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4/24/22: Fractured Worlds, Pragmatic Identities
Here Lies The Twelfth
Hi everyone, especially new subscribers, who likely found this blog via my tweet that made the rounds, which I will not be commenting on (yet). I have a new post for today, inspired by a comment that my “Substack voice vs Discord vs Twitter are completely different.” Digging into that comment led me rather far afield. The following is what I came up with as a sort of explanation, or perhaps non-explanation.
On Spaces & Social Context
A common complaint new Twitter users have is “what do I do with this?” This is no small complaint. Our precious new tweeter is dropped into the site, given a textbox and a few celebrity follows, and then needs to figure out what to say, or if they want to say anything at all.
Over time, they find accounts that appeal to them more specifically, maybe funny memelords like @dril, or political journalists, or their favorite TV stars, or even philosophical misfits. The user gains a sense of the space they inhabit, what are its contours and norms, and most importantly, what kind of responses they can expect to receive. With a wish in their palm, they decide to write a tweet. Hello world.
The question of identity—who or what am I?—is not new. One solution comes from Descartes: “I think, therefore I am”. Another solution, more common among the hoi polloi, might be phrased closer to “I am my body”, or alternatively “there is a material ‘me’, therefore I am.” What is common to both contexts is that the “I” exists insofar as the thinker can identify an island of stability in the ocean of flux, a stable space within which to “locate” the “I”.
As we converse through the aether, a material or bodily identity becomes harder to maintain. Sure, we may argue that tweets, text, etc. are traces of materiality, are still “in the world”, and yet the “I” typing this feels like it is located elsewhere, not within my physical form but closer to the Cartesian cogito, within the eternal ebb-and-flow of thought. Equally important, if I were to invoke “the world”, I likely am not talking about the mundane physicality of my apartment, the roads, etc. but rather a nexus of sociality and language, messages and flows. The thinking-I finds the world in discourse.
In any online situation, the question of “who am I?” thus becomes tangled with the question of “where am I?” or “what is the world?”, itself informed by “who am I to you, and who are you, to me?” And those questions all spring from a fundamental one, “where are we?”
(All images from Introducing Lacan: A Graphic Guide by Darian Leader & Judy Groves)
Clues exist in relationship narratives. “How did you two meet?” “Well, we were both at a bar / on twitter, and we started talking at the bar / on the timeline, and then eventually moved to a more private space at the bar / the DMs. Then we went home / to a more private platform together, where we really came to know each other.” So, in response to the “who am I to you?” the answer might be “you’re the person at the bar, who I liked enough to invite home, and eventually we became close, so close that we detached ourselves from external spatial referents and formed a little space of our own.”
What is it that makes Twitter like a bar? We tend to reify this aspect of the website, moving it into the individual, when we say Twitter is “pseudoanonymous”, i.e. you are a more-or-less stable subject, with a photo and a history, but which is not the same as your legal name and familial, educational, or professional history. In truth, we say Twitter is like a bar because of the qualities of the space itself: people come and go while the space continues existing, people can be newbies or old regulars, conversations can start and end without much fuss (no long chains of “nice hanging out” necessary to say “goodbye”). Within such a space, one can really be, in the sense of attaining a stable identity, a persistent “who am I?”, which emerges from the “where are we?”
Tinder is another app commonly compared to a bar, but in truth it’s more like a subway station or hallway. It lacks any and all stability in terms of creating a social space. Users say “hello” and then disappear, because all they have to go on is a simulation of materiality, images of a body, transcriptions of a masquerade of speech. The images one uses on Tinder do in fact signify certain positions within the material-legal world: your job, your taste, your wealth, etc., but the space itself is designed as liminal, a hallway one must pass through in order to emerge into a different, typically physical space.
In a certain sense, Tinder is more “anonymous” than Twitter. Alfred Schütz defined the degree of anonymity as “the degree of remoteness from direct experience” (The Phenomenology of the Social World, p. 194), where “direct experience” is a temporal being-together that takes place in a meaning-context, i.e. a world. For example, when we speak in the DMs, in total synchronicity, after knowing each other for a while, we are far closer to the “direct experience” of the other than when we match on Tinder and have what passes for a conversation, several hours between each message. This is because we have a temporal closeness, our synchronous messaging implying togetherness within a single stream of time, and a meaning-context derived from our prior interactions and shared spaces.
What makes Tinder work regardless, is the assumption that users will carry a sort of total meaning-context with them into the app, i.e. that all users live in the same “world”. But for those of us who spend time online, we come to recognize that we inhabit many worlds, interconnected but distinct, and thus the transposition of a single meaning-context onto an application like Tinder becomes an act requiring explicit decision-making, rather than a pre-conscious defaulting to normal.
In a broader sense, the fracturing of worlds that takes place online problematizes the idea of “normal” itself, forcing one to pose the question “normal to where?” This was always a concern, as what’s normal in the office is not normal on the street corner is not normal in the bar, but knowledge of these spaces’ norms is typically given by example, either through observing trusted authorities, or through broadcast media (like TV, or blogs), which in its 1-to-many form guarantees a shared knowledge, although not a common knowledge, of how to act within portrayed sorts of spaces.
