Exe0.1 Lea Olsen Lea

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THE DEATH OF THE USER

In the 1950s and 60s the French linguist Émile Benveniste established a theory around enunciation and subjectivity in language, which had a profound influence on western art, theory and philosophy from the time of its reception. From it grew a vocabulary around neutrality, depersonalization and desubjectivation, which was a result from the understanding of the subject as a mere function and effect of language, a linguistic property. Quite paradoxically, while the human being is constituted as subject within the appropriation of language, in the sense that language designates an individual speaker, this human being also undergoes a simultaneous desubjectivation, while being deprived a being – while being only a property of language. Such a vocabulary seemed pressing in order to process the trauma leaving a loss of words in the aftermath of the Second World War in general, Holocaust in particular (Pedersen, 2009). Holocaust exhibited that humans can be deprived of their fundamental status as human beings, deprived of “the principal possibilities of living, and in a manner not abstract, but real”, in the words of Blanchot (1993 p. 124).

This “movement” or shift in paradigm is known as the death of the subject – a reaction to the subject-notion inherited from the Enlightenment, where the ego is an autonomic, thinking substance (Barthes, p. 3). In order to understand the impact of the expansion of ubiquitous communication happening online, a re-discussion of desubjectivation must also address the user of computational media; our speaking within code. Especially, if we consider code as an active langue, an extra symbolic system, which the subject as user appropriate and actualizes together with natural langue as she speaks within networked social media. In other words, how can we approach desubjectivation in language – the death of the user – when we speak in language plus an underlying code, which operates simultaneously with the enunciating practice on the interface of the user?

The consequences of the desubjectivation for the connected subject is becoming even more pregnant and pressing in a time, where the logic of the pharmakon – technology as both poison and cure – is expressive. On the one hand, the “logged-in”, networked human being is characterized as being unwittingly under surveillance by algorithms, and, hence, vulnerable for exploitation (by those owning the algorithm). Following this, scholars like Franco “Bifo” Berardi and Bernard Stiegler describes a contemporary over-connected subject; a subject overly exposed, anxious and depressed suffering from over-stimulation by the accelerating and 24/7 tendency of networked media (Berardi: 2015, Stiegler: 2014). However, at the other end of the scale, there is also an affirmative dimension to the connected condition. As a possible cure, the double desubjectivation happening as the user appropriate not only natural langue, but also langue as computer code, contributes to the formation of new ways of being a collective as for instance online protests and social movements display. Stiegler calls this a possibility for a transindividuation, a process within a milieu of exchange, where the subjects are separately individuated while individuating each other, creating a we. This is also constituted and conditioned by the technic or technology contextualizing the process:


[…] in individuating the ‘we together’, you and I separately, and also you and I insofar as we form a group, we participate as well in the individuation of ‘that which ties us’: language, philosophy, law, etcetera, that which constitutes for us a preindividual fund. (Stiegler, 2009 p.5)


In using the executability of code as an extra appropriable langue in for instance the creation of hashtags during online social movements, I will show that this could be read as a way of demanding agency, regaining a “voice” in the desubjectivation – maybe a way for the subject to become subject for its own desubjectivation, establishing a we as connected beings.


Name to #name

Human beings being deprived of “the principal possibilities of living, and in a manner not abstract, but real” is not only a distant event belonging to the 1940s in Europe instantiated by a sociopath with a moustache. Though incomparable to concentration camps and gas chambers, black people from poor communities in the United States are to a certain extend experiencing a literal dehumanisation in the way of feeling absolutely voiceless before an authority. These African American communities are characterized by a condition rooted in slavery, which Martin Luther King Jr. called “a degenerating sense of nobodyness” (King: 1964, p. 84); young people, who live below the poverty line, look at a school-to-prison pipeline and feel invisible and invaluable to elected official. In the spring of 2015 – which has been dubbed Black Lives Matter or The Black Spring on Twitter – young people all over the US effectively mobilized a collective virtual and physical cry against the injustice they feel from the authorities of their country. As was the case with the Arab spring in 2011 and the Iranian post-election crisis in 2009, what characterizes this movement is that the protesters are not just participating with their bodies as part of a group. Their user profiles on Facebook and Twitter are equally engaged in the operation, and the movements as a whole is technologically savvy.

