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Immortal ‘Brand Me’

Identity Immersion in a Digital Space

Sylwia Dobkowska Goldsmiths University of London


Stacey Pitsillides Goldsmtihs University of London

Duncan Fairfax Goldsmiths University of London

This paper meanders through an initial speculative investigation into identity, memories and ‘being.’ When hybridised with the expanding environment of digital space, this raises relevant questions such as how we identify ourselves as human beings in the absence of a 'real' body? What substance there is in the claim of a centralised 'you' and if we are, in a sense, being branded or branding ourselves within the virtual space? Then, in the absence of a physical body (the traditional 'presence') are there memory-traces in form of labeled- identities? and as our brain "constantly reconfigures our memory [it] is a living evolving construct” (Mayer- Schonberger, 2009). Therefore it must be questioned, whether one can one ever be a completed article of 'oneself'? Thus digital space shifts the sense of human from 'human being' to 'human becoming' where the idea of a future and ‘immortality’ of the 'human' may lay in incompleteness.

Identity, Death, Absence, Presence, Trace


When creating virtual identities, the absence of ones real body lets the user express their ‘desired’ being, and this character or avatar becomes an embodiment of their imagined self. This results in multiple (virtual) identities, constituting the development of a new mega-identity, ‘Brand Me’. The fragments of ones self are labeled and therefore have some kind of existence- ‘presence’

in the form of login names, character names, Skype

name, forum name etc. Through these labels we change the way we interact with other people.

“When we change the way we communicate, we change society” (Shirey, 2008). How we communicate within theses systems, determines everything: from whom we talk to, to how we act and document our lives. Even the way we feel is, to

a certain extent, constantly being mediated through

our communication systems and online-behaviours. This practice is particularly important when considering the social and cultural implications of

Death and Absence within the digital world.

This paper intends to explore some of the multiple and complex ways in which the question of ‘absence’ and ‘presence’, as they have been articulated within the discourses of postmodernism and other contemporary critical theory, might be capable of being considered in relationship to the discourses and practice of absence and death in particular. We seek to investigate an application of

these theories to the question of how we identify ourselves as human beings in the absence of real body. This paper seeks to make a start at uncovering, some of the 'rhythms' and ‘patterns’ instigated in the creation of virtual identities, which exist without physical temporality or spatiality. Thus the binary opposition of ‘presence and absence’ is key to this investigation. The element of presence – as Derrida relentlessly pointed out in his critique of the concept of ‘logocentrism’ is the nature of the western metaphysical tradition – which seems to dominate absence. Traditionally it is the presence of physical body which makes one ‘present’. However, how does it apply to digital space? What would happen if we tried to rethink this opposition as Derrida suggests in terms of the 'trace'? How could this awareness benefit the analysis of digital space and the enactment of human beings in digital space? This initial investigation seeks to rethink the networks of narratives which hold a presence/absence of traces (identities) thus forming a perception of the 'human presence' in digital space.

Traditionally ‘absence’ has been seen as a site of negativity, but what if this lack or ‘incompleteness’ is thought of as a space of creativity (Ruti, 2008) and this notion of incompleteness or uncertainty is instead taken to mean the creation of a space for the idea of ‘future’ or future scenarios in development. This 'development' then provokes ‘things to happen.’ These 'things' can be written in

Immortal ‘Brand Me’: Identity Immersion in a Digital Space

Sylwia Dobkowska Stacey Pitsillides Duncan Fairfax

a similar way to the writing 'creation' of identity(s)

which plays into the Derridean notion of ‘grapheme,' here the sign or site of possibility, could be figured, played or enacted by a human and/or have a human 'figure'. Such inscriptions could be physical gestures, labels, profiles, accounts or even a digital avatar. The very word ‘absence’ itself has been shaped by humans through the subset of languaging and the need to describe and 'document' that which is not there. Therefore the notion of the grapheme interplays both human and absence. Thus, 'being of absence' suggests an embodiment of the concept of non- existence in terms of presence, but ‘being’ can also suggest the temporality of absence, it is lack of a

stable ‘form’.

