Virtual Emplacement

We often mistake the material world for a ‘true’ reality. In contrast, we see virtuality – the reality of symbolism, representation, and cyberspace – as unreal.

This becomes a problem when we attempt to study virtual experiences. If we regard video games, for example, as ‘fake realities’, then the only effect they can have on us is deception. We are thus restricted to the study of how we are duped, manipulated, or tricked by the ‘illusion’ of the media we consume. We overlook the potentially active, critical, and self-aware subject of video gaming. Is it possible to look beyond this restrictive perspective?

I began working on this question as I was doing my thesis research in 2015. At the time I was looking at how we know ourselves in-and-through competitive video gaming. I wanted a way to recognize the very real and tangible experience of playing games like League of Legends – even when they make no attempt to imitate reality. What emerged was the concept of ’emplacement’, which looks at how we become the object of our own conditional existence through interpellation and reflexivity. In this article I want to provide a context for virtual emplacement by looking at a particular moment in the history of visualizations.

The Renaissance Ideal

It may seem strange to suggest that we can investigate the relationship between materiality and virtuality by looking closely at revolutionary Renaissance paintings. Yet when I came across a short lecture by Michel Foucault I began to see how their role in the broader history of visualization might inform research into virtual experiences.

When Foucault wrote his book L’archeology du savoir (Archeology of Knowledge) he made an important move away from questions of linguistic representation to include an emphasis on materiality. During this time he was also commissioned to write a book on the work of Édouard Manet. The book was never written, but some of his research was presented in a lecture he gave in 1971. The lecture describes the different ways in which Manet subverted the renaissance ideal. According to Foucault, Manet was parting ways with a style in which the viewer was meant to feel incorporeal; immersed in the picture; to be in the painting like a spirit-presence.

It was a tradition in western painting to try to make the viewer forget… that the painting rests on this more or less rectangular surface and in two dimensions, and substitutes for this material space on which the painting rests a represented space which denies, in a sense, the space on which it is painted.

The frame and the canvas

When looking at Manet’s earlier paintings Foucault recognized a sort of flattening of the vision as well as an emphasis on hard lines that reproduced the rectangular form of the canvas (33-35). These visual works employed a shallow field of view, making it difficult for the viewer to see what is happening (35). It is as though Manet was trying to prevent the “effect of depth,” creating a sort of closed space that forced the viewer to recognize the rectangle of the canvass and their own existence as the viewer (36-8). This is exemplified in Manet’s painting The Execution of Maximilien.

The Execution of Maximilien

In this painting Manet has closed off the background with a wall. Foucault described this as a “violently marked and compressed closing of space” (39). The soldiers are cramped together, and their rifles are arranged to repeat the strong horizontal line of the wall above. Together Foucault argues that these characteristics have the effect of drawing attention to the materiality of the painting.

Furthermore, the distance between the firing squad and the victims is implied without having been arranged at different planes. In other words, the victims appear to be smaller and distant even though they are close. According to Foucault,

“we enter a pictorial space where distance does not offer itself to be seen, where depth is no longer an object of perception and where spatial positioning and the distancing of figures are simply given by signs which have no sense or function except inside the picture; that is, by the relationship, in some ways arbitrary, in any case, purely symbolic, between the size of the figures here [the victims] and the size of the figures there [the executioners].” (41-2)

Manet is subtly drawing the attention of the viewer to the canvass itself. This is a technique that directly defies the logic of immersion. There is a sense that something is a little bit off with the painting, something about it just doesn’t look ‘real’. This effect was intentional – after all, Manet was a classically trained painter, fully capable of rendering a conventionally ‘realistic’ Renaissance painting. This subversion was part of a ‘representational play’, designed to hail the attention of the viewer.

Visible and invisible

Foucault went on to describe how Manet developed and expanded on these virtual ruptures. In The Waitress (1879) Manet crops the image, leaving two figures who are looking intently at objects which the viewer cannot see for himself (50). This technique is repeated in the painting Saint-lazare Station (1872-3) which is reproduced below.

Saint-lazare Station (1872-3)

Foucault described this as a “game of invisibility assured by the surface of the canvas” (54). “The gazes are there to indicate to us that there is something to see, something that is by definition, and by the very nature of the canvas, necessarily invisible” (55).

The representation of light

Manet then turned his attention to lighting. In The Fifer (1866) Manet removed almost any indication of the direction of light. According to Foucault, a painting such as this would have been positioned next to a window. With such an arrangement, the natural lighting of the canvas would have matched the obscure lighting represented in the painting itself, forcing the viewer to acknowledge the placement of the canvas itself (59).

The Fifer

These sort of virtual ruptures had an impact. When Olympia was exhibited in 1965 it caused a scandal. Some art historians have said that it was the use of an ‘oriental’ painting style that shocked the fragile (presumably racist) minds of the European viewers. However, Foucault suggested that it was Manet’s use of harsh lighting, appearing to come directly from the position of the viewer, that caused such a stir (63).Edouard_Manet_-_Olympia_-_Google_Art_Project_3

According to Foucault “an aesthetic transformation can, in a case such as this, provoke a moral scandal” (63). By using these techniques, Manet was forcing the viewer to acknowledge their presence in front of the image itself (63). The scandal here was that Manet did not allow the viewer to be immersed in fantasy. By drawing attention to their material reality, the viewer became something else, something more like a peeper.

The viewer and the self

All of these visual breaches provoked the viewer to recognize materiality. These were ways of subverting the customary game of representation; to ask about what is unseen, to dare them to turn the canvass over. Most importantly, and what we will see in this final painting, Manet was impelling the viewer to recognize themselves.

In Manet’s last major painting,  A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-2), something significant is being subverted: “no longer space, no longer light, but the very place of the viewer” (73). Previous paintings may have asked the viewer to acknowledge their own presence, but this particular painting destabilized that relationship entirely.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

It is hard to tell what is going on in this painting. The first time I saw it I felt as though something was wrong. In a lengthy analysis, Foucault explains that there are three incompatible arrangements represented in the painting.

  1. The first inconsistency comes from the reflection. The woman is drawn in profile, meaning she is facing the painter head on. Yet in order to see her backside reflected in the mirror the painter must also have been shifted to the right. “The painter thus occupies – and the viewer is therefore invited to occupy after him – successively or rather simultaneously two incompatible places” (76). Foucault calls this a “centre and right inconsistency” (77).
  2. Next, at first glance, one might assume that the viewer is himself depicted in the top right-hand corner of the mirror. This would once again suggest that the viewer is standing directly in front of the woman. Yet Foucault points out that, on the woman, the lighting appears to come “full shot, striking without any obstacle whatsoever” (76). If this were so, then the viewer should be blocking the light. Foucault calls this a “present or absent inconsistency,” whereby the existence of the viewer is both necessary and impossible (77).
  3. Lastly, the man in the top-right corner of the mirror has a “plunging view,” gazing down upon the woman as though he stood above her. Yet if this man was, as Foucault suggests, supposed to represent the viewer or the painter, his point of view would have rendered the bar at a completely different angle. There would have been a greater distance between the edge of the marble counter and the gold-framed bottom of the mirror (77-8). Likewise the woman – drawn in perfect profile – is positioned at equal height (77). Manet has here created an inconsistently ascending and a descending gaze.

I will allow Foucault explain the significance of these perspectival departures:

This exclusion, if you will, of every stable and defined place where we locate the viewer, is evidently one of the fundamental properties of this picture and explains at once the enchantment and the malaise that one feels in looking at it. While all classical painting, by its system of lines, of perspective, of vanishing point, etc., had assigned to the viewer and to the painter a certain precise place, fixed, constant, from where the spectacle was seen… Here, on the contrary… it is not possible to know where the painter has placed himself in order to paint the picture as he has done it, and where we must place ourselves in order to see a spectacle such as this. (78)

Manet was effectively messing with the game of representation. He was taunting the viewer, challenging their attempt at suspended disbelief. This provocation turned the painting itself into an object; a “picture-object,” as Foucault called it (79).

