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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Hashtagging Solidarity

The printing press, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane: each in their own way radically shrunk the world, diminished the power of mere distance to maintain our strangeness to one another.  Yet, arguably, no human innovation has served as a greater tool for transcending Nature's most seemingly impregnable boundaries, space and time, than the World Wide Web. The Internet, that curious and most favored tool of our particular variety of talking ape, also has facilitated the trespassing of infinitely more complex human-constructed borders, those of nation, culture, even language.  It quite literally translates, deciphers and transmits the foreign, the distant and the strange in an instant, on command.

Alas, the one remaining boundary the Internet has not yet broken, because (as some philosophers have argued) it cannot be broken, is the one that delimits the space of idiosyncratic subjective experience, if not also the idiosyncratic relations of that subject to the purlieu and milieu in which its experiences are experienced.  During the last several months, we've seen several noble efforts at border-crossing the empathy/sympathy divide, efforts that more or less amount to digitally establishing communities, both in the positive sense of solidarity (#BlackLivesMatter, #JeSuisCharlie, #ICantBreathe, #YesAllWomen) and in its negative sense (#NotAllMen, #NotAllCops, #NotAllMuslims, #IamNotCharlie).  There is an interesting existential symmetry to both these negative and positive labors-- "I am x, like you" and "I am, like you, not-x"-- as they likewise attempt to articulate, express and encode what are in effect shibboleths.  Because their codes are meant to be deciphered, because they are intended not to be secrets but rather passwords, they both reinforce and threaten the borders of the very communites they mean to establish each time they are uttered in public.


Given the events of this week, which have brought to the fore once again fundamentally existential tensions-- between (among countless other things) reason and faith, liberty and solidarity, the force of law and the mystical foundations of authority-- it's worth recalling the insights of Jacques Derrida, an especially befitting referent in this instance, as Derrida was at once a Frenchman, an Algerian, born a Jew but who boldly described himself as one "rightly pass(ing) for an atheist."  In The Gift of Death, Derrida explained the shibboleth as "a secret formula that can only be uttered in a certain way in a certain language," what is now an (unfortunately but particularly) apposite insight from the very pied-noir who avowed  "I have but one language, yet that language is not mine."  In the end [spoiler alert!], Derrida's deconstruction of the concept/word/thing shibboleth demonstrated that any secret or password is ultimately incapably of satisfying its designated function as such unless it is iterable, repeatable, communicable... that is to say, not entirely private.  And/yet/but, as Derrida was fond of saying, because a secret or password or shibboleth can be shared-- in fact, because it must be shareable in order to be what it is-- it remains ever and always in danger of threatening the security of the borders it was designed to protect.  Derrida named this strange phenomenon "autoimmunity," the constitutive and necessary quality of certain systems of meaning-- shibboleths being just one, but also including hospitality, friendship, sovereignty and, more to the point here, democracy-- are designed in such a way that they tend to generate from within themselves their own antigens, that is to say, the agents of their own destruction.

Secrets qua "secrets" need to be at least somewhat public, as anyone who's ever held or shared a secret knows, so at least in the sense that secrets are and must be shareable (even if only in a restricted sense), they already constitutively resist the kind of unrestricted disclosure required by the so-called "public" domain in order to remain what they are, i.e. secrets. (Heads up for what follows: the "secret" is that there is no secret!) Likewise, the very concept of friendship requires that it be open to anyone, but not awarded to everyone, in order to be friendship. (See: the very real and meaningful 21stC conversational distinction between "friends" and "Facebook friends.")  Sovereignty must exercise its power, but never more than sovereignty can justify (via the complicity of its subjects) or execute (via the coercion of its subjects), in order to maintain its centralized power as sovereign. And again, hospitality needs to be welcoming to all, but also not to allow in those who might abuse it and not to manifest itself as colonialist (hostage-taking), in order to remain conceptually recognizable as  hospitality.  Finally, and not least, democracy must always empower the many (demos), but never too many, not so many as to make democracy's borders unrecognizable and thus to make of it something other than a form of government, a configuration of power (kratos), in order to remain a democracy properly-so-called.

You see where all this is going, I trust.

Secrets, friendship, sovereignty, hospitality, democracy: ALL of these are shibboleths, passwords, attempts at (what Hegel might've called) a "notion" of community or solidarity that may ever remain as impossible to achieve as it is to articulate.

What has been made possible by Twitter, Facebook, Instagram et al in their/our users' most recent efforts to hashtag solidarity, for better or worse-- I'm inclined to say for better-- is what amounts to an infinitely more democratically-defined attempt at deciphering the ciphers of community.  We're hashtagging "community" now as a manner of effecting community, of really bringing various, unpredictable and often conceptually incoherent communities into effect, even of registering the affects of those bizarre communities: potential, digital and actual.

But that effort is not without its own cost, minimal as it may be.  Full disclosure:  I consider myself to be a better-than-average iteration of a plugged-in "public philosopher,"  I may also tend to overestimate my own (white, professional, female) net-influence.  Still, #notahumblebrag, I have a non-insignificant number of Twitter followers and Facebook friends, I have this blog (nearing a half-million hits) and yet I know that no matter how dedicated I may be to sympathizing with or ameliorating suffering, my signal-boosting or hashtagging will likely never do as much as my coming over to your house with several Tupperwares of food will.  Maybe I'm overdetermined to think about on-the-ground social activism in terms of my hometown, Memphis, but that's a virtue, not a vice, in my book.  In the lat two months, I've participated in the #BlackLivesMatters movement almost entirely by showing up, taking photographs ,maximizing my social media contacts and, yeah, cooking a more than a few pots of beans&greens.

