Questions for the Holographic Self

Continuing my breathtakingly narcissistic endeavour of ‘blogging my notes to myself’, I figure after last my post – which was way too wishy-washy, even for me – it might be time for some concrete questions about how the existence and functioning of virtual technologies affects our idea of the individual. So, without further ado… some needless public wanking! Yay! Warning: if you hate academic writing – particularly bad academic writing – this post will send you into a rage. Avoid.

The premise I’m starting with is that the existence of the web and video games have an effect on both the material experience of subjectivity and its theoretical conception. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this, right?

But if that’s my hypothesis (with the eventual goal being some suggestion of how that impacts how the literary representation of the subject), what feels important is some articulation of the ‘how and what’ of this proposed change (if it indeed exists) and its consequences.

For the time being, however, I’m just going to pose questions, mainly so I can then figure out what I should read so that I might (maybe, possibly) give them some sort of answer.

The Unitary Subject

So, the concept of unitary, sovereign, autonomous subject was long ago shattered.

The self is multiple, fragmented, constituted in part by its material circumstances, its libidinal drives and subconscious, symbolic relations, and also its temporal multiplicity – the way in which we enter and occupy provisional identities by performing them (operating within both ‘pre-approved’ systems of bodily signification and also ‘queering’ them occasionally). This we know.

But if, as I previously suggested, the spatial and temporal metaphors of the web are not the same as the similar ones produced by print – “his/her identity exists online” vs. “his/her identity lives on in this book” – what is the ‘actual’ difference between the multiple self articulated by Butler et al and the subject that exists in both a body and in virtual space? (Deleuze joke! What is the actual difference of the virtual?! Hey yo!)

The Difference Between the Textual Self and ‘Web Self” (Or Is There One?)

So if my question is, “k, how is it different?”, there are other questions that need asking:

  • Does the persistence of the web have a material impact on the subject? Is the way in which we might ‘offload’ or ‘outsource’ subjectivity online different from the printed word or image, which also allow you to exist ‘beyond yourself’?
  • If there is a difference, does the ‘differently public’ nature of the web change anything? Are a book and the web public in the same way? i.e. do their publicly available natures differ precisely because of: a) simultaneous access by multiple other subjects; b) the capacity of the web to provide an ongoing, dynamic, changing relationship to the persona produced by a ‘site of identity’
  • Well, shit – then you have to ask: is ‘a site of identity’ different than the texts of identity? Yes, obviously, there is a distinctly textual aspect to a Twitter stream – but is it only that?
  • Related: Is the spatial and temporal metaphor of a web site relevant in any way. The book (possibly) operates in a kind of spatio-temporal limbo: yes, ‘it exists’ in a material sense, but does the notion of ‘the work’ (the thing that exists between text and reader) existing as an event operate differently from the work of a website (that too, exists in as much it is read).
  • Unfortunately, in some sense that requires the question: what is the ontology or epistemology of the book vs. the web? Bleh. Sthuper.

The Body

Performativity, particularly when identity is conceived in textual terms, has become a central concept in the understanding of the subject (and its subject-ion). So much of the dynamic of performativity is about the body existing in time and space – of the way the multiple, overlapped signs of identity, according to Sedgwick, operate along ‘multi-dimensional orthogonal axes’.

The shift between the web and the ‘textual self’ seems to be that the discourse of multiple selves operates in relation to different metaphors – perhaps that of time vs. space. To wit, the bodily self is multiple sequentially – in a syntagmatic sense – temporally. The online self is multiple simultaneously – in a paradigmatic sense – both temporally and spatially.

This is, of course, still a question of metaphor though; the bodily self-as-text can of course produce a number of different apparent texts depending upon its reader and the ideological-sign system invoked. One imagines a clown standing in the middle of a diverse crowd. The ‘sign of the clown’ is obviously being read in numerous ways.

There is also the question of the author-text as existing ‘outside the body’.

But surely there is a difference to that metaphorical multiplicity and the ‘material’ one engendered by an online persona that may ‘do things’ while one sleeps? It’s not simply the same to say the body signifies multiply in the same moment and the body and the avatar signify multiply in the same moment and across different spaces – is it? That ‘spatial multiplicity’ or the (literal) multiple sites of identity do constitute a material difference, no?

Why? Because it seems that the outsourced nature of the self produced by the avatar is not subject to the same constraints of socio-ideological signification as the body. Which is to say – the avatar ‘escapes’ the logocentric significatory systems of the bodily subject precisely because there is no body. That is not to say, of course, that there is no subsumption back into discourses of race, class, sex, gender, etc. But they function in parallel, rather than identical ways.

