Realness, Passing, and the True Self(ie) – Mikhel Proulx

For those of us habituated to sharing imagery of ourselves in online social media networks,[1] we share also the particular forces that limit the flexibility of our self-image. Here, we perform ourselves along specific codes of identification, be they technical, social or aesthetic. We might look to image-making tools and tendencies to see such forces that shape how we perform online. This text collects some thoughts on how such performance represents gender and sexualities, and points to critical alternatives in recent art and design. It suggests that common practice encourages us to see ourselves reduced to the manner in which such networks makes representation possible. In other words, digital tools ultimately offer a limited and prohibitive set of protocols when purposed to represent oneself.

This notion comes at odds with the way that cyberspace has traditionally been sold: as a free, open, indeed liberatory medium – especially for those of us at the margins of society.[2] Nearly twenty years ago – in Nina Wakeford’s landmark survey of cyberqueers[3] – this view was made explicit: homos and genderqueers would find emancipation online in networked communities, which would embrace our ‘true’ selves that we might otherwise hide in ‘real’ life. As a one-time small-town gay-boy myself, I can attest to the liberatory potential of the early Web. But in retrospect the idealistic rhetoric in which these promises were couched is now blatant. We were assured that the ‘Net would allow us to escape the limits of our fleshy bodies to configure online identities, where we might discover our ‘true’ self—as if such a discreet, stable thing exists. These early narratives of attaining a single, true self, is echoed in recent forces in commercial Web platforms (from Facebook to Google), where users are streamlined to establish single, discreet identities. This is the performance of self online in late capitalism, where we are formulated as individualized ‘users’ within computational systems.

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze – in the last years of his life – wrote a brief but prescient text characterizing the coming digital age as a control society.[4] Unlike earlier disciplinary societies, in which people were marshalled through hubs of institutional power (i.e. the control of the school, the prison, or the hospital[5]), the control society now administers a continuous control that follows us throughout daily life. For Deleuze, in the early nineties, this was evident in the rising utility of passwords used to sign into various computer systems, and in the increasing threat of constant video surveillance. Likely he could scarcely imagine the ubiquity of today’s networked media, nor anticipate how eagerly we opt-in to its structured systems. This sense of how we opt-in to power structures of the digital age is apparent in mediatized social lives, in which self-presentation is inexorably linked-in to continual use of social networks.

For many, if an experience is not presented on one’s Facebook wall or Twitter feed, it simply did not happen within the social register. Here, “to live a tweetless life”, the media theorist Geert Lovink stresses, “is constructed as not living.”[6] We gain visibility by participating within these systems – so much so that they actually constitute selfhood: if one is absent within the purview of a system – if one fails to check-in – one is rendered invisible and outside of a social reality. Media networks pervade public and private lives to accrue a social capital of comments, reposts and likes. Reversing a schema where digital tools augment a social life, online protocols encourage a life defined in digital terms. Living is construed as a continual performance for the system, and as the creation of images of the self in digital form. Hence, much of the mainstream modes of imaging the self online render social experience diminished to short-lived forms of self-marketing, in which we perform certain codes to posture our bodies as linked-in, and also as desirable as a representation. In many instances this means passing as some gendered ideal, or rendering the self as fuckable.

proulx1Organ Armani, iPad selfie with Cécile Paravina , 2013

Perhaps the everyday imagery of dating and sex networks most clearly conveys these imperatives to perform the self as desirable ideal. Here we find the epitome of sexy self-imaging: a vernacular of postures that flaunt flattering angles of our bodies – made-up, pouted, and flexed (if not Photoshopped completely). Self-presentation here means adapting to normative imagistic standards and cohering to a system’s protocols of legibility; if we want to be seen in dating networks, we should expect to look a certain way. Against the threat of not passing (are they really as femme/STR8-acting/male as they say they are?) people shape their bodies into predictable, desirable selfies that typify gendered and sexualized ideals. This is performance as passing – pulling off a self-image ordered by a code of gendered, sexualized ideals that achieve a level of realness.

proulx2Jennie Livingston, Paris is Burning (71 min. colour, sound), 1990. Film still.

