Our age of 'profilicity' - Interview with Hans-Georg Moeller (Full version)

Welcome to the age of 'profilicity', where curating a public image is more important than sincerity. Professor Hans-Georg Moeller is here to be your guide.

Jon Deery
29th January 2022
Hans-Georg Moeller, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Macau. Image: YouTube - Carefree Wandering
Hans-Georg Moeller is a professor of philosophy, currently working at the University of Macau, China. His work focuses on the teachings of Daoist principles, and his YouTube channel, Carefree Wandering, has 52 thousand subscribers. On his channel, he has made videos on subjects such as Jordan Peterson, the notion of 'Wokeism', and the movie 'Don't Look Up'. In this conversation, I spoke to him about his notion of 'profilicity', which he discusses in the book You and Your Profile: Identity After Authenticity that he wrote with Paul D'Ambrosio, and about Western perceptions of China.

Interviewer: So, in your book and in one of your YouTube videos, you outline three different ‘ages’ that society has been through. The first, sincerity, was an age of people living up to their assigned social roles (men as ‘providers’ etc.); the second, authenticity, was an age of people questioning those social roles in an attempt to live as their ‘true selves’; and the third age, the one you suggest culture is shifting towards now, is the age of ‘profilicity’, namely an age where everyone is mainly focused on curating their social profile. I’m curious to know which of the three, if you could choose to live your life entirely in that cultural system, you would favour.

Moeller: I don’t think we have a choice. I grew up in the age of authenticity and that’s how I’ve built my identity - and that’s why I just feel like I’m authentic. A major reason why Paul [D’Ambrosio] and I came up with this whole model is because we both have this background in Chinese philosophy and have been living for extended periods of time in China, and there you see this different identity programme at work. It’s still very much sincerity. So I don’t think we really do have a choice - I think if we did have a choice we’d probably choose the identity mode that we built our own identity with, because that’s what we’re most familiar with. 

So we find from authenticity’s perspective that sincerity always has this issue of conformity and thereby being inauthentic because you’re just conforming too much to social expectations. And then we also find profilicity inauthentic.

Moeller's video on the book You and Your Profile breaks down his idea of profilicity

But I’ve been thinking about this in recent times: we increasingly see the term ‘authenticity’ also applied to profilicity. A few days ago I read this very short article in one of the major German newspapers online about the ten most successful influencers on YouTube and Instagram in Germany. The article said, without any irony: ‘the key to their success is their authenticity’. And then they were describing what this means and the description said ‘they only take on advertising contracts for products that fit their image’, and that they have a consistent look and feel. Which is pure profilicity, it’s the curation of a profile! That’s how the notion of authenticity has been totally adopted now into a profilicity framework. And this was from a high-brow German newspaper! Obviously they were just using the word ‘authenticity’ already entirely in a profilicity frame.

I: So, the word ‘authenticity’ is itself not being used authentically any more.

M: Exactly.

I: You kind of treat profilicity as a neutral thing. But it seems to me, as somebody who’s been born in the age of profilicity, that profilicity seems to necessitate these social media tools and algorithms and things, and the general commodification of the self, so it does seem quite negative. So I’m just wondering: is there some parallel universe in which profilicity is kind of the dominant social norm, but it’s played out in a different way? Where it’s not happening in commodification terms but in perhaps healthier terms?

M: Yes! And maybe that will happen (I mean I don’t think it’s likely but it’s definitely possible).

There are two reasons why Paul [D’Ambrosio] and I try to be fair to profilicity and not demonise it. Because (and this comes from our interest in Daoism) of the notion that the ‘self’ is a construct. That there is no such thing as a core self, and that human existence is incongruent. Therefore, we don’t really believe in authenticity. We also think that authenticity comes with a lot of paradoxes and pressures, which are described in culture and movies and so forth. And a lot of this American right-wing thing is also basically based on the authenticity narrative. So there are also huge problems tied to this idealisation of authenticity that is often the background for profilicity criticisms. You find those criticisms basically everywhere in Western thinkers like Byung-Chul Han and Bauldrillard and so forth who have criticised the virtual world.

