Language as Concealment
“You might think your anonymous online rants are oh-so-clever. But they’ll give you away, too. A federally-funded artificial intelligence lab is figuring out how to track people over the Internet, based on how they write.The University of Arizona’s ultra-ambitious “Dark Web” project “aims to systematically collect and analyze all terrorist-generated content on the Web,” the National Science Foundation notes. And that analysis, according to the Arizona Star, includes a program which “identif[ies] and track[s] individual authors by their writing styles.”
That component, called Writeprint, helps combat the Web’s anonymity by studying thousands of lingual, structural and semantic features in online postings. With 95 percent certainty, it can attribute multiple postings to a single author.
From there, Dark Web has the ability to track a single person over time as his views become radicalized.The project analyzes which types of individuals might be more susceptible to recruitment by extremist groups, and which messages or rhetoric are more effective in radicalizing people.”
(there are some great links here, especially the link to the Google ‘archive’ at the bottom)
One of the charms of blogging is the thought of writing without support. Anonymity, or throwing off the symbolic scaffolding of the proper name, is an important part of this, but so is self-publishing, so is the offhand, ‘spontaneous’ nature of the writing that blogging lends itself to, the lack of responsibility to any particular genre or audience. Lurking in the background, I confess, is the thought of finally being able to approach the old modernist ideal of “pure writing.” As Mark Kaplan so aptly put all of this a while ago, there is almost an ethical obligation to accept blogging’s many potentials: “The words themselves must speak, can circulate freely.” It hadn’t occurred to me in the early going why any writer whose name or profession did not in itself grant them privilege would be anxious or have a problem with such an experiment, though naturally some readers would object to the masquerade, would not be willing to play along.
But in blogging these two roles are more than ever played by the same actor, and here is where the problem arises. Writing is not a world apart, and in a single, uniform world, concealment of any kind is at best pretension, at worst terror. My compromise, since the old chat room days, has been to write under a pseudonym (though ‘handle’ is a better term for a label that does not even try to pass as a name) while not making any special effort to hide my offline identity. This makes anonymity less ‘political’; less interpretable as an affront and more of a fun game. It allows me to continue the experiment in unreasonable, irresponsible writing without even the support of the secret.
It’s occurred to me lately though that the experiment itself — the effects on the blogger in the process of blogging — is much more dangerous than its potential effects on ‘others’ or whether it obeys certain standards of propriety and accuracy, the concerns of writing that retains ties to conventional authority as legitimated by some institution or other. Aside from the question of professional decorum, which hasn’t been a concern so far, there is the problem of style. This blog has no subject, there is no ‘appropriate’ style. But the problem remains. Whose style do I write in? Though there is no need for a consistent ‘I’ for the ‘content’ and ‘bias’ of the writing as a whole to be beholden to, each word and sentence is still beholden to the ones preceding it, even as it prepares for the line’s steady advance across the screen. Perhaps this question is easier, or even nonexistent, for those who came to blogging ‘already developed.’ I, on the other hand, am embarrassed by my earliest posts, only a couple of years old, to the point of wanting to delete them all. But has my writing really ‘developed’ since then? If so, in what sense? As I write, and I almost always write while ‘browsing,’ I sense my writing taking on new forms, appropriating new stylistic tics to match the influx of new thought patterns. My writing sometimes feels like the aggregate sum of these and other, previous micro-imitations. I know from experience that such a lazy approach leads to cliches, the repetition of others’ ideas, and worst of all, ‘faking it.’ And yet I rarely bother to make the ‘corrections’ that would make the writing uniquely ‘mine.’
Isn’t this the form of Internet writing in general? On the blog, and increasingly in my other writing, I’ve fallen into the habit of considering the simple marking of a reference — a ‘link’ — the equal of integration into the argument or general movement of the work (‘the’ work — another term that becomes obsolete when taken online). It’s as if I expect the links to do the writing for me. There is a grammar to the placement of a link, a way of reinforcing a point even if the reader does not bother to click on it (for example: “…but as we all know by now, the current administration is liable to say anything” — lenin by the way is really a master of this). The link replaces the citation as the mark of legitimacy. Many quite effective blogs consist of no more than a series of links and excerpts with the minimal commentary just there to frame the link in the sense I mentioned above. Isn’t the term ‘writing,’ signaling private subjective expression, a nostalgic affectation anyway? It’s used in the way ‘speaking’ is still used in letters; we’re typing, not writing. There is a difference.
