The Broken Mirror: Paradigms of Subjectivity in Digital Writing and Informatic Culture

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

Advancements in social/participatory media and electronic networking technologies help bring to focus the complex interplay between aesthetics and politics common to all modern community interaction. Historically speaking, few other media formats have transformed social frameworks as acutely as contemporary online networks have. On one level, the diverse communities and social aggregates derived from such technologies seem to follow many of modernity’s more radical ideological critiques of what the philosopher Robert P. Pippen identifies specifically as “bourgeois subjectivity,” re-imagining voice and identity as collective formations to be culled from the cultural and political margins of the state. Distinct, however, from these prior revisionary challenges to cultural and social production, digital “network relations,” with their emphases on convergence over conflict, performance over practice, critically re-situate the traditional modern dialectic between individual and collective modes of agency that has dominated ideologico-political argument for the past century.

My paper aims to analyze how advances in new social media technologies continue to offer a poignant critique of the bourgeois subjectivity, while at the same time challenging traditional communal/collective modes of interaction as its primary ideologico-political alternative. Pippen, one of America’s pre-eminent writers on German idealism, reminds us that philosophical debates concerning the autonomy of the modern subject from Hegel onward have always approached the concept of individual consciousness through negation, often emphasizing its role as a kind of rationalising counter-structure to the more natural diversity of sensual experience. Even today, he notes, the prevailing “tone of post-Hegelian European thought and culture” remains one of “profound suspicion” concerning the one “notion central to the self-understanding and legitimation of the bourgeois form of life: the free, rational independent, reflective, self-determining subject.” The rise of social media technologies over the last decade, inaugurating what cultural historians and information theorists alike have labelled “Web 2.0”, can be usefully read within the broader context of western culture’s ongoing argument with subjectivity as a state of being perpetually on the edge of its own dissolution. Yet rather than merely augment earlier intellectual preferences for collective models of socio-political agency, the contemporary community as electronic network, as my paper will demonstrate, reveals strikingly new paradigms of subjectivity specific to informatic culture and its uniquely integrated re-designation of society’s public and private spheres. To help frame these paradigms, as well as relate them conceptually to contemporary examples of revisionary electronic literature/writing, my paper will recall one of screen culture’s more enduring – not to mention, playful – narratives, symptomatic, I argue, of the West’s consistently apprehensive, i.e., “suspicious,” approach to modern subjectivity: the “broken mirror” sketch-routine, popular in many early Hollywood comedies onward from the silent era. In this narrative, two participants dressed identically farcically mimic each other’s gestures face-to-face, while one of them is under the illusion that a mirror is in place, reflecting her image. As the sketch progresses, the deluded participant gradually comes to realise that no reflective surface is, in fact, present; either it was broken previously or it never existed in the first place. Of course, audience members watching the performance are never unaware that the framework in front of the protagonist is actually an open portal, revealing a completely separate subjectivity or identity across the way. The humour in the sketch, however, derives not from the performer’s realisation that the mirror is missing – in other words, not from the deluded subject’s gradual enlightenment, but rather just the opposite: once aware that the mirror is missing, the subject does everything she can do to maintain the illusion that the reflection is continuous, that the person on the other side of the portal is and always has been an image of one’s own self. Similarly, the viewer facing today’s networked screens cannot but realise that the images peering back at her are not her reflection – in fact, bear almost no expressive or existential relationship to her, and instead signify a very different social relationship to the external world. Yet, in order to maintain some semblance of continuity in both the self and its apprehension of the world, it seems necessary to consider (however erroneously) the growing number of networks surrounding us as a kind of reflective surface, revealing in the narratives to follow a uniquely porous sense of social environment, never fully visible, though always present.

(Source: Author's abstract for ELO_AI)

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Audun Andreassen