Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Compromised Reality in 'Jews and the Imperial State'

I've spent a fair amount of wordspace discussing topics related to augmented reality, especially how the current digital wave of augmentation can be informed by analyzing the impact of textual augmentation in the pre-digital era.  As someone who studies Russian history, I find investigating the question of how textual practices altered perceptions of reality especially interesting.  The tsarist government, over the three hundred years of its rule, held a fascination with documentation that rivaled any Western European power.  And just like Western Europe, tsarist authorities recognized the power documenting subjects of the realm could bring to their grander designs of glory and empire.  However, unlike the powers of Western Europe, one problem that chronically plagued tsarist ambitions was lack of available manpower.  If Russian authorities wanted to build a foucauldian gaze of panoptic power, they had to make compromises in order to do so.  Eugene Avrutin's Jews and the Imperial State: Identification Politics in Tsarist Russia describes the effects of this compromise by analyzing Imperial efforts to document Jewish identity.  His work sheds light on how we might better understand the interplay between textual dualist conceptions of identity and the augmented reality those conceptions measured up against.

"While Jews could be easily identified visually as a collective group or defined in legal terms, authorities found it much more challenging to document Jews as individuals," writes Avrutin, as he later identifies three factors that contributed to this problem.  First, building " a legal-administrative order capable of accommodating the empire's remarkable juridicial distinctions and confessional diversity", second "the ordering of clear and distinct cultural boundaries between Jews and non-Jews" and third "containment of Jews in their permanent places of residence."  During the first half of the 19th century, Russian authorities found it increasingly difficult to accurately document a population under once satisfactory categories of social estate and religious belief.  By turning away from census records towards passports, city censuses, and metrical books in the second half of the 19th century, the ruling regime began to rely more heavily on ethnic conceptions of identity for categorizing and policing diverse subjects.  Passports were handy for regulating internal movement of populations.  In contrast with empire-wide census efforts, city censuses were far easier to carry out and contained very valuable information on the inhabitants of urban centers.  According to Avruitn, it was use of the metrical books that constituted a novel method in documenting the legal status of a subject.

Photo from Rude Cactus
Metrical books recorded the births, baptisms, marriages and deaths that occurred in a community and their maintenance fell to clergymen who acted as an intermediary between state and subject.  Since 1722, when Peter the Great issued his first statute on registering vital events, clergymen of the Russian Orthodox Church kept records of their confessional community, but it wasn't until 1835 that Jewish 'crown rabbis' also found themselves in charge of performing the same tasks.  Avrutin states that, "the recording of vital events allowed the state to recognize the population not only as a religious community but as individuals with distinct civil identities."  This approach, using functionaries of religious faiths as proxies for civil servants in record-keeping tasks, possessed several advantages in the eyes of Russian authorities.  Not only did the state find a way to augment its often meager presence amongst diverse populations across the empire, but it also felt that the information it received from religious authorities was more 'accurate' and complete than otherwise could be attained from trained civil servants.  Unlike census records, which collected data primarily for tax use and military conscription quotas, metrical books delineated identity by acting as a record of an individuals denomination, legal status, ethnic origin and place of residence.  Yet the regime also knew how fickle and prone to error record keeping could be, particularly with the Jewish community in the matter of transliterating Hebrew names to Russian or when rabbis recorded different names for birth and death records.

Over the course of five chapters, Avrutin makes a very compelling analysis come to life with several examples drawn from the multitude of records and archives surveyed.  The footnotes alone are worth reading, as they bring the somewhat narrow focus of the work (Jewish populations) into line with the larger backdrop of imperial record keeping practices across the empire.  As a work of Imperial Russian History, I give Jews and the Imperial State high marks.  Instead of performing a more standard review, I would like to spend the remainder of this post exploring a theme I mentioned above- the interplay between textual dualism and augmented reality.  While never using such terms, Avrutin nevertheless provides intriguing examples that demonstrate how these modes of perceiving reality clashed and modified the terms by which the Imperial Russian state understood the meaning of identity.

