- David Henson
The ‘We’ That is Not Royal: Imagining Our Way into Becoming Posthuman
From the intro to Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman:
In some ways, my interest in the posthuman is directly proportional to the sense of frustration I feel about the human, all too human, resources and limitations that frame our collective and personal levels of intensity and creativity. This is why the issue of subjectivity is so central to this book: we need to devise new social, ethical and discursive schemes of subject formation to match the profound transformations we are undergoing. That means that we need to learn to think differently about ourselves. I take the posthuman predicament as an opportunity to empower the pursuit of alternative schemes of thought, knowledge and self-representation. The posthuman condition urges us to think critically and creatively about who and what we are actually in the process of becoming. (12)
Reading this again recently, I felt a challenge within it, a call to arms, or at least the responsibility to be able to actively posit a more harmonious posthuman world. Drawing from Braidotti’s claim that a “posthuman ethics for a non-unitary subject proposes an enlarged sense of inter-connection between self and others...by removing the obstacle of self-centered individualism” (49-50), I would like to imagine a gradual, intentional cultural shift toward the use of the pronoun ‘we’ at all times. Who would this ‘we’ encapsulate? It would be defined by context, similar to the way it’s used today. However it would also take on a more literal and/or expansive connotation.
If a small leap of faith can be permitted, we can create an outline of a world in which ‘we’ and ‘our’ replace ‘I’, ‘my’, ‘you’, and ‘your’. As we move forward, please try to forgive these flights of fancy when they stray too far from believability. Imagining the posthuman is almost itself an exercise in becoming posthuman, but since it’s hard to define what exactly that becoming might mean, it’s even more difficult to know if our exercises are worthwhile. This experiment takes on the view that imagining a de-centered form of existence is one of the first steps toward consciously shifting in all of those various directions. With this apologetic preamble out of the way, let’s proceed as if our powers of mind were unlimited and confidently prescient.
Coincidentally, after forming our premise, we found out that Judith Butler was also re-evaluating the way we employ pronouns in Frames of War:
I confess to having some problems with the pronouns in question. Is it only as an “I,” that is, as an individual, that I am responsible? Could it be that when I assume responsibility what becomes clear is that who “I” am is bound up with others in necessary ways? Am I even thinking without that world of others? In effect, could it be that through the process of assuming responsibility the “I” shows itself to be, at least partially, a “we”? (35)
Our task is almost a reverse engineering of Butler’s questioning, concerning ourselves not with what the ‘I’ implies but how the ‘we’ both reveals and changes the way its speaker interacts with the world around them.
It’s not uncommon for literature, short stories especially, to employ a pronoun other than ‘I’ as their main form of representative placeholder. There are countless examples of both ‘you’ and ‘we’ being substituted, and no formal written explanation is needed to introduce a story that uses this technique, nor are there usually any references within the piece itself as to why the pronoun is being replaced. The mind accepts it quickly, and though we may not know exactly how this change affects the story or our feelings about it, we find it effective in slightly dislocating the way we experience literature in general, and find something compelling about de-centering the narrative thrust in this way.
Taking a step back, we might also point out the strange phenomenon that happens when we read first person literature that uses ‘I’. When a person gets lost in a story, they often claim to feel themselves within the story. Does that mean that they have become the ‘I’ in a way, instead of reading it like a letter (correspondence) and always picturing the ‘I’ as the author of the tale? Obviously there’s not a physical change, but where is the intersection of our train of thought and our personality, or spirit, for lack of a better term? How can we conceptualize our state of existence when we’re immersed in a representation of consciousness, identifying fully with thoughts we might never have considered, giving ourselves over to whichever pronoun the author has chosen?