Twitter/Facebook/social media "activists" have so far not overcome the very real (structural, constitutive and conceptual) limitations upon which the very concept of " digital/virtual communities" nevertheless insist, which perhaps may ever and always stand as the impenetrable wall standing in the way of our effort. It's  a wall built of existential bricks of privileged idiosyncratic experiences, as I see it, and against which the rest of us can only ever continue to bang our heads as long as we refuse to acknowledge the material reality of that wall, and the material reality of our fellow citizens who spend the majority of their lived-experience banging their own heads against that brick wall. To wit, I find myself particularly sympathetic to the pleas expressed by Scott Long who wrote, in what is imho one of the most careful and reflective essays in re the recent #CharlieHebdo tragedy (entitled "Why I Am Not Charlie"):
To abhor what was done to the victims, though, is not the same as to become them. This is true on the simplest level: I cannot occupy someone else’s selfhood, share someone else’s death. This is also true on a moral level: I cannot appropriate the dangers they faced or the suffering they underwent, I cannot colonize their experience, and it is arrogant to make out that I can. It wouldn't be necessary to say this, except the flood of hashtags and avatars and social-media posturing proclaiming #JeSuisCharlie overwhelms distinctions and elides the point. “We must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day,” the New Yorker pontificates. What the hell does that mean? In real life, solidarity takes many forms, almost all of them hard. This kind of low-cost, risk-free, E-Z solidarity is only possible in a social-media age, where you can strike a pose and somebody sees it on their timeline for 15 seconds and then they move on and it’s forgotten except for the feeling of accomplishment it gave you. Solidarity is hard because it isn't about imaginary identifications, it’s about struggling across the canyon of not being someone else: it’s about recognizing, for instance, that somebody died because they were different from you, in what they did or believed or were or wore, not because they were the same. If people who are feeling concrete loss or abstract shock or indignation take comfort in proclaiming a oneness that seems to fill the void, then it serves an emotional end. But these Cartesian credos on Facebook and Twitter — I am Charlie, therefore I am — shouldn’t be mistaken for political acts.
Well said, Professor Long. I agree that we ought not mistake our hashtags, RT's or Facebook "likes" for so-called "real" political acts, though I'm just as much inclined to say that we ought not so quickly dismiss them as ineffective, unimportant or inconsequential in what amounts to a 21stC re-invention of what counts as "real political acts."  Where is solidarity today but where we have found it on Twitter and Facebook and other social media?  Can we even imagine a solidarity movement anymore that will not, first and foremost, be hashtagged?

And/yet/but (as Derrida was fond of saying), we ought not think that whatever the hyper-digital 21stC has made possible, in the form of codes or secrets or hashtags, however well-intentioned they may be, is iterable without some loss, without some mistranslation or misunderstanding.  The mere declaration of solidarity cannot overcome, in the end, the existentially impenetrable difference between the experience,of one and an Other.

Derrida's most cited French shibboleth was this: Tout autre est tout autre.   In translation, it means (roughly translated, as is all the phrase allows) both "Every other is every/all/the totality of others" and  "Every other is absolutely/idiosyncratically/singularly the unique (capital-O) Other." It's an idiomatic phrase, impenetrably delimited by the curiosities of its native language, but it remains as deeply, curiously and existentially true today (even in its imperfect translation) as it is was when Derrida first introduced it for our consideration in The Gift of Death, and even more so with his reintroduction of it  to us in the Politics of Friendship.

And so, at long last, I arrive at my point:
Let us be critically attentive, as much in our digital responses to the #CharlieHebdo attacks as we are to the #BlackLivesMatter movement as we are to the #YesAllWomen campaign, that we not mistake, first, digital "likeness" for real critical and/or political engagement and, second, but no less importantly, let is not think that digital approval ("like-ness") is an effective substitute for real, material and effective action.

Hashtagging solidarity is a sign, at most a supplement, for down-and-dirty in the real world engagement.  It is not nothing, but it does not amount to much all by itself.  Solidarity requires putting in work, most often unseen and unheralded and thankless work.

I'm not one of those people who denigrates digital activism.  Don't stop hashtagging your support for the things you believe in.  At the very least, you're doing the grunt-work of consciousness-raising.

But you can do more than the very least.

1 comment:

davidly said...

This is a really insightful and edifying read well-writ, Dr J! For that I commend you and I thank you for making the more complex philosophical concepts within reach of my, a layperson's, limits of comprehension, as well as your having taken the time to place the complementary links.

I do have to admit, however, that I thought you were headed somewhere else with the unbreachable barriers bit. Though I might have seen the digital-analog distinction coming, I, too, imagined — and this due to having been led here from the article that prompted this and your sympathy with it — that you might be talking about the #jesuischarlie barrier of (mis)understanding as it relates to just who Charlie really is.

The author rejected the tag for more than just the reason that it is a potential easy out of real world solidarity, he also stated social/political grounds, as well. Namely, he found the cartoonists in question to have created offensive material that he out-and-out refuses to identify with. Still, he attempted to pre-emptively take the required route of boilerplating his rejection of violence out of hand and articulated each point with thoughtful precision.

And then came the responses, amongst which included a great deal "how dare you"-ism and "yeah, but you're missing the point"s – the latter of which were often missing his point entirely. It is of no small consequence, I am sure, that many were just responding to his title and barely gave themselves time to scan the buzzwords in his text before letting loose.

And this is where I figured you were headed, right up until just past the point where you asked that rhetorical question. I am not disappointed, mind you. Just thought I'd chime in.