Bexley police in the UK hold up fake ID cards
Take this observation by Avrutin on the metrical books in the chapter 'Making Jews Legible':
As a fundamental marker of identity, the document (a metrical book entry) followed individuals as they changed place of residence, marital status, and even religious denomination.  The document's civic importance- as the most important tool by which the state obtained knowledge of its population- ensured that officials took much time in enforcing proper registration while continuing to devise new administrative methods to improve record-keeping practices.
By placing so much importance upon an interpretation of reality as espoused by the document, a textual construction of identity, the Imperial Russian government essentially cultivated a textual dualist position with regards to individual identification.  The individual and the gaze the state held on that individual became separated under this interpretation of reality.  When the two differed, as could be the case if a rabbi transliterated a Hebrew name into Russian or if an individual used a Russified version of a Hebrew name in everyday life, then the individual in question would find themselves in an asynchronous conflict between the reality of the lived identity and the identity recorded in the book.  This could prove advantageous, as when Jews resisted being conscripted into the Imperial Army on claims of confused identity, or it could prove a hindrance, as when Jews sought to prove to Imperial authorities that their sons who died in infancy could not fulfill the call for conscription.  There was also the issue of gendered imbalance found in the metrical books, as many crown rabbis did not usually attend a females naming ceremony- the designated time when registration of births occurred.  Avrutin notes that omission of birth registration of females led not only to difficulties for said females as they grew up and began to interact with the social and legal system of the empire, but also to a statistical myth that among Jewish communities a gendered imbalance skewed towards males existed.  Again, the textual dualist conception of reality found in the metrical books, the primary conduit for the state to exercise its documentary gaze, often encountered asynchronous contradictions when individuals operating in an augmented reality conception of reality (which could be said to contain both oral and textual knowledge) disputed the record at hand.

Photo by Awed Job
However, as is often the case with documentary power, a record can be amended thus ameliorating asynchronous conflict between the lived reality of the individual and document that purports to know vital characteristics of the individual.  But true to its absolutist form, the Russian government placed severe restrictions on making changes to recorded events in the Jewish metrical books.  To correct a mistake, crown rabbis were forced to submit petitions in order to receive an exemption and be allowed to amend the records.  Even if interested Jewish parties sought to correct the official record through legal efforts, Avrutin states that the courts would rule that they did not have the legal authority to mandate a change in the official record (as that would be the prerogative of the absolutist central government, embodied in the tsar).  "For the imperial government, a change in the document- however small or inconsequential it may have appeared- undermined the integrity of the entire record-keeping system'"  This insight by Avrutin describes the Russian authorities proclivity to inject absolutist content into the documents used to identify and surveil the population.  While the imperial regime desired to harness the power of individual documentation, inability to consistently maintain a disciplinary apparatus (like those produced in Western Europe and examined by Foucault in his analysis of power) forced authorities to adopt a conception of reality based on stable (to them) textual dualist notions over a more chaotic (for them) augmented reality conception.  This limited the Russian governments ability to integrate religious and cultural differences into its own sense of imperial identity.  As the individual and the gaze held on that individual through documentary power increasingly diverged, the asynchronous conflicts between textual dualist identity and augmented reality identity grew to greater and greater proportions.

While Avrutin's work looks only at a particular group within the multi-ethnic Russian empire, the Jews, it does a superb job of examining how "knowledge-based technologies" impacted the conception of identity at both the individual and panoptic-authoritative level.  I believe that further examination of Imperial Russian use of these 'knowledge-based technologies' could benefit from using a conceptual framework that puts central the conflict between textual dualism and augmented reality in establishing the veracity of the individual.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Can There Really Be Identity Stasis?

Yesterday I read an interesting piece titled 'Mechanisms of Stasis in Identity Prosumption' by Jenny Davis on the equally interesting Cyborgology blog, from which I have drawn many sources of inspiration for my own work.

Davis sought to disentangle "the liberating and constraining potential of digitally enabled identity prosumption" in her post, arguing that the increasing prominence of 'nonomous online environments' force participants to pursue increasingly accurate representations of self that ultimately result in 'identity stasis' due to the moral imperative such authenticity (or rather the specter of being called out for in-authenticity) demands.  This moral imperative is found on both the individual and cultural level, presenting unique challenges for either side.  Engaging in "digitally enabled identity prosumption' requires both sides to "overcome the challenge of lateral surveillance and pervasive documentation", with the individual additionally tasked to find a path towards a more abundant identity construction potential while the cultural must seek to do provide the same abundance in the potential for categorical construction.  This task is not easy, according to Davis, as paradoxically the pursuit of 'abundant potential' through digital prosumption often leads to a decrease in fluidity and tendency to resort to identity stasis, be it through the need to have historical layers of 'status updates' displayed in Facebook congeal or through institutionalization of a culture prompted by categorization and normalization inherent in the documenting process.

