A Written Confession
by Joel Gn
At first glance, the problem of privacy on social networking sites seems to be nothing short of a tragic comedy, for what was once designed to replicate, or remediate human relationships has evolved into a surveillance tool deployed to entrap one within the gaze of others. While we give in to our nostalgic impulse and reminisce on how the more primitive blog afforded us anonymity in the face of the masses, we are at present, still compelled to confer the stamp of authenticity upon every single utterance made online. For example, many would eagerly ‘follow’ or pay attention to Twitter messages posted personally by a celebrity, but disregard anything from an impersonator, thereby illustrating that it is not the message, but the identity of the person (i.e. the one who writes) that comes under greater scrutiny. Where mimesis is present, identity is all the more absent, or so the saying goes.
But who exactly, writes? On one hand, the identity of the author can only be inferred from what is made visible to the reader. Yet on the other hand, it is not the reader, but the author whose identity is effaced in the process: it should be noted that despite the imposition of ‘real-name’ policies, one still has an abundance of resources to assume an anonymous, if not completely different identity, as observed in the myriad of avatars, nicknames and characters existing only within the virtual-actual interface.
Hence, the issue is not whether a compromising photograph or video clip was uploaded onto a site like Facebook, but the verification of the person behind the screen. Is this ‘really’ the one we are looking for? How can we know if it is he or she? Was it written or made by the one who claims to be the author? These questions clearly show that the problem of authorship remains, but it is certainly not one that precedes reading. On the contrary, the author is nothing but an object inferred, and hence construed at the interface between reader and the thing to be read. The author is in effect a text, albeit an elusive one. As Jacques Derrida writes in the opening of Plato’s Pharmacy:
A text is not a text unless it hides from the first corner, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game. (Dissemination 63)
It is in this obfuscation, in this effect of writing, that the authenticity of authorship is questioned, for it is interpretation and not perception of the text that invokes such a question in the first place.
Consider then, the slew of Confessions pages that have populated Facebook, where the confessor is anonymous and the readers are visible to all. In this apparent augmentation of transparency, we come to observe an interesting twist of subject positions. The author, whose name had to be laid bare for readers of the text, is now the one who sees all, despite being absent. For every reader who reads and crafts a response to the text of the confession, there is also the possibility that the author or someone other than the author is reading both the confession and its reader, since writing is perpetuated in the former.
Moreover writing, according to Derrida, is performed “in order to communicate something to those who are absent,” for what is written is always in the place between a writer and a reader, precisely because both are not present to one another at any given point in time (Limited Inc 5). In this sense, writing, as an in-between, stands apart from both, thus implying it is not just the writer but the reader who can be brought forth from the text. As observed in every Confessions page, it is this distance between the confessor and the reader that functions as the space for the latter to partake of the confession and to celebrate the trace left behind by the confessor. If writing is an affair of death, reading is the funeral that everyone is invited to attend, for funerals are moments when the living are called to reflect upon what the dead means to them. In the anonymity of each Facebook confession, the author dies by negating the right to be known, while everyone else is invited to give a eulogy. Yet in the eulogy, one becomes an object to be read, bringing the question of authentic authorship to life once more. Indeed, this sequence of confessions, or chain of exposure tenably takes its life from the death of the author.
Could we say that these ‘real-name’ policies used to regulate online interaction are an exercise in futility? With the proliferation of hijacked identities and compromised privacies, there would perhaps be more value in considering the possibilities involved in managing an online persona as opposed to uncovering the ‘true’ identity of a particular user. In an ethnographic exploration of virtual communication in Japan, researcher Shusuke Nozawa notes the use of a ‘counter-spectacular aesthetics’ that avoids full representation. Most online communities, particularly those catering to the ‘geek’ or otaku demographic, prefer the hypertrophy of obfuscation over the transparency of complete disclosure. In contrast with Facebook or YouTube, Japanese sites such as Niconico Douga and 2ch foster an environment of self-concealment by doing away with more stable personas. So rather than adopt a common pseudonym recognisable across various contexts, users may use disposable handles such as message IDs for individual discussion threads.
These activities raise two important challenges against the primacy of identity. First, they show that identity is a fluid construct, to the extent that it can materialise and disappear with the context itself. Second, the position of the author is not outside the text, but in Derrida’s terms, “put between quotation marks” and in so doing “breaks with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable” (Limited Inc 12). There is thus no absolute authorial position, certainly nothing close to the sort of an omnipotent Being who is both apart from and in full control of its creation; if the author has to be read, then it follows that it is the text that both conceals and reveals the author, even if one may come to such a revelation via the trace. Yet, if by any other name a rose will smell as sweet, what is left to make one name more ‘real’ than the other? It is through this space of multiplicity, of substituting one name, or identity for another that we realise the error of Facebook, that what the internet can replicate are not real-life social norms per se, but an event of writing; an event where the control of transparency is coterminous with the dissonance in opacity.
Opacity, therefore, is the ambiguity of writing, an effect of a prosthesis that represents, but stands apart from us. Inasmuch as it is supposed to transparently convey what we want to express, it is also an instrument that distorts and runs astray, hence the moments of surprise when we realised someone had read us differently and through our own words, derived a meaning that escaped our anticipation. Likewise, it is also in this deviation that we can relish in simulation and the possibility of re-presenting ourselves in writing, even though these acts are a denouncement of a ‘real’ person’s existence.
In Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze rightly claims that ‘masks do not hide anything but other masks’, for without the mask there would be no means by which one could communicate at all. As the Internet has aptly demonstrated, it is the spectacle of the author, the authenticity of the ‘whom’ that trivialises the event precisely because the event of communication is not naked, but repeatedly unfolds in the play of images. In an attempt to reclaim our identities, it is evidently Facebook that has overlooked the impossibility of an authentic, naked self on the Internet. After all, the online world is a stage where the actors do not matter; we should, for a start, confess that the show must go on.
Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. London: Athlone Press, 1981.
—. Limited Inc. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2000.
Nozawa, Shunsuke. “The gross face and virtual fame: Semiotic mediation in Japanese virtual communication.” First Monday 17.3 (2012). <http://www.firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3535/3168>.
About the Author:
Joel Gn is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore. His dissertation will critique the aesthetic of cuteness and its relationship to the configuration of desire within a technological space.