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The Porous Mask. A Theological Reflection on Concepts of Personhood and Personal Agency in the Digital Age.

The Porous Mask. A Theological Reflection on Concepts of Personhood and Personal Agency in the Digital Age.
Contributors (1)
Nov 06, 2019

The Porous Mask. A Theological Reflection on Concepts of Personhood and Personal Agency in the Digital Age.

By Florian Höhne, Berlin

0 Introduction

»Marty: Alexa, open decision tree.

Alexa: Welcome to decision tree. I can find the best job for you. Are you ready to start your career or be a couch potato?

Marty: I want to start my career.«[1]

These few sentences are part of a dialogue that shall exemplify Alexa’s »decision tree sample skill«. Among others, this feature is designed »to deliver a more conversational experience« in interacting with the computer-system.[2] Remarkable about that—as about many interactions with computers—is how software-engineers are designing things to be experienced as if they were persons. Alexa refers to itself as »I« and addresses the human as »you«—and Marty talks to Alexa as if it were a personal agent, calling it by a human name. The distinction between things and personal agents, between the »realm of it« and the »realm of thou«, as Martin Buber called it,[3] is practically blurred: The practice of conversation is performed in a way that neglects this very distinction.

Insofar as the distinction between things and persons is crucial for ethics in general, for theology and theological ethics, such blurring practices raise a whole bunch of fundamental questions: Should computer systems be designed in a way that prevents this confusion? What does it mean to treat an entity as person, what follows from this presumption, and what makes an entity prone to be treated as person? How does it alter our understanding of personhood and of each other as persons to treat computers as persons? Given that the Greek origin of the term »person« also referred to the mask of the actor:[4] Which features of the mask »person« make it possible to give it to computers as well as to people and how does and should the »mask« change under conditions of digital communication?

While the philosophical and theological literature on these issues fills libraries,[5] I am quite selectively interested in how the use of digital technologies could alter the practical imagination of oneself and others as persons and the consequences for a theological ethics reflecting those consequences. The thesis of this paper is based on distinction of two types of imagining personal agency—two types of masks, so to say—that is inspired by Bernhard Waldenfels:[6] forensic imaginations and responsorial imaginations of personal agency. My thesis is that the power dynamics in a digital age make forensic imaginations in a harmful way more plausible while simultaneously subverting their emancipative potential. The practical promotion of responsorial imaginations would counter this development. In order to make this point, I will first explain the socio-philosophical categories I work with (1), secondly describe forensic imaginations of personal agency in its practical ambivalence (2), show how digital power dynamics alter these (3), and interpret Bonhoeffer’s Ethics in terms of a responsorial imagination of personal agency (4).

1 Categories: Praxis and Imagination

Particularly two categories situate the following reflections and their consequences in their social context: The category of practice as used in sociological theories of praxis after the so called »practice turn«[7] and the category of imaginations as used by Charles Taylor in his writings on modern social imaginaries.[8] The idea to talk about digital ethics in terms of imaginations, narratives, and social practices has been developed at the Berlin Institute Public Theology and is explained at greater length in other publications.[9] For this paper, the following points are important:

Following Theodore Schatzki and Andreas Reckwitz, I understand a practice as »nexus of doings and sayings« bound together by a routine or implicit knowledge.[10] As such, practices are always socially and contextually situated[11] and involve things, bodies, and some kind of practical knowledge.[12] For example, the practice of turning the light on in a smart home involves: a speech act that commands the computer-system to turn the lights on, maybe the action to step into the dark room, the routinized implicit knowledge of how to talk with the computer, as well as the body that speaks and acts and the things the body has to do with—in this case: the computer, the room, the lights.

One thought from theories of social practice is particularly important here, because it shifts the focus from digital technologies to cultures of digital technology use. Andreas Reckwitz has emphasized that the relation of things and actual practices is not one-sided:[13] Neither only things determine a practice nor do practices totally determine things. Rather, the »senseful use«[14] of certain things that is inseparable from the actual practice is decisive. To use an example:[15] The invention of the printing press has not necessitated its historic career. Rather, the spread of printing machines and printing books is due to the rise of socially situated and contextual practices that make senseful use printing machines and printed books, culturally evolving practices of reading and publication. Simultaneously, those practices are made possible by the existence of printing machines. Hence, the reflection of digital technologies has a sociological reason to not only reflect the technology and its potential, but first of all how people use and make sense of technology culturally.

