The digital dualism of “digital dualism” critics

[Update: Jurgenson replied in the comments below and with a longer post here.]

Nathan Jurgenson at the blog Cyborgology coined the term “digital dualism” to describe the common discourse, exemplified recently by Sherry Turkle in her Alone Together, that maps “online” and “offline” onto “virtual” versus “real,” with deep (but often unstated) ideological implications (e.g.). This culminated in an essay for The New Inquiry called “The IRL Fetish.”

Cyborgology is named for Donna Haraway’s  “Cyborg Manifesto,” which had similar anti-dualist motivations, trying to find a way to overcome the  mind/body and culture/nature dualisms that (1) are deeply rooted in Western epistemologies and (2) have profound and direct implications for the systematic subordination of women in and through their bodies. Cyborgology, then, has anti-dualism at is core, in ways that are really positive.

I’m struggling with ways that Jurgenson seems to undermine his critique of digital dualism by repeatedly protesting that he really doesn’t think that the “digital” and “physical” are the same, in ways that seem to me to concede the dualist categories that he so effectively critiques. For instance, Jurgenson recently responded to a critical post by Nicholas Carr, who argues that

Nature existed before technology gave us the idea of nature. Wilderness existed before society gave us the idea of wilderness. Offline existed before online gave us the idea of offline.

Carr is clearly wrong here, in some really important ways. The most important, to my view, is ethical: this is a collection of normative (value) statements couched in descriptive (fact) language. And as Haraway, among others, has shown at length, the fantasy of “nature” is all tied up with fantasies of unitary subjectivity, of authentic personhood, of mastery, that are themselves pillars of some pretty terrible politics. (As an aside, I tend to think that the stakes here, and the reason that the Haraway reference that’s built into all of this is so important, is that this nature/culture discourse ultimately reduces to some very specific questions about the value and autonomy of women’s bodies. This isn’t just subliminal: when we’re talking about nature and humans, reproduction is always half a breath away, and Turkle repeatedly gives this away; she can’t help but to constantly bring up, apropos nothing, how the really big problem with technology is that it might in some ways free women from oppressive childcare practices, which is presumptively terrible.)

Jurgenson responds, correctly, that “nature” and the “real” are always socially constructed, and therefore ideological:

“Nature” is always a social construction, and appeals to it should be followed by ‘whose nature’? Or, as I frame it in these discussions about digital-experience, who benefits when one person anoints themselves a worthy arbiter of what set of experiences is more or less real?


I implore thinkers to always and deeply take on the digital as comprising real people with real politics, histories, struggles, with real bodies and real feelings and so on.


we’ve falsely constructed the categories “on-“ and “off-line” in order to tell the story that there is something virtual impinging on the real, allowing us to claim one’s own disconnection makes one more real.

These are exactly right. Importantly these are not statements that “online and offline are the same,” which seems to be the position that  Jurgenson wants to attribute to his critics from the other direction:

Instead these statements are correct not because they treat online and offline as two stable categories that are in fact identical (which would clearly be a bizarre and self-negating position), but because they problematize the stability of those categories in the first place. This is a standard critical move: identify a naturalized term or category, and show that it is actually a social construction full of ideological content. When folks are throwing around the word “real” to distinguish one set of ubiquitous and mundane human practices from another set of ubiquitous and mundane human practices, this is a pretty straightforward critique to level successfully.

But then where I get hung up is that, mixed among these strong and effective critical statements, are defensive responses to Carr that seem to concede exactly the categories that are being deconstructed. So to prove that he never made the straw-man argument Carr attributes to him, Jurgenson quotes himself in the “IRL Fetish” essay as writing that “the digital and physical are not the same”, and he goes on to protest that Facebook and coffee shops really are different.

Hopefully the whole disagreement doesn’t hinge on whether Facebook and a coffee shop are the same thing. A lot of pixels would be wasted on a not very interesting question. But this business about the “digital and physical are not the same” is important, and it seems to me to concede the entire argument. If the word for all the stuff that isn’t digital is “physical” (or elsewhere, “material,” which is to say, matter, stuff, substance), then I don’t see how we’re not just back at this dualist metaphysics where there is stuff, nature, bodies, matter, on the one hand, and information, minds, ideas, communication, on the other. (In fact, compared to “digital” versus “physical,” “online” and “offline” seem like supremely useful and non-ideological categories, that do describe and differentiate actually occurring activities, and don’t presuppose that one is somehow not made out of atoms and molecules. There must be an implicational hierarchy where deconstruction of online/offline implies the equivalent critique of parallel but even more metaphysically fraught binaries like digital/physical.)

In fact Jurgenson builds this problem in from the beginning, posing in the place of digital dualism what he calls “augmented reality.” Unfortunately, Carr has him dead to rights when he concludes his post with

An augmentation, it’s worth remembering, is both part of and separate from that which it is added to. To deny the separateness is as wrongheaded as to deny the togetherness.

