Identity, Representation, and Death in Virtual Space (MSTU 4020; Week 5)

The following post is a weekly response for a graduate course on Social & Communicative Aspects of the Internet at Columbia University, Teachers College. I invite all Media Speaks readers to engage by adding comments below. Army Photography Contest - 2007 - FMWRC - Arts and Crafts - Without a Face, a portrait of the Soul

I enjoyed engaging with this week's readings because issues of identity and representation in virtual space suit my research interests at this point. I was particularly drawn to Sherry Turkle's chapters "Introduction: Identity in the Age of the Internet" and "Aspects of the Self." Though published in 1995, Turkle's ideas about self representation through virtual spaces are still relevant today. I wasn't too familiar with MUDs (Multi-User Domains) before reading Turkle, though I immediately associated MUDs with Twitter and Facebook, particularly concerning how people use these spaces to interact and create community. Below are a few ideas from each chapter that are worth noting as we think about identity and representation.

From "Identity in the Age of the Internet"

  • "The culture of simulation affects our ideas about mind, body, self, and machine" (10).
  • The self is constructed (10).
  • "On MUDs, [and I'd also argue on popular social networks of today], one's body is represented by one's own textual description" (12).
  • Computers have identities (18).
  • "Are we living life on screen or living in the screen?" (21).

From "Aspects of the Self"

  • As we enter virtual communities we reconstruct our identities (177).
  • The Internet is another means of explaining or perceiving identity as multiplicity (178).
  • "More people experience identity as a set of roles that can be mixed and matched, whose diverse demands need to be negotiated" (180).
  • "Do our real life selves learn lessons from our virtual personae?" (180).

Turkle also discusses mental health in the context of virtual life; do MUDs, or social networks, exacerbate difficulties or contribute to personal growth? I'd argue that we cannot necessarily approach this issue as an "either/or" problem. Virtual life and social networking can magnify mental and emotional afflictions but perhaps participating in these worlds can also provide a way to work through issues since, for the most part, we are still connected to a community of people, some of whom may function as a support system.

I'm not sure I can point to one particular idea that I adamantly disagree with, though perhaps I can expound upon one particular idea Turkle mentioned in the Introduction.

She writes that "one's body is represented by one's own textual description" (12). I wasn't sure if Turkle was referring to textual description as only written text or including other modes. The body surely can be represented (or manipulated as Turkle's seems to be implying when referring to textual description) through other modes like visual description, as in still and moving images.

Take for instance post-mordem photography presented in virtual space. How is the self represented through death? How is the body represented through the dead's visual description?

I thought about an art exhibit that a photographer told me about while we were discussing (on Twitter) the implications of taking still pictures of the dead. The discussion revolved around representation, privilege, and what death or dead bodies mean as we view them in photography. Needless to say I was struck by the images below (see link). I also thought about the cultural/social meanings associated with the idea that a white photographer (Elizabeth Heyert: snapped photos of dead black bodies. I believe the family of the dead allowed the photographer to take these pictures. Still, there's something unsettling about the presentation of images, especially as these images are digitized and widely accessible via the Internet. I can't help but wonder about the photographers relationship to the images and her "use" of them through exhibition, and too, our perception as the virtual viewer of the body as it represents death. (Warning: These images may be unsettling).

I think issues of identity and representation of human life, and even death, are truly fascinating because the Internet itself is, as Turkle argues, a means through which we can see identity--as well as community and language--as multiplicity.