This makes the second category—the social imaginary—crucial for a theological reflection of digital cultural practices. According to Charles Taylor, people draw on a common social imaginary when they act, make sense of their social existence or participate in social practices. He writes:

»By social imaginary, I mean something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged mode. I am thinking, rather, of the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.«[16]

According to Taylor, the social imaginary is the background for any practical knowledge that makes concrete practices possible.[17] In other words: it provides the horizon for meaningful practices.[18] It refers to the imaginations of the participants of social practices rather than to a theoretical perspective on social realities; the imagined is »carried in images, stories and legends«.[19]

How then can we envision the relation between the imaginary and concrete practices? Following Taylor and exceeding Taylors thinking just a little in terms of a theory of social practices, I suggest thinking of this relation as mutual: On the one hand, the social imaginary makes social practices possible and informs them.[20] That we imagine others and ourselves as primarily free individuals[21] informs practices of intimate relationships as well as of administration. Simultaneously, social imagination persist and exists only in the very practices they inform. The transformation of practices also transforms the social imaginary in whose horizon people make sense of those transformations and meaningfully participate in them.

Presupposing this interrelation of imaginations and practices, I will ask how the imagination of personal agency persist and changes in practices of digital communication it simultaneously informs. Starting point for this is one image from the modern social imaginary that is in continuity modern and premodern Christian imaginations, namely: the forensic image of the person people hold on to when they treat each other as persons.

2 Imaginaries I: The Forensic Image of Personhood (John Locke)

What I will call »forensic image of personal agency« is not decisive for all concepts of the person, but it plays an important role in the western modern social imaginary[22]: We imagine ourselves and others as accountable for and conscious of our actions and their consequences over time—and that is precisely one imagination the word »person« refers to. By treating each other as persons, we are treating each other as accountable over time. Practically, »person« denotes an entity to which one can presently attribute past actions and consequences, in order to hold that person accountable, to ask for a justification, to punish or to reward. This image is forensic, insofar as it entails the image of a court-situation, be it an actual human court, be it the Last Judgment, or be it the conscience as inner court.

The relation between actor and action might sound either self-evident or ontologically given. If it sounds self-evident, this gives proof to this image being part of the western modern social imaginary. Yet it is still a contextual and socially situated imagination. One indication for this is that such an imagination is not equally plausible on all positions in a society. Having experienced oneself as a powerful actor whose actions make a difference in social life will make the forensic image of accountable agency for this very individual more plausible. It is less plausible for those who experience themselves always and only as the objection of external decision-making processes. If the relation between actor and action sounds ontologically given, a discussion of ontology is opened, which is unnecessary here, for one simple reason: What becomes socially relevant in the aftermath of an action, is the social imagination independent of the ontological reality it refers or doesn’t refer to. To put it in an example: Independent of whether a given person actually caused a certain harmful consequence, the social imagination of personal accountability is needed, to accuse that very person of having caused harm, possibly put him in jail, or find him not guilty.

Historically, the forensic image of personal agency is already manifest in John Locke’s famous concept of person.[23] Since Charles Taylor also refers to Locke to describe the modern social imaginary, his writings on person might be a good exemplification for the forensic type as well, even though Taylor does not refer to this part.[24] Locke is famous for having pinned the notion of being a person to consciousness, thereby making personal identity independent of the identity of matter and substance.[25] Locke writes, that the term »person« refers to

»a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and as it seems to me essential to it […]; in this alone consists personal identity, i.e., the sameness of a rational being: and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person«[26].

Thereby, Locke identifies being a person with the actual proceeding—and not only the potentiality for—self-reflective consciousness internal to the entity. Being a person means to be self-conscious of one’s past and present actions. To put it in the aforementioned metaphor: it is the self-consciousness, the consciousness of one’s actions behind the mask that makes the mask a persona, that makes the person perform as a person.

