#9: High Life: Affect and Anonymity (pt 1.)

Our own experiences in everyday life can help to direct a critical, ontological inquiry into the emergence of the radical new user mode of existence in the Information age. By describing the forces and intensities affectively exchanged between human and non-human actors in conscious and unconscious relations, we may trace their multiple becomings and fluid performances and make new meaning. This affective data shimmers everywhere and mediates every experience of being in the world, and is simultaneously “real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society” (6, WHNBM). These traditionally ephemeral, difficult to perceive relations can be interrogated by following their affects across the various domains of experience in which they appear. For the first time in history, these abstract critical relations are achieving stability in the Internet protocol suite, and through the mechanical organization of cybertext and media omnipresent in online material (between objects and things) semiotic (between concepts and structures) discourse. Affect generated by the constant, fluid relations of anonymous users online can even be found at times sticking in and between the domains of personal experience, discourse and social life away from the keyboard.

How is the Internet providing ‘virtually-there’ shelter for any and all disillusioned, alienated or traumatized modern users (existing in gradients of conscious awareness of their anonymous condition), desperately seeking a mechanism to seize control over the the material conditions of their life situations from the inertia of modernity and the abstract, social and political apparatuses of modernization and rationalization? What (if any) dangers may emerge from users engaged in these new sites of anonymous political, social and cultural exchange? This paper seeks to examine these strange new relations and the actors and users generating them, in order to better understand to what extent societies and social life, both online and in the world, is being transformed through the omnipresent transmission of hyper-affective cybercultural capital and how this accelerated, affective learning is limiting or enabling the exertion and enactment of radical new forms of agency, volition and existence in the user mode.

In “An Inventory of Shimmers,” Gregory J. Seigworth & Melissa Gregg introduce the various strains of affect theory emerging in contemporary critical discourse and trace the Spinozan-Deleuzean route that immanently “locates affect in the midst of… complex assemblages of things and relations that come to compose bodies and whole worlds simultaneously…[in] a vital, and modulating field of myriad becomings across human and nonhuman” relations (6). This paper will trace affect at work in processes of relations in matters affective and affected, affect being the “and” that holds each differentiated state together. In material semiotic online relations, affective exchange is continuously accelerated and intensified, existing outside the traditional limitations space-time that mediates communication and exchange between actors in the world.

Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory provides a useful approach to interrogate the overwhelming failure of the modern critical fiefdoms ability to produce interesting, new or useful ideas in the light of the very real global, ecological, economic and political crises of modern life in the 21st century. The reason for this critical failure, Latour points out, is that Nature, Politics and Discourse, for all of their fruitful historical inquiries and becomings, exist together in the cosmos– not isolated in a void. Moreover, they only exist because human beings existed first. As absolute authorities, their perspectives are neither more nor less valid than their progenitors, nor are any individual perspectives than theirs, nor any differentiated “actor,” from any other in the world. All of us actors exist in complex and infinite networks co-populating and co-relating across actual and virtual environments in the world. By paying attention to a particular matter of concern at a particular moment in time, the relations of a given assemblage can allow us to describe “what other actors are modified, transformed, perturbed, or created by the character that is the focus of attention” (122, PH). As such, in an actor-network of material semiotic relational assemblages consisting of people, objects, concepts, organizations, whatever- each is considered a discreet, differentiated heterogeneous actor and retains its own unique characteristics until it engages in internal or external, infinite and variable, vital conflict, thereby broadly and synthetically recombining and reconfiguring its multiple, irreducible assemblages of relations in turn.