Here, realness aims to achieve a self-presentation that adheres to prescriptive gender and sexual identities, and it also signifies the presence of illusions and the threat of deception. Although all of us who log-on to these networks comprehend that user images are contrived, we likely also grasp toward an access of some personality that exists ostensibly in the real: that other person behind their selfie, in the away-from-keyboard meatspace of the real self. Hence, online behaviour – instead of liberating us from social anxieties and corporeal limits – underscores a sense of selfhood as something definite and essential.

proulx3Gay Check Online, NETRO (Kim Asendorf and Ole Fach)

Such an essential sexual self is promised by NETRO’s phoney gay-facial-recognition software Gay Check Online. Any user wishing to participate in having their face scanned live over a webcam may validate that they are what a gay person looks like. Indeed every user is rewarded with the verdict: “Congratulations: You are gay!” The work (made by a group of European artist-technologists) mocks scientific imperatives that would ascribe sexuality as something readable on the surface of the body. It also points to the threat of gender and sexual discrimination inhabiting our networked technologies. Here, technical systems can commit forms of discrimination based on offline social biases.

proulx4Ianna Book, OKLucid (Pop Dating Experience), 2015

These biases were made palpable online after the Montreal-based artist Ianna Book – a gorgeous, tall, blonde woman – joined a popular dating website. Having received many advances from possible mates, Book decided after some weeks of using the service to record each response sent to her after she outed herself as transsexual. OKLucid reproduces these text responses and reveals alternately the aggression, confusion, and ignorance that people bring to online dating networks:

Rick: “I don’t understand that.”;

Rob: “So you mean you have dick?”;

Tom: “As in you’re a female born with male organs?”;

Louis: “But under the clothes, Id be curious to know what it looks like”;

Luc: “Are you kidding me?”[7]

For Book, as for many trans and gender non-conforming people, such platforms mitigate the prospective physical phobic violence that outing oneself publicly may provoke. The ‘virtual’ violence experienced online is remarkable, evidenced perhaps most deplorably by the reactions of a full half of Book’s would-be suitors, each of whom abandoned their conversation altogether after her revelatory outing.

Hence, engaging in this virtual space can mean making explicit the terms of one’s realness – an imperative that necessitates defining a ‘real’ self existing necessarily contra the self constructed online. This forces oneself to both assemble and come out of a closet. Such closets, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick famously described, are themselves constituted by social forces that would have us confess to some essential truth of a gendered sexuality.[8] The performance of coming out (“I’m gay”, “I’m trans”…) itself configures a schema by which one is parsed as either in as repressed, or out as othered. Coming out of the closet forces oneself to become visible in the logic of those who would have us on one side or another of its doors. Such closets neglect the social contexts in which genders and sexualities are given form. Hence, anxieties about closet-cases, double lives, and parallel identities cloud the fluidities and contingencies in which we actually perform ourselves.

Schallmaier-WebFrank Schallmaier, Flash, 2011 (ongoing) found digital images

Gay hookup networks too (Grindr, etc.) harbour these delusions and hostilities – as anyone who has logged-on can confirm. In brief, these spaces prove to be not terribly queer, filled as they are with profiles proffering “Str8-acting”, “non-scene”, “chill”, “masc” “dudes.”[9] Against possible assumptions that anonymous, homophile networking would yield progressive relations, spaces like Grindr at best exhibit the same normative prejudices of some offline human interactions – and at worst they amplify them. Here, discourses of seduction expose deep intolerances through a narrow focus on one’s own personal pleasures and instant gratifications. Common are phrases such as: “no fatties, femmes, or [insert racialized minority of preference: “Asians”, “Blacks”… “spice or rice”]. But this isn’t bigotry, we are assured: “I’m not racist, but… it’s just my preference.” Such sexual discrimination extends into the visual cultures of these networks, in which self-imaging allies the prescriptive codes to make oneself legible within its system. Its users explicitly aim to construct desirable self-images.

sangmun 2Sang Mun, ZXX Typeface, 2012 

In the face of such forces toward legibility, others endeavour to abandon online identities fully, entangled as they are in regulatory, normative codes of visibility. For them, “switching offline,” writes Lovink, has become an operative form of dissent.[10]

This is the negative force behind the artist Constant Dullaart giving away his Facebook account password publicly, thus allowing any and everyone to construct his online identity in his absence. In critical design practices also can we see this personal evasion of centralized technological powers. Recent cheeky software add-ons that evade, erase, or hide the online self include Benjamin Grosser’s Facebook Demetricator, Jordan West’s News Feed Eradicator, and Les Liens Invisibles’ Seppukoo Virtual Identity Suicide. Further tactics have seen critical design work against centralized technologies to glitch their powers, such as in Adam Harvey’s Stealth Wear, and Sang Mun’s ZXX Typeface, both of which are built as usable design to thwart surveillance technologies, and drop-out of their ideological command.