The point

At this point in my analysis I want to point something out. I have hopefully allowed you to submit yourself to the text. Perhaps there were a few places where you were drawn out of the text; maybe you recognized a typo, or saw something that struck you as wrong. But thus far you – yes you – have not been called into attention in this article. This immersive state of being is common. We are – as readers, viewers, gamers, and self-possessed individuals – capable of this remarkable private space in our head, but we are also capable of existing without recognizing the nature of our own existence.

This is something that Manet was fucking with. By doing so, he made ‘the viewer’ into a knowable category; something that could be pondered, considered, invested; he made the ‘subject’ into an ‘object’. Our existence is thus called forth, impelled by these virtual ruptures. To conclude I want to draw from the theoretical discussion in my thesis: 

If we want to know how the self can be ‘made true’ in a relationship to video games, then we have to begin by looking at the mirror-elements force light upon our singular existence, cleave us from the virtual experience. By looking beyond manipulation, we can begin to recognize how virtual-material emplacement becomes the axis upon which we know, practice, shape, and improve ourselves.

Digital Encounters: Why Carleton’s CMS Sucks.

Today I took a peek at one of my course outlines and realized that I was supposed to be participating in “online discussions” on Carleton University’s online content management system: cuLearn. Shit. Despite all the reminders I completely forgot. There is just something about cuLearn that makes it both annoying and forgettable.

Come to think of it, cuLearn is a perfect metaphor for how I feel about Carleton University. I love the brilliant and inspiring people here, but I hate what I have to do in order to encounter them. That is to say, I don’t enjoy the expensive, run-down, burdensome medium through which we ‘do’ school.

‘Encounter’ is the key word here. It’s all about ‘encountering’ what you love. Yet every blog, social media site, or email client is doing something similar. What makes Carleton’s content management system so horrendous? Lets compare it to other ways of accessing what I love.

Encountering digital art

I love digital art. I signed up for DeviantArt 11 years ago and today I follow 850 artists. When the artists I follow post something new it is added to a watch list where it remains until I remove it. The result is a routine that allows me to view every single item that gets posted by my favourite artists.

This is quite different from, say, Tumblr. The artists I follow on Tumblr post lots of stuff I will never see because it is time-contingent. If I don’t view the item on my feed when it is posted, I won’t see it unless it gets reposted on a later date (or unless I visit their page specifically).

Both websites are good in their own way, they simply structure encounters differently. The artists I follow get a different quality of my attention. This changes how I encounter, remember, and reflect upon their work. On DeviantArt I might view every image that gets posted by an artist and then never view those images again. On Tumblr, popular images are more likely to be seen because they get reposted on other people’s feed. So Tumblr has a way of creating a ‘nodal resonance’ throughout their network, while DeviantArt has a way of ensuring initial encounters.

We can compare a lot of different platforms by looking at encounters. I use an RSS feed to ensure that I get every new XKCD comic; my emails are pushed to my phone and accompanied by a tone; Evernote syncs all my notes to all my devices, allowing me to access my thoughts and activities by keyword search from anywhere. Digital encounters fold us into a discourse, over and over again. That’s why things like social media, blogs, and forum communities are important beyond their utility.

cuLearn does none of this.

cuLearn is about utility

I can see how this made sense when they designed it: it’s as though they made a big long list of important ‘features’, and implemented them without considering the ‘whole’ of the project. As a result, cuLearn tries to do so many things that it doesn’t do any one thing well: it is a shitty way to send emails, a clunky way to read or write forum posts, and an incredibly slow and tedious way to submit, grade, and return assignments. cuLearn is a puddle of features without distinction. It’s like taking the thing someone wants and burying it under 10 feet of uselessness. Every encounter is a chore.

cuLearn is about oversight.

Being on cuLearn is like that awkward moment when you are working in a group and the prof walks over to ‘facilitate’. Oh hi there professor *cough* ahem, yes, so my thoughts on this weeks readings are *cough cough*. Not only can the professors see everything the students do (what pages they visit, etc), but the administration is hawking around looking for copyright infringement. Nobody wants to work in a place like that, and as a result, students share readings, notes, and drafts over Facebook or email instead.

The result is something completely redundant and internal. The encounters I was talking about earlier are nowhere to be seen. To be fair, encounters are indeed built into the ‘features’ of cuLearn. I could, for example set up email reminders for any new forum posts –but I already have email! I’m using a redundant service on top of the service that offers the encounter? Why am I on cuLearn in the first place?

cuLearn is a metaphor

This is why cuLearn is a metaphor for what is wrong with Carleton University – and probably most universities. It’s a dead impersonal space. The classroom is a place to do business; the quad is the fastest way to the tunnel ramp; the library is where you go to find an outlet. These places are gone, forgotten, and meaningless the minute you leave them.

When I’m on campus I do not have a space, I am exactly like a person in queue at the grocery store, waiting for my receipt. Thank God the cashier is friendly, and that I have to eat. Because if it weren’t for the content I love, this whole thing would be meaningless.




Evaluative Criteria for Digital Humanities

Four graduate students got together to determine evaluative criteria for the digital humanities. The result was a philosophical debate and the consensus that follows.


We believe that conventional criteria of assessment can be useful, but are not entirely germane to the Digital Humanities as a contemporary and emergent practice. As we are in the midst of defining what DH even is and what best practices could mean, and so we think that a focus on process over end product would be an essential criterion. We would ask, “does the project advance a unique view on the subject matter, whether through deformance, distant reading, or other means?” In other words, through the SAMR model of technology in education, does the project Redefine how we think of a topic, or even what is under consideration that may uniquely contribute to the field.

We also strongly believe that clarity and transparency of process and result is paramount to well-formed work in DH. Does the project present results that are visually affordable to a scholar unfamiliar with the process used? Are the results also well explained? Is it visually or rhetorically persuasive, and also accurate in terms of research methodology? Is there an awareness and due diligence in the preparation of the corp*? In many ways, these are traditional guards against bias that must be upheld and not forgotten as we venture into DH practices.

We also believe that any DH project should be evaluated based on whether, how, and to what extent the project has been open-sourced, including proper adherence to standards like Creative Commons, availability on resources like GitHub, or another place to share work freely depending on the format of said work, such as Scribd. As well, the vetted results of the research could be shared on Wikipedia or another such platform. If we are concerned about the quality of the work to be shared, a hypothetical account of plans to share the material could be evaluated. In most cases, no real plan to share should be prescribed as part of the evaluation.

What are the implications of your criteria for your own primary field of study?


The implications for a musicologist with these evaluative criteria are profound. Tools such as Music21 and Humdrum exist to analyze bodies of musical work and can offer new levels of access and transparency on greater bodies of digitized musical texts, and the clarity that distance reading can provide on a greater body of musical material has been proven to provide insights on the nature of bodies of music.


For sociology, these two broad axes of evaluation are deceptively subtle. That academic work should ‘redefine the topic’ is an impetus that prohibits strictly deductive research and demands new critical insights. The push to share these insights is also important, as ‘public sociology’ is really only beginning to emerge.


The discipline of history would greatly benefit from a discussion of these evaluative criteria. For instance, many historians gravitate towards obscure topics and some work silently within that obscurity. However, many historians also understand the importance of sharing their research. The criteria would move these implied understandings in history to explicit discussions.

