The Monstrous Intimacy of the Online Self

In his 1967 book The Accursed Share, Georges Bataille makes the provocative claim that the main struggle of humanity is not how to carefully manage scarcity but how to consume excess energy, “translated into the effervescence of life”.1 In other words: “it is not necessity but its contrary, ‘luxury’, that presents living matter and mankind with their fundamental problems.”2 Necessity is a feeling experienced by individuals or partial groups based on temporary urgencies, but it is not a condition of life on Earth at large. To prove this, Bataille points to a variety of phenomena, including festivals, monuments, convenience, and leisure, but ultimately, his most convincing argument centres on war.

Excess energy is characterised by two factors: one is the constant creation and elaboration of new ways of wasting resources, and the other is the limited amount of space in which to do so. The evolution of the earliest lifeforms into photosynthesising organisms, herbivores, carnivores, and finally humans—with growing inefficiency at each stage of the food chain—is one way that this abundance was channeled over billions of years. In turn, humans bypassed the slow mechanism of genetic evolution by applying abundant resources to the accelerated improvement of technology. War is thus a disturbingly elegant solution to the question of excess energy expenditure: it mobilises societies to create fantastic new inventions with which to wreak destruction and later to rebuild. While modern industry cloaks itself under the fairytale of efficiency and rationality, the military-industrial complex is rather candid about its spectacular and novel manifestations of power and ingenuity. It is only after war has ended, and the control of finite land has been renegotiated, that profligate technologies—from the spaceship to the Internet—are domesticated in the context of consumer entertainment.

The Internet is a paradigm of extravagant energy consumption. From the mid-1990s until the dot-com bubble, for most casual users, the Internet made no claim to being anything but a self-gratifying use of time and electricity. Pornography made its debut almost immediately. Chatrooms, in particular, facilitated conversation without any societal utility between people who would almost certainly never meet in real life. Personal websites helped international communities to form around unusual hobbies and new narrative and discursive frameworks, from celebrity fan-fiction to gossip forums. File-sharing software distributed unfathomable quantities of film and music. Even Facebook started as a platform for American college students to find new ways to have casual hook-ups with one another. In that era, the notion of the online self—as something inextricably linked to the physical body, tied up in systems of control, and characterised by complexity and psychological depth—was rather nebulous. For the most part, going online seemed to assume a default state of anonymity. The playful invention of usernames and alter-egos alluded to the self-aware performance of a fictional persona whose appearance, way of speaking, and enthusiasms had no connection to one’s offline identity and were not seriously considered to be coextensive with it.3

Today, that situation is unrecognisable—today, when a growing proportion of our lives are conducted online, when almost every digital action requires a user login which can be easily aggregated into a composite profile of social media accounts, email addresses, phone numbers, WiFi connections, search histories, DNA sequences, images, career listings, geotags, credit scores, criminal records, purchase histories, dating profiles, and life events from marriage and pregnancy to illness and death. What’s more, this automated assembly of the self is not simply a qualitative identifier of a unique user but a commodity in its own right—the raw material for companies and governments to mine for data, subject to predictive analysis, and control through automated systems and targeted advertising. In that light, it seems timely to investigate the contemporary condition of the self within the matrix of pervasive, intelligent, and interconnected technologies, as well as its future possibilities.

It is tempting, perhaps, to think that this is a rather trivial concern. The “online self”, like AirSpace and battery life, could easily be dismissed as a “first world problem”, if it is a problem at all. The intractable crises of the present day—xenophobia, polarisation, climate change, exploitation, disenfranchisement—have existed for thousands of years, and were no less formidable in more primitive technological contexts. In the absence of any real threat of persecution, worrying about the online self in the 21st century—like anomie in the late-19th century and existential nihilism in the mid-20th century—seems like a privileged indulgence for the leisure class. But let us consider another possibility: what if the online self is not simply the latest version of an age-old epistemological quandary? What if the Internet and its myriad applications have generated a completely new self that, for the first time in human history, is delinked from the operating rules and limitations of economy, culture, and religion?