As in many representative constructs, consistency is key. If the pronouns switched randomly the story would become confusing. But the consistent use of ‘you’ or ‘we’ becomes the norm so quickly that most readers no longer question its use by a few pages into a story or novel. In fact, often when a reader is immersed in a story they can’t recall whether it was in third or first person afterward, often confusing third for first if they were compelled by the story. In our imagined world where we all adopt ‘we’ as our main pronoun, cultural consistency could quickly create a pressure for others to adopt the pronoun, spreading virus-like in the way that popular slang spreads now, especially since the advent of the internet.
We try to imagine what it would look like if we woke up tomorrow and found that all of social media had adopted ‘we’. Scrolling down Twitter, the disembodied statements streaming infinitely one after another all saying what ‘we’ desire, what ‘we’ are doing, what ‘we’ are thinking. Perhaps instead of the common reaction to social media—the off-the-cuff, unfounded counter-claims most our feeds and comments sections are riddled with—our first instinct would shift toward asking if that really is what we believe, if it really is what we are doing.
An example from Twitter:
Why hate on Kylie Jenner? She's 18 and making $$$ for being gorgeous. We wish we could do that.
In the original tweet, both ‘we’s’ were posed as ‘you’s’. The tone of the original was somewhat accusatory and lacking in nuanced self-reflection. As anyone who has ever been through couple’s counseling knows, a ‘you’ statement usually comes from a defensive place and often leads to a breakdown in conversation. Using ‘we’ splits the viewpoint. We might take a moment to wonder why the author is so willing to admit these desires publicly and also, either consciously or unconsciously, we ask ourselves if that is something we really do believe. Instead of accusing the reader of self-denial or posturing, it opens up a small space to reflect on envy, or desire, or our relationship to celebrity culture.
Even if the reader still felt accused, if they’d already adopted the popularized use of ‘we’ it would be difficult to create a harsh or damning reply without the use of the word ‘you’. As Butler reminds us, “what we feel is in part conditioned by how we interpret the world around us; that how we interpret what we feel actually can and does alter the feeling itself” (41). This new interpretation of a sentiment we’ve become all too familiar with could alter our lives on a daily basis.
Let’s imagine a specific way this usage might begin. With Facebook now claiming to be used by over a billion people worldwide, and apps like Snapchat, Vine and Twitter valued at multiple billions of dollars and gradually approaching similar numbers of users, it seems clear that these are more than passing fads. Even if those particular apps don’t survive in the long run, their concept is constantly renewing itself, with the newest added novelty being an upfront, defining restriction. Twitter is limited to 140 characters. Snapchat allows you to send a picture that will be deleted forever seconds after it’s sent. Vine allowed videos only up to 6 seconds, which repeat on a loop.
When we attempted to explain our idea for a faceless Facebook to our wife, we were told about an app called Yik Yak. Yik Yak looks like Twitter, and the user scrolls through short unaccredited tweet-like messages that all have a number on their right hand side with an arrow above and below it. Everything posted on Yik Yak is anonymous, and when we install the app it asks for permission to use and track our location, steering us toward a stream of thoughts from people in our area who mostly seem to be college students, judging by the content. Besides the messages users can type or the single picture we can post, the only other defining feature is the ability to up- or down-vote a particular user’s thought or picture, thus instilling a hierarchy in the system and giving a competitive person a reason to try to say something to garner positive attention.
We’d been told that the app is somewhat infamous for being a place where the horrible thoughts of angry students exist in a public forum, sometimes calling people out by name in order to harass them personally and generally being a rather despicable place. Perusing it ourselves over the course of the night, while we did see a few lewd but unimaginative sexual comments, we saw very few instances of outright misogyny or racism, and only one first name being used along with the building that person supposedly works in. In general, the majority of posts were about anxiety (in the form of complaints, admissions, questions or sarcastic jokes), specifically anxieties associated with college students and young adults. The anonymous replies to these anxieties rarely take an earnest approach. Most make offhanded jokes or offer unoriginal platitudes, though it can’t be taken for granted that what we might crave most when we’re inscribing our fears in this way is simply to be acknowledged above all else, and in that way perhaps finding some relief.
