Fillip

Fillip 18 — Spring 2013

The Page that I Am
Ahmad Hosni

While Facebook was a crucial social tool for the mobilization of the public during the days of the Egyptian revolution of January 2011, Facebook after the revolution was even more vibrant, politically and visually. The proliferation in that space of “image-posts”—images shared as a means of communication, specifically, political communication—was remarkable. This phenomenon was not unique to the Egyptian political context, but given that it arose with the onset of the revolution and proliferated following it, it calls for some attention. The post-revolutionary period—roughly the year succeeding the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, in February 2011—was a time of political strife in which the image-post acted to the effect less of mobilizing the populace than of gesturing toward political affiliations and positions. Compared with the early days of the revolution, the political landscape of its latter days is divided among different political factions and ideologies and a multiplicity of adversaries. In the post-revolutionary Facebook landscape, with the loss of a common foe, the social and political momentum and solidarity amassed against the Mubarak regime has diffused and weakened.

In this context, landscape provides a useful metaphor. Often used to describe a political scene in a particular country and at times to suggest a grand view apprehended at once and from a substantial distance, landscape is found on Facebook as well. After all, Facebook is a relatively more visual medium compared to other social media platforms such as Twitter. And it is arguably no less political than the “actual” political landscape. A number of questions emerge here, such as, how does the landscape of image-posts affect “political” reality? Does a landscape of image-posts supplant, complete, or augment a political landscape of people in the streets? What does it entail to map the political not on the basis of history, polls, or analysis, but as a vista? I would argue that Facebook is an ever-changing vista, always in a state of composition: it opens in front of you; it recedes, composes, and recedes again as you map your way through it—a landscape that shapes you and that in turn you shape as you use it. This is not a landscape that charts a topography of political tendencies and affiliations, since a “topography” is observed, marked, and represented, drawn from a distance. The static topographic model is not the best way to articulate the political space of Facebook. Instead, this landscape is something more dynamic and, above all, performative. It is a landscape of rhythms and their interrelations, of tools and their embodied operations, of politics and its embedded visualities. The landscape here is something akin to what anthropologist Tim Ingold calls a “taskscape,” a landscape of embodied use value, of embodied social performativity.1 It is a landscape that exists only when performed. The “scape” is necessarily visual, the “task” largely political. A taskscape entails commensurability between the subject and his or her environment, between the materiality of the environment and the affective embeddedness of the subject, between the vista and the embodied operations of the subject. One does not merely confront a taskscape as one confronts a landscape. A taskscape is constituted by acts of dwelling, of relating to a home environment, and the everyday tasks are the constitutive acts of such dwelling. The idea of taskscape does away with the centrality of the detached observer vis-à-vis the landscape, a space bridged by the modalities of vision: vision as gaze and gaze as the stratification of power hierarchies between the voyeur and the observed.

A second dichotomy taskscape does away with is that between the human and the inanimate. It does so by conflating the agency of a human subject with the technicity of tools. In the taskscape of Facebook, meta-journalism is the main mode of labour. Operations such as posting, reposting, sharing, and commenting connect spheres of the political and the technical. The user is the bearer of labour; he or she possesses prosthetic appendages that enmesh all participating individuals within a wired network of information and operations.

Image-posts in the taskscape of Facebook represent a purportedly democratic commentary on what takes place in actual, material political space, but, owing to their performative power, there is potentially more significance to these operations than a mere representation of political activity. These operations propagate images while constituting the building blocks of the system in which they operate, namely, Facebook. In other words, actions that are the result of the basic architecture and functionality of the system at the same time produce the system. Such a self-reproducing system mimics, if anything, a living system, or an ecology, composed of a multiplicity of smaller building units—cells—in the form of pages. Identified as “personal pages,” these pages are constituted by what individuals and groups post about themselves and are a form of self-authorship. They also furnish the images through which individuals and groups can “see” one another. The personal page is the manifestation of a subject’s enunciations and actions in the Facebook taskscape; it is what people see of the subject when he or she is reduced to a page. On the other hand, the “home page” is what comes under a subject’s purview, as a vista ahead of the subject’s field of vision. Yet the composition of such a vista is also reciprocally contingent on how the subject conducts himself or herself in such a taskscape. The relation between the personal page and the home page is parallel to that between the subject and his or her environment, and between them exists something close to what Pierre Bourdieu calls “habitus,” or the shared habitual comportment of individual bodies in their environment. Habitus is the acquired system of generative schemes of practice adjusted to conditions of the environment.2

