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The Virtual Self
Self-representation and self-knowledge on the internet

(Drafts and notes of 2003)

Literary review

Research into the representations of the self in the electronic communication environment has started almost simultaneously with the emergence of the environment itself. To designate such representations various terms beginning with "virtual" have been used such as "virtual identity", "virtual personality", "virtual person", "virtual persona", "virtual character" and the like. Sometimes these terms may have different meanings and even relate to different objects. In what follows, I shall distinguish between "virtual identity" and "virtual personality" (VP). Although identity and personality are often uses as synonyms, it could be useful to draw a distinction (albeit a rather artificial one) between them. Identity is a derivate from identification and suggests that a subject identifies himself with an object or with some set of qualities. Personality, on the contrary, fixes more on the content of the entity that is perceived as having qualities of the subject - whether by the subject himself or from the outside. Here identification is possible but not necessary. In some cases, there can be a personality without identification - for examples, a virtual character created for attaining some special aim or a computer programme simulating a human person. Both have personal traits but neither is an object of identification for their originators. Since I am more interested in studying the construction of the virtual selves and their (often ambivalent) relationships to the "real selves" than in the process of identification, then the term "personality" (or "personal identity") seems to fit better for my purposes than that of "identity". Therefore, I shall use "virtual identity" and "virtual personality" as synonyms in the context where the difference between these terms is unimportant and as different terms when either identification or content are emphasized.

Both users and researchers of electronic communications have paid attention to the following peculiarities of virtual personality:

  1. Disembodiment or incorporeality, the reduction of the personality to its semiotic manifestations (i.e. to texts in the broadest sense);
  2. Anonymity, or at least, the possibility of such (cf. popular aphorism from a newspaper caricature "On the Internet, nobody knows that you are a dog"); or semiotically speaking, the arbitrary connection between the real or "off-line" identities;
  3. Freedom of providing virtual identity with any set of characteristics (i.e. extended possibilities of identification usually impossible in real life);
  4. Multiplicity, the possibility of maintaining a number of different virtual identities simultaneously or successively;
  5. Automation, the possibility of simulating activity of virtual identity fully or in part by using computer programmes (this links virtual personality to the concept of artificial intelligence).

The phenomenon of virtual identity has been described with reference to such subdomains of electronic communications as MUDs (Turkle, 1996), Usenet (Donath, 1999), IRC, chat rooms (Cherny, 1999), online forums, guest books, virtual worlds, and personal homepages (Cheung 2000; Palmer 2002) The notion of virtual identity is closely tied to the concept of virtual community where the interaction of virtualized persons takes place (Hillis, 1999; Rheingold, 1993). On the other hand, the events in the virtual environment can affect the real life of the interacting participators in many ways, sometimes positively and sometimes oppressively or even devastatingly. This has been reflected in research literature (Dibbel, 1996; Turkle, 1996) as well as in fiction and films.

The theoretical framework of discussions about VP has usually included references to postmodernism and poststructuralism as trends of thought positing the concept of identity that, contrary to the "old", modernist, essentialist view, is depicted as decentred, multiple, fluid, and based on discursive practices provided by society and culture rather than on intrinsic personal "traits". The study of "identity in cyberspace" (Bell, 2001) has considered some of such discourses, thought of as the "axes" or constructing principles of VP creation. These include race (Kolko, Nakamura, and Rodman, 1999), gender (Harcourt, 1999; O'Farrell and Vallone, 1999; Green and Adam, 2001), sexuality (Branwyn, 2000; Bright, 1992; Wolmark, 1999) and class (Green and Adam, 2001; Kroker and Weinstein 1994).

Although the literature on virtual identity is rather extensive, the possibilities for research into and experimentation with virtual identities are far from being exhausted. My research contributes to the study of the virtual self both on a theoretical level and by introducing new material.

First, the effects of electronic communications on the concept of self have been studied mainly from the psychological or sociological perspectives. I approach these issues rather from a philosophical perspective and locate the problem of virtual identity in a broader context of thinking about the selfhood. I shall start with a review of various concepts of the self, found in psychological and philosophical literature. Then I shall discuss how the self can be represented, and what is specific in digital self-representation in comparison with traditional media. I shall also propose a general theory of virtual personality as a creative form.

Second, virtual identity has been studied mainly in role-playing environments such as MUDs and other text-based interactive media such as chats and online forums while more recent forms of online activity such as building up personal homepages or weblogging has received less attention. Therefore, virtual identity has been mostly considered as a process and not as a product. I shall focus on WWW-based virtual personalities and discuss their constituent elements, principles of construction, various forms and functions.

Third, most research on virtual identities has been based on the material of Anglo-American cyberculture. The underlying idea that virtual identity is a universal phenomenon and its characteristics are the same regardless of cultural differences is disputable. I shall discuss the specificity of Russian cyberculture in this respect and give some examples of successfully created virtual personalities. I shall also describe and analyse some online projects experimenting personal identity in general.

A brief note on methodology. The representation of the self on the internet has usually been interpreted with reference to post-modernist theory. However, post-modernism is not a 'unit-idea' (a basic term for the history of ideas introduced by Arthur Lovejoy) but rather a combination of ideas that can be found in different systems in different times. For example, the view of the self as an aggregate can be found in various mystical and occult teachings that regard the self as a many-layered structure consisting from a number of "bodies", and the emphasis on the decentralization and fluidity in such teachings as Buddhism. Therefore, there is no need to label as post-modernist all cases where the self is perceived as a heterogeneous or unstable entity. The fact that different systems do share some ideas does not mean that they are identical in other respects. Post-modernist connotations are not always applicable and sometimes only obscure the understanding of particular phenomena by placing them in the improper context of ready-made concepts. Moreover, postmodernism is often perceived as a description of a certain state of affairs rather than a way of thinking about any state of affairs. The lack of differentiation between these two aspects leads up to naturalization of thought. In this respect, postmodernism exemplifies ontologizing thinking, that is, to use Heidegger's expression, thinking which does not think. I suggest that a certain way of thinking can be useful in some situations and useless in others. In any case, I believe that there is always more than one possible way of thinking about any phenomena, including postmodernism itself.

What is the self?

"Know thyself" (Gnothi Seaton) - the famous apophthegms chiselled over the portal on the temple at Delphi and the authorship of which Diogenes Laërtius attributed to Thales, one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece - seems so unrealizable as ancient. Throughout history, people have tried to find the answer to the question "what am I?" Many theories have been invented and many practical methods have been devised. However, self-knowledge seems to escape all ready formulas and formulations, and it remains an intrinsically private endeavour, a problem that everyone should every time resolve anew.

It is evident that the concept of self-knowledge depends on how the self is conceptualized. While some trends of thoughts prescribe to the self the ultimate value, the others deny its existence altogether. For example, many religious traditions distinguish between the lower and the higher self (cf., for example, distinction between the soul and the spirit in Christian tradition, or between prakriti and purusha in Sankhya), assuming that if the former consists of many discordant elements and is a battlefield between good and evil, than the latter connects the man to God and is a spark of Divinity concealed within the man. Buddhism, on the contrary, teaches that there is no such dharma (fact of reality) as the self (neither in a lower, nor in a higher sense), and that the concept of the self actually acts as a mental block preventing sentient beings from the awareness of reality and attaining enlightenment. As it has been recently formulated by two Russian philosophers,

      Ignorance of some facts about consciousness is "symbolized" by the term "death" and ignorance of some other facts is "symbolized" by the term "the self" (Mamardashvili & Pyatigorski, 1982: 222).