Our imagined faceless Facebook could ramp up the restrictions. There would be no ranking, no way to judge a statement other than to reply to it in text. Links would not work, forcing the conversation to remain within the app. A user would be required to enter their own name when registering, and that name would never be able to be entered into our own or anyone else’s text. There would be a five minute wait time between posts meant to eliminate knee-jerk reactions and instill a pressure to focus on crafting a statement or response before posting. The order that posts appear would be random, meaning that if the app eventually had millions of users, there would be a chance that our post would be the very first one that hundreds of thousands of people we didn’t know would see when they logged in. This could initially be the main attraction of the app, the potential for an idea to be read by a million strangers, an even greater chance than Twitter for the average person because it doesn’t require having followers or being a famous name to be elevated to a prominent position.
With so many restrictions, what are we left with? There would still be room for anxiety, along with ideas, art, politics, experiences, generalized requests, etc. But what would be noticeably absent would be the onslaught of self-promotion we’re currently mired in, and any other kind of statement that doesn’t work when it isn’t connected to a specific name or identity. We could still tell everyone that we were feeling sad, but without a more creative or compelling way of expressing that, without doing some self-exploration in order to figure out why we’re sad or how our sadness might apply to the other people reading our statement, we would know that it would be quickly scrolled over without a second thought. A shift toward writing for others over writing for attention would develop among constant users, and we would have to re-contextualize ourselves in the midst of this faceless stream of humanity.
Lastly, the words ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘your’, ‘me’ and ‘my’ would be prohibited, would disappear the moment they were typed. (Lest we think we are ignoring the ingenuity of our fellow humans, we feel the need to acknowledge the fact that there would be attempts to use codes or symbols or stand-ins in order to use these words. However, it is our idea that though some would attempt to buck the system, in fact we relish restrictions, and seek out new forms of communication in order to express ourselves in light of these artificial limitations. Essentially, we believe that we would be willing to ‘play along.’)
How would we write for a host of strangers? When the audience is no longer specific, how do we write with the audience in mind? And without receiving any credit other than subtly influencing the thoughts, feelings and discourse of our fellow human beings, what is worth saying?
For one possible outcome, we can explore two other prominent anonymous internet forums: PostSecret and Whisper. PostSecret (the “largest advertisement-free Blog in the world” with over 700 million visits since its creation in 2005) is a website that invites anyone to send a postcard that contains a secret to an address with the knowledge that the postcard will be posted to the website for us to see. The website grew rapidly in popularity, receiving thousands of postcards and launching bestselling books that collected the postcards, as well as speaking engagements that saw the founder touring the country and praising the health and social benefits of being able to unload a secret that had been weighing us down.
Whisper is an updated version of this concept in app form, allowing users to share secrets typed over pictures. Both forums allow users to reply anonymously to the original confessions, and, especially during the early days of PostSecret, the comments were not only civil but drew out people with similar concerns and problems either offering support or letting the confessor know that we were not alone in whatever our particular situation happened to be.
So perhaps it is fair to imagine that one thing our anonymous social media could attract are confessions, creating a space for catharsis. But how does one confess without the ‘I’? One obvious option would be to reconfigure the sentiment to omit the ‘I’ but still be understood as being about the ‘I’. However, relying on our human preference for the path of least resistance, once users discover that it is easier to insert the plural pronoun and proceed as normal, we predict that this is what would quickly become the norm. Though we would at first only be using it out of convenience, the gradual effects over time of seeing so many confessions voiced as ‘we’ statements is bound to affect the discourse and, hopefully, the way we conceive of ourselves in relation to the others.
