A Network Life: On Marc Lafia's "Hi How Are You Guest 10497"

At first, it seems she's alone. Indeed, we rarely see anyone else — at least in the flesh. She lives alone in a small Manhattan studio. There is basically no dialogue as she doesn't seem to interact with anyone at all.

And yet she is always interacting. We may not see her interlocutors, they may not be present as flesh, but that doesn't make them any less real.

This is a network life. In her solitude, she remains connected — however ethereally, however precariously — to the world around her. Only the world around her is more often than not a telepresence.

What we witness is a different way of going in the world, a different kind of identity, a different kind of social contract. As the title of the film suggests, traditional identification has gone away. She is without name and interacts with anonymous guests known only by their number or avatar.

There is no doubt a great loneliness here. But to reduce her to lonely is to miss so much of what's happening. Because as users of Chatroulette discover, once the meta-narrative of identity disappears — once we stop naming ourselves, stop declaring our social status, our taste, our social tethers such as work and education — we discover something else. Face to face — or screen to screen — with a stranger, free of all meta-discourse that would prefigure the interaction, we discover incredible intimacy. All there is this encounter, these desires, this moment. Within the presumed mediation of the screen, we discover the immediacy of the encounter.

This is not to say that the network life is a life of singular immediacy. It is, after all, a network; it is multiple. And so we see her try to navigate this multiplicity, this teem of possibility, these different ways of going.

And, in particular, the ways of women-going or woman-becoming. As she makes her way through these chatrooms — some are more explicitly sexual — we see her encounter the breadth of possibilities of how to go as a woman, as a sexual woman, in the network. Just as the internet brings us the near-infinite breadth of consumer goods, it brings us the near-infinite breadth of identities. Look at all these modes of becoming woman! Look at all these modes of the erotic!

When we see her dress and leave the house, it is in a man's tuxedo. With her short hair and almost boyish body — although feminine through and through — we are witness to a certain twilight of fixed gender, a place of becoming where labels will not stick hard or fast.

The gaze that would fix her as woman-object has been multiplied. If John Berger finds woman nude in the fixed point of the Renaissance gaze, Lafia finds her naked, criss-crossed with thousands of gazes. Indeed, the film performs this: we see her seeing herself be seen, the film's camera often behind her computer which itself both camera and screen. The gaze has been proliferated and, with it, identity.

One thing that makes this film so powerful, so intimate, is that we get the sense that there is no crew, no cameraman leering, no boom ogling. She is filming herself. And in this seemingly simple act, she has already multiplied herself, made herself something that is seen. But not as an object. This is not a voyeuristic film. We are not invading her privacy. She is not nude; she is naked.

Because this is a network life, a place where identity is always and already expressive, always and already enmeshed in the world, in the web of becoming-selves, in the endless criss-cross of gazes and exchanges.

The camera, then, does not excavate. It does not mediate. It proliferates and connects.


drwatson said...

I will first admit to not watching the whole film. I saw about 25 minutes and even skipped around - I just don't have the time tonight to watch it all.

But it really resonated, especially because I'm teaching a book by Jaron Lanier called You Are Not A Gadget in my Technology and Society class - he coined the term "Virtual Reality" and helped invent the Nintendo Power Glove - so he has lots of street cred with me.

But his argument is that our networked existence is basically hurting our ability to be individuals. Now the counter-argument, that you make very well, is that the individual is this networked existence. And I have been conflicted by that argument for a long time. It seems both right and wrong to me at the same time and I have trouble figuring out exactly why. I think mostly it's because I see myself as having not a center, but a "centering."

And when I watch the video I do see loneliness and boredom. I mean I understand the argument that it's a reductionist assessment. But it's also, in my mind, a conversation we need to have. In my gut, I feel like we are a sad, lonely bored, entertained society. What I liked about the video is that I thought he captured all of that in the parts I saw.

I don't know man - I'm all over the place with this one - basically just confused, but it seems incredibly important to figure this one out.

drwatson said...

Just to clear up a point - when I say I feel a "centering" I mean that i feel there is something authentic that's hard to articulate but absolutely real. For instance I know when a friend is being a fraud, which implies there is some kind of center. Now my guess is that you also think that, but you would say it arises out of a matrix of influences, i.e., a network. So maybe we actually agree on this. I certainly think the self is something that arises and is molded, but something that always has something like an essence, even though that word feels incredibly problematic.

It's sort of like the last post - everything has been co-opted and the language I'm using has been so misused that it's only helpful if I'm writing to a sympathetic reader. Anyhow - you might enjoy looking up Jaron Lanier on youtube - he's a pretty interesting - he not only does his tech stuff, but he also plays these really weird musical instruments. And I'm pretty sure he's one of few people that have taught - I think at Berkeley - that do not have a degree.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I love watching you wrangle. Have you read Guattari's Three Ecologies? With and without Deleuze, he tries to have us understand the self as something not just multiple but cut through with multiple networks, trajectories, streams: we exceed ourselves, in some sense, and are exceeded.

Technology necessarily hedges and tempers these flows. It can't really eliminate the self, just recast it. I think there is an incredibly intimacy forged via the screen — and, at times, an incredible falsity when face to face.

This doesn't address your concern about being "real," that elusive but sure sense when something is false or authentic. That remains an interesting question.

drwatson said...

I haven't read the Guattari, but the way you describe his position sounds like what I'm wanting to say.

And yeah - I'm a wrangler and I have this issue where I want to be a dissident - it's like pistons: when they're up, I'm down. Which admittedly can be a bit childish. My point though is that sitting through grad classes consistently keeps me in check because i hear what a lot of other people are saying and I can see where a lot of current ideas and trends are just taken to far - thoughtlessly repeated.

I know that's vague but basically when I teach my classes I'm arguing in one direction against my students and then when I take classes I'm arguing in the exact opposite direction against fellow students - trying to carve some position out for myself.

Here's a simple example - today in my Style and Eloquence class we read Orwell's Politics and the English Language and some essay that was arguing that prescriptive grammar leads to violent ideologies - trying to literally connect the Unabomber's actions to his use of Strunk and White (which I found basically stupid.) And most people in the course are praising descriptivist ideas of grammar to such an extreme that I finally said something like "Look I tell my students all the time that words don't mean what you want them to mean." And that I had to explain to them because of the hurricane that just came around here that there's a huge difference between an island being evacuated and a person evacuating and if you screw up that distinction I will giggle like a 12 year old.

Not the best example perhaps - but ever since I completely lost my grounding in a Recent Anglo American Philosophy class as an undergrad it's been a long process to build back up a set of beliefs that are stable enough to work from - Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty and Camus helped a lot, but certainly those ideas have become more complicated because of our newfound interwebbed world.

Linz said...

I don't have much to add, except to say that this conversation reminds me of Dalton Conley's discussion of the "intravidual" - we're no longer single, coherent selves, he writes, because we've been interpenetrated by our multiple social spheres. I like this idea, though it's weird to me to think of the self as a collective societal phenomenon that evolves over time in a uniform way - or at least uniformly enough that you could describe it at one point as individual and another as intravidual.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I think we're all begging Dr W's question: If the self is not singular, not one thing, is not an essence, then how do we account for, speak of, articulate that moment of being "real"?

I think this state is less a state than a resonance. And there are no doubt multiple resonances that feel "real." And, sometimes, a resonance that feels real later looks phony. This phony resonance, or false self (in ourselves, in others) is, in some sense, an aesthetic experience: I like, or don't like, the way this (or that) feels.

The self is not a target but a process — an aesthetic process. I think.