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  • Jonathan S Carter

Emojis as 💻🔨: 💵🚔, 🎉🎨, or 💊💉?

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Alternative Title: Emoji’s as Digital Technics: Capitalist Control, Freeing Art, or Pharmakon.

As someone interested in the varied ways that digital technologies change human communication practices, the recent spread of the emoji has fascinated me. These simple pictures have emerged as a dominant mode of digital communication. Their proliferation has been so impactful that last year not only was 😂 oxford dictionary’s word of the year, but Hillary Clinton used emojis to spur debate about student loans, and Twitter users can even order a pizza by tweeting a single character.

As entire messages are increasingly sent in emoji form, the evolution of this symbol system is particularly fascinating. Through its loose visual form it is more fluid that traditional linguistic symbols. However, as a code system that is regulated in form and content, it lacks the amateur participatory variation of memes and other digitally native symbol systems. While as symbols emojis seem trivial, French theorist Bernard Stiegler reminds us that the ability to play with, or simply consume, symbolic material determines the capacity of humans to find moments of resistance in the face of contemporary control.[i] As a technic that functions somewhere between controlling consumption and amateur participation, emojis are a particularly interesting case for evaluating the ways that digital technologies function within conditions of control.

Understanding Emojis

Central to Stiegler’s theoretical project is his assertion that while much of western philosophy has ignored technics, understanding technology – and the way that individuals and collectivities use them – is key to understanding the politics of subjectification.[ii] Consequently, I begin my quest to understand emojis by outlining some of the technical features that define the way that digital rhetors may deploy these popular pictographs.

While the word emoji sounds like it has a common root with emotion (and its digital derivative the emoticon), this relation is entirely coincidental. The word comes from the Japanese e (絵, "picture") + moji (文字, "character"). Emoji’s were developed in 1999 in Japan when three different telecom carries coded pictures that could be used on their devices. However, in these early days images only worked in specific apps and devices. This all changed in 2007 when Google decided it wanted to include emojis in its email service. The popularity of this usage led the Unicode Consortium, the non-profit organization in charge of maintaining the integrity of symbols across digital systems (basically they ensure these words – and the above Japanese characters – will show up more or less the same on all of our screens) to adopt emojis as a part of officially sanctioned coded symbols – known colloquially as Unicode.

In being part of the standardized Unicode text, the Consortium has the final decision on what images are included in the alphabet or language that is emoji. They removed some Japanese specific symbols (such as an emoji that referred to a single department store), but have also continued to add new emojis as users have petitioned for new pictures and greater diversity.

Proletarianization and Resignification

As a symbol system that is controlled by a closed group whose primary interest is to ensure that business is streamlined and makes changes based on corporate demands, emojis would seemingly fit into the category of technics that only further control.[iii] Stiegler argues, when technics move from amateur production to being driven by consumption they undermine the capacity of the technic to foster a meaningful community. Stiegler turns to music as an example of the shift of symbol systems from community building to the service of control.[iv] Stiegler argues that prior to technologies that enabled the replication of music, the only way that most could participate in music was to (re)produce it themselves. While composers and symphonies might create music and send it out into the world, it could only recirculate through communities as they replayed it with varied instruments and voices. As individuals and communities reproduce this music, they are able to reinterpret and play with it, recreating the music, defining themselves in relation to it, and creating communities around the shared use of these redefined songs.

Stiegler turns to Gilbert Simondon’s concept of individuation to explain the political force of this process. Individuation is a process whereby the individual emerges from the collective understanding of how to use technics.[v] This use then sets the boundaries of the forms of subjectivity that may emerge; the musician is defined and limited by the music that they play. However, Stiegler argues that individuation is not simply the process of the collective and technic in defining potential subjectivities, the particular act of the individual (the specific iteration of an existing song) also redefines the future of the collective and the technic.[vi] Thus while the technic (in this case song) sets the conditions of human action, as long as individuals can participate in the re-creation of these tools they can redefine the collectivity in more resistive modes.

Conversely, with the invention of the phonograph, Stiegler argues that individuals no longer had to produce music to participate in it. Instead they could consume it unaltered. In repeating the same, rather than individuating with the music, Stiegler argues that such technics foster control by removing senses of collectivity and precluding the possibility of a politics of subjective redefinition. Stiegler calls this process that fosters control proletarianization.[vii] The grammar of the symbolic becomes so rigid that it only enables a subjectivity in service of control, rather than more resistive alternatives.

Emojis are a symbol system controlled by business interests with little access from outside users – while participants can petition change, the Consortium has the final say in what emojis are available. In this sense, emojis would seem more aligned with control than symbol systems like image macros, which have infinite visual and textual permutations. However, emojis are not as rigid as the music in Stiegler’s example and thus are not as easily proletarianized.

To begin, although all emojis have an iconic relationship to objects: ✂️, facial expressions: 😢, or recognized symbols: ♣️.[viii] In their more practical deployment emojis are used as more open signifiers. Certainly the iconic relation establishes some of the conditions for understanding the symbolic force of a particular emoji. However, through their individuating use participants can encode socially dominant meanings independent of this iconic symbolism. Among the most famous of these significations are the deployment of 🍆(eggplant) and 🍑 (peach) as dominant references to phalluses and posteriors respectively. Similarly, as emojis are combined in particular contexts (such as romantic contexts or Daesh recruitment)[ix] the narrative, affective, and propositional content of the emojis can shift based on community standards.