Applied Linguistics

Digital Humanities had a vast impact on the field of Applied Linguistics and Discourse Studies. The introduction of technology aids such as textual mining tools for both quantitative or qualitative methodologies of analysis are extremely useful but cannot be entirely interchangeable with more traditional means of analysis. Corpora data tools, the Google N-Grams Viewer or other topic-modeling tools benefit the discourses that the field advances however they are additional ways of exploring the data portrayed. For the scope of evaluation criteria, a creative use of these tools is advisable. ​


* “Corpi” is my special plural for the word corpus.

Locating Clusters in the discourse on Rape Culture

Note: These are the ‘field notes’ from a recent textual analysis I did. My aim was to take a quick look, kind of like a rough literature review or media analysis, to see if I could recognize distinct voices, debates, contestation, or resistance in discussions about ‘rape culture’. Here are my notes:
The best thing about Voyant-tools is how quick it is. Once you get oriented to it, you can kind of zoom around a large corpus with ease. This means that you are free to explore. In contrast to something like Mallet, where you have to type in command lines – you have to plan things out – unlike this VT lets me kind of follow my instincts.
That was my method this time: basically I wanted to just search around and see whats what. Here’s what I did:
I searched “what is rape culture” in duckduckgo.
I downloaded 86 results.
I combined the results into 1 large HTML file using a python script.
The resulting file was only 8mb…
Loaded into voyant tools, it had almost 300k words, and 20k of them are unique.
I notice that there are three broad categories of people discussed most often: that is ‘men’, ‘women’, and ‘people’.
Interestingly, if I look at the bubblelines for these three words, there are instances where men are not talked about, but there are very few instances where women are not talked about frequently. Women are always talked about alongside rape.
The exact phrase “rape culture” was used 1,437 times.
Voyant-tools often crashes when I search for 2 words together… this time it gave me an unreadable error.
So I looked at the word “culture” instead – used 2,004 times.
The word rape was used within 5 words of culture 1890/2004 times, so I know that the word culture was rarely used unless it was referring to rape culture (or ‘culture of rape’) in this corpus.
The next closest words – word collocates – were:
  • women
  • sexual
  • violence
  • society
  • like (a spurious effect of websites)
  • term
  • definition
  • people
  • exists
I found some of these words curious, so I looked around at different collocates. I looked at the word ‘definition’, which was used near “culture” 52 times.
Next to ‘definition’ are the words:
  • rape
  • culture
  • deny
  • people
  • new
  • good
  • fact
  • men
  • society
  • percent
Exploring word collocates allows me to make some really general speculations. In this case, I see that when the word ‘definition’ is mentioned, words like ‘women’, ‘violence’, and ‘exist’ drop off, and are replaced by words like “deny’, ‘fact’, ‘men’, and ‘percent’. I see a contrast here, then, between the language used around the word ‘rape culture’ and the words used around ‘definition’.
Exploring these collocates didn’t help me locate competing definitions, but I can recognize a site of increased contestation. I can see that the language changed around the word “definition.” I think I am right to assume that there is a debate surrounding the definition of rape culture, so I’m going to remake my corpus more intentionally, this time using this search phrase:
“rape culture” “definition”
I could now compare these two corpuses to further confirm my suspicion… And what I like about this is that I am making the cut more intentionally. I didn’t try to separate “mens rights” blogs from “feminist” blogs – I built a corpus on hopefully neutral terms and than looked around for friction.
The new corpus, built the same way, has about 260k words.
Now I want to try Mallet and see if I can take this new corpus and find differences in definition.
After getting Mallet all set up, I realized that I need to convert my corpus to txt.  Unfortunately, my curpus is an HTML file at the moment.
I tried loading the HTML doc in Firefox, but because it was so big (64 pages combined into one, replete with all the original scripts, videos, images, and so on) it crashed the browser. I tried fixing this a number of ways but I failed.
So I spent about 2 hours trying to get an old python script (authored by Aaron Shwartz, of all people) to parse the HTML, pulling out visible text.
I failed.
I spent another hour screwing around with various python scripts.
I failed.
Finally I loaded the HTML file into Notepad++ (a script editor), used special search commands to delete every line that didn’t have <p> in it. This made it so that I had reduced the document to just the text that shows up in paragraphs – which is fine enough for me.
Then I could load it in Firefox, save a text file… I’m sure there was an easier way to do this but I couldn’t figure it out.
I loaded the file into Mallet and tried a few different models. I found that it helped to set tight parameters – probably because the topics were so close. Here are what I believe were the most interesting results:
  1. campus set age recent alcohol badges parents future basic lost jobs wrote full needed working speaking federal constant paper
    • This seems to be talking about collage issues: age, alcohol, parents, lost jobs, speaking, paper…
  2. die und der zu ist von es als eine das dass frauen vergewaltigung sich einer gewalt rapeculture auf den
    • This one is german… lol.
  3. rape culture women men people don sexual raped victim woman man point make crime victims male sex time assault
    • This one mentions culture, and also has a lot of the same words that were collocated with “rape culture” in my last corpus. ‘Culture’, ‘men’, and ‘women’ are attached to the most graphic language here.
  4. address alleged aware unacceptable due front move force neutral felt dem write hurt ten entitled people belief fucking deserved
    • I am wondering if it doesn’t sort of represent anti-feminist voices. I know that common ‘men’s rights’ critiques of ‘rape culture’ use words like ‘alleged’ and ‘hurt’ cynically, and are quick to point of the ‘entitled’ voice of the victim.
  5. http www top washingtonpost pb march nid punished online survivor style ghomeshi typical partner blame supposed akin witness panic
    • At first glance this topic seemed silly, but then I saw that the name “Ghomeshi” is attached to all those terms about websites/media. Ghomeshi has been in the news a lot oately – but I had thought it was mostly a Canadian issue. My corpus should not represent Canada, specifically, because I used DuckDuckGo. Ghomeshi has probably been big news all over the internet.
So I have to admit that I’m really impressed with what Mallet can do, right off the bat. I am inclined, once again, to use this tool along with VT and reflexive rebuilding of my corpus. I would want to follow some of the interesting words, fine their location in the body of the text, and figure out what they’re talking about. Of course, now that I can recognize these clusters I can be more intentional about how I go about close reading or further research. I got really frustrated trying to make this thing work but I think I will be using it in my everyday research process now.




Crappy Infographic About Prostitution

Take a look at this “infographic” (although I would argue that it’s not really an infographic):
Canada Prostitution Infograph

Infographics are nice and all, but this data is utterly pointless without any reference to where it comes from.

I’m not trying to dispute the evidence they present, but insight comes from understanding it. Stats are pointless unless you know how they are made. That’s why I typically look for peer-reviewed references – not because peer-reviewed journals are the ultimate source of truth, but because they require a methods section. It’s not about truth it’s about ‘how’ and ‘what’.

For example, how do they know that “92% of prostitutes would immediately quit if they could”? From what population was the sample taken? How did they make the inference? How strong was the relationship? How was the question asked? What’s preventing them from quitting?

You could go even deeper and ask how the test subjects understood ‘quitting’ to begin with. It’s not like they’re on a contract or employed with a salary and benefits. It occurs to me that there might well be a blurry line between working and non-working sex work.

The fact that we can apply the label of ‘prostitute’ is itself a product of a history ‘kind-making’. If you seek the origin of this label in the bible (and this is hearsay I would encourage you to substantiate, just based off of other stuff I’ve read), it is likely the case that ‘prostitution’ was conceptualized throughout ancient culture as being an act, not a status, label, or identity (as is the case with homosexuality; you’ll notice for example that that the latest NIV changed 1 Cor 6:9 to say “men who have sex with men” instead of “homosexuals” – increasingly we’re coming to realize that the labels and identities we use today don’t apply to the past).

Although I am straying from the question of the statistics, what I’m really trying to say is that we have to know how ‘prostitution’ is itself conceptualized before we can understand such simple sounding statistics. Not that I expect everyone to look so deeply into every number they read (I certainly won’t, I have essays to write!), but when people make these fact sheets they should provide a source so that critical thinkers with time on their hands can dig in deeper.

