Category Archives: reflexivity

The self is not a territory

google portrait

Aram Bartholl, Google Portrait, 2011

Evgeny Morozov’s recent Technology Review essay about privacy emphasizes that technology is not born in a vacuum; the same is true of individuals. Both are born into a globalized capitalism and are invariably shaped by it.

In the essay, Morozov is particularly worried about the state and tech companies working together to surveil us and implement algorithmically generated “nudges” that will be beamed to our phones and pre-emptively guide our behavior “for our own good.”

Thanks to smartphones or Google Glass, we can now be pinged whenever we are about to do something stupid, unhealthy, or unsound. We wouldn’t necessarily need to know why the action would be wrong: the system’s algorithms do the moral calculus on their own. Citizens take on the role of information machines that feed the techno-bureaucratic complex with our data. And why wouldn’t we, if we are promised slimmer waistlines, cleaner air, or longer (and safer) lives in return?

This vision, of people pre-controlled by irresistible recommendation systems, is similar to the one I tried to sketch here of “postauthenticity” — the feedback mechanisms of algorithms monitoring our mediated engagement with the world would supply our sense of self to us. This would replace the more primitive feedback apparatus our bodies come equipped with to form the self, and would have the appeal of seeming to flatter us, asking for our opinion and our consent constantly.

As unpleasant as that prospect is, the reverse idea that the self might pre-exist such feedback mechanisms, whether or not they are technologically amplified, seems dubious. Our self must develop in response to a comprehensible matrix in which it’s embedded. Generally, we prefer the feedback to be somehow “natural” to our environment, “organic” or commensurate with our localized everyday life, not generated by the federal government or corporations and imposed on us in exchange for free goodies (as Morozov worries).

Privacy could be understood in that light: In essence, privacy delineates unnatural feedback from natural, traditional, local (whatever you want to call it) feedback and creates a space where a politics independent of the overbearing influence of these outside forces can be nurtured. Morozov makes the excellent point that privacy is not about data ownership, or who controls personal information as property, but about who controls the flows of information, and whether these flows are readjustable by political intervention. (I also love that his policy recommendation is sabotage.)

But privacy can’t be conceived as being able to opt out of social influence if you so will it, or the refusal to participate in the social order like some Randian übermensch. Morozov argues that provacy conceived that way, “disconnected from any matching responsibilities, could also sanction an excessive level of withdrawal that shields us from the outside world and undermines the foundations of the very democratic regime that made the right possible.” Such a conception of privacy is just a fantasy about transcending the need for politics.

Morozov nonetheless ends up emphasizing “privacy” as politics’ savior, performing a kind of rhetorical legerdemain on the term. He premises civic participation on his version of privacy, one’s nonparticipation in the feedback loops driven by tech companies — entities we should rightly be wary of granting too much power over shaping the self. But defending that line should not be mistaken for the kind of privacy whereby one can withdraw from being influenced. All social behavior inevitably feeds back on the self, constitutes it. Privacy may only open the gap in time that allows the feedback loop to take on a more manageable shape. Privacy can’t make you self-created. And as Morozov emphasizes, privacy is a process of negotiation, not a fief you erect a wall around. Privacy is not autarky.

But it can be hard not to lapse into notions of privacy that are just about private property. At the end of his post about Morozov’s essay, Nicholas Carr argues, ” A sense of privacy is essential to the exploration and formation of the self, just as it’s essential to civic participation and political debate.” This may be a semantic quibble, but I think this idea of a self as a territory to be explored is misleading. It’s similar to the Lockean conception of the self as property that belongs to you, which fosters the mistaken notion that we are somehow personally responsible for everything that our self or our identity can come to represent socially. The idea that privacy nurtures the self’s property value plays into an ideological fiction about what human thriving should consist of.

