Digital Subjects

Event Date: 12 May 2016

Room 264
Senate House
University of London
London WC1E 7HU

The Humanities and Arts Research Centre at Royal Holloway presents:

Digital Subjects

 Digital subjects can be many things: a nested set of abstractions assembled by algorithms; a dynamic data aggregate feeding upon the movement of bodies in space and time; an experiential, sensuous presence and performance online. Digital subjects are the subjects of profiles, video channels, search query histories, inboxes, logs of GPS coordinates, traded data of financial transactions or travel card usage.

The reason why it’s worth calling them subjects are the new ontological and epistemological demands placed by the rapid development of computational infrastructures and our cyborgian lives. The question of the digital subject is a political question wielded by the disciplinary lines of differentiation. These lines are cut in the thick distance that joins together human, posthuman, nonhuman and the digital. At times, the distance is vast (one can reinvent oneself online). At other times, the distance collapses (one can be assaulted online). Some humanities regard digital subjects from the point of view of the operation of representational data surveillance (data gathered forms a shadow of the human) and a political/legal question; some data sciences ignore the distance and claim that data gives direct access to, in this case, humans (people are equal to their tweets). Many contemporary art practices, especially feminist performances online, explore the distance as a thick field of production that is not fully determined.

The critique of the subject is well established: it is almost a blasphemy to bring the question of the subject up in critical theory. Yet, the question of the subject returns under the guise of digital self, personhood, identity and citizenship. Digital subjects are generated and pertain to the continuum linking them to non-human subjects (trees, animals with sensors; robots) as well as collectives (extremist groups sharing technical devices). Digital subjects could be theatrical or conceptual performances of personae (troll, lurker, idiot) or the actual happenings of events of life. Yet, the ways in which they are produced and managed (in computation and in digital cultures), the ways in which they respond to whatever entities they’re linked to, their energies, emergence and dissipation are unclear. Even if digital subjects are entirely generated by self-sufficient computational machines, their forms of unity, generation and power are new and unknown.

At which layers and times do aggregations such as digital subjects operate as enactive subjects? How do digital subjects become subjects? How do we understand and problematise the distance between digital subjects and their generative sources? How does a digital subject acquire its difference, a capacity to enlarge and shrink this distance? What forms of causality operate between subjects and digital subjects? What kind of reason, expression and sense are operative here? What forms of interiority and exteriority, forms of unity and disunity characterise the subject-digital subject continuum?

The aim of the event is to rethink the subject and think the digital subject from the point of view of different genealogies, reasons, expressions and logics. What we aim to work towards is not a return to any previous form of unity, but a way to construct an understanding of computational kinds of subjects and their ways of generation, production, and sustenance.

This is a Royal Holloway’s Humanities and Arts Research Centre event in cooperation with the Department of Media Arts.


Welcome by Professor Katie Normington (Vice Principal (Staffing) and Dean of Arts and Social Science, RHUL):


Introduction by Dr Olga Goriunova (RHUL):


Panel 1

Chair: Silvia Mollicchi

Lisa Blackman – Data are Us? The challenges of computational cultures for theorising the subject(s) of digital mediation


Luciana ParisiThe Alien Subject of AI



Panel 2

Chair: Nathan Jones

Katerina Kolozova  – Subjectivity without physicality



Panel 3

Chair: Scott Wark

Andreas Bernard – The Knowledge of the Profile. Conceptions of the Self in Digital Cultures


Christoph Engemann –  Declarative & Procedural Identity – Governmediality after Snowden



Panel 4

Chair: Giles Askham

Rózsa Zita Farkas – Feminist Performance on the Web


Erica Scourti – Evasive Actions: on the Limits of Intelligibility



This symposium was conceived and organised by Dr Olga Goriunova. Olga Goriunova is a Senior Lecturer at the department of Media Arts, Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the author of Art Platforms and Cultural Production on the Internet (Routledge, 2012), editor of Fun and Software. Exploring Pleasure, Pain and Paradox in Computing (Bloomsbury, 2013), co-editor of Readme. Software Art and Cultures (Aarhus University Press, 2005). She is a co-editor of Computational Culture. The Journal of Software Studies. In 2014-2016, she is part of the Posthumanities International Network and member of the Visual Social Media lab. She is writing a new monograph on the notions of the digital subject/subjectivity in relation to data mining, patterns and modeling as well as media art and online performance.

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