Inkjet print on rag paper, painted frame, aluminum composite material
Personalization purports to be about the individual, to be about nothing but the individual. It promises, in fact, to augment the individuality of the individual. But at the same time, personalization necessitates a conversation about a particular form of grouping. This is especially true in networked and computational forms of personalization. This essay, in being about the burgeoning personalization industry that is now headquartered online, is then necessarily about that form of grouping or group form. This is not a paradox in a technical sense, although it will feel like one in most other senses. The groups I’ll be discussing aren’t ones built through self-consciousness or will or even, exactly, by force or coercion. They are more passive voice constructions, assembled automatically, records of ordinary life lived in proximity to electronic networks. Data is the singular plural shorthand we give to this process, a process with neither end nor origin, whose subject is actually quite difficult to locate, given that the person form of personalization is a derivative: generated not just from the surveillance of a single, named life but also from the concatenation of lives that are depersonalized by newer, weirder forms of belonging such as likes and preferences.
In late 1947, the Iraqi poet Nazik al-Mala’ika published “Cholera,” a poem inspired by radio reports about the epidemic then raging through Egypt, one of the largest cholera outbreaks of the twentieth century, which left 20,000 dead in its wake. Al-Mala’ika’s poem, first printed in the Lebanese magazine al-‘Uruba (Arabism), is a work of anguished witness. The poet urges her readers to “listen” to the cries of the dying and the lamentations of the bereaved as they echo along the Nile Valley. She figures the disease as a vengeful fury whose casualties are too numerous to count. For the first fifty-one lines of “Cholera,” a monostrophic poem of four thirteen-line stanzas, the speaker hovers over the foreign scene like a tragic chorus. She sets the drama in motion and adds her horrified commentary. In the final verse, she steps forward to apostrophize the victim: “O Egypt, I am shattered by what death has done.”
There is nothing original in pointing to political philosophy’s long tendency to mark out for concern, and most often for strict exclusion, certain groups or individuals. Less commonly noted is the extent to which the tradition’s great representatives have, in one way or another, claimed such groups or individuals to present a principle of unrest significant enough to threaten the state and the state-based existence that the tradition has, almost without exception, always advocated and always claimed its own. For the philosophical tradition in question, with the state comes the possibility of peace and security, and with the felicitous state there should come too what Aristotle called εὐδαιμονία (eudaimonia)–the possibility of a life that is more than just life, the possibility, in short, of a good life.
Thanks to Michel Foucault, one might say it has become possible to conceive that the political relevance of humanity in modern thought does not have to do with its “philosophical essence” but rather with its “nonessence.” Yet this very idea surfaced earlier in Western thought, at the time of the revolutionary turn towards a politicized humanitarianism, and helped to shape some crucial political strategies making up modern liberal democracy. Its potential eluded even Foucault. I contend that tracing the contours of this classical, if long unthinkable idea can inform our response to the other of social critique.
Earth system science (ESS), the science that among other things explains planetary warming and cooling, gives humans a very long, multilayered, and heterotemporal past by placing them currently at the conjuncture of three (and now variously interdependent) histories whose events are defined by very different timescales: the history of the planet, the history of life on the planet, and the history of the globe made by the logics of empires, capital, and technology. One can therefore read Earth system scientists as historians writing within an emergent regime of historicity. We could call it the planetary or Anthropocenic regime of historicity to distinguish it from the global regime of historicity that has enabled many humanist and social-science historians to deal with the theme of climate change and the idea of the Anthropocene. In the latter regime, however, historians try to relate the Anthropocene to histories of modern empires and colonies, the expansion of Europe and the development of navigation and other communication technologies, modernity and capitalist globalization, and the global and connected histories of science and technology.
Biological evolution, having proceeded for a few million years and produced humans, has now entered a new stage. I adapt a useful phrase from Terrence Deacon, “complexity catastrophe,” to denote the limits of human biological cognition in which further increases in capacity are constrained by the neuronal system’s processing speed and memory storage. The solution has been to invent computational media to extend and amplify human abilities. The result is biotechnoevolution, a hybrid process in which information, interpretations, and meanings circulate through flexible interactive human-computational collectivities or, in my terminology, cognitive assemblages.
Universities in Europe are a medieval invention we owe to the Roman Catholic Church, which we more succinctly call “the Church.” Today, they exist all around the world; they are secularized; they make up one of the major forms of the modern gathering. In 1921, Sigmund Freud studied crowd phenomena. He contrasted “natural” crowds, which form spontaneously, with “artificial” crowds, which result from an institutional constraint. Among “artificial” crowds, he mentioned the Army and the Church in particular. With good reason: these institutions, at once ancient and still strong, could be found in almost all European countries. Today, this is no longer the case.
The recent epidemics of Ebola triggered epidemics of therapeutic nihilism—by which I mean journalists and health authorities proclaiming that the chief task is to contain the spread of disease, not to treat the sick. And an additional dose of nihilism has been administered by the US administration’s decision to rescind funding designed to prepare for future outbreaks. Such nihilism is nothing new in the former colonies where Ebola has struck. Coming, as well, a few years short of the hundredth anniversary of the so-called Spanish flu, a pandemic that killed more humans than the preceding “war to end all wars,” the 2014–16 Ebola epidemics in Liberia and Sierra Leone simply replayed a drama of ineffective but strong-armed health measures inflicted on unwilling populations. Interlocking biological, technological, social, and political factors underpin every occurrence of widely contagious disease. War, famine, and unequal sharing of the benefits of modern medicine enabled the disastrous spread of Spanish flu though Africa and are doing the same for Ebola today.