In this study we aim to explore this notion of ‘absence,’ which is not simply the negative metaphysical or dialectical opposite of a ‘presence’ but an absence that is something far more valuable, an absence that is truly present in its

affective quality – such as the ‘space in between’ digital labels-identities which 'exist' as an unseen force of gravity in which to hold ‘a digital person.’ This is evidenced in the more mundane everyday example of waiting and responding (both physically and emotionally) to the traces of a missing e-mail. So one must question how this absence, including the absence of the person (body) would alter, destroy and/or highlight various aspects of their digital persona. Thus, in order to consider immortality in conjunction with our relationship to the traces 'of us' which exist autonomously within online networks and servers, one must first begin to question and dissect whether (1) we continue to live on in some way, through the thoughts, memories and remembrances of others? (2) what

is the essence of trace itself and where do these

'traces' exist, 'place' themselves, both digitally and

physically? (3) to consider what substance there is in the claim of a centralised 'you' and to (4) question whether we are in a sense being branded or branding ourselves within the virtual space?

In the absence of physical body there are

traces that compose

the story of [a person which], are covered over, lost and preserved only in language." Thus it is in "the tracing of the text, the moment by moment recovery of the lines in […] reading, [that] constitute the presence of [the person].” (McDonald, 1979, p.155) So we can see that it is this labyrinth of de- contextualized, de-teporalized 'spaces,' actually in- 'between' the text which allow this ever-changing narration of 'us' to be built up. Thus "the narrator seems only partially able to control his verbally extravagant narrative. There are I will argue deep

"memory-traces of the past

connections between the narrator's struggle to maintain control of the narrative and the threat to the "natural" body boundaries posed by the cybernetic paradigm" (Hayles, 1999). So as we seek to build up a kind of central or 'mega' self/ personal brand in digital space, we inevitably release (through constant publication information, identities and labels) which run the risk of being corrupted, pastiched or simply falling pray to new narratives, interpretations and engagements. Thus we begin to question whether the 'narrator' is us, society or an amalgamation of both and if through this composite, open source style of narration, are we perhaps being narrated back to ourselves and thus altering our identity or brand through this narration?


Contemporary critical theory, especially the philosophy of postmodernism has some reflection on the complexity of digital space (Hayles, 1999). Digital space is fragmentalised, deconstructed and multiplied by narratives which in tern affect the way we experience our own subjective realities. Consequently the condition of the 'present' and our personal present society is reflected in our perception of self and mediated realities (Dijck, 2007). Therefore elements of postmodernism, such as the fragmentation and reassimulation of narratives, influence our perception of the world and give birth to a wide range of possibilities. Fragmentation and intertextuality allows information to be elastic, multiplied and open to different methods of thinking or interpretation, allowing us the possibility to play with our modes of cognitively comprehending the environment we live in (Flusser, 1990) and the labels we choose. Allowing us the opportunity to play with images from the past, both personal and cultural, thus changing their past/present context and editing our own subjective histories and 'memories'. Thus these fragmentalised narratives do "not aim to tell ‘the’ story, [or in any way] put an end to [the] narrative; rather these little narratives evoke new stories which in turn displace preceding narratives in [a] telling" (Readings, 1991, p.69).

Another element of the postmodern identity is the idea of hybridity. Hybridisation could be put forward as a vital way of creating presence, the word ‘hybrid’ in English is adopted form of the Latin:

‘hibrida. ’The English equivalent is the word ‘mongrel’, which can be understood as a ‘mixture’ (The American Heritage®, 2004, online). However, what if the process of ‘mixing’ is more valuable than the mixture itself? The inter-identity hybrid provokes a condition of the ‘human being' as a