Right! If you start with reality, and then you augment it, then you’ve got two distinct things that can always be distinguished. This is a dualist model! The solution here is to stop talking about “reality” altogether.

Another Cyborgology blogger, Jenny Davis, tries to find real-world examples of specific degrees of augmented reality, from bots playing video games (pure digital) to live-tweeting a conference (mild augmented) to motion-activated virtual reality (strong augmented). The implication is that there is digital and there is physical and they interact more or less in different situations. Jurgenson suggests something similar by suggesting we view the digital and physical as enmeshed and intersecting. Or another co-blogger, Whitney Erin Boesel, has a long post arguing that anti-digital dualists are obligated to come up with new boundaries to distinguish “online” from “offline,” rather than just rejecting the categories altogether. But if we’re left trying to sort out an empirical typology of intersecting digital and physical domains, or figuring out exactly what are the boundaries between the two categories, it seems to me like we’re in the position of Descartes trying to identify the organ in the brain where the soul interacts with the body. The dualism is established, and our job is just to figure out how these fundamentally different substances (soul and body, bits and atoms) can possibly interact.

I think it’s worth going back to Haraway again. The point of “cyborgs” is precisely to get beyond a binary model of natural (real) bodies, and artificial protheses. The discourse of cyborgs actively rejects “reality,” “nature,” and the “physical” (again, in large part because those are always already fantasies of unitary subjectivity that posit the “natural” female body and biological reproduction as the site of masculine self-realization):

The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-Oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labor, or other seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity. In a sense, the cyborg has no origin story in the Western sense […] An origin story in the ‘Western’, humanist sense depends on the myth of original unity, fullness, bliss and terror, represented by the phallic mother from whom all humans must separate, the task of individual development and of history, the twin potent myths inscribed most powerfully for us in psycho-analysis and Marxism. Hilary Klein has argued that both Marxism and psychoanalysis, in their concepts of labor and of individuation and gender formation, depend on the plot of original unity out of which difference must be produced and enlisted in a drama of escalating domination of woman/nature. The cyborg skips the step of original unity, of identification with nature in the Western sense. (150–51)

Maybe everyone already gets this and I’m being pedantic by bringing up the old theory texts. But I think it’s important! The critique of digital dualism has real stakes, and not just for pro- and anti-technology partisans. The organic unity of offline reality that the Sherry Turkles of the world are pursuing is a masculinist Western fantasy of mastery through domination, in which “nature” is posited in order to be transcended. What we need is to “skip the step of original unity,” which means not starting with reality and then “augmenting” it. The right argument against Cartesian mind/body dualism isn’t “well then, smart guy, how does the soul interact with the body?!” but “your categories are blinkered and we’re going to stop using them!” Jurgenson’s co-blogger, DA Banks, argues that we are “always already augmented,” which is getting there, but why do we need to use “real” or “reality” at all? At best it grants the possibility that there might be phenomena in this world that are not “real,” which is nonsensical; at worst it reaffirms this fantasy of original unity that presupposes a deeply hierarchical politics.

Rather than “the digital” and “the physical,” can’t we just have “lots of different stuff”? I’m serious here. Digital is a perfectly useful word, but it’s not clear that it describes in any coherent way a broad category of human experience. It includes typing in MS Word, sharing photographs on Facebook, job interviews on Skype, talking with family on Skype, reading The New York Times, reading New York Times reporters’ Twitter feeds, recording voice notes, playing flash video games like Tanks, playing first-person shooter video games, playing sudoku, playing the guitar, making music, making art, making videos, sharing music, sharing art, sharing videos, sharing earbuds, texting, talking on the phone, watching TV, watching classic movies, watching new movies, watching movies at home, watching movies at the theater, watching time-shifted TV (on TV, on a laptop, on a tablet using cable On Demand, using Hulu, using bittorrent), using a calculator, typesetting, graphic design, analyzing quantitative research data, analyzing qualitative research data, watching old music videos, doing regression analyses, searching for information, consuming information, sharing lolcats, tracking packages, tracking financial transactions, tracking voter rolls, organizing phone banks…

So making a list like that is maybe more pedantry (sorry, really), but I can’t understand what is useful about “digital” as the category that describes all these things, especially in contrast with “physical”? Is there anything that these things share in contrast with “matter”? Categories like work, play, intimate, instrumental, public, private, investment, consumption, management, organization, entertainment, communication, and analysis, are much more relevant to understand these different practices. But when Jurgenson goes on to provide a typology of different positions on digital dualism, from strong digital dualism to strong augmented reality, none of the available positions has space for what I think is directly implied by a critique of IRL fetishism, which would be something like: “the categories digital and physical have very limited utility for describing things people do, and the widespread use of those categories in scholarly and everyday discourse mostly an expression of ideology (a form of fetishism).” (A fetish is a conceptual error, a misrecognition of something for something it’s not. Classically a misrecognition of relations among people as relations among objects. So for “IRL” discourses to be a fetish the problem needs to be that they misrecognize some phenomena as “real life,” when those phenomena in fact are something else.)