Most moderately experienced Internet users have come across the term “meme,” but what does the phenomenon consist of and can anything new from learnt from them? The web provides unique, practical access to intervene, observe, create and experience the abstract, heterogeneous recombination of material semiotic relations normally blurred by the limits of space and time. To describe the process and production of this new mode of cybercultural articulation and expression, I build off Kate Distin’s expansion of Richard Dawkins theory of the “meme” as a single informational unit of discourse (an image or concept), which has its corollary in the molecular “gene” as a single unit of biological heredity. In the fertile, omnipresent and always active virtual environments of cybercultural exchange, affect mediates and accelerates the circulation and evolution of those visual, textual and conceptual representations of thought which possess a specific (if not variable) cybercultural utility. To what extent does a users anonymous condition enhance or restrict the proliferation and decay of a certain Internet memes in and among the vast “meta-representational” fray of online images, texts and users?

This discursive process of cybercultural evolution though visible today on social networks, message boards and blogs, can be situated transdiscursively and historically in relation to the equivocal processes in synaptogenesis and encephalization in neural networks. Synaptogenesis is described by neurologists studying the cognitive development of infant brains and encephalization theorized by biologists studying the functional evolution of primate brains. In anonymous online networks, certain memes, like certain synapses in the brain matter of infants, strengthen and grow with remarkable flexibility and adaptability, “while most decay and disappear” (192, H&DA). Those synapses that experience frequent or robust use tend to acquire a capacitative increase in ability, complexity and fecundity. The synaptogenetic process also resembles the nascent evolutionary theory of encephalization that relates the mass of a primate’s brain to its total body mass and argues that there is a direct relationship between that relation and an animal’s level of intelligence. It’s obvious that not every order of primate evolved into Homo Sapiens and not all infants grow up to be Noam Chomsky. Likewise, in material semiotic relations circulating in cyberculture, of the vast quantities memes that are contiguously generated, most are marginal and quickly disappear, while a select few are used far more and seem to take on a life and trajectory of their own.

Since the humanist revolutions of France and America in the 18th century, “the self” has been characterized as a “free” individual. Concomitant with these socio-political revolutions, various relational structures have emerged, modified, appropriated and subjected “the self” as an object within systems of dominant, internal force relations determined by idiosyncratic truths, morals and values. Unlike Latour’s conception of the heterogeneous actor, the idea of “the self” is the identification of any individual trapped, knowingly or not, in the systems of modernity. By dint of this enduring and overwhelming state of identity confusion, the modern self is traced to “unfathomably anonymous roots” (Eagleton). Terry Eagleton situates the pathological appropriation and identification of the modern self within a historical process, modulating, circulating and mediating across the world, over time:

Men and women [have emerged] as unique beings through a medium… that is implacably impersonal. What makes us what we are has no regard for us at all. At the very core of the personality, so the modern age holds, vast, anonymous processes are at work. Only through a salutary repression or oblivion of these forces can we achieve the illusion of autonomy. Anonymity is the condition of identity.

If the autonomous modern self is essentially anonymous, then what about the foundational doctrines of Western civilization which so many have suffered, fought and died for: the absolute right to exert “free will” and the universal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Eagleton correctly characterizes these fundamental doctrines as illusory. The modern self has survived, persisted, since the Enlightenment, situated within the totalizing and ongoing crisis of modernity. It is this crisis, Latour claims, that has persisted, un-interrogated, glossed over and deferred by the same primary structures and systems that created it, but which have mutated in from. A way into understanding and returning to ask into this totalizing, chronic reduction and inscription of the modern individual’s identity can be found through an idea diametrically opposed to “free will,” specifically “addiction”. Both the process “modernity” and “addiction,” are characterized by the chronic, pathological deferral of actual becoming (conscious awakening), that continually feeds back into an illusory state of recursive (false)consciousness–knowingly or not. All the while, affect mediates and facilitates the twin processes of relations between “addiction” and “modernity” which dominate relations of the modern self’s volition, agency and existence.