I am much more convinced by the theory that we achieve a sense of individuation (from, say, Simondon and Stiegler) that the social embeddedness we are born into makes possible. The social backdrop for our individuality limits the potential self we can become; it opens up a bounded field in which identity can play. That concept of individuation nullifies the premise that we can become whatever we want to be with “hard work,” as if luck and privilege don’t play into shaping the scope of opportunity. It also ideally opens up a different conception of what human thriving looks like: rather than a deepening of the soul, a territorial expansion of some inner field of being; it may be a richer network made of bonds of respect and empathy. Social media networks offer the increased density of connection, but the individualist attitudes we carry into them — about the importance of personal reputation and growing our brand — arguably corrupt our usage of them (along with the commercial intentions of the platforms’ designers and owners), subtracting “respect” from the linkages they foster.

Another way of saying that is there is no “private self” — the self doesn’t exist in private. It has no meaning in social isolation. The self only coheres in attempts to communicate. It only appears through processes, practices. Trying to form a self in private is like trying to invent a language no one else can speak. It’s not really a language anymore.

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Sexting and self-expression

Yesterday, after Nathan Jurgenson mentioned it on Twitter, I read a 2012 article from New Media and Society called “Sexting as Media Production: Rethinking Social Media and Sexuality,” by Amy Adele Hasinoff. The gist of it is that consensual sexting isn’t inherently harmful to teenagers or adults, to women or men. Nonetheless, sexting panic has been deployed to find new levers of control over female sexuality, new ways to secure female docility, negating sexting’s potential to counter the effects of other forms of gendered control.

As Hasinoff details, “educational” “safety” campaigns urge teenage girls to efface their gender and sexuality in their online presentation for their own protection and shield themselves with a distrusting attitude toward any contacts online, who should all automatically be assumed to be predators. At the same time, assertive use of social media is depicted as shameful disinhibition. Hasinoff notes that “a dominant fear” about girls’ access to smartphones “is that the immediacy and ease of mobilemedia communication undermines their supposedly innate desires for chastity.” Of course, that desire for chastity is a patriarchal imperative, part of the process of assuring that women behave as property rather than desiring subjects in their own right.

Since I’ve written before about the potentially disinhibiting effects of social media, I took this paragraph as a bit of a rebuke:

Some observers worry that mobile phones and the Internet cause adolescent girls to engage in risky or non-normative sexual behavior. In testimony before a congressional committee investigating the dangers of MySpace, online safety expert Parry Aftab argues that teenagers are ‘disconnected from the immediate consequences of their actions online, [so] many “good” kids and teens find themselves doing things online they would never dream of doing in real life’. She notes that they post photos and texts online in which they appear to be ‘drunken sluts’. Likewise, a panicked newspaper article about online predators on MySpace quotes a psychologist worrying that teenage girls are ‘acting in a very sexually provocative way’ and are ‘disinhibited’ by the Internet. By placing the explicit blame on technology, these commentators denounce teenage girls as ‘sluts’ for expressing their desires online. There is no parallel widespread discourse that technology causes boys to create sexual images or to be ‘provocative’ — being sexually inhibited is not expected or desired for boys, and accessing online pornography is usually seen as normal for them.

Hasinoff probably goes a little too easy on the commentators she mentions here, who seem to rely on an untenable distinction between what people do online and what people do in “real life.” Online behavior is “real” and has “real” consequences; indeed, consequences tend to be greater because the behavior is archived and far more easily reproduced and redistributed.

Online space isn’t “unreal”, but it space is new enough to be subject to different modes of social control, so different forms of personal expression occur there. The space itself is unevenly policed, and it’s still contested; it is disinhibiting in the sense that the norms for that space aren’t completely codified and standardized. But a process of translation is taking place, with gendered norms being rearticulated to accommodate new technological affordances.

The basic ideology behind these norms is the same: Evidence of male sexual desire is unproblematic; evidence of female sexual desire is a provocation. Sex is done to women and  harms their integrity unless they take the proper care to prevent it. Otherwise they throw the gasoline of their untempered sexuality onto the flames of male lust and are consequently responsible for the resulting explosions.

