Identity, Selfhood and Attention

The Onlife Manifesto: Philosophical Backgrounds, Media Usages, and the Futures of Democracy and Equality


I begin by discussing three challenges we take to define our Onlife context. I first show how these challenges have been prefigured and addressed in prior philosophical developments, including phenomenology, virtue ethics, Kantian ethics, and others. This discussion then introduces us to the primary features of and contrasts between: the more individual sense of rational-autonomous selfhood characteristic of high modern Western thought, and; more relational senses of selfhood in both historical and contemporary contexts and theories (Bakardjieva 2005).

These two notions of selfhood are further illuminated by considerations of embodiment and developments in contemporary philosophy and Internet Studies. This brings us to the core point: the shift from more individual towards more relational selves in contemporary “Western” societies, as manifest first of all in our changing practices and theories of “privacy,” risks a shift towards more hierarchical social structures and non-democratic polities—and thereby away from high modern democratic processes and norms, including equality and gender equality (Bakardjieva 2009) .

I then examine how far democratic processes and norms can be nonetheless preserved Onlife, drawing on notions of hybrid selves, “partial privacy” and “contextual privacy” (Nissenbaum 2010) and “subactivism” (Bakardjieva 2009). By contrast, emerging Confucian democracies, as resting on strongly relational conceptions of selfhood, appear to directly threaten commitments to equality and gender equality. These theoretical and empirical findings highlight the urgency of our contemporary choices regarding media usages. Specifically, where writing and the skills of literacy-print (as the communication modality of high modernity, in contrast with the secondary orality of electric media in general and online communication in particular) are historically correlated with high modern notions of individual autonomy, democracy, and equality—I plea for continued emphasis on writing as “a technology of the self” (Foucault 1988) for the sake of sustaining democracy and equality (Baron 2008).

The Relational Self and the Onlife Initiative: Descartes, Phenomenology, and the Analogue-Digital Age

This section shows how three of the four challenges we highlight in the Onlife Manifesto—beginning with the blurring of the distinction between reality and virtuality—have been explored, grounded, and prefigured in modern philosophy, most especially phenomenology. The material in this section thus provides important historical context and philosophical groundings for the analyses and claims of the Onlife Manifesto.

Our background paper underlined four challenges to received frameworks evoked by the digital transition:

a. By blurring the distinction between reality and virtuality;

b. By blurring the distinctions between human, machine and nature;

c. By reversing from scarcity to abundance, when it comes to information;

d. By shifting from the primacy of entities over interactions to the primacy of interactions over entities. (Broadbent et al. 2013, p. 30)

Three of these have been explored, grounded and prefigured in modern philosophy, most especially phenomenology. A brief look at how this is so may be helpful for adding both additional historical context and philosophical substance to our shared understanding.

To do so, I offer in the following

(2.1) A brief summary of how Cartesian dualism underlies especially the hard distinction between the real and the virtual in the 1990s, and the several ways in which late 1990s work in several domains, including neuroscience, shift from Cartesian dualism;

(2.2) Some notes on significant developments in phenomenology that prefigure and ground such non-dualistic accounts, focusing on the work of Maurice Natanson (1970) as an example, followed by brief comments on more recent philosophers who extend phenomenological analyses and directly couple these with contemporary neuroscience;

(2.3) Summary comments that link these phenomenological backgrounds and insights to our guiding notions of “onlife” as first of all articulating just the refutation of the Cartesian1990s' dualism between the real and the virtual, followed by

(2.4) Pointers to how these developments likewise prefigure and support especially “b” and “d” in our list.

2.1 From Norbert Wiener to Enactivism and the Embedded Mind

We first need to recall that the hard distinctions between the real and the virtual, as mapped onto equally hard distinctions between the offline and the online, especially unfolded in the relevant literatures on virtuality, virtual worlds, etc. In the 1990s, as can be seen in numerous sources, these distinctions squarely rest on a Cartesian dualism—one that radically divorces a non-cognitive body (and with it, the whole of nature as “extended substance”) from a non-extended and thereby fully disembodied mind. As but one example: Katherine Hayles (1999, p. 288) discerned this dualism at work in the foundational discipline of cybernetics as developed by Norbert Wiener (1950). More broadly, this dualism reiterates ancient Gnostic and Greek dualisms that in turn root the Western Orthodox teaching of Original Sin—whose Augustinian language is in fact explicitly invoked in one of the key documents of early conceptions of cyberspace, namely, William Gibson's Neuromancer—the science-fiction novel that propelled the term 'cyberspace' into popular culture and academic discourse (Ess 2012b, pp. 5–7). Correlative notions of a disembodied “liberation in cyberspace” appealed both to “cyber-libertarians” such as John Perry Barlow (1996) as well as to some feminists and others rightly interested in overcoming the objectification and correlative subordination and violation of women (and others). Other feminists, however, early on raised warnings against the “old Cartesian trick” of seeking to forget the body (Stone 1991). Finally, by the end of the 1990s, this dualism was increasingly refuted along a range of research and reflection, including the work of Katherine Hayles, as well as that of Pierre Lévy (1998).

