Thursday, December 14, 2006

Thoughts on Cyber-Identity

Reposted from Best of the Fray (now purged), with permission.

Anonyms as Antonyms
By Zeus-Boy
May 18 2006 11:53AM

The true nature of cyber-subjectivity is quite inscrutable, especially when the Fichtean Tathandlung of the ego may be disrupted, decentered, disintegrated and multiplied. If any one identity can fragment itself into multiple anonyms, then how can we assert any trust in who we 'meet'? It is quite possible to inaugurate a 'kairotic schizophrenia', whereby the same subject who is adored and reviled by another subject, can himself adore and revile that same subject or multiple subjects in turn. Normative constraints no longer exist and we have truly entered Georgias' ontological triad (Nothing exists; If anything existed, it could not be known; and if anything existed and could be known, it could not be communicated). The cyber-dystopia we now inhabit is Zeno's world of irreconcilable contradictions run rampant: everything is fluid, heterogeneous, playful and malleable; power is decentralized and dispersed; egos continually change, put on new masks, become their own antinomies, then become like floating signs, plastic, shape-shifting entitites, that are unstable and unknowable, all of which makes any supposition of building a cyber-community impossible. As one thinker on the topic put it,

If fluid subjectivity in total disintegration is a virtue welcomed in cyberspace, the subject who takes part in any activities of virtual communities would hardly achieve any identity. How can a group of fragmented, fluid, disintegrated subjects perform identification to reach a possible identity? At best, what they can work out is only an identity of non-identity. If a communal identity is possible to achieve out of subjectivity, then this subjectivity will never be totally fluid and disintegrated. Thus the subjectivity-identity relation in this postmodernist context is no more than an oxymoron, an aporia. (Mark Poster)
Thus, any attempted reconciliation of subjectivity with communal identity will only lead to total loss of identity because, if we follow Jean-Luc Nancy, we know that any attempt to form a traditional community, even in cyberspace, is only a means of fixing identity, tying it down so that the political cannot fully open up: multiple identities (whatever their source) oppose community, so that the corollary, the urge to form a community is only another way to constrain otherness, or subjectivity, to rein in the proliferation of identities. In psychotherapy, multiple personality disorder is a way of blocking ego formation, therefore fixing identity and, in a way, subverting the threat of a multiplicity of identities. Similarly, in cyber-space, many anonyms, especially if they are antagonistic, stand in the way of forming the orderly, structured society. The possibility of identity-shifting, mask wearing, being all in one is anathema to that which cannot exist in the first place, the perfectly structured cyber community. Who knows or can predict what it does to the ethics of communication: can honesty be truly expected of an anonymous gaming stranger? The only safeguard against total chaos, or cyber-anarchy, is either to dispense with trust entirely, or to pretend to trust only those who pretend to trust you. Hostility is suitably reserved for the unknown unless, squaring circles, we can verify each anonym before it shifts again and becomes endlessly unknowable.

TenaciousK's Response:

Postmodernism gives me a headache. It’s not so much I object to throwing out organizing frameworks, I’m just left wondering how it is I know anything.

But from that perspective, I have a response.

Although Tathandlung (or, in the vernacular, “identity”) can be “disrupted, decentered, disintegrated and multiplied,” there is a cost associated with ego-fragmentation. Nor is the sum of your ego fragments equal to the sum of the unified whole – fragmentation destroys the gestalt; there is no synergy because there is no synthesis. So when you talk about “kairotic schizophrenia” and refer to each ego fragment as through it were equivalent to a unified self, I think you’re deluding yourself.

Even your quote starts with an implied caveat: “If fluid subjectivity in total disintegration is welcomed in cyberspace…” Are we sure it is? There are certainly subjects present – we sense their cohesiveness in the unexpected surprises we encounter in their responses, that despite their unpredictability, are congruent with our evolving impression of the identity behind the words. As we abandon our preconceptions and allow ourselves to be surprised by the unexpected, we become familiar with the individual as a cohesive identity. We seek congruence, and become suspicious when we don’t encounter it. So when the author asks, “How can a group of fragmented, fluid, disintegrated subjects perform identification to reach a possible identity?” The answer is, they can’t – at least not a cohesive one. Yet there are distinct communities nonetheless. The only conclusion I can draw is that communities are composed of more than “fragmented, fluid, disintegrated subjects.”

Your example of multiple personality disorder is certainly appropriate, yet you don’t address why this may not be a preferable state of identity development. Without a cohesive sense of self, it is impossible to resolve various ambivalences about the universe. Without a coherent sense of self, organized behavior becomes increasingly impossible – for every push, there is an equal counter-force. Ambivalence is played out over time through vacillation, instead of a stable, nuanced, sophisticated impression that more closely approximates both the object in question, and the person’s relationship to it. If you allow ego-fragmentation to continue unabated, eventually you are left with a never-ending argument: entropic paralysis.

If one were to take your argument a step further, one would have to wonder how it is we ever really know anyone? The cyber-world is not really that different from the world of meat and dust and bones – despite your attempt to define is as such. Can honesty really be expected of anyone? Anywhere? Although you may believe you leave your sense of self behind when you log on, you bring your shadow with you. Can we ever really trust anyone? Each of us answers that question ourselves.

Your apparent delight in the power of being the playful, mutable, masked, unknowable being who delights in toying with the reactions of those less fragmented by allowing the identity schisms to evolve unrestrained is noted, however. But your conclusion about the impossibility of building a cyber-community is flawed – based on a faulty assumption about the characteristics of community members, and your unwillingness to acknowledge the essentially organizing nature of identity. Although there will certainly be betrayals and breaches of trust (primarily due to this fragmentation you champion*), a cohesive community will also evolve. We all crave recognition. The most satisfying recognition is when you reflect something to me that I couldn’t already see. Given the apparent value you grant ego-fragmentation, and the unpredictability this entails, this does speak to your point at last. If I truly took you as you presented yourself here, you are a person I would not trust.

But I'm not you.

*Unresolved feelings of shame also entail an identity schism, and we are subject to their evocation as we see these divorced aspects of ourselves reflected in others. We can’t get past them until we can acknowledge them and incorporate them into our global impression of ourselves – ego integration. This is the opposite of what you espouse here.

Note: These are only the first two posts in the conversation. The rest have been lost.


TenaciousK said...

Thanks, Dawn, for posting this. I enjoyed this conversation very much - I believe the first I ever had with ZB. There are parallel themes from a variety of other players - from Ciinc's "situational misogyny" to the identity games played by people like Adam Morgan.

I think forums like BOTF are very unique, as the relative anonymity afforded by separation from real-world identity is progressively subverted by the organized manner in which people present their ideas, and themselves. It's a great exercise, having the opportunity to have discussions in which your words are left to stand purely on their own, without benefit of professional or academic status, or interpersonal charm.

But there is an undeniable underlying organization in the manner in which people present themselves. Though affected style is certainly possible, the people most engaged in discussions where they are reaching for the limits of their understanding, or expressive ability, seem to rely on the organized set of philosophical beliefs, knowledge structures, and world view reflective of real-world identity; it is difficult to use an artifical/affected construct as a springboard on which to launch oneself into a new conceptual understanding. There isn't enough substance there to support the leap.

I miss discussions like these, because they forced me to stretch my conceptual understanding, and underlying beliefs, in a way rarely possible in other contexts. Even similar discussions in more traditional venues (academic institutions, for instance) are degraded by social factors either absent, or very muted, in the abstract problem space of the Fray.

Shame the rest of the thread has gone. At some point, I'd love to have a discussion with ZB/Lentenstuffe about his exercise in pseudo-identity development.