Immortal ‘Brand Me’: Identity Immersion in a Digital Space

Sylwia Dobkowska Stacey Pitsillides Duncan Fairfax

process (Krell, 1978). Therefore if the human in digital space is never a ‘product of human’ or human biology; it follows that it must also have a different non-biological process of engaging with death and decay thus creating complex social issues around digital persistence (Odom, et al. 2010). Thus the future and ‘immortality’ of the human being lies in incompleteness; where the absence provokes a process of infinite re-creating and ‘re-reading’ of a human through the Derridean notion of ‘grapheme’. In his work entitled Of Grammatology Jacques Derrida expresses the sense of writing as a "notion of writing, trace, gramme [written mark], or grapheme […] we say ‘writing’ for all that gives rise to an inscription in general, whether it is literal or not and even if what it distributes in space is alien to the order of voice:

cinematography, choreography, of course, but also pictorial, musical, sculptural ‘writing’ […] essence and the content of these activities themselves" (Derrida, 1978, p.9). Following this thought, an absence that is enclosed in a figure or ‘grapheme’ could be seen as presence/label/identity - the 'digital remains'. Furthermore, the networking of ones ‘digital remains’ leads us to consider what place digital information has in our lives, both sentimentally and historically. When considering the sentimentality of digital data and the relationships we form in the digital world, one must consider how trust (Panteli, 2004) and empathy (Lambropoulos, 2005), can be evolved within the virtual space. By considering recent research into simulation, projection (Zahavi 2008) and mirror neurons (Gallese, et al. 2007) we seek to explore whether relationships, and the memory of those relationships, can be fully cognized when mediated. Or does this mediation (Dijck, 2007), ultimately change the way we form attachments and trigger memories? (Flusser, 1990).

The archiving of this data also leads us to consider Digital Archaeology (Kelsey, 2005), which akin to its real world counterpart comprises of the analysis of human traces. Digital information, therefore if seen in this context, has the potential to provide a detailed account of our present Digital Heritage (Lusenet, 2002): comprising of society, identity and culture. This digital space has different set of rules to the physical world and therefore raises questions of how one can perceive oneself as 'me' or another as 'you' without their Embodied Heritage. Which leads to the question of whether physical death can be perceived through the lens of non-physical space (Pitsillides, et al. 2009)? As stated by Brassier, “let us guard against saying death is the opposite of life; the living creature is simply a kind of dead creature, and a very rare kind” (Brassier, 2007, p.205). Thus absence may not be an

opposite of presence, and presence is a kind of absence. Such as presence which relays on representation, for example presence of the word ‘absence’ which represents ‘ ’. Moreover the presence of something which seems obvious 'to be', may be an absence, as considered by Appignaesi in his statement, “nobody has ever seen a society. Nobody has ever seen a beginning. An end. Nobody has ever seen a world” (Appignanesi, 1989, p.23).


However in accordance with the consideration, that there may truly be no beginning and no end, we move to consider what would happen if something is missing, incomplete or simply not acknowledged? We begin to look at various sites and junctures where the theory we have developed thus far can act and interact with human being, allowing us to trace this development.

3.1 Missing e-Mail

The contemporary “Homo-Interneticas” (Krotoski, 2010) is familiar with sorting, logging and analysing e-mails. However despite this familiarity, we do not often consider the system of exchange and emotional investment we initiate, by simply sending e-mail. Within this section, we question what happens to both the communication and the individual themselves, when our systems of communication break down. How do human beings deal with this ‘absence’ in the age of information excess? Moreover, how long does it take before a person begins to question ‘the e-mail’s’ lack of presence and commence in the construction of narratives around the traces surrounding this and previous communication(s)? Thus the lack of communication is transformed into a ‘new form’ of communication, built upon the uncertainty, cognition and non-documentation one experiences through this ‘missing’ communication.

Furthermore, because this form of digital communication exists solely in our minds, as memory, it plays on “our ability to [accurately] predict and explain the actions [of others]… to project ourselves imaginatively into their situation,” (Zahavi, 2008) so the ‘missing’ data initiates a form of empathetic memory and cognition that generally is not instigated in day-to-day e-mail correspondence. This is because “electronic memories can be informed more easily then cerebral memories, they store information much longer, and they permit an ease of copying of that

