Postmodernism, Virtuality, Globalization and the (fragmented) Self – 3/3

Possibilities for Postmodern Praxis

Blood, torture, death and horror might not be in the mind of people playfully experimenting with their identities online, but we must remember that the opposition to “the West” is indeed very much grounded on the rejection of its technology and the ways of being in the world that it affords. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly difficult for cultures to opt out or oppose this arrangement. Globalization tolerates diversity, but only within predefined notions of what it means to be different. When push comes to shove, “you’re either with us or against us.”

But are technology and virtuality inherently oppressive? Can they not be instruments of subversion, even while partly complicit in capitalism? To believe that technologies cannot be re-appropriated and subverted would be to yield the power of human creativity to the will of multinational corporations. Somewhere between Audrey Lorde’s belief that the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house, and Ani DiFranco’s opinion that every tool is a weapon if you hold it right, there must be a productive space for technology and virtuality within praxis.[3] If that is a possibility, we must begin by critiquing the unsustainable practices of virtuality: mainly, it’s refusal to “get real.”

Turkle devotes part of her chapter titled Virtuality and Its Discontents to examining individuals who use their fragmented selves to flee from reality. This move, although it originally promises the thrill of experimentation without serious consequences, most often results in an impoverished emotional and social life. The personal computer revolution, which “once conceptualized [the PC] as a tool to rebuild community, now tends to concentrate on building community inside a machine.” (p. 244) On the one hand, this can be seen as a logical outcome, given the context of postmodernism and global capital. On the other, this signifies an incomplete struggle to theorize applications of technology whose power to reintegrate the individual to the world surpass their power to alienate the individual from the world. Turkle hints at the nature of this challenge by asking: “Instead of solving real problems-both personal and social-are we choosing to live in unreal places?” (p. 244) Perhaps the choice is not as much ours as we would like to think; or perhaps we are implicated in this hegemonic bargain more than we would like to admit. However, Turkle also identifies the spirit necessary to move forward: “To the question, “Why must virtuality and real life compete-why can’t we have both?” the answer is of course that we will have both [whether we want to or not, it seems]. The more important question is “How can we get the best of both?”” (p. 238).

This synthesizing approach is also a requirement identified by Jameson. Writing about Marx’s lesson on how to think historical development and change, Jameson says,

Marx powerfully urges us to do the impossible, namely to think this development positively and negatively all at once; to achieve, in other words, a type of thinking that would be capable of grasping the demonstrably baleful features of capitalism along with its extraordinary and liberating dynamism simultaneously, within a single thought, and without attenuating any of the force of either judgment. We are, somehow, to lift our minds to a point at which it is possible to understand that capitalism is at one and the same time the best thing that has ever happened to the human race, and the worst. (¶ 92)

Likewise, we have no choice but to simultaneously admit that virtuality is the most dehumanizing thing we can experience, but also the only way to transcend postmodern alienation: if virtuality is a site for the fragmentation of the self to the point of anomie, it can also be, if we make it, a transitional space for psychological treatment that can be discarded once it fulfills its purpose, as Turkle demonstrates. Or, as I argue elsewhere[4], virtuality can help to revalorize what it previously devalued if we make its resolving moment the real. I will conclude by citing two specific examples of new models suggested by Jameson and Turkle to achieve this synthetic praxis.

Turkle suggests that a new form of social criticism and engagement with simulations is possible, beyond resignation or rejection. By making explicit the value assumptions, power distributions, and reductionist logic implicit in simulations, this new model of criticism would “take as its goal the development of simulations that actually help players challenge the model’s built-in assumptions. This new criticism would try to use simulation as a means of consciousness-raising. Understanding the assumptions that underlie simulation is a key element of political power.” (Turkle, p. 71).

Jameson, for his part, uses the metaphor of cartography to suggest that postmodern subjects need to draft new cognitive maps of their position vis-à-vis the world (in its full “global” complexity), much like citizens needs to mentally map and remap the city which they inhabit and through which they move. But these maps can not be unique (as in widely dissimilar) representations made by schizophrenic selves. New conceptual tools-the equivalent of the compass and the sextant-need to ensure that all maps bear a resemblance to the totality they are trying to represent. This representation of the subject’s Imaginary relationship to his or her Real conditions of existence, Jameson continues, “is exactly what the cognitive map is called upon to do, in the narrower framework of daily life in the physical city: to enable a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of the city’s structure as a whole.” (¶103) Thus, we would arrive at a postmodern virtuality that not only helps us to understand the new, complex global reality, but that would also serve as the map to plan our non-virtual involvement in that reality.

Notes

[3] I’m using here Markovic’s definition of praxis: A complex activity by which individuals, in collectivities, create culture, society, and create themselves as “species beings”, i.e., as human beings. The moments of praxis include self-determination (in contrast to coercion), intentionality (in contrast to reaction), sociality (in contrast to privatism), creativity (in contrast to sameness) and rationality (in contrast to blind chance). (Jameson MSE notes)

[4] http://ideant.typepad.com/ideant/2003/08/far_away_so_clo.html

References

Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Post-Contemporary Interventions. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991. [http://www.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/mmt/jameson/]

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen. New York, NY: Touchstone Books, 1995.

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