What is the nature of being? In a post-modern world with an ever increasing plurality of selves and subjects, where old certainties of what it means to be are increasingly fragile or outdated, ontology seems a somewhat old-fashioned intellectual tradition. The effects and consequences of Being are all around us, and thus the nature of Being in question should not be neglected.
Why there is something, rather than nothing could well be said to represent the fundamental question of Heidegger’s philosophical scheme. Given the abhorrent politics that his notebooks and journals express, his work has, (rightly) been going through a much needed period of re-examination to see what, if anything, can still be abided to. One term with a degree of longevity is his concept of Dasein, a term not originally from his work, but common to much German philosophy – particularly Hegel, but Heidegger’s reworking of the term is a bold philosophical move that still influences how we consider the nature of being even today.
Dasein, which derives from the German term ‘da-sein,’ or being-there, is the quality of being in the world. An active engagement and involvement with the world, whilst being simultaneously aware of the priority of the world to the self and the self as a constantly evolving and shifting entity. A complex and multi-faceted way of perceiving the inner life of the self, Heidegger worked through the phenomenology of living in an extensive corpus of work attempting to define just what a true or authentic existence would look like. True existence was drastically opposed to an escapist immersion into the life of the everyday – the mundane public life that would subsume the self into the anonymous world of ‘They’ and ‘Them.’
Potentially radical, but all too open to a fascistic elevation of the individual (borne out by the writings recently revealed in the Black notebooks), Heidegger’s work is often deeply worrying. Both the attractions and the dangers of Heidegger’s philosophical project are more clearly articulated elsewhere, but perhaps with the space of some historical distance there can be a re-examination and re-working of the philosophical-ontological project he embarked upon. The question and discussion of Being is simply too foundational to be left in the hands of a 20th century anti-Semite or abandoned to the vagaries and fog of uncertainties that much of post-modernism can succumb to. Heidegger, as with Nietzsche, argued that Dasein is always a being engaged in the world, not simply an isolated subject but a coherence of self and environment. Alternatively, in Heidegger’s parlance – ‘Being-in-The-World’ as it is impossible to genuinely ‘Be’ in isolation from the world that helps form and shape us. For Heidegger (among many other German philosophers) we are not Cartesian selves – as abstract agents, but rather the self is revealed through and by its practical engagement with the personal world. To conceive of the self as a singular unit – the rational, autonomous self that developed from Descartes’ thought all through to Kant, is to reduce our very nature and retreat from the world and the reality of our own nature.
What motivates a return to the question of the ontological is a self-evident truth – the world has changed, in ways more complex and foundational than Heidegger’s philosophy accounts for or could even have acknowledged. In the rise of the internet, the ever-accelerating integration of digital technology and our ability, more and more, to recreate and remould who we are online are all questions of ontological importance. The issue of ‘Being’ it seems, has returned, as technology has allowed for the proliferation of multiple ways of creating, living and reshaping being(s.) We need only turn to game avatars, social media profiles, eBook twitter accounts and online dating platforms to see that the question of what it means to Be are still immediate and at hand. We now exist not simply as ‘Beings-In-The-World’ but as ‘Beings-On-The-Web’ defined by and through our ‘Being-With-Others.’
Companies now routinely search the online sphere for a sense of who prospective job candidates really are, and the delineation between the realms of our existence, between the online and ‘real’ world is becoming increasingly open, fluid and easy to traverse. We have seen the first jail sentences for digital crimes, trolls sent to jail for things “said” in a non-physical world and thanks to the emergence of ‘swatting’ and doxxing the potential for murder through the internet has never looked more real. The more sophisticated net-culture becomes, the more antiquated our current Enlightenment understanding of who we are appears. Therefore, in the age of multiple identities, of Tor, of sock puppets, what does it really mean to be a ‘Being?’
Thus, two separate but inter-related questions emerge firstly, the means of the construction of Being in the age of the internet, and secondly, the implications of this method of construction for the nature of what we might tentatively continue to label Dasein. In short, how are we defined and what does this process of definition mean for the ontological sense of ourselves.
The plasticity of the self online is down, in large part, to the malleability of the sign. The internet and our navigation through it is mediated through numerous, subtle and intersecting linguistic fields that ‘we’ (in the guise of largely linguistic avatars) manage to steer our way through with an uncanny degree of fluency. The language of self shifts from web site to web site operating through textual fields and images. These fields not only function as a site for the performativity of the self, but also the arenas in which self is constructed. We, as selves online, must be made to mean, just as any other linguistic and social discourse must be. Through social praxis and the creation of space for multiplicity of meaning, there can be new ways of defining and presenting the individual subject. The sociological conclusion of this possesses great emancipatory potential, as the self becomes open to self-definition and enforced discourses of normativity can be questioned and cast off. Primarily this has been taken up and embodied by political and social justice movements. Those who marginalised by society can choose how their selves are expressed and articulated and from these new articulations can build new solidarity movements and communities. Voices marginalized, and individuals told that their very being is somehow wrong, or immoral or foolish have been able to discover a whole new way of expressing and exploring what their worlds have rejected within them.