Immortal ‘Brand Me’: Identity Immersion in a Digital Space

Sylwia Dobkowska Stacey Pitsillides Duncan Fairfax

information…[therefore] we need no longer attempt to store this information in our brain”(Flusser, 1990). Thus, it is evident, that because we cannot document the e-mail we did not receive; we are more likely to remember it and allow it to affect or add to our identity. This could be initiated through simply thinking about the absent 'e-mail' or through testing the reality of it being 'missing' with those around us or even through responding directly to the absence through communication. This is further enhanced if the e-mail in question insights a reaction in us, for example: annoyance, emotional vulnerability or anger. This reaction is linked to us questioning the reason behind the e-mail’s absence and it is potential importance in our lives. If not through simple memory, “how [can] you photograph [or document] ‘the intangible presence of absence’?” (Farrell, 2001) and is it necessary to have such a complete documentation or evidence

of every event?

3.2 Experimentation in Splitting the Digital Self

How do digital artefacts engage and enrich a person’s digital identity? To start understanding this an experiment was undertaken in which four elements of a person's digital self (a random selection of Facebook photos, avatar screen shots,

a screenshot of their inbox and a screenshot of

their desktop) were separated and given to four

separate groups (of around ten individuals) to analyze and discover any information they could "

about who "this person was

The results yielded some interesting observations.

The group who analyzed the Facebook photos 'discovered' qualitative information and reported this person to be a young, female, art or design, full time student. Their proof was that she appeared to be young and trendy, attended a lot of parties and appeared in hot spots in East London, wearing Tatty Divine. Another group were presented with screen shots of her avatar. They 'discovered' that this person to be a teenage boy, possibly around fourteen, as the female avatar depicted, was what many members of the group termed to be ‘an idealized version of a woman.’ The group whose job it was to analyze the person’s inbox 'discovered' that this person was a middle aged man, ‘who had very few friends’. Their reasoning for believing this was his multiple e-mails from companies regarding business opportunities and time saving strategies and only one personal message. The last group were given a screenshot

of the person’s desktop; this led them to 'discover'

that this person was a young female designer, they reasoned this because she had a feminine vintage print as her desktop wallpaper and the Mac

desktop contained various design programs. They

also discovered through many icons, her interest in craft and tattoos and reasoned that she is thinking

of starting a business, as icons containing business

plans and strategies littered the desktop. All groups were surprised when it was revealed that each of

these sources were an element of the same person's digital persona.

The results of this experiment makes one wonder how much we actually know about a person if all we have to go on is one source or a ‘part’ of their digital identity? It also proves that if we are to begin using digital data as 'digital historical artefacts' we must consider how reliable each source is and how many sources we must evaluate in order to get valid results. Furthermore this study questions whether the digital self can be split or if must be kept whole to give useful qualitative data? Moreover does the de-contextualization of digital data provide a flawed or false identity? It follows that “communication media and the historical development of inequality and power have expanded the role of the dead from the family to wider communities, states, and even the entire world…whereas the oral, and especially in hunter gatherer, societies, the role of the dead in society is predictable, i.e. limited within the family to ancestors of a particular gender, today the role of the dead is much more variable, and subject to change” (Walter, 2008). Therefore, it is evident that throughout the ages both narratives and artefacts have played a key role in keeping the memory of ancestors and important people alive. In the digital age we can all join in this form of immortality. Our information, image and writings have an equal potential of remaining online and being ‘rediscovered,’ as anyone else’s. “Through digital memory… [we are surveyed] not just in every corner but also across time” (Mayer-Schonberger,


3.3 Public Grief as a Connection Point.

The death of Princess Diana was an event that shook the British public and perhaps remains one of the most poignant moments of public grief in recent British history. Thus it is often referred to as ‘the day that will remain in the memory of the British public forever.' In England grief is generally

a private emotion, experienced only within a close

network of friends and family who knew the person directly (Hockey, Small 2001),(Walter, 2008). Diana was a public figure, 'the people's princess.' This made people feel like they could share in this loss and publicly express the grief they felt. Through this shared emotion a bond was created within the British public; for a couple of days millions of

