Plus Ça Change

The other day I felt a rush of retrospective excitement as I read through David’s post on “why anonymity should be the default” on the internet, and then clicked over to Eric’s response. We’ve been having arguments like this for years, but it’s been a long time since it has come to the future (its reappearance is probably related to the near proximity of the next Digital Identity World Conference. Send my regards — the day when philosophical-theological participant observers fit into the schedule are over). Their insightful, well-informed, respectful disagreement rewards reading and reflection.

Since “several years” is a long time even apart from the internet, and even longer online, I’ll take the risk of repeating a response that I’ve been making to their positions since we first broached this topic. Although on the whole, I take David’s part in this specific disagreement, both Eric and David (and Doc, to drag another old DIDW friend) complicate matters by taking the metaphorical sense in which we can fittingly characterize the internet in spatial terms, and inappropriately argue conclusions about the Net that disregard the pivotal differences between the (non-spatial) internet and (spatial) physical interaction. To aggravate my current Wittgensteinian theme, a spatial picture about the internet holds their discourse captive, when the problem that David and Eric are hashing out arises in great part because of the ways that the Net differs from physical space.

I’d like to mash up their conversation with Nick Yee’s piece on “The Prison of Embodiment” at Terra Nova. Here’s the point: how do we deal with questions of disembodied identity? Most of our familiar devices for identification depend on physical characteristics (our physiognomy, external paraphernalia such as cards or papers, physical location) — but the online aspect of our lives dissolves those physical-spatial devices. If we reason about digital identity with devices or metaphors that perpetuate the legacy of spatiality, we occlude some of the decisive characteristics of the technological transition in which we participate.

Of course, the church has been trying to think through the importance of non-spatial identities for centuries, which helps explain my confidence that a theologian’s perspective can contribute to the discussion. All along, people’s identities have been constituted by the memories, links, knowledge, and patterns that they share (or not) with the rest of the world; in our digital environment, those aspects of identity come to the fore. Let’s not shackle them to simulated spatiality, but instead let’s seek out a way to work with identity in ways indigenous to a non-spatial identity ecology.

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  1. I expect that I disagree with you thoroughly while maintaining a very similar position. My disagreement stems from wanting to maintain a sense of my body even in virtual space. This desire comes from the fact that I see myself in my online presence and I see others in theirs.
    An example which illustrates the possibility of imagining the text as a virtual body is found in how our bodies appear in cyberspace. Karen Franck asks a particularly provocative set of questions when she reflects on the possibility of entering a virtual world.
    I am … fascinated with the body and the ‘non-body’ in cyberspace. I anticipate entering a virtual world someday soon. Will I leave my body behind? What kind of body might II wish to leave, or keep, and why? Virtual reality is very physical. I won’t just see changing images on a flat screen; I will have the feeling of occupying those images with my entire body. …. If the virtual is so physical, what body will I leave behind? Not my physical body. Without it, I am in no world at all. It is physical bodies that give us access to any world.*1*
    Franck articulates the masculinist dreams of freeing oneself from the ‘tyranny of function’. This dream, which she says Western religion, science and philosophy have continually pursued, is a dream of leaving the body behind with all its attendant ‘wetness and fleshiness’ and relegating its care again to women and minorities.*2* Still, there are certain bodies which Franck is eager to leave behind.
    She notes that her appearance is something that she must leave behind in entering a virtual world. Any facsimile of her will not be her; simultaneously she can choose to adopt any appearance she wants to through avatars, icons, or carefully constructed self-description. This aspect of cyberspace is more exciting to Franck, not because she will lose her appearance as woman and certainly not in order to become a man, but, because she will lose the accidental reactions that go with her appearance. She will lose, “the ways men expect women to act and the ways they often approach and react to women.”*3* If men have sought to escape the prison of the flesh, Franck wants to escape the prison of the social construction of gender. She notes that what happens in a virtual world also happens in some way in this world. When she comes back to the body she has left behind she expects it might be changed as revealed in this quote.
    Virtual worlds offer immense opportunities for testing and blurring boundaries in those worlds and in this one. A significant boundary for dissolving is between self and other, all other. Virtual worlds will offer myriad opportunities to encounter and engage objects and spaces in new and different ways and to occupy other bodies, other entities, other species. The clear, hard, harsh boundaries in the physical world that difine and keep me forever separate from all that is not me, that separate and distance things, bodies, and places from each other vanish. In virtual worlds the possibilites for connecting, merging and occupying are endless. Would this not feel like a new kind of intimacy? Could this not generate, in the physical world, some of the empathy and compassion for the other that are now sorely absent?*4*
    Weinberger made a set of similar points in a grouping of writing hosting on his weblog in 2003. Weinberger was especially concerned about two things, “1. Virtual sociality is real and important. 2. Bodies are real and important.”*5* These concerns were shaped for Weinberger by discussions with you when you said
    I called the anxiety that online interaction will displace and supersede other modes of interaction “replacement panic.” …
    And the point of the argument is that we have always been digital—not in the sense that we’re merely binary digits in some vast Matrix, but in the sense that the characteristics that become obvious when we interact online also apply to our physical interactions (though in attenuated or infrequent ways).*6*