Despite provisos that "identity negotiation…is a continuous process" and that "digital technologies…facilitate the acquisition of new identities both interpersonally and culturally", Davis asserts that once these identities engage in the act of digital prosumption their progression towards stasis is all but certain as the very categories the identities create trap those who created them.
I agree with Davis in the need to examine the prosumption of identity both on the front and back end.  The issues raised by her investigation ask important questions of new processes now being integrated into the constructions of the self.  Yet, I cannot believe fully in the idea that digital prosumption of identity triggers mechanisms of stasis.  My objections lie in two areas.  First, while both the individual and the cultural are increasingly interacting with 'nonomous online environments' their moral imperative for authenticity does not solely occur in the digital realm because, second, the representations of the self as seen through the new Facebook 'Timeline' or documentation of a culture via Wikipedia or Newspaper articles are, at best, snapshots of a highly mobile identity potential or, at worst, Soma filled idealizations of the self that are as authentic of the creator as the shadows cast from the forms found outside Plato's cave.

Take the Facebook 'Timeline', a much talked about user interface that the pre-eminent social network recently debuted.  Just as it sounds, the 'Timeline' chronologically organizes your status updates, photos, events, etc… in order to give the once various islands of data a more human-friendly narrative form.  Davis uses this change in interface as an example demonstrating the limiting potential digital prosumption of identity, represented by the sum total of events displayed in the 'Timeline', forces upon the individual as they strain to maintain a verifiable authentic self that gives coherence to what is and what can be displayed.  But if we maintain the belief that our digital activities intermesh with our physical activities, it seems lopsided to say that only the digital maintains a say in the authentication of the self.  Augmented Reality demands that information- in this case ascertaining the validity of authenticity driven by moral imperative- flows between and amongst both physical and digital realms.  I can accept the influence of the digital only if the physical is given equal measure.

Intersection of influence found in Augmented Reality
Of course, there is no denying that activity on Facebook, in addition to other means of digital reflection or documentation, possesses discernible influence on the activity of the physical.  But I would be cautious of making claims of authenticity based on Facebook posts, as often those posts are what I would term 'highlights' of one's day or thought.  There is a strong disincentive to post anything with a negative alignment, not only because it provides a strong contrast to the general commentary of unbearable lightness many willingly display but also because the very architecture of Facebook itself rewards positive commentary via ranking algorithms tied to 'Likes' and comments produced.  No one posts photos of their difficult moments of solitude, at least not to any great degree.  If an integral part of digitally enabled prosumed assemblage of identity relies on documentation of, or anchoring to, activity of the physical, then we cannot put full confidence in an interpretation that does not account for the sum total of the augmented experience.

But even if we grant digital prosumption platforms like Facebook power of total documentation, there is another reason why solely relying on one sphere of activity to explain the results of an augmented reality is not sufficient to enable detection of 'stasis mechanisms'.  Status updates, photos, comments on blog posts, even 'Likes' are essentially one-off snapshots of the self expressed at that moment.  If we took a chronologically-close cluster of these one-off moments captured, patterns of continuity and correlation would no doubt be detectable.  Under the right conditions one might even be able to witness the digital prosumption process underway in shaping identity.  But if we took a chronologically-distant gathering of moments there would most likely appear very discernible differences in disposition or tastes, to name only a few qualities, marking the change of identity over time.  While Facebook posts might act as a milepost on the road of life, they do little to tell you the grade of asphalt or bumpiness encountered along the way. 

If it appears that I am working to discredit the role of Facebook and other digital prosumption platforms in identity, I do so not to eliminate its presence all together in the digital prosumption of identity but rather to place it within appropriate terms so that its effects are not overstated.  To be fair, Davis does leave room in her analysis of digital prosumption of identity to allow for escape from identity stasis, although only obliquely, in stating that the abundance of identity categories do not inescapably trap one in the categories constructed.  Yet how one escapes the prohibitive obstacles of lateral surveillance and pervasive documentation, mentioned by Davis as the challenges "digitally enabled identity prosumption must overcome", is largely left unaddressed.  It is my belief that the framework of ‘mobility potentials’ can answer questions presented by potential activation of 'stasis mechanisms'.  Not only does 'mobility' point the way towards a more fully reckoned account of the various interactions occurring in our larger augmented reality, but it can also uncover why claims of 'identity stasis', or really any stasis at all, simply cannot be true.