In this Facebook taskscape, the notion of the body does not entail a physical presence or being. Instead, what takes place in this space is a fleeting and continuous birth, redefinition, and modulation of the event. The “event” is not the preserve of the phenomenal here or of the physical, spatiotemporal transfiguration attributed to bodies. What sanctions and defines an event on Facebook is that it is seen, responded to, and acted upon. In this context, bodies are nothing but the confluence of events. The body operates between the metaphysics of absence and the phenomenology of appearance. The body and the event are two sides of the same coin; only through the modality of appearance do they manifest in either form. Within this flow, information emerges not as a set of codes but as the result of communicative acts within a field of possibilities. It is only communication that communicates, to quote sociologist Niklas Luhmann.3

Image-posts are acts of individuation; they signal the individual, whether the human or the inanimate. Gilles Deleuze uses the word “haecceity,” or “thisness,” in other contexts to invoke individuation as a block of space and time.4 On Facebook, individuation takes place as the event of appearing. Think of a post cropping up on the screen. Unlike the moment the photos were captured or altered, every visual actualization on the screen is a unique thisness and a unique event. The collapse of thisness with the event is the moment the virtual collapses into the actual. Each time, the subject, the individual agent, is reborn.

Let us not be mistaken: I do not want to refer to the Facebook taskscape as virtual in the sense that it is not real. Virtual applies only to intensities5 before they manifest as appearances, before they manifest on the page. The page—or the taskscape of pages—is actual in its every online manifestation in any slice of time. Your page timeline is as actual as any genealogy can get. I reserve “virtual” to refer to the intensities that both undergird Facebook taskscapes and exist beyond it, in exteriority. The environment is the realm of the virtual. What subtends Facebook taskscapes is a system consisting of the connectivities within a continuous flux of information, condensations of affects, and relays of subjectivities. It is in the environment—the exteriority of the system—that the virtual resides. That is, paradoxically, the virtual resides in the flesh-and-blood world. The events that occur in historical succession in the ontic space of Facebook are only virtual intensities separated from the actual world by the computer screen. The screen is the membrane that separates the system from its environment. Only those events that make it to Facebook are actualized. Only those events, in their different morphologies, make it to a page—only those that you encounter, draw, use, and activate, and that in turn are activated, in the Facebook taskscape.


I remember a photograph published in one magazine during the early days of the revolution, probably in Time or Newsweek—I do not recall exactly. It was a half-page spread with a side-shot of a group of activists facing their laptop screens. The photograph was eerie in its prolepsis of a moment to come. It captured the line of flight between the two spaces of the political: the virtual and the actual. It was an image that did not belong to either—a para-image, I might say—for it is only at one’s screen that the actual is experienced in its visibility. It was eerie in its sense of disembodiment: the activists were at and outside their taskscapes at the same time, in a liminal state.