    In a presentation that I gave at the Digital Genres Conference at the University of Chicago entitled, “The Blog of Heaven, The Body of Christ,” I responded to these concerns by giving one version of the argument made in this section; that bodies are always individual, social and virtual.
    In particular I argued that the kinds of characteristics that make us who we are as Christians is our putting on, or performing, certain virtues or fruits of the spirit. I also noted that the biblical fruits of the spirit are all things that one can practice in cyberspace and that in weblogs, since they require frequent writing—the frequent presentation of myself through text to an audience—it becomes increasingly difficult to perform in a way that is not authentic to who I am, or want myself to be. That my virtual body will, in Franck’s word, return and impact my concrete body is not at all surprising since virtue ethics after MacIntyre has been focused on the idea that repeated practices lead to skills which lead to habits which lead to character.*7*
    My extension of the body into the social and virtual was unsatisfying to Weinberger because it seemed to him that I gave up too much of the body’s materiality,
    there is something special about my body that’s fundamentally different than that of a community: my body can have sex, feel pain, and die. Preferably in that order. So, Trevor’s strategem doesn’t work for me.
    Weinberger offered instead the following four part “escape route,”
    First, we agree that what’s important about our bodies isn’t the matter/atoms of our body. Rather, it’s our peculiar relation to those atoms. That it’s my body counts for everything, but if we look at bodies just as matter, we don’t get to the my-ness.
    Second, we look at that relationship. What does it mean to have a body? It means, among other things, that we care about what happens to these atoms, that we have a point of view from the space and time in which we’re rooted, and that we are able to turn towards the world with other similarly situated and caring bodies.
    Third, we note that voice – in the “I am what I speak” sense – has those three characteristics: we speak from a point of view about what we care about, turning towards the world together with others.
    Fourth, the Web is all about voice. Thus, on the Web we use and value the very characteristics that being embodied grants us. We learn not that the body is unimportant but that the body purely as matter is unimportant. We go back to the Real World better understanding that having a body is about having passion and a point of view, not about having atoms.

    Weinberger’s account of “webbodies” as presented here again reveals the slippery relationship between the textuality of cyberspace and the web. At its root, being code, everything including the music and pictures on the web can be represented as words or at least combinations of letters or numbers. But as Weinberger (and Franck and Adam) show us, it is not the words or even the virtuality of the web that is neatly determinate of what resides there, rather, it is just as much about the corporeal traces which leak into the spaces of the web.
    I believe this to be a second good example both of the virtuality of bodies and of the question of the relationship bewteen flesh and the word. This example is important for another reason. It is a discussion that happened in part in person, at an academic conference, and in part in cyberspace. It is the thing it tries to prove regardless of who in the end got the nuances right. This shows both how blogs (for me virtual bodies) are about doing, thinking and discussing and trying to make explicit the fleeting, and how the simultaneous presence of a body in both cyberspace and concrete space creates new feedback loops for that body as it shows texts to an audience and reflects on them.
    When Ezekiel takes the scroll into his mouth, he becomes the lamentations, wailings and moanings of his God and shows that text to an audience through his performances of those words. The same dynamic is at work in the performance of the fruits of the spirit by Paul or by contemporary Christians. However, I believe that this is not something that can be explained satisfactorily by improvisation for there is always already a text that is a part of the body that is performed in the body own natural way in the world; through showing.
    *1*Franck, p. 240.
    *2*Franck, p. 242-243.
    *3*Franck, p. 243.
    *4*Franck p. 244.
    *5*http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/mtarchive/001600.html Accessed Sunday, August 20, 2006
    *6*https://akma.disseminary.org/archives/000505.html Accessed Sunday, August 20, 2006
    *7*{Wells, 2004, Improvisation : the drama of Christian ethics, 236 p}, p. 24.

  2. I agree, AKMA, that the issues around anonymity arise because the Net is so different from the real world. Not only are our selves different – no small thing, as Trevor makes clear – but the real world is all nooks and crannies, making it hard to connect the jig you did in the grocery store with the learned article you wrote for The Journal of the Hermeneutics of Hermeneutics. Web anonymity reinstates some of those crannies (and maybe even a nook or two), but it’s still very different. That’s why we need to be so careful before we flip defaults. We’re just learning how to manage on the Web – and what sort of selves to be. It’d be a shame if we bulldozed all that in the interest of creating perfectly visible, perfectly trackable selves for the sake of the smoothness of our credit card economy.

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