[iDC] The difference between privacy and anonymity

brian.holmes at aliceadsl.fr brian.holmes at aliceadsl.fr
Mon Sep 28 17:58:42 UTC 2009

Jodi writes:

One way to approach this question is to note that contemporary
socio-economic conditions have already done much of the work of
de-individualization. That is, contemporary subjects have much more
fragile, mutable, unstable identities than, say, the subjects of
disciplinary society.

Thanks for responding so precisely to the unmarked Foucault quote,
"shedding the self." It's actually from the Archaeology of Knowledge. Of
course you are right that the discipline of the contemporary self has been
weakened. That was already the great theme of the Frankfurt School authors,
who harked back to a liberal Enlightenment model of the individual, which
they knew to be also that of the bourgeois patrimonial capitalist. Since
then, how much water under the bridge? I got interested in the new forms of
self-dissolution back in the mid-90s via Alain Ehrenberg's book L'individu
Incertain, which seems never to have been translated. He proposed, among
others, the notion of the contemporary self as a "terminal" for electronic
signals emanating from a multiplicity of sources and transiting through
various devices. Interiority is radically hollowed out under these
conditions - no doubt of it. But even though contemporary selves seem to
have increasingly less content, less capacity to accumulate and reflect on
memories, to 'ruminate' as Nietzsche would have it, still the grasping
character of possessive individualism remains. That's the first paradox:
while we are increasingly socialized by the relation to fluctuating
signals, still the imperative in a competitive, status-and-profit seeking
society is to somehow perform your distinction, to stand out, to make a
temporary difference, to be a blip in the flux. I think Sean is absolutely
right: under semiotic capitalism, your ultimate and perhaps your only
property is your personal name, your electronic signature. I am what I
sign.... And what's more, since the flux is globally shared, the signature
becomes the only really identifiable difference.

The question then becomes, how to organize situations where people can
experience something else? What are the places, the processes, the
tool-kits of an experience of commonality? It's very understandable when
you say, "an emphasis on singularity heightens already present tendencies
that lead away from collectivity." But the sheer, typically communist
insistence on commonality is an ideological dead letter, belied by the
complexity of society and the diversity of life-paths. In the best and
worst of cases - in massive outbursts of political protest and in disaster
situations - there is an actual, material experience of commonality, where
the differences among people do not exclude shared action, concrete
solidarity. These are the circumstances where the singularity of each
person appears as indifferent to the events at hand, so that everyone
becomes a "whatever singularity." That phrase by Agamben, from The Coming
Community, is a very strong and positive one. It insists on the material
difference and historicity of each human thrown into the world, but says
those diverging existential conditions are our common lot, whatever, no
distraction from the basic political issues. The idea made so much sense
that it was absorbed by a large part of the radical left in France in the
course of the 90s, due in particular to the experience of all kinds of
solidarities (particularly around issues of transport) during the
month-long general strike in 95-96; and you see an echo of the impact it
made in the title of the recent Tiqqun book, The Coming Insurrection. But
France is (or was) its own world. In the absence of the best and worst
cases - and with the lucid recognition that both often resolve into
nationalism - there is still an urgency to find ways to experience
commonality. So in some other cases that experience takes intentional
forms. And it may still be that the paradox of a grasping, possessive self
dispersed into myriad networks of seduction, simulation and surveillance
has to be answered by the paradox of materially and temporally singular
experiences of commonality.

No doubt this is a subject best explored by an anonymous theoretical
platform of some as-yet unknown kind. In the meantime, whatever
contributions will be appreciated!


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