That there is a male audience for sexualized images of girls is taken for granted and seen as unalterable, whereas a girl’s choice to engage with this presumed audience is seen as her fault. The implication of this ideology is that a girl’s natural desire is not to consume sexuality, as it is for boys; rather it’s to be consumed as a sexual object. As a result, her temptation is to self-objectify, just as a boy’s temptation is to consume pornography. The hysterical discourse about these temptations has the ultimate effect of normalizing such behaviors as the appropriate risks for gendered subjects to engage in, leading them down the road to heteronormativity.

The genuine risks, the ones that would jeopardize the reproduction of patriarchal society, are thus not broached by subjects, male or female. The defiant self-creating impulse is channelled into safe territory and neutralized. Self-expression unfolds through preordained controversies; the rebellious T-shirts are preprinted and ready for purchase.

A familiar bait and switch occurs in all the fretful concern trolling about sexting. To protect girls from objectification and exploitation, which doesn’t allow them to “be who they are,” they are essentially encouraged to be sexual ciphers, or to be nothing at all. The commentators and “experts” noted above tend to attack female assertiveness by regarding it as deluded self-objectification, behavior somehow impelled by “the culture” rather than by autonomous desire. Female assertiveness is automatically proof of female false consciousness.

Yet no one’s desire is autonomous  — if total autonomy from contextual influence is the standard, then we are all operating from false consciousness all the time.

Despite the apparent concern over female objectification, “non-normative” sexual behavior doesn’t involve female objectification but female assertiveness. It’s “risky” because it threatens existing power relations. This assertiveness is not only is a matter of sexual self-presentation but might also include girls consuming images as boys do, or proliferating their affective bonds or role-playing across a spectrum of performative possibilities. Disrupting the norm of female passivity would also necessarily involve encouraging male self-presentation, male self-objectification. It would involve the rejection of promiscuity as a male achievement or female disfigurement — the dequantification of sexual expression and the dismantling of the idea that chastity is tradable property.

Far from being an expression of an lone individual’s deviance, Hasinoff writes that “sexting could help girls find new ways to express their sexual needs and desires and even perhaps rewrite some of the gender norms that ask girls to be passive and acquiescent in intimate heterosexual relationships.” It’s no accident that this sort of discourse among teenagers is actually illegal, as Hasinoff points out. (When teens sext amongst themselves, they become child pornographers from the point of view of the law.)

Assertiveness is culturally conditioned. If girls self-objectify for attention in ways boys don’t appear to, that’s because gendered orientations toward objectification have already been inculcated. So female assertiveness may take the form of conformity to the sorts of sexual self-commodification that get rewarded with quantified online attention. Such girls are then decried as “fame whores” or “narcissists,” or victims at best, for operating according to the logic of sexual objectification instead of internalizing and absorbing its contradictions silently. Hasnioff points out that “girls are often expected to develop sexual desires and modes of sexual expression that bear little evidence of their saturation in mass media representations of sexuality.” While it may not change the coercive context in which such choices are made, conforming to such representations nonetheless doesn’t undo one’s exercise of agency.

Still, as Hasinoff notes, girls’ behavior is not regarded as a type of subjectifying “media production” but instead as objectifying no matter how much agency they seemed to exercise in mediating themselves. They are held responsible for the lousy forms of self-expression patriarchy encourages them to take — forms that then seem to justify their being denied further agency when necessary.

Hasinoff wants researchers to focus on sexting as “media production” because this “would encourage researchers to ask different questions about the risky features of personal sexual media and about the new forms of communication and self-expression that sexting might enable.” One such question: “When girls use mobile media to produce their own pornography, how are they challenging the sexism of the commercial media industries and how are they reproducing it?” And how are they doing both at the same time? Can they be extricated, or is any challenge to this sort of commercial sexism immediately assimilated as a reaffirmation of it?

That is a more salient risk then the idea that girls will become “disinhibited” and give away their precious sexual property, whose value depends on its scarcity, its being kept out of circulation. (Some of my writing about risk taking on social media is colored by this sexist idea.)

