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© The Metaphilosophy Foundation and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1997.

Published by
Blackwell Publishers, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 238 Main Street,
Cambridge, MA 02142, USA
METAPHILOSOPHY
Vol. 28, Nos. 3, July 1997
0026–1068

CYBORG IDENTITIES AND THE RELATIONAL WEB:


RECASTING ‘NARRATIVE IDENTITY’ IN MORAL AND
POLITICAL THEORY*

ROBYN F. BROTHERS

ABSTRACT: Current debates surrounding liberalism and communitarianism,


modernity and postmodernity, ethical theory and narrative ethics fail to account
for shifting foundations of personal identity in an increasingly computer-mediated
era of human communication. This paper aims to examine some of the conceptual
assumptions about identity and community which are being radically undermined
by rapidly evolving information networks and are therefore in need of redefini-
tion. Additionally, I argue for an expansion of the literary imagination to include
virtual, coauthored fiction sites where exploration of personal identity will bear
upon future ethical and political decision-making.

For many scholars breathing the rarefied air of literary theory and philos-
ophy, the world of communications technology is light years away and has
seemingly little to do with the more pressing issues of human identity and
agency in an age of moral relativism. But like many of my colleagues in
the humanities, facing the beginning of my career in these extreme times
of uncertainty, I have become increasingly dependent upon new modes of
communication, new ways of transmitting my work, and new forms of
leisure activity. And I am also witnessing an increasing disparity between
the theoretical issues of my scholarly work and the realities of life in the
electronic age. There are some questions in my field that are not being
answered, indeed, not even being posed. First, postmodernism problema-
tized identity; then, cyberspace simplified postmodernism; and so what,
now, is becoming of personal identity as we know it? And more impor-
tantly, how are the moral and political moorings contingent upon that defi-
nition of personal identity loosening in an era transformed by information
technologies?
Armed with keyboard and mouse, we face a screen to which we are
wedded and in which we are losing ourselves, for better or worse. The

* I am grateful for comments by Terry Bynum, Martin Matusík, Sherry Turkle, Sanda
Golopentia, Inge Wimmers, and I. C. Bupp as well as the participants of ETHICOMP96
(Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca en Madrid, Nov. 6–8, 1996), where this essay was
originally presented.

249
250 CYBORG IDENTITIES AND THE RELATIONAL WEB

labyrinth of an endless web renders the opacity of postmodern theory


transparent and the transparency of a unified self opaque. Contemporary
debates surrounding political liberalism and communitarianism are simul-
taneously forcing us to look back to the Enlightenment in our critique of
foundationalist thought and forward to new perspectives on our rapidly
changing, increasingly global world. We are still sharply divided on the
issue of human subjectivity and the role of the “ex subject” of postmoder-
nity (Matvejevitch).1 The evolution of communications technology is
bringing us closer to facing difference and demanding tolerance. And yet,
we also find ourselves propelled into a world rife with rising nationalism,
xenophobia, and anxiety over our own sense of identity; both as individu-
als living in the information age and as members of an international
community larger and infinitely more complex than the formative commu-
nity in which we were reared. Thus, as we consider the philosophical
foundations which promised tolerance, individual rights, and the overall
good of the community, we must also remind ourselves of the need to
rethink what constitutes individual identity in light of the current radical
metamorphosis of our definition of community.

“Constitutive Communities” and Globalization


If we internalize the norms of our particular community which guides our
judgments about how we should live and interact with others, then what
are the implications of recent studies of ‘narrative identity?’ If we are
formed by the contingencies of our community narratives and also derive
our unity from the vantage point of the story of our individual lives, what
happens when that community narrative is increasingly influenced and
subjugated by a virtual/global community? Further, can we continue to be
satisfied with the assumption of unity (which those moral and political
philosophers who privilege narrative unity do not question) when our
culture no longer is based upon narrative but upon a “relational web”
created by technological advances? In what ways will our thinking about
the link between unity of identity (or selfsameness) and moral theory be
altered? Presuppositions reaching back to the thought of Aristotle will
perhaps be dramatically undermined to an extent that we are just begin-
ning to fathom. Normative ethical theory and its bearing on the historical,
cultural contingencies of personal moral experience are not being ques-
tioned radically enough.
Daniel Bell defines “constitutive communities” as having the following
criteria: the nature of a given people’s self-definition; the context this

1
Predgrag Matvejevitch described at the 1995 UNESCO meeting in Paris the phenom-
enon of “ex” which concerns the constitution of personal and collective identities in their
geopolitical, social, spacial, psychological spheres and the impact of this phenomenon on
moral attitudes.