If even the self has a relative reality, it may be very difficult if not impossible to comprehend and describe it in a rational way. As Alan Watts, an English writer about Zen Buddhism has said, 'Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.'

The concept of the self is evidently based on the feeling of individuality and uniqueness or, philosophically speaking, on the opposition between "I" and "not-I". In cultures and worldviews where this opposition is regarded as not essential or even as a hindrance for true knowledge and right living, the concept of the self is either peripheral or it is considered as false. The "primitive" people have no sense of the separate self and broadly identify themselves with various natural or supernatural powers. The surrender oneself to the Divine is a common trait of religious mysticism in many traditions. Societies that emphasize collectivism rather than individualism as a principle of social and spiritual living put little value on the concept of self or, at least, subordinate it to some higher entities and aims. In brief, the concept of the self is an ideological construct, which content, structure and functions are socially and culturally determined (Marsella, Devos, and Hsu, 1985).

In the West, with its emphasis on individualism and external activity, the self has remained one of the central concepts in common consciousness as well as in the specialized fields of knowledge. The concept of the self which is dominant in the West is generally described as analytic, monotheistic, individualistic, materialistic and rationalistic (Johnson, 1985). However, the understanding of the self has been changed historically and, what is more, there has never been a unitary understanding of it. The words referring to the self have been used in different, sometimes rather contradictory, meanings.

As Gordon Allport in his classical work Personality: a psychological interpretation stated:

      "Personality" is one of the most abstract words in our language, and like any abstract word suffering from excessive use, its connotative significance is very broad, its denotative significance negligible. (Allport 1937: 25)

Etymologically, personality, which is one of the words expressing the idea of the self, had connotations of disguise and false appearance.

      The word "personality" comes from the Latin persona. Originally it referred to the mask worn in the theatre; later the term came to include the wearers of the mask. The audience could expect from the wearer of a given mask a more or less consistent pattern of behaviour and attitudes, and it is still common to speak of the socially defined role or roles that a person plays in life. (Burnham, 1968: 2)

Allport (op. cit.) distinguished between four different meanings of persona found in the writing of Cicero (106 - 43 B.C.) who wrote probably not long after the word was introduced: (a) mask, external appearance, the way one appears to others (but not as one really is); (b) real status of somebody in social life, not merely a pretence; (c) an assemblage of inner psychic qualities that fit a man for his work or role, an individual possessed of distinctive personal qualities; (d) prestige, distinction or dignity (for example, as a style of writing). All these early meanings have been retained in the latter usage but some other meanings have been added. (For a detailed history of the evolution of the concept of personality from pre-Socratics to psychological theories of the middle of the 20th century see Burnham, 1968).

Allport (op. cit.) traced the historical development of the meaning of the term persona and its derivates such as "person" and "personality" and quoted hundreds of uses of these words in theology, philosophy, jurisdiction, sociology, psychology and other domains of human knowledge. He generalized these examples into 50 different definitions of personality, including one of his own in which he tried to synthesize various classes of contemporary psychological definitions:

      Personality is the dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his unique adjustment to his environment (Allport 1937: 48)

However, he notes that

      Since there is no such thing as a wrong definition of any term, if it is supported by usage, it is evident that no one, neither the theologian, the philosopher, the jurist, the sociologist, the man in the street, nor the psychologist, can monopolize "personality" (ibid., 47).

Modern psychological handbooks usually group all theories of personality in two main categories: substantial theories, which locate personality within the person, and mask theories, which locate personality in the behaviour of the person and its environment rather than the inner states or processes of the individual. For example, psychoanalysis (Freud, Jung, Adler, Erikson, Fromm, and Horney), psychology of traits (Allport, Sheldon, Cattel, and Eysenk) or factors (Guilford), the Humanists (Maslow, Rogers, and Perls) belongs to the first category, while behaviourism (Skinner), social learning theories (Dollard and Miller, Roter, Bandura and Mischel) as well as approaches based on the methodological principles of social constructivism and postmodernism, tend to the second category. As there exist many theories of and approaches to personality, some attempts have been made to synthesize them in the framework of a complex approach. For example, in a recent book Understanding the Self (Stevens, 1996), the self is viewed from five different perspectives - biological, experimentalist, experiential, social constructivism, and psychodynamic - to each of them a different kind of self - embodied, interpreting, reflexive, distributed and defensive - is brought into correspondence.

The philosophical approach, as distinct from the psychological one, focuses on the non-empirical self, its relationship to what is not the self, and such processes as self-awareness and self-reflection. The self is thought as "nonbodily and nonmental something" (Myers, 1969), irreducible to body, feeling or thoughts, but rather as "the possessor of a mind and body, and... what is referred to, by each of us, by the first-person pronoun" (ibid.,: 16). Historically, philosophical self has been defined as "rational individual substance" (Boëtius), "substance gifted by understanding" (Leibniz), that "which has become objective to itself" (Windelbrandt), "the indivisible centre", only on the periphery of which "the processes of alternation take place" (Rickert), "the ideal of perfection" reached only by God though approached in varying degrees by men (Lotze), "supreme value" (Goethe, Nietzsche, Humbolt), "the subject of moral law which is sacred by virtue of the autonomy of his individual freedom" (Kant), the entity characterized by the principles of "self-consciousness, self-control, and the power to know" all of which "have no corporate significance" (Bowne), "a multiple dynamic unity" (Stern), etc. (All quotations are borrowed from Allport, 1937).

The problems of self-awareness and self-reflection are central in the analysis of the philosophical self. René Descartes (1596-1650) rejecting Scholasticism, which method of investigation was based on comparing the views of recognized authorities, posited the principle of cogito, or independent thinking based on itself, as the universal principle of philosophizing. Cartesian "I" was thought of as a pure subject reduced to the act of thinking and having no content of its own, while thinking was thought of as a momentary act undifferentiated within itself. Soon, John Locke in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) drew a distinction between sensation and reflection as two sources of ideas and experience. If sensation provides the material for knowledge of the external world, than reflection is a means of knowledge of the mind. According to Locke, personal identity, or "sameness of oneself" is based on memory as reflection extended in past.

The ability of reflection has been considered in Western philosophical tradition as a distinctive human property. George Mead, for example, argued that the uniqueness of the self lies in its possibility of being the object unto itself, whereas no other event in the universe is reflective in the same sense (Mead, 1934). Reflection in the philosophical sense signifies "the mode, operation, or faculty by which the mind has knowledge of itself and its operations, or by which it deals with the ideas received from sensation and perception" (OED). It is based on the procedure of introspection, which is defined as "the action of looking within, or into one's own mind; examination or observation of one's own thoughts, feelings, or mental state" (ibid.).