At the same time, the Cartesian-inspired epistemological models underlying much of the work in Artificial Intelligence in the latter half of the twentieth century—crudely, lumped under the name of cognitivism—were likewise receding in the face of emerging evidence in the neurosciences that highlighted the inextricable interactions between the various mechanisms and processes of “the body” and those traditionally affiliated with consciousness and awareness. These newer, radically non-dualistic views are captured under notions of “embedded mind,” “embedded cognition,” and “enactivism” (e.g., Horst 2011).

2.2 Phenomenology

From a historical perspective, however, these non-dualistic views are prefigured and developed within the frameworks of twentieth and twenty-first century phenomenology. Phenomenology can be briefly summarized as “the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view” (Smith 2011). For example, by 1970, Maurice Natanson, drawing on the earlier work of Edmund Husserl, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Alfred Schutz, articulates a phenomenological account of the self as inextricably engaged with the world moment-to-moment. First of all, phenomenologists claim, we never experience “consciousness” as such, as abstract—but always as a concrete and specific consciousness of (X). Natanson writes: “To be conscious is to be conscious of something, a something which then stands to the activity of consciousness as the meaning of its performance” (1970, p. 3). Such consciousness, moreover, is that of a unitary self: “In the midst of action, the choices we make and the results of our choosing are to be understood in unitary fashion, as involving a being for whom the perception, evaluation, and definition of the situation are aspects of an integral self, a being at the center and source of a world” (1970, p. 3). In this way, experiential consciousness is always relational— whether vis-à-vis its own self as made into an “object” of reflection and/or any further contents of consciousness, including other human beings and the world at large. For Natanson, this relationality is captured precisely in the erotic as the exemplar of fully engaged—and fully embodied—interrelationship:

[the self is] a being whose presence in the world is a unitary reality in which self and object are taken as integrally grounded in consciousness, understood as a directional force sustaining the entire range of perceptual life. Individual and action, self and situation, person and world are then bound to each other not only in their implications for each other but in their fundamental structure. Man [sic] is “in” the world as the lover is in relationship to the one he loves, not as the bearings are “in” the motor. (1970, p. 4)

In contrast, then, with an abstract, more or less universal self and body as located in an objective but external (Cartesian) grid of time and space—phenomenologically, we constantly experience ourselves as a unique “I,” one who experiences the world around us from our unique, first-person standpoint. Natanson contrasts “objective” notions of time and space with our experiences of always being in a particular Here and Now—one defined by our distinctive standpoints as rooted in our individual bodies. In particular, Natanson uses the term “corporeality” to refer to our firstperson experiences of ourselves as a distinctive embodied self:

I am neither “in” my body nor “attached to” it; it does not belong to me or go along with me. I am my body. There is no distance between my hand and its grasping. [….] Instead of the common-sense way of thinking of the body in space at some time, I am a corporeality Here and Now whose being in the world is disclosed to me as mine. (1970, p. 11)

Natanson points out that these efforts at description are difficult to undertake, difficult to articulate, and difficult to take up in part because of three centuries of Cartesian philosophy that, contrary to phenomenological approaches, insists that “man can be understood in qualitatively the same terms as all other objects and events in the natural order. (1970, p. 4). This is to say: phenomenology resolutely resists the subordination of human beings, our experiences, and our self-understandings to the early modernist polarities of “subjective” vs. “objective” knowledge. Rather, phenomenology shares with existentialism the insistence on the epistemological legitimacy of first-person experience, contra its denigration as “mere subjectivity” in early modernity.

This phenomenological refutation of Cartesian mind-body dualism is further elaborated in the work of Merleau-Ponty, which inspired, for example, the neologism developed by the German philosopher Barbara Becker, Leibsubjekt—“Bodysubject” (2001). More recently, Susan Stuart has likewise built on the work of Merleau-Ponty (and others) in her conjunction of enactivism with phenomenology. Enactivism foregrounds how “… through a sensori-affective, felt dynamics, we build up non-conscious intentional expectations about how our world will continue to be” (2008, p. 256). Stuart sees this view of embodied cognition as directly meshing with phenomenological accounts of our experiencing the world as embodied knowersand-agents. Specifically, the embodied agent portrayed in enactivism is “essentially anti-dualistic” as this agent is “… dynamically-coupled to the world in which she is embedded; thus, agent, world and action are necessarily intricately interwoven, and the agent's body, experience, action, and world shape the way in which she deals with her everyday pragmatic concerns” (2008, p. 256).

