“We invoke one dualism only in order to challenge another. We employ a dualism of models only in order to arrive at a process that challenges all models. Each time, mental correctives are necessary to undo the dualisms we had no wish to construct but through which we pass. Arrive at the magic formula we all seek—PLURALISM = MONISM—via all the dualisms that are the enemy, an entirely necessary enemy, the furniture we are forever rearranging.”
– Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus
On this blog and elsewhere, Nathan Jurgenson and many others argue against dichotomizing the online and offline (a perspective dubbed “digital dualism”) in favor of the more nuanced position that the interaction of the online and offline rather constitute an “augmented reality,” a new but nonetheless consistent and permeable lifeworld. The argument is interesting and probably accurate. However, for those of us who take dialectical thought seriously, it is unclear that this latter position gains in ontological nuance more than it loses in truth. If digital dualism merely critiques simplistic descriptions of the contemporary relationship between mediated and non-mediated social interaction, then it is fairly low-hanging fruit for those well-acquainted with the pitfalls of binary thinking. But what the augmented-reality perspective refuses to query is how and why the very idea of such new and alternative worlds is made naive, in principle and in advance of their emergence.
To actively emphasize continuity between a newly emergent virtual sphere and a previously existing “reality” is rational, realistic, and convincing; but what if we are issuing from a “reality” that is historically exceptional precisely in the way that the political organization of power—the antithesis of critical thought—has simply barred humans from authentically creative activity? If this were the case, then to critique digital dualism would be to practice precisely what is so perverse and false about contemporary “reality” and its logic: it would correctly deflate a false binary, but only with reference to, and in defense of, a larger and unified but perfectly false “reality. ” In this light, the consistent deflations of the digitally dualist imagination which have become standard fare on this blog need to be reconsidered as political polemics: as intellectual action that has the political effect of closing down a possible rupture toward a potentially new and alternative world. More specifically, I will argue that these rationalist deflations of the digitally dualist rupture work from a circular logic. Conceptual reference to a novel and alternative online world is said to be false but only on account of a contingent political reality which merely prohibits it. But alas, this contemporary political reality which prohibits the true emergence of new worlds is itself only constituted by a dominant rationalism which reduces and assimilates anything new back down into the instrumental order of status quo interests.
As a fledgling, currently-institutionalized political scientist also committed to the radical tradition of the public intellectual, I aspire to a maximum independence from institutions and reserve for myself a right to the widest range of political efficacy I can muster. From this perspective, digital dualism is not an error but a strategic necessity, an indispensable artifice of last resort to maintain a modicum of real intellectual freedom. The problem, as most young academics will testify, is that genuine intellectual freedom is increasingly barred by most respectable brick-and-mortar institutions “in real life”, not least of all the university. Throughout grad school, however, I maintained a pseudonymous web presence with multiple organs so that I could say and do whatever I wanted, however I wanted to, in a fashion decisively and strategically distinct from the works and deeds associated with my legal name.
What matters is not simple anonymity or pseudonymity, which are already quite possible offline, but specifically that the digital world enables creative intellectual work that is in form, content, and social organization, not possible in previously existing brick-and-mortar institutions. Whether it be social norms against radicalism, incentive structures encouraging low-risk research ventures, gatekeeping of the right to address audiences, or the inherent material scarcity of physical things such as paper, printers, and classrooms, pre-digital reality is a demonstrably smaller space for intellectual production. This difference can be intellectually (and even correctly) reduced to a merely quantitative difference of degree, but as living, thinking, and acting human beings we are capable, alternatively, of making it a qualitative rupture. Interestingly, the pages of Cyborgology serve as an example. As I write to peers I have never met, from disciplines my advisers would say I have no business getting distracted by, regarding topics that, so far from furthering my institutional career, would likely jeopardize it—it is clear that I would not have been capable of effectively creating and disseminating such an essay as this one without the still fairly recent emergence of the world wide web. We should not be afraid to affirm that this very essay I’m writing right now is in some legitimate sense new, distinct, and, most importantly, more free than anything I could have communicated outside of this digital space. But these openings will only portend a qualitatively and durably new world if we choose to proudly declare them as such and to take these liberties militantly. From this theoretical and practical perspective, what Jurgenson dubs “digital dualism” might be understood more charitably—and more productively—as a wager or hypothesis, a vision, a call to make, push, and defend this particular historical turn into a truly qualitative rupture of creative and intellectual freedom.
A somewhat cartoonish summary, but it immediately brings us to the problem of intellectually prioritizing an “augmented reality” perspective over a productively understood digital dualism in our efforts to think critically about our digital lives: the augmented reality perspective politically closes the opening of a second dimension—a new dimension that could very well oppose the one, currently existing dimension of rationalized capitalism—because it is analytically defensible to do so, but merely with respect to our false present. With a more militant and dialectical vision, strategic digital dualism opposes the false present by actively demanding and creating a new digital world in sheer defiance of even well-argued analytical reductions to the contrary. A rationally indeterminate choice about the kind of world we want always precedes the decision of where and to what we will apply our reasoning faculties. It is in this light that I wonder sincerely if Jurgenson would wish to make explicit what lurks as a necessary implication of his repeated articulations of the not-yet-existing autonomy of the internet: namely, that perhaps he doesn’t want it to exist.