If we change the way we ask questions, we get different answers. That’s why we have to understand how stats, data, or any truth claims are made. Again, this is less about debating the evidence of the piece, just the presuppositions.

I dug around a bit and found what I think might be the source of this data; it’s a research paper by Jacqueline Lynne and Melissa Farley, and I think it’s actually a really good piece – worth the read even though it’s not asking the same questions as I am.

If you take a look you will see how the infographic makes facts out of rough estimates. You’ll see, for example, that when the graphic says that the “average age of entry [into prostitution] is 13,” they are choosing the most dramatic way to reference a finding cited as “between thirteen and nineteen.” Likewise when the graphic says that “92% of prostitutes would quit immediately if they could” they are averaging two findings, one which is from a study published 27 years ago (which is not in print and cannot be found anywhere), which apparently observed 95% of their population would immediately quit (again, this can’t be substantiated and it is almost 30 years old). The other number comes from Lynne and Farley, who interviewed 100 prostituting women in Vancouver – This sample does not represent all prostitutes: it was too small and it was not randomly selected. Worse, the interviewees were people who were already in contact with support agencies, so they were likely already trying to get out of the business. So to somehow take these two observations and infer that 92% of all prostitutes would quit immediately is as unsubstantiated as you could possibly get. Again, I am not offering counter-evidence, the burden of proof is on them, but there is absolutely no reason we should take these statistics seriously.

As for the conclusions drawn from the statistics, again these rely on a variety of unfounded presuppositions. For example, the hailed ‘Nordic model’ assumes that [1] men are in a bourgeoisie-like position to exploit women (as in, they sell women’s their labour, take the capital, alienate them, and pit them against each other), and [2], that by removing men from the equation, we can change the market value of sex, and give justice to the female sex workers.

Sidenote: Isn’t it funny that a conservative campaign is using veiled Marxist theories to understand the sex trade? Shouldn’t the free market ‘solve’ prostitution?

But seriously, the problem here is that this conception of the sex market economy is based off of absurd notions of how the market actually works. You should let Philip N. Cohen explain this argument to you because he’s really good at it.

My own problem with the ‘Nordic model’ as a ‘solution’ is this: if women are being pushed into sex work because they have no other options, than how are we solving that problem by removing one of the few options they have?

I am not saying that women love being prostitutes, or that they choose sex work with full freedom to do otherwise. Instead, if I were to look into this further (and I wish I could, truly), I would look more closely at what is and isn’t possible for women in their situation, and how did it come to this? What can we do to provide alternatives for young people who run away from home? What can we do to support parents who are struggling to keep their family life under control? What is the nature of sex work, and how can we change it for the better? How are women sex workers being dominated, how do we know this, and how can we change it?

I don’t have the answer to these questions, but neither does this infographic. Sorry.

Share Thyself Know Thyself

GO WEST image

This morning I woke up and checked my Facebook account. I am not the only one who did this; I am one among 1.1 billion users Facebook claims to see each month (AP, 2013). That is 1.1 billion human beings who are actively engaged in this project to capture moments of their lives – of lived material experiences – and convert them into segmented packages, and shared bits of binary data. It may seem trivial or superficial but this mundane practice is significant in meaning and scale. New spaces for relating have emerged through the web, email, social media, wireless networking, and mobile devices. We carry this new world around in our pockets, adding to it, relating to it, relying on it. It becomes a part of us; like a religion it possesses moral codes and enforces ethical boundaries and, like pastoral power, it can transform human beings into subjects (Foucault 1982, p. 209).

I am not trying to be facile when I suggest that society is changed by modern technology – but I wonder if we often fail to recognize the intimacy of these changes in the daily experiences of networked social subjects. When we look at wide scale social changes, could it be that we are asking the wrong questions? I have heard that this is a risk society, control society, and a surveillance society. What have we become? Does technology leave us better- or worse-off? Questions like these attract our attention. We want to know what the world is, what problems exist and what can be done about them. Academic inquiry is drawn to things like the ominous prophetic words of Gilles Deleuze, at “the numerical language of control” (1992); we speculate over new capacities for domination and the ways in which the masses are divided, filtered and managed. Deleuze’s notion of the “control society” cares nothing for the individual – it is characterized by a power over the ebbs and flows of human masses, a power that does not touch the individual. It “dividualizes,” controlling us without doing the kind of disciplinary work of which Foucault spoke (Deleuze 1992). Some academics have used this model to illustrate an advancing power, ever-encroaching into the daily lives of human “dividuals,” increasingly governing and filtering the flow of various multitudes, like immigrants, traffic offenders, or money (Deleuze 1992; O’Malley 2010; Walters 2006). But can we truly say that we have observed a total societal shift? Is this truly a ‘control society’ when our only contact with these mechanisms comes when we cross national borders, or when we drive wolfishly through red lights?

When I look at the example of Facebook, I find it more fruitful to consider the ways in which social interactions have migrated online. The individualizing power that Foucault spoke of can be found in these new spaces, at the immediate level of everyday life where mediated social interactions make human beings into subjects. I wonder if we are failing to recognize the excessive powers that Foucault warned us about – the power to subjectify human beings – when we narrow our gaze to the technological capacities for domination, control and surveillance (1992). Rather than a control society, I believe that we have become a society of autobiographers; a culture engaged in self-formational practices that are increasingly performed online. In this essay I want to consider how sharing yourself is a way of knowing yourself, and to ask how digitally mediated spaces might change who we are and who we can be. My objective is to sketch out new concepts that might help analyse online social spaces. I am going to look at Facebook as a “technology of the self” (1988); as a space where users are constantly prompted to define who they are, to share their thoughts and to construct personal histories. I will discuss some of the concerns that arise when trying to analyse this type of space. Then lastly, I am going to consider how such a space mediates meaning and what can be said about this new social environment.

A Facebook profile is many things. It is a personal narrative, a performance, and a catalogue of self-classifications. It is a space where we deposit small parts of ourselves; fragments of our lived daily experiences. Our Facebook profiles tell stories about our past and our present; our identity and our beliefs; our preferences and our passions – and it broadcasts these things to a network of friends, family members, and acquaintances. When I suggest that we have become a society of autobiographers it is because so many of us have adopted this practice of self-extension. Suddenly, all of our mundane daily activities have become worthwhile information that should be shared with everyone we know. It is not, I should caution, that we have become increasingly conceded or selfish – we have not come to expect or demand more attention, per se – but rather we have moved a lot of our social relating into a new digital space that is more connected, public, and transparent.

When I talk about a Facebook profile I am not implying that it is a “representation” – like an avatar in a virtual space. The Facebook profile is not a recreation of the self – but a performance of the self. Early enthusiasts may have marvelled as the web’s capacity for anonymity and bodilessness, but this is not the case with Facebook. Facebook was designed to connect people who already know each other locally, and profiles are often so heavily laden with photographs that “bodilessness” is generally unachievable. Questions about representation may only serve to distract from the strategies and struggles that take place on Facebook. In particular, they fail to recognise the practices that make Facebook a technology of the self.

Another consideration that should be made in advance of any inquiry into Facebook as a technology of the self involves the notion of private and public spaces. Facebook is interlocked with the growing concerns about privacy, data-collection, and the predatory dangers of social media, but there is room for a more nuanced examination of how these two spaces are created. As I consider today’s spaces and narratives I feel it is necessary to reflect on the relevant changes that have occurred throughout human history, and ask what kind of spaces allow for new possibilities of being.