“Pure writing” disintegrates in the context of the link, the remediation of text by the digital image, and the exponential growth of a self-publishing audience, its very conditions of possibility. It is replaced by free association (in the broadest possible sense), directed by emergent necessity. No stand-alone expression of personal truth can be made by an individual typer, however impassioned or polemical, without decaying into self-parody — or vanishing altogether, buried beneath immaterial mountains of ‘further reading.’
Bergson defines consciousness as the process of discernment, of subtraction and revision around a center of representation, which he relates to the body and its practical, material needs (the “necessary poverty” of conscious perception). This spatial language is itself a metaphorical representation, product of the need to locate individual objects according to their useful properties.
“Questions relating to subject and object, to their distinction and their union, should be put in terms of time rather than of space.” Bergson, the first great theorist of cinema, privileged the non-representational image over the symbolic-referential word, for what he saw as written language’s tendency to fix time in space, to dogmatize the distinction between the symbolic and the real. Still, consciousness is compelled by necessity to divide the real, to conceive of it as divisible: “Consequently we must throw beneath the continuity of sensible qualities, that is to say, beneath concrete extensity, a network, of which the meshes may be altered to any shape whatsoever and become as small as we please: this substratum which is merely conceived, this wholly ideal diagram of arbitrary and infinite divisibility, is homogeneous space.” The synchronic division of time into individual moments, logically connected, with nothing relevant left out — the production of space, in another language — is “the diagrammatic design of our eventual action upon matter.”
It is the play of ‘pure perception’ (procedural memory) and ‘pure memory’ (episodic memory) that synchronizes our discontinuous impressions:
“Theoretically, we said, the part played by consciousness in external perception would be to join together, by the continuous thread of memory, instantaneous visions of the real. But, in fact, there is nothing for us that is instantaneous. In all that goes by that name there is already some work of our memory, and consequently, of our consciousness, which prolongs into each other, so as to grasp them in one relatively simple intuition, an endless number of moments of an endlessly divisible time.
“The qualitative heterogeneity of our successive perceptions of the universe results from the fact that each, in itself, extends over a certain depth of duration and that memory condenses in each an enormous multiplicity of vibrations which appear to us all at once, although they are successive. If we were only to divide, ideally, this undivided depth of time, to distinguish in it the necessary multiplicity of moments, in a word, to eliminate all memory, we should pass thereby from perception to matter, from the subject to the object. Then matter, becoming more and more homogeneous as our extended sensations spread themselves over a greater number of moments, would tend more and more toward that system of homogeneous vibrations of which realism tells us, although it would never coincide entirely with them. There would be no need to assume, on the other hand, space with unperceived movements, and, on the other, consciousness with extended sensations. Subject and object would unite in an extended perception, the subjective side of perception being the contraction effected by memory, and the objective reality of matter fusing with the multitudinous and successive vibrations into which this perception can be internally broken up.”
This ‘extended perception,’ or the apprehension of the heterogeneous mixture of space and time, rather than only being able to think in terms of one by forgetting the other, has been attempted through cinema, but we can see now where the cinema was lacking. The moving image can only communicate space intuitively, temporally, sensually, within a frame that, as Deleuze writes, “ensures a deterritorialization of the image…gives a common standard of measurement to things which do not have one.” Where writing and the diagram erred on the side of space, fixing empirical data and verbal imagery alike into idealized symbols, cinema errs on the side of time, only capable of conveying information by imprinting itself on the senses, each new shock erasing the last.
