Contained selves

The body is an unreliable container for the self. It dies. It allows subjectivity to dissolve in pleasure and pain and other assorted affects. It refuses to conform to the plasticity of thought; it refuses to be controllably expressive. It expresses identities we’d like to reject. It confronts one’s sense of the unlimited transcendence of being with some very hard limits.

Social media attempt to address this problem of the body. They promise identity that’s not contingent on bodies — an identity as a cumulative archive, as an alienated, externalizable ecosphere that can be directly shared with others. We can watch ourselves grow deeper as the information that makes it up gets processsed, in the way its data points intersect with others and lend itself to further processing, further recombinations that expand it algorithmically beyond all bounds of our intent.

The risk of feeding our data into the churning networks is bracing; it can feel courageous, preparatory for some unpredictable transformation, precipitating the experience of action, in the gambler’s sense. It is riveting self-experimentation, the courage of what Foucault called “the will to know.” Every piece of information about the self becomes a site of multiplicity, intervention, inversion, metastasis — an explosion of possibility for self becoming selves, though all contained within servers, all safely digitized, all ultimately and concretely re-reducible to our singularity, our “real name.”

Once, this pursuit of the real self required a tangible, physical form of risk. The sites where identity cohered, the points of self-interpretation and self-knowledge, seemed to be trapped within the flesh. Deleuze argues in “Letter to a Harsh Critic” that “individuals find a real name for themselves only through the harshest exercise in depersonalization, by opening themselves up to the multiplicities everywhere within them, to the intensities running through them.” The isolation of embodiment required that one experience a kind of “depersonalization through love” to experience the real and become “a set of liberated singularities, words, names, fingernails, things, animals, little events: quite the reverse of celebrity.”

Social media affords the opposite, offering quasi-celebrity as a barometer of becoming. The “real name” retains its aura of authenticity while becoming a capacious repository that tolerates all these multiplicities, charts them, quantifies them. In social media, (micro)fame measures directly the density of those multiplicities, the probability that your data points are being elaborated, linked up to other ones, other people, made to become promiscuous.

So thanks to social media you can get the experience of “realness” without having to pass through the strait gate of desubjectivation; you can reject the limits of embodied contingency without having to push your body past its limits. These experiences can be virtual; risk can be courted online, and though its ramifications and consequences cannot be fully quarantined there, they can be preserved, and thereby be made seemingly worthwhile, productive.

I have been thinking about this while reading James Miller’s book The Passion of Michel Foucault, which reads like highbrow gossip, spiced liberally with poststructuralist jargon. Passages of near impenetrable ponderousness from Foucault, Deleuze, and Bataille and the like get  requoted and juxtaposed with semi-sensationalized accounts of Foucault’s personal life. You probably don’t understand what they’re saying, but trust me, it’s decadent and scandalous! Miller interprets Foucault as being on a lifelong Nietzschean search for the realm of freedom (and thus the “real self”) in self-dissolution, beyond “programmed desires” and the sanctity of the subject. According to Miller, Foucault experienced glimpses of this realm of freedom through his immersion in San Francisco’s S/M subculture, where he explored anorgasmic, transgressive sex practices with strangers. (Foucault also got a hint of the realm of freedom when dropping acid at Death Valley and also when getting hit by a car. Death is, of course, the ultimate trip.)

This kind of freedom, that comes from, say, sexual ascesis or drug abuse, is inherently beyond capture in the prison-house of language. It short-circuits signification and revalues all values and so forth. It can only be rendered, Miller suggests, in the flat, affectless prose exemplified by Maurice Blanchot and Alain Robbe-Grillet, and even then only approximately. The monotony is meant to indirectly evoke the sublime, the possibility of losing oneself in a featureless labyrinth of words. At the very least, narratives like Robbe-Grillet’s prohibit any sort of escapist consumption and for that reason alone are deeply unsettling.

But reading (or writing) books like The Erasers may no longer be necessary to the process of shattering the self with limit experiences. Again, I think social media upsets some of the earlier assumptions about representing experience, or turning expression into experience, by simultaneously democratizing and denaturing the practice.

The obligation to always be thinking about expressing oneself is built into contemporary modes of media consumption. It’s one of the chief selling points of the smartphone. Don’t just live your life; record it. Annotate it. Reblog it. Experience and the expression of it converge. Any experience we have, once we are acculturated to carrying a smartphone, is also the experience of expressing that experience. Experience is inseparable from the possibly to express it. (Pics or it didn’t happen, etc.)

