There Is No "I" in Network: Social Networking Sites and Posthuman Auto/biography

By McNeill, Laurie | Biography, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

There Is No "I" in Network: Social Networking Sites and Posthuman Auto/biography


McNeill, Laurie, Biography


The digital era complicates definitions of the self and its boundaries, both dismantling and sustaining the humanist subject in practices of personal narrative. As Katherine Hayles has argued, moving the "technologies of inscription" from the realm of the material world to the electronic "fundamentally alter[s] the relation of signified to signifier" (25, 30). Such a change has the potential to significantly trouble, if not totally destabilize, dominant conceptions of "autobiography," and in particular Philippe Lejeune's autobiographical pact, which insists on the stability of the "I" and its verifiability, the synonymity of the signifier and the signified. Initial considerations of virtual reality focused on the potential disruption of that stability, imagining the Internet as a realm for Dionysian excesses of identity play, where selves could be put on and off with a few keystrokes (e.g., Bolter, Jones, Robins, Turkle). Though in the twenty years since the World Wide Web debuted, more nuanced understandings of identity in cyberspace have emerged, suggesting close connections between "real" and "virtual" selves, questions of what identity entails online have implications for rethinking the limits of the human in and through auto/biographical practices. Such limits both come into view and become obscured as we shift more and more of our everyday lives online. From routine errands of banking and shopping to more complex acts of self-representation in blogs, videos, and social networking sites, millions of individuals on a daily basis now produce online selves in interaction with both other people and software applications.

If we accept Donna Haraway's premise that what we understand as human is indeed a product of cultural and technological innovations in combination, making us cyborgs (149--50), then what kinds of auto/biographical subjects emerge from these interfaces of selves and software? In many applications, where users fill in blanks or check boxes as mandated by the site's program, it may be difficult to determine where the human leaves off and the software begins. Can we understand these narratives as auto/biographical acts? Given the personal and commercial investments at these sites, to what extent do they challenge long-held concepts of auto/biography as narratives of or by individuals, and about auto/biographers as autonomous agents? We can no longer think of the autobiographical as an individual narrative generated by an autonomous subject. At the same time, however, social constructions of the "I" continue to support that fiction, with millions of people now taking advantage of the democratization of the Internet to publish and read life narratives that represent selves as individuals, and indeed insist upon the singularity, agency, and accessibility of lives, experiences, and subjects.

Such insistent practices of self-construction, Carolyn Miller and Dawn Shepherd argue, resist the Web's apparent destabilizing of subjectivity. This seeming paradox invites a rethinking of critical and popular assumptions about how, and by what or whom, lives are produced and consumed in a digital context. Similarly paradoxical is the concept of "posthuman auto/biography" if one considers the "posthuman" in the sense of "anti-human," a perspective that would seem to make "auto/biography" impossible by negating the human it purports to inscribe. Technology's potential role in supplanting the human makes cyber-narratives particularly suspect sites. But if we take posthuman in Hayles's sense as, in part, a project of rethinking subjectivity as a construct that emerges in concert with technology rather than as a product of liberal humanism (3), then the posthuman becomes a potentially very useful way to account for the subjects of digital life narratives.

Life narrative itself is both heavily invested in the humanist subject and often employed to explore, push, and reject the limitations of that subjectivity, another apparent paradox, but one that perfectly positions auto/biography for considerations of the posthuman. …

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