Search results for "Sherry Turkle "

The question of identity

Author: joe

Tuesday, 20 November, 2012 - 22:09

One of the concerns that arises in the analysis of the relationship between selfhood and computerised media is a focus on authenticity. There is a tension that arises between the various personae that people are able to adopt in any given situation and the centripetal force that unites them in some supposed inner core. The relative status of these different personae - the extent to which they have fidelity with respect to the "primary source" of the "inner core", or the extent to which they perhaps mislead other inter-actors as to the true nature of that "real person", or even threaten the supposed integrity of the authentic self, is instantiated in the very functionality and interface of the computer screen which permits the same "logged-in, authenticated user" to adopt pseudonymous guises in online environments that can be slipped in and out of, framed as they are by windows one can "cycle through".

The people that Turkle describes, who find in the windowed interface a serendipitous enactment of their sense of their plural selves might, as Zizek puts it, be enabled to "discover new aspects of 'me', a wealth of shifting identities, of masks without a 'real' person behind them". In the postmodern world of simulation, where we as subjects trust in the fantasies presented on the digital screen rather than become modernist masters of the inner workings of the device, (the technics), instead we should "endorse this 'dissemination' of the unique self into a multiplicity of competing agents, into a 'collective mind'" and appropriate the logic of the "'decentred' subject".

Zizek provides a number of analogies for thinking about the efficacy of the production or construction of the decentred self, albeit that it might involve an "immanent violence and arbitrariness" since it has no authentic hinterland to which it must pay some sort of deference. Capra's film "Meet John Doe" portrays a character who adopts a "fake identity" but learns to adopt the subject position that the role demands of its actor. The cultural landscape is awash with imaginative explorations of the consequences of identity play, and in many of those story experiments, the narrative is resolved only when the protagonist learns to accept the identity which was at first mere play or a reluctant contingency. In "Sommersby", the interloper who adopts the identity of Jack demonstrates the fullness of his sincerity by accepting the penalty of death that is its price. The transience of identity necessary for persons to "become someone else" has its corollary in the tradition of fictions in which disguised characters become the object of some lover's affection, only for those affections to switch target as the disguise is revealed or passed along: in Twelfth Knight, Olivia easily accepts Sebastian as a husband despite having fallen in love with his disguised sister Viola, suggesting that accepting someone for who they appear to be is a perfectly adequate strategy.

Such ways of thinking about the self are clearly in contrast to traditional conceptions in which an authentic, continuous self acts as a guarantor of identity. Odysseus' testing of Penelope by adopting a disguise is an early instance of the depiction of a "true" identity which should be immune to the vicissitudes of changing circumstance or outer appearance. Woolf's “Orlando” is another case where a distinct and unitary identity both survives and underpins a shifting collection of personae and genders, adopted in dramatic episodic shifts. The protagonist's picaresque adventures are intertwined with the trope of 'The Oak Tree', the work which Orlando eventually completes, and which acts both as the "spine of the earth" and as the embodiment of change as it "flowered and faded so often", as it had over many years, "put forth its leaves and shaken them to the ground".

Erving Goffman provides useful tools for thinking about the shifting personae that we adopt. Using a dramaturgical model as the context for understanding interpersonal interactions, Goffman suggests that in any given situation we are actors on stage, a context which entails the existence of an audience whose observation of us is a primary structuring factor in our self-awareness. While on such stages, we stick to particular scripts - those we have learned, through normal processes of socialisation, which are appropriate to the context.

Such performances, enacted under the consciousness of observation, occur where Goffman calls front ‘stage’ or ‘region’ – the situation in which ‘act out’ the appropriate sorts of behaviours that we know are expected of us. Distinct from the ‘front’ region is a corresponding ‘back’ region – where alternative modes of performance can occur. Note though that this ‘back-stage’ situation need not be thought of as the refuge of the true or authentic inner self which can express itself away from the gaze of the audience: the back region is rather ambiguous, since it is commonly co-habited by fellow-performers who are also part of our ‘team’, also ‘letting their hair down’; and it is also a place where habituation can result in back-stage scripts becoming every bit as socialised in our behaviour as the formulae we follow front-stage. The back can be though of as just another front.