In the machinery of social media, none of this experience need be particularly transgressive to be felt as transformative. Posting videos of one’s cat is sufficient to tremble the network. The contradictions and intensities and dangers of attempting to write the truth about oneself are made accessible to anyone with a Tumblr, and at the same time, new resources other than opaque language are readily available to convey affect on social-media sites. These resources (gifs, links, images, likes, screen grabs, serial selfies, cut-and-paste collages, etc.) can seem to express the self without the same limits brought about by the imprecision or, maybe more often, the overprecision of one’s own words, which come from some posited central location of the “I.” That “I” is a transcendental trap, binding one to the posited position of the speaking subject.

Whereas the self that’s contained by the social-media account seems to come from everywhere, spilling in from all sorts of other online sources and spilling over the edges of one’s profile as a kind of delirious excess. The self is contained but feels uncontainable.

But this is no longer a fracturing of subjectivity at the fringes and margins of social experience. Now the dandified life — living as though one’s life was a work of art — is mainstreamed, routine, commonplace — it ceases to be or feel particularly subversive, and poses no threat to the status quo orchestration of power. Becoming is just ordinary being, and of no particular threat to capitalism’s modes of exploitation, which continue humming along. Becoming, in other words, is a subsumed mode of production.

Social media (and the prosumption-based capitalism they support) push us toward the sort of being-as-becoming self-concept that might once have been reserved only for those who placed themselves beyond discipline — in Miller’s account, the “no future” sort who would sample glory holes at bathhouses or otherwise inject illicit substances. Now “no future” is everyone’s end-times. Arguably (and this is a broad, indefensible generalization) social order once depended on static categories and traditional identity markers much more than it does — an investment in a predictably patterned future was demanded to reproduce the social. This is no longer a concern; the social is reproduced not generationally through codes of normality but from moment-to-moment, not in stable, repressive identities but in the aggregated outcomes of algorithmically processable deeds.

Rather than refer our behavior anxiously to rigid, uniform norms, we are encouraged instead to indulge in a provisional, undecided self, as it ends up consuming (and producing) much more in search of those elusive limit experiences beyond the old categories. Striving to be yourself doesn’t put stress on existing systems of control; it is the system of control.

Miller writes that in the 1980s, Foucault sought to delineate these “technologies of the self” in hopes of historicizing them, opening the possibility that “a different set of techniques for approaching the self” might emerge so that “a human being might no loner feel compelled to punish itself — and ‘sacrifice’ itself — in order to become what one is.” The techniques of the self permit, as Foucault remarked in his 1980 Berkeley lectures, “individuals to effect a certain number of operations on their own bodies, on their souls, on their own thoughts, on their own conduct, and this in a manner so as to transform themselves, modify themselves, or to act in a certain state of perfection, of happiness, of purity, of supernatural power, and so on.”

The question is whether social media supply these new technologies of the self, whether the widespread adoption of social media is related to a hunger for these sorts of techniques, such that the exploitive ramifications of data collection and blanket surveillance are overlooked. It is not hard to experience a kind of supernatural power, certainly, in sharing in social media, collapsing space and time to forge unprecedented forms of connection. And the continual posting is a means for perpetual transformation and self-modification. In social media, the represented self is fluid as it has never been before.

Whether social-media techniques of the self are experienced as “sacrifice” is a different question. There is certainly plenty of complaint about how the temptation to self-mediate everyday life results in a palpable loss of peace and privacy and contemplative reverie. And how the instrumentalization of social relations corrupts the nature of friendship and prevents people from being “authentic” and “spontaneous.” As one who has registered such complaints in the past, however, I know how easy it is to find oneself setting them aside and engaging with social media anyway.

Miller’s assumption, based on his Nietzschean reading of Foucault, is that danger and intensity are necessary to call forth the true self and let us experience it as such — we strip away the layers of convention and get to what’s really real, what we have really invented with our being in the world. Aspects of that sort of risk adhere to social media, but what am I more interested in is how we came to accept social media as a safe space to reveal our instability, to show how we are imperfect works in progress with no essential core. How did we come to surrender the responsibility for presenting a composed identity (our “authentic”  self) in favor of offering “genuine” glimpses of our processes of self-composition? Why are we increasingly willing to let archives and algorithms sort out who we really are for us? Is it because, unlike the ineffable and inexpressible insights reached only by an elite few through elaborate rituals of pain, transgression and will, it feels like a concrete answer anyone can understand?


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