I missed a lecture called ‘Identity after Jacques Derrida’ while trying to catch up with other assignment work. But I have the slides on a printout we got given in the intro lecture. I actually had wanted to attend this lecture because the concept of identity is fascinating to me, but looking through the slides I can’t help but sigh to see that they don’t actually offer any answer except to say that no one really knows what identity is. In social sciences there’s this thing calledfragmentation and it’s words like that that make me realise my ideas were always somehow linked to social sciences even before I knew anything about the field.
Anyway, I took out a book on Derrida from the university library – not so much because I wanted to look at him, but more because I thought I could include him in my assignment. I decided I wanted to write about identity because I don’t know where to start with it and my assignments tend to come out better when I approach them in a state of conscious ignorance because I tend to do a lot more research to try and make up the difference.
I read a few pages of it and got the impression that this Derrida guy was a rebel – not really the cool kind, but that’s just my opinion. Now I’m not going to try to act like I know much about this guy, I’ve only read a little and I’m sure someone who knows about Derrida will definitely know more than I do, but I had to take out of it what struck me. Actually the book has a weird format, it’s called ‘Introducing Derrida’ and it’s filled with text bubbles, cartoon images and a section on zombies (which is relevant to Derrida’s work, but I won’t go into that here). Here’s the bit that I wanted to bring up;
Writing depends on absence
Its characteristics oppose presence. Metaphysical thinking has to eject it or subordinate it. –p.51
As a self-confessed introvert I looked at this and thought about myself. I mean I speak in writing. That’s what I do, so what does that say about my presence? But then I started to think about this in a wider context, in terms of social media and the fact that we all recreate ourselves in the way we communicate on Facebook, or, more interestingly, on Twitter.
I’ll tell you why Twitter is more interesting. Facebook consists of your social network, or the individuals you choose to bring into your circle. Despite the complaints regarding privacy on Facebook, the fact is that it is mostly focused on your personal cyber-reality and not in a public space other than to the extent you want it to be i.e. if you want to keep your profile or photos open to the public or not. Unless you’re a cyber-stalker who therefore does not make conventional use of the cyber-structure of Facebook in order to have it represent you – say you have a cartoon for a photo and a timeline consisting of shared generic quotes or Farmville updates – unless that is your cyber condition, or indeed you’re promoting a business, a music page etc. you’re most likely using Facebook to keep together a specific and selected social circle. Twitter on the other hand is structured completely differently, and part of this difference is the way you are able to connect to the wider (cyber) world.
Twitter consists of ‘wordbites’ that are essentially meant to represent you. The character restriction allows the importance of the written to capture attention in a much more fundamental way than on Facebook where you will most commonly find a friend venting through a ream of words regarding a personal matter – looking into which would most likely make you cringe. Twitter on the other hand often consists of these wordbites of thoughts that are easily accessible and most often (meant to be) representative of people who you do not know personally. There is a great deal of political potential in Twitter, not just from politicians with accounts campaigning for votes, but also if you believe in the notion of the ‘personal being the political’. As well as this it can either be regarded as a machine through which people can pump out generic quotes or news articles which add to the banality of the first world, or a subtle shaper of social understandings as we decide which streams of wordbites we choose to gaze upon on a daily basis, and also which out-there indirectly linked groups of individuals we choose to follow, because after all there are options on Twitter to follow people similar to those already on your list.
Going back to the idea of wordbites being representative of an individual, this is where I would like to expand on Derrida’s idea, and perhaps contradict his views. But I said expand in the first instance because I get this impression from the book of him being an individual who wished to destroy foundations in order to show that those foundations were created and not indestructible. So I don’t know clearly if this is a contradiction. But consider for a moment the image of the cyber-reality of wordbites consistently being vomited out by the millions occupying Twitter, each of them tweeting numerous tweets, tweeting in the presence of the occurrences of their lives. Now think about reading tweets like;
My brain is too saturated right now
It’s hot, but not proper proper hot and it’s slightly windy. I like it like this, I’d hate it if it was BOILING. Hay fever is a b***h
79% batt now…..had 98% at 11.35
Loool Simpsons never fails to make me laugh
UKIP’S POLITICAL BROADCAST HAS ME ENRAAAGED.
I want bubble teaaa
Even if slightly, can you feel the presence of these individuals? And I don’t just mean because of the sense of the actions in these examples (if they include actions), or the present tense of the wordbites which means you still feel them even though time may have passed since they were tweeted, or because of the speech-like language used as opposed to the formality of book-text, or indeed the fact that you may have read such tweets as they came onto your timeline, essentially reading them within seconds of them being tweeted. I don’t mean just these factors. Presence comes about in the overriding sense of livingwhich is behind the tweets of the individual you come across when you run through his/her personal timeline. Of course there are generic twitter accounts, and those dedicated to news or quotes etc. However, the majority have a sense of a living individual. You could say this completely destroys the notion of the absence Derrida was perhaps referring to when talking about the characteristics of the written word.
In fact, is this kind of presence more present than the 3-dimensional (for want of a better term) existence because it is all we can imagine of the individual?
By asking the above question am I going to get a response of sympathy from someone outside of the twitter generation saying we have no idea how to socialise anymore? Or saying that we have lost our ability to communicate, or that I’ve lost my head in a cyber-fantasy, or I have downplayed the importance of speech which Derrida gives the position of primary importance (in accordance with philosophers such as Socrates and Plato – might I add)?