Stuart goes on to explore possible linkages between the contemporary findings of enactivism and Kantian epistemology. I and May Thorseth have drawn on Stuart's work (among others) as highlighting these linkages between non-dualistic views of cognition and selfhood in the philosophical anthropology we have developed in our work on trust and virtual worlds, for example (Ess and Thorseth 2012, p. xviii ff.).

2.3 Summary

These phenomenological analyses emphasize radically non-dualistic and strongly relational notions of selfhood and embodiment in our knowing and navigating the world. They thereby prefigure and complement the similar turns we have seen in the late twentieth century, including the literatures of virtuality and virtual worlds (Lévy 1998), Internet studies more broadly, and emerging neuroscientific views of enactivism and the embodied mind.

2.4 How These Developments Prefigure and Support Our Characterizations

I hope it is now fairly straightforward to see how phenomenology directly supports our first characterization of life in the (analogue-) digital age, beginning with:

a. By blurring the distinction between reality and virtuality;

Again, in the 1990s this distinction mapped hard distinctions between the offline and the online, between what Barlow, drawing on Gibson, characterized as “meatspace” vs. Cyberspace—distinctions, finally, that rested on squarely Cartesian (if not Augustinian, Stoic, and Gnostic) dualisms. The dissolution of these dualisms— in enactivism, feminism, and most especially phenomenology in the twentieth century—thus means the dissolution of a hard reality/virtuality distinction as well. In particular, Barbara Becker's neologism Leibsubjekt—“body-subject”[1]—neatly anticipates and reinforces our defining neologism of “onlife” as a primary way of capturing these dissolutions.

These developments directly support two of the remaining characterizations, namely,

b. By blurring the distinctions between human, machine and nature; And

c. By shifting from the primacy of entities over interactions to the primacy of interactions over entities

With regard tob: it would be helpful to recall and summarize here the extensive phenomenological analyses of how human beings experience the various tools we develop and use—most famously, beginning with Heidegger's concept of “readiness-to-hand”. For us, the point is just that in our experiences of using our tools in engaged and familiar ways–in Heidegger's example, a carpenter using a hammer— we do not experience them as alien objects radically separate from our subjectivity. Rather, “there are no subjects and no objects; there is only the experience of the ongoing task (e.g., hammering)” (Wheeler 2011).

So far as I can gather, this thread of phenomenological analysis further meshes with more contemporary views of “embedded and embodied cognition.” Steven Horst puts it this way:

Perception, action, and even imagination and reasoning are “embodied”, not only in the sense of being realized through some physical system, but in the stronger sense that they involve bodily processes that extend beyond the brain into the nervous system and even into other tissue and to biochemical processes in the body. At the same time, even the brain processes involved in cognition involve non-representational, non-computational skills of bodily know-how. The mind is also “embedded” in its environment, not only in the sense of interacting with it causally through perceptual “inputs” and behavioral “outputs”, but in the more radical sense that things outside the physical organism—from tools to prostheses to books and websites—are integrally part of cognition itself. We are, as Andy Clark puts it, already “natural-born cyborgs.” (Horst 2011)

The cyborg—“cybernetic organism”—figure here is important. At least some early imaginings of cyborgs expressed precisely the great fear that such beings ostensibly represented the breakdown and violation of a strong nature-machine dichotomy. At least by the time of Donna Haraway's famous “Cyborg Manifesto” (1991), however, feminist thought rejected such fears as thereby resting on a (yet another) mistaken binary (cf. Lennon 2010).

Finally, these phenomenological and enactivist insights are likewise at work in the Medium Theory I draw on, beginning with Marshall McLuhan's defining principle in Understanding Media. Most simply, we create our technologies, including our communication technologies, as tools that extend ourselves in various ways: but our use of those tools reshapes us in turn. So he says, for example, “Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology” (1964, p. 46). As Richard Cavell has documented, McLuhan developed this understanding of technology, including communication qua technology, precisely within a foundational embrace of the body and correlative rejection of Cartesian dualism (2003, pp. 83–85). With regard toc”: here again, the focus on relationality—over against, say, a kind of Hobbesian focus on the individual conceived on the model

of a (crude) atomism—is thematic in phenomenology as well as other twentieth century currents of thought.