In the same way that Derrida invokes Bentham in “The Animal That Therefore I Am” to find a different way to connect ourselves to animals, it is our common suffering, voiced in the plural, as though every reader is suffering alongside the speaker, that will begin to undo some of the damage (here meaning a further sense of self-individuation) that anonymity on the internet has created: trolls, name-calling political discourse, the infinite number of places devoted to humiliating celebrities and other public figures, etc. (27-28). The ‘we’ plus the buffer of the other limitations make it difficult to imagine one person posting, “We felt unloved today when no one recognized our discomfort,” and another being able to toss off a hateful response without at least having to go through the process of dealing with the restrictions of the app. It would also be difficult to accuse individuals without using names or any derivation of ‘you’. Though this all might seem convoluted in theory, its ultimate goal is the breakdown of the knee-jerk reactions that lead to much of the fighting done over the internet in order to open a space available to other possibilities. Butler writes about recognizing these same channels, though she refers to “violence” and “the media” as opposed to specifically invoking the posthuman or the internet:
The critique of violence must begin with the question of the representability of life itself: what allows a life to become visible in its precariousness and its need for shelter, and what is it that keeps us from seeing or understanding certain lives in this way? The problem concerns the media, at the most general level, since a life can be accorded a value only on the condition that it is perceivable as a life, but it is only on the condition of certain embedded evaluative structures that a life becomes perceivable at all (51).
Within our app, the evaluative structure might be said to be the ability to speak to and of as many people as possible, bringing every user toward a language of inclusivity. As translating programs become more ubiquitous and accurate, it is not difficult to imagine a common viewpoint that takes into account people on the other side of the world with as much ease as we consider the needs of the people in the next room.
Braidotti states that “[i]t is a historical fact that the great emancipatory movements of postmodernity are driven and fuelled by the resurgent ‘others’: the women’s rights movement; the anti-racism and de-colonization movements; the anti-nuclear and pro-environment movements are the voices of the structural Others of modernity” (38). Most often, Western and masculine ideals are reinforced structurally, built into the systems that we live within instead of stated outright and championed. When proven disparities are stated outright, the individuals of the group called into question rarely take ownership or defend the positions. They let the flow of the status quo bury the sentiment, knowing that the system in place is often stronger than the voices opposing it. That way there is no need to implicate themselves as public opinion changes. Systems make for excellent scapegoats.
Within our faceless forum, however, it will be the counter-views that take prominence. It is difficult to make a written defense of the status quo into a compelling post, especially not over and over again or with the authority of a name or institution. What will stand out will be the voices of opposition, the voices that offer new positions from which to view life from. Passion and discord are of great interest, and there are currently many strong and loud voices speaking publicly for viewpoints that have rarely or never been heard on this scale in modern history. The random configuration of posts on a daily basis will let each reader comb through until they are ignited by something, therefore those with unique opinions will always have the advantage of being noticed, and the reader will slowly become used to reading about other perspectives out of, at first, their own desire to be entertained or distracted.
Braidotti might take issue with our claim that one of the major factors that would bring people together would be the recognition of all of the different but relatable forms of suffering. She criticizes ‘panhumanity’ because it is built on a “shared sense of vulnerability” which, she believes, can lead to “forms of xenophobic rejection of otherness” (40). A valid criticism for sure, though xenophobia often relies on unreliable sources and photographic propaganda to tighten its grip, both of which would be unavailable (besides the unreliability of individual users) in the app. Of course there would be arguments and vicious things typed in response to others, but without a ‘like’ button or anything like it, and because users can only post once every five minutes, it seems less likely that mobs could form in the way they suddenly do on other forms of social media (A note on the five minutes between posting restriction for any reader who might consider this too much for the modern social media user to tolerate: please refer to the burgeoning field of slow-paced tech and media that are born out of our reaction to instant-gratification culture, such as Slow TV, The Slow Food Movement, Meditation and Mindfulness Apps, Pokemon Go, etc.). More likely the hateful voices would exhaust themselves shouting into a void with no response, not even an echo, and, ideally, spend their time between posts scrolling through the random thoughts of others who seem to be including them in their thoughts through the use of ‘we’. We can also look to Butler on this front: “[T]he subject that I am is bound to the subject I am not, that we each have the power to destroy and to be destroyed, and that we are bound to one another in this power and this precariousness. In this sense, we are all precarious lives” (43). This provides a sense of balance, allowing for Braidotti’s desire for affirmative (powerful) bonds while at the same time recognizing that power is always in relationship to weakness, not only the weakness of others but our own as well.