In the end of his chapter on »Identity and Diversity« (which Locke added in the second edition of his Essay in 1694[27]) Locke makes explicit, that this is meant as a forensic notion of personhood as well as why and how consciousness is so decisive. He writes:

»Person, as I take it, is the name for this self. […] It is a forensic term appropriating actions and their merit; and so belongs only to intelligent agents capable of a law, and happiness and misery. This personality extends itself beyond present existence to what is past, only by consciousness; whereby it becomes concerned and accountable, owns and imputes to itself past actions, just upon the same ground and for the same reason that it does the present. All which is founded in a concern for happiness, the unavoidable concomitant of consciousness; that which is conscious of pleasure and pain desiring that that self that is conscious should be happy.«[28]

Hence, the term »person« names an entity that—by virtue of its consciousness—can be held accountable, punished and rewarded.[29] On this background, consciousness becomes for Locke the essential feature of personhood because it names the point in which past actions, future actions, consequences, reward and punishment are plausible pinned to: the consciousness in its continuity over time owns actions. If someone is conscious of his past actions it makes sense to reward and punish that very same and sensitive consciousness—in its identity »the right and justice of reward and punishment«[30] is founded. Personhood—and therewith concrete consciousness—is the condition for legal consequences for Locke, as he writes: »[…] to punish Socrates waking for what sleeping Socrates thought, and waking Socrates was never conscious of, would be no more of right than to punish one win for what his brother did«[31]. In Locke’s argument, the forensic image of personal agency is necessitated by a certain notion of justice, namely: retributive justice.

Interestingly, Locke gives the concept of person not only a juridical frame, but also a theological one: He uses his idea of consciousness to think the identity of earthly existence and resurrected person.[32] Based on this, the juridical frame is ultimately a frame of Last Judgment:

»And therefore, conformable to this, the apostle tells us, that at the great day, when every one shall ‘receive according to his doings, the secrets of all hearts shall be laid open’. The sentence shall be justified by the consciousness all persons shall have that they themselves, in what bodies soever they appear, or what substances soever that consciousness adheres to, are the same that committed those actions, and deserve that punishment for them.«[33]

The juridical and theological framing of this image of personhood are important here, because I understand them as hints to the concrete practical place of the tradition and effect of this very image: the forensic image of personal agency persists paradigmatically in juridical and religious practices. The biblical imaginary entails images that envision and support the forensic image. (Neglecting that it does not explicitly talk about individuals but about a potentially collective you) The vision of Final Judgment in Matthew 25 can be read as a vision of retributive justice, in which good- and evildoers get their merit, which presupposes and perpetuates the image of accountable personhood. The Christian practices of confession, particularly of individual confession, presuppose and perpetuate the forensic image as well. The same holds true for the juridical system in modern societies; it needs to identify persons as accountable and liable entities.

The presuppositions of this and other forensic images of personhood is the individual’s consciousness of one’s actions. To appropriate actions to an agent makes only sense, if the agent can plausible be imagined as the conscious author of these very actions. Otherwise, reward and punishment were unjust. Locke pins this imagined authorship to consciousness behind the mask that »owns« past and present actions. Hence, what is decisive about the forensic imagination, is the imagined individual’s consciousness behind the mask, the consciousness of one’s actions.

From the perspective of a theological ethics that finds orientation in the goods freedom, justice, participation and peace, the forensic image is highly ambivalent.[34] One the one hand, it is emancipative and reconciling, because this imagination allows for empowering for agency and for naming concrete responsible agents. On the other hand, the forensic image is problematic in complex societies, because most problems have a structural and collective dimension. The tendency to ask for one or few persons who caused something harmful, conceals structural causes and collective contributions, and thereby inhibits a pragmatic improvement of the situation. Making individual brokers responsible for the financial crisis of 2008 for example, conceals the contribution of everybody’s greed. To put it in a biblical picture: The forensic image of personhood lays ground for scapegoating.

3 Transformations: The Digital Culture.

Using the categories of practice and imagination, ethical reflection of digital transformation will focus on what Stalder has called »the culture of digitality«,[35] rather than with mere technological possibilities. While much is being written on digital transformation, I want to focus on how the described forensic image is present in practices that make meaningful use of digital technologies. My thesis is: in the digital culture, power takes forms that make the forensic image in its emancipative take less plausible and simultaneously more plausible in its harmful take.

