Saturday, October 18, 2003

Which Self Is The Second Self?

If you think BMEZINE.COM, the largest and oldest full-spectrum body modification publication on the planet sounds like an unlikely source for substantive modern cybersociology, you're clearly not a social scientist.

This week the publisher of this odd little website (again via Fark) brings us a half-decent write-up of of an inevitable phenomenon: people legally changing their names to their chosen screenname. In most cases, we find that the legal move merely confirms an extant social turn -- most of these folks had long decided to use their online persona-tag in all venues and interactions, on-line and off. The article offers decent case studies, and a surprising statistic -- of the substantially populated online community polled, 60% had seriously considered changing their name.

The article, as a part of a bodymod mag, can conveniently compare name changing with other, primarily physical marks of relatively extreme self-modification-as-definition, such as tatooing or even branding, and the pictures accompanying the article seems to suggest that extreme hair and clothing choices are part of the game here, too. But I fear this only trivializes what is surely a significant symptom of our modern C-change. Here, as always, the subject voices speak best for themselves:
It's very liberating changing something that has been with you since birth, but that wasn't of your deciding. To other people it's only a name, but to me it's my identity — or at least a small part of it which the outside world uses to address me.
Andrew Paul Johnson or RooRaaah Mew Crumbs — not a hard choice really is it?

I just feel more relaxed with this name. When I think of Andrew Paul Johnson, I don't think of me. Now, when I hear my name, I do think of me.
Though the selfname -- what we might consider the portable address of our own meatbody -- is indeed but one factor, like skin color and hair style and smoking-or-non, in the plethora of cues and gambits which make others see us as we are wont to be seen, one cannot see one's own tattoos -- where the name is given and taken alike, and thus seems more . Nor does the tattoo or piercing exist outside of ourself, standing for the self, on the myriad feedback forms and possessives which represent our mark upon the world when we ourselves have moved on.

Of course, we're talking about a still-fringe element here, although I would posit the rise of such a phenomenon as indicative of a more general trend towards increased flexibility of self-hood. Obviously, serious cybercommunities contain those more likely to identify with their online personas seriously; it is tricky to make a general case for the culture at large from such exploration, and more tempting to let it lie as a distinct subcultural phenomenon. But subcultures do reflect their cultures. Selves in corners are, in some ways, still showing that of the whole room, even if in extreme ways. It is finding the norms in the neos and nerds which makes social science interesting and justifies the study of groups in the first place. Thus, it is not so much a stretch after all to wonder what it means to us that somewhere out there a guy gets IRS returns for RooRaaah Mew Crumbs, or Swirly Wanx Sinatra, or the Reverend Grenade Bee Of Death.

One thing it might mean is that we've gone father, faster, towards a new concept of identity that we thought we would have by now. In writing of the self and the cyber one inevitably turns to Sherry Turkle, just as one turns first to Julian Dibbel's Rape in Cyberspace when exploring the standard for the cybercommunity. Though plenty of others have followed up in new and more subtle directions, Turkle was the first who clearly expressed the no-longer-new idea that the new opportunities for identity play inherent in networked technologies and their resultant society were healthy for humanity, and for adolescents already engaged in a lifestage of testing the world and the self to see what each might ultimately be. In order to show this, her sociological studies of and at the MIT Media Lab have focused on the development of what she calls the Second Self -- that constructed self (or selves) which exists once the body has been left behind in its chair.

But the phrase Second Self may be -- or need to be - passe already, in that it's very linguistics assume ultimate primacy to the meat-and-blood self, the mind over the mind-in-tool, the unavoidable subconscious default over the constructed. It is only now that we are beginning to see that, perhaps, the question of which self is the second self, of whether the mind alone is the housing of the self, and if there is indeed such a thing as the self anymore except as a fluxuating social concept and construct, will be the real questions of and for the next generations.

The question, then, is not so much when am I boyhowdy, or even which part of me is boyhowdy. Not "which me is real?", but "what is this thing we call me, and how does it flux, and under what circumstance; what power do I have over it and what power does it exercise and on whom?" The concept of second self may, in fact, be deliberately false in its dichotomous construction; Turkle, like the rest of us, seems ultimately interested in the philosophical quandries of mind and being; you don't have to be an expert on piercings to watch the choices we make -- both the extremes and the more subtle norms -- from the lab that is the self in the first place.

posted by boyhowdy | 12:18 PM |

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