Have Bergson’s speculations been actualized in the Internet? The metaphors we use to describe the Web — Website, MySpace, cyberspace, etc. — are all spatial, even though what they are trying to describe has nothing to do with space. Indeed, what all these words ‘signify’ is exactly what they subsume and delete from consciousness — Web Space is the negation of space. The Internet presents itself, interface by interface, as a set of multimedia images which presuppose an infinite set of potentially accessible, interconnected multimedia images, existing simultaneously, virtually. The passage of time is the result of conscious action: though new content is ‘added’ every second, for you nothing changes, time does not advance, until you click a link, until you ‘travel’ to a new ‘site.’ Not only does this imply countless temporalities, but user activity both adds to (develops) the Internet and causes it to exist, to be thinkable as a coherent entity. The intrusion of memory as ‘content’, which is at the same time an addition and/or alteration to a virtual infinity beyond time (represented by the metaphor ‘database archive’), the replacement of unconscious or spontaneous ‘recollection’ (the madeleine episode in Proust), is made possible only by the pressure of real fingers on real plastic. In Bergson’s language, the present has attained maximum intensity: it is capable of retaining as much of the past as has been recorded (we are assuming an ideal situation without data loss) and of contracting any number of external moments into its duration, which is determined entirely by conscious, material action. Virtually speaking, every click is an act of universal renewal. It is also one of absolute risk.
Why do people keep clicking? The most general, useless answer would be human motive, or the messy, heterogeneous flow of freedom and necessity. As more and more interests vie for attention, it becomes difficult for the single user to individuate itself, or to ‘manifest presence.’ Without the assurance of a body, the user only appears as its activity, which, once uploaded, is open to modification and ‘misreading.’ The user is infinitely corruptible, teetering on the edge of becoming whatever other users wish it to be. What if this increased confusion means Bergson’s ‘center of representation’ no longer must rest on an individual body? He himself argues that this relationship is not intrinsic; action, conditioned by necessity, not ‘subjectivity,’ produces the location of a central, cohesive motivating force — the outcome of subtraction from the ‘periphery’ rather than expansion from a center.
As Jodi Dean has been noting at length (just look through the Sept./Oct. posts for recent examples), the Internet is full of users trying to manifest a unique presence wherever they can. Services designed to support/condition these desires — you know, Facebook, MySpace, Blogspot, blah blah blah — are tremendously profitable and rising in power (even against Google!). A cursory glance at these sites — and I assure you I have taken much more than a glance — makes it obvious that, like Windows and Macs, they were designed for those who are used to being the stars of their own television shows, produced and directed by themselves, and used to relating to others by sharing these very habits as ‘culture.’ The ‘distributed subject’ of new media theory is the self-as-brand identity, marketing itself through skillful associations and aggressive expansion.
What if these games of revelation and concealment — all of them, despite differences — privacy vs. confession, the taking of positions only to abandon them, flaming vs. earnest moralizing, insisting on the propriety of secrets in the midst of obscene self-exposure — the techniques of seduction necessary for maintaining the brand’s allure — consist in just the reterritorialization of the impersonal potential of the Internet back onto the subject, the reflex action of those who depend the most on such a formation in their day-to-day lives? The specter of pure homogeneity, usually with Orwellian overtones, is raised in defense of this behavior, demanding that the individual user differentiate itself as much as possible from the herd, but legitimately, gainfully, through integration into some sort of pre-arranged, ‘democratic’ network — the various identity shopping carts of the network society: iTunes, Facebook, etc., or the information profiles more and more sites require in exchange for content and services — the means by which the online ‘masses’ are constituted (Herd 2.0).
The fantasies generated by this contradictory imperative toward ever greater self-differentiation reach a kind of climax in the terrorist chic of The Matrix, where identity within the system, revealed to be nothing but illusion, is countered by the pure artifice of self-aware individuals who draw their authenticity and collective purpose from the real reality beneath the digital world. Unlike the ‘normals,’ their selves are constituted not through the arbitrary rearrangement of predetermined traits but through struggle, and especially (indiscriminate) violence. Their knowledge that reality is a secret is one of their greatest powers, and perhaps also one of their greatest pleasures.