Affect feels relatable and is relations but it is obfuscated by space, time and the human body’s capacity to perceive the world with our five senses. As a result, it is difficult to detect affect in the crisis of modernity without the aid of an apparatus. The Internet facilitates information communication through standardized systems governing relations and serves as an affective petrie dish to actively observe, engage and play in anonymous mediation. The affect of anonymity mediates all relations online to various degrees and intensities depending on the user and the site of engagement. Online material semiotic discourse is inscribed in cybertext by crowds and simultaneously inscribes the thoughts of the crowds in cybertext. In this way, through the network technology of the Internet, formerly invisible relations are being elucidated and allowed resonate and amplify “hyperaffectively” in the form of Internet memes until the process spills out of online discourse and takes the form of active demonstrations and public assemblies around the world.

In her essay “Epidemics of Will,” Eve Sedgwick argues following Foucault, that as a result of the historical pathologization and identification of “the addict”, the same modern systems of power that have appeared to create and spread the doctrines of inalienable human rights and freedoms across Europe and the West, also worked to trap and strip individuals of their subjective agency and volition by seizing control over their ability to function for themselves while redeploying them as objects in various legal, juridical or medical governing apparatuses which presume to know best. In this way, volition and agency has been invisibly appropriated by the substance of the State, just as the chemical substance user’s volition is hijacked by the “drug”- which itself can been understood broadly as any substance or behaviour which does nothing but produce desire for itself. Today, the term ‘addiction’ continues to work socially and discursively as a pantomime gesture deferring the symptomatic attribution of the critical experience that ubiquitously mediates modern life.

Historically, chemical substances were used as a performative means by which “free” individuals exerted agency and control over difficult or painful life situations and used them to bring their perceptions into realistic conformity with the material conditions of their reality. Of course the use and abuse of chemical substances persists today but importantly, what was once a question of actions has instead become a question of essence. Today the “addict” is treated like an entity with a biological disease or corrupt social affliction that must be contained, expunged and quarantined by any/all social, juridical or political apparatus available. For chemical substance users this usually means arrest, incarceration, prosecution, institutionalization and (ostensibly) rehabilitation, more often than not however what it actually means is at best alienation, marginalization and at worst, death.

This grim reality can increasingly be found in day to day life, though the actors involved are anonymous users and the substance of their desire is no longer a tangible, chemical substance, but has instead evolved and reconfigured itself into a hidden, more ephemeral state. The performative agency once exerted by chemically addictive substances over our bodies (at the cost of imprisonment, disease, or death) is mutating into a new, more insidious and resilient substance. The habituated addictive capacities at work between chemical substance and user retains its power while losing its obviousness, in its ability to anonymously affect our lives according to how much of our time and attention we pay it. This new substance is information and those anonymous users with more frequent and intense exposure to its powerful hyper-affective capacities are beginning to manifest their new dependency in strange new acts of volition online and in the world. The anonymous information high is dosed without capital in the form of chats, posts, texts and comments, each hit’s potential potency affectively amplified by the instantaneity of reception and the intensity of durational feedback it generates.

Sedgwick shows how modern societies have been duped (doped?) by the State into believing the experience of “free will” exists in the modern world, when at best, they remain stupefied into thinking their freedom to effectively exert agency and will is meaningful and useful, and at worst into thinking nothing whatsoever. In fact, modern individuals remain always already inculcated in networks of power, which defer, dominate and mediate every aspect of their lives. In this sense, modern life itself has become nothing but a bad trip. Instead of being driven to self-anesthetization, by consuming chemical substances like an overworked, desperate wage labourer, the same effect is achieved through the affective cognitive stimulation derived from limitless access to potentially extreme content and diverse quantities of information and multimedia, which acts on users as a satiating balm to sooth the omnipresent feed-back loop of unrecognizable, oblivious, and volition-less modern misery. As a result, the anonymous user, chronically online, by virtual affect, exerts the meager force of their deferred will and actually brings their unconscious state of existential crisis into conformity with the tacit critical experience of modern life. In this way, media and information functions like a drug that exerts agency over the anonymous user’s conscious will, and which in turn affects and imprints itself in the users work which accumulates in the form of memes exchanged as cybercultural capital with addictive intensity.

