Fragments of Phillosophy

January 27, 2008

People cry, and people moan/look for a dry place to call their home/try to find a place to rest their bones/while the angels and the devils fight to make them their own…

-Cobain, singing a Meat Puppets song

The temple of Apollo at Delphi bears the inscription “γνωθι σεαυτόν”: know thyself.

It’s possible my work will bend and twist in a thousand different ways before I graduate, but right now my primary interest as a scholar is the intersection of identity formation, digital identities, the formation of discursive social groups (primarily online) and the impact of popular culture on individual identity. One of the things I’m quickly realizing is that as much as I still fear the Lester Faigley gargoyle (I wonder if anyone reading this knows that story), my reflections on po-mo fragmentation and the discursive, ever-rewritten self are going to be much more important than that page of notes I took the night before my thesis defense.

I think the fragmentation is the sort of “key” to the dilemma of digital identity. Yes, there are those (Lisa Nakamura in particular, who does a fantastic job of addressing it) who believe that people enter the online world to participate in “identity tourism,” it is my belief (currently with no proof—that’s stage two and will be coming soon) that people go online to wear selves that they cannot or choose not to wear in their normal lives.

I am thinking of an example that some people would probably scream at me for invoking, but this seems readily apparent in Second Life. There is a massive, massive sexual/erotic fantasy element to Second Life, and most of the people I have discussed it with—admittedly a small sample compared to the massive number of people ENGAGED in it—have reacted immediately with either shocked disgust or all-too-curious questions. If one factors in the puritanical suppression of sexual expression in the current world (other than the sexual imagery we have packaged as a culture and consider “safe,” such as the ever expanding and contracting chest of Pamela Anderson or the sock packed crotch of an air-suit wearing Texan governor), it seems only logical that people aren’t participating in “sickening sexual perversion” in SL but rather are looking for a “safe” place to be “sexual” (for lack of a better way of saying that). With AIDS and neo-conservatism, it’s not exactly safe to look for a public orgy, but if you can be Phill Juicylicious and walk around a virtual world, suddenly there’s an outlet. *

If we extend this outward and look at how people package themselves in different places, we can start to chart the fragmented pieces of various individual human being’s identities. For example, here are but a few pieces of me:

1.    I belong to an Indianapolis Colts discussion forum (which I’ve been a member of for several years). In that space, I talk about football. I am not interested in discussing my life in general in that environment. It’s not important who or what else I am.

2.    A few posts ago I talked about my “primary” WoW character. It doesn’t matter, cosmically, what else he does. He’s digital animal-hunting, monster slayin’ Lyon.

3.    My Facebook profile is littered with all sorts of little pieces of Phill, from my favorite songs and such to my goofy virtual pet squirrel (squirrels are relevant to my life) and my tricked out little Nissan which only races against two of my favorite scholars and one of my classmates. Taken just as a page, though, it doesn’t really express “me.”

4.    Then there’s this blog, which is slowly starting to add up some content. It’s pieces of me, but certainly not all of me.

There are more, obviously, but this isn’t a post that’s meant to make an exhaustive list. I’m simply trying to illustrate how these fragments work. Someone claimed once on the football message board that I was being “mysterious” or “dishonest” when I claimed that it didn’t really matter what I do for a living (right now I do nothing for a living—ahhh!) or where I lived. My point was that in that particular space, doing what that space is designed to do, it didn’t matter at all. What mattered was my level of knowledge and ability to share opinions about football/to interact with fellow fans. It matters if I know who Craphonzo “The Sh!t” Thorpe is. It doesn’t matter that I live in a place named after a literary figure’s watery retreat.

I don’t think many people go so far as to make that move transparent, to say “hey, it doesn’t matter who I am outside the screen—this is just a part of me,” but I think many, many of us treat digital identities that way. They are not “true” identities, in that they are not comprehensive, round, fleshed out images of who we are and what we want. They are, instead, rhetorical instances, carefully crafted masks (people don’t like me using the word mask because of the other ways it is used, but my blog, my rules!) that people wear in spaces.

But that brings me back to my initial quote: know thyself.

We DO forge our “true” identities (which I would argue are endlessly more complex but no less rhetorically constructed than the digital identities I’m talking about here) out of these fragments we craft in other aspects of life. So while football fan Phill cannot truly stand for the whole Phill (one would see Phill through a scanner, darkly, if one were to look at him that way), the whole Phill contains football fan Phill. To study the importance of digital identity we will have to first understand, to some degree, the identity (or at least the awareness) of the person wearing the virtual mask. If not, we fall into another of my favorite quotes, this one from that ray of sunshine known as Fredrick Neitzsche (slightly altered for content):

“if you stare long enough into the flat panel, the flat panel stares into you.”

*note: to the best of my knowledge there is no Phill Juicylicious. I don’t think SL even has that available as a last name. There is a Phill Theas that belongs to me, but I realized after making it that I didn’t read the name aloud, and I have a hard time now taking Filthy Ass seriously. I must also admit that while I’m curious about the SL sex scene as a point of study, I didn’t dive down the rabbit hole. I walked around the outer edge and peered in, but I figured if I was going to go “all in” I should have IRB approval and actually do research instead of just feeling virtually dirty.