digital rhetoric

Michael Wesch on the YouTube identity and the history of whatever

Michael Wesch offers a video of an interesting talk on the construction of identity on YouTube. I was particularly attracted to two elements: his discussion of the materiality of subjective production and his investigation of "whatever." Of course, in terms of the latter, I was immediately thinking of Agamben, who doesn't come up in his talk, but will come up here in a moment.

Briefly put (watch the video for more detail), Wesch notes that "whatever" develops from

  • pre-1960s: where "whatever" means essentially "that's what I said, just with different words."
  • late 60s/70s: where whatever means "fine, we'll do it your way, but I'm not agreeing with you."
  • 80s/90s: maybe more of an intensification here in terms of disengagement, apathy, not caring. As in "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
  • Millennial: narcissistic/solipsistic  quoting South Park: "Whatever. Whatever. I'll do what I want."

Wesch moves from here into a discussion of the search for authentic identity on YouTube. Here there is a melange of what certainly appear to be very genuine attempts to connect and communicate that run from confessional to maudlin even. However, there is also a keen, self-conscious awareness of the experience of mediation, which one could certainly think of as an extension of the Freudian uncanny. There is the odd doubleness of feeling like you are alone, speaking to yourself, with the awareness that you are also speaking to an unknown, asynchronous, future audience. In some ways, this is also a variation on what Manovich had noted in The Language of New Media regarding how we have tended to view film as capturing the real, even though it obviously does not. How many takes, how much practice, and how much editing is required before one is able to produce a video that represents the authentic self?

And how should one  respond to these attempts to create identity and community?


And here I am thinking of and departing from Agamben. The YouTube video (or for that matter, the tweet or status update) is whatever it is. These events of subjectification are "authentic," inasmuch as they are material, networked events. Do they show us as we "really are"? Yes, if by that one means that we are really network effects.

So we can say. "Whatever you are, I don't care. Whatever I am, I don't care what you think." Though I don't think there's much opportunity for anything interesting to happen there. The cynical/skeptical "whatever" (as opposed to the narcicisstic/solipsistic one) suggests the belief that these subjective events are inauthentic, instead evoking a nihilistic response. Of course solipsism is a typically sophomoric reaction to nihilism. 

The journey away from nihilism and solipsism lies in the Agamben-esque recognition that whatever singularity offers a route away from essentialism and representative democracy (an issue for Wesch's talk). The coming community, it seems to me, sets aside the question of authenticity as moot. 

I can't say what kind of community let alone "democracy" might or might not emerge. I have no expectation that the general populace will move away from believing they have authentic, essential selves that can be captured and communicated through media. At the same time, I think there's an inescapable effect from the condition of networked communication where the sense of self begins to shift. In this regard, solipsism is perhaps a just a step toward a more mature encounter with the network.

One can always hope.

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