When anonymous users communicate in online networks they produce original content in the form of text chats, images and multimedia files. Sometimes, a particularly affective unit of original content strikes a majority of local users as particularly valuable and as a result becomes more visible as its circulation accelerates. Soon, original content of this type starts to be appropriated, remixed and shared by other anonymous users, as it does, it simultaneously begins to generate new cybercultural capital exchange value which further fuels its ecology. When this process occurs for a sustained duration, the original content (in whatever form it is recognizable) becomes overtly identified as an “Internet meme,” and its value and visibility exponentially accelerates and resonates beyond the local community as it attracts new interest and attention from adjunct networks of communities. If a meme generated by anonymous users is pleasurable, interesting or engaging enough, some users may be compelled to make decisions online that lead to physical action in the real world- this action can be political, social or chaotic. Anonymous hyper-affectivity is the vehicle behind the process that allows certain original content a degree of autonomy in material semiotic relations and to sometimes accelerate and thrive as Internet memes. Sometimes, the continuous forming and reforming of new layers of palimpsestic, affective meaning, allows “textual entities, [as] objects [to] overflow their makers, [and] intermediaries become mediators” (85, RTS). The eruption of capital-A “Anonymous” as discursive-textual actor/meme emerging in the online domain is a symptom of anonymous users ability to affectively adapt to the crisis of modernity by operating and enacting their agency in large numbers simultaneously in material semiotic relations online and in public assemblies in city streets around the world.

Autonomous affectivity can be found throughout history, mediating many (if not all) relations and networks in the world. The acceleration of commingling of drives and volitions online only intensifies this affectivity, and accelerates its propensity to spill out of discursive domains and circulate in and among relations between social actors in the world. In the user mode, affect is the substance that accretes micro-enactments in a given network, which eventually facilitates the stabilization and coherence of a greater network “more like the thread that holds the pearls of a necklace together, than the rock bed that remains the same no matter what is built on it” (151, PH). This precarious, frenetic hive of swarming, complex, material semiotic relations, engaged in existential struggles for recognition and recombination can be found, anonymously embodied in users and inscribed in cyberculture across a vast array of online sites. One example can be found on the popular pseudo anonymous social network reddit.com:

We are /r/Anonymous. We are legion. We stand for all. We stand for none. We are everybody. We are nobody. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect Us…Anonymous is not your personal army. FOR THE HIVEMIND! (ww.reddit.com/r/anonymous)

Users invigorated by co-creating, sharing and consuming affective, ecstatic rhetoric, themselves become pregnant with new, vital political and personal power to will. This new power can be found presently across the world, swarming around certain matters of concern like: the online and real world protests in moral opposition to the actions of The Church of Scientology in 2008, frustration with the global, socio-economic asymmetry and uncertainty as manifest in the global “Occupy” protests of 2011, in issues involving net neutrality found in the online protests and service blackouts on an estimated 7000 minor websites and two major, user-content driven websites Wikipedia.com and reddit.com on January 18, 2012, and in most powerfully, in the civil disobedience and political revolts in the face of theocratic tyranny in the Middle East, in Iran’s 2009 “Green Revolution” as well as the “Arab Spring” protests of 2010 (Wikipedia). These are some examples of what the accretion of forces and agencies in and between majority-governed, consensus-willed users, simultaneously recognizing and seizing control over their anonymous mode of existence makes possible by leveraging the power network communication technology.

The anonymous user’s addictive state of modern existence is becoming visible presently, and it is contingent on complex relations between “free will,” “volition,” “consciousness,” and “desire” that have existed in modern societies around the world since the Enlightenment era. In the Information age, media itself or mediation–as a continuous spectacle of precessural simulacra bearing hollow, mythic representations without substance or aura (to conflate and remix ideas of Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard, Barthes, Walter Benjamin, and others)– has atrophied and congealed in the mode of modern existential crisis. The technological innovation of the Internet allows material semiotic communication between anonymous users and is increasing the visibility of the individual’s capacities to affect and be affected in new, powerful ways and rupturing through the ‘addictivity’ of modern existential crisis.

