#2: Perfect Gorgeous Rigor
The Rational Destruction of Ourselves
John Rawls wrote, "We strive for the best we can attain within the scope the world allows."—the fundamental human desire to improve ourselves and the world around us is inate, but it also acknowledges that there are limits to what we can achieve. In the postmodern era, there are endless examples of social disorder and uncertainty about what, as individuals, can be done collectively-socially. In a world with ideological plurality deciding most things (capital, in this instance, being the mechanism juking the stats in its favor to justify its rule), in this context, Rawls' quote takes on heightened significance. It reminds us that, no matter how confusing and chaotic the world may seem, we should always strive to do our best within the confines of what is possible, while postmodern theorists argue that traditional approaches to solving problems are no longer effective, and that we need to reject reforms, and only through radical action can these constraints that keep our actions and beings within them be challenged, which they also argue is not possible in the postmodern world. While this may be true to some extent, it is important to remember that we are still operating within certain constraints, and with these constraints come the tools to operate as materialists, and understand that the situation is far less complicated when you realize postmodernism’s chokehold on our social collective thought is why so many of us are, both, physically and spiritually sick.
An object lesson in the sort of postmodernism contra reformism framework we discuss in the first part of this series is the entire concept of modern eating disordered culture. The billion dollar diet industry, one that sells you programs and supplements and insecurity to ensure they create a customer for life is challenged, under postmodernism, by a capitalist co-opting of intersectional movements like body positivity for the purpose of selling you on an emerging anti-diet industry (paying lifestyle coaches thousands of dollars to help you lose what little sense of your own intuition might actually still exist). This is the ill, and then the ineffectual reform that only nominally is regarded as radical. The reality is that disordered eating is a very reasonable human response responding to a deeply corrupted social input; for example, behaviors like purging are instructive in instances of poisoning, but in the present, the disorder is a social one— why is what you eat regarded as poisonous, how did it get that way, etc. The former is answered by a variety of sources that daily wrack the public, with which we are all doubtlessly familiar, but the latter is the one I want to focus on.
Capitalism is, in a major way, the top level abstraction that contains almost all of the atomized components that have antagonized the social-collective body image and food mentality, but materially speaking, the quality of food available to the average consumer has been steadily deteriorating, while at the same time, the prevalence of eating disorders like purging subtype disorders has been on the rise. There are many factors that contribute to this trend, but again among the most significant is the influence of capitalism. In a capitalist society, the primary goal of businesses is to make a profit, and food companies are no exception— if this sounds reductive, it’s literally not; if they can sell you cheaper food at a higher margin, and then saturate the market with that lower quality food, then the scaled collective nutrition makes unintuitive what was once innate about hunger and the impact of nutrition on things like mood stabilization and the ability to regulate biological systems preventing chronic illness but especially metabolic ones (which are worsened, again, by high restriction typed eating disorders). One way they do this is by using cheaper, lower quality ingredients in their products. These ingredients are often processed and filled with additives and preservatives, which can be harmful to our health. Additionally, these cheaper ingredients often lack the nutrients that our bodies need to function properly. This focus on profit over quality has had a major impact on the food available to consumers. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find healthy, whole foods that are free from additives and preservatives. Instead, we are bombarded with cheap, unhealthy options that are designed to be as addictive as possible.
The key aspect here to keep in mind that the CEO of any corporation can’t be voted off the board for selling you a harmful product while maximizing profits, but will be if they sacrifice a possible profit center to keep consumers healthy. They will kill you, they have killed, and not think twice if they think it will satisfy capitalism’s only objective: to profit. There is no moral calculus for this ideological system. This goes for food manufacturers, the makers of trend exercise equipment, media conglomerates, and yes, again, this cottage industry of anti-diet influencers and diet companies to begin with. This is particularly concerning when it comes to eating disorders. Poor quality food can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and shame, which can trigger disordered eating behaviors like purging. Additionally, the constant availability of options of uncertain quality and consistency can make it difficult for even non-disordered (an increasingly endangered demographic) people to make choices that do not lead to feelings of guilt and self-loathing even if they do not, themselves, meet diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder.