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ROBYN F. BROTHERS 251

“largely background way of thinking, acting, and judging” provides;


and—significantly—a commitment made against the threat of loss. This
third criterion, in Bell’s words, is described thus: “one loses a commitment
to a constitutive community at the price of being thrown into a state of
severe disorientation where one is unable to take a stand on many things
of significance.” Let us consider, then, some specific instances of the
impact of cybercommunities on “real life” communities. Later I will
consider the implication of virtual reality for personal identity and the
moral issues it raises. For now, it is sufficient to focus upon the extreme
reconfiguration of social and economic relations in both urban and rural
communities by information technologies. Saskia Sassen (1996) stresses
the need to concentrate on changing dynamics in cities and communities
as a more accurate gauge of the effect of globalizing forces. According to
Sassen, the tension between “a dynamic of dispersal” and “a dynamic of
centralization” inherent in the move toward global economics has only
very recently been targeted as site of contradictory forces (ibid., 631).
Thus the hypermobility associated with this trend is unavoidably tempered
by location specific conditions. Liquified capital, ‘hypermobility’ and
‘hyperprofit’ all fuel this “overvalorization” of economic globalization;
those operations left in the dust—those operations that support the local
economy and social fabric of individual urban communities—are increas-
ingly at risk (ibid., 633). The influx of foreign corporate activity has sharp-
ened the lines marking the “urban glamour zone” and the “urban war
zone” (ibid., 636). The transformative effect, then, of new information
technologies upon the economic and social infrastructures of community
is profound. The long-term ramifications have yet to be seen. However, as
these interior structurings of community evolve, can the citizen uses of
information technology counter the detrimental effects of such radical
reshapings? I turn now to two studies: one of the “cybercitizens” of
Orange County, Florida and another of information technology (IT) users
in North Arica.
In 1994, citizens of Orange County, Florida engaged in a project funded
mainly by the Public Technology, Inc. (PTI), Urban Consortium
(Babington 1995). Its vision of “well-connected citizens” eventually
became realized in this new community of cyberneighbors, who, by defin-
ing and accessing a networked space, began the process of shifting the
focus from the geographical sense of community to an interest-based
sense of community. Thus, the definition of ‘neighbor’ is evolving, and not
without serious implications for corresponding definitions of ‘responsive-
ness,’ ‘accountability,’ and ‘inclusion’ (ibid., 11). The dialectic between
electronic reformations of community and reformations of personal iden-
tity is one that demands attention from philosophers, sociologists, econo-
mists, psychologists, legal scholars, among others. Let us consider a more
profoundly resonant effect of such computer usage in a radically different
political environment such as that of North Africa.

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252 CYBORG IDENTITIES AND THE RELATIONAL WEB

A 1992–94 study of North African computer use highlighted another


site of struggle: this time between governments wary of losing control and
citizen empowerment (Nassef, Danowitz and Goodman 1995, 28).
Increases in communication and access to worldwide information
networks pose the specific threat of diluting localized religious and tradi-
tional values as citizens plug into the mass of Otherness exhibited on the
Internet. Of great concern is the resulting social dissent which could ensue
between computer literate, globally oriented individuals and those citizens
still enmeshed in localized value systems. Thus, the evolution of computer
technologies in the West translates into the electronic dissemination of
Western value systems into cultures to which such “virtual value systems”
pose wide-ranging moral, political and personal dilemmas. In such
contexts, what constitutes freedom? Whose conception of freedom is
being advocated on a global scale? Issues of universalism seem to be
increasingly problematized as we enter, some enthusiastically and others
unwillingly, an electronically afforded global community.

