Distraction Free Reading

Portending the Posthuman on YouTube

During this most spooky time of year, it is apropos to explore our transmogrification into posthumanity—a concept that instills fear in the hearts of many scholars, including many anthropologists, who are especially afraid that exploring this terrain precipitates the end of their discipline. For humanities studies scholar Rosi Braidotti (2013: 5), there is an “undeniably gloomy connotation to the posthuman condition, especially in relation to genealogies of critical thought.” In her view, our lack of theorization of posthuman subjectivity has brought us into a “zombified landscape of repetition without difference and lingering melancholia” (Braidotti 2013: 5). To be honest, I share numerous concerns about posthumanist claims and their implications. However, whether widespread posthuman-phobia is warranted remains to be explored.

The posthuman is admittedly a slippery concept that postmodern literary critic Katherine Hayles (1999) characterizes as a “point of view.” In her highly influential analysis, embodiment in a biological vessel is one way in which consciousness—merely one type of informational pattern—may be stored. A key attribute for Hayles is the idea that human beings may be “seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines,” such that boundaries between bodies, data, and machines are not meaningfully discernable. From the perspective of postmodernism, feminism, science and technology studies, and actor network theory, this is not an entirely new idea. Nevertheless, privileging information over human bodies takes center stage in many posthuman frameworks. Whether one believes posthumanity long-ago arrived or is looming on the horizon, scholars agree that like “animals” (Levi-Strauss 1963) and “computers” (Turkle 1984), the specific connotations of “posthuman collectives” are “good to think with” (Whitehead and Wesch 2012; Lange 2019).

Posthumanism has many different connotations, ranging from the idea of a single super consciousness to a collective in which numerous individual entities—including the human and non-human—synergistically co-exist. The present discussion is concerned with the latter variety. In this post, I explore whether YouTube, when used in social ways, might be considered a site of the posthuman, and if so, whether this ushers us into a house of horrors or provides a sense of calming comfort.

Posthumanity on YouTube

The specter of posthumanity understandably sends shivers down scholarly spines given its many discomforting connotations and implications. Hayles (1999) brilliantly draws on speculative science fiction to illustrate how individual bodies may be subsumed under the posthuman’s spell. In one tale, human identities rage against being absorbed into a collective, quite against their will. Whether for good or for ill, they feel their individual humanity is eaten way. Even for scholars who professionally question the phantasms of individualism, subjectivity, and identity, it is a frightening thought to feel that we may be absorbed into a collective that enpuppets us to do things that conflict with our values, unique spirits, and basic humanity.

Photo by: Paul Sapiano

My book, Thanks for Watching: An Anthropological Study of Video Sharing on YouTube (University Press of Colorado, 2019) illustrates in multiple ways how video sharing supports—and sometimes complicates—sociality, as well as varied notions of the posthuman. The book at times provides distressing illustrations of how YouTube as a site of identity representation can complicate an ability to properly assert the self through videos. Seen in a Latourian (2005) human-machine “assemblage” vein, one is inevitably interconnected to other forces that influence identity construction. In one case study, a YouTuber saw his videos remixed in hurtful ways that made it appear as though he was being anti-Semitic. This distressed him, and his efforts to have the videos removed from YouTube reportedly went unheeded. Identity was manipulated through a socio-technologized collective in a deeply integrated but violative way. If, as postmodernists and computer scientists suggest, information is the essence of reality, then it is understandably disturbing to see one’s videos—and public representation of identity—as distorted beyond self-recognition.

At the same time, it is perhaps useful to bone up on other scholarly connotations of the posthuman that have been observed in the anthropological record and on YouTube. Writing from the perspective of humanities studies, Rosi Braidotti (2013) sees posthumanism as an important critique of the violative ways in which secular Humanism has been deployed to create a radically individual yet universal, rational subject that is imbricated in the project of colonialism. Braidotti (2013: 48) looks to posthumanism to engage in a “re-enchantment of the world” such that interconnected collectives do not merely reactively bond through mutual vulnerability amid the ravages of scientific and technological exploitation, but who “affirmatively” embrace their interconnections in ways that stimulate “affection” and “care.”