In the context of our mental health culture, dietetics has experienced what I call the CBT-ification of treating an eating disorder; cognitive behavioral therapy has become one of the most prominent, and in my experience the least effective (a therapist friend of mine calls it “meditating your trauma away” as a modality, contrary to proven effective modalities that require an ongoing process of resolving contradiction— i.e. dialectical materialism), methods of therapy pushed most heavily by insurance companies because it allows for the excessive and ongoing billing for treatment, while accomplishing remarkably little for those who have experienced a trauma that might result in an eating disorder. This goes for the practice of the physical recovery from one in seeking assistance from a dietitian; things like the anti-diet movement, etc. have co-opted social justice language to sell, as I said, programs that put, again, the onus on you, the patient to self-criticize for not wanting to be XYZ trait, but does not challenge in any real way (identification is not the same as critical engagement with and countering of a demonstrated issue like Capitalism) the genesis of the issue, and continue to cycle into the program while denying that, for example, in one program I reviewed the contents of, that binge eating disorder is not a valid diagnosis (and that a binge signals a deficit of some kind, and requires physical, not emotional, satiety) and again the failure is on the individual for buying a capitalist myth about eating disorders while being asked to swallow another equally individualist approach that is intending to define you, signify you, as disordered, a customer for life. Postmodernism strikes again.
I won’t talk too much about this in theoretical detail beyond this point until the end, but dialectical materialism is a philosophical approach that emphasizes the interconnectedness of all things and the importance of understanding the material world in order to bring about change. In the context of eating disorders, dialectical materialism can be particularly instructive in recognizing the social and economic factors (so, beyond anything that might speak to, for example, attitudes about fat people, or moralization about food choice) that contribute to the development and perpetuation of these disorders. By understanding the material conditions that shape our lives and experiences, we can better identify the root causes of an eating disorder and work to address them; it emphasizes the importance of collective action and social revolt, distinct from reformism, in the shift of the focus from personal responsibility and blame to a more systemic understanding of the problem. Dialectical materialism provides a framework for understanding the root causes of these disorders and working towards collective solutions, but also represents the countering tendency to the above social condition of capitalism that is the root of pandemic cultural attitudes about food and eating and perceptions of weight. The relevance here is that this is the appropriate analytical lens for understanding the issues of postmodern condition, for the reasons I will enumerate in an an example of contemporary significance.
This is just some high level background on the material conditions for the average consumer trying to feed themselves, and not the primary focus on this essay, whereas analytical framing is. The conditions for those with eating disorders is often even more rife with problems that stem from this; rarely is it about attitudes about food, itself, or one’s body, or even weight management in any real way, but about how these material conditions influence one’s perception of their worth as a human through that lens— society values X, so I will do Y by any means necessary, and within Z context bearing shared social tradition and methods and tendencies for application, I will prove I am enough. The influence of social media on this paradigm has accelerated the uptake of disordered behavior and made it easier than ever for the things that always occur continuously with any emotionally vulnerable community, there’s predation, there’s misinformation, there’s fads and influencers, and ultimately, the postmodern tragedy bears out in a very specific way that, even when recovery is promoted as positive, it’s something that becomes very difficult to rationalize at the risk of losing a support system, while also encouraging behavior that could potentially make recovering infinitely more complex.
Put more simply, and not exclusive to the context of eating disorder: Social media can seriously harm your mental health. It can be a tool of great good for connecting people for support and companionship, but this is an omnipresent danger. Social media can create a false sense of comparison and competition, leading to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. It is not uncommon for people to present a highly curated and idealized version of their lives on social media, or a heavily caveated version of their struggles, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy in those who compare themselves to those with different base material states (do you have the same comorbidities, tolerances, similar lifestyles, etc.) I think this is especially prevalent on Twitter, which has a large and very active eating disorder community (edtwt), which I believe embodies this postmodern paradigm almost to its logical conclusion: in making everything shorthand (this or that-spo, using templates for different restriction and fasting methods, heavy sharing of one’s personal life, etc.) it becomes infinitely easier to understand each other when you’re working from the same common language, but also understand that you’re dealing with another human individual with thoughts and feelings, so this can be good for meeting friends, finding support for this often isolating struggle, but it can also be subject to the same influences of any other community that eventually has its influencers and social standards of acceptability.