This thesis presupposes a focus on and a differentiation of forms of power and it presupposes that images of personal agency persist socially in power-relations. In order to make this distinction of forms of power, I draw on the work of the mentioned Felix Stalder and of Byung-Chul Han who themselves draw partly on Foucault’s theory of power, partly on Max Weber and David Singh Grewal.[36] Following them, it makes sense to distinguish at least three forms of power: repressive, constitutive, and seductive power.

- Both, Stalder and Han, mention the repressive Form of the »power of sovereignty«.[37] It works thru dominance and submission, hierarchies, discipline, orders, commands, rules, and (enforced) obedience.[38] It forces into obeying prohibitions and laws.[39]

- Drawing on Grewal, Stalder describes the constitutive form of the »power of sociability«.[40] It works thru quasi-voluntary submission and acceptance of rules: people partake in a network by subtly accepting the rules and protocols that constitute that very network.[41] Insofar as »communality« is one of the main features of a culture of digitality (as Stalder claims), the constitutive form of power has gained a new prevalence in digital cultures. Nobody forces me with physical violence to accept the rules of a given social network, but in order to partake in that network I have to accept them quasi voluntarily, independent of my knowledge or consent.

- Similarly, Han sees a smart and friendly form of power on the rise:[42] According to Han, it is permissive and seductive; this form of power does not work against the individual freedom but thru this freedom; submission happens without the individual being conscious thereof.[43] Seductive power seduces freedom through possibilities and offers into subtle obedience, using our needs and yearnings. As I would put it: it works through the subtle and psychological manipulation of the individual’s decisions.

Insofar as the emerging digital culture entails a shift from the repressive form to constitutive and seductive forms of power, it persists in practices that make the forensic image of personhood more and less plausible. Repressive power needs practices informed by the forensic image because it needs to identify actors, hold them accountable, and inflict disciplinary action on them in order to change their decisions. It needs the imagination a consciously deciding self, accountable for its actions and in control thereof. Repressive power and external means of discipline make it plausible for the individual human to imagine her- or himself as person accountable of the actions he or she has consciously decided to perform. These practices inscribe the forensic image into the social imaginary.

Contrariwise, constitutive and seductive power need and undermine the imagination, the individual would »own«[44] its actions. They do not confront the individual’s imagined agency and sovereignty. Rather, they undermine it by working thru quasi-voluntary action. They do not address the conscious decision but undermine it. In the perspective of the participant of the practice, this corrosion of the basis for a forensic image of personal agency often remains under the surface but also pops up into consciousness of the participants. Particularly in case of the constitutive power, making its effects conscious does not necessarily liberate from its power: Even if somebody knows very well about the protocols of a certain social network and disagrees with them, being part of this very network might be his only way to maintain the business relations to his customers. What i was conscious of as my actions, are not really my actions, but something I was nudged[45] into. To put in the metaphor: the mask erodes; the consciousness behind it is accessible to manipulation. If the forensic image of conscious agency is maintained here, it serves to conceal who really is in power: not the consciously acting person but the manipulator behind the architecture of the platform.

Paradoxically, such manipulative undermining of accountability is in need of the forensic image it strips of its function to make accountable. To put it in an example: the algorithms and protocols of a social network seduce users to reveal more and more information about themselves independent of their conscious decisions. In the horizon of the forensic imagination, the seduced conscious actors will seem to be responsible—as opposed to the seducer. The manipulation of such constitutive and seductive power works with the forensic image: Without the imagination of the self as accountable and conscious decider, all this information would not be needed to manipulate that very decision. What is undermined is the condition for imagining oneself and others as the actor of one’s own actions. Insofar as this imagination has an emancipative and empowering effect, seductive and constitutive powers work corrosive of such empowerment. To put in an example: Manipulating voter’s decision presupposes an imagination of the conscious voter who makes a free decision while simultaneously undermining this imagination by successfully manipulating the voter.

