|The analogical-digital subject: ubiquitous identity in transit within and against techno-communication
Marialaura Ghidini: I’d like to start by asking you a bit about the genealogy of your work as an anthropologist. How did your interest in digital culture and art begin?
Massimo Canevacci: My anthropological story was very accidental — I’ll summarise it briefly. I worked at Alitalia for ten years, then I graduated on the Frankfurt School. A professor of cultural anthropology was curious because he was working on the anthropology of complex societies and invited me to the university as a tutor to do seminars; I was a temp at the university almost until the end. The first course I was able to take as an adjunct professor was in 1990 in Sociology at La Sapienza [Rome, Italy] — I was a researcher and will have been until my early retirement. In this first course, I was faced with a large number of students who were very interested in changing, I won’t say the world, but almost! They were very advanced students who were the first ever — I think not only in Rome — to set up the first BBS at Forte Prenestino, which is a historic self-managed social centre, indeed the first — an extraordinary and beautiful place. They called it AvAnA BBS. These students started inviting me to participate in discussions about the digital, but I didn’t understand anything! [laughter] In the sense that I had absolutely no proper training (I don’t even have it now!) to understand these phenomena. But I was very interested in this emerging dimension, and also in the relationships between digital communication and forms of opposition, conflict and also innovation that the students — who were also friends, people with whom we worked together — were anticipating.
From there began a whole series of invitations to meetings outside the university in which we started to discuss the meaning of the digital. And I was trying to include anthropological elements; certainly those linked to an identity that was no longer based on a historical dimension and to a unique identity, but also those linked to the difficulty of continuing the public-private distinction, to the crisis of the dialectic, and to the question of representation (and self-representation) that digital communication favoured. In the sense that it was no longer the professors or the journalists who were interpreting these young people, but these young people were interpreting themselves and very well. Indeed, they were also interpreting professors and questioning the university education. In short, they were in a position of radical innovation.
M.G.: What a fascinating story.
M.C.: This is where the decentralised centre of my research opens up, that is, the reflection on fetishism which had already started a long time ago. Fetishism has always fascinated me since my first readings as a student of Marx, of course, and then also of Freud, Benjamin, Adorno. I have always tried to understand how fetishism influences the dimension of culture, sexuality and bodies in the contemporary world.
M.G.: An anthropology that I think we really need! It’s interesting because the way you explained the role of anthropology relates back to the idea of the space of conflict that was created with your students online, with the BBS. This space that gave way to conflicting ideas.
M.C.: That was a foundational period in my life, and also for some students with whom I still maintain a relationship of deep friendship and intimacy.
M.G.: In your work you have addressed the sense of ubiquity of the digital subject, who can be simultaneously in different times and spaces, as a modus operandi in web culture. I find it very interesting that you approached this issue as a potentiality rather than a problem. For example, ubiquity as a situation that allows for the emergence of an individuality that brings into question the issue of representation, how and “who represents whom.” How can the digital subject affect contemporary narratives and social imagination?
M.C.: This is a question I’m so pleased with since the concept of ubiquity is the favourite, because it’s the last concept that came to me. I’m making a sort of moving constellation of my concepts that I consider fundamental to my research — as they have developed over time — and ubiquity came precisely as the last. It came when I was still in Brazil — I taught and lived in Brazil for a long time, where I taught at an institute of advanced studies in the city of São Paulo (IEA/USP).
Returning to Rome, and living in Rome’s Pigneto district, I realised that this experience of ubiquity produced contrasting reactions. It certainly produced these cosmopolitan, liberating and pluralising dimensions, but it also produced a terror, or a demand to affirm one’s own territoriality; indeed, to invent a territory because the territory has never remained a-historical, it has always changed. Therefore, especially in people of a certain age but also among some young people, there is an unchanging territory that is being invented within which one always remains with that family, with that sex, with that job. And thus they remain ‘calm’ to manage their whole life. Certainly the resentment that is spreading, even the hatreds that we are familiar with in digital communication, stems precisely from the difficulty of accepting ubiquitous identities, and of preferring a dimension of a stable, unchanging territory, upon which the most conservative and reactionary forces, not to say worse, are playing. Because everyone knows very well that it doesn’t work that way. But the cynicism of a certain kind of politics plays precisely on fear, on this desire for stability, for a stability that can certainly give you some consolation, but travelling, being travelled, abandoning oneself to the experiences of transit is, for me, a fundamentally liberating experience. But I can understand why so many people, especially these cynical politicians, use the power of territory in a cynical way, and also the power of sexuality which is always seen in binary terms, and therefore attack these concepts and also that of gender. But if the sexes are two (as I used to say in class), the genders are infinite — erotica is bio-cultural it’s never just biological thankfully.