To be a little more “real” with you about this, the irony of my conclusions on edtwt is that it mirrors, again, the central villain in all of this which is, of course, and I'm not joking, postmodernism. It counters reformism by rejecting it, but fails to be revolutionary because it concludes actual happiness is not possible while keeping the positive aspects of your experience within the constraints we discuss at the beginning of this piece. To reiterate Rawls here, Per Rawls, "We strive for the best we can attain within the scope the world allows."-- this is fundamentally no different than observing the rules of accomplishing changes to your body using "healthy methods" vs. unsafe or disordered ones, because it's the same scope. Postmodernism (in this case, participation in edtwt, which I’ll discuss in more detail in a moment) is making us sicker, even if for the first time it gives us the tools to cope with an increasingly hostile abstraction (social media) over an otherwise indifferent world (an isolating social culture under capitalism that stresses individual feeling over collectivized incentive to care for one another). Additionally, central here is that these ties dramatically change in effectiveness for positive outcomes as the scale increases; you might find yourself on a pocket of the Internet with say a dozen people comfortable speaking frankly, forging a genuine support bond where, sure, you’re all sick, but you’re genuinely concerned about one another as friends, but this good thing can become less effective the larger the community grows— supportive and well meaning and you make genuine friends who get this stuff but you like each other and other interests then at Saturation (say your circle is suddenly 1200 instead of 12) it becomes totally overwhelmingly about support in being disordered, rather than solidarity in existing while disordered. This is the microcosm representing the influence of postmodernism in a western liberal capitalist society.
By way of explaining how this postmodern condition causes this to occur, when you have the kind of underlying trauma that often causes or contributes to an eating disorder (this could be food or body image related, or simply about an attempt at control and agency after other types of trauma, for example), and suddenly you are exposed to other people who feel similarly, but at a saturation, you don’t have peers, you have audiences and personalities, and the material aspect of participating in such a community is that you have to confront that managing your weight is maybe the only thing you’ve ever felt validated by, even if it was never (and it is never) a measure of your worth as a person worthy of love and admiration and respect. But, in such a situation where this is lost, disordered behavior can, itself, be spread virally online, behaviors come into vogue, and the damage is almost never discussed. That it doesn’t help.
Personally, I’ve noticed in recent months a notable (even for the decades old online eating disorder communities of the earlier Internet) almost memeified uptick in harsh laxative abuse, for example, and people who didn’t used to purge (or if they were a b/p anorexia subtype, it becoming their main disordered behavior as their continued disordered behavior begins to change the variety set of things being responded to by an increasingly disordered condition) beginning to out of a sense of futility, and it’s been hard to see unfold, not in a triggering way for me personally but a on a level that makes me hurt as a human that they’re hurting and I can’t articulate what happens when you do this over a prolonged period of time, physically or emotionally, that it doesn’t address that which can feed an eating disorders, it doesn’t make you whole and it doesn’t solve these problems. The damage from laxative abuse, for example, is one that can permanently damage your body in very serious, life threatening ways from even causal abuse over a short amount of time— this is similar to the effect of purging in many ways, but distinct in that it’s literally your entire digestive tract that will be impacted; at best, you’ll struggle to use the restroom normally again, at worst, it can literally be how you die. This is, again, reduced to more memetic shorthand on edtwt, among other behaviors, as a signifier for a certain kind of rigor in the practice of having an eating disorder, rather than simply information about one’s eating disorder in the pursuit of support and solidarity, with one of several end goals (just managing, semi-recovery, etc.) which each have their own influences in this postmodern condition.
I believe this community is, at its core, well-intentioned, and between average individuals, a supportive and productive place for harm reduction and just general means of coping in a situation where life offline can be extremely isolating and can contribute to the kind of escalation of behavior I’ve been describing. However, because this condition hyperdilates within this Twitter bubble, people make decisions they know to be counterintuitive because of this influence on an otherwise supportive if not collectively/empathically disordered group and it prevents healing enough to live peacefully most of the time let alone actually recovering— it’s keeping us as a society sick when if a non-disordered variety set of outcomes were socially encouraged offline, we could be fine but the validation is almost incomprehensibly valuable on edtwt because it understands how little validation comes from within in this condition, let alone offline, and now online as well, but at least it’s less lonely in only the most surface level way once postmodernism strips your interactions of personality and genuine good nature. Essentially, the fear that you would lose your support system if you recovered, but this only happens if everyone involved had become their bit from Twitter, and by that point, what link has really been lost for you other than that validation? Very little, but by then, postmodernism teaches you that individual validation is central, rather than something you collectively seek to teach others to teach themselves must come from within.