The individuation enabled by these contextual shifts highlights limitations in Stiegler’s rather ridged explanation of proletarianizing consumption. Specifically, in suggesting that each act of consumption is the same, this theorization seems to ignore the force of context and resignification. Dick Hebdige’s famous work on Subculture posits that the ability to redeploy dominant symbols in new contexts and with subversive meanings erodes dominant (in Stiegler’s words proletarianizing) symbolic orders.[x] Not only does this allow participants to play with pictures, but protesters have even used them to draw attention to and build solidarity around causes like environmentalism.

This is not to say that all emojis are liberatory, companies have increasingly turned to emojis to connect to young audiences and promote consumption of products with less space for signification. Moreover, the power of capital and control is its ability to subsume potentially resistive technologies and movements. A prime example of this is the development of the app Drango. This app uses adaptive learning algorithms to try to learn the most common words users associate with particular emojis. It then allows participants to enter text to suggest the ideal emoji to represent it. In this way, Drango locks the varied individuations of emoji use into a standard grammar that limits future individuations in favor of a more clear commercial usage. As apps like this further codify the ‘proper’ usage of emojis alternative resignifications and individuations lose their social legitimacy, and in the process the capacity to create alternative politics of subjectification.

Bits and Bytes as Pharmakon

Although Stiegler’s music example may undersell the importance of context and the possibility of resignification, Stiegler does recognize that all technics have the potential to be both liberating and controlling. He notes that because they are especially participatory, digital technologies are more strongly in the service of both. [xi] Because of this he labels them with the Greek term pharmakon to recognize their potential as both poison and cure. As long as they promote individuations they may offer subjectivities that resist control, but outside this proper dose they quickly undermine this potential.

However, it is not just the remix, rapid circulation, and resignification that are all accelerated by networked media ecologies that afford increased individuation. Instead, the ability to recode the technics allows for iterates of emojis that elide the official definitions. Specifically, although the Unicode of emojis is fixed, participants may code overlays that change the specific presentations. These overlays allow participants to give emojis a military theme, express abuse, or just be like the Kardashians.

These variations are allowed because they function analogously to fonts. While the underlying image code stays the same, different themes allow for the same type of variation in appearance as different fonts. The Unicode is the same, but the visual experience can change. These overlays allow participants to constantly reprogram the emojis as they relate to community standards. The variety of these overlays even allows different images to be displayed by participants who have the correct decoding software. This has allowed Daesh members to translate typical emojis into a series of images that can only be decoded by those with in-group decoding software. Such efforts show that in spite of the effort to create a concrete grammar of digital symbol systems, they will always retain resistive potential. Because they are grounded in code that may be hacked and reinterpreted, participation is always a possibility and thus positive individuations may emerge. The ability to challenge the control of digital spaces is only as strong as the control over the code.

[i] Bernard Stiegler, Symbolic Misery Volume 1: The Hyper-Industrial Era (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2014), vii.

[ii] Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 31.

[iii] Stiegler, Symbolic Misery vol. 1, 2.

[iv] Bernard Stiegler, The Re-Enchantment of the World (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 96.

[v] Stiegler, Symbolic Misery vol. 1, 70.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Bernard Stiegler, “Suffocated Desire, or How the Cultural Industry Destroys the Individual: Contribution to A Theory of Mass Consumption,” Parrhesia 13 (2011): 54-55.

[viii] The basic differences between iconic, indexical, and symbolic signs that informs this detour into semiotics is inspired by the work of Charles S Peirce. See: Charles S Peirce, The Philosophical Works of Peirce ed. Justice Buchler (New York: Dover, 1955), 114.

[ix] As naming is an eminently political act, I have taken the many names of Daesh under consideration when choosing how to label the group in this essay. Daesh was chosen because it is the most accurate, clear, and politically tenable. I rejected the label IS, or Islamic State, as this – the self-selected title of the organization—is predicated on the ambition of the organization as a caliphate and the assumption that it operates as a state. Similarly, ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant) and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) have been noted to create confusion. While the terms are functionally the same, both Levant and Syria refer to the notion of greater Syria, these terms create ambiguity of meaning and still lie within the rhetoric legitimating Daesh as a state. Conversely, Daesh is not only transliteration of an acronym for the longer form of the organization’s name – al-Dawlah al-Islamīyah fī al-ʻIrāq wa-al-Shām (these words begin with the Arabic Dāl, alif, ʻayn, and shin – pronounced daesh,) but it is the preferred label of many nations in the region. Morever, Daesh’s similarity to the Arabic words Daes, “one who crushes something underfoot,” and Dahes, “one who sows discord” allow it to function as playful way to delegitimize the organization. For further discussion on the politics surrounding the myriad names of Daesh see Felecia Schwarz, “One More Name for Islamic State: Daesh,” Washington Post (December 23, 2014):, “ISIS, ISIL, or Islamic State: What’s in a Name,” Morning Edition (September 12, 2014):, and Adam Taylor, (France is Ditching the ‘Islamic State’ Name – and Replacing it with a Label the Group Hates,” Washington Post (September 17, 2014):

[x] Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (New York: Routledge 1979), 119.

[xi] Stiegler, Re-Enchantment, 37.

#emoji #controlsociety #digitalmedia #BernardStiegler

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