As Mark S. Roberts describes it, the modern “media addict” is perpetually plugged in, surfing websites or television channels from the earliest moments of life- until death. Roberts argues that information is the ultimate modern fix because it is omnipresent, limitless, hyper-accessible and substance-less and that by consuming information, the individual’s will to think is affectively voided in the anesthetizing glow of mythic preconception. This process resembles Sedgwick’s description of drug use as a once-upon-a-time means of exerting control over the material conditions of a reality in crisis situation. The “drug addict” craves the effect of the substance-less substance of their desire, in order to keep their body alive and moving long enough to achieve the next fantastical high. Similarly, the “media addict” exists in an unknown, stupefied mediated stasis, while excessive information consumption affects them nonetheless, allowing and enabling thought to rev relentlessly in place, without cessation, while the body continues on in the world as if automatically going through the motions of everyday life. Given the paradoxical and un-delimitable nature of addiction, perhaps it is not the substance of desire that matters, but the process of addiction itself that is a symptom of the decay of the conditions of modern existence; as symptom of our common crisis.

Since modern appropriation of “the self,” individuals have been as Eagleton puts it, “unhoused,” from actual self-knowledge; nameless and essentially illegitimate in the eyes of the mediative structures and institutions whose definitions, laws and doctrines do not know or differentiate one “self” from the unique, heterogeneous multiplicity of others in kind. In the fertile, virtual environment of material semiotic relations online, users literally capitalize their anonymity, and Anonymous, uniquely alone users, cohere and become, together in the user mode of being. Technological mediation hyperaccelerates the affective, ecstatic communication of the chronic, anonymous user experience and from the perpetual identity crisis, experience new forms pleasure and love. Vital, conscious affectivity accumulates, accretes and eventually extends from material semiotic relations in online discourse, and out into city streets around the world (CE, 83-4). In online discourse, this constant, omnipresent, fluid tensions flow with simmering intensity, freed from the spatial and temporal relational barriers of the material world.

8 thoughts on “#9: High Life: Affect and Anonymity (pt 1.)

  1. re: “when anonymous users communicate online they create original content” – isn’t the word “original” in and of itself a relative if not rather subjective term/description? For however obscured their identity can be online, they are also embedded in a rl system of hierarchical and instutionalized traits. Online you can be raceless(?), but it’s challenging to discard the racially or ethnically concepts, ideas, ideologies that are ingrained into you as a person/entity behind the anonymous screen. If I grasped your argument on anonymous affectivity correctly, wouldn’t it be more of a decoding followed by re-encoding such content and putting them out online? In short, I’m just zooming in on the word “original”, because as you can see, I’m fairly skeptical of its value in a highly connected world.

    re: “individuals ‘unhoused’ from actual self-knowledge”: that reminds me of a paragraph in Dewey J. 1958 “Experience and Knowledge” (I may have gotten the book title wrong), where he argus that knowledge is a mode of recognizance (of what is already ingrained eg. muscle memory) rather than true, first-time original awareness.

    1. Original content (OC) is possible and necessary for any cybercultural economy to exist, regardless of how conditioned users are before creating it. You’re right of course, it’s next to impossible to ‘discard’ any of the myriad of identifications (marginalizations) which any socially minded individual living in the postindustrial world is inscribed with. I’m not suggesting that anyone really does try to escape such a situation (or if they do, it is extremely difficult to fully realize), what I do think is that despite (or maybe because of) all the labels we are always identified with away from the keyboard (I prefer AFK to RL-real life, because the ‘realness’ of life without computers is in my opinion, debatable to begin with..) by other people, corporate/national entities, etc, that people are still unique individuals with unique minds, and no two minds perceive, process or express in the exact same way. This means that OC is potentially very heavily mediated when it’s created (and usually is), but I think that the most popular memes that gain traction and become circulated widely in various online spaces are the ones that are the most free from the multiply inscribed layers of mediation/marginalization we (knowingly or not) feel AFK and squint through the violence these various identifications impose upon people from all walks of life to say something genuine, authentic and relatable–the fact that they also usually happen to be funny or shocking has to do with the intrinsic power of affective communication to convey meaning outside traditional parameters of logic and language (something is funny and makes you laugh (or is shocking and makes you cry/rage) because you are not expecting to illicit such a visceral response when it is first encountered).

