The “State of Nature”

When we talk about “digital dualism,” are we really talking about digital ideal theory? (I’ll explain what I mean by “ideal theory” shortly.) I’m not sure. But, I want to push the question because I think it’s very important for us to frame and discuss this critique in as precisely as possible. So, in this post, I’m going to try to argue that we are, in fact, talking about digital ideal theory–not necessarily because I actually believe this argument, but because we need to push this argument to see if, where, and how it breaks.

I ask this question because it seems to me that when we say “digital dualism,” we’re using the concept of an ontological dualism (reality vs virtuality) to describe a phenomenon or a view that isn’t necessarily dualist, and, as Nathan suggests here and Jesse Spafford summarizes here, isn’t necessarily ontological. What if the phenomenon we’re referring to when we say “digital dualism” isn’t an ontological dualism, but an idealized epistemological abstraction?

But first, what do I mean by “idealization” and “ideal theory”? I’m getting the term from philosopher Charles Mills. He distinguishes between an ideal as a descriptive model from an ideal as an idealized model. A descriptive ideal would be something like the recipe for a cake, which enumerates its actual contents. An idealized ideal would be something like the idea of social justice–it does not describe how society actually is, but how it ought to be. Sometimes the “is” and the “ought” correspond; more often, they don’t.

According to Mills, “what distinguishes ideal theory is the reliance on idealization [the ought] to the exclusion, or at least marginalization, of the actual [the is]” (168). This distinction between the “ideal” and the “actual” might sound like an ontological dualism (the virtual vs the real, respectively), but it’s not–its an idealized epistemological abstraction, an abstraction from “is” to “ought.” The problem with this abstraction from “is” to “ought” isn’t the abstraction itself, Mills argues (so it’s not the quasi-dualist separation of actual from potential), but the idealization of that abstraction. This idealization happens when the is is conflated with the ought–when we think that things actually are how, ideally, they ought to be. Or, more precisely, the problem is when we misrecognize how things actually are for the most privileged members of society for reality itself–or, as Mills puts it, when a “nonrepresentative phenomenological life-world [is] (mis)taken for the world (172). So, idealization does make an ontological claim about what reality is “really” like. However, the idealization doesn’t happen in the ontological claim, but in the false universalization of that ontological claim–that is, in the move from “is” (for us) to “ought” (to be for everyone).

This move from “is” to ought” can be accomplished through ontological dualisms, and, as I will argue below, through ontological monisms (the “flat” ontology of there-is-no-alternative neoliberalism). It’s easy to confuse idealization and ontological dualism. This process of abstraction or idealization often parallels the hierarchical distinction between more-real-’reality’ and less-real-’reality’ because, historically, the work of abstraction has been accomplished via an ontological dualism–specifically, the modernist nature/culture binary. So, in what follows, I want to first turn to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality” to tease out how modernist nature/culture dualisms perform this work of idealization. Then, I’ll consider how the same work of idealization occurs in “flat,” monist ontologies. I’ll end with some questions…because, like I said, this post is really a sort of thought experiment meant to open up conversation.

Nature and Culture

I know this sounds a bit counterintuitive, but 18th century European political philosophy can actually help us think more clearly and precisely about what digital dualism is and how it works. I will use a reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men” (aka the “Second Discourse”) to address (a) how “digital dualism” is related to older, modernist/enlightenment dualisms, in particular (b) how digital dualism is like and/or unlike more traditional nature/culture binaries.* I will also explain, via Rousseau, how the nature/culture dualism performs the work of idealization, and how this in turn relates to contemporary concepts of digital dualism.

The nature/culture dualism is the conceptual foundation of social contract theory–which, in turn, is pretty much the basis of contemporary liberal democracy. The social contract is the agreement to give up some freedom in return for some security–I have to respect your private property, but this means that you also must respect mine. By consenting to the social contract (by signing on the dotted line, so to speak), we exit the state of nature and enter into civilized society. So, the contract itself is what distinguishes “nature” from “culture.” Think of it this way: the contract is like a speech-act that constitutes civil society by excluding “nature” as other. Nature is whatever is outside or beyond civilization. In this way, enlightenment political philosophy creates a nature/culture dualism and uses this dualism as the foundation of theories of justice, right, law, etc. For example, liberalism generally holds that civil society must be equal and fair, but nature need not be so. Only natural inequalities are permitted in civil society. Thus, we see repeated attempts to find a scientific, physiological basis for racial hierarchies–brain size and shape, IQ scores, etc. The concept of “nature” works to normalize (indeed, to naturalize, in the philosophical sense) socially-produced hierarchies and inequalities.** Or, the concept of nature instantiates an ontological dualism, and, in this instantiation, accomplishes the work of idealization.