‘Narrative Identity’ and Computer-Mediated Agency


Among efforts to redefine and thereby reclaim the justificatory role of
reason in human subjectivity, three articulations stand out both in their
painstaking analysis and in their commitment to the Kantian legacy of ulti-
mate agency: those of John Rawls, Paul Ricoeur and Jürgen Habermas.
Kant’s insistence on the purity of the individual’s will as the ultimate
normative role continues to haunt the kind of liberalism advocated by John
Rawls in American political philosophy. In France, growing recognition of
the political nature of Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of identity again raises
the issue of the legacy of a Kantian transcendental idealism. And in
Germany, Jürgen Habermas forces the question of where to “situate the
self” in order that the ultimate good to the community may result.2
However, among these differing approaches to the problem of the rational
self, Ricoeur’s concept of ‘narrative identity’ ultimately raises the most
penetrating questions with regard to evolving models of personal and
community identities.
In his most recent work, Oneself as Another, Paul Ricoeur has delved
into a hermeneutics of identity which posits the self as other, extricates
sameness from agency, and thereby eliminates stasis while guarding
moral accountability (1992). But if Ricoeur’s concept of ‘narrative iden-
tity’ arises from the unity of plot, and in doing so, assumes certain funda-
mental characteristics of storytelling, how is further articulation of this
self possible in our rapidly changing culture based on the nonlinear matrix

2
Seyla Benhabib (1992) stresses the interactive nature of a new definition of
Habermasian universalism, and thereby hopes to both grant justice its “dignity” and respect
the positionalities of those parties previously excluded in any discourses of democracy.

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ROBYN F. BROTHERS 253

of cyberspace? Virtual reality, the endless proliferation of cybercommuni-


ties, and the increasing dependence upon online text will slowly begin to
impact the cultural privileging of plot and the human need for unity. The
infinite tangential nature of hypertext, web links, and the ever quickening
pace of infomania cannot help but transform the essence of Ricoeur’s
‘narrative identity.’ By assessing Ricoeur’s critique of and possible self-
implication in the modernist view of identity, one must look forward not
only to the restructuring of self as other within the conceptual framework
of the new communications technology, but more importantly to its ethi-
cal import.
Ricoeur, according to his critics, ultimately implicates himself in the
modernist tradition he is supposedly critiquing by taking the path of a
transcendental idealist on the subject. Despite his distinction between the
ipse (an essential selfhood) and idem (the sameness inherent in static
conceptions of selfhood) of personal identity, there remains a self-same
entity which supersedes, though ulitmately beckoned by, the Other. Thus,
unlike the French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas who privileges ethics
before ontology, Ricoeur strives for a compromise between an answering
“I” to be held accountable (ipséité) and the radicality of the wholly Other.
One of Ricoeur’s staunchest critics, Pamela Anderson, contends that
Ricoeur’s position is not radical enough to dissassociate him from the
tradition of Descartes, Kant and Hegel, and thereby points to a need for
further dialogue between his hermeneutics of the self and philosophies of
difference, such as that of Lévinas (1993a,b). She asks: “in ultimately
returning to an ontology of the (self)-same—contra-Lévinas—in which
Ricoeur claims to explore the being of self, we must ask: does Ricoeur
intend a direct challenge to Lévinas’ own deliberate move beyond onotol-
ogy . . .?” (1993a, 245).
I argue that inherent in Ricoeur’s ultimate argument for ontology before
ethics is an assumption of the way in which narrative unity informs
personal identity, an assumption which may no longer be valid as tech-
nology introduces new ontological ground, new schemas for the intersec-
tion of time and space, and thus new criteria upon which to configure an
ethics of narrative identity. Ricoeur engages in a chain of assertions begin-
ning with the understanding of oneself as an interpretive act. The second
and, as I see it, problematic step involves the derivation of the self’s inter-
pretation from the structure of narrative plot; in other words, the self-inter-
pretive act is mediated by the historically unifying act of narrative (1992,
113–139).
Ricoeur is not alone in his quest for understanding human agency and
all of its moral contingencies through the mediation of narrative. However,
contemporary discussions about the role of imaginative literature in the
realms of moral and political philosophy have tended towards an insuffi-
ciently critical view of narrative. Philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre,
Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, and Charles Taylor have explored the

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254 CYBORG IDENTITIES AND THE RELATIONAL WEB

ways in which narrative informs personal identity as well as shapes and


reconfigures our ethical preconceptions.3 Literary critic Geoffrey Hartman
has noted presciently that the “fate of reading” might not be drastically
affected by the endless series of movements in literary criticism, but by
dramatic “shifts in perception,” occasioned before by Freud, for instance,
and in the increasingly near future by the effect of cyberspace and hyper-
text (1996, 383). In response to the challenge posed by readers by commu-
nications technology, Hartman advocates the application of Nietzsche’s
“slow reading,” not only to literary texts, but to the “daily surfeit of words
and images . . . an inevitable part of the environment, [which] both
provokes and erodes our ability to think, to stabilize the endless flow”
(ibid., 385). He goes on to describe this new dynamic which presents both
challenges and possibilities to the importance of reading: “A shock to our
sense of humanity or an affront to intellectual arrogance sets in motion a
questioning so radical that it has impacted reading itself, even the possi-
bility of any kind of contemplative existence” (ibid.). It is precisely this
threat to any kind of vita contemplativa that I wish to explore, for the
status of ethical inquiry is at stake: we can no longer afford to confine
ourselves solely to the realm of the novel when we consider the dynamic
relationship between narrative and identity.