Consider the example of private reading. Roger Chartier offered silent reading as an example of a space that creates a private life where large quantities of words and meanings can be recorded, shared, and consumed independently (1993). Emerging in the 17th century, the widespread practice of reading silently allowed for a private dialogue that may not have been possible one century earlier. When we consider this along with what Foucault argued in his lecture on Technologies of the Self, we begin to see private reading as a practice of ‘self-occupation’ (1988). It created new ways to explore ourselves; as though a bright light was being shed upon the dusty floor of our soul and we could finally start looking around for those missing coins (Foucault 1988, p. 21). Who we are and how we know ourselves becomes a product of the work we put into ourselves and the meanings associated with what we find or feel. Reading privately created a private space – a private self – and it became a part of our identity. It is almost paradoxical, then, to talk about social media – the pinnacle of public self-broadcasting – as a way of knowing who we are. But it’s not really, because we know ourselves not from privacy, but through practices made available by privacy; the activities invested in self-knowing. Self exploration is not hampered by the ‘publicnes’ of social media, but rather it is transformed.

Mary Gergen (1994) demonstrated a more public way of knowing oneself when she wrote about popular autobiographies. The process of shaping and ordering your life into a narrative is one that involves a set of practices and techniques that are socially transmitted. According to Mary, utobiographies adhere to “monomyths,” or gender roles and performances (1994). In popular autobiographies these standards become models for anyone who seeks to play a similar role—to achieve fame, success, or normality. As I consider sharing as a way of knowing, this notion of autobiographical ‘models’ is important because they create classifications. Ian Hacking would call this ‘making people up’ (1986). What does it mean that we have become a society of autobiographers when these models are now being mediated in and through a space that is little understood?

Consider, for example, this morning when I checked my Facebook and found the following Facebook promotion on my personal profile page: “See Your 2013 Year in Review. Look back at your 20 biggest moments from the past year.” What I found when I followed the link was a collection of posts, comments and photos from the past year, and an invitation to share this with my friends. Facebook is telling me that this is my story. It is an autobiography that has been assembled algorithmically, according to certain models that are not concretely known to me. Is Facebook adhering to similar monomyths as are popular autobiographies? We may not know the answer, but this provides a space to contest the ways in which Facebook engineers model our personal narratives. I want to look more closely at this.

Each Facebook user has a “feed.”  This is the default page that displays the recent activities of their friends on the network. The feed displays posts such as photos, status updates, shared links or articles, and videos. What this means for the individual user is that any of the posts they make will be distributed throughout their friend’s feeds, and it is primarily from there that their posts will be vetted. Feed-ranking is probably influenced largely by each user’s individual history. For example, if you have a user who posts frequently and receives a significant amount of feedback, that user’s posts seem to earn advanced feed-ranking. Furthermore, a user’s own feed might be adjusted according to the user’s Facebook browsing behaviours; for example if the user frequently visits the page of a friend, the friend’s posts could get upranked on the user’s individualized feed. There is a large space of possibility here, limited only by the imagination of Facebook’s engineers. The important thing to realize is that Facebook can privilege certain posts over others, and that there are a variety of ways in which this could have an impact on the reception and response to certain posts. At the same time, feed-ranking happens behind the scenes, is easily overlooked, and could easily appear to represent a more organic or merit-based ranking. What does this mean for how we can know ourselves through the attention we receive online? Exactly how reliable is the reaction we get to our own Facebook presentations?

What is and is not made visible by this feed has a significant effect on what kind of response users get from their peers. I call this the “bigdealification” of meaning. Before continuing, I shall describe what I mean by this term. To ‘bigdealify’ something is to grant it special importance, a weight of significance, or to enlarge it in the general sense of consciousness. It means ‘to become a big deal,’ to be italicized; it is the opposite of literal marginalization. Rather than implying cause and effect, bigdealification is manifested in the interplay and impact that occurs when certain things are privileged. I use bigdealification here because no other word that I know of adequately describes the ways in which certain messages are promoted by Facebook’s distribution algorithms and made into ‘big deals.’ This also serves to highlight another theme, which is the recognition of inequality.

It often seems as though the internet is thought of as a perfect democracy; a place where anybody can become a self-made success. It is like a realization of last century’s utopian meritocracy. We faithfully subscribe to the authoritative concept of an organic network of internet users who are equally privileged. This is attached to a broader conception of inequality and stratification as mere effects of established social structures; as though if only we could start fresh – human beings without society – then we could be equal. Perhaps this is because we think of the internet as transcending historically established class, or traditional relationships.

Instead, I suspect that the ‘freedom’ of these spaces creates a place where authority and legitimacy can be leveraged. In and through environments like Facebook we can know things – we can measure them as they are evaluated by our peers. For that reason, Facebook’s feed-ranking has a great capacity to privilege certain things over others. As I draw on the more contemporary conceptions ascribed to Foucault, I begin to see the ways in which power relations are carried in and through social subjects and are contingent upon the past. Social relations are power relations, whether they take place in classrooms, boardrooms, or chat rooms. While the digital spaces through which many of today’s social relations take place are manifestly new, unique and worthy of more critical attention, they are also contingent upon the past, the political and the everywhere-power of which Foucault spoke.

The ability to discern between over-dramatized conspiracy theories and justified concern has yet to come to the sociological study of social media which all too often retreats to the level of grandiose prognostication. When I say that Facebook bigdealifies meanings I am situating it within a larger economy of powerful mechanisms which work together in a complex arrangement. Sometimes this power works to great effect, and other times it is truly banal. Facebook is like an orchestra. At one moment it can embody the chaos before the show, when artists hurry about shuffling sheet music and tuning up. In the next moment the same artists come together in unison, each part aligned to powerful effect. Similarly, at one moment Facebook can tell you something significant about who you are, and the next moment it is little more than a way of sharing adorable pictures of kittens. The analytical challenge we face is to discern what these mechanisms mean and how power is articulated to significant effect.
As I explore these new spaces of possibilities, I am reminded of Hacking, with whom I share a concern for the “philosophical and abstract” and to “look more at what people might be than what we are” (1986, p. 222). In part this is a position of necessity; Facebook does not make its feed-ranking and distribution algorithms public, so I cannot speak confidently about them. More importantly, the object of my inquiry is the immediate. I want to look at power relations at the level of the user, who may not know exactly how Facebook operates as a mechanism of mediation and distribution, but nevertheless engages in an exercise of leveraging, resisting, and relating to power as it is closest to them (Foucault, 1982, p. 211). I want to look more closely at the ways in which we relate to these technological, numerically driven mechanisms.

To use a metaphor, consider what I call “the gamer’s way of knowing.” Many games involve an interaction between the gamer and a coded, designed, numerically generated challenge. The gamer will traverse a game-space, building her character and learning the logic of the place. This logic is a metanarrative; it is something that can be found within patterns and themes. Although this game-space is often visual – a monopoly board, a deck of cards or a virtual environment – the gamer is struggling against and relating to a set of non-visual patterns and algorithms. The gamer is engaging in what is often called the “ludic” logic; the logic of play. She struggles against an abstract thing which rarely achieves the status of theorization or nomenclature. In order to win the game the gamer has to understand the rules, confines, and tendencies that work behind the scenes. The ‘gamer’s way of knowing,’ I argue, is a way of tacitly understanding telemetric spaces; of resisting or aligning oneself to unseen models and mechanisms.

When I speak of telemetric spaces I am referring to any sphere – regardless of the degree of enclosure – that is tied together by automatic measurements, accessibilities (access-abilities), and by numbers and statistics. Telemetric space is increasingly driven by computational communication processes, but they should not be conceived of as technologically determinate. I carry the argument Hacking made in The Taming of Chance, which is that we should regard the enumerated statistical representation of the world as a reflection of our own social and political rationalities (1990, p. 11). Telemetric spaces are no more reducible than any other social space, and they cannot be seen merely as the result of mathematical formulae. When the gamer comes to know the telemetric particularities inherent in the game, she is not necessarily ‘reading’ the game as it was intended by its makers – rather she is uniquely addressing an antagonism within the confines of her own consciousness.