Maybe because its virtuality is more obvious, [profilicity] may allow us a more playful approach to our own identity

Hans-Georg Moeller

And that was long before the internet. Guy Debord and other people who I quote in the book, are influenced by existentialism. They have this view of the virtual world, and of the move to virtuality, as being ‘inauthentic’ and therefore being ‘bad’. And for us, philosophically, ‘inauthentic’ doesn’t really mean ‘bad’, because we don’t really believe in authenticity being true. They’re all different forms of constructing selfhood, which is necessary.

I don’t believe that somehow profilicity is less ‘true’ or less capable of constructing identity. To the contrary, maybe because its virtuality is more obvious, it may allow us a more playful approach to our own identity. Even though it is often said that profilicity is equated with narcissism, it can also be less narcissistic. I think authenticity is also very narcissistic. We still suffer very much from identity politics, the whole ‘wokeism’ thing, there’s a lot of narcissism tied into that, and that all comes from this insistence on authenticity. 

Moeller's video on the phenomenon of 'wokeism', which he calls the new 'civil religion'

So yes, I think there is potential in profilicity to not actually be so obsessed with one’s identity, and to have a more playful attitude towards it and so forth. I’m trying to tease that potential out in my own social media presence, on the channel; I think there’s a chance we could learn to be more playful and take ourselves somewhat less seriously which I think can be a healthy thing.

I: A lot of the time you refer your critiques to particular examples of media and art - I’m thinking particularly of your video on ‘Don’t Look Up’. Are there any artists that you’re following, or popular thinkers, that are getting these ideas across in a critical way? Is anyone getting it right, basically?

An analysis from Moeller's channel of Adam McKay's movie 'Don't Look Up' using Social Systems Theory

M: I’m not really following contemporary art that much. I’m still reading a lot, but I’m reading the writers who are all dead. I just talked to a friend yesterday, and we were talking about Dostoevsky, who we’re both big fans of. We think we need a Dostoevsky for the 21st century. Maybe there is something like this around, I’m just not aware of it. If you have any suggestions I’d be very grateful for any kind of movies or literature that play around with profilicity.

I: The comedian Bo Burnham is very good. In fact, he’s in quite an interesting position - he is a major figure on Netflix, and his comedy is largely about the damage that Big Tech media companies like Netflix are doing to people. It resembles the criticisms you have given of ‘The Social Dilemma’ being a Netflix movie about surveillance capitalism, ‘Don’t Look Up’ being a Netflix movie about mass media, and your own channel where you self-referentially say ‘this is made to generate profit’ etc. Given that all critiques of media that come from within the media are themselves structurally reinforcing the media, do you think there’s still a net benefit derived from doing the critiques?

M: Oh, absolutely, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. The insight comes from Buddhism as well as Systems Theory, that we can’t really step outside [of these forms of media]. And even the philosopher Immanuel Kant said consciousness describes itself and its own structures from within, rather than from the outside. That’s a core philosophical insight that I try to apply to this situation.

Moeller's early video on the ways in which Netflix's documentary 'The Social Dilemma' misrepresents surveillance capitalism

And I think that’s something that’s wrong with critique - usually social critique is performed (as in these Netflix movies) as if it would be somehow possible to step outside of society. That’s not the case, and I think that critique has a more subversive and also a more powerful element if it reflects on its own conditions. The Kantian definition of critique is basically ‘the reflection on the conditions under which we operate’, which of course means that while you’re reflecting on them, you’re operating on the conditions under which we operate.

And in relation to science, I think that’s probably something that’s quite common in science as well: if you’re a physicist for example, you are aware that you are subject to the laws that you are trying to identify. You need a critical attitude to this, which is what’s unfortunately missing in most social critiques, particularly if they are marketed towards a mass audience.

I: I find interesting this idea of being ‘outside’ of these structures; particularly because you are currently in China, and I’m currently in Britain, and I recently watched a BBC documentary on the dangers of surveillance capitalism, which focused primarily on China as a scary potential future that we’ve not yet quite arrived at. As if we in the West are ‘outside’ these technological structures that have taken root purely in China.