The flesh-and-blood world of the Egyptian revolution had its real-life activists. And, during this time, the Facebook “admin” became a quasi-fictional character: fictional yet no less real and no less actual—real in its self-contained, intransitive, interiority-free subject. Think of the admin for We Are All Khaled Saïd, the most prominent page with arguably the most famous admin on the political landscape. The page, dedicated to Khaled Saïd, a youth in his mid-twenties who was brutally beaten to death by two low-ranking police officers on the streets of his Alexandria neighbourhood in the summer of 2010, was crucial in galvanizing the public against Mubarak’s regime.6 For obvious reasons the page admin kept his identity a secret during the course of the revolt. Although he was later identified as the activist Wael Ghoneim, the page admin continued to be referred to in media outlets as “the admin of We Are All Khaled Saïd,” a constative denotation, albeit one that is no longer anonymous. With the profusion of political groups on Facebook after the revolution, page admins continued to be anonymous, but no longer as much out of discretion or out of fear of persecution by authorities as much as because it really does not matter. Admins continued to be referred to as such, even when quoted at length at times.7 Nobody cares to ask who the admin is; what matters is what the admin does, its actions, and how it is articulated. What matters is the function. It is the function and its associated operations that matter. It is not the activist blogger, as a person, who is being spotlighted here, but rather the prosthetic enmeshing of the individual into this assemblage with the medium’s slew of information, images, and buttons. The admin is an incorporeal body with a set of functions, the embodiment of a particular kind of labour or set of tasks in an anthropomorphic corpus of technicity in a taskscape of appearance. Its subjectivity stems from its pure functionality. The admin is not particularly different from other profiles on Facebook; it is just an extreme case of the collapse of the personhood into a function within a set of operations.

Pages like We Are All Khaled Saïd as well as other activist pages, propaganda pages, and even official governmental pages, such as We Are Sorry, Mr. President or March 18: The Silent Majority, keep a political landscape of appearance ripe with visual material.8 They cull information from the flesh-and-blood world, process it, and introduce it into a stream of images—and information. In this, they resemble vital organs in charge of the specific functions that keep a living organism’s cells alive—organs responsible for the release of image-facts for other parts of the body to reprocess, alter, and re-release into the blood stream. Facebook is thus itself like a living organism made up of decentralized and non-hierarchical concatenations of intensities passing from one point to another—a body without organs, in the language of Deleuze and Guattari. Intensities flow from exteriority to interiority through members’ contributions to the production of sign regimes. I like to think of the pages as living cells. Each cell is a contained system that is part of a yet larger system. Pages are like cells in that they exist in quasi enclosures that define their users as self-contained subjects while they are in fact in continuous contact with their exterior. And, like cells, they draw from the bloodstream of information by sharing—or to use a more biological term, phagocytosis. The prefix “phago-” literally means “to get a share,” while the “-cytosis” refers to the cell. So it is the “cell getting a share.” “Phago-” describes the cell’s engulfing of an external body by the folding of the body to form a lacuna through which the externality becomes internalized.

Perhaps nothing better describes the action of this organism that is Facebook than the old legacy of structuralism. And nothing is more worth attending to when talking about actions as communications than the almost-forgotten systems theory of Niklas Luhmann. Each system is an individuality of its own situated in an environment made of other systems, contends Luhmann.9 There is no place for the human individual as cogito or being here; the human individual is merely one type of system existing in a network of relations within a multiplicity of systems. All systems, including social systems, hinge upon communication.

A system can be animate or inanimate, a social system or a living organism. The common denominator of all systems is the role action plays in the reproduction of the system—not any kind of action, but a specific one: autopoiesis. Poiesis is action that produces something outside itself, namely, a product. Autopoiesis is self-generation. Luhmann had borrowed the concept from the work of two Chilean biologists, Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco Varela, and took it beyond the remits of biology.10 Luhmann was interested in systems that were, like all living systems, autopoietic—that is, systems that produce components of which they are composed. A living organism produces its own cells as well as its own biochemical components. Most of such biochemical components are generated as response by the organism, or an individual cell, to its environment. A living organism is one that has the capacity to respond to the vicissitudes of the environment, and it is the complexity of such stimulus-response workings that begets an image of the organism. There is no sense of interiority here—no sense of the internal cogent homunculus directing the actions of the organism, nothing beyond that plane of communication between the organism and the environment. Such an organism could be a membrane, but also could be thought of in visual terms: as a sight, a purview, a vista.

