[iDC] Identification and dis-identification

Brian Holmes brian.holmes at aliceadsl.fr
Mon Jun 15 20:01:50 UTC 2009

Ulises Mejias just offered a fascinating proposal for 
understanding the structure of inclusion and exclusion in a 
networked society, as well as the possibilities for voluntary 
disengagement or dis-identification. That seems to me like a 
great departure point, and I'm curious to see the full paper. 
Just to remind you what's at stake, here's a key quote from his 
short sketch:

"In my work, I argue that digital technosocial networks (DTSNs)
function not just as metaphors to describe sociality, but as full
templates or models for organizing it. Since in order for
something to be relevant or even visible within the network it
needs to be rendered as a node, DTSNs are constituted as
totalities by what they include as much as by what they exclude.
I propose a framework for understanding the epistemological
exclusion embedded in the structure and dynamics of DTSNs, and
for exploring the ethical questions associated with the nature of
the bond between the node and the excluded other. Contrary to its
depiction in diagrams, the outside of the network is not empty
but inhabited by multitudes that do not conform to the organizing
logic of the network. Thus, I put forth a theory for how the
peripheries of the network represent an ethical resistance to the
network, and I suggest that these peripheries, the only sites
from which it is possible to un-think the network episteme, can
inform emerging models of identity and sociality."

That last seems brilliant to me! But to really understand the 
proposal we need to know what you're defining as a network, 
Ulises. After all, the Internet itself is a network of networks; 
and social network theory could distinguish other systems and 
subsystems, not only online but in all sorts of offline relations 
that networked information flows help to organize. So definitely 
tell us more about this proposal as you develop it. Whatever 
approach you take I'm sure it's going to be interesting, because 
you raise what I think is the crucial question: that of 
identification and dis-identification with networked society. At 
this point I would say some kind of rupture, some kind of break 
is essential. And that moment of dis-identification is all too 
rare. In fact, that's exactly why Rancière says that politics is 

For some people on this list, the networked society is making 
great progress toward co-operative social interaction. For others 
there is far too much consensus about contemporary society's 
concepts of the good life and about its ways of obtaining it. One 
of the reasons we disagree is that we define "networks" very 
differently: some of us look only at the web itself, while others 
look at the whole tissue of networked society. Another thing that 
makes our discussions unclear is that we've been focusing almost 
solely on "exploitation" to describe what's wrong with the 
so-called "peer networks" of Web 2.0. I want to delve into both 
those issues a little more closely.

Trebor has made a serious attempt to find cases of exploitation 
happening via Web 2.0. His prime example is Amazon's "Mechanical 
Turk": an interface for buying and selling of 
information-processing services, where the buyer can easily take 
advantage of geographical and class differences in the acceptable 
rate of pay. It's interesting, particularly because of the image 
that Amazon has used to promote the service. The "Mechanical 
Turk" is an exotically racialized automaton, an elaborate 
chess-playing machine which is actually a fake, and hides the 
human being who makes the moves in reality. But isn't this just 
the everyday experience of the consumer in the networked economy 
of neoliberal globalization?

We navigate a web interface and order a product which is 
delivered effortlessly to our door. Meanwhile we spend some more 
time playing with social media, maybe talking with people on the 
other side of the world. What we don't see and usually don't want 
to see are the complex supply lines linking our consumption to 
others' production. The educated middle classes are all excited 
about becoming cyborgs, but the world around us, both near and 
far, is full of flesh-and-blood human beings subject to labor 
exploitation, ecological decay, police oppression and outright 
war. The thing I don't get, Trebor, is why just look for 
exploitation happening _on the web_, when there is so much 
exploitation happening under the conditions of neoliberal 
globalization, which as every study shows is inconceivable 
without networked information flows?