M.G.: This is all very interesting to me because I wasn’t connecting the idea of territory, the general necessity of human beings to map out territory, and therefore of stability, to the negative rhetoric about ubiquity (about being in different places at the same time), and therefore to the possibilities opened up by digital culture. Your perspective is positive, not critical.
M.C.: This belongs to the whole narrative within the university. Not only because change, as I mentioned in the first question, is often — or rather, it’s normally — seen in negative terms. I define myself as a constructivist. That is, I like to stay within the flow of change and transit, however tumultuous; the transitive dimension, also transient, of our subjectivity, of our desires, but also of our deeper research from the theoretical point of view, are decisive. What is at the heart of my research, and I think it still is, is precisely trying to identify those transformative forces that constitute a liberating and progressive dimension of happiness that is different from that of the past. And the dimension of ubiquity represents that continuity, the one that arrives in more recent times — that’s why it’s somewhat my favourite. It’s a beloved child because it’s the very thing that will be able to allow us, if we engage with it creatively, to assert a profound change in history, in the stories that are there.
M.G.: After the exploratory times of the early web (often referred to as the utopian web), followed by the sociability of Web 2.0 and its more user-friendly interfaces, we now navigate a quite different digital landscape. The online environment is now increasingly made up of autonomous, commerce- and product-driven worlds that more rigidly dictate user’s behaviours. How do you think our relationship with the online space has changed?
M.C.: Of course, I have already partly answered this question. But this opens up a critical dimension I think it’s good to underline. In the sense that, while maintaining all my constructivist reflections, it’s certain that the web, and digital communication, had this sort of utopia of horizontality at the beginning of the Nineties, of giving a voice and a means of communication to those who had never had one. Hence, my research on indigenous cultures was fundamental, for example. Being among the Bororo in Mato Grosso in Brazil, I was able to verify with great joy that they were using not only the smartphone but also the computer. So they were inside digital communication. And this allowed for a radical change in the ethnographic method. That is, with respect to a ritual where I had been invited and participated, I was not only the main subject who represented. The concept of self-representation came to me at that moment: it’s the indigenous people who are self-representing themselves. The anthropologist, the journalist, and the politician no longer have the exclusive power to represent the other, because the other represents themselves, and even represents me as an anthropologist. This is an extraordinary paradigm shift. And this is due to digital technologies because, previously, analog cameras were very expensive, very complicated, heavy, etc. etc.. Whereas, on the contrary, digital systems (not only video cameras, but also simple mobile phones) allow, at truly zero cost, to represent one’s daily life, and even ritual life. This has been, and still is for me, a process of liberation of the subjects. Marx had a limit: he spoke of the social division of labor, but alongside the social division of labor there is also the communicational division of subjects. That is, there is a part of humanity that has always been narrated, and another part of humanity that had the power to narrate. This is another dichotomous aspect that has deformed, that is, oriented in a colonial and Euro-western sense, the representation of the other who became as ‘I’ represented them. But once the other is represented — in indigenous culture, but also in the young and the very young, in the cities and whatnot — that makes you change your perspective.
M.G.: Here you have perhaps already partly offered me the answer to the question I wanted to ask you about the ubiquitous digital subject. Do you think it can play a role in giving new forms to the use of digital technology (to the rules and assumptions determined by its producers), and therefore to the relationship between their users?
