The Internet and Identity Formation

Following aleekwrites suggestion (albeit belatedly), I would be posting brief comments on or at least snippets from the essays found in Internet Culture, one of the books that I’m reading every now and then.

In “An Archaeology of Cyberspaces: Virtuality, Community, Identity,” Shawn Wilbur refers to Jacques Lacan’s use of the mirror to illustrate the dynamics of identity formation to suggest that our immersion in the Internet may help us perceive our own identities from a different perspective.

Through a combination of curved and plane mirrors, an imagined subject is made to see two distinct objects, a vase and a bouquet, as if the vase contained the bouquet. This trick done with mirrors, Lacan says, is the necessary mechanism of misrecognition by which human subjects are able to imagine that they possess a coherent (phallic) identity. In Lacan’s diagram, the virtual space ‘behind’ the plane mirror is where the subject imagines (through misrecognition) that its self exists as a unity (rather than some disorganized collection of identifications.) (11)

Both the virtual space behind the mirror and the virtual space behind the computer screen both contains the reflection of the subject’s gaze, the place of our imagined self. In the former there is our portrait on the mirror while in the latter is our screen persona as mediated by a complex digital apparatus. But since there are differing dynamics between the mirror and the screen, Wilbur sees a more emancipatory potential in the latter’s ability to subvert the identities molded by the dominant order: “The persona that appears in cyberspace is potentially more fluid than those we assume in other aspects of our lives, in part because we can consciously shape it. And that consciousness may allow us to engage with ourselves in what appear to be novel ways.” (12)

Nevertheless, how liberatory this supposed reconfiguring of identity is will have to contend with the reality that our screen personas are created through a field that is still largely dominated by corporate control, surveillance and censorship. The fluidity of identity formation through the screen which is spoken of then is tolerated, even solicited by the dominant order. Perhaps the screen here simply becomes the space where anxieties stemming from our immersion in social contradictions are projected, as suggested by the cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek:

Recall the proverbial impotent shy person who, while participating in a cyberspace interactive game, adopts the identity of a sadistic murderer or irresistible seducer. It is too simple to say that this identity is just an imaginary supplement, a temporary escape from his real life impotence. Rather, the point is that, since he knows that the cyberspace interactive game is “just a game,” he can “show his true self” and do things he would never do in real-life interaction. In the guise of a fiction, the truth about one’s self is articulated. The very fact that I perceive my virtual self-image as mere play thus allows me to suspend the usual hindrances that prevent me from realizing my “dark half” in real life—in cyberspace, my “id” is given wing. ■

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2 thoughts on “The Internet and Identity Formation

  1. “to contend with the reality … of corporate control, surveillance and censorship” this is the hoax. Because there is no reality anymore to begin with. :-)

    • which means to say that there was once what you call a reality and now “there is no reality anymore”?

      my point: what is being mouthed here is the same old and worn-out postmodern cliche of how access to reliable knowledge about the world has become impossible in today’s so-called “global village”.

      ironically, the possibility of what is proposed as a shift from reality to “no reality” is still anchored on an ability to obtain reliable accounts of socio-historical forces that make up the context of such a change.

      it will have to, in short, cling to a deployment of some general notion of reality.

      that the internet is subject to various instances of corporate control, surveillance and censorship has been the subject of various studies and is certainly no hoax. how about the claim that “there is no reality anymore to begin with”? ;)

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