates of change should be very frightening to us in a moment when the drumbreat for energy transformation is, by necessity, speed, speed, speed. The faster thus required economic transition is allowed to take place, the more public support is needed to buoy workers who experience extreme short-term friction. 

And it reminds us of what feels so false about an evangelist like Zuckerberg, whose sales pitch rests always on the principles of immediacy, of whole worlds tailored to you alone, and on platforms that, with the exception of capitalism, epitomize the mortification of social relations better than just about anything else. 

Art & Magic in the Meatverse

In the end, if I’m going to transcend the meat-verse, then it better be fucking magical—like entering a novel or a film or an absorbing work of art or even a nightmare or spell or prayer. Because as Henry James and I have pointed out elsewhere, art, like the internet or the metaverse or heaven, also “competes'' with everyday life. The purpose of transcendental experiences re: art, however, is not to extend the logic of profit and exchange, but to remind us of how incredibly fragile our little meat-verse really is, and how precarious our souls are in it.

So too our social relations.

If the market economy annihilated social relations, as Polanyi says, by “spread[ing] over the planet with a claim to universality unparalleled since the age when Christianity started out on its career, only this time the movement was on a purely material level,” then FB’s metaverse promises the same, on a purely digital one. Claims to universality, of course, are the Valley’s MO. And now that capitalism has come up against the limits of materiality, the metaverse promises to continue market expansion indefinitely, online. It would seem Zuckerberg reintroduced social relations back into the economic sphere in 2004 solely to commodify them, just as market expansion in the Industrial Age commodified labor and land. Extra credit to him, then, for introducing the third “commodity myth.” In economic terms, FB has succeeded in making social relations pay—in putting them to work.

And if I’ve got this all wrong, then let’s just agree that meatverse is simply a mortifying phrase.

In other news… 

  • I wrote about marketing narratives v. “literary” narratives in response to the persistent call from social scientists, journalists, and climate experts to “tell better stories about climate change” for Foreign Policy. The short version is that climate change is increasingly been framed as a kind of writer’s block. So, what kind of story should we tell—and just how tragic does it need to be?

  • Relatedly, I’ll be talking with Swiss novelists Dorothee Elmiger & Annette Hug about the obligation of the novel (insofar as it has one) to respond to current political crises, with a focus on climate change, at Zürich Literaturhaus on November 22 in honor of Elmiger being named the winner of the 2021 ZKB Schillerpreis.

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