This dramaturgical metaphor opens the way to anti-essentialist conceptions of selfhood: contrary to traditional notions of the dimensions of our identity that have been considered to be stable, material and inescapable - sexuality, gender, kinship, race – not to mention the tangible common sense that we ‘are who we are’ (‘I am that I am’) – there is no inner core as such, but a constantly evolving and self-monitoring sense of self whose coherence is the subject of constant vigilence – either of ourselves or of circumscribing institutional and social apparatuses and their many ‘techniques’. It is only in the light of such possibilities that Butler could articulate the trouble with gender, and suggest that discursive formations of selfhood are anterior to the traditional material considerations of physiology and instrumental knowledge practices.

Categories: identity, performance, authenticity, front, back, queer theory, Goffman, Turkle, Zizek, Butler, Foucault, selfhood,
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Selves and computers

Author: joe

Saturday, 20 October, 2012 - 22:38

Sherry Turkle's work is amongst the most influential analyses of people's emotional engagement with online environments. Her ethnographic work on computer users in the 90s depicted the encounter of her background in psychoanalysis with the techno-utopianism of the MIT community in "Life on the Screen: Identity on the Age of the Internet". Her analysis of the relationship between selfhood and computer-mediated interaction started with the earlier work, "The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit" and has continued most recently in "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other". Although some have characterised the trajectory of her work (in some ways, Turkle does this herself) as a movement from optimistic embrace of the possibilities that machines offer towards a more problematic view of how machines permit their users to become narcissists, the structure of these tensions can be seen throughout her work: Technically mediated control over human relationships can allow us to replace importantly liminal experiences with less risk-laden interactions. If such substitutions allow us to explore our identities, inhabit imaginative selves and bypass meatspace prejudice, so much the better; if they allow us avoid important coming-of-age rituals or maintain artificially arms-length distances to the people around us, then perhaps something is amiss.

Turkle finds an analogy between the interface of the modern computer GUI and the postmodern condition of the self. She finds that her respondents are able to switch between different selves by switching windows on the screen, and thus they are able to express and perform on their desktop interfaces the fragmented predicament of the self in postmodernity. The way that the enframing logic and style of media technologies reflects the conditions of subjectivity is a theme taken up in the work of Steven Shaviro whose analysis of networked culture (Connected: What It Means to Live in the Network Society, 2003) represents in its form the distributed, decentralised nature of both the network and the "fragmented and multiplied" self. Most recently, Shaviro's work on post-cinematic affect explores how the mirroring between subjectivity and mediation continues as cinematic editing styles demote concerns for continuity in favour of a mode which emphasises not only the non-linearity and glitch aesthetic facilitated by digital technologies but the neo-liberal tropes of precarity and just-in-time production. The artefacts of mediated culture now reflect a world in which not only is the casual employee's labour alienated, but also the specific instance of the self is, just like the media products consumed by the viewer, produced on-demand.

The encircling of media affordances and selfhood within similar frames of reference receives its most contemporary expression in the smartphone. The mobile phone is pervasive not only in the digitally advanced consumer societies of the developed world, but is also the technology of choice in developing countries as its practicality has leapfrogged other more bulky and expensive computing devices. The penetrative capacity of the smartphone ensures that people's lives in all their dimensions are accompanied into every corner of time and space with two-way media. Thus Urry's term "networked mobilities" is applicable equally to the identity of the owner as it is to the media products and interactions that the device enables. The pervasiveness that mobile computing brings about is a genuine shift from the previously separated and distinct experiences that constituted online life. Access to digital spaces is no longer a discretely portioned parcel of life but a continuous augmentation of most everyday activities, leading some commentators such as Nathan Jurgenson to argue that the diagnosis of technically mediated aspects of life as separate and inferior to "real life" in some way is guilty of a "digital dualism" which is at best anachronistic and at worst doesn't appreciate the entwined interlacing of physical and virtual life. Nevertheless to erase the distinction between the digital world and the space of embodied existence is to beg the question that Turkle and others would raise.