The Black Spring movement compared to previous “Twitter revolutions” is of specific interest in relation to the “the death of the user” because of the significant hashtags associated with the movement [1]. As it turned out, numerous hashtags are the names of persons killed by police officers before and during the riots, providing the persons behind these names with a martyr-like status, symbolising injustice. With their character of being searchable and hyperlinked, these #names are not only unifying the crowd in a physical space, but are connecting the users of media networks as well. From the no longer breathing person like for instance the 18-year-old Michael Brown, who’s death commenced the protests in Ferguson, the hashtag #MikeBrown was created together with what assumingly became his last words #HandsUpDontShoot. The forceful and disturbing wave, which was set in motion after this, was that the hashtags uniting the protesters were not only names, but also the victims’ last sentences documented by the smartphones of witnesses. While exhibiting pointless death, innocence and powerlessness, these last sentences reveal the dehumanizing treatment of the victims. This resulted in for instance #EricGarner, #FreddieGray, #ICantBreathe, #FuckYourBreath. Soon twitter became a hashtag-graveyard flooding with the last written cries of black victims ‘killed in battle’, so to speak.


The word kills its referent

These last written cries with a no longer breathing referent as well as the hyperlinked names coupled to a programmed network without a body are interesting phenomena of investigation in relation to desubjectivation in language within online communication. The thoughts of Roland Barthes and Maurice Blanchot are relevant in this aspect. Both did they embrace the linguistic theory of Benveniste launching a process towards an annihilation of the subject. According to Benveniste, subjectivity is constituted within language, specifically related to the first-person pronoun I. Within this line of thinking, I is special in the way that its referent can only be defined in the instant in which it is used. In other words, I is empty, it is available to be filled by any speaker, but cannot be claimed outside of language. Therefore, it is when entering language, the subject is constituted – I designates a speaker, but does not refer to a pre-existing subjective substance outside of the discourse of enunciation. According to Benveniste then, I signifies “the person who is uttering in the present instance of discourse containing I” (Benveniste, 1958, p. 218)

Following this analysis of language-in-use Barthes and Blanchot in their texts highlight the subject as nothing but an effect of language, and they thereby reject the notion of the subject as a pre-existing thinking entity of autonomy. Both do they promote in their workings that the writing or speaking subject is constantly disintegrated, or constantly erased, while simultaneously integrating itself as subject in language. As a mere property of a symbolic system, the subject evaporates in its own articulation of itself. For clarification, this is the logic of symbolic exercising, which is speaking and writing in general. By naming a given thing, by telling a certain story, the destiny of the word is to be absent from the being it is referring to. Naming, speaking, is directly related to death. As Blanchot poetically proclaims:


Clearly, in me, the power to speak is also linked to my absence from being. I say my name, and it is as though I were chanting my own dirge: I separate myself from myself, I am no longer either my presence or my reality, but an objective, impersonal presence, the presence of my name, which goes beyond me and whose stone-like immobility performs exactly the same function for me as a tombstone weighing on the void. (Blanchot, 1995, p. 43)


In naming, in addressing, in appointing a meaning within a concept, we make it possible to speak of the named without its presence. In this sense, the word kills its referent; with my name, the being of me is irrelevant, only me as a concept remains:


[W]hen I say “This woman”, real death has been announced and is already present in my language; my language means that this person, who is here right now, can be detached from herself, removed from her existence and suddenly plunged into nothingness in which there is no existence or presence (Blanchot: 1995, p.323)


Nobodyness as weapon

The powerful hashtags of the black spring happen to be exemplary illustrations in relation to the death within language plus computer code. The names here are already absent from their being; not only absent within the naming in natural language, but now also absent within the extra function of the hyperlinked hashtag. It is as if an extra representation has happened – from Michael Brown to #MikeBrown – an extra killing of the already killed. Similarly, with the last statements in relation to enunciation, the I in the hashtag #ICantBreathe as “the person who is uttering in the present instance of discourse containing I” according to Benveniste is, evidently, not Eric Garner. Instead the I of the utterance is the Twitter user appropriating the utterance of Eric Garner as well as Garner’s #name, re-tweeting the hashtag for other people to follow [2]. Also playing upon the logic of the personal pronouns Wendy Chun describes how networks like twitter in fact generate a bunch of YOUS, a collection of profiled users. In tweeting a hashtag, the tweeting user offers a (literal) YOU to its followers available for acceptance and in an ephemeral moment of contacts a WE can emerge from the YOUS. (2016 forthcoming) Thus, the initial I as the utterer, Eric Garner, is literally dead and his utterance is offered to be appropriated by a collective WE within a digital network. One could say that the utterance of #ICantBreathe is deliberated - it is “free”, emptied and available for appropriation. It belongs to everybody and nobody. In the words of Barthes, this “letting go” of an utterance is the heroic consequence of language – instead of appointing a specific authoritative subject, we should let the text speak for itself:


