Drawn and Quartered on the Internet

No one would deny that the internet has altered the tenor, the feel, the style of public life. The web contains much of the record of that life, and in turn directs how that life is conducted.

The problem for description and analysis arises when you concede that the internet’s effects on public life seem so contradictory. Everyone who looks (and the web sometimes makes you feel like a staring eyeball that can’t blink) sees the same constellation of contradictions: more public shamelessness yet more public shaming; a threat to privacy side by side with a growth in anonymous communication; and more pure information together with an expanded circulation for baseless opinion. The temptation is to throw up your hands and just say that, thanks to the internet, the public sphere contains more of everything: more exposure, privacy, publicity, anonymity, truth, lies, opinion, information, pornography, culture, advertising—though probably not more art.

Still, it may be that if we can identify some basic ways that the individual person relates to the public sphere, we can begin to replace an online feeling of immersion with something more usefully aloof. One axis along which every individual relates to the public is that which runs from identification to anonymity. A police officer, named on his badge, chases a masked man down the street: one is identifiable, the other, for now, publicly anonymous. (This is different from sitting at home with the shades drawn.) But whether or not to reveal our identity in public—to disclose our face, name, or title—is hardly the end of our choices. Another axis runs from reticence to expressiveness. The police officer in pursuit, even if he shouts Stop! at the top of his lungs, is personally reticent and inexpressive: the uniform he wears is not of his design, and the laws he upholds are not of his authorship. Who knows what he thinks of them? The masked figure he’s chasing, on the other hand, may be highly expressive even as he retains his anonymity and the opinions he expresses founder in banality: on some wall he has scrawled Cops suck! Of course the officer could at any moment shed his personal reticence and start declaiming to the assembled onlookers a print-out of the blog post he wrote the night before. The graffiti artist could likewise stop running and tear off his mask.

So there are four basic positions one can occupy in public, owing to the fact that at any given moment we can reveal or conceal both who we are (our physical and social container) and what we think and feel (our emotional and intellectual contents):

figure 1

Each quadrant of the graph represents a potential way to relate to the public sphere—a terrific simplification, of course, but with luck a heuristic one. The result is four possible positions:

  1. You can reveal both who you are (show your face, say your name) and how you feel (disclose your thoughts and desires, or some of them).
  2. You can reveal who you are but NOT how you feel.
  3. You can reveal how you feel but NOT who you are.
  4. You can reveal neither.

What happens if we apply these four available positions to the internet—where, after all, so much of public life takes place these days? If the examples above of the police officer and graffiti artist seem antique and implausible, it is because the online world has so signally expanded the individual’s capacity for virtual mask-wearing and virtual declaiming. The internet affords us unprecedented scope for appearing in public (even if only the atomized public of the internet). And if at first it seems hard to see how you could conceal who you are and how you feel and nevertheless publicly appear, it’s necessary only to think of a site like Wikipedia, where anonymous individuals publicize facts about which they are not to disclose their own opinions.

Is it surprising that the four positions above seem to correspond strikingly well to four of the primary preoccupations of the World Wide Web?

Figure 2

Pornography, politics, commentary, and information form a natural if antagonistic grouping, and we take them in that order.


Pornography

Exhibitionism on the internet is hardly confined to pornography, but porn is where it flourishes most often, most popularly, and most purely. The internet has increased immeasurably the ease and privacy of accessing pornography at the same time that the porn industry can now cater to an incredible variety of sexual tastes (with a common basis in scopophilia). Much commentary has concerned the “pornification” of American mores: revealing dress, implants, oral sex as social skill. But in reality public behavior—except in various festival atmospheres like Spring Break, Mardi Gras, or Burning Man—goes on mostly as before the internet: no nudity or sex on the streets. The laws remain unchanged, and the 13-year-old girls openly masturbating in front of TV porn shows, as imagined in Anthony Burgess’s novel 1985, have not materialized. On the whole, porn has blossomed as a cultural phenomenon restricted to the private consumption of publicly available images, and not yet become much of a social phenomenon inducing nudism, orgies, and wildfire promiscuity.

