Where Is Your Selfhood?
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Librarian, detail, 1566, oil on canvas
Ahmet Öğüt’s contribution to e-flux’s Supercommunity special issue is a tale about two acquaintances with identical names who befriended during the “People’s Park revolt” in Istanbul. Although the two Ahmed’s in this story have some things in common one can be clearly defined as an activist the other as an artist. As the story unfolds the two characters develop and are ascribed differentiating traits. To simplify, the main difference is that the artist and his circle of friends appear to have experienced events or interactions that have led them to doubt the conventional notion of the self (and personal identity) as a unified and stable essence. Rather, their identities are “distributed” or a “combination of many”.
The artist at one point asks “What if I am not who I think I am?” The destabilization, fragmentation, and disintegration of selfhood the artist types are going through is put up against the unified, stable and non-doubting personal identity of the activist and we get to witness the disappointing results of this contest. While the now Berlin-based artist can only romanticize about creating anonymity and confusion as affect by inviting the activist to represent him at a biennial, the Istanbul-based activist is steadfast and determinate in his endeavors, supporting friends in court hearings and making documentary films anonymously to effect the political situation without taking any credit.
What is to be gleaned from the juxtaposition of artist and activist? More importantly, what is it exactly that has caused the artists’ destabilized sense of self and personal identity? Is it something they share with the activist or is it something that only artists can experience? Ahmed the artist spends so much time online that he “gets lost” while Ahmed the activist is always depicted in places where something with a sense of urgency to it is happening. This indicates that the absent and non-elaborated reason for the artists’ destabilized sense of self can basically be attributed to the internet or more generally contemporary information and communication technologies. To be more precise, this is what has been referred to as the disembodied communication of the internet, a quality that has led to a constant stream of warnings by some about the loss of the traditional sense of self amidst the multiplication of identities and self-presentations and as a result the gradual loss of moral agency.
The artists in this tale are representatives of disembodied communication while the activist’s seemingly superior morals seem to be a reflection of embodied interaction, always already present in “real” places and events, the courthouse etc. The story implies that disembodied information-communication technology leads to the disintegration of identity while discretely defining the activist as: a person who has not allowed the disembodied nature of present day communication-information to disrupt her/his self or identity as a unified and stable core.
The irony of course is that the unified self has never existed in the first place and here the neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger is due a quick mention. His main point is that there is “no such thing as a self” that actually exists. The self is generated by the brain which is an information-processing system that gathers data to construct each individual’s blend of selfhood. But, because we do not have access to this technical process it’s impossible to live without these selves that are more like flocking clusters of information. Metzinger’s point is that the split between knowing that you don’t have a locatable unified core called a self and having to nonetheless automatically generate a self to function in everyday life should not be taken as a contradiction that can then be turned into some kind of dialectical resolution which attempts a synthesis between what we know to be our true neurologically generated selves and the self-constituting narratives that are our ‘selves’ in social interaction.
The concept of intellectual honesty for Metzinger is the recasting of knowledge from the position of “being no one” scientifically speaking and “having to be someone” socially speaking. This is rather different to the subjectivities or personal identities of both artist and activist in the story that are classified according to their perceived political efficacy in “Real-Life Events”.
The dynamic continuity of revolt
In the story, the artist’s attempt at making a project inspired by “Real-Life Events” fails. This is because the real here is strictly understood as concrete and physical and not as a dynamic continuity between physical space, informational processes, and data flows. In their article Catalysing Dissent Andrew Osborne and Inigo Wilkins elaborate on what they call Computational Immanence which they describe as: “the thesis that all aspects of the real without exception may be understood as both inputs and outputs of a purposeless and non-problematic computation …”. Osborne and Wilkins equate Computational Immanence with the generative science behind computational modeling that is “instrumentalised by the contemporary state in order to maintain public order in a highly cynical manner”.
But, while this may be true, Osborne and Wilkins recognize that it is this same generative capacity in the deep logic of information and communication technologies that “has afforded the population at large an unprecedented possibility for liberation through the communalisation of information”. Riots cannot be articulated by the explanations in the media because all “politico-ideological narratives aimed at explaining the riots” are “based in moral breakdown” while they would be better understood in the generative computationally immanent terms of computational modeling. Osborne and Wilkins here make an attempt at understanding revolt within a physical-informational continuum that distinguishes between and does not confuse “real-life” read: subjectivities, identities, personal narratives with “generative science” read: data, information-processing, neurons.
To wrap up some brief questions:
Is the disintegration of the self in relation to disembodied communication becoming an increasingly popular field of reference in the expanded field of art? Which postures does it assume, what are its variations, does it have both progressive and reactionary side, and, if so, how can we distinguish the two?
Has the wave of political protests from the UK Riots to Baltimore via Arab spring et al. had any positive impact on art’s conceptualization and progress or has any progress come into being independently of such events and through other linkages?
Bassam El Baroni is an independent curator and a theory teacher at the Dutch Art Institute, Arnhem. He lives in Alexandria, Egypt.