It has been generally argued that introspection and reflection are means of attaining knowledge about the self. However, David Hume in his Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740) maintained that our introspections can disclose specific feelings, sensations, and perceptions, but nothing corresponding to the concept of self is detectable. Since it is impossible to detect the self as a distinct entity, Hume concluded that selves "are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions" or series of perceptual experiences. But his argument is internally contradictory. As Ricoeur has noted,

      Here, then, is someone who claims to be unable to find anything but a datum stripped of selfhood; someone who penetrates within himself, seeks and declares to have found nothing. ... With the question Who? - who is seeking, stumbling and not finding, and who perceives? - the self returns just when the same slips away. (Ricoeur, 1992: 128)

Hume's conclusion, somewhat consonant with Buddhist teaching, has found in the 20th century a further development in phenomenology, a philosophical approach dedicated to describing the structures of experience as they present themselves to consciousness. The general method of phenomenology, proposed by its founder Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), was phenomenological reduction, that is, reflection on the content of the mind without recourse to any presumption and theories. Existence or non-existence of contemplated objects was "bracketed" as well as their actual source. However, for Husserl, the detailed analysis of mental structures was a means of returning to "the things themselves", because it was based on direct "seeing" of what actually is and is purified from any presumptions and superstitions.

Perception and reflection can be considered, using Husserl's terminology, as two modes of intentionality or directedness of consciousness toward an object, the difference between which is based on the nature of the object: one is directed to what is thought as the external world, and another to what is perceived as the inner world of the knower. Thus, some philosophers distinguish between subjective and objective self awareness defining the former as 'a state of consciousness in which attention is focused on events external to the individual's consciousness, personal history, or body', whereas the latter 'is exactly the opposite state' (Duval and Wicklund, 1972). They also state that these two types of self awareness are mutually exclusive and that 'as the person transfers his focus from one dimension to another, he will inevitably find numerous discrepancies and incur negative affect' (ibid.). Nevertheless, these discrepancies have an important function. Since 'self conscious person respond not only to external stimuli, but also to himself as a stimulus', then 'awareness of the self as an object acts as a feedback system which forces the individual to alter aspects of himself in the directions of his conception of what a correct person should be' (ibid.). Although the indication at the feedback function of self-reflection seems valuable, the conception as a whole evidently steps back in comparison to pure phenomenology and can be challenged in many respects. For example, the posited opposition between the two modes of awareness does not account for the phenomenon of identification which plays an important role in the development of the self (at least, on personal level) as well as in the process of self-knowledge through what is not self.

The metaphysical opposition between the self and another is replaced by their dialectics in the framework of philosophical hermeneutics. This approach proceeds from the fact that

      the selfhood of oneself implies otherness to such an intimate degree that one cannot be thought of without the other, that instead one passes into the other, as we might say in Hegelian terms (Ricoeur, 1992: 3)

Hermeneutics is traced back to Schleiermacher who applied the principles of Biblical exegesis to the interpretation of secular texts and Dilthey who introduced the notion of Geisteswissenschaften or science of the humanities, which aims to understand and interpret subjective experience, and opposed it to the natural sciences, which deals with the worlds of objects. Hermeneutics exemplified by the works of Gadamer, Heidegger and Ricoeur posited language as the universal medium of human experience. Moreover, language in hermeneutical thinking has lost its representational function and was identified with being. As the result, self-knowledge, as well as knowledge of the world, has been explained in linguistic terms. Since '[t]here is no direct apprehension of the self by the self, no internal apperception or appropriation of the self's desire to exist through the short-cut of consciousness', self-knowledge is possible 'only by taking the long road of the interpretation of signs' (Ricoeur, 1974: 170).

The prioritization of language has become the common feature of many intellectual trends of the 20th century, such as, for example, semiotics, structuralism, and post-structuralism. Its roots can be traced back to the emergence of modern science. Its fundamental principles include: denial of metaphysics in favour of observable facts; denial of ontology and its substitution by a theory and methodology of knowledge; denial of the possibility of self-evidence and acquiring knowledge by logical inference; denial of subjectivity as a hindrance to objective scientific knowledge and absolute subject-object opposition; acknowledgment of social consensus rather than personal consciousness as the criterion of truth (Gorny, 1994).

If hermeneutics and semiotics still acknowledged the world outside language, at least as a point of reference, then in 'postmodernist' thinking the idea of 'non-referential sings' or 'simulacra' (Baudrillard) has become dominant. It has naturally led to the belief that the self is narratively constructed (Holtein and Gubrium, 2000; Bruner, 1986; Gergen, 1991). Since language is not a private but a social phenomenon, the idea of the "storied self" (Sabrin, 1986) has been reinforced by the social constructionist approach that "stresses joint action, dialogue, debate, conversation, conflict and discussion, both between and within people as they try to reconcile the diverse 'voices' or internal dialogues which make up their mental lives" (Stevens, 1996: 265). Thus the selfhood has lost its independent and autonomous status and turned out to a "reproduction of the logic of the prevailing symbolic order, a blind reinscription of its ideological norm and values" (Worthington, 1996: 26). Postmodernists seem to celebrate the truth they discovered that "we are 'assembled' selves, in which all the 'private' aspects of psychological interiority are constituted by our linkage into 'public' languages, practices, techniques and artefacts" (Rose, 1997: 226); that there is no possibility of escape "from external systems of authority into the realm of creative authenticity" (Worthington, 1996: 26). However, such statements have only reinforced the search for the gaps in the texture of postmodern conditions. The way out has been sought in various strategies - from producing unreadable texts to direct political action. The authority of language, according to the logic of postmodernism, can be overcome through the subversive use of the language itself, and the self possesses freedom, even if relative, to define itself through the selection of and play with diverse, often incompatible discourses.

In recent years, many philosophical works discussing the problem of the self and personal identity have been published (Alexander, 1997; Baillie, 1993; Barber and Gracia, 1994; Berglund, 1995; Brody, 1980; Burkitt, 1999; Butchvarov 1979; Corbey and Leerssen, 1991; Cuypers, 2001; Ganguly, 2001; Giles, 1997; Griffin, 1977; Hill, 1997; Hirsch, 1982; Lund, 1994; Macdonald, 1989; Madell, 1981; Morick, 1970; Munitz, 1971; Noonan, 1993; Oderberg, 1993; Olson, 1997; Parfit, 1986; Perry, 2002; Rorty, 1976; Shoemaker, 1963; Slors, 2001; Van Inwagen, 2001; Williams, 1973). However, the multitude of research clearly indicates that there is no general consensus about how the self should be understood. However, it seems possible to distinguish between two aspects of the self that are generally acknowledged: one that observes, and the other that is observable. The first is a principle of pure subjectivity or "the knower of the field", while the second is the field itself. This ambivalent concept of the self as knowable something and knowing nothing seems to permeate the history of philosophic inquiry into its nature. Historically, there has been a constant oscillation between these two understandings. But if even to speak only about the phenomenal aspect of the self, the variety of its interpretations suggests that either self-knowledge is impossible or it can be performed in a variety of ways that actually relate to different objects of knowledge. The self thus remains difficult to know and to realize as it was in the age of the Seven Wise Men.