The corollary of that is the possibility that our experience of 
the Internet itself may in some way actually hide what's going 
on, that it may serve to induct us into a privileged stratum of 
global society and blind us to the need for radical change. The 
corollary, in other words, is that Web 2.0 may be a locus of 
ideology, a friendly kind of ideology that works very actively to 
include as many people as possible. Obviously this is where I am 
really struck by the message of Ulises' post. For the last 
fifteen years my question - directed first of all at myself - has 
been this: Why do we _tolerate_ being included in this networked 
society? I think that there are cultural routines that blind us 
to the dead-end path our societies are taking, and for that 
reason I think that not only exploitation is an issue, but also a 
technics, an aesthetics and an ideology that promote conformity, 
that make dis-identification and dissent extremely rare, 
especially in the USA.

Working with the same kind of material that Mark Andrejevic has 
put together in his excellent-looking book iSpy (which I'm 
looking forward to read by the way), I tried to define not only 
the procedures of identification, but above all the structural 
dynamics of inclusion and exclusion in the networked societies. 
What I found is not only police techniques for identifying 
deviants, criminals and terrorists, but above all a machinery of 
seduction that tries to encourage and profit from the inclusion 
of registered and channeled behaviors. And probably the most 
impressive thing I found is the emergence of veritable control 
architectures which use real-time information flows to transform 
the urban environment in order to capture the desires of those 
moving through it. The resulting text is called Future Map: or, 
How the Cyborgs Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Surveillance, 
and you can find it right here:


Obviously I'm not convinced by the emancipatory possibilities of 
really-existing corporate social media, despite the good things 
about it which I don't necessarily discount or ignore. Like 
Michael Bauwens, whose work is fantastic imho, I have never 
thought it was enough to just get paid for gloom and doom, which 
is something I dislike in a lot of post-leftist academic 
production. The thing is to create dissenting and alternative 
social relations, both on the hardware and protocol levels, and 
also in subjective and affective experience where art can be such 
a powerful and surprising force of dis- and re-identification. My 
book Unleashing the Collective Phantoms: Essays in Reverse 
Imagineering, is devoted to exactly that, with examples mainly 
drawn from artists working the counter-globalization movements.

Now, clearly the artistic activism that I love involves something 
like the kind of play that Pat Kane talks about (and amusingly, I 
too have written about Schiller's aesthetics, I'll put that essay 
online if anyone's interested). We are not squarely opposed, Pat, 
but the difference is that I have always considered play to be an 
ambiguous possibility, which can be used for both entrapment and 
liberation. Just looking at, say, Disney Corp. ought to make that 
pretty clear - as does Schiller's essay. The problem with being 
an unequivocal or unambiguous proponent of homo ludens in the 
post-68 societies is that you get led down the garden path by all 
kinds of smart, witty and often deluded people. But those of us 
who like dancing in the face of the cops and speaking pie to 
power are not exactly averse to a little humor either! I've been 
known to work with the Yes Men, Reclaim the Streets, EuroMayday 
and so on, it can get pretty funny out there...

Recently I've tried to reframe this whole complex of questions in 
cybernetic terms, in order to reply to the bleak situation 
portrayed in Future Map, and to show how the social order we are 
caught in can be replayed, if you will. To dis-identify, to 
achieve a break, I think it's necessary to map out and then 
actually flesh out alternative ways of living, which on the one 
hand bring aesthetics and philosophy into play, but which are 
also affective, fully embodied, social and operational. Delirious 
too! That text is called Guattari's Schizoanalytic Cartographies: 
The Pathic Core at the Heart of Cybernetics, and it's here:


The discussion of identification and dis-identification on the 
one hand, and of the tools, protocols and forms of alternatives 
on the other, are what seem most promising to me among the themes 
of this conference. I think it's a practical discussion for 
people working in the universities and in the arts. What society 
needs at every level are resistant minorities that can step back 
from the norms, see how they function and make concrete proposals 
for change, even while escaping the whole thing, embracing other 
realities right here and now. If we can't acknowledge the immense 
dangers of present-day society, and if we can't develop 
alternative approaches at the highest technical, aesthetic and 
philosophical levels, then what are we doing with our privileged 
positions? That's the question I keep on asking...

best, Brian

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