Facebook’s Public Subjectivity

Rebekah Judson’s blog post a couple of weeks ago about online privacy, as well as a conversation with my mother, got me thinking about a different kind of privacy: our privacy from each other. My mother is far from technophobic — she spends nearly all of her time on the internet, has a deep and clear understanding of computer commands, and the general know-how of anyone of my generation — but, to this day, she cannot grasp why anyone would use Facebook. “Why don’t you just email them?” she said. “I don’t understand!”

Well, for one (I tried to explain), it’s a lot less weird — you have to go out of your way to email someone, you have to know his or her email address; Facebook makes online contact a lot more casual. You don’t look like you’re trying too hard.

But then why not just use Facebook’s private messaging function? Why this public display of the Facebook wall? What my mother, I think, doesn’t realize, is the value of performative communication, the inherent invitation to others to watch and join in. Writing on someone’s Facebook wall is like talking to him or her at a party and grinning at everyone around you; sending a message is like going over to his or her house.

And this seems to bother a lot of people. I run into a lot of people, and read a lot of online articles, that claim that the publicization of communication renders everything “inauthentic”, that services like Facebook and Twitter are inherently narcissistic, that we have become more fake and image-conscious than those generations before us. But I’m of the opinion that the performativity of Facebook is perhaps not as new as we might think.

Take, for example, the letter. When we think of the letter, we think of an inherently private medium — exemplified by the fact that reading someone else’s mail is a felony. But this wasn’t always the case: for most of their history, letters were short and informative, and when they were received, everyone would gather around and someone who could read would read the letter aloud to the assembled audience (think of Paul’s epistles to the Philippians, Corinthians, Ephesians, et. al.). In fact, the general public’s ability to read silently is said to have originated somewhere around 900 A.D.!

But feudal ways of thinking and communicating were one thing, and bourgeois habits were another thing altogether. In his landmark book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jürgen Habermas argues that the separation of “public” and “private” spheres, which today we take for granted, was in fact a bourgeois invention. In a chapter largely about the reconfiguration of the home into public and private space (as well as the transformation of the large feudal, household into the small, private family), Habermas talks about the reconceptualization of the letter: “In the intimate sphere of the conjugal family privatized individuals viewed themselves as independent even from the private sphere of their economic activity—as persons capable of entering into ‘purely human’ relations with one another. The literary form of these at the time was the letter. It is no accident that the eighteenth century became the century of the letter; through letter writing the individual unfolded himself in his subjectivity.”

This isn’t to say at all, Habermas points out, that these letters were supposed to be absolutely private. “Subjectivity, as the innermost core of the private, was already oriented to an audience,” he says, and gives us the examples of letters lent to strangers to borrow and copy, as well as “correspondences intended from the outset for publication.” What was different about these new letters, then, was this kind of pretending. The authors were aware of a potential larger audience, but nevertheless refused to openly acknowledge that possibility, maintaining the guise of private correspondence: writing intimate letters to one specific recipient. The aesthetic value of the letters lay in their very “authenticity” or “genuineness” — these were real letters, between real people — and yet the only way to make good of that aesthetic value was to betray what made them valuable in the first place. It was a performance of the private staged in the public.

It is this performance that reminds me of Facebook. When we write an email, we know it’s private; when we write wall posts, we generally address them to one specific person or specific people, even though we craft them knowing that everyone is watching. “Sorry for creeping,” we’ll apologize, sometimes, when commenting on something that wasn’t addressed to us — but isn’t that the whole point?


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