The Networked Self

-- By GloverWright - 09 Nov 2012


The self, pardon the expression, is self-correcting. The city has indeed been the place where young people move “to make new ways of being,” and “the historical system for the production of anonymity and the ability to experiment autonomously in ways of living.” But maintaining anonymity and its attendant freedoms in a city over any significant time period can prove difficult if not impossible. Regress to the norm may be unavoidable: one cannot always move again.

The possibilities presented by the city are the possibilities of sin. Fran Lebowitz takes especial umbrage at those contemporary city dwellers who delight in knowing their neighbors because, for her, the entire point of living in a city, of leaving where you're from, is that you no longer have to know your neighbors. And not knowing your neighbors relieves you from the responsibility of living a life in accordance with judgments by those who know you, watch you, and think they have some idea, however crude, about what is right for you. That she says, too, that the city is the place of sin is, I think, absolutely right: moving to the city is not strictly about escaping “the surveillance of the village, and the social control of the farm,” nor just about finding new ways of living, alone or with others. It is about sin and the potential for sin – a negotiation of the relationship between the self and that higher law, divine or not, that has to a certain point governed it – and about deviance.

Historically, the net, like the city, has been a place of anonymity and its attendants, sin and re-creation. But the net lacks the constraints that, in a city, build over time. One can always explore new possibilities, assume new identities: switch networks, change usernames. The constraints of the net were always only those of the self engaged with the net, which the latter structurally discouraged.

The city is older than the concept of sin. There are many forms of running away: from serfdom, from forced marriage, from abuse, and many forms of restlessness that cause a boy (mostly it is a boy) to run away. Sin is a reason. But Fran Liebowitz, who has many virtues, is not a historian. Varieties of experience are not her subject. They are, here, yours.


Academics concerned with privacy often cite Foucault, but they tend to ignore his later work on the art of the self, the process of creating and caring for the self. Animating this work are ideas about ways in which people who are endowed with privacy and anonymity seek to turn their privacy back on itself, to cede their anonymity and their freedom. Such attempts are premised on the individual act and process of writing, both to oneself and others.

The care of the self is partly the cleansing of sin – in pre-Christian terms, of impulse – from the self via the written word. Says Foucault: “what others are to the ascetic in a community, the notebook is to the recluse.” The notebook reminds the recluse that he must constantly be on guard against himself, that sin and shame have no recourse to privacy. Writing constrains “the inner impulses of the soul” just as “the presence of others” constrains conduct. Thus does writing – “a test and a kind of touchstone” – shed light on “the impulses of thought” and dispel “the darkness where [the Devil's] plots are hatched” (208).

Are we to guess the edition and know the title? Might this become a link?

What if we disagree with what is said here? Are you making an argument which depends on a point, or providing an illustration, which may not compel or satisfy us, but whose rejection would not impede your idea? If you had been less allusive and more explicit about what your idea is, we'd know already whether Foucault is merely passing through, or must be invited to stay.

Important, too, is writing as correspondence, where, in the epistolary relation – the placing of “oneself under the other's gaze” – “the examination of conscience [is] formulated as a written account of oneself: an account of the everyday banality, an account of correct or incorrect actions, of the regimen observed, of the physical or mental exercises in which one engaged.” Conduct subjects itself to potential castigation.

But there is also a positive, synthetic element to writing, a unification of the heterogeneous fragments that comprise one's reading and experiences “through their subjectivication in the exercise of personal writing” (213). Thus “writing transforms the thing seen or heard 'into tissue and blood'” and “becomes a principle of rational action in the writer himself” even while “the writer constitutes his own identity through the recollection of things said” (213). The constitution of the soul relies equally on synthesis and recollection.

The net has at least two profound implications for the kind of self-care in which Foucault is interested. First, it allows for the emergence of the private notebook into the public sphere by making structurally possible the notebook's dissemination, not so much dispelling the darkness in which the Devil hatches plans as challenging the idea of darkness at all. Second, it broadens the base of reading and experience on which people may draw in constituting their souls. The result is that the self constructed on the net was neither as constrained nor as homogenous as the self prior to the net.