Let's take a look at 'digitally enabled identity prosumption' under the mobility potential framework, beginning with the type of mobility potentials created by posting entries on the Facebook 'Timeline'.  When anyone uploads a status update, photo or makes a comment on Facebook, they are engaging in documentation of low mobility potentials.  Knowledge constructs with low mobility potential, by their very nature, engage in little change through the act of transmission.  The photo you post will look the same to anyone who views it, regardless of when they view it.  The same applies to status updates and the like- the act of transmitting that update will do little to change the composition of that update.  Now it is entirely possible that someone will view your photo or update, internalize its content, and then create their own response.  'Mobility' states that the low mobility status update is transmitted to the mind of the viewer which acts as a transition point for the transformation of the low mobility knowledge (status update) into high mobility knowledge represented by thought-reaction (response to status update).  This reaction is then transformed into a low mobility construct (posting one's response to status update) that is registered by Facebook.

What makes Facebook so valuable, in a mobility perspective, is that it allows production (or prosumption) of low mobility constructs anchored to our everyday events to occur in a very rapid manner, reducing the asynchronous effects personal documentation (to name a single documentary mode) often encountered in eras before digital communication networks existed. (And in places where the digital wave of augmentation has yet to fully permeate, one can see these asynchronous effects occurring more often- especially in claims of identity) This reduction of asynchronicity is what provides the illusion of 'pervasive documentation'- when it becomes extremely easy to create low mobility 'mileposts' of one's life it can appear as though the definition of self consists solely of low mobility constructs, thus achieving the perceived effects of a 'stasis mechanism'.

But in an augmented reality perspective, we must accept that other low and high mobility constructs encountered by the individual (reading a book or editing a wikipedia entry, respectively) in both the physical and the digital world alters that individuals activity in both spheres.  A person might have a conversation, compelled by the moral imperative to authenticate, discussing the finer points of their belief when presented with a fact, or argument, that proves persuasive and forces them to alter the presumptions upon which rest their identity.  Or they might read a book, or blog post, and decide that a new perspective should be included in the constellation of ideas that go into making an identity.  If anything, digital prosumption reduces the asynchronous effects between the self's actualization in forming identity and the projection of that identity in an augmented reality.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Short Thoughts on 'Gutenberg Galaxy'

I just finished reading Marshal McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy in preparation for an abstract I'm planning to submit to the Theorizing the Web 2012 Conference, and there was a line of argumentation brought up in the work I wanted to discuss.  It comes from a quote McLuhan selected from James Frazer's Golden Bough for its commentary on the accelerating effect literacy and visuality introduced to the oral world:
"Compared with the evidence afforded by living tradition, the testimony of ancient books on the subject of early religion is worth very little.  For literature accelerates the advance of thought at a rate which leaves the slow progress of opinion by word of mouth at an immeasurable distance behind.  Two or three generations of literature may do more to change thought than two or three thousand years of traditional life…and so it has come about that in Europe at the present day the superstitious beliefs and practices that have been handed down by word of mouth are generally of a far more archaic type than the religion depicted in the most ancient literature of the Aryan race…"
Using the example (drawn from a different work) of 'folktales' and 'traditions' found in the play of schoolchildren as a corollary to the quote above, McLuhan declares, "In communities widely separated in space and time there is a continuity and tenacity of tradition quite unknown to written forms."

One of the themes I want to address in my abstract is the need, in my opinion, for a new conceptualization of information that will allow us to more accurately map the augmented reality presence infused in our daily lives.  While the points addressed by both Frazer and McLuhan are, on face, correct they do some disservice in their perpetuation of an informational framework dependent on speed as the indexer of change.  With the advent of the digital wave of augmentation, the interaction between supposedly slow atoms of oral knowledge and the fast bits of digital knowledge increasingly level each other out in their interoperability making distinctions of speed between the separate domains of knowledge increasingly moot (under what McLuhan calls the 'pressure of simultaneity') and even illusionary once an augmented reality perspective is pursued.  The question can no longer be, "what is the speed of this accelerating effect?"  It must instead shift to, "what degree can this knowledge be modified through transmission?" as this qualifier, this focusing of informational pursuit, will allow us to move away from harmful dualist modes of thinking towards a more realistic augmented reality perspective.  

This is helpful not only for interpreting the effects of the digital wave of augmentation, but also the previous waves and the waves to come.  My attempts to define knowledge in terms of high and low mobility potentials, as seen in my examination of the debate on usage of oral citations on Wikipedia and the new website Small Demons, denotes small efforts towards this larger goal.