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What's the Problem with Net Subjectivity?
Paper presented at the Paris E.N.S. on April 3rd 2006

Early in the 90’s, theorizing the Subject as experiencing the Net was inspired by, and deeply rooted into “deconstructionism”.

Cyberspace was said to have the virtue of dissolving the boundaries of Subjectivity into text and revealing the multiplicity of the Self, as well as allowing for the reconstruction of one’s personality into as many representations as allowed by imagination, creativity, and — code !

As true as these postulations may be, it is not impossible to argue that they have been serving as veils to “cover and forget” some more dramatic and practical problems, namely the obscure links between “social” and “online” identities, an illusory distinction between the “real” and the “virtual” selves, and in fact the way our experience of the Internet is shaped into truly conventional and quite authoritarian patterns.

Indeed, it is not as if the Network had simply opened new worlds allowing for self-replication, freedom of expression, and radically “new” intellectual and social experiences. It is more like institutions, corporations, and new forms of power (especially at the “code level” of the Network) had developed through unclear policy-making into a new economy of intellectual instrumentation of the Internet, as well as into renewed forms of personal alienation.

If we try to understand the Internet as a cultural, not only technological phenomenon, we have to consider the fact that it already has an intellectual history, and has been the object of various more or less deep theoretical approaches. To consider it as a “cultural” phenomenon is to focus on practices, representations, subjectivity and its politics as a whole, not simply the technical mastering of the network. Internet culture has spread in the late 80’s and early 90’s by indulging, at some point, in some sort of “Metaphysics of Subjectivity” where the “subject” would be described as diffracted and (con-)textualized thanks to the development of the Internet and the whole of its “affordances” — the technical as well as intellectual capabilities that lie within the Network.

Let us focus on two separate sets of examples outlining that precise theoretical approach.

  • Sherry Turkle, a renowned M.I.T. “Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology”, has contributed to many publications where she has dealt with the idea of the Subject as reshaped by the experience of the Internet. Among them are Digerati — for “digital literati” —, edited by John Brockman in 1994 [1], and Clicking In : Hot Links to a Digital Culture, edited by Lynn Hershman Leeson in 1996. In her article “Rethinking Identity Through Virtual Community”, she writes indeed (p. 117-118) :
    • “The development of the windows metaphor for computer interfaces was a technical innovation motivated by the desire to get people working more efficiently by “cycling through” different applications, but in practice, windows have become a potent metaphor for thinking about the self as a multiple, distributed, “time-sharing” system. (...) The life practice of windows is of a distributed self that exists in many worlds and plays many roles at the same time.”
  • Alan Sondheim, who is said to be a “virtual writer-in-residence”, has coordinated the publication of Being On Line back in 1997, where he also contributed an article entitled “Being Online. lol — an Internet text”. One can read (p. 30) [2] :
    • “It is however the very dissolution of the subject that creates the response for its existence, a call emanating from the confusion of discursive levels ; the subject exists by virtue of its absence, its presence through those very symbols |— that reduce it to the hole. Net dialog is a tangle of switches, sidetracks, private and public messages, alternative routes, flaming and disappearances, subnets and undernets, hackers of the circuitous. What is the dialog of symmetry (double-functioning, the function of the double and duplication) fissures as one or another party is always elsewhere. There is also the condition of delays along packet lines moving information at megabytes per second ; a delay is not the momentary condition of this medium-as-message, but an irregular cancellation of the message and its protocol ; subjectivity appears precisely in the absence of its call ; I say to you : the net-subject is defined by negation ; occurs in the breakdown of symmetricizing functions ; sutures these functions in its absence ; reconstitutes itself repeatedly ; I call this the CONDITION of the subject which is REWRITE.”

Sondheim’s functionalism — as it might be called — is commented upon and questioned by Andrew Libby in the following terms (p. 111) :

    • “Where does the space for community or, if you prefer the term, intersubjectivity, reside ? Are there interstices in this web of l’s for a humanism, perhaps in Alan’s loose sense, perhaps in a novel one ? Or is each solipsically banging away in his hole, wondering at the text coming down the line ? What possibilities for remarking the (cyber)body are opened ? How does our activity change, say, the plausibility of platonic love or enable in/corporeal sexuality (I think of the Current post Alan sent out on the anniversary of that man’s death) ? How does our activity reroute desire ? Could this activity enable something like a "pure" reason of the written mind, or is it merely a new medium for writing (Nietzsche, the first philosopher to own a typewriter, says our instruments of writing shape the way we think) ? Is there really, can there really be anonymity on the net (dissembling always, hut "genuine" anonymity) ? I low does this work into the identities one constructs for oneself and others in this medium ? What is the status - now in the context of identity - of deletion ? I find myself sometimes pausing before each deletion, however necessary, and at other times making decisions purely m the basis of instrumental reason, hence feeling a bit guilty. Does deleting posts constitute an act of had faith ? Is this simply a matter of data management (ring out the old, bring in the new, create a tabula rasa) when it is we who are (being) created ? Is this (writing) the rapture of dying, the last breath of poetry, the agony of death ?"

