Internets and Identities
We’ve pretty much gotten past the point where cultural commentators decry the internet for dumbing down ideas and have entered an era of where we ask more complex questions about what sort of cultural, political, and social work the Internet, particularly its intellectual and literary production [blogs, onlines mags, newspapers] and social networking features, does. Note that the two actually overlap quite a bit: fodder for thought is exchanged via facebook walls (the undoubtedly apocryphal story of the founding of this blog claims such exchanges as inspiration) while blogs foment social connections (I can count a number of friendships that have directly or indirectly resulted from my writing here).
Weiner’s recent post on Facebook and Tunisia and the discussion that ensued is an example of how we’ve begun to conceive of the Internet as at least Janus-faced. The attempt to historicize the internet by claiming forebears, such as Robert Darnton’s 18th century French scandal sheets, what he calls “pre-modern blogs,” signals that historians are ready to look at the internet as a text, a point of power exchange, a site of identity construction, and so on.
It’s been interesting reading through some historical literature on recent technologies and social movements to see how historians have conceptualized a technology that is still very much in the making. Then again, so is the book. The question is not when should you write a history of something that appears “new,” but how you can write it so that its newness doesn’t drive your narrative. One way to remain cautious yet still attentive to the significance of the technology might be to think of it in terms of Foucauldian beginnings, which imply historical difference, rather than of origins, which presume causation.
A failed attempt to think about the historical significance of new communications technologies, like the cell phone or the internet, in a nuanced way is found in the otherwise good book by Mikael Hard and Andrew Jamison Hubris and Hybrids: A Cultural History of Technology and Science . I won’t even get into the problem of the authors’ underlying premise that modern technology has engendered cyborg hybridity [it might be interesting to think about why we think about it like that, but not to actually appropriate the concept as your own analytical tool. After all, wasn’t the first time a human picked up a hammer an instance of techno-human hybridity?]
The following description of cell phones from Hubris and Hybridity rehearses simplistic themes of technological alienation and superficiality completely detached from concurrent phenomena:
The irony seems to be that as we communicate more with more people, the content of this communication becomes ever more superficial. Cell phones definitely allow greater flexibility and the appropriation of new spaces, but do they really guarantee closer contacts and more intimate relations?
These seem silly questions, and my use of Skype this summer to stay connected with family and friends is an easy anecdotal counter.Which perhaps points to a another thing to be aware of when writing histories of things that your readers will consider contemporary to them: everyone has a countering anecdote.
The other, and for me more interesting, example of a historian looking at the effect of the internet was in Ilse Lenz’s Die Neue Frauenbewegung in Deutschland [The New Women’s Movement in Germany] where she briefly discusses how the internet in the late 1990s helped to demonstrate the constructiveness of gender, as men and women were able to moonlight as various, multiple sexual and gender identities online in ways they were typically unable to in their public lives.
If we follow Judith Butler and see gender as a performance, an identity that is constituted through repetitive stylized acts, a repetition that both fortifies and undercuts identity as small but potentially significant changes are introduced in the performance, then what has the internet contributed to our conceptualization of gender identities? Some might say that the internet’s wide distribution of hard core porn has re-awoken a primal violent male sexuality [I’ll get to that in a different post]. Carl Elliott’s Better than Well describes how the internet allows marginalized queer (in a broad sense) identities to form biosocial communities, thus strengthening such identities against a normalizing world.
I think though that Lenz is describing something different. Elliott’s queer communities conceive of themselves as embodying stabilized, if socially unacceptable, identities. The internet is a tool that allows these identities to be more easily expressed and supported, though it may also help construct such identities as individuals reinterpret their experiences into ossified identities as a result of the “semantic contagion” facilitated by the internet. Still there is no theorizing on how the internet contributes to the subtle shifting of such identities.
So what role does the internet play in the performance of gender? Does an individual’s gender identity change as a result of one’s internet performance in line with Butler’s miniscule but potentially consequential shifts? And is it only those who take on extravagantly different online identities that contribute to these shifts, or do we all?
Let’s take me for an example. Though only briefly. Both because I haven’t actually self-analyzed my gendered blogging experience too much and because I lack a certain desire to publicly plumb my gender identity online — undoubtedly this has something to do with the way I was socialized as a heterosexual female within the cultural milieu in which I was raised. I give you all leave to totally over-analyze the ambivalence, skittishness, and swift ducking behind theory all contained in this last paragraph at will.
When I began to blog over at my old, short-lived personal blog this summer, Something Pending, I made a deliberate effort that lasted perhaps a week, to obscure my gender. Though perhaps I was wrong, I thought the pseudonym Luce could go either way on the binary: perhaps it was short for Lucy (it’s not), perhaps it referred to Henry Luce, the American publisher (it didn’t). My blog design was chosen for its grayness, its ugliness, and what I thought was a sort of gender-neutral tech-iness. I described myself as doing “Criss-crossed thinking on reproduction, technology, and the law. With some historian speak. And maybe a few stray thoughts about my research and travels…” Was “reproduction” a dead give-away? Maybe, depending on my readers’ biases. But as someone who is quite aware of her audience, the lack of obvious gender added another layer of anonymity. I’ve wondered whether it was this gender neutrality or the general anonymity that allowed me to take on what felt like an atypically aggressive tone early on. Of course, that tone has now just become part of my identity as a blogger.
So here are some questions: was I erasing myself or was I passing? In being ‘gender neutral’ was I by default perceived, or did I perceive myself as, masculine? That is, on the internet: if not feminine, then masculine?
Secondly, does the internet mean the death of the subject, and relatedly, the author? Given the cloak of anonymity, do we take the opportunity to masquerade through a number of guises, or do we assume a stabilized one? Do we even construct an even more strongly subjective identity than we do in other spheres of life because we have more control over whom we interact with, more time to consider our written responses, more agency in determining which topics we will and will not engage with?
Robert Darnton made a passing “death of the author” argument about contemporary blogs at a talk I went to recently. But I’m unconvinced that this is the case. Blogs are most often about pseudonymity rather than anonymity after all. And those pseudonyms develop their own voices, often tied to their “real” world identity. My gender neutrality didn’t last that long because I really wanted to talk about abortion and reproduction from an obviously gendered (female) perspective. Maybe I could have challenged notions of femininity and masculinity if I had engaged passionately with these topics while “passing” as male. But at the end of the day, I’ve never been a very good actor.