Rereading what we have proposed so far, our greatest satisfaction comes from being absent from the text while at the same time knowing that we generated it. We are very aware that we might be creating a metaphor instead of a valid proposition, and that delighting too much in our own work could cause us to lose sight of our critical responsibilities, but there is something worthwhile (to us) about this feeling that points toward the posthuman predicament.
We started from a position, based on Braidotti’s insistence that we must “think differently about ourselves”, alighting on social media as a way in which we are, by our albeit voluntary use of these different forms, forced to constantly define and redefine ourselves on a daily or hourly basis, depending on how often we use these services. It would seem futile either to ignore the internet, or to insist that it would not be able to have a primary role in our posthuman becoming in the ways that we are currently using it. After all, Braidotti is calling for “an affirmative bond that locates the subject in the flow of relations with multiple others” (50). Has there ever been a more stunning example of the “flow of relations” than social media, regardless of what we consider its effectiveness or value? The “affirmative bond” is what we are reaching for, what we are looking to bolster with our ideas.
It is our view that we affirm ourselves in relation to others when we create, when we build something either physically or abstractly. If we were not at least taking others into account when we created something, there would never be a reason for the concept to leave the comfort of our minds. We can build spaces. We can build dialogue. We can build understanding and connection. There are already places on the internet where these things are happening, but they do not yet dominate. It takes a special mindset to believe that on a daily basis we can build something, that we can bring into existence anything that previously did not exist. We are usually happy to leave that to artists and scientists, people who identify as the creators, who have done something to earn those titles. But each action that we take can be in service of creating something if we allow ourselves to move in that direction.
It's somewhat disingenuous to claim that we are truly absent from the text. It is more that focusing so intensely on inclusivity has left little room for petty desire to creep into the argument. If we are to convince anyone of any of these ideas, there isn’t much in it for us. And there is nothing we can do with these ideas on our own. They must be shared to have any effect, although the act of writing them down will have already gently steered the course of the next piece we write, or the way that we interact with the next person that we see.
There is still a creeping suspicion that this proposition could be some new form of ideology or colonialism. The importance of the voluntary use of both ‘we’ and our theoretical app cannot be overstated. In execution, the app would have to be run by a non-profit and be transparent about the fact that it will in no way bow to the capitalistic pressure to data-mine its users. The limitations will always apply equally to all users, there will be no way to pay or ascend to a level that allows for faster posting times, prominent posting spaces, or increased word-limits. This could also be one of the main attractions to the site (as corporate interests increasingly carve out larger spaces on social media), especially if the creators could manage to construct it in such a way that the government would never be able to step in and identify any user, and would never bow to the pressure to do so. As communication has become ‘easier’ so has the ability to track it down to its minutiae. Ironically, limitations and fail-safes need to be built into the system itself in order to ensure a certain amount of freedom. Not since the earliest days of the internet has anonymous mass communication been guaranteed, if even then. We believe that if it were possible, it would potentially be one of the greatest examples of what Braidotti refers to as zoe, a life force flowing back and forth, almost completely unencumbered.
Instead of existing as “energy resources” online, we could have a space to step outside of advanced capitalism and act without anyone else profiting from our actions (Braidotti, 62). As we become more aware of the ways our simplest online actions are being recorded and commoditized—as well as being used for surveillance and to develop new ways to manipulate us—the knowledge that there is a space free of these invisible pressures will change what we might consider saying to one another. The advanced abilities of so many to access our personal thoughts has become ingrained through years of news stories about houses being raided over emails or internet posts, monitored phone calls, even overhead public discussions, installing a prominent ‘Big Brother’ in our minds.
