Slip of the Keyboard

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Single-Sex Private Space

We are not short of slogans; these catch-all statements meant to convey this or that opinion. Many of these are about single-sex and ‘safe’ spaces, and the circulation of these and other slogans, primarily through the digital psychosphere, has come to define not only our political realities but also the parameters of what can to be thought and what can be done. For this reason, it is helpful to take a closer look at our enunciations, and, in particular, the conditions of possibility for their arising. It is not evident why what circulates is able to do so; in our mode of hyper-connectivity, it is not simply what is said that holds any significance, but, what is absent. Since, as Deleuze and Guattari remind us, “there is no significance independent of dominant significations, nor is there subjectification independent of an established order of subjection. Both depend on the nature and transmission of order-words in a given social field” (D&G, TP, 79).

While fierce discussions over access to single sex-spaces, or safe spaces, have proliferated, the juridico-political assault on communal or public space, indifferent to the commodity form or value of exchange, has continued unabated. With town centres increasingly privatised, political activities ranging from collecting signatures to occupations can be prohibited. The relative anonymity and impersonal mode of being in common that can be expected in collectively gathering in a public space have been exchanged for a monetised virtual space predicated on authentication; authenticating the identity of the user, whose persona is held responsible for any utterance and therefore culpable. In a time where the responsibility and accountability of power is ephemeral, and seemingly beyond our reach, the reverse is true for individuals whose thoughts, careless remarks, jokes, and outbursts are theirs alone, expressed in full self-mastery over their meaning and responsible for the consequences of their reception, joy or hurt.

This culpability of a slip of the tongue or keyboard is relatively novel. The apparent freedom of the so-called digital commons operates much as the analogy of the highway Deleuze uses to describe the society of control – where one drives along the highway, experiencing oneself as free while observing the rules of the highway code. In the digital commons, we experience ourselves as freely speaking within the framework provided by the service provider, but also following the rules of particular regimes of enunciation.

When our enunciations online take on the form and language of the juridical, one can expect similar limitations.

The evolution of the relation between enunciation and culpability in the digital psychosphere mirrors debates in the thirteenth century over the becoming responsible of the human being over their actions, a long and drawn-out process, not at all self-evident. However, this relation was vital to establish precisely because it is needed for the purposes of culpability and the evolution of criminal law. When our enunciations online take on the form and language of the juridical, one can expect similar limitations.

Theatre of Incorporeals

It is no coincidence, then, that the primary identities that widely circulate are the victim, the persecutor, and the judge. The pre-condition of circulating in the digital commons is, apparently wilfully, to agree to an incorporeal transformation into one of these categories, that are not fixed, of course; these vary depending on the topic or take. Just as an incorporeal transformation similarly occurs when, Deleuze and Guattari remark, a judge delivers a sentence, and the individual becomes a convict. In the digital commons, not every offence crosses over into the physical courtroom. Instead, these are self-contained in the spectacle. Much like the scene in Luis Buñuel’s 1974 film The Phantom of Liberty where, after indiscriminately shooting at random members of society, the sniper faces a trial, the judge reads out the sentence, after which the sniper is free to leave to much applause from well-wishers.

Such is the nature of the digital commons. While having the appearance of sites of free expression, they in fact function in relation to their own fulfilment: to extract value from users by managing what used to be the problem of idleness or leisure, putting to work the erratic potential of the passions into a space in which they can be regulated, guided and subjected. The old division between soul and body is here replicated at the level of affect, inscribing an artificial separation between feeling and movement that expression necessarily entails.

While having the appearance of sites of free expression, they in fact function in relation to their own fulfilment: to extract value from users.

Etymologically expression is an ‘action of pressing out,’ ‘an action or creation,’ a use of the body. For this reason, to describe the encounter, Spinoza uses the word occursus which is necessarily grounded in movement. Since it is in movement that the possibility for encounters can take place, where the possibility of affection and being affected can occur, that necessarily implies a movement and a capacity for action, to do or to refuse. This does not mean being blindly open to every chance encounter but rather learning how to build relations and friendships, being open to the possibility of being affected, moved, changed, and developing the courage to act singularly and in common. Here, there is no inherently good or evil encounter, but simply what is good or bad for each person. This view is incompatible with the idea of judgement prevalent in our conceptual image of thought that makes decisions once and for all regarding the predicates that make up the good or the bad.

Just as the Public Order Bill makes its way through the House of Lords, which would see any capacity for collective gathering and encounter beyond the realm of exchange easily repressed by the forces of order, the digital psychosphere has been flooded with outcries over access to single sex spaces such as the toilet and prisons. After being found guilty of rape a trans woman was recently removed from Cornton Vale, a woman’s prison in Scotland, to a male prison – a decision in keeping with the provisions concerning exceptions in the Equality Act 2010, illustrating how the gender recognition certificate, the subject of an outcry the previous week, does not interfere with protections in placein the Act itself.

In 2019, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture investigated the conditions at Cornton Vale and found that the women incarcerated there urgently needed mental health treatment and were spending extended periods in solitary confinement. The report also raised concerns about the conditions of men’s prisons, where they are also subjected to prolonged periods confined to their cells. Needless to say, the fate of prisoners has been absent from discussions concerning safety. Also absent is the admission by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner that two to three police officers will be appearing in court every week for criminal cases including sexual offences and domestic abuse.

Being Toward Codes

Being too concerned with demanding from the State a further exercise of its biopolitical power over life, in establishing the parameters as to the qualities and predicates that make up a life, a paradigm of securitisation is further justified on the basis of risk and safety as mirrored in recent legislations that criminalise dissent, prohibiting ‘noise’ and disruption.

The space of the digital commons is a space of curated representations articulated through various enunciations across the political spectrum. The language of law, too, is one of representation, whose first mark is the identification of a juridical person thought capable of representing the human being. A game has ensued whereby each predicate of the individual is drawn into the realm of abstraction that, inevitably, has no bearing on the kaleidoscopic qualities that make up the human being. This biopolitical relation operates by artificially sanctioning what is or is not a part of life, what is or is not essential to life, what is or is not a British person, a good citizen, etc. While what is excluded exists in a space of abandonment in relation to the juridico-political machine, the included that ‘enjoy’ protection are subject to common alienation as is the norm under global capitalism.

The included that ‘enjoy’ protection are still subject to common alienation as is the norm under global capitalism.

While there is no redemption in inclusion or representation, which is merely a pre-requisite to formal existence recognised by the juridico-political machine, it is nevertheless not a matter of prohibiting access to it. In an age governed by the technical management of beings, where destitution can be expected without the right codes and our movements arbitrarily restricted, there can be no ethical justification for denying access to them to asylum seekers, trans people, and to those who, unvaccinated against Covid-19, found themselves barred from work or entering certain spaces without the correct document, the “Green Pass.”

A common alienation exists for which we lack the language and space to articulate. At the very least, the injunction or command to judge, to accuse, carefully fostered by the digital psychosphere and on which it existentially depends, must be done away with.

Serene Richards is a lecturer in law at NYU London. She writes on contemporary and medieval philosophy, social theory, law & literature. Her book Biopolitics as a System of Thought is forthcoming.