Subjective and objective self-knowledge

How one can know oneself? To answer this question one need first to know what the self is. To find the right answer is not easy, because various systems have provided too many of them. Generally, there exist two competing understandings of the self that suggest two kinds or two aspects of the self. The first one is the pure subject that have not qualities or content of its own but that is able to reflect any qualities or contents. It corresponds, for example, to purusha in the philosophy of sankhya, Cartesian's cogito or the "I" in logical positivism. The second aspect is the self as a subject of psychological life that can be considered objectively in terms of structure and content. Historically, it has been conceptualized in many ways as soul, ego, personality, and so fourth.

Although both kinds of the self are opposed to the world, they are opposed differently. The self in the sense of the pure subject is a passive spectator contemplating the spectacle of nature, including the activity of psyche, and its opposition to the world as object is absolute. The self in the sense of personality, however, is a compound structure which components are provided be the world itself.

Phenomenologically, there is no difference between the elements of the external reality and the elements, or meanings, constituting the self. The difference of the self from the world consists in its selectivity: not all meanings of the world constitute personality, but only some of them. Personalities, therefore, differ from each other by what sets of meanings they identify as their own or project into the world as themselves. As content, personality is a result of selecting from the pool of world meanings, and as function, it is a principle of this selection.

Let us consider now how these two aspects of the self correspond one to another. Their difference is the difference between consciousness and the psyche. Psyche or personality acts a filter that limits consciousness in one or another way. In other words, it acts as an interface between consciousness and the world.

It follows from the stated duality of the self that self-knowledge can be approached in two principally different ways depending on what aspect of the self is being known. However, both ways, if they are realized consistently, inevitably lead to the same paradox: that the result of self-knowledge is the knowledge that there is no object of knowledge. In the case of "objective awareness" (Duval and Wicklund, 1972), that is, knowing of the self as personality, one finds out that the self consist of the same semantic elements as the world and differs from the latter only by its limited nature. In the case of "subjective" self-knowledge, one finds out that the self cannot be known or described because it is not an object separable from the knowing subject. Moreover, in both cases it turns out that the self it not an individual entity because its limits erode in the process of knowing and it tends to coincide with the world in the first case and with consciousness in the second.

Projection and introjection

Two psychological processes play the essential role in self-knowledge - projection and introjection. Projection is a process of objectification of the inner psychological states, their transformation into objects available for outer observation. Bluntly speaking, it is a transformation of the inner to the outer, or of the self to the other. Introjection is the inverse process consisting in appropriation of the outer objects and their transformation into inner experience. The other here becomes the self.

Projection can be subjective and objective depending for whom observation they are available. The subjective projection is perceived only by the subject who produces the given projection and is not available for perception of other people. Subjective projections are subdivided into undeliberate and deliberate. The examples of the first type are to mistake in the twilights a rope for the snake or to see in the clouds various forms such as a camel, tower or a face. Other examples include hallucinations or pseudo hallucinations. We also unconsciously project our ideas to other people, thing or situations. Deliberate projections are rarer in everyday life and more common in religious or magical practices, for examples, visualization of meditation deities (yidams) in Tantrism. Projection should be distinguished from mere imagination. Projection produces images that are perceived as external, regardless the fact whether we are aware of their illusory nature or not.

Self-Representation: Modes, Strategies and Procedures

Before proceeding to the issues of self-knowledge on the internet, let us consider how the self can be represented. That succession seems logical because to know something one first has to have it as a perceivable object. Self-knowledge, therefore, is inseparable from self-representation.

A person can represent himself using various means, some of which are more direct while others are more oblique. The basic distinction can be drawn between self-description and self-expression as the two general forms of self-representation. In the first case a person creates his own image using narrative or figurative means and ascribes to this image iconic similarity to himself as a personality; in the second case, the depicted object is different from the depicting person, and the author is represented in oblique or symbolic way. The common denominator here is the fact that both types of works are created by the person himself.

However, the person can be also represented through the works of others. First, he can be directly described by the others (which produces a variety of genres, from opinions and gossip to testimonial and biography); second, he can express himself through the selection of what he considers as interesting or noteworthy (here we have collections and compilations of every kind). In the first case, the self is described by others as an external object; in the second, the self is modelled as a principle of selection from "the world of things, ideas, values, and persons" (Ricoeur, 1986).

Thus, there are four forms or modes of self-representation that can be conventionally called autobiography, biography, portfolio and collection. The correlation between them is shown in Table 1:

iconic descriptionAutobiographybiography
symbolic expressionPortfoliocollection
Table 1: Modes of self-representation

These are logical classes that can be combined in different ways in real discursive practices. For example, a real autobiography can include references to what other people have said or written about the author (biography), samples of the author's works (portfolio) and account of his or her interests (collection). However, the differentiation between these modes may help us to see clearly which kind of material is used in every particular case. Moreover, these four modes can be brought in correspondence with actual genres of self-representation according to which mode is predominant.

Historically, the question "Who am I" has been answered in the genre of autobiography (although it has certainly been addressed in many other genres). Autobiography thus can be regarded as a meta-genre for various modes of self-description and self-knowledge. There exist many convergent definitions of autobiography. William Spengemann (1980) who studied the history of this genre in Western literature and also wrote an extensive bibliographical review on the study of autobiography (Spengemann, 1980: 170-246) has noted that 'the more the genre gets written about, the less agreement seems to be on what it properly includes' (ibid, xi). Earlier, regardless of theoretical divergence whether it is admissible to take into consideration such literary forms as letters, journals, memoirs, and verse-narratives, people "generally agreed that an autobiography had to offer at least ostensibly factual account of the writer's own life - that it had to be, in short, a self written biography" (ibid.). Recently, with the exponential growth of research in the field, "the boundaries of the genre have extended proportionally until there is now virtually no written form that has not earlier been included in some study of autobiography" (ibid., x).

Spengemann distinguishes between two principal approaches or "schools of thought" concerning autobiography:

      On the one side are those critics who continue to insist that autobiography must employ biographical - which is to say historical rather than fictional - materials. On the other side, there are those who assert the right of autobiographers to present themselves in whatever form they may find appropriate and necessary. (ibid., xii)

It seems that the difference between these two approaches can be linked to the difference in understanding of what the self actually is. If the first approach proceeds from the presumption that one can know and explain the self by describing the facts concerning its becoming, development and manifestation in the real world, then the second is sceptical about such a possibility and believes that the "facts" can say nothing about the essence of the self, which can be only comprehended through the myth a person create about himself. In the first case, the self is thought of as factually given, and in the second case, as something that is being created.

"Insofar as both of these views of autobiography conform to our experience with actual texts both are right", states Spengemann (ibid., xiii) and proposes to consider autobiography historically,

      not as one thing that writers have done again and again, but as the pattern described by the various things they have done in response to changing ideas about the nature of the self, the ways in which the self may be apprehended, and the proper methods of reporting those apprehensions (ibid).

In his analysis of the evolution of the genre from the early Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, he distinguishes between three forms of autobiography - historical, philosophical, and poetic. Although, as he notes, all these forms were employed in succession in St Augustine's Confessions, the general evolution of autobiography during the next fifteen hundreds years have been from historical through philosophical to fictive mode, and this movement has been corresponded with the evolving views on the nature of reality and the self.

Every one of these modes uses its own constructing principles that Spengemann calls procedures:

      Historical self-explanation, philosophical self-scrutiny, poetic self-expression, and poetic self-invention - these are, so far as I know, the only procedures available to autobiography, and the list was exhausted by the time Hawthorne finished The Scarlet Letter (ibid., xvi-xvii).