For Queers – resisting normative identity roles online – such dropping-out can be a radical refusal of normative protocols of heteronormative visibility. For theory-types, this might look like José Muñoz’s disidentifications, Heather Love’s backwardness, Lee Edelman’s antiproductivity, or Judith Halberstam’s queer failure.[11] Or in other words (for the rest of us), it describes a queer aesthetic that reveals how participation in the mainstream media is always already geared toward heteronormative powers-that-be. So when the structures in place privilege representations of the norm, many Queer actors say: “fuck it!”, and opt instead to be unrecognizable.[12]

proulx7Zach Blas Facial Weaponization Suite (2011-)
Facial Weaponization for Queer Opacity at LA Pride, reclaim:pride / ONE Archives

Zach Blas’ Facial Weaponization Suite, as he himself has described on NMP, shows us this critical unrecognizability in practice. His Fag Face Mask, was modelled from facial data pulled from a range of gay men, and printed as a wearable mask that thwarts facial recognition technologies. Its wearer – defaced – becomes invisible to computational surveillance, imperceptible to its ideological apparatuses, and anonymous to the gaze of those who utilize them (namely, states and corporations). That is, the self here becomes unmoored from a normative system of identification that would maintain and categorize oneself along lines of gender, race, age, and sexuality. Like NETRO’s facetious Gay Check Online, the Fag Face Mask points comically to the real threat of biometric surveillance, but it also proposes a line of flight from homophobic technical powers. By directly opposing protocols of imaging bodies, we are shown how we might glitch, flummox, or otherwise fuck with systems of identification.

These varied thoughts consider how self-imaging is pre-structured by technical systems, and hence how the legibility of self-images are coded by technical and social structures. Perhaps most remarkable is the way in which many of us opt in to these systems of recognisability. As in Deleuze’s control society, we opt into a system in which our bodies and our desires are already determined (in part) by the affordances of the system. This might manifest though a continual checking into registration channels such as Grindr and Twitter, or though self-imaging in the form of shared selfies. We can look to critical practices that reclaim personhood in this ‘post-human’ moment. For some, evasion and defacing of the self offers a way to check-out of these protocols. This is a tactic of refusing legibility, in which we might do away with the powers of network technology in shaping how we view genders, sexualities, and ourselves.


[1] And it must be noted that globally we are a privileged minority of a growing digital divide. See: Belson, David, ed. Fourth Quarter Akamai State of the Internet Report. Rep. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Akamai Technologies, March 25, 2015.

[2] Wendy Hui Kyong Chun gives an awesome overview of how this bill was sold in: Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2006.

[3] Wakeford, Nina. “Cyberqueer.” Lesbian and Gay Studies: A Critical Introduction. Ed. Andy Medhurst and Sally Munt. London: Cassell, 1997. 343-59.

[4] Giles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59, Cambridge, MA: MIT. Winter (1992): 3-7.

[5] Foucault, Michel. Surveiller Et Punir: Naissance De La Prison. Paris: Gallimard, 1975.

[6] Geert Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011) 44.

[7] Although not every response was transphobic. Wrote ‘Georges’: ” 🙂 think that is really cool. Any plans for the weekend?”

[8] Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1992.

[9] These observations are my own, though I expect that anyone who has looked into gay hookup networks at any depth will recognize this bigotry.

[10] Lovink, Geert. Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011. 156

[11] Munoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press, 2009; Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007; Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke UP, 2004; Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke UP, 2011.

[12] This is perhaps best exemplified by the many Queers who leave grindr. disenchanted with a shallow hookup economy.

Mikhel Proulx is a cultural researcher of contemporary art and digital visual cultures. His curated projects have been exhibited across Canada and internationally. Mikhel holds a BFA in Drawing from the Alberta College of Art and Design and an MA in Art History from Concordia University, where he is developing a PhD study of Indigenous and queer cultural media on the early World Wide Web.