Although I am, on the one hand, inspired to highlight the less obvious, subtle and seemingly banal interactions with telemetric spaces, I should also point to the growing body of practices aimed at improving self-success in telemetric spaces. As an indication of this, consider the example of Google’s secret search ranking algorithms. Nobody outside Google knows exactly how they rank search listings, yet a variety of things like search engine optimization tools have emerged as ways of improving your website’s ranking on google search results. Techniques abound when it comes to our relationship with telemetric spaces. There are innumerable blogs and how-to instructions on things like personal brand, getting your message out, accessibility, privacy, promotion and audience relations. Telemetric spaces are not always intangible and abstract, but by coming to know them we are also tacitly learning the models associated with them. These techniques are therefore very good examples of the subjectifying power of which Foucault spoke:

This form of power applies itself to immediate and everyday life which categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others recognize in him. It is a form of power that makes individuals into subjects. (1982, p. 212)

In this sense we can look at the practices, positions and relations occurring in telemetric spaces as part of a long history of engagement with pastoral power. Although the Facebook user is not physically entering the confession booth – she cannot hear the priest behind the screen or visually recognize the arrangement of space – she can, I argue, come to know the models, standards, and pastoral power against which she is engaged. Through active daily use the Facebook user intuits the cause and effects of their actions and presentations throughout the network.

To suggest that pastoral power is integrated into telemetric spaces is to refer specifically to the activities and practices occurring through these medians. In particular, Facebook practices exemplify what Foucault describes as “both an individualizing and a totalizing form of power” (1982, p. 213). Our social relations on Facebook are aimed often at situating us within the flock; at dynamically illustrating and authoritatively classifying what is normal, healthy, moral, funny, worthwhile and acceptable given the expectations attached to an individual’s identity. The user’s community directs us toward salvation: it allows us to construct a self that is ‘born-again’ into the ethical framework of a particular group. This performance is an example of self-occupation—it is a way of knowing who we are and what is expected of us. I will illustrate this with an example: I recently posted a Facebook status update that was admittedly quite odd. I had been up late into the night writing essays and later still, telling weird made up stories to my sleepless two year old daughter. The next morning, recalling the absurdity of my late-night storytelling, I made this post on Facebook:

Tonight ‘Chester’ learned that cocaine doesn’t perk up his mouse-moustache, and the whole family learned that daddy tells weird stories when he’s been writing essays.

Now I accept that this is a strange thing to say, but I was still surprised when my post was brought up later by a critic. This individual (full disclosure: she birthed me) felt as though my post was inappropriate, and would not be well received. Her criticism was fair, but what concerned me was not the state of my reputation but the intriguing rational behind her fear. How could a cautionary (albeit fictional and absurd) tale about cocaine be injurious to my toddler? Can cocaine hear me? If we say its name out loud will it chase us down and fly up our noses? This sounds too much like superstition to evade comparison to the ways in which religious beliefs govern individual conduct through pastoral power. It is, simply put, an arbitrary moral standard that is uncritically accepted by those who are eager to perform the role of an upstanding middle-class Canadian parent (love ya mom!).

Amazingly, as though my critic had anticipated that I would be writing this essay, she qualified her position with the following statement: “It’s weird, you know, it’s not appropriate to talk about with a two year old. Just look at the response you got; nobody even commented on your post”. This is a perfect example of the “religious qualities” of pastoral power of which we have spoken (Foucault 1982, p. 214). Facebook posits a moral and ethical authority through the sacrifice of users’ “likes” and “shares.” It is as though each member of a user’s Facebook network is casting votes in judgement of his or her presentation. Each fragment of who we are is brought before the ultimate judgement of our peers who gift – as though it were sacrificial – their favour to that which appears worthy. Am I a good person? Am I funny, smart, attractive, or healthy? Such things can be known through the pastoral power in telemetric space.

I suspect that I am not saying anything particularly new when I suggest that we are all knowingly relating to the mechanisms of power that set standards and models for who we are and who we can be. By constructing Facebook profiles we are engaged in a practice that is part of a deep and thorough self-examination process. Beyond that we are also asked to capture fragments of our lived experiences – our spatial and temporal existence – and to share these in a packaged format with our peers. In turn, our posts are vetted by our network of friends, being up-ranked by likes, shares, and comments. The response is not unlike that of a comedian on stage; there is no need to ask whether the comedian is funny, only if he earned a laugh. And if we can recognize these models they can change who we are. This is what Hacking was talking about when he rapped on ‘making up people’ (1986); we become aware of the models and classifications being generated in and through Facebook. As Hacking put it, “classifying changes people, but the changed people cause classifications themselves to be redrawn” (2004, p. 279). He called this “dynamic nominalism” in recognition of the ways in which we come to know things through naming – through classifications that become formalized in language – and how social subjects change in response to those names. What I need to add to this idea, however, is the fact that Facebook’s models are not always named. This non-linguistic ‘gamer’s way of knowing’ it is almost like dynamic innominalism, because we are not naming and classifying; we are modelling things algorithmically.

I have considered a few ways in which Facebook teaches us about ourselves. The construction of our own personal profile involves filling out a series of questions – often with pre-selected options. I have never made it to the end of this project of profile-construction. Each and every detail I add to my profile is met with a request for more information. If we want to understand the space of possibilities posited by Facebook we cannot limit our inquiry to the superficiality of social presences in telemetric spaces. Instead, these spaces have become a place for many of our social relations, they are connected, public, and transparent – but they are also invested in our private and personal lives. Our Facebook profiles, as my previous examples have illustrated, prompt us to search endlessly into our own experiences and biographical records in order to form a story that represents us. In turn this representation is algorithmically distributed by Facebook and bigdealified by our peers. Our posts are then weighed and measured by the response we get. Like autobiographical models, our personal profiles and historical narratives adhere to certain standards. We are being ranked, sorted and classified by these models, and only through a direct experience of trial and error can we come to know these mechanisms – if only tacitly – and through this knowing we can be changed.




AP (2013, May 1). Number of active users at Facebook over the years. Yahoo! News. Retrieved December 14, 2013, from

Chartier, R. (1993). A history of private life: Passions of the renaissance Belknap Press.

Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the societies of control. October, 59, 3-7.

Foucault, M. (1982). The subject and power. Critical inquiry8(4), 777-795.

Foucault, M. (1988). Technologies of the self: A seminar with michel foucault Univ of Massachusetts Press.

Gergen, M. M. (1994). The social construction of personal histories: Gendered lives in popular autobiographies.

Hacking, I. (1986). Making up people. Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individuality, and the Self in Western Thought, , 222-236.

Hacking, I. (1990). The taming of chance Cambridge University Press.

O’Malley, P. (2010). Simulated justice: Risk, money and telemetric policing. British Journal of Criminology, 50(5), 795-807.

Walters, W. (2006). border/control. European Journal of Social Theory, 9(2), 187-203.

Verified Be Thy Name

"The Tanhauser Gate" by Adrian Mark Gilles
“The Tanhauser Gate” by Adrian Mark Gilles

For starters I died.

When I arrived at the pearly gates I was surprised to find a security terminal. In response to my curious look Moses rolled his eyes and spoke in a voice that was intended for the larger audience waiting around me.

“Mr. Stevenson, this is Heaven. It is my job to ensure that only those of the highest integrity may enter. Please tell us your story, from the beginning, and don’t leave anything out.”

I was handed a golden form entitled “Heaven’s Integrity Personal Story Screening Standard.” Under my breath I sounded out the acronym “HIPSSS.” It sounded like a word meant for snake tongues.