Better to regard risk as stemming not necessarily from the content of what’s shared but from media producers using media channels that they don’t fully control. The problem is not with their decision to produce sexual content (there are lots of potentially good reasons to do this) but with the potential for it to be redistributed by unscrupulous recipients or interloping third parties. “If social media content producers have ownership over their private images,” Hasinoff writes, “the focus of sexting safety campaigns should clearly be to reduce unauthorized distribution.”

But producers don’t have that ownership. We are as alienated from the value of the content we make for social media as women are from the value their sexuality makes for consumerism. Self-expression, sexuality, are mediated as someone else’s property. All sorts of obfuscating pretenses are necessary to keep us producing this value without controlling it. It seems to belong to us because we are held responsible for it; sometimes we may even want to to provoke such accountability by making the content more and more “extreme.” Risk taking is not just a matter of seeking action, as I argued before, but it’s also a way to get social confirmation that one’s actions are really one’s own.

At any rate, the imperative to protect both social media and patriarchy means that most likely we will continue to act as though the real risk lies in exposing society’s sexual hypocrisy.

Poetry has a right to children

William Empson wrote the following “pat little theory” in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) about the limitations of 19th century poetry, but it seems like it still might apply to contemporary “new sincerity” art, or any work seeking to evade cynicism on one side and elitism on the other.

For a variety of reasons, they found themselves living in an intellectual framework with which it was very difficult to write poetry, in which poetry was rather improper, or was irrelevant to business, especially the business of becoming Fit to Survive, or was an indulgence of one’s lower nature in beliefs the scientists knew were untrue. On the other hand, they had a large public which was as anxious to escape from this intellectual framework, on holiday, as they were themselves. Almost all of them, therefore, exploited a sort of tap-root into the world of their childhood, where they were able to conceive things poetically, and whatever they might be writing about they would suck up from this limited and perverted world an unvarying sap which was their poetical inspiration. …  An imposed excitement, a sense of uncaused warmth, achievement, gratification, a sense of hugging to oneself a private dream-world, is the main interest and material.

If you are trying to escape irony and phoniness and defensiveness, you have no choice to seek some original source of truth and warmth and goodness, which inevitably leads to the blankness of childhood, that golden era of one’s personal consciousness when hermeneutics were blessedly beyond and trust was an instinct rather than a choice. If this glorification of childhood is not to lead to the conclusion that is better to die a child than corrupt one’s innocence, youth has to be framed as a nostalgic tourist attraction, a place we can get away to when we can spare the time, and thereby remember what it is like to be before forgetting.

From Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality

The shift Fried details below seems important, the fact that representations of reflexivity can become suddenly loaded and problematic for a society. The ability to let go of oneself can be reified and neutralized, circumscribed — or it may be glamorized and disseminated as an ideal.

That absorption — the antithesis of self-conscious reflexivity — can itself become a self-conscious artistic trope that appealed deeply to critics like Diderot, who were so concerned about the corruption of spontaneous emotion, suggests something about our own era and the threats it poses to spontaneity.

The escape from self-consciousness as long been an attractive fantasy, one that defies being represented without being turned into its opposite, strategic deployment of the signs of absorption. This is a small example of the larger 18th century concern with sensibility: how to represent emotions and display one’s emotional sensitivity without invalidating the displays by being too calculating. The erosion of tradition — the rise of social mobility — made ritualized emotional displays suddenly suspect. They became a politicized point of class conflict between aristocrats and the rising bourgeoisie. Who exhibited “real” taste and feeling, and who was decadent or false?

The following has an obvious application to the problem of ubiquitous lateral surveillance that social media is again making us acutely aware of:

Certain stylized representations of absorption negate the distracting and disrupting presence of the ever-implied observer. When Greuze’s melodramatic paintings unfold before our eyes as if we are not there, the thrill is akin to confessional behavior in social media making us into voyeurs.

This doesn’t seem especially paradoxical to me. Our absorption in the confessional, absorbed behavior of others makes us simultaneously forget ourselves — the painting effaces us so we can experience the bliss of self-forgetting.