Rethinking the Human in the Digital Age

An Excerpt from Patricia Ticineto Clough’s latest book

In the following excerpt from The User Unconscious: On Affect, Media and Measure psychoanalyst and professor of sociology and women studies Patricia Ticineto Clough introduces her concept of the user unconscious and invites us to reconceive the relationship of the psyche to the other-than-human and to imagine forms of embodiment beyond the human body or organic skin in order to open our minds to a chance for another genre of humanity to come forth and a different way for us to be both human and not.

A commentary by Ticineto Clough on her latest book, in which she puts her concept of the user unconscious in relation to Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto”, can be found here.

The turns in philosophy, media studies, and critical theory to the posthuman, the nonhuman, and the ahuman befit both a post-national capitalism and a beyond biopolitics, treading a fine line between inhuman biopolitics and the recognition of other-than-human agencies of nonhuman animals and all things, including the agencies of digital media and computational technologies. In this sense, critical theory, philosophy, and media studies can be seen to have presaged a post-system arrangement of power beyond the micro and macro scales of individuality and sociality that will bring ongoing threats, as well as potentialities for resistance. In his recent The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, Benjamin Bratton has described such an arrangement, what he calls “The Stack,” as an “accidental megastructure” of planetary computing. [i] Vertically stacking layers of cloud computing, ubiquitous computing, massive addressing systems, human and other-than-human users that are actants in data processing at its every layer, The Stack is not the result of a “master plan, revolutionary event or constitutional order” (8). It is, rather, an “accumulation” of all other attempts, successful and failed, to solve problems faced by computational technologies: accidents that are productive of other technological developments. While, for Bratton, The Stack is a design model for thinking about the technical arrangement of all the layers of computing as a totality, it also is a conceptual model for thinking the contradictory and complex spaces that have been produced in its image, assemblaging human and other-than-human agencies, or what he calls Users.

Although The Stack is doing the work of synthesizing many layers of computing, what it synthesizes is so complex that its totality surely is speculative as well as empirical. It is speculative because it is always about to change, if not possibly be completely redacted, for one, because it might not prove to work or work well enough; after all, the Stack produces and is produced through accidents. What Bratton calls accident, however, might be better understood in terms of the operation of indeterminacy immanent to computation, which, while beyond human consciousness, cognition, and body-based perception, is not merely accidental. After all, The Stack, as Bratton has argued, also is an empirical mapping of a “political geography” and the technologies that are making it, such that its computational sovereignty challenges the political geography of nation-states. By no means simply marking the demise of the nation-state, The Stack arises at a time when the state has never been “more entrenched and ubiquitous and never more obsolete and brittle,” a situation that will continue to face us in the near future both politically and technologically (6). What is at issue, in any case, is the many layers of computing that The Stack interiorizes and vertically arranges that allow it to take over some of the functions of the state and the work of governance. The state and governance are being redesigned in the image of The Stack as the identity of the user is becoming central to its operation at every layer of computing. As various layers of computing bind polities to themselves, let us say a school, a city, a police force, or molecules of energy, these address every agency as users, making being a user what counts (10).

While Bratton recognizes The Stack’s displacement of the micro and macro levels of sociality, of individual and society that Latour and his colleagues also discussed in their treatment of the network, he also would complicate their view of the user as simply a profile of its interactions with various platforms. Instead, Bratton has argued for a recursion in the profile of the user’s traces, recognizing that it is the medium of ongoing interfacing and an ongoing redesign of the user (266). This recursion points to “the identification and measurement of Users that already organize themselves with the very mechanisms that are used to do the measuring” (267). In this sense, Users’ profiles are both “more and less than the whole that sums their sums”! (ibid.). In contrast to Latour and his colleagues, Bratton argued that, while users can be more complex than the Stack as a whole, they are always feeding data back to The Stack as The Stack feeds data forward to them. In this sense, The Stack does not put technology into sociality; rather, Bratton claims, The Stack is “the armature of the social, itself” (xviii).

In all this, not only are human users not the only users; but it is the other-than-human users that have made users what count in The Stack. For Bratton, this does not mean that human users and the other-than-human users are the same, a point on which critical theorists, object-oriented philosophers, and media studies scholars also have insisted. What it does mean is that the human user and human-user-centered design have been displaced by a focus on the other-than-human users of The Stack. That is to say, human users have been decentered and deprivileged but for Bratton, this deprivileged human subject does not offer the best perspective on The Stack; he hopes instead that the other-than-human users can show “a different way for us to be both human and not” (374).