After an alarmingly detailed identity confirmation process, including finger prints and a retinal scan, I was asked to find a seat among the rows of school-room desks facing the fortified gates. Moses informed us that our stories would be checked against a variety of databases ranging from police agencies to aggregate data mined from social media sites. If our stories didn’t match traces found on the internet or other documents, we would be immediately cast into hell for eternity. I wondered if my obituary had been published online, and if it made any mention of whether or not I had ‘loved my neighbour as myself.’

Incidentally, I soon realized that I might not get a chance to mention neighbour-loving. It appeared as though my ‘story’ would emerge through a lengthy questionnaire. The questions started off easy enough; “Has your driver’s license ever been suspended or revoked?” or “Do you have any unpaid parking tickets?” I didn’t think these ones would cause me any trouble. Still, I wondered when I was going to get a chance to mention that time I gave all my clothes to the charity, or how most of my friends thought of me as an honest guy.

Nine pages in, the HIPSSS started asking more difficult questions. It asked about alcohol consumption, substance abuse, and non-medically prescribed drugs. Would my Facebook profile betray my own depiction of a life of relative chastity? People always seem to bring the cameras out at the worst times.

Of the 17 drugs listed on page 10 I only recognized half. Of those, I was asked to note the method, frequency, date and time, as well as the “motivation” for abuse. Then it asked me how I paid for the drugs. Yeesh, the nuns in school weren’t kidding about drugs. I wondered if I’d get a chance to balance this section out with a section enumerating ‘Our Fathers’ and ‘Hail Mary’s.’

The questions continued and I started to feel like I was barrelling through a gauntlet at a fraternity hazing. The questions started feeling like insinuations and implications, like they were prying apart my life story in search of every minor indiscretion. It asked me about gambling, violence, and fraudulent identities. It looked for any political, criminal, and terrorist associations. One section queried my sexual activities, and the next asked about computer hacking. I found myself getting angry. I had lived a good life, damnit, and these questions avoided all the good stuff. “Did you ever experience any major changes to your lifestyle?” It would ask, offering examples like “divorce” or “illness,” but not “marriage,” or “healing.” This thing was rigged and I knew it.

When I was finished I realized that the HIPSSS questionnaire had created a profile of my evil twin and chained me to it. It would highlight my faults and regrets while neglecting any charity or compassion. Those golden gates were taunting me now. I glared at Moses, standing at the end of the row with a look of smug satisfaction. Then a subtle movement in the corner of my eye caught my attention. Slithering awkwardly toward me through the thick cottony cloud-flooring was a bright green snake with dark yellow eyes.

“HIPSSSSSSSSSS” it said, while climbing up my desk leg to look knowingly at my completed questionnaire.

“They’ll spit out your profile,” he spoke softly at first. “They’ll string together a story replete with credit debt, pot smoking, and a radicalized youth. You don’t stand a chance, man.”

“But this is crap,” I said. I was starting to get worked up now. “Any cutthroat psychopath banker would pass through this ‘needles-eye’ screening unscathed. Their sins escaped the gaze of international databases and courtroom documents. Their greed and hate provided gated houses and skyscraper offices. For that they’ll go with a story untold through the gates of Heaven? For that they get salvation?”

“When God said ‘obey’ He meant it. The straight and narrow was clear enough: work hard, get ahead, and keep your nose clean when other people can see it. These gates do not admit the publicly corruptible. Did you not know that your integrity would be measured by driving records and social media profiles?

The question lingered, as I tried to decipher just what the snake was getting at.

“Right about now I’m supposed to offer you an apple, right?” His snakey-snake face seemed to smile cleverly as he roped his scaly body loosely around the top of my desk. “Or maybe it’s a fig or something, I don’t remember. Instead I’ll offer you this: a do-over. I’ll send you back down, and you can have another crack at it.”

He followed my eyes over to the gates. It looked like Moses had selected several people for body searches.

“Moses won’t mind, he’s got his hands full already. Just don’t screw it up this time, OK?

“OK.” I said, after noting that ‘have you ever made a deal with the devil?’ was not a question on the HIPSSS.

“Alright, so let’s see, where did it start going wrong? Was it when you got your driver’s license, or when you signed up for Facebook?”

The snake sifted through my HIPSSS results for a minute before reaching a decision. Then, without any further explanation. He lifted his head, recoiled slightly, and spat a burning white substance into my eyes.

When I awoke I was in my childhood bedroom. It was early morning before school. I wrote this whole thing down so I wouldn’t forget it.

I wonder if it’s too early to get a credit card and start building a good record?


P.S. Heaven has weird legalese.


Heaven’s Integrity Personal Story Screening Standard


Your name here:___________________, who art in heaven,

Verified be thy name.

Write thy story here, in Heaven

as it was on Earth.

Give us this day your daily life, and underline your trespasses,

As we measure them against trespasses hence.

Lead us into your temptations

And deliver us of your evil

For this is the Kingdom

And you’re not allowed in it

Unless you’re clever,








The Digital Self

Every time I log into Facebook it asks me where I grew up. It even produces options, one of which is correct, based on an algorithm. Not knowing my place of origin is a hole in my profile that is apparently untenable. The story of my life – the data-imprint of who I am – obligates the sacrifice of information. I may never know the mathematical techniques they use, but I know they are there, and that they carry some authority. After all, don’t people want to know where I grew up? Won’t such information help complete my digital life?If I tell Facebook where I grew up I will be categorized. In the exchange, I might get to see some old friends – if remotely. My place in the collective is defined by through this exchange.

This type of data collection is like the catholic confessional in four ways. [1] It asks me to explore and expose myself. [2] It is oblative – that is, it requires a sacrificial gift. [3] It is individualizing, and lastly [4], it produces a kind of truth about the world, and about myself.

Foucault’s The Subject and Power sketches what he sees as the prevailing mode of power – pastoral power – that governs the modern world through subjectification. It is a mode of power that was first used by the Church, which has come to prevail in modern society. The institution of the state has spread pastoral power relations throughout society. I am curious whether things like social media, mass data collection, profiling, modern surveillance and security, and recent advertising trends (now increasingly focused on targeting individuals on the internet) are constitutive of a substantive change in the way pastoral power is operated. That change is a speeding up and a growth in the capacity to govern at the micro level.

In my experience we are now being asked to explore and expose ourselves in a way that, while characteristic of the confessional booth, is substantially more detailed and invasive (or maybe ‘creative’ is the right word). The phrase ‘there’s an app for that’ is a great example of the notion that there should be a digital (social, connected, and shared) ‘tool’ for everything you can think of. For every minor detail of your life there are apps. For dieting, exercise, pulse counting, pregnancy, finding sexual partners, figuring our who to vote for, helping you sleep, rating your date last night – I could go on for ever. Assuredly, many of these apps record and track what you do, either so that you can share it publicly, or so that the data can be bundled up and sold to advertisers. We are exploring new territories within ourselves. At first it may seem mundane and superficial, but increasingly we are encouraged to track spacial, temporal, and experiential information about lives. In turn, these experiences are reflected back at us in the form of a narrative, response from others, or advertisements.

We make sacrifices – not because a dominating authority is forcing us, but because we are involved in a shared project. Building this collective digital reality is hard work. We have have to take it with us in our pocket, give it visual snapshots of our surroundings; we have to “allow” it to be imposed upon us. We may not be burning fatted calves, but we are giving up our ownership and privacy, and unlike legal authority we give it willingly.

It is individualizing. We are no longer ‘broadcasted’ to, but rather we are targeted specifically, often according to unknown mathematical profiling techniques. We are encouraged to create a ‘personal brand.’ We are documenting our entire lives and having it collected, processed, and read back to us in timelines with highlights, comments from friends, and relevant advertisements. What could be a more effective way to individualize society than to make everyone into autobiographers?