The concept of “nature” is not natural: “all the definitions we meet with in books…are derived from many kinds of knowledge which men do not possess naturally, and from advantages of which they can have no idea until they have already departed from that state” (Rousseau 7).*** The concept of “nature” is artificial, produced by a particular society to justify its norms. “Every one” of Rousseau’s fellow social contract theorists “has transferred to the state of nature ideas which were acquired in society; so that, in speaking of the savage, they described the social man” (Rousseau 9). Nature, “the savage,” etc.–all these are negatively defined against then-commonsense concepts of civilized humanity. “Nature” is whatever society is not; in this way, the concept of “nature” is just a reflection or negative of our theory of society. This is why “digital dualism is a deeply conservative ideology.” We invent the “nature” we need to prove that our “culture” is right, moral, and just. In Spafford’s words, it “justifies existing social hierarchies.” Enlightenment social contract theory creates the myth of the “natural” to distinguish between members of civil society, who have rights, and merely ‘natural’ beings, who do not. All those natives living in the state of nature, well, we can totally kill them, steal their land, sell them into slavery, and so on–so the story goes. So, when Nathan argues that digital dualism “this isn’t an infringement on the real but the creation of the myth of the virtual to simultaneously deploy “the real” that one can then have access to (and often looking down on others still caught up in the “virtual”) (Jurgenson), the parallels to classic social contract theory should be obvious.

 So the concept of digital dualism is easily reducible to enlightenment nature/culture dualisms…dualisms that were false and inherently politicized, even back in the 18th century. Modernity tolerated that falsity because liberalism would be incoherent without it. In other words, the nature/culture dualism (which can also be articulated as the private/public dualism) is what obscures and naturalizes/normalizes the systematic dehumanizaiton of women and non-white men.****

However, contemporary neoliberalism has figured out new ways to obscure and normalize the systematic dehumanization of various minority populations, ways that don’t rely on dualist ontologies. Neoliberalism is ontologically “flat.” Does our habituation to nature/culture dualisms obscure digital monisms–“flat” ontologies that nevertheless naturalize and normalize some sorts of experiences as more powerful and more legitimate than others?

Flat Ontologies

Manuel DeLanda famously defines flat ontology as follows:

an approach in terms of interacting parts and emergent wholes leads to a flat ontology, one made exclusively of unique, singular individuals, differing in spatio-temporal scale but not in ontological status. (47)

Or, as Levi Bryant puts it, “The flatness of flat ontology is thus first and foremost the refusal to treat one strata of reality as the really real over and against all others…For DeLanda, then, flat ontology signifies an ontology in which there is only one ontological “type”: individuals. In classically liberal contractarianism, the nature/culture dichotomy separated out “individuals” (citizens, moral persons) from sub-human beings (legal minors, women, three-fifths-persons, etc.). In neoliberalism, however, everyone/everything participates in the (supposedly) free, deregulated market. We’re all individuals; it’s just that some are more successful than others. Instead of a dualist ontology that pits nature against culture, neoliberalism posits an ontologically monist theory of the market. The market is the only reality; there is no alternative, as they say.

Neoliberal social ontology upgrades classical contractarianism by getting rid of the dualism while preserving the idealization–i.e., the abstraction away from structural inequality. Markets don’t happen in vacuums. Deregulated markets reproduce the background conditions–the social, environmental, political, and cultural relationships–on and through which they are run. Free trade agreements, school voucher programs, trickle-down economics, ACA-style health care exchanges, all these policies exacerbate and amplify the privilege of the privileged and the precarity of the precarious. The ideal of the supposedly free, deregulated market obscures historically concretized relations of supremacy and oppression; deregulation accomplishes the work of idealization (it conflates the “is” and the “ought”). If the market is “free” and neutral, then successes and failures can only be attributed to differences in individual performance…and not, for example, to white supremacy or to capitalism.

