Joshua Bluteau on his dissertation

My temptation is to hedge my bets and confidently claim that I have two page ninety-nines. This is true in the sense that there is a literal ninety-ninth page, and a different page that is paginated as 99 – the former being a colour plate and the latter the first page of chapter 3, entitled:

“Other Elizabethans: the digital trope of the individual”

This disparity serves to highlight the juxtaposed nature of appearance and actuality, and how such concepts may not be a clean cut as they initially appeal; a theme that runs through the thesis.

This thesis spans the offline world of high-end bespoke tailors, shops and fashion shows in London, and the online world of Instagram, the images these tailors post online and a network of followers that surrounds them. The colour plate in question is a press photograph from a Joshua Kane fashion show I attended in 2016 as part of my fieldwork.

Page 99

At this event the boundary between online and offline was at its thinnest, and a wave of glowing smartphones rose and fell in the hands of onlookers seeking to capture the latest designs – images of which would appear online moments later.

There is an intentional mirroring, or perhaps reframing of Foucault’s (1990, 4) ‘other Victorians’ in the title of Chapter 3, as I develop a concept for how to conceptualise a group of men who shop at the kind of tailors who are known for outlandish and flamboyant design. My other Elizabethans are men who do not fit into established normative notions of how men in the UK dress – they are individuals.

“I will use the definition postulated by Dumont (1986) where the individual is an autonomous actor beyond the restrictions of society, though crucially my informants are at odds with Rapport’s (1993) notion that despite how we present ourselves, we are always inescapably ourselves. There is an important echoing of Dumont’s work in the way that my informants conceive of their own individuality as not “innate but learned”, or perhaps a better term would be ‘crafted’ (Morris, 1991, 263). In addition to this native category of the individual, I will also use an analytical category in line with the work of Berger (1970), who suggests that individuals are moulded by the society in which they live, becoming “collective constructs…reflecting social position” (Berger, 1970, 375 in Rapport & Overing, 2000, 193). This in addition to the work of Goffman (1980, 245), who conceptualises the individual as a performance, and one which can be altered for differing situations will form the basis of my analysis of my informants as individuals who are able to present different individual selves in the digital and terrestrial worlds; selves which are able to adapt to changing digital and terrestrial landscapes in which they exist.”

Fundamentally, this PhD asks two simple questions: why do certain men spend so much on particular clothing; and what is the nature of the digital world in which many of them display these clothes? In the same way that there are two page ninety nines, there are multiple selves that exist simultaneously online and offline, crafted through performance and dress. It is this contention that this thesis engages with, partially through a reflexive engagement of researcher as digital participant. Chapter 3 is preceded with a quote from The Three Musketeers where impetuous young D’Artagan knocks over Porthos and displays part of a garment he was trying to keep hidden.

“If Porthos had been on Instagram, this unfortunate incident need not have occurred. Dumas’ Musketeer could have displayed his partially embellished shoulder belt using artfully angled photographs which showed off the glittering gold front whilst keeping the buff behind invisible. As it was, his cloak attempted to craft his appearance through concealment but was undone by the unfortunate collision and subsequent entanglement with D’Artagnan. Whilst it is possible to affect such a manipulation of appearances, attempts to craft one’s self misleadingly in the terrestrial world are easily exposed; in the digital world however, such exposure is much harder to engender. This, Sartre (1993) would tell us, is the essence of acting in ‘bad faith’, attempting to deceive others around you as to your station in life.”

The nature of the digital landscape is complex, ever changing and ripe for crafting deceit, but it is a fieldsite like any other full of  ‘digital tribes’ lacking anthropological investigation.

Reference List

Berger, P. 1970. Identity as a Problem in the Sociology of Knowledge. In The Sociology of Knowledge (eds.) J. Curtis., & J. Petras, 373-384. London: Duckworth.

Dumont, L. 1986. Essays on Individualism. Chicago: University Press.

Foucault, M. 1990 [1978]. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1 An Introduction (trans. R. Hurley). London: Penguin.

Goffman, E. 1980 [1956]. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Pelican.

Morris, B. 1991. Western Conceptions of the Individual. New York: Berg.

Rapport, N. 1993. Diverse World-Views in an English Village. Edinburgh: University Press.

Rapport, N., & Overing, J. 2000. Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge.