Communications Technology and the Literary Imagination


NeoKantian utilitarians such as R. M. Hare fear the thought experiments
that fiction allows, believing that by indulging one’s imagination in
unlikely scenarios one is led to a state of moral confusion (1989). And yet,
at a time even the experimental character of science fiction is beginning to
mirror technologically afforded reality, what better preparation for the real
challenges in ethical theory and application than the realm of the literary
imagination? I believe that recent reassessments of individualism as essen-
tially transgressive yet accountable hold promise not only for the difficul-
ties inherent in the debates between liberals and communitarians, theorists
and antitheorists, and modernists and postmodernists but most signifi-
cantly for those difficulties we face as today’s individual evolves into
tomorrow’s cyborg.4
Despite the long history of debate surrounding the issue of individual-
ism, the concept of the individual continues to be problematic.
Postmodernism, with its insistence on doing away with the subject, consti-
tutes an ongoing attempt to free modernity of its egocentric bias. With new
challenges arising with the growing knowledge of previously unheard
narratives of oppression, feminist and postcolonialist theories pose partic-

3
Cf. MacIntyre 1981, Nussbaum 1990, Rorty 1989, and Taylor 1989.
4
I am thinking in particular of Martin J. Matustík’s treatment of individualism (1993,
1995).

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ROBYN F. BROTHERS 255

ular difficulties with regard to human agency. However, when the strivings
for objectivity are denounced in favor of so many petits récits, is not a
similar ideological foundationalist claim reproduced in this new alle-
giance to particularism? Telling stories needs to be balanced with a contin-
ued commitment to theory: we should not fall prey to an either/or choice
of our own devising.
While some of those discourses of postmodernism which emphasize
the Other, the dynamic process of becoming, and the excesses of meaning
inherent in any linguistic expression are intellectually exhilarating, there
remains a stinging question whose solidity refuses to melt into air. Moral
and political urgencies which have resulted from the deeply penetrative
inquires by postmodern theorists require us more than ever to expand our
conceptualization of the individual. I believe that a chiasmatic relationship
between theory and imaginative narratives (including those virtual
[ir]realities) will yield the most deeply penetrating insights in the ethical
issues of our increasingly global community.
We need to begin to examine some of the difficulties that have surfaced
in the liberal/communitarian debate, and the bearing that debate has on the
future—and ethical import—of the literary imagination. Narrative ethics
and ethical theory pose the same questions of what constitutes the good
life and how we should conduct ourselves within the framework of our
own individual lives. The actual form of narrative, however, invites us as
readers to involve ourselves in a sort of mental journey during which
certain ways of viewing ourselves, our lives, and others are subjected to
multiple, intertwining perspectives belonging to one or more characters.
Thus, right away the very act of reading a narrative text is in some ways
an invitation to self-exploration.
But perhaps the concept of the “literary” imagination could be broad-
ened to include the inner workings of the individual mind in relation to
different “texts” it encounters and/or coproduces, whether those texts
appear in print or electronically.5 With the humanities currently under
siege in the United States, the active, dynamic role of the “literary” imag-
ination must be expanded and clearly articulated beyond the confines of
the academy. Martha Nussbaum recently has clarified the integral role
literature can play in public policy formation and in legal affairs (1991).
But if it is true that within the decade leisure time will be spent increas-
ingly in front of a computer screen rather than the television screen (most
likely a merging of the two will erase the distinction), then we need to
expand our notion of how the “literary” imagination becomes operative.

5
An example of this is the MultiUserDomain, hereafter referred to as a MUD, in which
participants log on as a self-created character, interacting with other such characters in a
community-developed narrative. Sherry Turkle offers the following definition: “text-based
MUDs are a new form of collaboratively written literature. MUD players are MUD authors,
the creators as well as consumers of media content” (1995, 11).