This last graf is more tricks than substance. Both private and public writing were possible before, and are still now. You must depend for a difference affecting the self on the ease of publication, the no-time that passes between the composition of a "thought" and its dissemination to people who will "think" about the thought for a few milliseconds before moving on to something else. That the result is a less "constrained" and "homogenous" self is not (ha ha) self-evident. You've got to do more than say this cleverly in order to make it believable. You can't make your whole edifice balance on the points of two adjectives.


Marshall McLuhan? writes about an American solider serving in postwar Italy who was taken aback that all of the advertisements he saw were political and not commercial. The soldier, he says, rightly decided that Italy had much progress to make on the road to democracy, because – as the soldier conceived of it – “democratic freedom very largely consists in ignoring politics and worrying, instead, about the threat of scaly scalp, hairy legs, sluggish bowels, saggy breasts, receding gums, excess weight, and tired blood” (308). The soldier is not so far very from Seneca, whose correspondence Foucault cites to illustrate the importance of health reports – “detailed description of the bodily sensations, the impressions of malaise, the various disorders one might have experienced” (217) – and “the unfolding of everyday life,” where one recounts an ordinary day in order to testify “not to the importance of an activity but to the quality of a mode of being” (218). The contemporary web may have no more powerful justification, if many more compelling ones.

The soldier, like Seneca, has a body. So in that sense he's not far, I grant you. And perhaps he too is a Stoic: foxholes breed them more than they breed theists. But the soldier's idea has nothing to do with Seneca: his words, philosophical and political, have different meanings, and his thought is a thought Seneca does not live in a context permitting him to conceive. Why do we need Seneca here? How is he related to the main point you haven't made yet?

What is important for McLuhan? is that any community seeking the kind of commercial exchange underlying any good democracy “has simply got to homogenize its social life” (308). It must unify the mode of being in which its citizens conduct their lives. Homogenization, for McLuhan? , comes largely from “typographic principles of uniformity, continuity, and lineality” that overlay “the complexities of ancient feudal and oral society” (27). But it surely comes also from the practice of the art of the self, the synthesis of ideas and styles that animate and comprise Foucault's subjectivity. It is the process of getting everyone on the same Page.


Homogeneity, which “comes easily to the highly literate population of the English-speaking world” whose “special illusion” is that it is “highly aware and individualistic” (309), became structurally more difficulty in the pre-net era, when television was the dominant mode of communication. The lineal process was “pushed out of industry, not only in management and production, but in entertainment, as well,” and “the new mosaic form of the TV image ... replaced the Gutenberg structural assumptions” (308). That mosaic mesh required “so much active participation on the part of the consumer that he develop[ed] a nostalgia for pre-consumer ways and days” (309). The genius of the contemporary corporate-run web is that it taps into this nostalgia by seemingly making commensurate “the literate and private 'point of view'” – from which “the photo and TV seduce us – with “the complex and inclusive world of the group icon” (309).

Where McLuhan? saw, in the television era, that advertising offered “a way of life that is for everybody or nobody” (309), advertising on the web presents what it always did, but in the guise of something tailored to the individual. The newsfeed structures the mosaic into something linear and understandable, something to be experienced in an orderly way. Group icons masquerade as private arguments, which rely on knowing their subjects as public individuals, even if as the sum of an individual's respective “private” parts – as where one participates in the net using a host of identities, masked or otherwise. By virtue of advertising's appropriation of the net's possibilities, but not its spirit, anonymity slips away at the same time that the material from one which one constructs one's self becomes increasingly circumscribed. And so we return to the word from which we may have thought, with the advent of the net, that we had emerged.

This is an interesting idea. If you could clarify how it is related to what precedes it, that might well be a very interesting idea too. Helping to make the interest accessible by making it more concrete would still be a good idea.