The culture of digitalism also entails practices that make a new and extensive use of the forensic image and perpetuate it thereby. For example, Kristy Hess and Lisa Waller have written about the »intensified role of the media in shaming ‘ordinary' people when they commit minor offences« in the digital age.[46] The practice of the »digital pillory« as they call it, rest on the forensic image of personal accountability and perpetuates it.

4 Imaginaries II: The Responsorial Image of Personhood
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

As Locke’s writings already made visible, the forensic imagination of personhood is in itself also part of Christian traditions. At least in one simple version, the idea of punishment for evildoers and rewards for the faithful on Judgment Day presupposes and perpetuates the forensic image of personhood as conscious agency. Teachings of justification by faith alone as well as confutations of human free will challenge such narratives and their images. This hints towards another type of imaging personhood and human agency in Christian tradition that we can call responsorial imagination of personhood. I will interpret some of Dietrich Bonhoeffers writings as theological exemplification of this type in order to make the point that imaginations of responsorial personhood make better sense in and of practices in digital cultures.

Already in his doctoral theses, Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts a thesis forward on how moral personhood emerges, drawing on I-thou-philosophy. It is the encounter with the Other in which one is a person: when faced with the claim of the Other, which is experienced as barrier to one’s own will, when forced to decide, one is a person.[47] For Bonhoeffer it is the divine »thou« that creates the person in the moment:[48]

»Der Einzelne wird im ‘Augenblick’ immer wieder Person durch den ‚anderen‘[49]

Bonhoeffer maintains this basic relational structure up into the fragments of an Ethics while altering the characterization of the Other. Already the basic structure of this imagination differs from the forensic one: The forensic imagination pictures a three-figure-relation, in which Action A is attributed to an agent B by the agent herself or a (divine) judge C. The responsorial imaginations is characterized by a two-figure-relation, in which the agent is confronted with the claim of the Other and challenged to respond. Already this entails a shift of focus away from the attribution of actions to the claims on the person, which renders the action in question essentially social: The agent is a person in relation[50] to others affected by her or his action and not only in the eyes of a disaffected judge or qua having an internal consciousness. This also shifts the focus away from the conditions for attributing actions and personhood to the claim of the other and the dynamic of the encounter.

In his unfinished Ethics, Bonhoeffer describes the figures in the two-figure-relation of the responsorial imagination differently compared to his early writings and thereby deepens the gap to the forensic imagination. Now, he uses more often the term »the responsible« than the term »person« for the position of the agent which already mirrors the turn to a responsorial imagination. And—more importantly—he narrates the position of the other not primarily as »claim« but as Christ-Reality which encompasses creation, judgment, reconciliation and redemption.[51] This change is theologically significant: While the claim would name what Lutherans call »law«, the Christ-Reality emphasizes the unity of the word of God of law and gospel. Bonhoeffer stresses, that God reconciled the reality of the world including the »I« of the agent with him in the Christ-Reality.[52] It is this reality, to which the live of the Christian should be the answer to, to which it should correspond and respond.[53] Hence, what humans respond to is not primarily the external and overwhelming reality of God’s claim but the encompassing reality of His reconciliation. Moral agency as personhood is not induced by a claim, rather, personhood is created in the encounter with the already reconciled reality. Therewith, the theological standpoint has changed over against the forensic imagination: Personhood evolves not in the contested state of open judgment and but as a response to justification.

On this background, the features of the evolving personal agency are decisive here. They question the forensic image of a person that consciously »owns and imputes to itself past actions« (see above). As I interpret Bonhoeffer, he disowns the person imaginatively of its own actions in three ways.

First, he pictures the agent as responsible person that always also acts on behalf of others.[54] She or he is not only the conscious I as for Locke but »unites in his I the I’s of multiple people«; the »father for example« unities the »I of other family-members […], for whom he is responsible«.[55] Hence, the agent’s actions are never only actions on behalf of his own, but on behalf of others.