Evgeny Morozov, in his review of Stephen Johnson’s Future Perfect, advocates a “particularizing” approach that rejects broad categories like “the Internet” and instead “engages with platforms and technologies on their own terms, as if they share no common logic.” This seems exactly right to me. “The digital” is lots of stuff, all of which is material/physical. Digital dualism is a pervasive fetishistic discourse of which Jurgenson has provided a pointed and devastating critique. But then, just as that critique is leveled, we’re back to searching for the boundary between the digital and the physical!

(I feel like I’m talking past Jurgenson here, and I’m trying to figure out where/why I find his critique so excellent but his proposed alternative so disappointing. That confusion suggests to me that I am very possibly missing or misunderstanding something important. But I can’t tell what it is. So hopefully this will be read [if it’s read at all!] in that spirit.)

18 thoughts on “The digital dualism of “digital dualism” critics

  1. “Nature” may be “always socially constructed” as a human concept, but we know that the world existed before humans arrived to augment it with technology and so we know, for a fact, that nature (defined here simply as that which exists when you remove all human works and influence from the world) existed before we arrived to give it a name and a socially constructed conceptual meaning. I would go even further, though, and argue that it is possible for humans to apprehend nature in that form (ie, the unnamed, non-socially-constructed form) and that those who argue that it is not possible are simply revealing the limits to their own powers of apprehension.

    1. Nature as “that which exists when you remove all human works and influence from the world” seems to suggest that humans and human works are not natural. Why is this so? Why is the Hoover Dam unnatural while a beaver dam is natural? Our social constructions are just as natural as an ant hill and perform some similiar functions – giving form and structure for species specific activites. Some are better than others at meeting changing conditions. I think the Human/Naure social construction has become increasingly maladaptive.

  2. Hopefully it will be read because I had the same thoughts regarding much of the debates around “digital dualism” – I have not been able to put them as eloquently as you have. Nathan, on Twitter, suggests that this post “argues i should go further w/ my critique”. I don’t think it does – I think it shows that there are fundamental problems with the critique.

    Re: Nick Carr’s comment above – his second sentence is a much more concrete outline of his position than in his blog post. I’d be interested in seeing how the various people who have written about “digital dualism” respond to Carr’s second argument. It seems to me that it is logically IMpossible for humans to apprehend nature in either form prior to or a form without human apprehension.

    Carr seems to have three definitions of nature:

    1. that which exists when you remove all human works and influence from the world

    2. that which existed before we arrived to give it a name and a socially constructed conceptual meaning

    3. that which is named and socially constructed

    Nature1 can never be apprehended in the sense that Carr is using the term “apprehension” – perhaps it can be imagined, but it certainly can’t be experienced (which is what I think he means by apprehend). Nature2 certainly did exist, but we can never “apprehend” it because, in the process of doing so, it becomes Nature3.

  3. Tyler, people often start their comments with “I really liked this post” and I’m not always sure when that’s performative or genuine, but, seriously, I really liked this post. It’s persuasive, and it has me rethinking much of my approach. Was kind of bummed that Carr’s post resulted in people just re-clarifying themselves rather than doing much new theory, but you’ve got me rethinking things, and, hopefully, refining and improving them. That’s super productive and fun, so thank you for that!

    We certainly are in full agreement that the biggest problem in Carr’s approach is the conservative appeals to “nature” and thus what is “natural”. I also like that you paired that tweet-exchange between us in this post. I’m regretting how I responded. When you posted that, I incorrectly assumed (my assumption was wrong and I was wrong to assume) that you were coming from the dualist side of things. It actually didn’t occur to me that you were arguing from a stronger augmented reality position. I’ve rarely defend myself from that direction, so this catches me a bit off guard. This is also a long-winded way of apologizing for my dismissiveness on Twitter.

    My comment here got so long that I saw it as a new post, so I posted it on Cyborgology here:

    Sometimes people post responses on their blog as a way to respond and be done with it. For instance, I responded to Carr, and may again, but am not really interested in dealing with the commenters on his blog. However, I write this response post to you as me doing some head-scratching and as an invitation to keep this conversation going here, there, or wherever. I’m learning from you!


  4. This is great, Nathan. Thanks for these replies. It’s really gratifying to throw something critical up on the internet and have it read and responded to substantively and productively! Positive social interaction is happening in these online spaces, wut?!

    That twitter exchange makes a lot more sense now. It never occurred to me that you wouldn’t necessarily be hearing more voices arguing “from the left” (as you rightly term it). Sometimes it’s easy to assume that on the internet everything that can be said has been said, but I’m glad that this post is actually filling a hole in the debate, rather than just rehashing familiar positions.


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