The distinction is worth making since cultural expressions of every kind—and porn more obviously than most—consist largely of fantasies: not so much what a society does as what it wants and fears. The spread of porn surely counts as one of the significant cultural developments of the time, and nothing about porn in general is more striking than its utopian aspect: here is an imaginary world where, as in the Philip Larkin poem, to want is straightaway to be wanted.1 More than that, porn is an imaginary world where in principle shame is impossible. The revelation of any strange appetite or unusual trait, according to porn’s simple moral code, only prompts the appearance of a suitable fetishist, and no one is ever too ugly, smelly, or otherwise unappealing to want for a partner. Many of the classic arguments against porn may have been right, but the line of criticism that saw ordinary porn as so many rape fantasies inducing actual rape seems to have been mistaken. It is another item of the porn code (along with the impossibility of shame) that here rape can not take place.2

In fact porn, with its strictures against violence and shame, represents the most robust form of utopianism in a time that otherwise considers utopia fatally infected with totalitarian ambitions. And what injects this fantasy with the necessary germ of reality is simply that the performers show their actual human faces to the world. They may perform anonymously or under noms de porn, but faces, more than names, constitute unique possessions—the performers have signed their work with their faces.

And yet this place of no-shame and exposure, so easily available to anyone with a computer, can only be entered, even now, discreetly and under penalty of public shaming. When Denver’s city attorney, a Democrat, was accused in 2007 of stealing a laptop belonging to the state (which he claimed to have bought secondhand without knowing its provenance), the Republican district attorney not only trumpeted at a press conference the fact that the alleged thief had downloaded porn onto the computer, but made details of the downloads available in an unsealed affidavit. There was no suggestion that the pornography was of an illegal variety. The accused killed himself a few hours after a court hearing.


Politics

The special liability of politicians to personal scandal is nothing new: Parnell in Ireland was brought down by adultery charges long before Gary Hart, whose own fall had nothing to do with the web. Still, in the internet age, the politician has become more than anything else a specially vivid instance of the unhappy celebrity we each risk becoming: a closely monitored individual with neither the glamour of the entertainment celebrity nor as many chances for public redemption in the aftermath of a scandal. And scandal—an impossibility in the fantasy world of porn—is dauntingly hard for even a minor politician to avoid. Audio and video clips of ill-judged words or gestures circulate endlessly online, and the likelihood of any politician’s gaffe being recorded and disseminated has correspondingly increased. Any slip can also be discussed at length on blogs proper and in their comments sections.

The resulting atmosphere of heightened surveillance might in theory have led to a better and more tolerant understanding of the complexities and contradictions of even the most disciplined personality. Instead, American public life has lately become more censorious and easily scandalized than ever. The intense digital invigilation of holders or seekers of public office naturally encourages politicians to exercise extreme care in their choice of words, gestures, and associates; they must live every moment as if crafting a social-networking profile. And yet the suppression of personality enforced by this media regime makes any slip or revelation seem only the more meaningful. If all one’s best efforts can’t conceal an impulse of sarcasm, snobbery, inconsistency, or lust, this must mean the given weakness, whichever it may be, offers the key to one’s personality.

So while politics, like porn, supplies one of the main preoccupations of internet culture, the contrast between the two could hardly be more stark. Porn recognizes no taboo except coercion, and the event of being found out (cheating, peeping, et cetera) is always welcome for the increased chances for sexual fulfillment thereby afforded. Politics, on the other hand, mines the entire terrain of public life with taboo after taboo and makes discovery an occasion for dread. The political celebrity lives in constant fear of the exposure invariably welcomed by the porn figure.

