“Observing his subatomic self … no chronology was stable.”
—Jonathan Franzen, Purity
“A knower, whatever name one may want to call it, self experiencer, protagonist, needs to be generated in the brain if the mind is to become conscious. When the brain manages to introduce a knower in the mind, subjectivity follows.”
—Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind
Contemporary technological development tends to move towards behavioral and cognitive automation. I want to speak about the concept of “self-design” in this context, yet these two words, “self” and “design,” need elaboration. Their meaning is far from obvious, and indeed, changing at a dramatic pace. “Self-design” can be thought of as the authorship of one’s own subjectivity. Yet I would argue that in the digital context of today, what is most politically urgent is what I would term the “hetero-design” the self. The self, insofar as it is conceived of as a simulation, is exposed to processes of subjectivation that are controlled and designed by others. Subjectivation has thus largely become a process not so much about “design” as it is about engineering, and represents a contemporary form of totalitarian power that operates on cognitive, behavioral, and neurological levels.
The word “design” essentially refers to the relation between objects and utility. Design, in this sense, encompasses both conceptual art and engineering: as art, design conceives a world for an object, and as engineering, design builds a world for an object. As a hegemonic process of production, semio-capitalism is predicated on the redesign of processes of relation, such as cooperation. Today, technical interfaces connect segments of society, both human and electronic, lubricating the social body and automating activity. How does this process affect the reflective function of the human, the “self”? How does this process affect consciousness, the self-reflexive function of cognition?
In order to address the significance of the engineering to the self, we must first differentiate it from the Ego. Ego is the agent, the actor, the sufferer. The Self, on the other hand, is the interior scene where volition—the will to act—comes to be. The processes that made the Self “modern” were essentially based on the manipulation of the conjunctive space between bodies and embodied minds. In speaking about “technologies of the self,” Michel Foucault reveals how practices like prayer, reading and political participation have shaped the individual mind to allow for social evolution. In contrast to the institutional forms he unveiled as constitutive of the modern subject, in his later years Foucault became increasingly aware of a new dimension of subjectivation. Whereas mechanisms of control and the rules of political order might have once primarily resided in institutional forms, they have come to be embedded within the social body itself.
Read the full article here.