I am someone with a lifetime of eating disorders in one form or another from a somewhat atypical background only insofar as the public imagination is concerned for who has these experiences, and it is actually not at all uncommon in the population; I am often one of very few men in any given space where eating disorders are being discussed (outside of contexts where, for example, I don’t fit in because I’m not an athlete where making weight is a consideration or a lifter, etc.) and now that I’m approaching my mid-30s, I still struggle with this, and as I write this I am in a very aggressive relapse that came on so fast I didn’t even realize it because it was such a big part of my lens of understanding what being productive and rigorous means for me, I am also one of the older people, in my experience, that still seeks community when I am experiencing an issue, and people with much more aggressive eating disorders have either come to some kind of functional acceptance about this being a major part of their lives, they are deeply ill (if not killed) by it, both, in or out of individual therapy, or are recovered. But these issues do not go away once you hit a certain age, and the effect of these behaviors is cumulative, and the healing from them often is not in terms of physical impact. And no amount of rigor applied to your behaviors (purging, exercise purging, restriction, fasting, enemas, whatever) will truly give you back your agency— you’ve handed it over to a, by definition, irrational part of your brain reacting intuitively in a situation where it misunderstands the variety set of conditions being fed to it.
All of this is to highlight the core role of postmodernism in perpetuating a social harm so I want to conclude: One of the key features of postmodernism is the rejection of grand narratives and universal truths, which can create a sense of confusion and uncertainty about what is "right" or "wrong." This can be especially damaging in the context of body image and disordered eating, as it can lead to the proliferation of conflicting and often harmful messages about what is considered "beautiful" or "healthy." Additionally, postmodernism's emphasis on individualism can lead to the normalization of unhealthy behaviors like disordered eating. In a society that values individual choice and autonomy above all else, it is then dramatically more difficult to challenge tendency and offer solidarity to those who are struggling, either with disorder or possible fears of what may happen socially if they do or do not recover, it makes this support system conditional in the irrational mind, in my experience and that of many peers— on that level, this is an irrational fear, but when you attain a following, or a community becomes less about itself, it becomes the likelier outcome. Postmodern belief that all knowledge is constructed and subjective can make it challenging to rely on evidence-based approaches to treatment. Without a shared understanding of what is "true," it can be difficult to identify and address the root causes of an eating disorder, and in cases of collective socialization around this part of one’s life, what “truth” means in terms of effective or vital or disordered or not, and as a result has the potential to perpetuate the harmful infinitely more than it does the good, organic, collectively-incentivized benefits I have discussed around solidarity and support contra perpetuating disorder as a first order concern and not the genesis of an interpersonal relationship. It is important for us to be mindful of this and work to create a culture that values evidence-based approaches to the decision to pursue (or not) treatment and promotes well-being for each other, whatever form that might take, recovery or not.
In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, “You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again.” he writes of the postmodern condition; this novel is a landmark work of a post-postmodernism, the establishment of a New Sincerity that requires a less-ironic, more honest and human approach to the condition of being alive and more often than not alive in a world that has made you sick in one way or another, otherwise, as Wallace used to say, you will die “in a very real way”. My hope is not that someone reads this and goes “damn, okay! I will recover”, don’t let me tell you what to do, disregard this as something you don’t want to worry about if you need and just consider it good faith concern from an analysis on the Internet, but I am appealing on the basis that it is possible understand the kind of loneliness one would be feeling, how it wraps up into issues that perpetuate and escalate disordered behavior, and about why this has been so hard to cope with, however, this is a conclusion that needs to drawn for one’s own reasons and one cannot be lead or pitched, they have to process, they must apply rigor to materialist process to understand, for example, if they do not want to recover, then why not, what does this give you, maybe enough that you decide it isn’t time yet, but the importance of the dialectic in this process, the weighing of material input and output and the cost to your well-being and that of your peers, is that you remain open to all material and behavioral possibility, not just the ones set by the constraints set by the postmodern condition. What this is constitutes a rational destruction of an entire demography in this context when suffering under these conditions by postmodernism’s influence on the contemporary capitalist social order; benefitting maximally from one’s own self-destruction by the logic of the constraints, against the material analysis that may guide one’s approach to engaging in a collectivized way for solidarity as a sufferer of these conditions.