Quite oxymorically so, there obviously seems to be a “mainstream-underground” culture that is very close to the idea of the Subject and Identity as being dissolved and/or diffracted by the Internet and our textual experience of the Network. Quite rightly so, too. The Network indeed allows for the redefining of subjectivity as authorship, since each operator has a chance to create, define and describe his or her identity as a “he”, a “she”, even an “it”. “Being on line” is like (re-)constructing one’s very own identity in terms of interconnected objects and spaces, especially in places such as MUDs or MOOs — where any participant can encode who or what he, she, it is willing to “be”. Being might be reduced to the textual representation of being, but nonetheless it is in the context of a truly lively Internet experience : the experience of “encodenment”.

This is however a form of induced “cyberoptimism”, and it might have problematic flaws. Constructing or reconstructing one’s self is indeed quite meaningless, unless it is an actual process and lived as such by the person who indulges in such practices as being on line and building some sort of live forms or animated objects serving as decoys for her own actual being. This is to say that experiencing the Internet should not be interpreted as simply abandoning the “real world” and switching to a more agreeable and/or controllable, borderless, bodiless, spiritually enhanced, electronic world ! On the contrary, experiencing the Internet should be dealt with as a form of real life experience where thoughts, feelings, even actions — though textual — have real and actual consequences. [3] Consequences on oneself or other people, real people actually connected and on line, consequences on persons who, at any given spatial or temporal distance, are affected by words and their meaning and purposes. To put it in others words, discourse is not just discourse, it is also action and the actual cause of actual effects, and as such requires conscience and responsibility.

The reality context in which experiencing the Network takes place should thus be dealt with not in purely semantic terms, but in practical ones of codal responsibility : towards others fairness or justice on the one hand, towards oneself protection and integrity on the other hand — in a conjunction of some form of public good and sheltered privacy. This is precisely why the over-intellectualization of “Net subjectivity” seems biased and insufficient when writing on the Internet is also being and acting.

Therefore, instead of a psychological and slightly idealistic approach of the “Subject-as-such”, what is required to define identity on line is a pragmatist’s point of view, where the living subject is considered not as “being” but as “taking place” at a certain point of convergence of words and their induced efficiency : “being on line” is textually acting as well as being acted upon, and at the same time it is like being exposed to other people’s, institutions’, corporations’, and States’ textual presentifications thus actions — an chancy encounter of the textual type !

One should thus consider the shaping, even the frameworking [4] of the subject and on line identity.

• The shaping : Building one’s self online requires “digeracy”, meaning some not so superficial sense of digital literacy. In fact, not only do we have to be able, but our ability also has to be in a way or another co-opted and accepted by those others being part of the whole textual process on “being on line”. To be identified, the self has to function properly and coalesce with other selves’ own “codality”. This is to say that it is not enough to define oneself by means of text, image, video or sound, it is also required that one’s “definition” be admitted as meaningful by others to interact with. Being is thus being integrated into a semantic community, and as such quite alienated to its specific requirements.

• The frameworking : The “freedom of expression” that is supposed to initiate our experience of the Internet is thoroughly determined by such authorities as political, economical, social, or cultural. This is to say that our freedom goes as far as code allows it to go [5], as far as our discourse/actions are appropriated and structured by the general technological “framework” : politics, justice, industrial goals, cultural admissibility, correctness, and the like. Blind though they may be, machines are in fact be organized and networked in such a way that they either lighten up or deepen the global Network surveillance and our abiding to their technological rhetorics. In such a context, there is much more in defining one’s self than just being able to “talk” online, for the frontier between self identifying and being identified is anything but clear. [6] How much of ourselves should be publicized, and how this should be done, at this time these are matters for no one to know about for certain.

Now being a “pragmatist” and aware of the problem of online subjectivity as one of being, building, and inter-acting responsibly and “for better or worse”, does not only consist in sketching the various schematics of our alienation, “shaping” and “frameworking”. It might also be a way of sensing both that “identity” is a matter of “normativity”, and that normativity may be a leading way towards surveillance and/or self (over-)protection.

Whence the following works by Steven Davies and David Matheson.

[1] All URLs are valid as of April 9th, 2006.

[2] Alan Sondheim’s paper is also published online.

[3] The intermingling of the real and the virtual worlds is not the purpose of this paper. Let me just remind “A Rape in Cyberspace”, which occurred/was written in 1993 by Julian Dibbell. — Alternate Village Voice version.

[4] In English, “framework” is used to translate Heidegger’s Gestell (French : “arraisonnement”), which in “The Question Concerning Technology” serves to describe the depth and essence of our alienation to technology. — See URLs : http://www.megaessays.com/viewpaper/17217.html and http://igw.tuwien.ac.at/christian/technsoz/heidegger.html (in German).

[5] This crucial idea has been pinned down by Lawrence Lessig in his book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.

[6] To enquire further in this matter, it might be useful to problematize the so-called urgency of identifying people through the universal implementation of RFID technology, thus turning people into objects — or “blogjets”, as Julian Bleeker puts it in his paper “Why Things Matter : A Manifesto for Networked Objects — Cohabiting with Pigeons, Arphids, and Aibos in the Internet of Things”. — A striking example of objects being actually identified and followed in each and every step of their “actions” is that of planes.

PS: Le détail de cette manifestation, qui a rassemblé les membres de l’équipe « Réseaux, Savoirs & Territoires » (E.N.S.-Ulm) et certains chercheurs de la Faculté de Droit de l’Université d’Ottawa (Canada), peut être consulté en suivant les liens ci-dessous.
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 What’s the Problem with Net Subjectivity ?