[…] literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes. (Barthes p. 1)


In this line of thinking, the text considered as this “neuter” is a voice, and it speaks perfectly without a human person. In fact, the person is lost, the author dies, within its text in the very act of writing and this process deliberates the text. In the case of the hashtags, the cry for help in the utterance “I Cant Breathe”, when spoken by Eric Garner, was not heard. He ended up choked by the police officer. However, converted into a hashtag #ICantBreathe, the text is deliberated, it is a “neuter” with a viral ability – a voice, which can be spread, shared and maybe heard.

In this way, one could say that it is exactly because of death, because the referent is no longer a breathing body, that these names and sentences can become a “neuter”. Now, the last cry is the property of the endless common of us all, which is language. As the names lose their referent in the bodies, by the virtue of the viral quality of the hashtags, they come to refer to the movement as a whole – empty clickable signifiers, which every user can connect to. Accordingly, the desubjectivation is deliberating the text and the names and phrases belong to nobody – and therefore also to everybody. Regarding the speaking within digital networks, the endless common of us all is not only natural language, but also the distributing algorithms, which allows for the hashtag to become viral. The re-tweeting, the click, releases the text again and again, taking ownership nowhere. One could say that the diagnose made by Martin Luther King Jr –the condition of “nobodyness” – in so far as it equates letting oneself evaporate in language plus code, this “nobodyness” becomes the mobilizing tool.

Name to hashtag name is illustratively strong– the name of the body, which seemed invaluable and voiceless while alive, is echoing, creating and mobilizing through media networks. It is because of the grammatization of language – the grammatization, which is readable by a computer code – that Michael Brown or Eric Garner is able to be the unifying martyrs. An organic body does not connect to code, however, the written representation in the materiality of the letters does. It is as Blanchot says: “My hope lies in the materiality of language, in the fact that words are things, too, are a kind of natur […] Just now the reality of words was an obstacle. Now, it is my only chance” (Blanchot: 1995, 327.)


Notes:

[1] Hashtags are hyperlinked, searchable words or phrases with a hash (#) used to meta-frame social media communication.

[2] As a parallel, one could say, that this behavior of appropriating a sentence and an identity of one, which thus becomes the identity of a many is equivalent to sympathy slogans at other locations, which protesters chant in solidarity like “nous sommes tout des juifs allemands” during the protests in France 1968 and “nous sommes tout Charlie” or “Je suis Charlie” in the terrorist attack against the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January 2015.


References

King, Jr Martin Luther (1964): “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in Why We Can’t Wait.

Barthes, Roland (1977): ”The Death of The Author” [La Mort de L'Auteur, 1968] Translated by Stephen Heath, in Image, Music, Text, Fontana Press.

Benveniste, Émile (1977): ”Subjectivity in Language” [De La Subjectivité Dans La Langage, 1958] translated by Mary Elisabeth Meek in Problems in General Linguistics, University of Miami Press.

Berardi, Franco ‘Bifo’ (2015): Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, London: Verso.

Blanchot, Maurice (1995): “Literature And The Right to Death” in The Work of Fire. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Translated from: Blanchot, Maurice: (1949): La Part du Feu. Paris: Edition Gallimard.]

Chun, Wendy (2016 forthcoming): Habitual New Media.

Maurice Blanchot (1993): ”The Indestructable” [L‟Indestructible, 1962] translated by Susan Hanson in The Infinite Conversation, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pedersen, Jacob Lund (2008): Den Subjektive Rest: Udsigelse og (De)subjektivering I Kunst og Teori, Aarhus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag.

Stiegler, Bernard (2009): “How I Became a Philosopher” in Bernard Stiegler: Acting Out, Standford: Stanford University Press.

Stiegler, Bernard (2014): The Symbolique Misery: The Hyperindustrial Epoch, Wiley.