Secondly, Bonhoeffer pictures the agent as reflecting and acting under conditions of evaluative insecurity: The agent’s consciousness does not own the moral evaluation of his own actions. He has to ask for the consequences of his actions for which he is responsible, he has to weigh advantages and disadvantages, and hence acts in the »twilight« of relative decisions, not knowing about their goodness:[56]

»[D]ie Entscheidung fällt nicht mehr zwischen dem klar erkannten Guten und dem klar erkannten Bösen, sondern sie wird im Glauben gewagt angesichts der Verhüllung des Guten und des Bösen in der konkreten geschichtlichen Situation.«[57]

Daring to act, faced with the disguise of good and evil—that means being disowned, being unconscious of the moral and historic meaning of one’s own actions. Accordingly, the freedom in this imagination is not the freedom of a person that owns, reflects, and consciously controls its own actions, but the »dangerous freedom«[58] of a person capable of acting, daring and deciding whilst not knowing about the final quality of one’s actions.

Thirdly, it is precisely those responsibly dared actions that retrospectively might turn out to not have been only the person’s actions. According to Bonhoeffer, the believing person can come to see those dared deeds as God’s acting in history:

»Gerade als der in der Freiheit eigenster Verantwortung Handelnde sieht er sein Handeln einmünden in und fließen aus Gottes Führung. Freie Tat, wie sie Geschichte bestimmt, erkennt sich zuletzt als Gottes Tat, reinste Aktivität als Passivität.«[59]

This allows for thinking of one’s own actions as also somebody else’s action: it disowns the actor of its action. In case of Bonhoeffer’s description of responsible action, it is God who is active in the human person’s activity. Formally and fundamentally, this opens up for asking which other powers might be active in one’s activity.

Therewith, Bonhoeffer imagines the responsible agent as acting not on his own, not by his own, and not conscious of the moral quality of his own action. The mask »person« is imagined to be porous for the to be internalized claim of the other »I« and for the action of the other »thou« in one’s own personhood. While this imagination of responsorial agency clearly disowns the agent of his own actions and inscribes the questionability of imputation into the imaginary, it encourages the person to act responsibly on his own on behalf of others: it is not inhibitory, but conceptualized as empowering. Therefore, the responsorial imagination of personhood provides the horizon in which to imagine oneself and others as acting persons under conditions in which forensic imaginations loose plausibility and empowering effect.

5 Proceedings: Imaginations and Praxis

The talk of imaginations and of thinkers who thought (way) before the digital transformation, might seem abstract and irrelevant. Let me finish by countering this impression and naming three practical proceedings to show that the difference between forensic and responsorial imagination makes a practical difference.

First. People make sense of the cultural reality including digital technology, in which they live. Doing that in the horizon of the forensic imagination of personhood has the advantage, that it makes it possible to hold persons in power accountable. It has the disadvantage of making the distinct imputation of one action to one person an essential for the imagined personal agency. Under conditions of seductive and constitutive powers in the digital age, the imagination of distinct imputation loses some of its practical plausibility. In the horizon of the responsorial imagination, the response to a given reality becomes more important than the distinct imputation of action. That one responds to reality by acting on behalf of others and working for the relative better, constitutes responsible personhood according to this image—and not the clear imputation of actions. The forensic coercing to impute is replaced by the constructive question of how to respond—which, of course, can lead to holding those in power accountable, but as a matter of responding to a challenging reality and not as a imaginative precondition for moral action as such. To get back to the Alexa-example I started with: in the horizon of the forensic imagination, one would have to ask: Should Alexa be treated as a person to which one can impute actions? The horizon of the responsorial imagination makes the question possible: How do we respond constructively to a reality of which Alexa has become a part and how is particularly in charge of answering?

Second. If the distinct imputation of actions loses plausibility due to the work of constitutive and seductive powers, this will undermine the idea of personal agency in the horizon of forensic imaginations: Who am I to make a difference, faced with the global players of the www-world? Contrariwise, the responsorial imagination allows for maintaining a sense of agency as porous personal agency under conditions of complexity, insecurity and ambiguity. The responsorial imagination opens up for asking for the powers that have been operative in one’s free action as free action. It makes that question possible, without having its answer undermine a sense of personhood and agency.

