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?
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.