It’s kind of ridiculous, this whole China thing. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I live here, this kind of Western demonisation of China. It bothers me a lot, because it might actually lead to a war. I might find myself in the middle of a war in a few years’ time - I mean, right here at the South China Sea, the cold war is already going on. But especially with Taiwan, it’s a very scary situation.

This Western demonisation of China... bothers me a lot, because it might actually lead to a war

Hans-Georg Moeller

What you see on both sides is what you typically see in the build-up to a war. One major element is of course this demonisation of China. That’s super important for a war, that you actually somehow hate the other and see that the other is a real threat to your existence and to your way of life. And this is increasingly how it is portrayed in the West, so that war seems justified and necessary. So that’s a clear and present danger that I’m very much worried about.

Now, about what you just said - I was listening to Jordan Peterson’s recent thing about stepping down from his position [as professor in the University of Toronto] in Canada. Just as he was talking about this D-I-E (Diversity, Inclusion, Equity) thing, he says that’s almost as bad as the social credits system in China. He knows nothing about China; the social credits system is not generally applied. I know of nowhere where it’s applied, and especially of course not in academia. It’s just to do with traffic violations and credit scores and things like this. 

Moeller has made two videos on Jordan Peterson - the second is a response to Peterson's string of comments on this video

But he’s right (and I know this because I also taught in Canada) - there was this office established in Canada fifteen years ago while I was there that is serving the political correctness of staff. As Peterson mentioned, they are trained, and it’s mandatory training, in being politically correct. Using the correct language and so forth. 

I: It seems to me from Western media's approach to China that we're ready to point out their problems as if they're unique to China, even if we ourselves have the same problem here.

Yes, exactly - this China that we are ‘unlike’ is a projection of our own reality. That’s the whole thing; by saying we are unlike China, everything they say about China is a sort of self-description. And they miss what’s wrong with China - there are many things that are horrible in China, but the issues of the West are really kind of a mismatch. As it has always done, with Orientalism for example, [the West] projects these oriental images [onto China] which are somehow some weird form of self-description, so that we don’t have to describe ourselves except externally.

That feeling when you're overthrowing capitalism but just can't resist taking a selfie on your iPhone 7 Hamburg
The 'Riot Hipster', discussed in Moeller's book, represents the narcissistic aspects of profilicity, according to the reactions to him on the internet. Moeller argues that the reactions themselves aren't any different. Image: Twitter @JimmyRushmore

I: This brings to mind the image of the ‘riot hipster’ in your book You and Your Profile [the ‘riot hipster’ was a man who was photographed taking a selfie at a riot. The photo of him taking a photo garnered a lot of criticism on social media, denouncing him as undermining a serious cause by using it to pose narcissistically for his social media profile]; specifically, I’m interested in the comments on the photo of the riot hipster, all of which are decrying his performativity and his boosting of his own profile. The commenters don’t seem to be aware that they themselves, in making their comments, are doing so primarily to boost their own profiles. What’s interesting to me about those comments is that profilicity is an age of meticulous self-awareness, and a continual awareness of how you yourself are coming across. So why do you think it is that so many people are falling into the trap, in this age of self-awareness, of still not having that level of self-awareness to realise what they’re themselves doing?

M: That’s a very good question. I don’t really have an answer to it.

But one direction in an answer to the question is: because we don’t have the vocabulary. That’s what Paul and I tried to do somehow with the book. [People] still have the vocabulary of authenticity, like we said earlier with the German newspaper. When they said the influencers are successful because they are so authentic, it showed the total lack of vocabulary. And that’s also a task of philosophy - to actually develop a sort of conceptual vocabulary, not unlike science which describes physical and other sorts of structures. 

We don't have the vocabulary [to understand profilicity]... and that's a task of philosophy

Hans-Georg Moeller

We in philosophy try to develop a kind of conceptual vocabulary to describe existential structures, structures of how we exist. We no longer exist as authentic beings, we exist as profile-oriented beings, but we still describe it with the terminology of the age of authenticity.

So that’s a direction towards an answer to your question ‘why do people not see it?’: because they do not have the conceptual means to conceptualise it.

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