Over at Cyborgology there’s been a long running discussion about “digital dualism”. But summarizing the different perspectives on digital dualism is more than I can handle here.. So I write this post to respond to Nathan Jurgenson’s latest post in which he asks “I’d like to close with a question: do we need names for these different digital dualism perspectives? If so, what to call them? I’m asking, and would love to discuss this more in the comments.” He continues with a thumb nail sketch of the issues.
Thus, digital dualism is the tendency to see the digital and material as too distinct, rather than enmeshed, consistent with the definition of the term I worked with one website to create:
n. The belief that online and offline are largely distinct and independent realities.
Second, I want to refocus on the question of how digital dualism—this tendency to underestimate digital-material enmeshment—often clears a clean path towards the claim that one (usually, but not always, the material) is more real, deep, human, and true. Not ontology, these are cultural value statements based on the idea that the on and offline are distinct rather than enmeshed.
Digital Dualism of the Real
Nathan in this post poses putting ontological issues on the “back burner”. But he continues to use the word “real” in hs definition. This dual stance will tend to cause confusion. And as I had pointed out the lack of a partner to digital in the phrase “digital dualism” seemed unclear. He responded that digital/physical dualism would be more accurate.
I recently ran across the essay Beyond Nature and Culture – Philippe Descola.
The thought experiment derives from the initial intuition. If we agree that every human is aware of being a combination of interiority and physicality, then one can imagine how an entirely hypothetic subject, devoid of any previous information about the world, might use this equipment to chart his environment through a process of identification. By identification, I mean the elementary mechanism through which this subject will detect differences and similarities between himself and the objects in the world by inferring analogies and distinctions of appearance and behaviour between what he experiences as characteristic of his own self and the attributes he ascribes to the entities which surround him. And since the only tools he can rely upon are his interiority and his physicality, his patterning of the world will be based upon the selective attribution or denial of these attributes to other existing things. The range of identifications based on the interplay of interiority and physicality is thus quite limited: when confronted with an as yet unspecified alter, whether human or non-human, our hypothetical subject can surmise either that this object possesses elements of physicality and interiority analogous to his, and this I call totemism; or that this object’s interiority and physicality are entirely distinct from his own, and this I call analogism; or that the object has a similar interiority and a different physicality, and this I call animism; or that the object is devoid of interiority but possesses a similar kind of physicality, and this I call naturalism. These formulae define four types of ontologies, that is of systems of distributions of properties among existing objects in the world, that in turn provide anchoring points for sociocosmic forms of aggregation and conceptions of self and non-self.
Descola argues four types of ontologies (animism, totemism, analogism, naturalism), create the substrate for what “cultural value statements” are possible. He is also arguing for a at least a minimal amount of duality as the basis for distinguishing this from that. Unless one is able to achieve the Space Is Seen level of awareness, I think he is right.
I want to propose that the issues Nathan et al are getting at is not a mere conventional duality, but a fifth Descolian ontology: Digitism. The Digital subject surmises that hir interiority and the physical fluctuates, fluxes, in whether they are analogous to each other. (Nathan’s digital/physical duality echoes, but changes the interiority/physical duality Descola describes. The digital occupies the same place in the formulation of the duality as “interiority”.)
For the Descola’s Naturalist, “naturalism inverts the ontological premises of animism since,instead of claiming an identity of soul and a difference of bodies, it is predicated upon a discontinuity of interiorities and a material continuity.”
For the Digitist, as interiority and the physical become digitized, categories become less essentalist and more the expression of a particular embodiment characterized by change and queerness.
So I propose that Nathan’s digital dualism is really a divide between those who favor different ontologies: Naturlalism or Digitism.
I’ve seriously overextended by cognitive abilities here so I end with this quote from Descola’s essay. Maybe I’ll explore Digitism further in future posts. At any rate:
The differences that count are those that accrue from the network of discontinuities of form, matter, behaviour or function that are offered to our grasp by the movement of the world. Discontinuities that are sometimes straightforward, sometimes barely outlined; discontinuities that we can recognize or ignore, emphasize or minimize, actualize or leave as potentialities; discontinuities which form the framework on which are hooked our relations with what Merleau-Ponty aptly called ‘the associate bodies’
22. I found, in short, that there was no need to presuppose some original fault lines in this network of discontinuities, in particular one that would separate the realm of nature from the abode of speaking creatures; I found that, however useful this constitutional division may have been in triggering the accomplishments of Modernity, it has now outlived its moral and epistemological efficiency, thus making way for what I believe will be a new exciting period of intellectual and political turmoil.
Beyond Nature and Culture – Philippe Descola.