Immortal ‘Brand Me’: Identity Immersion in a Digital Space

Sylwia Dobkowska Stacey Pitsillides Duncan Fairfax

people shared both experience and identity. They were: ‘the bereaved British public who had just lost their Princess.’ "Many people across the country brought [flowers] and placed them along with very


single flower with a message

Lady, Rest in Peace, With Love, Sam (A homeless friend)' "(Walter, 1999, online). Through this example we see the vast and varied cross section of society who felt genuine loss and engaged in communal grief. Public grief can be considered as a “way of rebuilding community,” and through grief we feel a connection to each other and associate with each other in an emotional way. Public grief has taken place for as long as we have had


personal messages written on attached cards

read 'Beautiful

Recently we have seen a shift in the ritual and practice of public grief. The specific nature of the online space allows public grief to be used as a connecting point, allowing for the internet's quality of “ridiculously easy group-forming” (Shirkey, 2008) to be put in play. Through the relative ease and cheapness of digitality, people are given the opportunity to unite in their grief and form strong if transient bonds, with others around them grieving. The Internet allows for an almost viral spread of tribute and immortalization which has the added possibility to remain, not only in the 'memory' of the public but in their processors and networks. The presence of the Internet in this form of global memorialisation demonstrates a paradigm shift to the previous model of communal mourning. This shift means that any person can now quickly and cheaply announce their grief globally, thus identifying themselves as part of an online community that is no longer focused within a specific district or even a specific nation. This has also caused a shift in the dynamics of power in collective mourning. In the past, communal mourning on a global scale could only be achieved through fame or status. Now, not only can we remember on a global scale but we can also ‘be remembered’ globally. In this paradigm, people from all over the world have the opportunity to group together and feel that moment of connection (togetherness).







Through choosing a group or 'space' of belonging one might begin to select and narrate one's own image and identity. Representations of desire or conscious decisions - ‘Labels of self’, may not represent directly embodied existence, but they create an embodiment of absent existence themselves, such as traces do. Traces could be

memories, which are created through re- membering or/and re-using one path of a thought or a movement. In digital space the physical body is substituted by multiple identities, (the ‘mega identity’), which is constituted, not only by the identity itself but by the conversations, actions and interactions with 'others' within the network. Our experience or communication with other users creates a kind of force feedback cycle which reflects back into our own 'brand me'. Therefore it could be stated that “the very absence of the [body] renders the “force” of that absence all the more powerful. Absence of ones body in digital environment provokes the state of incompleteness which uncovers creativity. This expands the lack of physical materiality into the socio-cultural idea of presence. Therefore ones 'being' can be either stated by multiplicity of identities, or belonging to collectivity of others forming the bigger 'me' (togetherness).

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Figure 1: Diagram showing the complex interrelation of narrative and identify.

However, what if try to rethink this issue with our attention on the notion of absence mentioned in the introduction. This "in between state" which could be the 'make-up,' identity of a person in digital space. This absence in between, the decentred formless “personality” is what one without a physical body can be. "When the [body] cannot be seen, when it exists as not-being-there – in gaps, the seams, the blanks and emptiness of the spacing – then the absence is all the more efficient and present as it shapes what is there by what is not there – by the vacancy between one word and the next, one

Immortal ‘Brand Me’: Identity Immersion in a Digital Space

Sylwia Dobkowska Stacey Pitsillides Duncan Fairfax

person and another, one moment and the next.” (McDonald, 1979, p.155) It is this, the connection of the "in between", the very labeled identities which makes a person ‘the person,’ or 'this' particular person whom 'I knew' (Walter, 1996). Through virtuality, or the enactment of ones self within the virtual space there is a development and encompassing of these absences, of 'in between' definitions of 'me.' This decentred formless “personality” is disembodied forming the absent/presence and present/absence. Here the human is a journey towards the future, an endless process of becoming rather than a 'body'. With accordance to Derridean notion of writing as becoming, there evolves a significant question, which is how can you 'write' a human through being in a digital space without typing them out in words.


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Immortal ‘Brand Me’: Identity Immersion in a Digital Space

Sylwia Dobkowska Stacey Pitsillides Duncan Fairfax

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