for a very important date

In about ten days, I’m heading to a conference in College Park, Maryland. It’s being thrown by the editors of cyborgology, an exceptional resource site for all things social & technological, for hybrids and cyborgs of all stripes.

The conference is titled Theorizing the Web. The panel I’m on is titled Cyborgology: see the abstracts? Cool stuff.  The program? Augmented realities, counter-discourses, digital agency. I don’t get to have these conversations very often. And I’m rooming with an old blog friend whom I’ve never actually gotten to meet in person. So all in all, this will be good.

(It’s also pay-as-you-can. You should come.)

But there’s one hitch. My paper’s not quite done.

I’m doing a paper on theory work that will be the body of my dissertation. Some of the premises I’ve worked out, largely. But I’m still at the pre-proposal stage of my doctorate, so I’m writing this stuff for the first time. Which is good. And bad.

Writing, for me, is like a binge on the “Eat Me” cakes in Alice in Wonderland: it changes everything. I start somewhere and then I writhe in circles and dig up research and cringe horribly at my own naivete and spit stuff out anyway and then push and pull at words in a recursive fashion that sloths would call tedious. Stuff gets out there, eventually. But I learn more than I know how to say, how to cram together in a coherent trail. And I wish sometimes that it would just hurry up and get easier, this theory writing, this massive learning curve I’ve set ahead of myself like a ski jump.

I assume it does. I assume someday I’ll at least understand most of the grounding principals I’m working with, in this strange hybrid field of the social and the technological and the educational. But right now, every idea I eke out is a croquet game detouring into the bushes.

Someday, all this will not be novel. For me, for now, a lot of it still is. It’s slow-going, and I need to giddyup. But it is still the most interesting work I’ve ever done. I hope I can pull it together enough in the next ten days to do it justice.

Here is my abstract: the Coles notes. Input & critique welcome. Hurry.

The Branded Self: Cyborg Subjectivity in Social Media
My work takes up the question of who we are when we’re online. Participatory, reputation-focused online platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and blogs allow people to perform their learning, their sociality and interests, their narrative histories and their minutiae in newly public, connected ways. The premise of my research is that these ongoing interactive performances open up new conceptions of self and subjectivity, and create new horizons and challenges within the field of education.

Donna Haraway called her original A Manifesto for Cyborgs (1991) an “ironic political myth”. In the late 20th century, she named the cyborg as our ontology, a representation of our societal and cultural politics. In reviving her cyborg for the era of social media, I explore its mythic potential for the relational and participatory knowledge-making sphere of social media, where new stories of self are told and reflected. With a deep bow to Haraway, my exploration of the branded cyborg subject aims to be an ironic educational myth for the 21st century.

I think of all of us using social media as branded selves, cyborgs whose online and offline lives blur. We are cyborgs because we are hybrids; because our “real lives” play out in part in cyberspace. We are branded because the cyberspace environment operates by branding – and socializing – all who enter: social, financial, and cultural capital are as central to the circulation of power and knowledge online today as the technologies and the human networks which form its infrastructure. The identities through which we connect with others and engage in the shared creation/consumption cycle that marks the social media economy are branded identities, even if we never monetize our brands.

Informal polls of cyborg subjects who live large portions of their lives online suggest that they generally consider their digital identities simply as extensions of themselves rather than as anything separate and distinct. I utilize Judith Butler’s notion of performativity to examine the constitution of subjectivities both online and off: those of us who become cyborg are always already subjects, yet the life that our stories and selves take on in cyberspace impacts our everyday lives in turn. Thus there is no dualistic divide between digital self and embodied self.

Nonetheless, the digital performance of identity warrants specific focus. The conventions and operations surrounding online interactions are not the same as in so-called “real life,” even when cyborg subjects try to conduct ourselves similarly across environments. The speed of connections, the different structures governing hierarchical relations, and the different conventions and etiquettes of online and offline life alter the subject positions that the environments create and privilege. The discursive field of social media – which my work posits as the site or stage on which the cyborg self performs and circulates – deviates from that of the broader culture. Some things are more speakable online than in real life, and the ways in which people interact and build knowledge within networks differs. My work treats our digital identities as offshoots of previously existing subjectivities, learning and engaging in augmented digital environments but always in a recursive relationship with our embodied selves.

15 Comments for a very important date

  1. nathan jurgenson

    Thanks and looking forward to the panel! Also, best of luck working on the paper before the conference, but I also hope that the conference will be useful in thinking through the ideas. I always enjoy sessions where the presenters ask more questions than say “look at me and how smart I am am.”

    1. bon

      thanks, Nathan. i’m not sure i’ll have time to wash my “look at me and how smart i am tshirt” before the big event, what with all this writing, so am relieved to hear it’s not needed. ;)

    1. bon

      i think it will be invigorating, to get to dive head-first into a conversation i’ve been pushing at so long. thanks for the support, all along.

  2. hodgepodge

    I wish I understood a tenth of what you’re talking about. :)

    Sounds like a really wonderful experience for you, that will excite you and fill you up and push you forward on your path. I’ll be with you in spirit.

    1. bon

      i’ll take your spirit and raise you an eyebrow, as i think you understand the general premises quite well and it’s on me to continue to work on the language that sometimes makes this stuff seem less accessible than it should be.

  3. David B.

    My panel contribution is actually a spin-off of a paper I begrudgingly wrote for my History of Science and Technology Studies course. The task was to situated yourself into the discipline and generally ask yourself, “where do you fit in?” It was an ego-shattering process that ended with more questions than answers.

    That’s why the title of my piece is in the present tense. Its “discovering” not “the discovered” precisely because I feel like I’m only half-way there.

    As far as my “look at me I’m smart shirt” goes… I don’t think I’ve ever owned one, but I do have this one…

  4. Pingback: Next Stop, Maryland | Citizen of the Month

  5. rachel

    two things, bon, a comment and a question.

    1. i love that you have this space and that it is connected to your other blog, thereby waving a flag for praxis and refusing to participate in the facade of objectivity. also, based on what you’ve offered here, i think you should go forth to this conference with confidence. i, for one, would love a seat in that audience.

    2. have you read walter benjamin’s “art in the age of mechanical reproduction”? he puts forth interesting (albeit at times problematic) stakes for the loss of embodied presence. while particularly concerned with art, i wonder how his understanding of the death of aura complicates assertions that digital identities are extensions of embodied selves? anyway, that’s just where my brain wandered while (thoroughly enjoying) reading here today.

    good luck!

    1. bon

      Rachel…thanks. waving a flag for praxis is a very flattering way to put it…and it is that, in one sense. i don’t see the point in trying to whittle myself down to any apparently singular identity. but i use these online spaces – the two blogs and Twitter, particularly, to reflect myself back to myself. so it is also about trying to create coherence in the panopticon (oligopticon?) i’ve chosen to believe i live in.

      i loved Benjamin, when i read him for my M.A…but i haven’t picked him up now in over a decade. i haven’t figured out how i’m going to deal with the questions of embodied-ness in this work…probably from an augmented reality perspective that tries to refuse the virtual/embodied binary, but Art in the Age might still trouble that, wouldn’t it? thanks much for the reminder. i’ll go back and look and do some thinking.

        1. rachel

          for some reason i keep reading things that remind me of what you’re working on. just read mcluhan’s “understanding media”–might be useful towards exploring refusals of the virtual/embodied binary and also embodied-ness in general.

          glad the conference went well. yay!


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