For one recent, almost comically absurd example, we can look at a situation that happened this year in Peoria, IL, less than an hour from our hometown. Wired magazine online describes the scenario:
Jonathan Daniel, 29, created the Twitter account @peoriamayor in March and used it primarily to amuse his friends by retweeting their comments as the mayor. Daniel sent out satiric tweets that contradicted the mayor’s clean-cut image by conveying the mayor as having a preoccupation with sex, drugs, and alcohol. Though he also sent out tweets from the account, he labeled it a parody account three days after he created it, and the account was only active for ten days.
In April, city police, acting on orders from the mayor, obtained a warrant and raided Daniel’s home, seizing computers and other electronic devices before coming to his place of work and arresting and interrogating him. Daniel was never prosecuted because the state’s attorney could not find proper cause to assert that he had been convincingly impersonating a public official. The ACLU later sued the city on Daniel’s behalf and the city chose to settle for $125,000. They never admitted any wrongdoing, however.
Though Daniel was clearly protected under parody laws and had created a representation of the mayor so absurd that no reasonable person would believe it actually belonged to the mayor, what started as a joke had serious consequences. The police traced Daniel’s IP address, and when they seized his devices—which they refused to return—they may have found other things within them that could be used to incriminate Daniels.
We chose this example because it exemplifies the fragile line between expressing ourselves online and imprisonment, hopefully illustrating that no one is safe in our modern connected world. We could just as easily have given an example of someone being monitored online, labeled a terrorist, and imprisoned for an indefinite period of time without proper representation or due process, but we believe the people on the whole have trouble relating to anyone who has ever been called a terrorist.
These stories have become commonplace. A person expresses a feeling publicly online with dire consequences. The Chinese government attempts to moderate every Chinese citizen’s relationship to the internet, routinely blocking sites they deem subversive. It is not a new idea that the internet is a powerful tool and a threat to ideological governments. What has faded is our ability to truly gauge our relationship to it. Is there a place where we express our true selves online, or are we muted version of the people we could be? Furthermore, does our inability to speak our true selves in an age where it seems technologically possible somehow deprive others of their own ability to do the same? If we are in a process of becoming in relation to each other but never expressing what truly matters to us, what is it we are becoming?
There is another leap of faith that we have not discussed yet. The ‘we’ we championed above is only a step, an idea toward re-contextualizing ourselves in the midst of rapid change and an exponential number of voices. What if the ‘we’ really took hold? What if we began speaking not for others, but as others. It is a beautiful and perhaps unrealistic vision for a linguistic change to reshape neural pathways to such an extent that we are expressing multiple viewpoints when before we were only expressing our own. Could a constant act of verbal inclusion begin to deteriorate the otherness we feel? Would our need to define ourselves individually morph into a desire to define ourselves always in relation to others, a conscious shift to place possibilities alongside pronouncements?
Ultimately, could we not end up speaking first to, and then of the earth? If we are to begin speaking this way and want to search for things we unequivocally all have in common, the first thing on the list would be that we all have a relationship with the planet, and we are all being affected by the way we are changing it. The earth will finally have a way to enter the conversation in a meaningful way, being one of the bridges constructed by the ingrained ‘we’. A person sitting alone in their kitchen might say ‘we’ and mean their family, their house, their yard, their neighborhood and all the living things within it.
How are we? we might be asked.
We would go silent, contemplating the question in ways that we never used to, taking inventory of our own mental state, the rest of the family sitting in the next room, the last thing we said to our neighbors, how the dog has been acting, what we saw last night on the news and on and on.
We are struggling but we are well, we might say.
And perhaps we would really mean it.
Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity, 2013.
Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? London: Verso, 2010.
Derrida, Jacques. "The Animal That Therefore I Am"
Zetter, Kim. "ACLU Sues After Illinois Mayor Has Cops Raid Guy Parodying Him on Twitter." Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 12 June 2014. Web. 15 Dec. 2015. <http://www.wired.com/2014/06/peoria-mayor-twitter-parody/>.