If part of the burden of Foucault’s work, against Freud, was to try to detach acts (of sex, madness, crime) from identity (e.g., that of the homosexual, the lunatic, the criminal), in politics no act is not a confession of the integral personality. (So are slips of the tongue, as in Freud’s early work, windows onto the soul, along with other verbal inadvertencies.) Everything said and done must be “owned” or, with effort, “disowned,” each facet of character being held to reflect every other facet. This idea imposes on the politician (or other suddenly publicized person) a terrible comprehensive responsibility to square his every known deed and statement with his every other one. So the task for even a minor politician or celebrity—or the celebrity in potentio with a social-networking profile set to public viewing—becomes a paradox, an impossibility: to make everyone know who you are without letting anyone know who you are.


Commentary

Even as recorded indiscretions or mistakes by politicians, celebrities, and ordinary people come to light sooner and more reliably than ever before, the internet affords immense new scope for anonymous expression. Anonymous public messages often enough voice an anodyne enthusiasm, offer a helpful tip, contribute a relevant fact, or engage in civil discussion—but just as often these messages are scurrilous, abusive, or false.

The result is highly asymmetrical positions for the commenter and the commented-on. The commenter, because impossible to identify, can’t be humiliated—while there remains something genuinely humiliating about the exposure of even the most cogent argument, beautiful face, or sincere statement to charges of stupidity, ugliness, or hypocrisy. In courtly society, an insult undermined the insulted person not necessarily because it was true but simply because it went unavenged—and still today the humiliation of the commented-on person comes not so much from what is said (we all know that nasty things are said behind our backs) as from the fact that it can be said in public without the commenter being challenged by name as someone also afflicted by stupidity, ugliness, and hypocrisy.

Yet for all the safety of his position the anonymous commenter also suffers in his own way—from anonymity. He is like the B-movie invisible man who can frighten, harass, and spy on the visible person but never be seen and recognized himself. The pain of anonymity supplies a possible explanation for the violence of the anonymous commentariat’s rage against especially that category of person—the celebrity—who can suffer every mortal pain (injury, addiction, divorce, death, even bankruptcy) except for that of facelessness. The celebrity or politician’s revenge comes about when an anonymous commenter unwarily leaves behind a crumb of circumstantial evidence establishing his identity. The moment the commenter is exposed as a sock-puppeting ranter—not only transparently incoherent, dishonest, hypocritical, and biased, but a real person exhibiting these defects, as well as the unforgivable liability of having a face and a past—the unfortunate figure crosses into the realm of politics, celebrity, scandal, shame.


Information

Early and mid-nineties speculation on the future on the internet worried about the promotion of a certain web-bound solipsism: the New York Times would give way to the hyper-parochial Daily Me. With the declining market share of “universal” sources of information and opinion—another obvious example was the evening news—and the corresponding proliferation of ideological niches, the population would fragment into so many mental cellules shielding their worldviews from inconvenient facts and incompatible views. This concern has been substantially realized. Ideological certainty can only become the more attractive in the face of a world (and World Wide Web) bristling with so much unsynthesizable information.

For the internet has made good on the early boosterish claim that it would democratize access to information.3 It has streamed porn into every willing household, and made basically reliable historical, scientific, political, and biographical information available to all. If you want to look up a date or translate a foreign word, make a certain dish, diagnose an ailment, or compare real estate prices, the internet makes each of these tasks far easier than before. If we all passed our lives in small organic communities, we might simply ask our neighbors about these things—but as long as we’re going to live the mobile, isolated lives of modernity, it’s nice to have the internet to consult.