To critique an emergent historical wager, such as the one that hypothesizes a qualitative rupture between traditional past and online future, is to actively participate in its reduction and assimilation back into the status quo. Logically, the warrant for the claim is, in part, produced by the claim. This “in part,” this remainder, measures a political preference not positively justified by the analytical critique of digital dualism. As such, it is less a refutation of the digital rupture than a simple declining of the opportunity.
If the perspective of digital dualism seems naive, that’s because it is. But in a world where eminently mature logic and rationality prevail across the most powerful groups and institutions, fueling, managing, and justifying precisely the most ultimately irrational and unjustified atrocities, and where such mature rationality becomes itself one of the gravest prohibitions against larger, more important truths concerning the overall rationality of our society as such, we might do well (not least of all for our longer-term truth quotient) to sacrifice some triumphant rationality for some strategic naivete. This naivete is our right as creative intellectuals, it is our right to create and defend a space from which the irrationality and grievously erroneous injustices of our one-dimensional society might once again be radically and truthfully contested.
In our educated aversion to false, overly simple, and often oppressive binaries, we sometimes volunteer as security guards for the increasingly closed, deadening, one-dimensional reality of our sorry status quo. Let us agree with the augmented-reality perspective to put away all dualisms digital and otherwise, but let us also refuse to discourage historical wagers just for the low-hanging fruit of minor analytical triumphs.
In his last lectures of 1983-84, Foucault reflects at length on the concept of le vie autre, a radically other life, a militant ethos so different from the normal life that it signals the possibility of a radically other world. Importantly, Foucault argues in the very last pages of the very last lecture of his life, that it is only from the practice of this other life that truth can emerge. When the internet is taken up as a space for performing an other life, it is possible for artists and intellectuals to claim a new world, and relative liberation from resource constraints, precisely because the newness and otherness of their tactics eludes the big gatekeepers of institutionally-distributed rewards and punishments. In short, the internet is a space in which mutual aid emotional, financial, and otherwise, can and does circulate relatively independent of gatekeepers. Crowd-sourced funding platforms are only the most obvious emblem of this. As always, such liberating strategies are always more accessible to privileged groups such as white men (Roggenbuck is a good example precisely for that reason). However, one could argue that it is perhaps the most oppressed groups who have the most to gain from a practice of the web as radically other than the status quo. For many young people with nonconforming gender identities or sexual orientations, for instance, the internet can be a line of flight toward a world crucially if not perfectly distinct from the world of their family, where they can forge new identities, relationships, and other departures from the world they grew up in. The augmented-reality perspective elides what is tactically revolutionary about the offline-online distinction as a dualized terrain from which Foucault’s le vie autre might still be possible today.
One could argue that intellectuals publishing on the internet will always be fully repressed by bourgeois norms if their paychecks are coming from status-quo institutions. Pseudonymity has always been an option but what is uniquely emancipatory at present is that we are now capable of being multiple people in multiple places at the same time and with no inherent limit to the size of any particular audience we might build. It has always been possible to keep bourgeois appearances during the day and write freely under a pseudonym at night, but such a model hitherto has always been severely constrained by the traditional gatekeeping of publishers and by the physical as well as geographical limits of handwriting, printing, and distributing. Where pseudonymity meets the asymptotically decreasing costs of directly finding one’s interlocutors, writing, and distributing—there is nary an individual who cannot, on the web, be as actively and monstrously creative and dangerous as a Da Vinci or a Galileo. Such an opportunity might be undercover, unthanked and unlegitimated, but this does not contradict the reality of a currently revolutionary cost and communication structure for a qualitatively new vita contemplativa. And obviously it must be acknowledged that privileges and capabilities are unevenly distributed. The point is only to acknowledge that the web offers itself as a (still) new world ripe for the taking, however unequally access is distributed.
I am not demanding that everyone need to experiment freely and thanklessly across the web, everyone necessarily making utopian virtual realities or something like that, but only that there exists a legitimate truth in the opportunity and the effort to do so. Whenever someone holds their tongue on the internet because of what some benefactor might think, it is because they themselves have imputed, or even actively courted, old-world economic structures into what many of us are trying to stake out as a militantly non-monetized or at least subversively monetized, and genuinely new space of intellectual experimentation.
One possible future of the digital rupture, already observable but hardly unleashed, could be the wholesale obviation of the social blackmail in which our material and physical needs are held over our heads as creative intellectuals (where we may carry on with our work only if we obey any number of idiotic and dubious norms and limitations). The digital rupture could portend a significant emancipation of intellectual and artistic experimentation and communication a great social mass of which currently lies somewhere dormant under the weight of substantive self-censorship, administrative responsibilities, and untold stacks of paperwork. The opening of the world wide web and the still infantile experimentation with digital media could be—and for some, already is—a meaningfully and distinctly new world where the form, content, and social organization of our lives could constitute a qualitative rupture rather than a merely contained augmentation.