He believes that "all subsequent autobiographies may be described in terms of one more of these formal strategies" (ibid, xvii).

These strategies are summarized in Table 2.

Table 2: Strategies and procedures of autobiography

All these strategies are realized in online autobiographies. For example, traditional Curricula vitae, which are a common element of personal homepages clearly relate to the historical mode and provide self-explanation in terms of socially significant stages of personal development and personal accomplishments. In online diaries a strategy of self-expression usually dominates. Creation of virtual identities is an example of self-invention. Finally, philosophical self-scrutiny is a common denominator of the online projects investigating the relationships between offline and online selves and the problem of the self in general.

The Virtual Self as a New Media Object

Although representation of the self in the electronic environment uses the same strategies and procedures as traditional autobiography, it has specific characteristics determined by the nature of digital media. In brief, it follows the logic of new media based on the principles of numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability and transcoding (Manovich, 2001a). The virtual self as a form is, therefore, a new media object. It means that, on a material level, the common modifying operations such as copy, paste, morph, interpolate, filter, composite, etc. can be applied to it. On the level of construction, it can combine different media such as text, image, video, sound etc., and take the form of hypertext or multimedia object. Moreover, in compliance with the principle of transcoding, it can be realized as a distributed system using different media or subdomains of the same media. On the level of distribution, the difference between limited and mass distribution, as well as between individual and public distribution of the self-images, are effacing (Manovich, 2001b). The primary form of existence of the virtual self, as well as other new media objects, is a database - a collection of items of different kinds; not a narrative as was the case with traditional forms of autobiography or other self-representing genres. From the database, various competing narratives or hyper-narratives can be produced. The particular forms of self-representation such as a personal homepage, online diary or a virtual character can be considered as particular interfaces to the self as a database.

Knowledge of the formal characteristics of the virtual self, however, is not enough to understand its nature. Let us consider it now from a different perspective - as essence and function.

The ontology of virtual personality

1. Personality is the object to which qualities of the subject are ascribed.

2. Virtual personality is the object to which qualities of the subject are ascribed but the status of which is undetermined. "Virtual" here signifies neutralization of the opposition between "real" and "unreal".

3. Virtual personality differs from the real in that it has no physical body and consists exclusively of signs and actions (as well as of images, thoughts and feelings that it evokes in the psyche of the recipients). "Virtual" here is opposed to "material".

4. Virtual personality in the narrow sense is a sign complex that exists in the electronic environment that serves as a medium for these signs. However, as it has been stated above, the realization of meanings of these signs takes place in the human mind or minds. Therefore, the nature of medium and the essence should be distinguished.

5. It follows from this distinction that the electronic basis of existence of virtual personality has a secondary significance. As a medium of the signs that signify it other carriers can be used, such as stone, paper, canvas, film and so on. The human person as a material object also can be used as a medium for virtual personality. What is important is not the nature of the medium but the effect that is evoked in psyche by the corresponding sign complex. Therefore, virtual personality in the broad sense is not limited by the properties of the medium.

6. Virtual personality has two fundamental qualities:

    • proper name
    • the ability for autonomous action

All other qualities of virtual personality are derivative.


      (1) The lack of a proper name makes it impossible to differentiate the object from other objects of the same class. For example, anonymous postings to a discussion are perceived as impersonal even if they contain some original ideas and sings of individual style. On the other hand, writings of a number of people signed by the same name create the impression that they relate to the same personality. Similarly, giving a name to an inanimate object such as tree, mug or body part imparts to them personal properties. The connection of this fact with the logic of myth does not demand any comments.

      (2) If the object is inactive, it is impossible to determine whether it is object or subject, that is, its personal status is undetermined. However, since the virtual identity has its existence not only as a complex of signs in electronic or other media but also as a complex of ideas in the minds of others, it can be supported by investments of psychic energy of others, including its originator, its recipients (readers, viewers, users, etc.), and "gate-keepers" (publishers, critics, experts, etc.), and remain alive if even it does not change objectively.

      (3) If the actions of the object are determined by the influence of forces that are external in relation to it, then it acts as an object rather then a subject of the action and its personal properties are revealed negatively. The autonomous action presupposes free will. Wherein there is no free will, there is no personality. For example, postings to a forum or notes in an online diary made by a person in whose existence we have confidence are not perceived as the manifestation of a virtual personality but rather as an expression of a real person.

7. The neutralization of opposition between the real and unreal in the notion of the virtual makes virtual personality similar to the work of art. Potentially, every virtual personality is a work of art, but actually, only those of them become a work of art, which have the radiance of form (Thomas Aquinas), which is perceived directly.

8. The intrinsic properties of virtual environment such as immateriality, incorporeality and plasticity allowing the creation of images, forms and meanings make it analogous to the human mind and especially to such a manifestation of it as imagination. As it was aphoristically formulated by the author of a novel about "love, life and travels on the electronic frontier", "Cyberspace is the name we give to the human imagination when we access it via a modem" (Sinha, 1999: 130). However, there exists a principal difference between the creative act in electronically mediated communications and in other creative environments such as art and literature. It is a possibility of interactions between creatures of individual imaginations in common virtual space. As the same author rightly notes,

      Until recently we have been alone in our imagination. However vividly a play, film or book brings characters to life in our minds, we always form an audience of one. ... In cyberspace, for the first time, we create imaginary worlds which can truly be shared, in which each of us is fully present, with the power of free and spontaneous action. We no longer have to follow the script. We can play inside each other imagination. (ibid.: 131)

9. The nearest literary analogue of virtual personality in the narrow sense is character - a fictitious identity endowed by a name and the ability to take autonomous action in a fictitious environment.

Lilith, one of the characters of Indra Sinha's novel The Cybergypsies quoted above, explains to Bear, the protagonist of the novel,

      When you roleplay, you are the character... There's no script. You open your mouth and are surprised by what comes out. Your character has a life and friends of her own. You may not approve of what she gets up to, but it is not your business. We, the puppeteers, the mask-wearers, have duty not to interfere, yet we must know out characters well, as well as we know ourselves. This is hard. Most of us have only sketchiest idea of ourselves... (ibid.: 120)

Or as it is stated in the Cyber Sutra included in the novel, '[c]yber characters are true livings beings, with their own lives' (ibid.: 256).

This description bears a striking resemblance to the accounts of many writers who have stated that their characters had a kind of separate existence and independence from their creator's will. Another noteworthy similarity is the identification of the creator with its created character that is also has often noted by writers and artists. Remember, for example, Flaubert's famous phrase "Madam Bovary c'ést moi". These two aspects of relationship between the author and its characters at first sight seem contradictory. However, this contradiction can be reconciled if we take into account that "most of us have only sketchiest idea of ourselves". In the process of creating a fictitious world or participating in a virtual world, the person paradoxically acquires self-knowledge through the objectification of his or her self (or some of its aspects) in the characters he creates or plays. The creation of virtual personality, therefore, turns out to be one of the forms of the creative act as well as a way of self-knowledge.

One of the corollaries that follow from the interactive nature of virtual space is that virtual character, unlike literary character, is a product of collaboration between the participants of a virtual world. "Your character is not just your own creation. It is created and constantly re-invented by you and your partner together" (ibid.: 120).