It would be a stretch to claim that informational abundance has made us more powerful as citizens. Campaigns for public office conducted by meticulously managed politicians unwilling to divulge their actual views on most subjects are clearly addressed not to citizens’ burgeoning knowledge of the world but mainly to their unreasoning tastes, prejudices, and cultural associations. And “citizen journalism” is usually just a pretentious term invoked by professional gossips to dignify their work; only rarely does it refer to actual reporting by earnest amateurs. But the internet plainly makes people more powerful as consumers, as any doctor confronted by a patient well armed with information gleaned from the internet can tell you. And the internet not only lets you know when a movie starts and where the nearest retailer of a given product can be found, it also facilitates the founding of so-called knowledge blogs serving what might be called communities of concern, where geographically far-flung individuals with a shared problem (often a medical condition) or shared interest (e.g., petroleum depletion) can exchange views that, on the whole, probably move in the direction of the truth.

Much of the solid information collected online is gathered by salaried professionals: reporters and researchers. Sometimes these people receive credit for their work, but the wire service reporter and the uncredited researcher slip into anonymity, while the rest of the information online is published by people not only unknown but also unremunerated. These people contributing knowledge to the world in their spare time offer a heroic counterpoint to the villainy of many anonymous commentators.

The web’s status as information clearing-house (along with its character as a pornographic commons) is another utopian dimension. And porn and information are curiously alike. In both cases, there is a striking and even touching neutrality to what is on offer: certain naked individuals contribute to the digital census of all sex acts and body types while certain invisible individuals contribute to the census of all facts. And just as in porn there is nothing wrong with any sex act as long as it stops short of illegality, all facts are equally innocent. A fact might refer to a terrible crime, but its publication can only count as a good deed. You can sometimes even feel moved that so many anonymous individuals have conspired to provision you with so much information for free. But the ant-like heroism of the anonymous information supplier crosses into something more like informing whenever a writer for a site like Wikipedia hides behind his anonymity and takes advantage of the stated neutrality of the site to seed the web with deliberate misinformation. Then the informationist became the worst kind of commenter.


Pornography, politics, commentary, and information go together in the sense that each one, in its pure form, appears to illustrate a motto that is a variation on the mottos of the other three: I will (or won’t) tell you who I am while I do (or don’t) say how I feel.

Laid out schematically like this, the four roles we’ve isolated begin to look like four moral positions. Clearly the villains of internet-led public life are the politicians and commenters, not because of their actual flaws and shortcomings, but because they adopt public stances expressly designed to deny those flaws. The politician pretends to a perfect selfhood that no one could achieve; the commenter, sniping from behind a wall of anonymity, demands the same perfection from others. Each promotes an idea of the person as a knowable and integrated entity subject to being unlocked by a key gesture or word (“douchebag” comes to mind). And this idea of the person takes hold the more tenaciously the less anyone actually believes in it; the gaffe or slip-up theory of personality is a useful weapon against one’s enemies but no tool of psychology. Anyone capable of introspection knows that his personality is either largely incoherent or possesses a coherence beyond his ken. As Freud said in rebuffing a would-be biographer, “Biographical truth does not exist . . . and in any case is not our Prince Hamlet right when he asks who would escape whipping if used after his just deserts?”

What is offensive about the politician and the commenter when they go on the attack is the combination of intense moralism with a total indifference to moral reality. Protected by, in the politician’s case, a fraudulent public image of coherence and probity, and, in the commenter’s case, a screen of anonymity, the politician and the commenter misconstrue, and extrapolate from, their enemies’ words and gestures in a manner bound to violate any realistic sense of a person’s complexity, contradictions, and final elusiveness. Their hope is not that, judged by the same standards, they would escape whipping; the hope is simply not to get whipped. That depends on not being found out. So the commenter and politician in their different ways become skulking, secretive creatures pushing their victims out into a light they do all they can to avoid. For both are potential victims of the theory of personality they lustily reinforce, one that makes hypocrisy at once especially inevitable and reprehensible.

In this atmosphere, the porn star and the informationist appear as heroes of a kind. Their tasks—which, because so many of them aren’t paid for what they do, must often be pleasures—are neutral and unjudgmental in the extreme. Above all, their activities point to a sort of truth. The world truly is a collection of facts, if not only that; and adult humans really are lustful sexual beings, though they are other things besides.