As but one example in phenomenology: in her analysis and descriptions of various forms of sexual experience, Sara Ruddick first of all critiques more dualistic understandings of sexuality–i.e. as something that occurs solely between “bodies” as somehow radically separated from their “owner's” sense of selfhood and identity (1975). Rather, a phenomenological account of our most intense experiences (such as experiences of playing sports) foregrounds how in such experiences, there is no felt mind-body dualism, but rather an immediate unity of self and body. Not all sexual experiences count (or need to count) for Ruddick as involving such direct unity: but she argues that those that do are morally preferable first of all because in such experiences, our own personhood and autonomy cannot be separated from our bodies, and hence these experiences foster the Kantian duty of respect for the Other as a person. Ruddick further argues that such sexual experiences thereby foster two additional virtues–namely, the norm of equality and the virtue of loving (Ruddick 1975, p. 98 ff.; cf. Ess 2014). To recall Natanson, finally, our erotic engagement with an Other is at once the exemplar and a primary instantiation of our inextricable relationality with one another as co-constituting our identities as embodied beings (1970, p. 47 f.).

At the same time, at least to some degree, this focus on interactions more than isolated entities is already at work in Kant's epistemology. Broadly, Kant makes clear that science, as resting on both mathematical and empirical foundations, thereby focuses on the law-like relationships ( Verhältnisse) between entities. This becomes perhaps most prominent in his Critique of Judgment, with its focus on the sensus communis as an intersubjectively shared sense of aesthetic judgment (Thorseth 2012).

As yet another example: in his “theory of communicative action,” Habermas develops a phenomenological notion of a “life-world,” one “bounded by the totality of interpretations presupposed by the members as background knowledge” (1985, p. 13). Such a life-world, with its background of shared assumptions, is then the context for the communicative practices Habermas takes as paradigmatic of rationality. As characterized by his expositor, Thomas McCarthy, Habermas focuses on morality as intertwined with a socialized intuition that further brings into play the (equally Aristotelian) recognition that self-identity, as shaped by the society in which one finds oneself, “…is from the start interwoven with relations of mutual recognition” (1994, p. 47). This interdependence, moreover, “…brings with it a reciprocal vulnerability that calls for guarantees of mutual consideration to preserve both the integrity of individual persons and the web of interpersonal relations in which their identities are formed and maintained.” ( ibid) The phrase “the web of interpersonal relations,” finally, echoes and reinforces especially feminist emphases on ethical decision-making within “the web of relationships,” beginning with the work of Carol Gilligan (1982). At the same time, as we will explore more fully below, one of the most significant contemporary philosophical theories of privacy—namely, Helen Nissenbaum's account of privacy as “contextual integrity” (2010)—rests precisely on such relational notions of selfhood: Nissenbaum draws on the account of human beings developed by James Rachels—one that begins (again) with an account of selfhood as inextricably interwoven with the specific roles and relationships we engage in (1975).

None of this is accidental for our project. As I have documented earlier, Luciano Floridi's information ontology, as he himself emphasizes, “draws on the emphasis on the interconnection between all things familiar from recent environmental and feminist philosophies—and, importantly, from such non-Western views as Buddhism and Confucian thought” (Ess 2009, p. 161). This is to say: Floridi's information ontology, among its many other virtues, brings forward precisely the ways in which computational technologies and computer networks facilitate and enable our sense of selfhood as relational beings first of all. But as it does so, it thereby reiterates at least parallel understandings of selfhood qua relational found in both modern (Western) feminism, ecology, and phenomenology—if not in at least some version of Kant—as well as in both ancient Western and Eastern frameworks.

Insofar as this is true, then our focus in the (analogue-) digital age on interactions and relationality rightly highlights these as brought forward in striking new ways. But it may be more accurate to say that this is a renewed focus, one that has been brewing for quite some time in modern Western philosophy (if not in Kant, then certainly in phenomenology)—and one that would not seem unfamiliar to ancients in either Western or Eastern worlds.

  • [1] Leibsubjekt conjoins Leib (body) and subjekt (subject), where the latter refers to the full spectrum of facilities and actions we ordinarily associate with ”subjectivity,” including consciousness and self-consciousness, identity and self-identity, intentionality, affectivity, agency, and so on. Becker developed the term in conjunction with her larger critique of dualism and radical versions of social constructivism, in order to reassert the intransigent materiality of body, precisely as inextricably interwoven with our subjectivity. In this, she drew from phenomenology and from her own first-hand struggles with cancer. (Most sadly, the cancer ultimately took her life in 2009.)
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