      1. Personally, I tend to look at memes in a different way. I blame my background in anthropology for this – but in my opinion, memes are decontextualized content – sort of an inside joke taken away from its original meaning, and as your argument indicates, fairly free from the implications and inscribed mediation of the environment it originally came from.

        Because of its nature as an inside joke, then, wouldn’t it carry an embedded structure of power (or at least whatever remnants of it), that makes its content available, for lack of a better word, more to the OP, i.e. the ones who came up with it (which of course is impossible to track in cyberspace), as well as the ones with more knowledge on the subject? Eg. Game of Thrones memes would be more funny to the show audience and baffling, to count one among many reactions, to those outside it? Part of the violence/shock reactions you described seems to correspond with this as well.

        In sum, I ask, if such meme-ified OC are indeed most free from their ascribed mediation, or if it carries within itself a power structure that is both remnants and reminiscent of its original context, which in turn becomes more mediated, via the lens of the audience this time, as the meme itself circulates further in cyberspace?

        re: AFK – I think all of us media researchers dislike the term RL for the very same reason.

        PS: forgot to mention this last time we chatted – have you read Knuttila, Lee’s [2011] article on Anons and anonymity, published in First Monday? (http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3665/3055) Thought that was an interesting POV, though like all, it’s flawed.

      2. I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking… When talking about the power of memes, I’m talking about their popularity, OC’s ability to inspire users to share and remix. There is definitely power in the most popular image memes but I wouldn’t say it’s structured per se. It’s a more visceral kind of power that I think lies in affective potentiality. Affective communication isn’t limited to memes of course, it is possible wherever communication and/or art is. I’ve read a quarter of the Knuttila article and I think it is overwhelmingly confused. I’m holding off on writing any response yet because I’m also rather confused, but I will eventually. I just know that I mostly disagree with what he’s saying, and also, he’s not understanding Heidegger very well (or if he is, the way he writes about it is confusing). The historical context is nice though.

      3. Aw, shoot. I’ve often been criticized for writing in an overwhelmingly confusing manner. Memes are just an example you posed and I continued to use. What I meant is, in OC’s ability to share and remix, largely without the influence of originally ascribed and inscribed meanings as you argue, do you think it creates an entirely different sort of power structure, based on knowledge?

        I see this in Anonymous as well – though I’ve argued and agree that it’s not a collective with clearly defined boundaries and objectives as people seem to think, I still see it as somewhat divided by the type of knowledge people possess. For example there are hacktivists among that crowd, for sure, and they have a different kind of knowledge (with which comes power) than us lurkers, or the oldf@gs having a different kind of knowledge than newf@gs.

        Okay – I should go get my morning (noon?) coffee before I confuse you further. As for Knuttila, I’ve seen general agreement that it’s fairly confusing if not flawed in argument. I just enjoy how he sums up the general populace’s perceptions of Anonymous. That bit for me is spot-on.

  2. PS: have you thought of using Espen J. Aarseth’s theory of cybertext and ergodic literature to analyze Anonymous and anonymity in general? You may find that resonates well with your argument.

    1. I use Aarseth’s work extensively, he’s essential to my theory (I just haven’t written on him yet because I’ve been busy writing all this other stuff for grades, but I have many notes and it’s all going to come together eventually. On that note, I finished my last MA essay yesterday, so I will be able to respond to you various comments very soon (once I catch up on reading,ha.)

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