The heroes, in other words, are the amoralists: the porn and information angels who add to the web’s compendium of information and sex acts without attempting to place one sort of lust or one sort of fact above another. This person may prefer oral while disliking anal sex; and that person may be encyclopedic about submarine warfare while being ignorant of twelve-tone music. But no information or sexual desire is considered superior to other information or other desire. And proof of the simple acceptableness of sex and of fact is offered by the indifference to exposure enjoyed by both the porn person and the information angel: in porn, faces are already shown, while the unmasking of Wikipedia’s main authority on the Cleveland Cavaliers or Yves Saint Laurent would presumably result in no particularly keen embarrassment.

The problem is that in life we can’t ultimately sequester facts and sex from morality. There may be amoral activities—breathing, excreting, walking down the street: processes truly beyond, or beneath, good and evil—but sex is rarely one of these, and past early infancy there is no such thing as an amoral or value-neutral life. We ourselves (and other people) are facts and desires, but these facts and desires entail moral considerations whether we like it or not. That generally today we don’t like it is evident in the overtones acquired by the verb to judge: “judging someone” sounds aggressive and unkind. And yet internet culture, outside of the neutral realms of porn and information, has encouraged us to make free with an array of insults containing strong implicit moral judgments: asshat, douchebag, jerk, et cetera. The moral pillorying of a politician, celebrity, or celebritized ordinary person provides one of the most regular of all internet spectacles. Sometimes the person’s celebrity consists of nothing but his sudden shaming.


This separation of pornography, politics, commentary, and information is less a theoretical position than an observed tendency. The tendency isn’t and will never be complete; the different modes can still overlap. But the porn performer’s admission of lust, the politician’s acceptance of responsibility, the commenter’s avowal of an opinion, the informationist’s presentation of facts—more and more these things take place separately, while at the same time we seem to observe a relative (though not necessarily an absolute) decline of what might be called holistic communication or self-presentation.

These activities in their isolation overwhelm the blending or combinatory operations visible in much art and argumentation, not to mention in any ordinary life. The result is a set of separate if not perfectly sealed chambers devoted to activities inhuman in their purity. In the pure lust of porn and the pure facticity of information there is something appealing; only neither realm can be inhabited by a real person. In the politician’s total responsibility—his responsibility to a false idea of a thoroughly coherent self—there is something grotesque, as there is in the commenter’s total irresponsibility. But once again, neither realm can be inhabited by you or me.

An atmosphere of moral unreality pervades the internet. That our profound though incomplete separation of different types of self-presentation is unworkable and unreal is revealed by the impression of shock and violence produced each time a door opens between the separate chambers. An upright politician turns out to be the prey of ungovernable desires, or we learn that a role-model celebrity has made an offensive remark. Or an outwardly decent person is discovered indulging in vile invective or self-serving commentary. Or what looked like neutral information turns out to be misinformation planted by an interested party. And the porn star, of course, would be encouraged to relearn the sense of shame she seems to have cast off if she attempted a public career of another kind.

Meanwhile the internet as we live it seems hostile to those varieties of communication that neither trade in the false and merely punitive and expedient morality of the commenter or politician, nor take refuge in the highly artificial amorality of porn or information. When we are online, or merely in a world that increasingly follows the internet’s lead, morality alternates between being an embarrassment (and hence dropped) and a weapon (and hence picked up). Sometimes it is a faculty we decline to employ since, not wanting to judge, we wouldn’t wish to spurn the abundance and diversity of what’s online. We justify our choices and even our existence as being simply a matter of taste, tastes being something—unlike evaluations or judgments—that can differ without offense to anyone. At other times, we become violent moralists, and attempt not to counter our opponents’ arguments or critique their behavior but to humiliate, insult, and destroy them. This is the mode of the commenter and the politician, but it is also increasingly the mode of the pundit (on his own blog or elsewhere) who signs his name to his work. Again, it’s as if the choice were between the amorality of porn and information and the moralism of politics and commentary. The space on the internet and in our public life for moral reflection or “nuance” seems remarkably small, in spite of the breadth of the World Wide Web.