Like living organisms, social systems—and, for that matter, social networks—reproduce themselves, argues Luhmann. The basic components for their regeneration is communication, or “communicative actions.” It was on the basis of this that Luhmann articulated his famous adage: “It is only communication that communicates.”11 Systems do not have an existence separating them from their communicative operations with their external environments. A cell keeps its integrity through its operations of response to its environment. A page stays alive by responding to its environment of visual information: reproducing posts that react to other posts produced by other pages, supplementing them, appropriating them, and bestowing meaning on them. In the winter of 2012, for example, during the first presidential elections after the revolution, public spaces were flooded by posters promoting the campaign of the conservative Salafist candidate Hazem Abu Ismail. The posters were everywhere, a political communication overkill that turned “Abu Ismail’s poster” into a cultural meme. Facebook responded actively to this meme, reproducing Abu Ismail’s posters everywhere: on Barack Obama’s Oval Office wall, on the Moon, on Cristiano Ronaldo’s jersey.

Or take, for instance, the debate that raged during the summer of 2011 as the ruling military junta repeatedly resorted to the trope of blaming an unidentified “third party” for inciting sectarian violence and vandalism—“third” in the sense that it existed beyond the dichotomy of the two main camps on the political scene: revolutionary forces and the ruling authorities. An imaginary entity, it was meant to be omnipresent, malicious, and inscrutable. As the debate flared, Facebook pages responded by circulating image-posts featuring Japanese manga characters invading Tahrir Square. What took place in this case was not a mirroring of reality but the system performing in congruence with and being responsive to its environment by means of poiesis, constantly producing elements that keep the organism alive and, in a sense, constructing its own perception of reality. It does not matter how these images first originated (i.e., who designed them or thought of circulating them); what matters is what emerged as the result of their circulation. Maturana and Varela would call this process cognition. I like to think of it as the political body. What is actually communicated is less important than the communication itself and what emerges out of it.

Or think of the meme of Yao Ming’s laughing face. It has been circulating freely in the Facebook blogosphere across different geographic and political contexts. Surely you have seen it on your home page at some point. Its apparition always coincides with commentary on a current state of affairs or perhaps of a collective subjectivity of sorts. It circulated widely long before most people knew it was a tracing of an actual portrait of a well-known Chinese basketball player. What was communicated was less the facts that inhere in the images than their affect. Affect is what this Facebook organism communicates. But of that you cannot just be an observer. You have to participate to be able to see it: to respond, comment, repost, like.

Notes
  1. Tim Ingold, “The Temporality of the Landscape,” in “Conceptions of Time and Ancient Society,” special issue, World Archaeology 25, no. 2 (October 1993), 152–74.
  2. See Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice, Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 72–87.
  3. See Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Karl Ludwig Pfeiffer, Materialities of Communication, trans. William Whobrey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988).
  4. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Continuum, 2004), 287–91.
  5. Intensity here refers to Gilles Deleuze’s conceptualization of the term to describe differential presence at the limits of perception.
  6. See Ahmad Hosni, “Seen in Action: Aesthetics and Politics on Facebook,” Afterimage 40, no. 3 (November/December 2012), 8–10.
  7. Numerous incidences can be found online. See (in Arabic) Milad Hanna Zaki, “Admin al black bloc: al-‘harafish qadimoun,” Egypt Independent, February 11, 2013, http://fillip.ca/5t83.
  8. See (in Arabic) https://www.facebook.com/ASFENYARAIS and https://www.facebook.com/decided.to.speak.
  9. See Niklas Luhmann, Introduction to Systems Theory, trans. Peter Gilgen (Cambridge: Polity, 2012).
  10. See Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco Varela, Autopoesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (Boston: D. Riedel, 1980).
  11. See Niklas Luhmann, Ecological Communications (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
About the Author

Ahmad Hosni is a physician, photographer, and writer based in Barcelona.

You Might Also Enjoy
Buy Issue$15.00