We never move from one fixed regime to another. It is not true, for example, that we have definitively moved from societies that govern in a disciplinary way (with visible and authoritarian uses of violence) to societies of control (with invisible forms of surveillance and self-monitoring). Multiple systems can co-exist, which is why we have both prisons and public shaming as well as CCTV and health apps. Similarly, the individual, this solitary, property-owning, stiff male totem – neither born nor dependent nor in relation – and its neo-liberal cousin, the permanently self-marketing subject, the walking precarious CV, the debt-node, male or female, can absolutely co-exist with slower, more historical circuits of identity: nationalism, in particular. Thus though we live in an age wherein one can identify as various things on the basis of self-declaration, the limits to this operation become immediately apparent when attempted as a political tactic: one cannot identify out of being a refugee, for example, because there are so many people lining up to say “No, of course you cannot ‘be’ British” even when, e.g., you have been granted (though in ever fewer cases), asylum and citizenship. Huge blocks inhibit many from achieving the status of ‘individual’ within particular geographies, with large groups characterized as both victim and threat, and sometimes both at once. For instance, recent calls for the use of dental x-rays to ‘reveal’ the age of refugees coming to Britain reason that there are those ‘worth’ helping, and then there are the ‘others’; and that one can be ‘differentiated’ from the other on the basis of reductive biological ‘facts.’
There are identities within identities only for some, then. Online, an ever-expanding but unacknowledged Freudianism reigns: The id’s primal instincts, in particular aggression, are permitted free movement under the cloak of anonymity; ‘nice’ men become monstrous misogynists; calm, friendly diplomats become relentless trolls; the virtual Ring of Gyges makes assholes of us all, while the superegoic imperative only kicks in when screen-time eventually turns into sleep before work – that is, if you are lucky (or unlucky) enough to have a job. Some are hyper-individuals, highly visual 360-degree brand-identities, while others are barely present data-drones, barely distinguishable from bots, represented only in micro-circuits and isolated ‘likes.’ Collectivity online is only and explicitly anonymous (or ‘Anonymous’), and DDoS attacks such as the recent siege of Internet performance management company Dyn, which took out Twitter, SoundCloud, Spotify, and many other high-traffic sites, have begun to incorporate ‘smart’ objects, mobilizing, in turn, the Internet of Things – that loose assemblage of appliances that surround us, whirring away in the background, doing something obscure with data. There is still, of course, individual human agency here too – the code for the malware used in the attack (‘Mirai’) was posted on a hacker forum by someone using an anime avatar – yet the very gesture ensures that the code is unlikely to be linked back to an individual in the legal sense.
Thus we have real people famous in an unreal (or unrealistic, Instagram-type) way, and avatars famous (or infamous) in a manner that the severance with their ‘real’ identity is almost total. The law, when it catches up with you, moves slowly, though, reducing diversified and multiple identities down to a single dot, pinned down in time and space: you are your state name, you are your teeth.
To be invisible on your own terms (your IP address buried, your face covered with a balaclava) is one thing. To be anonymized as part of a mass or a mob or treated as a ‘lump’ of humanity (held in limbo in camps, to be stateless) is another thing entirely. To choose not to be an individual or to operate under pseudonymity presupposes a flexibility that is not granted to those without multiple means of subversion. To be an individual (whether as debtor, worker, or consumer) is to have, however negatively, a relation to the future. To be denied a relation to the future is to be a potential without limit. In place of communist internationalism, we have the rise of new nationalisms that seek to foreclose on individuality, that seek to claim that there is some inherent tie between one’s contingent identity as a being in a certain place and a certain time and the political geography that names you. It is a limited, fearful, and angry subject-formation that denies both the possibility of individuality in the other, but also the necessity of group solidarity and action.
None of us yet know what it might mean to fully be an individual – that is to say, to be fully in relation to humanity, and able to choose what we do with our time and capacities – and yet we deign to decide who counts as an individual and who doesn’t, even while we bemoan ‘our’ existential predicaments. As Teju Cole put it in a series of tweets from 2011 in relation to the #firstworldproblems hashtag:
I don’t like this expression “First World problems.” It is false and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. Connectivity issues on your BlackBerry, cost of car repair, how to sync your iPad, what brand of noodles to buy: Third World problems. All the silly stuff of life doesn’t disappear just because you’re black and live in a poorer country. People in the richer nations need a more robust sense of the lives being lived in the darker nations. Here’s a First World problem: the inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are.
We are living in an age of new nationalisms and of constructed identities deliberately tethered to the exclusion of other people’s lived realities. Rather than identifying what it is that makes us ‘special,’ we would do well to remember what it is we have in common, including all the time and resources that have been stolen from all of us, and given back piecemeal to some. How to divide and conquer those who seek to divide and conquer us? Only a strategic mass identity can save us now.