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256 CYBORG IDENTITIES AND THE RELATIONAL WEB

There can and should be a dynamic interaction between the literary


text, such as the novel, and the virtual text, such as MUDs, discussion lists,
and online chat groups. Certainly the narrative text of the novel offers a
rich landscape of thought experiments and multiple viewpoints by virtue
of its fictive nature and the prismatically presented characters. However,
can we really afford to center so much of the moral and political theoriz-
ing upon the shifting foundation of what actually constitutes narrative
without incorporating new sites of fictional interaction? In an era of radi-
cally and quickly evolving avenues of communication, which, I might add,
offer unprecedented opportunities to turn discourses of the Other into
solid praxis, perhaps it is naive to ignore the technological narratives in
which younger generations are being steeped.

Virtual Personhood
I mentioned earlier that I would consider the impact of virtual reality on
personal identity, particularly as it relates to self-understanding and the
assumed link between unity of self and moral accountability. Sherry
Turkle’s important study of negotiations of identity in cyberspace provides
many instances—more than I can address here—where identity is decid-
edly performative (1995). In our study here this negotiatory character of
cyberactivity raises the issue of how to determine the aspect(s) of human
identity which does not necessitate unity in order to assure moral account-
ability. By participating in such cybersites as MUDs, individuals imagina-
tively participate via self-created characters where they might be male,
female, human, animal or even a male masquerading as a female
masquerading as a male. This kind of activity is reportedly quite addictive,
many participants feeling that this imaginative activity is more “real” than
real life (ibid., 11–19). If it is true, as Turkel argues, that the nature of
cyberspace and its concomitant activities render the dense complexities of
the postmodern theory of Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze surprisingly
transparent (ibid., 15), then the issue of multiplicity within human indi-
viduality cannot be sidestepped or simply countered by a return to the
subject. I would argue that by beginning the serious exploration of the
relation between ethical theory and narrative ethics, one faces the addi-
tional task of delineating the contours of new, virtual (co-authored) narra-
tive sites which can dramatically inform personal agency equally well.
Is it viable to establish any system of ethics which privileges either the
community (changing on a global scale at an ever faster rate) or the indi-
vidual (whose agency is under siege by postmodern and poststructuralist
interrogations of human subjectivity)? How does one not ignore historical,
material determinations and still allow for an absolute, albeit qualified, free-
dom of the individual positionality? By losing ourselves in the act of read-
ing, whether in an imaginative literary text or in online imaginative
configurations such as hypertext or MUDs, how do we incorporate or

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ROBYN F. BROTHERS 257

corroborate any answers to these questions? Perhaps it would be wise to


extend a radical and rigorous questioning of philosophical pragmatism’s
claim on literature to problematic and inherently modernist articulations of
narrative identity. By doing so, an enriched understanding of the literary
imagination might be achieved, through which we can begin to face the full
spectrum of political and ethical challenges which the next century presents.
We must incorporate new modes of “reading ourselves” in order to
effectively continue the process of questioning the viability of moral ratio-
nalism as well as the role of the individual in relation both to himself or
herself and to the community in which he or she is ineluctably enmeshed.
And more importantly, we need to expand our interpretation of commu-
nity to include the global, virtual community whose definition grows more
precise and more influential with every passing day. An ethics must be
articulated which stems from radically new definitions of both the self and
the increasingly multiple communities in which that self engages.
In conclusion, I advocate a reinterpretation of both individualism and
the underlying assumptions of any communitarian stance, a reinterpreta-
tion which would no longer ignore changing ontological foundations in
our era of electronic revolution. As we witness the end of a millennium
and the revolutionary impact of technological advances, questions, arise
about the relationship between the desire for unity and the still perceived
threat of multiplicity, between the unity of narrative and the unity of self,
and most significantly between the dissolution of the ontological under-
pinnings of these issues and the lingering assumptions which weigh heav-
ily in contemporary moral and political philosophy. Perhaps, as Philip
Selznick has noted: there is indeed a distinction to be made between the
“bounded altruism” of particularism and the “inclusive altruism” of
universalism (1992, 1995). In the age of new advances in human commu-
nication, we need to privilege commitment over characteristics and inter-
ests over identities.

Brown University
Department of French Studies
Box 1961
Providence, R 02912
USA
Robyn-Brothers@postoffice.brown.edu

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