10. Considered from the perspective of its relationships with its creator, virtual personality reveals similarity to another literary phenomenon, namely, pseudonym. Pseudonym is a fictitious or assumed name used instead of a person's real name. It can be use for both identification and concealing the identity.

On the internet, digital identity is used, for example, in the form of a user name for logging on to services or sites with limited access, in the form of the nickname in online chat and instant message messengers, and so forth. Such uses are functional; they provide an opportunity to identify a digital person while retaining his or her (relative) anonymity. Having a pseudonym is necessary but not enough for creating a virtual personality. Only when the pseudonym is endowed with a degree of autonomy (which may include a biography, specific personal traits, and creative works) it can develop into a full-fledged virtual personality.

Beyond the internet, virtual personalities have usually emerged in the framework of literary mystifications.


      (1) One of the most striking examples of a literary virtual personality is Ossian, legendary Gaelic warrior-bard of the 3rd century AD (reputedly the son of the Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhaill), the author of Ossianic ballads, published in English as translation "from Gallic or Erse language" in 1760s by James Macpherson (1736-1796). Ossian's majestic and melancholic ballads had a tremendous influence on the romantic poetry of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and inspired Scottish authors of that time to writing poetry in Gaelic in the Ossianic vein. Ossianism had become the subject of fervent controversy; many critics, including the influential Samuel Johnson, denied authenticity of his poetry and argued that it was written by Macpherson himself (even if on the basis of genuine Gaelic sources). Yet the figure of Ossian separated from its supposed creator and acquired a kind of independent life. This ambiguous status in relation to the author is a characteristic trait of a true virtual personality - it is and is not its author at the same time.

      (2) In the 19th century, a similar mystification was performed by Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870) who published in 1827 his La guzla, a forged collection of supposedly Illyrian folk songs, which became one of the sources for Pushkin's Songs of the Western Slavs published in Russian five years later. However, this double literary mystification did not lead to creation of a virtual personality because the poetry had not been ascribed to a personified author. It demonstrates the importance of a proper name for virtual personality.

      (3) Émile Ajar is, perhaps, the most famous literary mystification of the 20th century. It was a pseudonym of Romain Gary which was, in its turn, a pseudonym of Romain Kacew (1914-1980), French writer and diplomat, born in Vilna (now Vilnius), Lithuania and brought to France by his Russian mother soon after the October Revolution of 1917. Romain Gary achieved literary success in 1945 with L'education européenne, an account of the lives of Polish Resistance fighters during World War II, and received the Prix Goncourt in 1956 for Les racines du ciel that demonstrated his concern for African wildlife and balanced 'a visionary conception of freedom and justice against a pessimistic comprehension of man's cruelty and greed' (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2003). In the following years, he wrote a number of novels that mixed humour with tragedy and touched serious moral problems in a comic way. Regardless of public recognition, he felt a growing discontent with the indifference of the audience. In 1974, in the age of 60, he published Le Gros calin, a grotesque and lyrical narrative on behalf of a clerk keeping a boa constrictor as a pet in his small apartment. The novel was published under the pseudonym of Émile Ajar and become a great success. Ajar's second novel, La vie devant soi written on behalf of a small Arab boy Momo living in a clandestine kindergarten maintained by a former prostitute, old Madam Rosa, was published next year. It received the Prix Goncourt and provoked a vivid interest in the author's personality. Gary's nephew, Paul Pavlovich, was introduced to the audience as the real Émile Ajar and allusions to support this identity were made in the next Ajar novel Pseudo. Gradually Pavlovich got a taste for being a celebrity and began to blackmail Gary demanding the manuscripts of Ajar's writings. A materialized pseudonym became a threat to its originator. In 1980, the last Ajar's novel, L'Angoisse du roi Salomon, was published. In the same year Gary shot himself. In his essay La vie et la mort d'Émile Ajar, published posthumously, he wrote: 'I was banished from my possessions. Another has been settled in the mirage I created. Having been materialized, Ajar set an end to my ghostly existence in him. A vicissitude of fate: my own dream turned against myself.' Gary, for whom creativity was a synonym for transformation and who continuously fought with limitations of his "real" self, became a victim of his own creation. The virtual personality killed the real person.

11. The relationship of virtual personality with its originator is ambivalent. On the one hand, it is based on identification, at least partial, of the creator with its creation. On the other hand, however, the created identity tends to separate itself from its originator and to gain a kind of independent existence. It appears that this ambivalence is a prerequisite for a perfect virtual identity.


      If a virtual personality is entirely dependent on its originator, then its actions are determined by an external force and, therefore, under clause 6 it cannot be considered as a personality if even it possesses an individual name.

      If, on the other hand, a virtual personality becomes entirely separated from its creator, then, with the passage of time, it usually looses the ability to develop, regardless of whether it is a literary construction or a computer programme. The lack of the ability to develop prevents it from adaptation to the changing environment, which, in the final analysis, leads it to death.

12. Death of a virtual personality appears either as the physical destruction of data containing the sign complex that represents this personality (deleting data from computer memory, demolition of a grave, etc.), or as the loss of access to them (Error 404, absence of a book in the library, etc.), or as their de-actualization that causes their content to be buried in oblivion (texts which nobody reads, software which nobody uses, etc.).

The internet as a tool of self-knowledge

The internet is generally considered as a means of communication or as a stock of information, that is, its functions are defined in terms of storing, dissemination and exchanging knowledge. The use of the internet for self-knowledge and self-understanding is not so evident and has been discussed in a much less degree.

There are several possible explanations of this fact. First, only a few people are concerned with self-knowledge. This not surprising. Self-knowledge does not provide any social advantages. It is not a specialized knowledge or a "convertible skill". Therefore, it can hardly help one to earn an academic degree or find a good job. Its effects are personal, internal and have little to do with gaining social success.

Moreover, self-knowledge is an essentially asocial and anti-cultural activity. It demands withdrawal from social life and fixing one's attention on one's inner states and processes and it results in seeing the conventionality of socially shared norms and prohibitions. It naturally reduces one's dependence on social values judgments. The person who knows himself and understands his real needs and desires can hardly be a good subject for manipulation. Therefore, society that aims at maintaining homeostasis is not interested in encouraging the craving for self-knowledge in its members. Moreover, it actively opposes to the need of self-knowledge by oppressing or ridiculing it as immature or autistic.

Alan Watts claimed in 1966 that the modern Western society put "a taboo against knowing who you are". Jorn Barger, the author of a webpage about "Internet way of self-knowledge" argues that this taboo "is still in full force". He notes that "capitalism (in the broadest sense) has no use for original, authentic, self-discovering individuals, because they naturally opt out of the conformist consumer culture" (Barger, 2002). This statement clearly contradicts the thesis of theoreticians of post-industrial society about the shift of motivation from extrinsic to intrinsic ends as the essential characteristic of the new social order, but it seems to conform to direct empirical observations. In this respect (as well as in many others), the internet is only a reflection of the dominant values of its users.