M.C.: I’m convinced of it. Only a subject that I would call more analogue-digital than digital can do that. Because we know very well that almost all the analogical dimensions within our corporeality are inserted within the digital one, so our bodies are analogical-digital and we could also define them (just as I was talking about immanent transcendence before) trying to mix these two concepts that were perceived as different before. I see analog and digital as material-immaterial — I put the two words unified. Our experience is material-immaterial, and so is the analog-digital subject, which prefigures and continues to imagine my perspective. Only this can transform the current context.
M.G.: In Rome?
M.G.: I think that’s what happened even where I am, and other places too.
M.C.: I’m absolutely convinced of it, because these subjects came from far away, they needed to talk to friends and relatives, and the telephone system of the early Nineties was very expensive. And they were the first to industrialise to put these services in their little stores, which were laundries, bars, and other different things. And so the subjects of immigration are an incredible wealth. That is, they bring us, and I emphasise this, innovation — they can bring us other problems too of course but problems are part of life, and a life without problems what would it be?
M.G.: I agree!
M.C.: I’m also very pleased with this question. I’ve recently come back to that part I wrote off the cuff about res publica.
I confirm that the concept of republic for me is far more advanced than the concept of democracy for many reasons, and in particular for this word res, which is a word of extraordinary complexity and fascination. It’s singular and plural, and in this sense it fascinates me even more because res is within the discourse we were having earlier on plural identity, on this ubiquitous identity. And then there is the fact that this concept of the thing is very difficult to fix in the dictionary. I will always remember, when there were dictionaries (now there are almost no more!), the pages dedicated to res and thing: they were very long because there is a real difficulty in defining this concept of thing. This is part of a reflection that I have carried out for some time before the pandemic, and also at present, which is that on the utility of things — with reference to Walter Benjamin. Benjamin said precisely that things don’t have to be useful, they don’t have to be merely useful, or essentially useful. To separate utility from the thing allows you to have a relationship with the thing that is not the object external to you, but becomes, like I mentioned before, a thing-subject.
The concept of private, of interiority or rather of the interiour, the private office-room of the bourgeois was born in Paris in the middle of the eighteenth century – two centuries ago! So the public-private dialectic belongs especially to the history of the West. But at present it’s increasingly difficult to talk about the dialectic between public and private; both because dialectic is now a concept that must be retired, because it is universalist, dichotomous etc. etc., and because with social networks public-private are mixed. And this is one of the biggest problems that is rampant. That is, if you are a person who wants to simply have a private dimension, you have to understand that on social networks that dimension immediately becomes public. So you have to pay attention to what you can put on this sphere, and other things that should remain in your personal dimension. To make a long story short, I would never put, for example, that I have experienced a family bereavement on a social network — I find it absurd. That’s because there’s a sense of confidentiality that always has to be somewhat attended to by our subjectivity. We don’t have to move randomly but to perceive that the thing, this fascinating thing that is within our relationships with the world, must affirm a non-anthropocentric conception.
It’s no longer about claiming like the great Greek philosophy, and then also so many other authors, that the man is the centre of all things, and neither are humans — men and women. We can no longer claim that. The thing allows us to facilitate this transit towards a non-anthropocentric anthropology in which it’s no longer the human being at the centre of all things, but we are certainly the humans, we are the animals, we are the vegetables, we are the rocks and minerals, and even, if you want, we are the divine, the divine being: a plural decentralised centre that is not centralising but decentralising. I have to feel that the thing as subject is a constitutive part of the transformation of what is now increasingly called the Anthropocene. By now it’s clear that evolution (my teachers like Gregory Bateson have always stated this) is a co-evolution between nature and culture, and inside there are technologies, techno-cultures. So the Anthropocene evolves thanks (sometimes not only thanks but by misfortune!) what humans insert inside. So if we have this vision of a non-anthropocentric anthropology, we are inside another process in which the subjective dimension expands. And we have to expand the juridical subjectivity not only, but I would say mainly, to our immigrants, but also to all the things around us, to see them with tenderness and with affection. This cosmos of ours, this cosmology of things, is the anthropological constellation in mutation: the mutant anthropology.