Sartre, J.P. 1993 [1988]. Essays in Existentialism (ed.) W. Baskin. New York: Citadel.

 

Joshua Bluteau completed his PhD at the University of St Andrews in 2018, and has ongoing research interests in digital anthropology, dress and adornment, the anthropology of fashion, menswear, gender and performance. He is currently a Lecturer at the University of Manchester, and can be reached at joshua.bluteau@manchester.ac.uk or followed on Instagram @anthrodandy

Devin Proctor’s page 99 test

My dissertation, On Being Non-Human: Otherkin Identification and Virtual Space, is based on five years of ethnographic engagement examining identity construction and social practice among the Otherkin, a group of several thousand people who self-identify as intrinsically other-than-human. Otherkin recognize their bodies as biologically human, but their inner selves as non-human (such as wolves, dragons, elves). Because the group meets almost exclusively in Internet spaces, the dissertation follows the Otherkin across platforms—Second Life, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, and Reddit—to trace how digital technologies can be used to mitigate the misfit between their bodies and identities.

Page 99 appears near the end of Chapter One and contains the transition from one large section to another in a discussion delineating “Otherkinity” as a term and an identity category. Here it is, without edits:

***

It is possible that other-than-human-ness has been an intrinsic facet of humanity from our very beginnings—images of human shape-shifting can be seen in the Lascaux cave paintings, created roughly 17,000 years ago (Henneberg and Saniotis 2016). If this experience of other-than-human-ness has, indeed, been occurring all over the world throughout history, it stands to logic that it did not simply stop due to Western modernity and post-enlightenment science. Yet, aside from the Otherkin (and children, as mentioned above) we have seen no large scale non-human identity category in Western, industrialized nations. A possible reason other-than-human experience has not been recorded on a larger scale in the West is that people did not have a name for it. When observed elsewhere, we have simply referred the myriad other-than-human experiences with the umbrella term animism. This same type of animism in Western contexts has not been available as a way to be a human (Hacking 1995, 2006). And now it is: it is called Otherkinity.

An Otherkin is a Kind of Human

As much as Otherkinity is a felt, experienced, embodied state of being, it is also socially constructed. I mean this in the sense that it is a category of identity based around a culturally constructed set of criteria, like being obese, or a woman, or mentally ill. Philosopher Ian Hacking calls these “human kinds,” by which he means “classifications that could be used to formulate general truths about people; generalizations sufficiently strong that they seem like laws about people, their actions, or their sentiments” (Hacking 1995, 352; see also Goffman 1963).

***

This passage might seem, at first, a poor representation of the work, since it mentions nothing of the Internet and contains absolutely no ethnographic content or even a citation to an actual anthropologist. On a more theoretical level, however, it speaks to one of the dissertation’s foundational assertions: that our identities as humans are just as culturally constructed as they are biologically designated. While this dual formation can be seen quite clearly in the case of my interlocutors, I would argue that it is true for us all. The tension between cultural and biological human identity underpins political arguments about which bathrooms we can use and the relationship between DNA testing and membership in particular ethnic groups. Indeed, one of the main arguments that I put forth in the dissertation as a whole is that the Otherkin represent a larger shift in body-understanding from a Cartesian bounded vessel to something more plastic and negotiable, epitomized in growing numbers of people identifying as trans* fluid, nonbinary, and neurodiverse. The term I offer for this wider phenomenon is open-bodied identification. Further, I argue that our increasing interaction in and with Internet spaces—as a technologically-mediated form of animism—helps to foster this open-bodiedness by extending the indexical relationship between our bodies and our identities.

 

Proctor, Devin. 2019. “On Being Non-Human: Otherkin Identification and Virtual Space” Ph.D. diss. The George Washington University.

Devin Proctor can be contacted here: dproctor@gwu.edu

Cited References

Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Simon & Schuster.

Hacking, Ian. 1995. “The Looping Effects of Human Kinds.” In Causal Cognition: A Multidisciplinary Debate, edited by D. Sperber, D. Premack, and A. J. Premack, 351–94. Symposia of the Fyssen Foundation. New York, NY, US: Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press.

———. 2006. “Making Up People.” London Review of Books, August 17, 2006. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n16/ian-hacking/making-up-people.

Henneberg, Maciej, and Arthur Saniotis. 2016. The Dynamic Human. Bentham Science Publishers. https://doi.org/10.2174/97816810823561160101.