However, few people does not mean none. And self-knowledge does not necessarily demands solitary confinement within one's own mind. It can be joyful and playful activity that includes communication and conviviality. The consciousness-liberating potential of the internet had been much discussed in its early stage before the processes of its privatization and commercialization began. "PC is the LSD of the 1990s, " proclaimed Timothy Leary (quoted in Dery, 1996: 22). Although being far from identifying digital revolution with psychedelic revolution, Sherry Turkle in her work on "Identity in the Age of the Internet" based on long and thorough research stated that "[t]he Internet has become a significant social laboratory for experimenting with the construction and reconstruction of self that characterize postmodern life" (Turkle, 1995: 180). This laboratory is still in operation.

Cyberspace, as we have seen, turned out to be an ideal place for playing with, if not resolving, the most puzzling cases of the problem of identity and self-knowledge discussed in religious, philosophical, psychological, and literary or science fiction works. The list of bizarre cases that reshape the assertion of identity in the form of question - and at times of a question without an answer: Who am I, actually? - includes, for example, such phenomena as doubles, golems, homunculi, replication of brain and cloning of memory, teleportation, download of consciousness into the network, existence of many bodies for the same mind or many minds in a single body. In this respect, cyberculture can be regarded as a vast realm of practical experiments, testing various concepts of personal identity - both scientific and magical - and the significance of these experiments goes far beyond the limits of cyberculture.

Cyberspace and meditation

Let us recall the first phrase of Gibson's Neuromancer: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." Here, the concept of cyberspace is introduced in a latent, symbolical form, which unfolds in the following text. Let us consider the semantic construction of this sentence in more details. Its denotation is the sky, that is, an empty space that can contain various forms, such as clouds, rainbow, or northern lights, as well as things, such as birds, planes, or a parachutist. Both classes of these phenomena are observable images and, from the point of view of the observer, there is no difference between real or illusory objects of observation. Through the rhetorical figure of comparison the sky is liken to the monitor of a TV set. The comparison is possible because the two objects in comparison have a common feature. The sentence suggests that this common feature is colour. But colour refers here a colour of a thing but rather a facture of space. The TV monitor, similarly to the sky, is an empty space that can contain visual objects. The function of the TV monitor is to display images. But the realization of this function is only possible because there is an empty space where these images can appear. The dead channel does not display images. What it does display is the facture of space itself, visible as white noise - dots of light that appear and disappear at random providing the structural possibility of images. White noise is similar to clouds in the sky, blots on paper or the surface of a magic crystal - it provides a basis for mental projections. The difference between the sky and the monitor of a TV set (or a computer) is that the first is natural, and the second is electronically generated. The first is space and the second is cyberspace. Both are basically empty and provide opportunity for mental projections. In both cases, one can concentrate either at images or at the space itself. The shift of attention from images to the space where they appear is usually called meditation. And meditation is a way of self-knowledge.

Thus, the fundamental characteristic of cyberspace, as any space, is emptiness.

The emptiness provides an opportunity for projection. In cyberspace, people can share their mental projections and to interact with each other through them. It makes cyberspace a realm of shared imagination or, as Gibson put it, "consensual hallucination".

Scrying screen

Mark Dery (1996) describes various uses of hi-tech technology for the spiritual and magical purposes in early cyberculture. A good example is Genesis P-Orridge's scrying.

Though not seduced by the computer, Genesis P-Orridge has made his peace with the machine by investing it with an animistic aura. He speaks to his PC before switching it on and keeps it swaddled in fur, which he believes maintains its "contact with the animal spirit kingdom." He and other TOPY members have also dabbled in TV magic, converting the glass teat into a crystal ball by turning it to an empty channel late at night, with the brightness and contrast all the way up - transforming an ordinary set, in effect, into a psychic TV.

"[G]et close to the screen, switch off all other lights sources and stare at the screen", instruct P-Orridge. First try [to] focus on the tiny dots that will alter along with your perceptions and you will hit a period of trance where the conscious and subconscious mind are triggered in unison be the mantric vibrations of the myriad dots. It's quite possible that the frequency and pulse rate of the TV "show" are similar to certain one generated by other rituals (e.g. Dervish dances, Tibetan magick, etc.) What we have here is a contemporary magickal ritual using the medium, in all senses of the word, of television. (Neal 1987: 32).

Staring fixedly into a crystal ball, mirror, or at any reflective surface as a mean of inducing an autohypnotic trance - and, it is believed, precognitive visions - is known as "scrying". ... Eric Davis notes that P-Orridge's use of the "idiot box" as a scrying screen is at once goofily banal, eminently practical, and triumphantly redemptive. "John Dee used a crystal ball to channel the Enochian language [the purported language of angels] and [srying] is what TV magick comes out of."

Again, the street finds its own way to uses for things. As Davis puts it, "The cyberpunk ethos has a spiritual dimension." He calls technopagan practices such as TV magic "poaching", a term borrowed from critical theory. The cultural critic Constance Penley defines poaching as the unsanctioned, idiosyncratic interpretation of books, TV shows, and other cultural texts. ... Technopagans poach on cyberculture, suggests Davis, making off with the technologies and scientific concepts that are then incorporated into a "resacralized" reenchanted worldview. In Davis's eyes, such poaching "produce a very pragmatic spirituality that involves the immediate experience of life... which lends itself much more richly to computer and computer culture [than most belief systems]. (Dery, 1996: 61-62).

Democratization of autobiography in the digital age

John Palmer (1998), of one the few who studied autobiography on the internet, has noted that 'the genre of autobiography has long been dominated by authors who hold some sort of power'. Even now the most part of print autobiographies come from politicians, business leaders, professional athletes, military heroes, religious leaders, pop stars and others who, 'in one way or another, are a part of the ruling elite. The increase of sense of individuality on all levels of society and general democratization has lead to the fact that much more people become to count themselves important. The technological revolution, especially expansion of computers and the internet, has provided a quick and cheap way to produce and distribute electronic texts, including various forms of autobiographies

Autobiography in cyberspace then uniquely defines the subject in ways not easily possible in printed media. The autobiographer seeks to construct a picture of the self that places him/herself within the context of a culture or cultures. What emerges, finally, is an autobiography that depends not on the story or stories of a person's life, although these may certainly be included, but an autobiography that offers the subject not as an isolated individual, but a part or an intricate societal network.

Essays in online self-knowledge

Speaking about self-knowledge it seems appropriate to appeal to personal experience. In what follows, I shall briefly present three projects of my own all of which employ philosophical strategy but approach the issue of self-scrutiny from divergent perspectives.

The reflected self: Search for the real and its virtual findings

The first project was called Eugene Gorny: (Re)construction of a virtual personality (Gorny, 2000) and was based on the results of ego surfing. Ego surfing is defined "scanning the net, databases, print media, etc. looking for references to one's own name" (Enzer, 1994-2003). It is quite a common activity on the internet and most users have tried it at least once. It has a meaningful function: "It is not a total waste of time as it might seem. In a while you discover that you are torn to pieces as Dionysus, and your name (as incarnation of your essence) is spread here and there in the Net. Thus, ego surfing is a search for one's dismemberments" (Gorny, 1999).