Lastly, a variety of powerful truths are generated by this mechanism; both truths about ourselves, and truths about people in general. Twitter hash tags have become a measure of public opinion; social sexualization (that is, the prolific sharing of stories, pictures, and videos of personal sexual activity that is often dismissed as “amateur pornography”) is thought of as a measure of our collective (im)morality; we can profile propensities for crime, qualities for loved-ones, mass-manage the flow of global populations, and locate terrorists. It almost seems like the capacity for this mechanism to produce truths about ourselves and humankind is limitless. Increasingly, it is through massive data-collection, data-mining, social media, and the mathematical techniques that govern the flow and filtering of all this information that we come to know the world.



Death by Categorization

Image by yuumei

Should you be afraid of categories? Are they so powerful that you should resist them or somehow destroy them? We know that they’re necessary, in a way, in order to stratify and support this massive and specialized society. But are we critical enough of their meanings?

I recently read an article on “youth-at-risk” by Tina E. Wilson. The category, she argued, carries with it a package of powerful meanings. Wilson argued almost fearfully that the “youth-at-risk” category responsibilizes the individual by labelling them, meanwhile it draws attention away from social problems by calling them “risks.” As I reflected on her article, I wondered whether she had given the category undue significance. There seemed to be a sort of presumption in her argument, that “youth-at-risk” is powerful because all categories are powerful. Wilson cited people like Ian Hacking as having already established the supreme importance of categories. It was as though categories are accepted to be universally powerful. I wasn’t fully convinced.

Ian Hacking’s Making up People weighs the power of categories. He lends some credit to Wilson’s notion that categories should be feared; that “making up people changes the space of possibilities for personhood” (Hacking 1986, p. 229). Who you are and who you can be depends on the categories surrounding you. I’ll get back to this later on.

Marcel Mauss also lends some weight to the argument that categories are important. Mauss’ 1938 lecture spoke of how self-identity is rooted in a long history of legal practices and moral doctrines. Furthermore, Mauss argued that human progress itself is marked by steps forward in our categories of personhood. Liberal democracy, individual rights and our freedoms themselves are at stake here, because they are all attached to the categories of self and person. I can’t help but wonder if Mauss wasn’t being over dramatic in his emphasis on self – the soul; functioning as our only source of independent thought. To Mauss, the only thing that could live on after the death of our body is a categorized, historically contingent self-identity.

Mauss also exposed some fractures in the argument, if inadvertently. My deading of A Category of the Human Mind found it to be a little bit linear. Human history was depicted as progressive, steadily working it’s way to the present pinnacle. All along this progression, the category of ‘self’ is brought into being by outside conditions. The structure of legal systems and moral codes were Mauss’ focus. It occurred to me that this forms a kind of cyclical process:


Mauss’ framework would look like this: People – imbued with preexisting historically contingent personhoods – shape and form our laws and moralities. Laws and moralities in turn potentially create new categories that produce new (more advanced) types of personhood and self. The implication of this framework is that our present condition is established through an almost universal process. Despite the breadth and complexity of his lecture, Mauss’ argument was essentially too narrow. It could even be considered overly positivistic, or naturalistic, as he tended to depict this process as a linear, determined outcome of a natural social process. What this adds to the argument at hand is a new question: how are categories formed?

This brings me back to Hacking and the previously blogged about notion of nominalism. Hacking described nominalism as the way in which we come to know things through a system of contrasts. In terms of categories, this can be extended to argue that the meaning of a category – it’s symbolic importance, or it’s power – is generated through a larger system of meaning. Categories themselves are thus only one technique of power among many. My image of identity formation therefore changes.

Categories make people

Where as before I saw categories as the “cause” of people, now I should group categories alongside a variety of techniques, all with the potential to be more or less powerful.

Lots of stuff make people

I can conclude that categories might hold great power sometimes, but not others. They can have one meaning one day, and a different meaning the next. Rather than fearing categories, we should situate them in a larger economy of power. Power is contingent, ambiguous, complex, and it works in different ways. We should be careful not to reify the conclusions of one analysis of power, only to apply them where they may not fit. When it comes to the category of ‘youth-at-risk,’ Wilson may be right about it’s significance, however she shouldn’t refer to Hacking as though such a conclusion is necessarily true.

“Crazy People”

From prepsage:
From prepsage:

We call them crazy people; the type of people who are so out-to-lunch, so utterly incomprehensible, that to attempt to understand them is futile. There are the extreme examples of crazy people: terrorists, nazis, hell even republicans – but when you really think about it, we can apply this category to almost anyone. Crazy people are useful. They explain things away; they let us go on with our business without the discomfort of having to empathize, theorize, or particularize. The crazy people category is one of many helpful tools that allow us to ignore the inconveniently strange.

One troubling aspect of the crazy people category is the inconsistency of it’s application. Atheists might call evangelicals crazy people, while evangelicals do the same to atheists. Liberals may say of conservatives as the conservatives say of liberals. It is a category that makes ‘others’ into strangers. Just about anybody can be considered a crazy person, depending on who you ask. So the relativity of the category strikes me as a problem.

Some of my recent experiences have troubled this even further. Lately I have taken to a particular style of critique, probably rooted in a naive interpretation of Foucault, but certainly preoccupied with the task of deconstructing, denaturalizing, and being sceptical of the mundane and taken-for-granted. Several of my classes have pushed me to reconsider this approach. They are classes that rely heavily on the kind of stuff that is so easy (or so tempting) to deconstruct. They are positivistic, or they lean heavily on the notion of being an “objective” science. Even some of the more critical classes I am taking seem to employ a kind of marxist ancestor-theory centralizing “ideology” as a sort of conspiracy-based explanation for contemporary problems. I was contentedly going about my business of critiquing these classes when I encountered C. B. Macpherson’s 1961 book ‘The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism.

What captured me with Macpherson is the way in which he strove to make coherent sense of histories political thinkers. Hobbes, for example, could easily be dismissed as a crazy person who thought that without a sovereign leader, mankind would succumb to a sort of wild savagery. According to Macpherson, previous critiques of Hobbes either wrongfully applied today’s logic to the historical texts, or they sought to expose the inconsistencies, leaps in logic, or presumptions. Instead, Macpherson’s close readings sought to explain Hobbes’ logic by carefully deciphering the ‘assumptions’ that Hobbes used in-overtly. His project didn’t validate Hobbes, in fact it opened new avenues for critique, however the interpretation seemed to generate a consistent theory; something that was relatively true, contextually. Macpherson’s hermeneutic approach caused me to rethink my own critiquing in order to genuinely comprehend different perspectives, even the crazy ones. I realized I was guilty of being smug.

Inspired, I reconsidered how I think of “truth.” I keep coming back to ‘truth’ because it is enigmatic. It is so fundamental, yet so troublesome. It occurs to me as I write this that I should talk about another recent experience where Macpheron affected me. For the past four months I have been attending the service of a rather peculiar church. Evangelical, charismatic, and entirely obsessed with miraculous healings, these people certainly fit my category of crazy people. My sermon notes from this church document a world in which demon possession, spiritual warfare, and spectacular healings are real. However, my habit of critiquing-while-dismissing wasn’t getting me anywhere. It doesn’t matter how well I deconstruct their reality, or how effectively I expose the inconsistencies of their logic; after so many months I had to admit that I was no closer to actually understanding these people. Like a bad ethnographer, they were still “other;” still crazy people. After reading Macpherson it struck me that what these crazy people were saying was true. True to them. I’d spent all this time critiquing as though their reality is absurd – like mine isn’t? So truth isn’t really illusive, or impossible; rather, truth is relative and contingent.

Instead of testing the absurd implications of a seemingly flawed and crazy set of logic, I started trying to figure out how this particular rendering of reality came to be. If truth is relative, then I have to ask: relative to what?