The thing is I am not denying the importance of ‘real-life’. In fact, I can hear the new sociologists on their horses, raising their swords and shouting that twitter- or cyber- reality cannot be disconnected to 3-dimensional reality, and the notion of the 3-dimension must be questioned, and the sensory experience of the cyber is a lot deeper than just visual etc. Yes, I can hear all of that. I agree with that, which is why I’d like to venture forward with my thoughts on cyber presence, not because I wish to offer a new perspective for the sake of offering a new perspective, but because I want to show what I’ve felt myself…
The wordbite ‘RIP Shebby’ was floating around on Twitter immediately after it was found that a boy from Birmingham called Shoaib Nadeem, 17 years old, committed suicide on 11th June 2012. This was what he tweeted not too long before he died:
Ok, last ever tweet, man is going now, I wish you all a good life and erm… yeh just t.c. of yourselves #ShebbysLastEverTweet.
I never knew this boy, but I had seen my friend and others conversing with him before on Twitter, and that is why when the word flew round of his suicide it was quite a shock. It was not a shock simply because of the suicide in itself, but because of the sense of the presence he left behind in his tweets. You could look through his personal timeline to find his wordbites floating in cyberspace as if they had only just left his keyboard. The contrast between his presence within those words, and his death in real-life was what brought me to tears. Also I just want to add here because I don’t know when else I could add this; as I looked further into the news articles regarding his suicide, it made me for once feel like I could not outright condemn suicide as I had done so easily in the past. He fell from the top of a 100ft multi-storey car park which he’d been sitting on the edge of, looking down at the world. The moment between choosing to sustain your life, and pushing yourself off the edge was too close for me to definitively say he pushed himself off and didn’t slip. In fact, even if he did push himself off, it made me realise that sometimes the moment between life and death is much closer and therefore much more complicated than I could have ever realised. And so who defines at what moment exactly an individual decides to take that decision? He could easily have not been conscious of it in that split second. It may not have been a fully conscious decision. The movement of him pushing himself off is as numb as shifting a little in your seat, especially when the news articles stated that there were people on the street below shouting for him to jump. These are just my thoughts.
Anyway, as haunting as that was I realised that twitter had other relations to death and presence. There is a site called ‘Famous Last Tweets’ (http://www.thefamouslasttweets.com/) where I found among the collection the last tweet of Reeva Steenkamp before her murder (Oscar Pistorius case).
All deaths are significant, all presence is significant. But I don’t want to focus on celebrities in this insight. The wordbites form the presence of the individual and I’d like to put forth my view that this sensation is very different when in the case of an unknown individual, because, after all, celebrities are given a different kind of presence created by paparazzi and the media that many of us consume. The unknown individuals on Twitter give their wordbites to the machine and these are the only presence we know of those individuals. This does not make us feel as though we are missing out on the rest of their lives, actually it’s the opposite; it makes us see those wordbites as their life. And if we can connect to that individual on a personal basis, relate to what they’re saying, identify the things they’re tweeting about as things we know on an experiential level, and also if we can recognise and connect to the voice we give them, then we can perhaps feel the sense of their presence as someone we could, or may well, know. And with such wordbites the dynamics that occur have their own impact in terms of humanising someone who was previously unknown and who you cannot see in front of you.
And so I’d like to end this long ream of my own thoughts with this one controversial but, to me, important example. Jahar (Dzhokhar) Tsarnaev’s twitter timeline is that of a typical 19 year old. His wordbites give a sense of a presence which is largely consistent in his continual references to pop culture; movies, music, drugs. Not only this, but, in comparison to many individuals on Twitter his timeline is not actually completely filled with communication with others on Twitter. Mostly, he shares his thoughts (I’m going to use the present tense here because in the time of this writing his Twitter account is still open to look through). He shares a thought in the sense of it being thought and not in the sense of that thought being well-thought. He tells jokes, he talks about how many assignments he has left, he cannot decide whether or not he is lazy, he tweets here and there regarding something casually philosophical, and this ‘casually’ only adds to the vibe of thoughts being tweeted without being well-thought or thorough giving a feeling of the presence of someone thinking out loud while continuing to live life. His tweets are alive, and since reading about what has taken place after the Boston bombings in the news articles available in cyber reality, I can’t help but look at his timeline with that same sense of feeling haunted – except in that I have to keep reminding myself he is still alive (at the time of this writing). Because you see, his current condition and absence from being able to share his wordbites in cyber reality gives the sense of haunted-ness which I previously felt at the thought of someone having died. The haunted-ness comes not from the death of the person, but the overwhelming presence of the wordbites.
Whatever anyone has to say regarding his charges or whether or not the state finds him guilty, or whether or not you are sure of his guilt, or you are sure of his innocence, or you are in doubt, despite all of that, I only wish to make this point; when you can read the wordbites that are representative of a human-being, you can feel their presence. And if you can imagine them, it is much harder to remove yourself from them in order to dehumanise them, and you only need to look through his tweets (@J_Tsar) for evidence of this.
If we put this in the context of the discourse on Terrorism reliant on the threat of the Other, and the identity of the Other, we can see fragmentation occurring in Jahar’s example. The Islamophobia that always seems to surge – even without actual evidence of an extremist link – out of these incidents which are polluting the history of my generation is growing old very quickly. And the fact that many of us can’t define the concept of ‘identity’, or easily describe our own ‘identity’, does not weaken us from being able to see this, in fact it makes us question the basis of the differences we’ve been told to believe in, or the hard-line positions we previously held.