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Immortal ‘Brand Me’
Identity Immersion in a Digital Space
Sylwia Dobkowska Stacey Pitsillides Duncan Fairfax
Goldsmiths Goldsmtihs Goldsmiths
University of London University of London University of London
Dobkowska.s@gmail.com Stacey.pitsillides@gmail.com d.fairfax@gold.ac.uk
ABSTRACT
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

1. INTRODUCTION
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
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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
"memory-traces of the past... 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
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?
2. BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE
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

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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).
3. SITUATIONAL EXAMPLES OF
IDENTIFICATION AND COLLABORATIVE
IDENTITY
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
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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,
2009).
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
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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
personal messages written on attached cards ... A
single flower with a message ... read 'Beautiful
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
community.
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).
4. CONCLUSION, NARRATIVES AND THE
BIGGER PICTURE
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).
group
digital
physical
part of shared
cultural identity
ME
share
share
share
[a] possible

narrative

group
digital
physical
part of shared
cultural identity
ME
share
share
share
[b] possible

narrative


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
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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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