M.G.: I’ve often mulled over a section of Minima Viralia where you say, “paradoxically, by staying put at home everything that happens outside engages me and overwhelms me.” You’ve already told me about this idea of the connected world and connected subjects. But I’m interested in this idea of the home, of feeling overwhelmed while staying at home, in a home that had turned into a home-world during the quarantine. What do you think this period of our lives that has been heavily mediated by digital platforms is actually creating?
M.C.: This was certainly a difficult challenge; personally, not only as an anthropologist but as a traveller — I have travelled a lot — and also as a walker – I like walking a lot. I’ve been able to accomplish some of my most important research, especially in São Paulo (in this complicated, diverse and partly kindred metropolis), by walking; and also in Rome. Walking for me is also a methodological experience, as well as an emotional one. In class, I always explained how to walk [laughter], especially in areas that you know very well, thinking you understand everything and have seen everything, but you haven’t. I used to talk about the oblique gaze and a whole series of optical suggestions (“getting-yourself-seen”, “getting-yourself-eye”).
M.G.: I have a question that concerns online art exhibitions during the pandemic, but before I ask it I wonder if you’ve been following them. The question is related to the trend of replicating offline spaces, such as those of the art gallery, online to recreate the idea of immersion in the contemplation of the artwork.
M.C.: More than events I had a lot of connections with people working in the arts who would send me photographs or maybe short videos. It’s an important thing this that you say, but if you’re referring to the time of the seclusion, I don’t recall having those experiences. I participated in discussions, webinars, etc.
M.G.: And here is my last question. What role can art (online or otherwise) play in deepening, and perhaps complicating, our relationship with the idea of public space?
M.C.: Tackling art in the last question means opening ten thousand closets! [laughter]
There are some components of the arts, which are the performing and live arts, in which not only the public-private distinction but also that of the art gallery are broken. The example I would most like to mention is that of the Brazilian artist Néle Azevedo — there would be a story to tell but I’ll summarise it for you. When I was in the south of Brazil, one day I saw a picture of Florence with many ice statues in the newspaper La Repubblica. So I searched for the artist, we got in touch (she lives in São Paulo) and I met her. Néle Azevedo develops a critique of the concept of monument — monuments, these beings that are in the stones and bronze fixed in the cities, so threatening, dark — and has sought another dimension that I’m going to summarise. Néle must have big trucks with freezing facilities, and she puts ice shapes in them; lots and lots of beings all looking the same, just sitting around. There can be hundreds of them, and in Manchester, at the World War I memorial, there were five thousand. She takes these freezers to the places she chooses, which are public spaces — in São Paulo in one of the staircases where there is a famous museum of contemporary art by Oscar Niemeyer; in Rome, in the Giardino degli Aranci, which is one of the most beautiful places in the city. People have to take these objects, these ice people, and they have to put them on a step because they are made to sit, but also on trees. Then people who are supposed to be spectators are no longer just spectators but are co-creators of the works. What happens then? These beings are initially all the same, like us humans, but after a few seconds they begin to differentiate themselves because, being in the atmosphere, they begin to melt. And melting creates shapes that are different from each other. Each frozen being thaws out and becomes what we all are a little bit too, which is beings that are all different that hook up and become like a pair of lovers, sometimes, or stay isolated and sad. And the co-author can move between them, and also pick them up and move them around. The author is no longer just Néle; the authors become all the people who co-construct the performative event, which is also temporary because then, little by little, all these frozen beings melt, become smaller and smaller, one different from the other, and at the end all that remains is a pool of water. Then there is nothing left, not even the water that dries up. And so here a reflection opens up on a temporary art that lives only in that moment and in that place, and then it’s gone: it vanishes. The art certainly remains in the images, but mainly it remains in the memory and in the emotions. I remember that in Rome people laughed and cried. It was an almost Dionysian frenzy that was set in motion among people. Then they would stop in the last few moments, right in front of the disappearance of life, of the work, of each one of us.
* Ius Culturae is a principle of the Italian law according to which foreign minors can acquire the citizenship of the country in which they were born or in which they have lived for a certain number of years.