Categories: Turkle, Shaviro, Jurgenson, self, digital, media, affect, narcissism, mobile,
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Telling grief I

Author: joe

Tuesday, 27 March, 2012 - 15:04

From a train

My supervisors asked me a question I had been absent-mindedly anticipating - was there a reason or reference in my personal background for choosing to look specifically at bereavement in my doctoral research into cyberspace, rather than other experiences of mental distress or physical illness? My anticipation had been only brief, not a worry, but rather a cynical lookahead to the predictability of this question and the trivial dismissal I would be able to respond to it with. Perhaps I was not that off-hand about it, but I certain didn't expect the question to linger as an issue after it had been dispensed with.

When the conversation did come around I was surprised by my answer and the way I worded it. Roughly, I remember saying that I had had an experience of loss and bereavement which meant that I felt a sort of insider knowledge about it - I'd be a native rather than an interloper in the world of grief. My father had died several years ago, I said, and understood some of the reasons why people might need to use 'outlets' that were not available in 'the real world'… grieving is something that people are supposed to do in moderation, and in private; it doesn't belong in social environments or workplaces, and bringing it into those worlds makes people feel very uncomfortable, unable to handle you, even annoyed that you've disrupted their normality by bringing death and the pain it has caused you into a sphere where its vocabulary and shifted emphases are alien. You find out who your friends are, who is willing to tolerate and even welcome your bereft one-dimensionality, your inability to put the events of the everyday into any kind of perspective, and who also is not able to cope with the reminder of anguish and finitude that your very existence provides. I could very well see why, when expressions of grief are so excluded from the vernacular worlds we usually inhabit, that mourners might find themselves using the Internet to speak to the immensity of the invisible world, the big other, the amorphous, unindividuated audience of the universal 'you' that listens at the end of the modem, to push out the sounds and shapes of words and images that always fail to capture the extent of the loss. "And did you use any online spaces yourself when you were bereaved?" was the innocent question. And my answer, from which I reeled for some time, came back: "No. I didn't use the Internet to express any aspects of my grief. I felt it would somehow be a diminution of my father. I guess I think that using online spaces is a last resort - something that people do when they have no other support - a poor substitute."

I spent a long time trying to work out exactly what I meant when I said that. My supervisors, both trained clinical psychologists, exchanged glances. I thought, "what did I just say?" The conversation moved on. A thought drifted around - I should clarify that comment, it sounds as though I think that people who look for online support during bereavement are losers, and that I'm not that much of a loser. "That's definitely not what I mean!" Certainly at the time I was trying very strongly to resist a certain pressure I was feel as a practitioner and maker of online artefacts - to build websites that replace functions normally carried out by humans who are physically co-present - teaching and learning, therapeutic situations, dating, collaboration, social interactions, friendship. Every time I developed a project which I felt augmented already-existing practices, I felt the purse-holders wondering if it could supercede those already-existing and expensive practices and eventually replace them with a cheaper alternative. I wanted to fight against the kind of logic that said "create online lectures, pay for fewer professors", or the dismal evidence that points at changing relationships due to the "text more, speak less" culture of the mobile phone. The digital seems to offer a postponement of emotional contact, giving the illusion of control over interpersonal relationships, but actually only facilitating narcissism - the use of others as resources which can be switched on and off at will (Turkle, 2010). This is real tension in the use of technology to mediate our emotional lives - the space for affective experiences that it creates, but also the buffering against or even disconnection from difficult emotional feelings that it tempts us with. But that doesn't get to the kernel of the "tell" I had spoken: why would a use of the web to articulate my grief be somehow a disservice to my father and to the depth of my feeling, or a diminishment of him, his life and the still living memory of him among his loved ones, his mourners?

Categories: phd, bereavement, grief, mourning, emotion, digital, Sherry Turkle,
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Evocative Objects: the case for object elicitation

Author: joe

Friday, 17 February, 2012 - 16:19

Some notes on objects.

Objects and insights

It is possible to think of objects as both catalysts and repositories of meaningful human experiences, and it is the entwinement of objects with our lives, identities, memories and desires that makes them attractive targets for qualitative research. Elicitation is a qualitative method based on the use of visual materials, photography, video, artefacts or other objects, in which participants gather materials which help them to make sense of, or express, experiences and emotions which may be difficult to articulate in purely linguistic or cognitive ways. A broad framework called 'symbolic interactionism' provides a means of understanding elicitations as evidence that provides insight into the meanings that are attached to people's interactions with other people and the object world around them.

