Tag Archives: globalization

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.

Postmodernism, Virtuality, Globalization and the (fragmented) Self – 2/3

Decentered Self and Centralized Capitalism

There is a prevalent trend to describe the human body, the self, and even our forms of organization using the imagery and terminology of computer systems. In other words, not only do we think of computers as more human, but we think of ourselves more like computers, and humanity more like a computer network. To Jameson, the narrative of a human-technological network that encompasses all is a distortion engendered by our inability to grasp the true nature of multinational capitalism: “The technology of contemporary society is therefore mesmerizing and fascinating, not so much in its own right, but because it seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp-namely the whole new decentered global network of the third stage of capital itself.” (¶ 77)

A central motif in this narrative, as we have just seen, is that of decentralization: the idea that the self is not bound to one particular identity, just as an open computer network is not hierarchically linked to one central unit. “We are encouraged to think of ourselves as fluid, emergent, decentralized, multiplicitous, flexible, and ever in process.” (Turkle, p. 263-264) Or in terms of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, the self is portrayed as “a realm of discourse rather than as a real thing or a permanent structure of the mind.”(p. 178) In computer terms, its “bottom-up distributed, parallel, and emergent models of mind have replaced top-down, information processing ones.” (p. 178)

To further elucidate this point, Turkle quotes Howard Rheingold:

With our relationships spread across the globe and our knowledge of other cultures relativizing our attitudes and depriving us of any norm, we “exist in a state of continuous construction and reconstruction; it is a world where anything goes that can be negotiated. Each reality of self gives way to reflexive questioning, irony, and ultimately the playful probing of yet another reality.” (p. 257)

But if the decentered self requires the internet to support its multiple identities and realities, and the internet can only be maintained with the hardware and electricity provided by multinational corporations, then we must admit that the decentered self is partly complicit in the process of globalization. In other words, the discourse of the decentered self must acknowledge how it, as a product of postmodern culture, helps to perpetuate the centralized logic of capitalism. As Jameson argues, “every position on postmodernism in culture-whether apologia or stigmatization-is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today.” (¶ 4)

Capitalism’s obsession with the new and the latest is reflected quite transparently in the flourishing of ever-new modes of identity formation facilitated by ever-new waves of electronic commodities. Turkle’s book is replete with examples of people who construct one or more alternative selves online: this process at best serves a psychotherapeutic function, but at worst merely represents new modes of consumerism and instant gratification. The following passage by Jameson helps to put this phenomenon in perspective, if instead of “aesthetic production” we read “the production of a decentered identity:”

What has happened is that aesthetic production [the production of a decentered identity] today has become integrated into commodity production generally: the frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to airplanes) [identities], at ever greater rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic [virtual reality] innovation and experimentation… Yet this is the point at which we must remind the reader of the obvious, namely that this whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death and horror. (Jameson, ¶ 9)

Ironically, the postmodern desire to make the idea of the self less totalitarian can only be actualized through the totalitarian mechanics of capitalism. But confronted with that reality, do we choose to throw the postmodern baby out with the bath water?

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.

Postmodernism, Virtuality, Globalization and the (fragmented) Self – 1/3

If the politics of virtuality means democracy online and apathy offline, there is reason for concern.
-Sherry Turkle, Life On The Screen.

Frederic Jameson’s essay, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, describes the ethos of its time. Published in 1984, the work provides a detailed analysis of the social and political implications of postmodernism, and predicts the continuation of a trend already well in progress in the 1980′s: the further fragmentation of the self. Jameson’s predictions are validated and updated in Sherry Turkle’s book Life on the Screen (Touchstone Press, 1995), published a decade later. Where Jameson looks at art, literature and architecture in the 1980′s, Turkle looks at virtuality and the online world in the 1990′s for evidence of the postmodern decentralization of the self, and what its sustainable and unsustainable consequences might be.

Turkle argues that computers, by their very nature, help us realize the implications of postmodernism in our daily lives: “Computers embody postmodern theory and bring it down to earth,” she argues, by introducing into our common experiences “ideas about the instability of meanings and the lack of universal and knowable truths.” (p. 18) Virtual Reality, in particular, embodies a postmodern approach by serving as a site for alternative enactments of the self. As I will argue later, these alternative enactments are complex: they are representations of the self at once implicated in the politics and economics of multinational capitalism on the one hand and in an evolution towards new forms of political involvement on the other. But first, we should analyze what Jameson calls the constitutive features of postmodernism, and how virtuality relates to them.

Depthlessness and Simulacrum

There are two particular features of postmodernism described by Jameson that bear on Turkle’s examination of virtuality: depthlessness and simulacrum.

Jameson characterized the move from modernism to postmodernism as a move from affect to effect, from emotional engagement to slick superficiality.[1] “[D]epth is replaced by surface, or by multiple surfaces.” (¶ 24) Whereas in modernism the object[2] serves “as a clue or a symptom for some vaster reality which replaces it as its ultimate truth” (¶ 19), in postmodernism it is merely a commodified fetish, beyond hermeneutical explanation because hermeneutics itself has been discredited. In this context, the difference between the real and the simulacrum (a copy without an original, a pseudo-event) becomes inconsequential. The simulacrum’s function “lies in what Sartre would have called the derealization of the whole surrounding world of everyday reality.” (¶ 66) The simulacrum, produced and reproduced with technology, is therefore symptomatic of the shift from a time-bound experience of the world to a fragmented, space-bound experience.

The fragmentation of the self-as characterized by the derealization of the world, the waning of historicity and time, and the inability to represent our own experience-seems to reach full expression in the phenomenon of virtuality. Turkle identifies three ways in which virtuality can skew the self’s experience of the real: first, it can “make denatured and artificial experiences seem real” (p. 236); second, it “makes the fake seem more compelling than the real” (p. 237); and third, it “may be so compelling that we believe that within it we’ve achieved more than we have.” (p. 238). However, Turkle recognizes that virtuality represents both risks and opportunities:

The seductiveness of simulation does not mean that it is a bad thing or something to be avoided at all cost, but it does mean that simulation carries certain risks. It is not retrograde to say that if we value certain aspects of life off the screen, we may need to do something to protect them. (p. 236)

In order to protect “life off the screen,” we need to explore not only the psychological implications of the electronically-facilitated decentralized self, but its political implications as well.

Notes

[1] Note on affect from the MSE resources.
[2] Jameson refers specifically to the art object, but I think his observations can be generalized.

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.