Through new codes of language and new ways of presenting the online self, marginalised identities can flourish, and new ontological categories allowed exploration. This is an undeniably positive implication of ‘’being’’ online, though to follow this argument through to its conclusion requires us to move beyond Heidegger’s ontology. Existence online possesses the dialectical antithesis to Heidegger’s ‘Dasein.’ Ontologically speaking we are in a way, Abwesenheit or absent from this crucial state of ‘Being-In-The-World’ and for an orthodox reading of Heidegger’s ontology this would seem to render the internet as perhaps the ultimate subsuming of identity, into a bland collectivist and anonymous homogeneity. The problem here stems from a specifically topological understanding of the world, which is now, thanks to the internet and social media, increasingly obsolete. The localized and deeply personal world that Heidegger encourages engagement with is down to the necessities of historical circumstances. When connectivity is limited the world and social environment around you is necessarily extremely limited – involvement in the world as a constituent of Being does make a certain degree of sense, and the emphasis on individuality over the anonymity of ‘They’ seems to place an appropriate degree of emphasis on the centrality of the subject. However, this assumes an environment and world with which Dasein can engage – one that is accessible, benign and not operating upon structural ideologies that are actually harmful. All too often, especially for those who have found outlets for their ‘Being in online worlds’, this is simple not the case and is fortunately no longer required of them. The acceleration of liberation and social justice political movements alongside the acceleration of the internet is hardly co-incidental, but rather an expression of the new ways of Being that the internet and its rapidly developing culture now allows for.
The great positive of the internet is the extent to which it has systematically broadened the world in which we live. The idea of Dasein is no longer just something that can engage with one world, but through the flexibility and performativity of the internet, the self has become freed from the constraints of traditional understanding and able to find new methods of self-expression. The Abwesenheit mentioned above, that absence from Being-In-The-World is not necessarily negative, but rather a withdrawal from the ontology of the past, and a move towards a new kind of being, expressed through a new kind of world.
The means by which we can form this new kind of ontological understanding is still clearly in the process of being worked out – yet perhaps the most helpful and effective thing that could happen is the abolition between a digital life and the ‘real world.’ This false binary enforces the idea of a ‘Being-In-the-World’ as authentic existence and allows for a lack of responsibility and agency in what is done on the internet. A realistic, web aware ontological theory would call for the integration of the self into a cohesive whole – not simply a digital self and someone you are in the ‘real world.’ This should not be understood as a call for complete honesty on the web – far from it – as anonymity and performativity are hardly uniquely modern traits of being that spring from the online world. Rather a digital ontology would cease seeing the internet as a space distinct from the actuality of existence. From events as diverse as the Arab Spring, to the neo-liberal misogyny of Gamergate the internet has had real and discernible consequences – so much so that the separation between an online and offline world simply does not hold anymore.
Perhaps the theorist who has taken this idea furthest towards a web-integrated theory is in the French psychoanalyst and philosopher Gilles Deleuze. His 1969 work ‘The Logic of Sense’ introduces the concept of the Body without Organs and its reaches its climax in the two volume ‘Capitalism and Schizophrenia.’ Deleuze draws from the work of Antonin Artaud, (see particularly his 1947 radio play ‘To have Done With the Judgement of God’) to describe two distinct and peripheral ways of perceiving the world. “The Logic of Sense” features a chapter called ‘The Schizophrenic and the Little Girl.’ The little girl, (the exemplar that Deleuze gives is Alice) explores the world of surfaces – that shifting morass of social appearances and nonsense terms that still seems somehow to function. The Schizophrenic, on the other hand (Deleuze’s example is Artaud) rejects the world of surfaces and instead is an explorer of ‘depths.’ This is a return to the body – words collapse back into the body that produce them and hear them.
