Search results for "city "

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,
Comments: 2

Wikipedian Palimpsest

Author: joe

Tuesday, 17 February, 2009 - 22:19

Only those of us who like to live our lives inspecting the inner workings of the sphincters of camels will have failed to notice the sudden kerfuffle around Wikipedia Art - a project which is soon going to be so citable, the wikipedian deletionists will explode with reverberating feedback loops of infinitely regressing thought, their heads bursting as though they were apoplectic Victorian fathers confronted with Daguerreotypes of themselves masturbating.

I found the abundant discussions most interesting when they addressed questions about authenticity: did the artists mean to arouse delicate questions regarding epistemology and truth? Or was it a knowing, cynical ploy to generate buzz and 'notability' either to raise their commercial earning potential in other work, or to support tenure track academic careers? Did it matter if the latter was the case if the former ensued anyway? Does a work of art require an authentically artistic intention on the part of the creator in order to be an authentic piece of art?

On rhizome curt cloninger said something clever: "We are "policing" the "art-worthiness" of the piece here at rhizome the same way the wikipedians were policing its "encyclopedia-worthiness" there at wikipedia." We all work the work with our own discourses, our own knowledge practices, our own epistemes; we will always talk past each other.

Categories: wikipedia, art, net-art, authenticity, epistemology, truth, authorship,
Comments: 0

The Science of the Life of the Metaphorical City

Author: joe

Sunday, 01 July, 2007 - 15:39

Saigon is like all the other great cities of the world. It's the mess left over from people getting rich.

P J O'Rourke, Give War A Chance, 1992


That Homer's Odysseus saw many cities and knew the minds of their men signifies the increase of his wisdom through world-weary experience. The biblical depiction of the city is constantly overshadowed by the lost Jerusalem, and tends inevitably to Sodom and Gomorrah. For Sallust and for Bacon, the city is venal, awaiting its purchaser - Rome found its purchaser in Julius Ceaser: but his accession to the consulship through corruption and bribery is not an exclusively antique problem. The ends may justify the means when the means are the norm. Milton's cheerful man sees 'Towerd Cities' as pleasing with the 'busie humm of men' in L'Allegro, but just as Keats later sings that it is 'very sweet to look into the fair and open face of heaven' ... 'To one who has been long in city pent', so Milton, no doubt his inspiration:

As one who long in populous city pent,
Where Houses thick and Sewers annoy the Air,
Forth issuing on a Summers Morn to breathe
Among the pleasant Villages and Farms
Adjoind, from each thing met conceives delight...

Paradise Lost, Book IX, ll445-449


And yet these cities from antiquity would certainly seem to us rural dreams, and it is the countryside which now reeks of ordure. As my brother likes to say, 'I don't like the country. The country stinks of shit.'

We look at the city and see what it is expedient to see, but understanding the city is another matter, and we resort to metaphor in the absence of better ways to conceive them.

I knew a man who was employed as a planner in Slough, which always seemed to me to be too little too late. Surely as O'Rourke implies, the city is an accretion of the short-minded desires of money? In the grander scheme of things, isn't it an organic evolving creature, developing in ways without intention, from causes whose source may seem deliberate at the scale of the individual, but whose macroscopic expression is as blind as the brute force of evolution?

Researchers and economists at Arizona State University have apparently debunked the 'metaphor' of the city as organism. But which metaphor of the city is it that they have debunked? The city as organ connected by the arteries of highways that conduct our cell-vehicles, carrying their payloads of organelle-humans with their protein-transactions? The city as evil chakra of the nation-body producing the tainted urges of consumers, driving us towards the un-nirvana of progress with the dark energy of desire? The city as phenotype, the built extension of man, fashioned from the technologies of industry to produce machines for existence? No, this is city-organism as biological consumer of literal energy, which even as it increases in scale linearly, consumes energy with a surprising and increasingly efficient non-linearity. This seems a rather modest metaphor of the city to pick issues with.

If one thinks of the human mind as a device for pattern recognition, then both metaphor and scientific model are totalising ways of conceiving the world. George Lakoff sees metaphor and metonymy, indeed, as the fundamental units of human consciousness. And it is ostensibly the object of the scientific method to reduce the world to a set of rules which all phenomena can then be shown to positively corroborate. But metaphor, while it forces unity onto disparate entities, is a profoundly productive thing. The complexity of the cultural world around us - including our cities - are products of the richness of metaphorical fertility. Metaphorical production increases the variety of the world, which the scientific method then reduces to ever fewer principles.

It might at first appear laudable for governments to set out to create eco-towns, based on science and planning: 'carbon-neutral', 'asset-owning', 'imagination-showing'. But it seems, however, that the very desire to impose totalised structures onto the lived experience and lived-in environment of people is no more than destructive vanity. Surely there is very little difference between venal men with short-term monetary goals imposing their mark on their city, or men in search of power imposing their designed systems onto entire urban landscapes? Michael Batty: "Cities have never grown in the way that urban planners imagined... which is why the grand plans are rarely successful." (Pearce, F., Ecopolis Now in Eco-cities special, New Scientist, 16 June 2006, 2556)

Fred Pearce observes: "...at the other end of the scale are shanty towns - organically evolved and self-built by millions of people in the developing world without a planner in sight. These shanties ... are high-density but low-rise; their lanes and alleys are largely pedestrianised; and many of their inhabitants recycle waste materials from the wider city... shanties and their inhabitants are a good example of the new, green urban metabolism. Despite their sanitary and security failings, they often have a social vibrancy and ecological systems that get lost in most planned urban environments."

Fancy that - social vibrancy and ecological systems arising spontaneously in the world of poverty and capitalist neglect. What kind of planning system, based on scientific rigour, can be implemented onto built environments, that account for the metaphorical richness life built from the ground, and how would it deal with the Ghost City and the megalopolis?

The future may well be the ecopolis, non-linear organism, precisely laid out and regimented, carbon-neutral, asset-owning, imagination-showing, under constant surveillance, and ruled totally by the diviners of simulated intention, indistinguishable from the thought police.

Give me open sewers any day.

Categories: city, urban, science, metaphor, eco-town, ecology, shanty-town, capitalism, spontaneous, production, thought-police, surveillance,
Comments: 1