Tinder’s radical lack of practical observability—I can’t watch what anyone else is doing on the app, unless I get a friend to share something quite intimate with me—means that broadcast media (which in this case includes cross-world memetic spread from sites like Twitter and Reddit) comes to dominate the sphere of practical examples that produce my knowledge of norms. So rather than a “synthetic”, bottom-up approach to “who am I?”, derived from observation and give-and-take regulation of desire and social norms, Tinder users end up behaving in a more “analytic” form, starting from notions of “the space is already this” and “here is how I need to act if I’m going to get what I want”.
The result is that Tinder fails to guide struggling users toward what they want (as a long-lived space would, by virtue of self-regulation), and instead produces an outside appearance of “inherent” winners and losers, over whose characteristics much ink has been spilled. So, unlike on Twitter (or in an environment like school), where I can discover the “who am I?” over time and repeated association, Tinder expects users to show up with a fully formed “I”, and if it doesn’t work, too damn bad, try another round, another match maybe? Tinder does recognize this problem, and their solution is to use statistics to sort your photos for you. You should Trust the Science. (Or worse: they produce their own broadcast media.)
The language of psychiatry muddles the problems involved here, in assuming a certain ideal, healthy, normal individual, who embodies a fully-formed “I” at all times. In practice, this ideal only fits paragons of virtue, who’ve devoted their entire being to embodying a specific idea, or to sociopaths and narcissists who exalt an ideal image of themselves as true (until the illusion breaks, and they’re screaming in confusion and rage). If these are the men who find Tinder easy and have a lot of success, is it any wonder that “all men are trash”? And if this is the ideal, is it any wonder that so much the US population is on psychiatric drugs, or in therapy?
To summarize in different language, we become who we are through the roles we play, and the roles we play are tied to the contexts we’re in, and how we can get what we want within those contexts. Contexts that persist across time provide the potential to develop a fuller understanding of roles through observation and experimentation, whereas transient contexts require one to enter with an ideal self-image, and provide few affordances for developing a better contextual self-concept over time.
The presupposition here is that one’s identity (or self-concept) is pragmatic, at least when located within contexts, in that it exists as a means toward some end, and is continuously acted out, rather than existing a priori. This usage breaks from Descartes, who set out precisely to discover an a priori, context-free basis for identity. And perhaps this is where one ultimately should aim, to be an essence that is not the mask itself yet informs each mask, opening the possibility of approaching life in the spirit of play. But the shifting sands occlude our sight, as we stumble toward the next oasis.
Introspection vs Extrospection and Psychoanalytic Epistemics
Last week, I published my first post on our “Inexact Sciences” group blog, tis.so. The plan is to publish one brief post a day, from a variety of authors. I wrote mine on the big bold title above. Here’s a link. And here’s how I set out:
…consider you’re reading a good novel. You sit down and rapidly read through the chapters, enjoying it as you go. Once you’ve finished, you have a sense of “what happened”, in terms of key conflicts, but you might not be able to articulate this to someone else… I posit that this is also how introspection tends to operate.
On the other hand, consider reading the same novel out loud to someone. You might not have the same degree of immersion in the story, as you were focused on speaking rather than reading, and yet you might find that, once finished, you have a far better grasp of the overall arc of the plot and the main character conflicts. The listener also tends to have a different experience than if they were reading it themselves: they can’t glaze over paragraphs, and the words take on a sort of embodiment lacking in “quiet” reading…
[When doing activities such as journaling], you are telling “the story of yourself”, without thinking about it, [and] you can come back later to the things you said and evaluate them “as if” you were an external observer, hearing your own story… This places the introspective activity “outside of yourself”, in a way. Call this activity of returning to your own utterances with an observational, objective eye “extrospection”.
And here’s how I conclude:
In other words, extrospection is how one changes oneself on a purely formal level: one’s idea of “self” (“I”) changes, when you witness yourself speaking and realize “oh shit (hahaha), this is actually me”. This often happens at specific moments of insight, akin to the paradigm-breaking function of scientific discoveries which cannot be incorporated into the theories from which they emerged. Introspection, on the other hand, proceeds through pure thought via a single, undifferentiated subject, and ultimately produces structures of justification. Mathematics instead of Science. Which you choose depends on what you want to do, where you want to end up.
If you want more context, you can read the rest of the post! More TIS posts forthcoming, keep your eyes peeled…
Some thoughts on why I don’t/didn’t like cooking:
My friend realitygamer wrote a really fun short fiction piece, you should check it out if you like classic sci-fi:
It was a good couple of weeks for memes too, here’s a few I like:
And finally, I made a mixtape/playlist of some favorite tunes from the past month or two. Check it out!
Song of the week (it’s on the playlist too! Not sure what’s with the feet pic… lmfao):
Hope everyone has a nice week, ttyl!