The traditional Heideggerean might turn to the Body without Organs with the aim of seeing the internet as a means for a fuller actualisation of the notion of Dasein. The flaw in this appropriation of the work of Deleuze is that the Body without Organs is a description of the experiences of ‘bodily’ expression yet does not detail the ontological reality of the subjects within. Deleuze and Heidegger form a fascinating theoretical genealogy, yet as Heidegger’s ontology has proven to be increasingly historically out-dated, the diffuse Deleuzeian Body without Organs describes only the web of relations and investments but touches little upon the subject itself – rather than the particular, Deleuze focuses what we might term the universal-singular and the individual-singular. The Body without Organs can describe a network of external connections, yet it seemingly cannot explore the particularity of interiority. Deleuze’s understanding of being as univocal out of necessity rejects the idea of a particular human essence, instead, as he explains it in 1968’s Difference and Repetition, “it is not we who are univocal in a Being which is not; it is we and our individuality which remains equivocal in and for a univocal Being.” Alternatively, as it is expressed in Deleuze’s paradoxical formulation from A Thousand Plateaus, pluralism = monism.
Whilst this may seem to be a more compelling theory of the self which integrates the web into an understanding of being, the potential problems seems obvious – the self here is all too easily lost and there may be many who feel instinctively uncomfortable with Deleuze and the rejection of a particular human essence. In short, the problem with Deleuze reflects a wider problem throughout critical thought around the subject of the self – the self is lost as theory swings between one of two extreme poles. Deleuze posits the self as ultimately inescapably tied up in the web of relations and categories that surround it. So immanent is otherness that the particular is all too easily absorbed into it. Alternatively, theory takes a more deconstructive approach, in the works of thinkers such as Emmanuel Levinas, John Caputo and Jacques Derrida. Here the self is utterly alone, where Otherness appears on the edge of the hermeneutic circle and any kind of ethical or philosophical judgement about the nature of being becomes difficult at best.
The idea of ultimate alterity – the unutterable and unreachable Other, presupposes not only a lack of interaction between the self and ‘not-self’ (something Deleuze certainly avoids) but allows for no differentiation between the benign and malevolent stranger. Philosophically this kind of dialectical conflation renders the internet a place that is almost unbearable lonely – where Selves roam utterly alone, thrown into a digital space where not only is it impossible to tell whether the other Beings there encountered are benign or not, but where any connection with them is impossible. Online communities would become unthinkable under a deconstructionist understanding of the Self as friendship, (like democracy) is always still to come, not signalled by anything but the madness of nonsense of heteronomy, (see Derrida’s Politics of Friendship.) As Deleuze allows for the individual self to be indistinguishable from its web of connections deconstructionists isolate the self to the transcendence of the Other. For example, in thinkers such as Levinas we see the divine Illeity is virtually indistinguishable from the atheistic Il y a. Allowing for the ultimate transcendence of alterity, or on the other hand its ultimate immanence, permits only a hermeneutical collapse and the possibility of imagining, narrating or interpreting the other, becomes simply impossible.
How then to negotiate the gap between Heidegger’s out-dated notion of ‘Being-in-the-World’ and the schema that seem to either completely isolate the Self or alternatively leave it struggling for differentiation from what surrounds and contributes to it. The concept of Dasein, that unique, singular ‘Being-in-the-World’ needs drastic rethinking. In the age of the internet, where the Self is more and more mediated through linguistic construction and communication with the ‘not-self’ any theory that wishes to avoid the ‘totalising reductionism bordering on violence’ of onto-theology must accept both the distinctiveness of the self, and the interconnectedness of this self with the web of other digital selves. To quote the Anglo-Catholic philosopher William Desmond, what is needed is a new kind of ontology understanding – a metaxalogical ontology that provides an ‘articulated account of the between of being that makes it possible to be, not only as thus and thus, but be at all.’
Desmond’s metaxology thus places the between as foundational to any understanding of self. This notion has the potential to be extremely useful in understanding the interaction of the self and the internet. Rather than a ‘Being-in-the-World’ the web allows for a being between worlds– between the digital and the ‘real’, between the image and the sign, between the self and the other there is the space for a distinct and identifiable Subject. This idea of metaxology can be extremely valuable for understanding the nature of the individual as well as the systematic notion of ontology. As the web has spread and metamorphosed, the individual subject exists across a variety of contexts for self-expression – an ontology of the between works from the gaps between different articulations resisting the notion of totalised reductionism.
A metaxalogical ontology exists from the midst of plurality, standing in openness to the over determinacy of both deconstruction and the web of interconnected drives and desires. As opposed to Deleuze, metaxalogical ontology claims that there is no ‘whole of wholes that includes everything in the majestic solitude of the immanent one’ (Desmond) as Deleuze seems to. Through the internet, it is arguable that we see the development of a new articulation of being, somewhere between the universality of Deleuze and the singularity of the Dasein. It is in the irreducible, inescapable interconnectivity that we see the self as no longer just ‘Being’ but rather ‘Self(ves)-on/in-the-Web(s)’. Our ontological understanding needs to incorporate both plurality and a sense of particularity, where selves are distinct but defined by their very interconnectedness