Archival subjectivity

The idea of the subject as archive, or subjectivity as documentation (rather than something that is documented after the fact), seems to be cropping up a lot recently. I’ve been pushing the idea of an archive-based “data self” for a while now, so I’m excited to see this. It seems to me that ubiquitous surveillance will be the fundamental fact about subjectivity from here on out, though its effects can take all sorts of forms — there can be all sorts of theories about it.

new e-flux essay by Boris Groys on “art workers” argues that utopian dreams about identity as expressed in art have shifted over time. (It’s weird to equate art making with identity construction and self-expression, perhaps, but we’ll leave that aside.) Modernism sought a true self that was different from that assigned by contingent circumstances of birth and upbringing and so on — “the utopian impulse is always related to the desire of the subject to break out of its own historically defined identity,” he claims. Yet postmodernism, he concedes, hoped to dissolve identity into deterritorialized flows and free play and escape the limitations of bourgeois individualism. This is an escape from imputed identity not toward some inner true self but toward open-ended no-self.

Now in the Internet era, in which everything is traceable and deterritorialization is impossible — “On the internet, every free-floating signifier has an address,” Groys notes, “the circulation of digital data produces not copies, but new originals” — the utopian aspiration is for a hermeneutically impermeable subjectivity: “It is the dream of an unbreakable code word that can forever protect our subjectivity. We want to define ourselves as a secret that would be even more secretive than the ontological secret — the secret that even God cannot discover.” Groys basically thinks subjectivity has become a password: “the contemporary subject is defined as an owner of a set of passwords that he or she knows—and that other people do not know. The contemporary subject is primarily a keeper of a secret.” 

That doesn’t really follow to me; I think boyd and Marwick’s idea that we are all becoming “social steganographers” — using codes to baffle unwanted audiences and achieve affective privacy — is more persuasive. In other words, the search for the master password is a social process that never ends; people don’t see identity as a static secret to be locked in an impregnable digital cave, but as a fluid thing defined by trusted peers who get updates on (or co-construct) the changing codes being used to express it. I’m not sure if Groys is suggesting that the task for the artist today is to make the aesthetic equivalent of uncrackable passwords; uninterpretable objects that can house subjectivity safely, protect it from the internet’s archiving and algorithmic processing and endless recirculation and potentially hostile repurposing.

Some of what Groys writes reminds me a lot of Brad Troemel’s New Inquiry essay about Athletic Aesthetics, but where Groys seems to lament that artists no longer have the luxury of a studio space in which to nurture “true-self” creativity, Troemel seems to celebrate this. Groys frets that artists have become bloggers and that art’s aura has been lost, artists are in Internet “hell,” he writes. Troemel, by contrast, seems much more optimistic about the artist’s productivity becoming the masterpiece, championing  the continual public reassertion of creativity over a mystified private summoning of the cosmic muse. This builds a more direct link with audiences, whereas the old ideal of the artist genius working in private was built on the untenable notion that great artists don’t even think about their audiences, don’t need them.

I think Groys’s comments about the impact of an inevitable personal archive are more reasonable: 

In a certain sense, the archive gives to the subject the hope of surviving one’s own contemporaneity and revealing one’s true self in the future because the archive promises to sustain and make accessible this subject’s texts or artworks after his or her death. This utopian or, at least, heterotopian promise is crucial to the subject’s ability to develop a distance from and critical attitude towards its own time and its own immediate audience.

The archive doesn’t merely capture the past, it extends the ephemeral into the future, offering people the fantasy of rediscovery, or favorable reinterpretation. (My version of this is that the self is actually deferred to the future; it’s a product of how the archive is received.) To honor the utopian promise of archives, we should embrace “decontextualization and reenactment of individual phenomena from the past” rather than faithful “historical recontextualization.” 

At Mute, Yuk Hui’s “Archivist Manifesto” starts from the same premise, that “we are archivists, since we have to be. We don’t have choice. This decision is already made, or determined by the contemporary technological condition.” Hui links the everyday tending of personal archives with Foucault’s notion of the care of the self and Simondon’s ideas about “technological humanism.” Since “the development of archival tools embeds a large extent of deskilling,” this process must be actively resisted to preserve the semblance of individual autonomy — Hui proposes we take a more active approach to constructing the metadata about ourselves, managing how search engines represent our archives.

My reading of this is that this is what selfhood, subjectivity, has become — a consciousness of metadata. We may perhaps project into the future of how we might be found out through various search terms and play to them, but I think metadata categories are imposed on us, and we embrace them as truth, as a new dimension of what makes our experiences “real.” We don’t know what or who we are until our data is properly tagged.

Hui wants us to reist such “crowdsourcing” of archives in favor of an ethic of care. That reminds me of the surveillance scholar David Lyon Levinasian hope that visibility will foster relations of care between lateral surveillants; one way this can surface is that we will make the most favorable sorts of metadata more salient for our loved ones, make their virtues more searchable. This seems like it could complement steganography as a way to accommodate the loss of privacy as something we could passively take for granted. Now we need our social groups to actively help us build privacy for ourselves — establishing obscurity by co-operating on establishing the terms by which we will be seen by outsiders, protecting one another from  their search-engine-driven invasions of the social-media archive. 

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