Besides the sinister homogeneity of pure digital illusion (hyped by Baudrillard and exploited by The Matrix), there is another type of postmodern hell — the universe where everyone knows your name. This is the nightmare of a reality that has been perfectly mapped, ultimately just as threatening as one of pure artifice, and a trope that stories about escalating surveillance often rely on for effect. Common to both kinds of ‘bad homogeneity’ is a lack of secrets, of mystery, of fundamental ambiguity. Mystery and the hidden are in turn tied to freedom, a shadowy network which links in morality and the possibility of an ethical life.
Any resistance to the imagined totality of The Same then must involve secrecy and privacy, the guarantors of morality that can at any point come under attack as a source of terror. Every traditional repository of secrets — the Soul, Consciousness, Woman, or simply the Unknown — has its rogue’s gallery — Evil, Madness, the Maenads (and their descendants), Fear. Secrecy can of course be actively used as a weapon or a tool of seduction. But so can ‘transparency.’ Resistance to the terror of secrets is often, as should be obvious by now, also terror.
Language, which reveals and conceals in equal measure, is a fitting target for the Dark Web program, which began with the insight that to demolish an opponent one can ignore the content of the utterance and focus entirely on form, not as an end in itself but as a means to unveiling that entity so often derided as fictional by literary criticism: the author. What Derrida identified as the trace is targeted by Dark Web analysts as the unmistakable signature of identity. Meaning is irrelevant here; the author is judged as a user, by the conditions of its appearance. Where do its avatars appear? In what context? What is the aggregate history, what are the statistical trends of these appearances? Do they lead us to the subject’s vital information? Signifiers are treated not as the bearers or even producers of meaning, but as acts, with consequences retroactively determined by the dominating structure. Only allies debate; enemies attack, and from this perspective the anonymous author can only be treated as a potential enemy. The subject, just because it is a theoretical/legal construct, is the only target that is certain. Consider the hint of a threat behind this paean to normalcy, where an unfortunate blogger is informed that true communication will not be possible until after he/she has created an identity that is readable as a subject (even despite the fact that his/her handle just is a professional identity).
This is because freedom is not really legitimate until it is subjectified, or until it is the possession of a recognizable human subject. The ‘inalienable’ rights and ‘self-evident’ truths of the Declaration of Independence are the criteria by which their bearer is to be conceived, a subject who holds and is responsible for rights collected under the name ‘freedom.’ Like the right to own land, freedom, along with privacy, mystique, and uniqueness (the shadow government of the Spirit of Liberty), can be revoked if the bearer fails to meet the standards of ‘responsibility,’ or morality, decency, consistency — transparency.
The problem is not that some or all do not possess ‘real’ freedom, or that we are losing our privacy, or that the mystery of human consciousness is becoming less and less of a mystery. It is that we are conceived only as possessors of things, and that this is, or must be, the essence of what we are, the seat of our motivations and their root cause. After the poststructuralist critique, the nature of the subject comes down to two capacities: to have and to observe. It ‘is’ free — after a fashion — only because it (retroactively or otherwise) claims its freedom, which, in lived reality, takes the form of specific rights and ritual behaviors. Echoing existentialism, the subject (free because ethical) is precisely its claim of responsibility over its ‘own’ actions.
The Internet has changed things, though these changes have not yet been fully processed. The user, for example, is not immediately a subject. If it will not identify itself in ‘subjective’ terms, as a thinking and feeling being in full control of its constitutive, contentless ‘secret’ (its consciousness, its ethical core), it must be forced into this role. This is just the symbolic order in action, terror countering terror. But with the Internet, an old possibility has become newly obvious. Subjectivity, a social function no different from authorship, does indeed involve a choice. It is forced, but only in most cases, not intrinsically. This means it can be otherwise. Isn’t it now much easier to recollect intention and causation around shared rather than so-called original purpose? Hasn’t this always been an option, however difficult? What is a subject other than an ID tag, the name of a network, its hub? New Media/Facebook’s distributed subject is a retrenchment, a move as old as history. No need to live without a center of representation, no need to ‘invent’ new ones — only to recognize ‘subject’ as the form of bad faith, beyond Sartre, that it always was, to accept that mystery, morality, and freedom are active only within communication and action and inextricable from them, for they are life, and are always motivated by the needs of the world of life in all their boundlessness — to know that nothing whatsoever is given.