As The Stack throws an “autophenomenology” off its axis, another view of the user than the “psychologized single serving human” is put forward (262). Assuming, as Mark Hansen does, that the human user is implicated in the wider field of environmental or planetary data, a worldly sensibility, Bratton would warn against a geopolitics of computation predicated on the biopolitics of privacy or increased surveillance. This, he argued, results only in the “preparanoia of withdrawal into an atomic and anomic dream of self-mastery that elsewhere one might call ‘neoliberal subject’” (360). Although not disagreeing with Bratton about the user or about calling for more privacy and more surveillance as derivative of a neoliberal logic, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun has taken another look at the human user in relationship to social media in Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual Media.[ii]

Chun would treat the human user as a “YOU,” a figure that collapses the I and its cloud of data traces into a node in a network or the many networks of The Stack that includes the planetary data of a worldly sensibility. As Chun sees it, what is most notable about the YOUs is that they are subjected to and subjects of a sociality in which the separation of the private and the public spheres of the neoclassical configuration has been displaced by the separation of “the personal and the networked” in the wake of neoliberalism’s contraction and massive dissemination of privacy. However, as the separation of the personal and the networked is more imagined than actual, even as it is extended only to some as their privilege, YOUs’ privacy actually has become entangled with publicity, where YOUs are prone, if not invited, to be caught in public acting privately. In embracing and denying the networks of data from which the I is inextricable, the YOUs of social media, Chun proposed, become the shame-able and hate-able/love-able subjects of sociality.

In taking up users’ habits, Chun has drawn on her larger argument that users’ relationships to social media have become a matter of habit. As habit transforms a receptivity to change into an unreflective spontaneity beneath conscious awareness, it links users to other human users, as well as other-than-human users; habit is “the productive nonconscious” of digital media (7). In this claim, Chun has offered another layer of commentary to what I have called “unconscious thought in the age of teletechnology,” which Thrift referenced in his conceptualization of the “technological unconscious,” which then Katherine Hayles reconceived as “the technological nonconscious.” [iii] Like my elaboration of unconscious thought in the age of teletechnology, Thrift’s technological unconscious, was meant to propose that different technologies have differently informed conscious and unconscious thought; going further, Thrift suggested that, with digital media, the unconscious was operating at “a prepersonal substrate . . . of unconsidered anticipations” that connects us to digital media and other users. [iv] Hayles would adjust Thrift’s phrasing only to emphasize the way in which digital media operate “through somatic responses, haptic feedback, gestural interactions, and a wide variety of other cognitive activities that are habitual and repetitive and that, therefore, fall below the threshold of conscious awareness,” what can be described as a matter of nonconscious affect. [v] Focusing especially on the way code dissociates affect from consciousness, black-boxing its operation, Hayles concluded that we are suffering “the traumas of code,” by which she meant the traumas of what is felt but not known, even as code makes it possible for us to reconnect digitally to the nonconscious.

While, in Autoaffection, I, unlike Hayles, Thrift, or Chun, treated unconscious or nonconscious processes in terms of an originary technicity, I had not fully developed its relationship to affect and the human body as Hansen would in his discussion of the skin as the infant’s first medium, as an originary technicity.[vi] Drawing on Maurice Merleau-Ponty, psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu, and other digital media artists and scholars, Hansen argued that, as the infant’s touching itself meets its touched skin, there is a gap of temporality that the skin materializes or concretizes as a border and a medium between a containment within and an environment without, subjectivity and sociality, individual and structure.[vii] Not only is there no fall from nature into technicity or sociality, but vision or the Lacanian mirror is displaced by the skin as the first medium, as “the cusp between the biological and the psychic.” [viii] Thinking about the skin as a medium of a temporal passage seems especially relevant to thinking about digital media that operate, as Hayles put it, through somatic responses, haptic feedback, and so on; that is to say, operate affectively.

However, as digital media and computational technologies increasingly operate with other-than-human agencies to give access to a worldly sensibility, or to environmental or planetary data that pre-affectively condition human consciousness and bodily-based perception, Hansen would turn to a discussion of “worldskin,” arguing, “we can no longer constrain embodiment to the body, can no longer contain it within the (organic) skin.”[ix] That said, it may be necessary to interrogate the skinned body as the container of inner or unconscious processes when affectivity, liveliness, or consciousness have been extended to other-than-human agencies or users. This is not merely a matter of conceiving unconscious processes beyond the human subject or its body, but rather, to re-conceive the relationship of the psyche to the other-than-human or “the nonhuman,” as the psychoanalyst Harold Searles described it, in recognition that the human’s early relationship to the liveliness of the nonhuman never fully comes to an end. [x]