The online self is vexing to the degree that it appears to destabilise and diverge from a widely accepted contemporary understanding of the self, a concept dismantled by the atrocities of modern war and reformulated under the aegis of secular neoliberal global powers. These nations fold the self into the narrative of capitalism in which, Bataille claims, the “relatively free man of stable societies…tends to confuse gentleness with the value of life, and life’s tranquil duration with its poetic dynamism…misled by what it takes for full humanity, that is, humanity at work, living in order to work without ever fully enjoying the fruits of its labour.”4 The ability to delay consumption through rational thinking, humility, and self-denial in anticipation of future gain works in two ways: for the rich, it is the real mechanism of capital gain on property and financial assets; for the poor and middle-class, it is the mythology that compels them to work in perpetuity. But the rich are also subject to the moral judgments of this mythology. Our society valorises wealth in terms of its actual or representative utility—its ability to generate its own profit as interest or its indication of entrepreneurial productivity—but it vilifies the consumption of wealth. The public display of extravagant spending is taken as a sign of moral deficiency.

Nevertheless, this rhetoric of the self cannot give us a satisfying account of the online self. On the contrary, we struggle with the online self because it makes Bataille’s theory of excess all the more compelling. In its irreducibility to standard ethical and economical calculations, the online self may be the prototype for a fully realised self that could never come to fruition in modern society. From that perspective, the question of the online self demands examination because it is not confined to rich Westerners, because it will only become more important in time as the human population grows and is cyclically saturated with new networked technologies. Obviously, the Internet is part of “real life” and the online self is thus plagued by the familiar challenges: discrimination and exploitation remain impervious to neoliberal progress and flourish online, while digital surveillance grows more invasive and commodifying. And yet, the online self has unique qualities that mark it out as a new hypothetical unknown. There are three reasons why—related to subjecthood, psychology, and mathematics.

First, part of our anxiety about the online self can be ascribed to the sheer quantity of selves who demonstrate their existence hundreds of times per day through digital traces. This condition is shockingly new, and not only because of the spread of networked devices and the billions of views, likes, and comments they enable. More importantly, the self as subject is abundant on the Internet, whereas it has kept artificially scarce under feudalism, colonialism, and industrial capitalism. “One’s self” implies an emancipated subject that cannot be possessed by another or delegitimated through law or power. Slavery and labour exploitation, according to Bataille, rely on a belief in rationality and production shared by slave and owner or worker and employer, reducing both from subjects to things. “The slave is a thing for the owner; he accepts this situation which he prefers to dying; he effectively loses part of his intimate value for himself…slavery brings into the world…the separate positing of each thing, reduced to the use that it has.”5 This principle is clearly still at work today, but the online self obeys different rules: while the enslaved individual cannot be recognised as a subject, marginalised populations—from the minimum-wage labourer to the undocumented migrant—are as valuable as any user to network providers and social media corporations. Amazon may not recognise its warehouse workers as employees entitled to job protection and benefits, but it is happy to give them user accounts as customers.

Second, the online self resists explanations based on modern psychology’s definition of the self. Psychoanalysis assumes a unity of self made self-evident by the limits of a physical body, and interprets any anomalies in a unified and socially-sanctioned personality—from sexual taboos to inexplicable changes in affect—as symptoms of unresolved trauma emerging from the unconscious. The underlying implication is that living as a fragmented self is incompatible with the social structures that offer normative pathways towards feelings of belonging, companionship, personal growth, and satisfaction in adulthood. In contrast, the Internet offers the possibility for a single body to perform a multitude of online selves and avatars, with distinct personalities and interests, among communities ranging from the mainstream masses to the impossibly niche. Pursuing uncommon interests and sexual tastes may have posed a social risk to the late 19th- and early 20th-century bourgeoisie, but it is comparatively (though not entirely) easy and safe for Internet users today, and—in some communities—increasingly normalised as an expression of free will and individuality (and increasingly commodified, as one might expect).

Third, as an immaterial and usually free product of network platforms, the online self is not governed by the limiting factors posed by money, space, material, or energy. To encourage frictionless interaction, online platforms remove any hint of complexity, obligation, or cost from the process of creating a user account. Since these platforms are based on an economy of ad views and data collection and assessed financially based on user growth and engagement, a user with multiple accounts may be even more valuable. On the other hand, many online accounts are designed to be incredibly fluid: usernames can be altered instead of creating a new account, and they can be used simultaneously. Furthermore, to foster user retention, many platforms offer the possibility to deactivate and reactivate accounts at any moment. These technical specificities mean that a composite online self can vacillate quickly and reversibly, unaffected by the logistical factors that would make it expensive, inconvenient, or simply impossible for an offline, real-world identity. In its rejection of basic arithmetic principles, the online identity is hard for us to conceptualise, and even harder to judge based on deeply ingrained moral and ethical codes.

