Digital Citizenship, Dissociation, Discipline

One aspect of identity where we’re stubbornly pre-post-human—where our physical body in physical space remains stubbornly operative—is in matters of citizenship.

Though it’s easy to argue that the digital identities we’re plugged into—social networks, avatars, online communities, financial portfolios, etc.—are more consequential than our physical location, try telling that to the Syrian refugee floating in the Mediterranean or the Latin American crossing the Rio Grande.

Footnote 1-01-01

In this sense, their status isn’t much different that of the passengers on the St Louis, seven decades earlier. [link]


The rest of us feel a version of this. When we’re waiting in line at passport control, we have the unfamiliar feeling of being processed as a body . We stand in a cavernous arrival hall, in back-and-forth lines, physically in a new country, even as our legal status hasn’t quite caught up. Only after our bodies get processed will our physical presence reunite with our legal status in the place where we are. It’s a harsh reminder that parts of us aren’t our passport #, our credit card #, our reservation #, etc., and that these parts are vulnerable in a way that our numerical ciphers never will be.

Only when we get our passport stamped will our physical and legal loci re-merge: thus, we become, wholly, “legal.”

No where is this clearer than when the intuitive sequence is reversed. In the logical sequence of events, you land in a new country and wait in line to be processed. But what about when you’re processed before you arrive, so your legal status (a digital artifact inasmuch as it’s processed in the software of the security apparatus) arrives at your destination before you do? I recently went through US passport control at Dublin airport, before boarding my flight to Philadelphia, and I’ve entered the UK at Brussels Midi/Zuid Station before boarding the high speed train that passes through the Chunnel. When my passport is stamped by US Homeland Security in Dublin, thousands of miles prior to my physical arrival, I imagine a virtual tube—a legal/digital status wormhole of sorts through which I’ll fly, crossing the Atlantic, already in the US, with the hours and miles a simple formality, during which my flesh will catch up with my citizenship status. It’s not hard to go from there to imagining a virtual map of the USA, with a million such wormholes extending outward like tendrils to embassies, ships at sea, and even virtual outposts, like satellites that tell us how to navigate our own neighborhoods.

All this might seem slightly magical—sleight of cyborg-hand—but these moments might also remind us that we’re never far from a Foucauldian regime of a persistently modern disciplinary apparatus. In this regime, institutions—hospitals, schools, prisons—with long corridors and rooms, house bodies for supervision and transformation, be it through care or education or punishment. If we have access to our liberty and a cell connection—i.e., we’re not incarcerated, or a student at most public schools or a patient in some hospitals—then waiting around to be processed might not be so bad. One of the great pleasures of the smartphone revolution has been the near alleviation of boredom.

We’re able to feel mentally (intellectually, emotionally) free, even when we’re physically constrained, via a device that allows—entices, seduces—a dissociation from the here (if not also the now). In other words, we await the processing of our physical bodies—at airplane gates and train platforms, in lines at TSA or passport control—in virtual worlds, connected to our loved ones, our entertainment, our news sources, as if we’re anywhere else in the world (or no where in the world, which may be a more accurate description of dissociation).

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In the post-human, dissociation is new normal. Indeed, it makes the Cartesian mind-body split seem quaint in comparison. The circuitry connecting our phones to our minds to our neurotransmitters to our body is obvious. We’re plugged in, body and soul. But it’s a uniquely fragmented form of consciousness that emerges from this connection, because we can be singularly disconnected from so much (our environment, our consciousness of our own body, our neighbors, if they belong to different networks or inhabit different epistemic silos). The most perverse (literally, perverse) consequence of this may be the strange erotics— an uneasy desire —that emerges when we’re returned to our embodiment, or when we confront the embodiment of the other, and the dissociative split simultaneously is and isn’t.

Dissociative disorders are related to trauma, but they’re not limited to things we normally associate with trauma. In some taxonomies, they include unlikely bedfellows like masochism, bulimia and multiple personalities. But then it’s sometimes hard to differentiate dissociation from a hypnotic state or ecstatic experience. The connection with some sort of trauma—the trauma of modernity, or of the individual divided against itself—is noted by thinkers as diverse as Foucault and Lacan. The perverse eros of it isn’t lost on either of them, and the latter even recognized that it needed to be called something else, and began referring to it as jouissance, much to everyone’s confusion.

A full theory of the psychodynamics of this splitting, of the dissociation of flesh and data, and of the rediscovery of our cyborg flesh within a disciplinary regime will have to wait to be fully (forgive me) fleshed out. But intuitively, it’s there, isn’t it? We feel it when we’re reminded of our bodies (and the bodies of others) as objects (objects of institutional gaze, of biometric assessment, of border transactions, etc.). We hate it. And love it. We’ve even rushed to wear devices with which we can measure ourselves (and send our measurements to the cloud for safekeeping)! Our bodies are us, and other to us. Our bodies are not only enhanced by technology (these needn’t be new-fangled, cyber wearables; things as simple as eye glasses have been enhancing the body for millennia), but our bodies also enhance technology (if it weren’t for our legs, how would our smart phone move to capture that image?).  And let’s just leave things like distributed cognition and internet porn for a whole other time. In the cyborg organizational life, more than ever before, we’ll need jouissance to make sense of things.

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