Fetish and Phantasy

The significance of objects in the corpus theoretical is clear in the Marxist tradition, in which objects are commodified and then fetishised - that is, according to Marx, we understand the power of acting in the world to be carried within commodities rather than, say the people whose labour made them. Freud later develops the fetishisation of objects into the sexual realm in which objects are the agents of arousal and their absence renders the human subject impotent.

Post-Freudian psychoanalysts working in the tradition of Melanie Klein move the emphasis away from the Freudian school's concentration on ego psychology (or the ability of the conscious individual to manage undesirable unconscious drives) towards the Kleinian investigation of unconscious phantasy (the way that the environment stimulates conceptual capacities).

This shift in emphasis in object-relations from fetish to capacity can be seen in the work of Wilfred Bion, who develops the idea that thinking capacities are provoked by interactions with the object world. Following Bion and Christopher Bollas, we can say that thoughts require a thinker, and it is in our encounters with the environment of people and objects that pre-conceptual impressions and emotions call a thinking consciousness into being. Experiences and emotional responses generate mental phenomena that must be processed, and it is in the act of processing that a reflective self emerges.

As Grotstein puts it, Bion emphasises the primacy of "emotions and the faculties of the mental apparatus that apprehend them, among which are consciousness, attention and reverie, each devised to render us more aware of our emotional life in regard to our relationship with objects as well as ourselves… Emotions, unlike sensuous stimuli, are not visible or tangible and, consequently, must be apprehended by reverie, a waking dream state." (Grotstein, 2009) Note also that the progression from consciousness, through attentiveness, to reverie, here suggest the kinds of activities and states of mind that might be necessary for uncovering the kinds of meaningful understandings that are sought in the object elicitation process.

Play and reverie

Bion's work suggests that the identity of the thinker is bound up with the relationship between the experiential and sensory impressions of the object world and the emerging self's mapping of inner phantasies to the external world. Donald Winnicott's examination of infant play also directs our attention to both the meanings that we attribute to objects and the reverie or waking dream-like states. In imaginative play, the child recruits the environment and object-world into their diegetic world:

"(a) To get to the idea of playing it is helpful to think of the preoccupation that characterizes the playing of a young child. The content does not matter. What matters is the near-withdrawal state, akin to the concentration of older children and adults. The playing child inhabits an area that cannot be easily left, nor can it easily admit intrusions. (b) This area of playing is not inner psychic reality. It is outside the individual but it is not the external world. (c) Into this play area that child gathers objects or phenomena from external reality and uses these in the service of some sample derived from inner or personal reality. Without hallucinating the child puts out a sample of dream potential and lives with this sample in a chosen setting of fragments from external reality. (d) In playing, the child manipulates external phenomena in the service of the dream and invests chosen external phenomena with dream meaning and feeling. (e) There is a direct development from transitional phenomena to playing, and from playing to shared playing, and from this to cultural experiences." (Winnicott, 1971)

The ability of the child to invest dream meaning and feeling into objects is what makes those objects transitional, that is, essential elements in the child's development since they form part of the repertoire with which emotions and meanings can be expressed without resort to the as yet incomplete capacity for cognitive and linguistic articulation.

From cathexis to day-dreams

Such investments of emotional intensity, imaginative play and meaning onto external objects is termed cathexis. In Freudian psychoanalysis, cathexis is libidinal; however we need not limit our understanding of the delegation or transferral of emotional experiences onto objects to sexual or erotic meanings. Parkin (1999) and others show that transitional objects can come into play at any time of life in a variety of emotionally demanding circumstances. Parkin notes that under the severe conditions of sudden flight and displacement, refugees who must take what they can carry before departing don't limit themselves to utilitarian items but also take mementoes such a photographs, letter and other personal effects. Parkin argues that this reflects "a more general process of self-inscription in non-commodity, gift-like objects which, through their association with stories, dreams and the transmission of skills and status, temporarily encapsulate precluded social personhood". (Parkin, 1999)

