Social Media and The Public Space of Appearance

The latest podcast episode seems to have received some attention, and the hope is that the number of listeners will continue to grow with every weekly episode. This has made me think about the extent to which the capability for discourse in this contemporary time has dilated across the horizontalist basis of our communities – where all can communicate with all. More now than ever, individuals can communicate with the wider global ether of persons without having to engage in the materially social world. Social media enables discourse and as such has excavated a truly public space in-between person. It is not a typical discourse that creates the basis of a civic polity, however, it is a discourse that is in almost every sense virtual. But why is a publica spatium necessitous to politics? In her ‘Men in Dark Times’, Hannah Arendt sheds a light on this. Here she states that: “it is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and in word, for better or worse, who they are and what they can do” – emphasising as always the potential for action as the stuff of politics par excellence.[1]

The virtual nature of social media does seem to adapt its own fabric as a publica spatium into a publicum sine spatio status corporis – a public space without any physical state. The lack of physicality that we experience on social media implies that our appearance in that public space is equally non-physical. Indeed, there are two interesting notions about the manner in which we ‘appear’ and ‘speak’ on social media. The first concerns our ‘appearance’. How does one ‘appear’ in a space that one cannot corporeally inhabit? Simply put, we do not. We inhabit the ‘profile’ of an external self. We create ‘accounts’ which provides a dual function: (a) it allows us, as users, to become the author of the narrative that we construct – the narrative of the profile – and, (b) it keeps a ledger of our activity, as if one banks the accumulation of social capital through our increased activity and inhabitation of the non-space at hand. So, our appearance is not necessarily a genuine one – enabling us to operate as non-tangible social beings on a level that is but a shadow in the mirror of the material world, and thus, the author of our virtual narrative. We do not appear; our virtual avatar connects with the virtual avatars of others, behind the veil of which they may or may not be what they appear. In this way, the connection between the subject and their appearance on this plane is not guaranteed, and as such, appearance is not the guarantor of a profile’s material existence. Does this hold political consequences – if one can ‘appear’ but on a plane of existence where ‘appearance’ is substance-less?

The second notion I would like to discuss concerns ‘speech’. Social media is always interesting in the manner that speech is thoroughly limited on a temporal basis. Speech on social media is not speech at all, but rather speech reduced to its skeletal form in text. ‘Speaking’ on social media is to become the columnist or writer. The difference being that profiles engage with one another through what I will call ‘text-speech’. Text-speech is neither text nor speech and yet somehow both. On Twitter, one is limited to 280 characters per each act of ‘speech’. If this were to take place in the material publica spatium it would immanentize itself as a temporal limit of sorts, with a red flag being raised once 280 characters were spoken. Public discourse could not take place on such a basis – reducing the ‘speech’ of social media to interpretable text, but limited text as if single, or dual, sentences at most. Furthermore, the ‘essay’ of a post on social media exposes the neither/nor nature of text-speech, reaching a point that is the reverse of the limited text as just discussed – one becomes conscious that one’s linguistic utterance is gravitating towards text, becoming greater or longer than the average posits of speech. On the one hand, one ignores the textual nature of text-speech, and on the other one becomes conscious that the utterance under construction is becoming text. Does the phenomenal adaptation of ‘speech’ to what we experience in a publicum sine spatio status corporis adapt its civic character as a publicum spatium nonethteless? Does it create of politics of speech that is distinct from that we experience in the material public space?

Therefore, social media disenables us to appear and to speak as if we were an operator in the publica spatium, and as such functions as if it were a parallel of it – a public space of substance-less appearance – of a substance-less space. Perhaps this means that it creates a substance-less-politic, one that mirrors the materiality of one’s own ontological existence on this digital plane. However, access to the public world of social media is dependent on one’s material conditions. The mission statement of twitter is to increase epistemic connectivity ‘without barriers’, and yet there are very material barriers to engaging with social media – such as internet connectivity. In her ‘For a Left Populism’ Chantal Mouffe re-asserts a claim she has often made, stating that collective concepts such as ‘the people’ are always inclusively exclusive – there is always a notion of underlying exclusivity in the very illusion of inclusivity by the manner in which we construct these concepts.[2] The claims to ‘global’ connectivity are geographic only, eluding to the inclusion of all but formally excluding many in their very functioning. Taking all of this into account, perhaps our interactivity on social media has created a new ‘posthumanist’ cyborg of dual existence – at once both ontologically material and digitally non-substantially technological? Perhaps Donna Haraway is right.[3] Perhaps we are indeed entering the era of the cyborg – but not in the materiality that may have been assumed. And, equally, perhaps those who remain singularly ‘human’ – residing in the material world alone – being not included into the category of posthuman subject, will be (ironically) deemed sub- or in-human; perhaps they already are deemed so?

What am I Currently Reading? 

(1) Ernst H. Kantorowicz - 'The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology'
(2) Roberto Esposito - 'Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy'
(3) Martin Wight - 'Systems of States'
(4) Victoria Kahn, 'Political Theology and Fiction in The King's Two Bodies', Representations, 2009, 106(1), pp. 77-101

[1] Hannah Arendt (1969) Men in Dark Times, New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, p. viii.

[2] Chantal Mouffe (2018) For a Left Populism, London: Verso.

[3] Donna J Haraway (1991) A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”, in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, pp. 149-181.