Answering the question of how this came about looks daunting, and is certainly impossible here. American morality, as it enters into public life, is split most prominently between a certain bankrupt Christianism and a certain pale relativism. The Christianism’s inability to reckon honestly with sexuality, its bafflement before the aggression on which it obviously thrives, and its low exegetical standards are only some of its failings. The relativism most of the rest of us profess has, for its part, few powers beyond the descriptive; it can say what we do, but not why. Still, this schism, however freshly exploited by the culture wars, began to open up in the eighteenth century, and by Nietzsche’s time had become fully articulate on both sides. And if, in the twentieth century, psychoanalysis sometimes tried to accommodate moral life to the insuperable reality of individual desire, this tradition had already badly faltered by 1981, when Alistair McIntyre’s After Virtue proclaimed modern Western morality a hopeless jumble of fragments and—less persuasively—proposed a neo-Aristotelian communitarianism as the remedy. The moral incoherence of a civilization is hardly the fault of the internet; the web has merely exacerbated it by expanding the opportunities for mere descriptivism, on the one hand, and stark hypocrisy on the other.

Still, moral realism (whatever that might turn out to be) would need patience and some tolerance for subtlety to flourish, and these delicate moods are exactly those the techno-determinists tell us the internet can never support. They may be right. Though one can spend hours online, the sensation of being there is usually one of impatience, and each of the segregated public realms we’ve discussed notably appeals to impatience. The immediate gratification to lust and curiosity offered respectively by online porn and online encyclopedias is easy enough to understand. But what in us is gratified by the punitive hypocrisies of politics and commentary? Why, when we are online, do we so often prefer expressing or seeing expressed contempt (and sometimes adulation) instead of moral judgments of more complexity, not to say reality? It must owe something to the immediacy of these varieties of moralistic satisfaction. It’s a pleasure to hate and to adore, to insult or to flatter, and a pleasure you can come by fairly quickly. The satisfactions of respect, understanding, and explication need more time.

It is also gratifying to feel as if you know what you think and how you feel, particularly when you don’t. The internet has this twin character: its contents are overwhelming and disorienting, and its denizens regularly affect a furious certainty as to their ideas and opinions. So the vastness of the internet, as of our world and culture generally, and the speed at which new “content” pops up—the freshly discovered curiosity—promotes a self-protective attitude in which everything is known and judged in advance. Internet-led culture has encouraged us to be impatient with efforts at thinking out loud; the preferred style is a certain glib knowingness. It’s worth asking whether the attraction of glibness—glib contempt especially—doesn’t consist in being able to apply a steady and reliable attitude to an online public world otherwise overmastering in its breadth, diversity, and novelty, a world of which we have, by now, a lot of experience, but still very little knowledge.

  1. See Nancy Bauer, “Pornutopia,” n+1 Issue Five. 

  2. If in ordinary porn unsolicited advances and ostensibly degrading treatment turn out—“surprisingly” but consistently—to be welcomed by their objects, there must still exist porn that fantasizes outright coercion rather than consent. Even so, unless the film or photos record an illegal act and are therefore illegal them- selves, consent of a kind necessarily exists: the performers have been willing to portray unwillingness. 

  3. Think of the conclusion to Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition: “[T]he computerization of society . . . could become the “dream” instrument for controlling and regulating the market system, extended to include knowledge itself. . . . But it could also aid groups discussing metaprescriptives by supplying them with the information they usually lack for making knowledgeable decisions. The line to follow for computerization to take the second of these two paths is, in principle, quite simple: give the public free access to the memo- ry and data banks. Language games would then be games of perfect information at any given moment.” 

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