However, such experience is often considered as something almost shameful - a kind of high-tech narcissism - and usually it remains private. A few years ago, I tried to investigate opportunities for ego surfing as a means of self-knowledge. I gathered mentions of my name on the Russian net and assembled a collage out of them. The number of quotations was significant because I had been a public figure for some years and was mentioned quite often. I grouped material into ten sections such as description of appearance, character, professional activity, funny stories, dreams, and so forth, providing a link from each quotation to its original source. The resulting (hyper)text reached almost five thousand words and proved to be a very bizarre mixture of facts and perspectives. Later I defined it as "the assemblage of myself as a phantom object from the net reflections of my existence in the minds of others" (Gorny, 2000c).

It can be considered as an experiment that tried to answer at least two theoretical questions: first, to what extent the internet can be a valid source of knowledge about something or someone, and second, can the subject be described adequately "from the outside", that is, objectively? I think that that the answer to both questions should be negative. The information found on the internet is usually considered fragmented, incomplete and biased. But if even it were not so, I feel doubtful that the mechanical accumulation of information can lead to any real knowledge or understanding, especially if we deal with such subject matter as subjectivity. Then, reflection on the results of ego surfing has revealed a tremendous gap between how I know myself and how am I known by others. It seems to refute claims of such approaches to personality as social constructivism and postmodernism that personality is essentially a sum of social or textual interactions. Such theories reduce the subject to its objectifications, ignoring the fact that consciousness is not an object. Personality as a subject of conscious experience is not reducible to the roles it plays or texts by which it is described. But what is actually that subject which is reflected as object? And if it is one, then why is it manifested objectively as many? Can you get the Moon if you put together the pieces of mirror where it is reflected?

So what is the effect of ego surfing on self-knowledge? As I wrote elsewhere,

      Searching for our 'selves' (both on- and off-line), we first and foremost look for evidence of self-existence. The motivation for such a search must be hidden in a kind of a fundamental doubt (knowledge?) meaning that actually there is no ego or 'self' at all. Nevertheless, the Net and mirrors, as well as many other things give way to prove to ourselves again and again that this truth is wrong. (Gorny, 1999)

The file name of my collection of ego surfing results reflects the principal ambiguity of findings. It is "ego_net.html" and can be deciphered in opposite ways. "Ego" can be read both as a synonym for the self and as an abbreviation for my name. "Net" can be read in the sense of network or as Russian net meaning negation. The self (or myself) has been described as a distributed system and, at the same time, as something that does not exist.

This ambiguity was reflected by some critics and interpreted in terms of self-dissolution in the network. Alma Pater discussed my work on the site of Teneta, a Russian online literature contest to which my text had been nominated:

      Here is the double-purpose weapon, a weapon of liberation, though still on trial. But already in operation. A fancy collage where, say, a poem to a girl about the ontology of names alternates for some reason with restaurant episodes, portrays a personality so many-sided that these sides become smoothed away by their multiplicity - and where Eugene Gorny is? He is dissolved in fact and fables. Out of namarupa [name and form - Sanskrit] only nama has remained - but does the name has ontology? An immature mind tied with passions to the peg of ego would imagine here a dossier on itself, and urge his empty host to go and search mentions of himself in search engines - how can it be that some Gorny exists more than I do? This hunger is insatiable, and he will need to store up this hay himself, to sow and mow, in sweat, with fiery eyes, to generate virtual boys and girls writing about themselves, and to have his picture taken with a pope, to paint pictures, play music and give interviews. But it would be better to examine closely Gorny's portrait from the beginning: there is no him, as there is neither Leibov nor Lebedev [creative figures of Russian internet]. Mirrors, and the Net, and TENETA give way to prove to ourselves again and again that in fact there is no "self". (teneta.ru/2000/set_proekt/virtual_person/gb956143828400952.html)

But what is the actual relationship of the netted representation of myself weaved from other's views, opinions and stories to my real self? I am inclined to think that, in the final analysis, this image relates not to the real me but rather to my golem - an artificial creature made up out of my words, deeds, and impressions I have produced to others. Representing me for others, it does a great deal of work for me while I can do something else or do nothing. To sustain it alive I need to feed it from time to time by giving it some of my energy through public activity. However, its main food is memory and the attention of the others who think of me, or have feelings about me, or dream me in their dreams. Every public figure has its golem. Politicians or pop stars breed and cherish their golems carefully and deliberately. Long periods of the host's inactivity can lead to gradual debilitation and disintegration of its golem. If it becomes too strong, the golem can get out of hand and even turn against his creator. It is difficult to control and dangerous to meet face to face. The golem can help us to understand what we are, but to become identified with one's own golem means to lose the chance for self-knowledge.

The situated self: Symbolic situations

Another project was called "Symbolic situation" (Gorny, 2001b). It was a collection of small texts that described some experiences that I considered as significant for various reasons. The common feature of theses experiences was the elimination of the opposition between the self and the world and their impersonal nature. I called these situations symbolic and explained them in a following way:

      In a symbolical situation some things develop a special meaning for the subject, relating to his own mental states. This meaning is generated by these mental states themselves (of which the subject is, of course, under normal conditions unaware). The mentality of the subject responding to symbols is realized by him in its thingness (i.e. as "not-I"). (Gorny, 1993b)

This was an attempt to understand myself through recollecting such experiences. It corresponded with a psychoanalytical or psychedelic approach. The implied effect was an increasing psychological integrity through the process of recollection and retelling. The apparent result was a piece of literature.

The text-made self: The words of others

The last project is "The words of others" (Gorny, 2001a). It is a collection of extracts that I have made from different sources and at different times (including both texts and images). It is interactive: the user sees one quotation at a time; when he/she press the Reload button, next quotation appears at random. This project can be considered as a manifestation of postmodern theory of the narrative self, because it suggests that the self consists entirely of the fragments of the texts of others. However, I believe that the user can read the quotations in a different way - not as texts but as symbols that describe his or her own mind. The project, therefore, is a realization of the meditation approach to consciousness. As such, it can be used for psychotechnical work resulting in attaining wordless knowledge and higher states of consciousness. Discussing such a possibility I wrote: "To what extent is it possible to achieve such effect by using The Words of Others or other technological devices of the Age of Information? I believe that it is possible neither to a greater nor to a lesser extent than if we use more traditional methods and means. In the final account, the outcome of any enterprise is determined not so much by the instruments but by the person who uses these instruments." (Gorny, 2001c)


1. Self-knowledge using the internet occurs in situations when certain complexes of signs online are perceived as representing the user's self - either as an external object, that is, semiotically, or as objectification of one's inner states and structures, that is, symbolically.

2. Self-knowledge can be approached both in positive and negative ways.

3. Self-knowledge is based on the alternation of projection and introjection or, to put it otherwise, the alternation between the alienation of one's own meanings and the appropriation of meanings of others. It is a feedback loop connecting the self and the other.

4. In the process of self-knowledge the change occurs both in the set of semantic elements constituting the self and in the nature of relationships between them. The self in this process in not a static entity that precedes the act of knowing but a construction produced in the process itself. Self-knowledge, therefore, is a creative act, the object of which is how one perceives oneself.

5. Self-knowledge results in a shift of self-identification - whether a person identifies himself with a new set of meanings or he comes to the realization that any identification is illusory.


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© Евгений Горный / Eugene Gorny, 2003-2024.
© Сетевая Словесность, 2007-2024.

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