Note: A couple of years ago on SiW, I wrote a lot about how I thought the web changed the conception of the individual. Funnily enough, that thinking will likely now form the middle chapter of my dissertation – and thus requires a bit more fleshing out. So for the next little while, I’m going to be ‘thinking out loud’ here, trying to figure out how and why virtual technologies change both our theoretical conception and material experience of individuality. Hopefully, it’ll also be of some interest for regular readers. If it totally isn’t… fear not! It’ll only last a couple of weeks.
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According to Wikipedia, that most useful and sketchy of web resources, “hardware virtualization is a [virtual recreation in software] of computers or operating systems. It hides the physical characteristics of a computing platform from users, instead showing another abstract computing platform”.
Put somewhat differently, virtualization is when one operating system – i.e. the software mechanism by which hardware is made comprehensible and usable to the user – runs atop another operating system, obscuring and obfuscating the ‘original’ one as it simultaneously depends on it.
This seems as good a metaphor to start with as any.
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Imagine, if you will, that you could walk around with a holographic projection of your own creation, hovering a few feet in front of you.
Often, as people looked at you and your shimmering shadow, they would see you through the virtual projection. So, in those moments, you would be the combined image of the body and your projected self. A cyborg self, if you like.
The projection would be like you, but not. Not touched with the same extravagances or the same tortuous, bodily limitations – of cheeks that blush too quickly, or a mouth that moves a hair faster than the brain – it is similar to you, but not the same.
In fact, you have the option of making your holographic self entirely different from you – with the small caveat that, the greater the disparity between the projected self and the bodily one, the more intriguing and potentially confusing the resultant cyborg image.
Two options, then, both borne of a desire to be ‘true to oneself': the mimetic hologram, an attempt at a recreation of the self; and the fantastical hologram, an attempt at re-creation: an attempt to re-produce and re-present some facet of oneself that bodies – your own, others’, and those bodies of ‘the structural apparatuses’ – will not allow.
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A few things resolve into something almost resembling clarity:
- The image of both the body and the self is key, both in terms of its ongoing signification, but also of the semantic and experiential possibilities produced by the gaps between ‘sign’ and ‘referent’.
- It cannot be just the image though. The interwoven nature of textuality is also a necessary component of ‘both’ selves, particularly as they are both intertwined productions of identity.
- It is, nonetheless, clearly very easy to slip into a discourse of the true and the false, the authentic prior and the sullied present, the actual self and the virtual. This feels like a problem, as these distinctions are further muddied by the web, particularly in its effects on temporality.
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So. The holographic self is paradoxical. The projection is reliant upon you, its ‘author’, but can also exist and signify beyond you, without you. The web is a persistent space. It is the ‘world of ideas’ made (im)material. Words and images ‘exist somewhere’. The spatial and temporal aspects of the web are metaphors – but they are not the same metaphors produced by books and films. The web is a constellation – it is there, even in daytime, when it cannot be seen.
Thus, in a very material sense, to many, your ‘bodily subjectivity’ exists prior to your bodily one. In online subjectivit, there are (possibly) simultaneous yet not entirely concurrent langues, to make no mention of disparate paroles, invoked in the self seen through the hologram. You are you, but light is bent; you are wearing makeup that deflects light so as to render you as almost yourself.
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Metaphors can only take one so far. So let us ask some straightforward questions and make some tentative statements:
- Is there a material difference to the experience of subjectivity engendered by the technology of the web? If so, what are they – and are they relevant?
- The difficulty with the body – particularly the body as text – is that, within historically inflected ideological systems of signification, the sexed, raced, gendered, abled body is always subsumed back into those significatory systems. These systems are inextricably logocentric. To wit, my identity is always a movement either toward or away from whiteness – or, at best, the cosmopolitan subject who has ‘escaped race’.
- What effect does it then have to provisionally occupy different subject positions online? If ‘putting identity somewhere’ – and this is a phrase that must be returned to – allows one to (temporarily, sort of) escape or exceed those textual systems that pin bodies in place, what material effect does it have to be able to do so in a ‘place’ that ‘isn’t real’?
- Put differently: is the holographic self an escape? Or is a site that, when occupied, one that reconfigures the bodily, ‘interior’ notion of subjectivity.