Drawing on Searles, psychoanalyst Sue Grand even has proposed, in “Unsexed and Ungendered Bodies,” that “there is a nonhuman stratum to early self experience and thus, the self can accrue a nonhuman physical form” as an ongoing resource of attachment. [xi] As Grand put it: “If the psyche comes into being in relation to human others, so it comes into being in relation to the nonhuman world. Perhaps we all have a nascent thing-self”[xii] For Grand, the “thing self,” often linked to traumatic experience, can also be a resource for positive, cosmological, and even ecstatic experience (337). Even when she does treat traumatic experience, particularly in relation to sexual abuse, Grand, while proposing that abuse undoes “the psychic skin,” nonetheless refuses to equate the skinned body with sanity. Instead, she pointed to the contingency of the body’s being there or not in relationship to the “I” and goes on to speculate that: “Perhaps the ‘I’ feeling can contract and expand to include or exclude the body and thus is not simply derived from bodily states. Perhaps we have something like a nonhuman mental ego, contracted in relation to nonhuman ‘culture,’ and generative of both anxiety and ‘centeredness’” (ibid.).

Adjusting Grand’s speculation to include a recognition of the liveliness of the other-than- human or thing, I would propose that digital media and computational technologies may well be eliciting the human user’s thing-self, giving shape to what I am calling the user unconscious in order to point to the activity of the unconscious in relationship to the collapse into the YOU, of the I and the cloud of digital traces including the data of a worldly sensibility. These, no matter how disavowed, are becoming an intimate part of the I, evoking a thing-self that opens the unconscious both to the liveliness of other-than-human actants and to the reformulation of embodiment in the YOU. That is to say, the YOU refers to that part of the I that is not humanly embodied, not so much a digital disembodiment but an other-than-human embodiment. The I is not simply humanly embodied and, as such, is not one with the organism. Embodiment cannot be contained within the organic skin.

In this way, digital media and computational technologies also may be transforming the meaning of trauma, pointing not only to the traumas of code but also to the traumas of abuse and violence when the I is not only humanly embodied and not one with the organism. In the latter case, it might be considered that there has been a collapse of the differentiation of “organic trauma and sociopolitical trauma,” as Catherine Malabou has put it in her discussion of extreme relational violence as is prevalent in an inhuman biopolitics. [xiii] For Malabou this means that in its effects, sociopolitical trauma increasingly looks like organic trauma. But I would adjust Malabou’s proposal by pointing to a more general condition where the distinction between the organic and the sociopolitical is being transformed by an embodiment beyond the body or organic skin and where the transgression of the separation of the personal and the networked is becoming the normative edge defining sociality. Here the ends of humanity may well be its own inhumanity, but still not without potentiality or a chance for another “genre of humanity” to come forth, as Silvia Wynter would put it.[xiv] After all, the thing-self, as Grand reminded us, can also be a source of positive, cosmological, and even ecstatic experience, pointing to “a different way for us to be both human and not.”

Patricia Ticineto Clough is a professor of sociology and women studies and teaches in Performance Studies at NYU. She is the author of Autoaffection: Unconscious Thought in the Age of Teletechnology, editor of The Affective Turn and co-editor of Beyond Biopolitics, Essays in the Governance of Life and Death and most recently the author of The User Unconscious: On Affect, Media and Measure. She is a practicing psychoanalyst in New York City.

[i] Benjamin Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2015).

[ii] Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2016).

[iii] Clough, Autoaffection; Nigel Thrift, Knowing Capitalism (London: Sage, 2005), 213; N. Katherine Hayles, “Traumas of Code,” Critical Inquiry 33, no.1 (Autumn 2006): 136–57.

[iv] Thrift, Knowing Capitalism, 213.

[v] Hayles, “Traumas of Code,” 138.

[vi] Mark B. N. Hansen, Bodies in Code: Interfaces With Digital Media (New York: Routledge, 2006).

[vii] Ibid., 25–103.

[viii] Ibid,. 61.

[ix] Ibid,. 94.

[x] Harold Searles, The Nonhuman Environment: In Normal Development and Schizophrenia (Madison, Conn.: International Universities Press, 1960). Writing of the relationship between schizophrenia and the nonhuman, Searles, while arguing that the schizophrenic shows a variety of “failures” to establish the distinction between human and non-human and, therefore, to establish the expected relationship between the two, nonetheless goes on to propose that the indistinction of human and non-human of early infancy and childhood never fully ends for anyone and is especially reinvigorated at various times in “normal” human development when the boundaries of identity are volatile, as for example in adolescence. We might also think of the reinvigoration of the indistinction as a response to volatility in relationship to the massive extension of digital media and computational technologies.

[xi] Sue Grand, “Unsexed and Ungendered Bodies: The Violated Self,” Studies in Gender and Sexuality 4 (2003): 338.

[xii] Ibid., 333.

[xiii] Catherine Malabou, The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage, trans. Steven Miller (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 11.


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