Thirdly, the ethical and practical reflection of imaginations makes a difference for educational and ecclesial practices insofar as it makes one favor certain narratives over others. If responsorial imaginations of personhood can be seen as ethically advantageous over against purely forensic imaginations, narratives will need to be told that transport and envision responsorial imaginations—in class rooms as well as on the pulpit. Most likely, those stories will be less about the impermeable mask of the hero, whose actions change history. More likely, they will be about people who work together, in relation to each other, in solidarity with each other, sympathic for each, sensitive to the ambivalence of contemporary existence, conscious of the powers that work through one’s own activity and simultaneously not willing to stop working for relative betterment. They will be about the porous masks on stage, which also come to be called persons.


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Meireis, Torsten. ““O Daß Ich Tausend Zungen Hätte“: Chancen Und Gefahren Der Digitalen Transformation Politischer Öffentlichkeit - Die Perspektive Evangelischer Theologie.” In Bedford-Strohm; Höhne; Zeyher-Quattlender, Digitaler Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, 47–62.

Müller, Hans-Peter. Pierre Bourdieu: Eine systematische Einführung. 1. Aufl., Orig.-Ausg. Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft 2110. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2014. Accessed January 3, 2018.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. “Person und Subjekt.” In Identität. Edited by Odo Marquard and Karlheinz Stierle. 2., unveränd. Aufl., 407–22. Poetik und Hermeneutik 8. München: Fink, 1979. Accessed October 28, 2019.

Quante, Michael. Person. Grundthemen Philosophie. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007. Accessed October 28, 2019. doi:10.1515/9783110907360 360 360 .

Reckwitz, Andreas. “Grundelemente Einer Theorie Sozialer Praktiken: Eine Sozialtheoretische Perspektive.” Zeitschrift für Soziologie 32, no. 4 (2003): 282–301. Accessed 18.12.17.

Schatzki, Theodore R. Social Practices: A Wittgensteinian Approach to Human Activity and the Social. Digitally printed version, paperback re-issue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Accessed 18.12.17.

Schatzki, Theodore R., Karin Knorr Cetina, and Eike von Savigny, eds. The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory: [Based on a Conference Held Jan. 4 - 6, 1996 at the University of Bielefeld ]. Transferred to digital printing. London: Routledge, 2001. Accessed December 19, 2017.

Schmidt, Jan-Hinrik. Das neue Netz: Merkmale, Praktiken und Folgen des Web 2.0. 2., überarb. Aufl. Kommunikationswissenschaft. Konstanz: UVK, 2011. Accessed January 2, 2017.

Schmidt, Robert. Soziologie der Praktiken: Konzeptionelle Studien und empirische Analysen. Orig.-Ausg., 1. Aufl. Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft 2030. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2012. Accessed January 2, 2017.

Stalder, Felix. Kultur der Digitalität. Edition Suhrkamp 2679. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2016. Accessed 5.2.02018.

Taylor, Charles. Modern Social Imaginaries. Public planet books. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2004. Accessed January 3, 2018.

Thaler, Richard H., and Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Wie man kluge Entscheidungen anstößt. With the assistance of Christoph Übersetzung: Bausum. Ungekürzte Ausgabe im Ullstein Taschenbuch, 16. Auflage. Ullstein 37366. Berlin: Ullstein, 2016. Accessed October 29, 2019.

Waldenfels, Bernhard. “Responsive Ethik Zwischen Antwortung Und Verantwortung.” DZPhil 58, no. 1 (2010): 71–81. Accessed October 28, 2019.



[3] Cf. Buber, “Ich,” in Das dialogische Prinzip, 10.

[4] Cf. Pannenberg, “Person,” in Identität, 407.

[5] Brief introduction into debate on personhood see: Kather, Person.

[6] It is particularly his description of responsibility and his notion of responsorial ethics that inspired this distinction: Waldenfels, “Ethik”.

[7] For the »practice turn« see Schatzki, Knorr Cetina, and Savigny, Practice; Reckwitz, “Grundelemente,” 282. My understanding of »practice« as outlined in this paragraph is particularly indebted to the following works: Reckwitz, “Grundelemente” Schatzki, Practices; Hillebrandt, Praxistheorien; Schmidt, Netz; Schmidt, Soziologie; Bongaerts, “Soziale” Bourdieu, Unterschiede; Bourdieu, Entwurf; Müller, Pierre.