As a synthesis of these qualities, the online self seems to embody Bataille’s theory of excess in a surprising variety of ways. It grows in complexity, resolution, and novel capabilities without the slightest pretence of need or utility. Bataille’s “three luxuries of nature: eating, death and sexual reproduction” can be reimagined as the squandering of energy through pyramid schemes of likes and followers, the dramatic account deletions and short-lived engagement with new platforms, and the endless variation and recombination of idiosyncratic phrases and personal images of user profiles across different online spaces. And, as in the decadent and senseless destruction towards which energy is channeled in war, when the technology of the digital apparatus advances too quickly, it uses its surplus potential on its own users in spectacular and violent ways disguised as the latest upgrade. Perhaps, our anxiety about the online self is heightened because we are somehow conscious that this technology is evolving rapidly even if its manifestations are either hidden from us or beyond our powers of comprehension (and sometimes beyond those of their developers). We sense not only that this surplus exists and increases but also that it will not submit to the fictional rationalisation that was previously applied to material wealth.

For Bataille, the concept of freedom is limited by a sense of justice to the “lackluster and neutral appearance of existence subjected to the necessities…not a dangerous breaking-loose…a guarantee against the risk of servitude, not a will to assume those risks without which there is no freedom.”6 To the same extent, the self deprived of subjecthood is but a poor imitation. The online self, with its resilient (even virulent) assertion to subjecthood, is a different matter. But what does Bataille’s theory of excess predict about its character?

The world of the subject is the night: that changeable, infinitely suspect night which, in the sleep of reason, produces monsters. I submit that madness itself gives a rarefied idea of the free ‘subject’, unsubordinated to the ‘real’ order and occupied only with the presentIf I am no longer concerned about ‘what will be’ but about ‘what is’, what reason do I have to keep anything in reserve? I can at once, in disorder, make an instantaneous consumption of all that I possessAnd if I thus consume immoderately, I reveal to my fellow beings that which I am intimatelyEverything shows through, everything is open and infinite between those who consume intensely. But nothing counts then; violence is released and it breaks forth without limits

This description is an uncanny premonition of the online self in some key respects—the Internet certainly seems to brings out the monsters in people posting on fringe subreddits, and its various manifestations from Tinder to Ubereats attest to the mindset of instantaneous gratification—but the online self is not exactly free from concern for the future. While Snapchat pioneered a framework of ephemerality that other apps were quick to replicate, what we view as disappearing content is still methodically archived and mined for data on the private servers of platform companies. The combination of illusory transience, comprehensive archiving, and increasingly sophisticated optimisation and prediction algorithms obligates us to reconsider the liberation of the self online.

Is this monstrous, hedonistic, unfiltered, and violent intimacy real, or is it an intoxicating screen for a newer and subtler form of ideological and technical control? It is noteworthy that the greatest fears about the online self revolve around the notions of privacy and free will. The former suggests that the interiority of the individual human is a kind of possession to be guarded at all costs; the latter implies that artificial intelligence dehumanises us to the extent that it mimics or replaces our idiosyncrasy and the sanctity of the human “spirit”. But to embody the online self with the aim of real emancipation, we may have to abandon the belief that it is a discrete matter for each of us in our distinctiveness from the mass of the other. The infinite number and manifestation of online selves made viable by advancing technology may already invalidate our faith in uniqueness in terms of statistical probability. But we will also need a new ethics of collective intimacy that is not based on atomised human identity. Let us take Bataille’s advice to be courageous in developing a new perspective: “To solve political problems becomes difficult for those who allow anxiety alone to pose them. It is necessary for anxiety to pose them. But their solution demands at a certain point the removal of this anxiety.”7

  1. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, New York: Zone Books, 1988, p. 10
  2. Ibid. p. 12
  3. The archetype of the Internet troll is a representative example: named after a mythical creature, its inflammatory and aggressive online behaviour is generally assumed to be at odds with a meek and unassuming real-life personality. Online communities tend to ignore the troll rather than make any attempt to socialise it, assuming that the user will eventually kill off the character.
  4. Bataille, p. 45–46
  5. Ibid. p. 56–57
  6. Ibid. p. 38
  7. Ibid. p. 14