Collective affirmations of support appeared for the man whose videos were hatefully remixed. He told me that after experiencing harassment, he was ready to quit YouTube, even though he initially enjoyed participating and practicing his video making skills on the site. He said that he made an angry farewell video, only to have “saner heads” prevail and urge him to remain. Saner heads may arguably be described as entities in a video making collective that constitutes YouTube. Viewers urged him to stay and contribute his unique voice, reaffirming his importance to the collective. In this model, it is the distinctiveness of his contribution that is valued.

Rhythms of the Posthuman

Thanks for Watching also draws on the rhythm analysis rubric developed by sociologist Henri Lefebvre (2004) to analyze “arrhythmias,” or moments when cultural and behavioral rhythms—in this case those between video producers and audiences—fall out of sync. In one case study, viewers observed that a video maker had not made videos at his usual pace. The heartbeat of his videos was interrupted in a way that disturbed his fans. Monitoring others online illustrates what Tufekci (2012: 40) has termed “grassroots surveillance.” Of course, surveillance has always been a double-edged sword, unpredictably alternating between connotations of manipulative control and protection. The proliferation of online photographs, tagging, and other technical mechanisms enable viewers to closely watch and track people acting and interacting across their social collectives. On YouTube, viewers can often detect the pulse of video postings. In this case, viewers expressed concern for the video maker, who seemed to have disappeared from the video-making collective. In response to his viewers’ concerns, the video maker posted a video in which he assured everyone that all was well and that he had merely taken a break due to having the flu. Fearing that such a disruption in pacing would make him fall out of the YouTube algorithm’s promotional rankings and visibility, he called on viewers to help “beat the algorithm” by watching and forwarding his videos. In this example, the video maker believed that members of the YouTube collective could counter-act the technical affects that resulted when he needed to take a human break!

Photo by: Petr Kratochvil

Braidotti’s hopeful vision of a future posthumanity existing in a collective of diversity striving to achieve acceptance and care has obviously not seamlessly materialized on YouTube, given its commercial tensions, harassers, and the numerous challenges one finds in a socio-technical assemblage. Braidotti is extremely critical of the idea of “individualism,” due to its self-centered connotations and the way a model of a universal and supposedly enlightened actor has been deployed in the projects of violative “othering” and colonialism. Still, when she speaks of a more affirmative notion of a multi-ethnic posthumanism that experiences joy and care from others, surely this acknowledges the assertion of each entity’s right to experience and express a form of respected personhood. While utopian visions of posthumanity will likely always be, as Hayles predicts, “improbably realized,” perhaps we can nevertheless acknowledge that glimmers exist of positive types of posthumanity. On YouTube, these notions rely on a dynamic in which each “self” finds expression and is appreciated by co-members of a video-driven collective. Entities—both human and non-human—combine to monitor the video heartbeat of creators, and people express care and concern when a creator’s video pulse is arrhythmically and mysteriously disrupted. Whitehead and Wesch (2012) suggest that perhaps anthropologists are uniquely suited to acknowledge and analyze how individual and perhaps marginalized voices struggle to assert themselves not just within one universalizing swath of posthumanity, but rather amid a kaleidoscope of “posthumanisms” that are multiple, complex, and worthy of ethnographic exploration.


References

Braidott, Rosi. 2013. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hayles, N. Katherine. 1999. How We Became Posthuman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lange, Patricia G. 2019. Thanks for Watching: An Anthropological Study of Video Sharing on YouTube. Louisville, CO: University Press of Colorado.

Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Lefebvre, Henri. 2004. Rhythmanalysis. London: Continuum.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1963. Totemism, translated by Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon Press.

Tufekci, Zeynep. 2012. “We Were Always Human.” In Human No More: Digital Subjectivities, Unhuman Subjects, and the End of Anthropology, ed. Neil L. Whitehead and Michael Wesch, 33-47. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Turkle, Sherry. 1984. The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. New York: Simon
& Schuster.

Whitehead, Neil L., and Michael Wesch. 2012. “Introduction.” In Human No More: Digital Subjectivities, Unhuman Subjects, and the End of Anthropology, ed. Neil L. Whitehead and Michael Wesch, 1–10. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

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