Our Own Unnatural Selves: What Our Cyber Identities Tell Us About Our Lived Experience

[ D ] Edgar Degas - Madame Jeantaud in the mirror (1875)

The Naturalness of Our “Unnatural” Selves

I’ve been thinking a lot about the negotiation of personal and professional online presence(s) since an impromptu 2am Google Doc chat conversation on the topic during #moocmooc. After several days of mulling it over, I realized that the topic perfectly fit the (more in theory than in practice) aim of this blog: to draw together conversations about Romanticism with conversations about the digital humanities.

My WordPress and Twitter handles (myownunnaturalself and @myunnaturalself, respectively) are drawn from one of the odder lines at the beginning of William Wordsworth’s long poem The Prelude:

. . . I breathe again—

Trances of thought and mountings of the mind

Come fast upon me. It is shaken off,

As by miraculous gift ’tis shaken off,

That burthen of my own unnatural self,

The heavy weight of many a weary day

Not mine, and such as were not made for me. [1805 ver., ll. 19-25]

“My own unnatural self”—a phrase that simultaneously connotes both ownership and alienation—seemed the perfect descriptor for what’s going on with our various online avatars. If we read Wordsworth against the grain here, we could argue that this “unnatural self” is, perhaps, the most proper self precisely because it is “unnatural.” In “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” Paul de Man aligns Romantic allegory with an awareness of the self’s unnatural, temporal, contingent state:

Whether it occurs in the form of an ethical conflict . . . or as an allegorization of the geographical site, as in Wordsworth, the prevalence of allegory always corresponds to the unveiling of an authentically temporal destiny. This unveiling takes place in a subject that has sought refuge against the impact of time in a natural world to which, in truth, it bears no resemblance. (206)

An “authentically temporal destiny” is not, however, a route to an “authentic self,” as de Man’s later comments on irony underscore:

ironic language splits the subject into an empirical self that exists in a state of inauthenticity and a self that exists only in the form of a language that asserts the knowledge of this inauthenticity. This does not, however, make it into an authentic language, for to know inauthenticity is not the same as to be authentic. (214)

Which, to bring us back to the question at hand, suggests that our online “unnatural selves” might show up the general “unnaturalness” of our “empirical selves.” It also begs the question of whether the unique temporalities of the internet might increase the already disruptive influences of our linguistic selves.

I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me: Paranoia or Nostalgia? 

My initial concerns about the relationship of my personal and professional online presences were prompted more by paranoia than any apparent nostalgia. What if a Google search for my name turned up an old MySpace page with embarrassing photos and NSFW confessions made in the days before self-policing of your online identity became a job-security necessity (talk about the weird temporality of writing in the internet-age!)? And what about those Not-Safe-for-Southern-Dinner-Table-Conversation topics: politics and religion? Should I use my real name in comboxes? Should I link from comments to my blog? Should I “like” anything on Facebook for fear of a job search committee judging my taste in politicians, authors, music, or cat photos?

At a certain point—and once again that late night #moocmooc convo was a great catalyst—I decided against allowing my online self to become an anemic body with a C.V. hanging around its neck, a collection of my “work” and nothing more. “Dammit,” I declaimed, “I will be a full human being, warts and politics and personality and all! Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead to the comboxes and the LOLCats!”

I had thought, at first, that this was a bid to make my online life like what my lived, “natural” life supposedly was before it was chipped away at by those mythic internet police, always watching me: a single, coherent, natural self in which my life, my work, my politics, my taste, and my body all dwelt together in peace.

The irony, of course, is that the construction of our online, unnatural selves has long been an attempt to reclaim the unity and control that we believed had been lost in our offline lives: we wanted to be acknowledged and validated as the people that we believed that we were, wanted to reconstruct the experience of community that seemed increasingly lost in “real life.” In fact, a recent study shows that social media outlets lead to an increase in “self-disclosure” and that “likes” and comments have similar effects on the brain as food and sex. If we’ve grown to be paranoid that somebody’s watching us, we seem simultaneously frightened that nobody is. And before the days of Facebook likes, how could you really know if anybody was?

The truth of the matter is that the unsettling feeling that I was always walking around in “bad faith”—that I was hiding my low-brow tastes from my colleagues, my politics from the relatives down home, my beliefs from my mentors—was something that was part of my experience long before Google knew I existed. What’s more, every vision of coherence—self-fashioning online, the contrast of my “lived” experience with my online experience, even this blog post—was always caught in a hall of mirrors in which the coherent self was nostalgically positioned in the past, already lost, already fallen, but always radiating a promise of reclamation.

If there is any rule of thumb for negotiating our unnatural online selves, perhaps it should begin with this basic recognition: that the lost “natural” self is as much—if not more—of a construction as the “unnatural” selves that we attempt to reconcile with it.

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