Following Bion we may also see the work of objects in the life of the mind. Bollas draws on Bion's digestive metaphor to explore how external objects and their experiences exert an influence over our mental activities outside the infant play-world or sudden exile. The world of experience continually unfolds for us, yet only some of those experiences can be 'digested'; when such experiences do provide 'food-for-thought', they provide the very materials that our thinking consists of, and the sustenance that the exercise of thinking requires. Switching back to the metaphor of the dream or reverie, Bollas argues that we are "involved in ordinary dream-work, knitting together experiences in the real that form the tapestry of that day's unconscious meaning. Actual things play a huge role in that dreaming, and this may be due to what they contain (mnemically) or how they function (their structure), or what enduring them will put us through (their processual integrity)." (Bollas, 2009) Or in a more peripatetic mode: "When moving in the real, the manifest contents of my meanderings are constituted out of the actual things I encounter. Any latent content will emerge from the aleatory vector as this thinking involves me in encountering the unexpected, out of which a type of thinking arises." (Bollas, 2009)

Selves layered within objects

Building on the insight into how objects are interlaced with meanings and self-inscription, Anthony Elliott and John Urry provide an analysis of how people's lives are changing with the increasing prevalence of mobile digital technologies and their associated objects. We carry around with us objects into which we literally deposit meanings and experiences for storage and later retrieval. We store in them such crucial social tools as our contact lists, the musical and audible bubbles we can enclose ourselves within, and the messages we send to each other. These objects increasingly merge otherwise compartmentalised sections of our lives, such that we address work issues while with loved ones, and communicate with our loved ones while at the workplace. Their presence with us at all times means that those traditional moments of reverie - the delayed train, the unexpected pause between locations - have been invaded by the routines of the digital device, with its seductive invitation to check our emails, to stay on top of work and home life, to graze the latest information. Such a deep implication of the object into life implies a new intimacy between devices and what designers understatedly call their 'users':

"The individual self does not just 'use', or activate, digital technologies in day-to-day life. On the contrary, the self - in conditions of intensive mobilities - becomes deeply 'layered' within technological net works, as well as reshaped by their influence." (Elliott & Urry, 2010)

Objects as emotional companions

Sherry Turkle in her study of evocative objects considered how objects are the things we think with. Her anthology collects together autobiographical accounts of how specific objects have inspired or stimulated the people who have encountered them and provide a model for the sorts of qualitative insights the meditation on objects can invoke. Turkle draws on Levi-Strauss' account of bricolage to begin an exploration of objects as emotional companions.

"Material things, for Levi-Strauss, were goods-to-think-with and, following the pun in French, they were good-to-think-with as well… We find it familiar to consider objects as useful or aesthetic, as necessities or vain indulgences. We are on less familiar ground when we consider objects as companions to our emotional lives or as provocations to thought. The notion of evocative objects brings together these two less familiar ideas, underscoring the inseparability of thought and feeling in our relationship to things. We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with." (Turkle, 2007, pp4-5)

Object elicitation

Object elicitation can provide insights into the functional relationships between people, objects and attitudes, providing a window onto singular or shared understandings of particular issues and how people interpret and signify the realm of social action and meaning. It is based on the view that interactions with other people and the object world form meaningful experiences for, and emotional responses in, people's lives. Furthermore, our development as individual selves is bound up with our experiences with objects and the pattern of their correspondence with our phantasies. Objects can be thought of as storage mechanisms for emotional content, from their role in imaginative play, through their significance at times of distress, to their ever-increasing intertwining with our technologised selfhood. As well as providing proxies for our emotional lives, objects become necessary components of our meaningful experiences.

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Bion, W., 1962, Learning From Experience, London: Heinemann

Elliott, A. & Urry, J., 2010, Mobile Lives, London: Routledge

Bollas, C., 2009, The Evocative Object World, London: Routledge

Grotstein, J., in De Cortinas, L. P., 2009, Aesthetic Dimension of the Mind: Variations on a Theme of Bion, London: Karnac

Parkin, D. J., 'Mementoes as Transitional Objects in Human Displacement' in Journal of Material Culture,1999 4: 303 - 320

Turkle, S., 2007, Evocative Objects: Things we Think With, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Winnicott, D. W., 1971, Playing and Reality, London: Routledge

Categories: objects, elicitation, qualitative, research, cathexis, psychoanalysis, Bion, Bollas, Elliott, Klein, Parkin, Turkle, Urry, Winnicott,
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