Images of grids are employed in a number of areas of contemporary critical and cultural theory. One usage features throughout the fields of gender and sexuality studies, especially as inspired by the work of Judith Butler. Following Foucault’s formulation that disciplinary power operates as a “grid of intelligibility of the social order” (93), Butler theorises that normative modes of gender and sexuality constitute a regulatory structure through which subjectivity is rendered intelligible or not. Being off the grid – beyond its normalising mechanism – fundamentally challenges the social subject’s viability:
The norm governs intelligibility, allows for certain kinds of practices and action to become recognizable as such, imposing a grid of legibility on the social and defining the parameters of what will and will not appear within the domain of the social. The question of what it is to be outside the norm poses a paradox for thinking, for if the norm renders the social field intelligible and normalizes that field for us, then being outside the norm is in some sense being defined still in relation to it. (Butler 42)
During a similar period in a quite different theoretical field, media and cyberstudies scholars have reminded us of the electronic basis of contemporary media forms by referring to grids through which information and texts are transmitted. In the case of the pervasive computational matrix of the Internet, the ease, instantaneity and virtuality of transmission have often been taken to produce not rigid structure but flow – a revolutionary fluidity of global interaction but also of personal identity. The performativity of gender, sexuality and race is emphasised by the effective absence of bodies in material form from online social interaction. But as more recent cyberstudies work has shown, a disembodied inscription of identity may still operate normatively, that is with necessary recourse to the normative conceptions that make bodies legible as such.
Butler’s work has not often been closely applied to cyberstudies, despite what appear to be a number of productive possibilities, such as those roughly sketched above. In this essay, I do not aim to elaborate on those possibilities in any comprehensive sense. Rather, I want to take some first steps towards seeing whether the two broad images of grid summarised above can usefully be read alongside one another. If transmission is a condition of existence in the contemporary mediascape where online interactions and connections are not supplemental to the social but are the social, is transmission possible off the grid? If the regulatory structure of the grid determines recognisability of being, can the non-normative be recognised? In thinking through the possibilities of being-as-transmission, I want to avoid the simple conclusion that digital identities are causally defined by the structural actuality of electronic grids. While the grid makes online identities possible in this literal, computational sense, I’m more interested in the figurative: are electronic grids themselves normatively produced, therefore allowing only normative conceptions of identity, despite their apparent generation of categorically fluid modes of identity?
Peter Lunenfeld considers the figurative implications of the grid as it is conceived by new media. He adopts the digital design command “snap to grid” as “a metaphor for how we manipulate and think through the electronic culture that enfolds us” (Lunenfeld xvi). “Snap to grid” commands the computer to map hand-drawn images to the precise standards of digital geometry, as Lunenfeld explains:
Snap a freehand sketch of a rectangular shape to a grid and it immediately becomes a flawless, Euclidean rectangle. Artists regularly disable the snap to grid function the moment they open an application because the gains in predictability and accuracy are balanced against the losses of ambiguity and expressiveness. (xvi-xvii)
The question for me remains, in this metaphor, whether the freehand sketch purposely not snapped to grid is still legible within the application, itself designed by grid logic. If we unpack the metaphor in terms of online identity, which cybertheoretical orthodoxy has claimed to be ambiguous and expressive (the self as freehand sketch), a Butlerian perspective would remind us of the omnipresence of the normative frame against which non-normative identity must partly be measured. To sketch oneself as an “I” and to be recognised socially as such requires some sense of acquiescence to what has been established as within the possibility of being an “I”, even if this frame works to exclude or attempts to erase the lines of one’s sketch. Butler argues:
To say that the desire to persist in one’s own being depends on norms of recognition is to say that the basis of one’s autonomy, one’s persistence as an “I” through time, depends fundamentally on a social norm that exceeds that “I”… In effect, our lives, our very persistence, depend upon such norms or, at least, on the possibility that we will be able to negotiate within them, derive our agency from the field of their operation. (32)
It needs to be acknowledged here that many cybertheorists (from Haraway to Stone and Turkle, among others) have argued digital spaces including the Internet have reconceived the very ontological terms of being an “I” – of subjectivity, autonomy and agency.. In particular, questions of interactivity, collaborative practice and disembodiment force rethinking of exactly who or what the “I” might claim to include and on whose ideological terms the concept of “I” has been received. Some key aspects of the Internet do allow me to be who or what I want to be, but perhaps especially if I already act from a sociocultural and/or economic position that entails prior privilege.
With this point in mind, Lisa Nakamura’s work on race destabilises “utopian” claims for the potential of Internet identity. She argues that many cyberspace practices re-establish stereotypes and normative representations of race exactly because they are conceived in a realm that seems to dispense with familiar privileges: “Bodies get tricky in cyberspace; that sense of disembodiment that is both freeing and disorienting creates a profound malaise in the user that stable images of race work to fix in place” (Nakamura 6). Similar counter-arguments can be made of the supposed liberation of the online “I” from material constraints of gender and sexuality, as if all genders and sexualities may be discursively performed online with equal facility, as if chosen from a menu. While the convincing role play of identities in online gaming and chat spaces, for instance, may be celebrated for confirming the postmodern fragmentation of the unitary subject, a significant proportion of everyday online interactions are more practically linked to the often mundane materialities of knowable selves. Moreover, invoking Butlerian performativity in relation to online gender and sexual identity must still take into account the regulatory frameworks that structure and constrain the identity discourses that iteration brings into being.
In their discussion of participation in a queer female online forum, Sally Munt et al. identify ways in which new users achieve “membership” of the forum and by extension of lesbian communities offline through the peer-mentored rehearsal of what amount to normative sexuality codes. They conclude that at the same time as promising a “utopic” space for identity experimentation, the forum is also “dystopic” in that its interactions work to “compact desire into identity categories that impose disciplinary formations antithetical to liberatory ideals” (Munt et al. 136). Here the double-edged sword of queer recognition is clear. As Rob Cover puts it, “in fulfilling both the imperative of coherent sexual subjectivity and the practical needs of sexual minority community ritual and contact, the citation of the stereotype is the more intelligible process” (87). So we must ask, how can one’s various freehand sketches of gender and sexuality be recognised as a coherent “I” unless they have already been snapped to grid, that is already rendered recognisable? How can that “I” be transmitted effectively unless via a grid of legibility that regulates what is transmissible?
Rather than concluding with gridlock, a successful marriage of the two broad conceptions of grid this essay is working with must move towards the productive and freeing potential of each. Just as Butler’s understanding of heteronormative social structures emphasises the emergence of “improvisational possibility [from] within a field of constraints” (15), so too digital identities must not merely relocate old norms to new media and squander the opportunities that being-as-transmission permits. As Mark Hansen proposes,
our guiding question must henceforth be: can and how can we use the new media and the internet to move beyond interpellation, or more exactly, to liberate the body from its socially-imposed dependence on interpellation through preconstituted social categories of identity, subjectivity, and particularity? (114)
If online identity transmission can fulfil its promise of fluidity in this ethical sense, it might serve to erase its believed distinction from the offline and guide us towards the productive uncertainty of being off the grid. We might learn “to encounter the difference that calls our grids of intelligibility into question without trying to foreclose the challenge that the difference delivers” (Butler 35).