So, maybe we’ve arrived at something? Because what I’ll call the ‘offsite’ self: a) does something to the usual signfication of identity categories; b) does so in an ongoing temporal sense – i.e. constantly modified etc. – that cannot be replicated by the metaphor of ‘the self’ that resides in the book. To me anyway, this constitutes a difference because:

Though one my occupy a nom de plume in printed text in order to pursue self-actualization – i.e. to explore some avenue of the self that ‘power’ prevents you from doing (de Sade etc.) – the signs that constitute that textualised self remain fixed. Sure, their signfication is multiple, fluid etc. But it’s constrained in a way that the online self isn’t because it’s ‘production-reception mechanism’ (oh you know) can constantly be reconfigured.

Basic Stuff

1) There needs to an articulable difference of the ‘offsite self’ in print and that on the web in order for any of this to make sense.

2) That difference seems to relate to: a) the possibly ‘epistemological difference’ between the ‘static’ (but not) nature of the page and dynamic (but not always) nature of the web i.e. the fact that the avatar-self is an ongoing process vs. the comparatively more fixed nature of the print-self (will need to figure out how to express this less stupidly); b) the multiplicity of selves engendered by the web has something to do with both space and spatial metaphors; c) the reconfiguration of the bodily self by the avatar self seems like a more immediate, ongoing and materially available process than the possibility of the same thing happening in print. Why? I dunno any more. My brain hurts.

3) Maybe what I’ve circled around to isn’t some massive difference between the difference of a print self vs. an online avatar self – but the cultural difference produced by the mass availability of an offsite self at all. Perhaps something like it always existed for a very few, who could be both published and read by a public. Now that it exists in a mass form – and it really does – maybe this is why we begin to see a logic of the avatar appear in literature.

4 thoughts on “Questions for the Holographic Self

  1. Another thing you should sort out is whether you wan o focus on new experiences of identity, new representations of identity, or a bit of both. They could be exclusive: ie, maybe we have an experience that hasn’t really been articulated, at least in literature or theory. Alternatively, what the concept of the avatar might do is give us we metaphors/language to understand identity. So the experience in print, cinema, etc could be similar, but we were relatively impoverished in our ability to think about these things. Some of the psychoanalytic approaches take this tack.

  2. Thanks, Tim. That’s helpful.

    I think my focus is actually on the new experiences of identity, as in the literature that I’m looking at, there aren’t really new representations of identity as such. It’s more that there is a slight shift in how identity is represented – i.e. a focus on a morphing identity, or one in which the body fades behind its public projection.

    I do think Hu from Annabel Scheme is sorta’ new though. That’s an interesting take on subjectivity, the ‘bodily constraints’ of which aren’t quite the same. And then there’s the moment that Hu moves into the virtual world. It’s very much about my shtick about ‘the provisional occupation of subject positions’ thing, but it’s also about the experience of occupying a three-dimensional body. Trying to have a ‘contemporary British lit’ focus in the off chance I need to market myself (bah!) but am going to try and work it in somehow.

    And yeah, I like that idea about the avatar helping to explain identity. One of the points I’ve often made is that the web takes some of metaphors of post-structuralism, feminism – the multiple self, the multiply signifying body, the rhizome – and makes them somewhat more concrete. So I think I need to abandon this idea of ‘a fundamental difference’ and think about what the mass availability of a public self does to: a) individuality; b) the primacy of the body in discourses of subjectivity.

    Thanks dude!

  3. If the Web makes the metaphors of, for example, feminism more concrete, does this mean that you are arguing for a politics of this new Holographic self? Arguing that this new self is in ways empowering, emancipatory, rather than simply in news ways alienating? Do you see the Web constructing new Hegemonic tendencies or shattering these tendencies? Too simple a question? I guess I’m just wondering where/whether politics comes into this.

  4. It’s a good question, Mat. I guess my general answer is the same as always – “fucked if I know”. But…

    This holographic self thing was just a way of thinking through things. Does the web have a politics? Sure. In the same way print does and television does – which is to say that it potentially does all politics, but probably enables and privileges specific forms. Maybe? Though I guess maybe the overlap of large corps and the web means it’s actually more insidious than the forms before? Or is it the inverse? Apple vs. Wikileaks, I guess.

    This is a wishy-washy answer, but one of the things I’m concerned with is self-actualisation, part of which involves a kind of implied teleology-of-self, and part of which is about placing oneself in the public sphere in the imagination. The weird “I’m both here and there” simultaneously thing enabled by the web – that allows you to kinda’, sorta’, maybe experience what it’s like to signify as a subject not entirely constrained by the same ideologies that subject bodies to constraint… Maybe it does something. I dunno, really. I guess this stems from a feeling that it’s nice to test out ways of being online before you do them real life. Yes, my second life avatar is a large Norwegian woman.

    As you know, I’d probably prefer to be one of the people who are all ‘go internet!’ rather than be all ‘man, the internet is evil’. But then that’s probably why I’m such a half-assed academic.

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