This flat ontology is what’s behind, for example, “digital detox” discourse. There’s a single spectrum or continuum–from health to illness, nutritive to toxic. Your status on that spectrum depends on your ability to manage toxicity (thus, the perceived need to ‘detox’). Healthy subjects mitigate the supposedly toxic effects of too much tech exposure with practices like “work/life balance” and “cleanses.” Unhealthy subjects, then, are thought to be too personally irresponsible to maintain a “healthy” lifestyle. But of course, this is just another way neoliberalism scapegoats individuals for systemic injustices. Without an account of the ways things like white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, and capitalism (a) distribute toxicity (and health) and (b) naturalize the experiences and everyday realities of privileged groups, digital detox discourse performs the same “idealization” found in dualist nature/culture and virtual/IRL dualisms. This idealization isn’t necessarily tied to a dualist ontology.

In fact, the idealization is responsible for the ontological problems with classical dualisms and neoliberal market monisms (i.e., the fact that they’re not even ontologically accurate descriptions of reality). As Mills argues, the abstraction away from structural inequality–‘colorblindness’ or ‘genderblindness’–naturalizes privileged groups’ “peculiar experience of reality” and equates it with reality as such. So, if the ontological claims are also political claims (“No, OUR reality is REALLY real; yours is less real precisely because it is not fully consistent with ours.”), perhaps part of the confusion and disagreement surrounding digital dualism discourse is we often use ontological terms (“dualism”) to describe political problems (idealization)? (And I wonder if we’re rewarded for doing this, because ontology is often seen as ‘harder’ and more ‘objective’ than mere politics?)

Help Me Think This Through

I don’t think I’m saying much that’s terribly new here. I’m really just putting a name on and trying to coherently thematize stuff various people have said in various places. What I am proposing is that perhaps re-framing our analysis clarifies some points of contention. So, at this point, I have a couple of questions–real, genuine questions to which I don’t have any answers. These are just guesses, so I totally welcome juicy counter-arguments:

1. Is the problem with what we call “digital dualism” the dualism, or is it the idealization, the abstraction away from structural inequality? I ask this because one way to read the disagreements over “digital dualism” is as follows: nobody (or almost nobody) actually thinks there’s a strict dichotomization between IRL and “virtual”, offline and online; what critics of digital dualism are really critiquing is the idealization, the normative work (Spafford’s “Step 2”); however, because we’re so accustomed to framing that idealization as a dualism, and we don’t yet have an adequately powerful theory of “flat” idealization, we’re crossing our conceptual streams. It doesn’t matter which descriptive model you use in Spafford’s “Step 1”–the problematic idealization can manifest as a dualism, but it can also manifest as a flat ontology. Maybe this way of framing the problem clarifies things? Maybe I’m off target?

2. Does this (or a similar) concept of “flat ontology” help us theorize some of the experiences/relationships/phenomena that the terminology of “digital dualism” obscures?

Ultimately, I, like Rousseau and Mills, want to argue that any account of social ontology–”digital” or otherwise–that lacks an account of power (hegemony, white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, etc.)–what Mills might call an “ideal” digital social ontology”–is incomplete and inaccurate. Maybe the problem with what we call “digital dualisms” isn’t so much that they are dualist, but that they’re idealist (i.e., that they lack this account of power, and theorize based on how things ought, ideally, to be, rather than on empirical and historical data)? Dualism, then, would just be one method of idealization, one way of abstracting away from power.


* I should clarify that “my” Rousseau is very different than the conventional Rousseau you learn about by reading his later works like The Social Contract & Emile. I consider everything up through “Essay on the Origin of Languages” to be part of his early musical writings, derived mainly from his heated and ongoing debates with composer and music theorist Jean-Philipe Rameau. As I argue here and here, and as Mills argues here, this musical Rousseau is philosophically very distinct from the later, more strictly philosophical Rousseau.

** In this way, Rousseau reinforces Jesse Spafford’s claim that there is no hard line between the ontological/descriptive and the normative aspects of digital dualism. “The normative ranking,” Spafford argues, “is built into the very names and categories.”

*** Interestingly if somewhat anachronistically, Rousseau can be read as positing the concept of “nature” as the West’s first articulation of what we now might call “the virtual.” Nature, he argues, is “a state which no longer exists, perhaps never did exist, and probably never will exist; and of which, it is, nevertheless, necessary to have true ideas, in order to form a proper judgment of our present state” (7). “Nature” is a fiction, but a fiction that’s necessary to contractarian social ontology. (It’s the foundation of “Step 1” in Spafford’s two-step theory of digital dualism.) So, as a necessary fiction, “nature” ought to be treated “only as a mere conditional and hypothetical…rather calculated to explain the nature of things, than to ascertain their actual origin” (9).

**** This is what Carole Pateman and Charles Mills call the racial-sexual contract that grounds the social contract.


You can find Robin on Twitter as @doctaj.