[8] Cf. particularly Taylor, Imaginaries.

[9] Cf. Meireis, “"O daß ich…” Höhne, “Digitalisierung”; Höhne, “Öffentlichkeit”.

[10] Reckwitz, “Grundelemente,” 290; Schatzki, Practices, 89.

[11] Cf. Schmidt, Netz, 41f, 44.

[12] Cf. Reckwitz, “Grundelemente,” 290–97

[13] For this thought and the following see Reckwitz, 291.

[14] My translation of Reckwitz‘ »sinnhafter Gebrauch« (Reckwitz, 291).

[15] Recktwitz himself refers to this example: Reckwitz, 291.

[16] Taylor, Imaginaries, 23.

[17] Cf. Taylor, 25.

[18] For the use of the term »horizon« in this context see ### Castoriadis, 274ff; Wabel, Kirche, 408.

[19] Taylor, Imaginaries, 23f.

[20] Cf. Taylor, 23, 25.

[21] Cf. Taylor, 20f.

[22] It is this western modernity Taylor focusses on too: Taylor, 195.

[23] For my dealing with John Locke the work of Michael Quante has been formative, cf. Quante, Person, 35–46.

[24] Cf. Taylor, Imaginaries, 4.

[25] Locke, 189; Quante, Person, 36, 43.

[26] Locke, 188. See also for this Quante, Person, 43.

[27] Cf. Quante, 35.

[28] Locke, Essay, 198f See also Quante, Person, 37.

[29] Cf. Locke, Essay, 194f, where Locke also uses the pair »reward and punishment«.

[30] Locke, 195.

[31] Locke, 195.

[32] Cf.: »And thus we may be able, without any difficulty, to conceive the same person at the resurrection, though in a body not exactly in make or parts the same which he had here, the same consciousness going along with the soul that inhabits it.« (Locke, 193) According to Quante, the question of how to image continuity to post death existence is an important context for Locke’s reasoning here (Quante, Person, 36).

[33] Locke, Essay, 199.

[34] This has been shown elsewhere at greater length: Höhne, Einer.

[35] Stalder, Kultur.

[36] Stalder, 160; Han, Psychopolitik.

[37] Stalder, Kultur, 160; Han, Psychopolitik, 25f. My translation.

[38] Cf. Stalder, Kultur, 160f.

[39] Cf. in similar German words Han, Psychopolitik, 26.

[40] Stalder, Kultur, 160.

[41] Cf. Stalder, 160f.

[42] Cf. Han, Psychopolitik, 26f.

[43] Cf. Han, 27.

[44] See above: Locke, Essay, 198.

[45] Cf. Thaler and Sunstein, Nudge.

[46] Hess and Waller, “Hess et al.” ##more##

[47] Cf. DBW 1: 25-32. See Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer 1986.

[48] Cf. DBW 1: 33f.

[49] DBW 1: 34.

[50] For the relationality in Bonhoeffer see DBW 1: 29.

[51] Cf. DBW 6: 32–35, 40, 250, 253f. See paradigmatically: »Weil in Jesus Christus Gott und Mensch eins wurde, wird durch ihn im Handeln der Christen das ‚Weltliche‘ und das ’Christliche‘ eins. Sie stehen nicht gegeneinander als zwei ewige feindliche Prinzipien, sondern das Handeln der Christen quillt aus der in Christus geschaffenen Einheit von Gott und Welt und Einheit des Lebens. « (DBW 6: 252) à##Dabrock-Aufsatz##

[52] Vf. DBW 6: 33–35, 37.

[53] DBW 6: 253f.

[54] Cf. DBW 6: 219, 257f.

[55] My translation of parts of: »Der Einzelne handelt nicht für sich allein, sondern er vereinigt in seinem Ich das Ich mehrerer Menschen, gegebenenfalls sogar einer sehr großen Zahl. Der Familienvater zum Beispiel kann nicht mehr handeln, als wäre er ein Einzelner. In sein Ich ist das Ich seiner Familienglieder aufgenommen, für die er verantwortlich ist.« (DBW 6: 219)

[56] Cf. DBW 6: 220f., 224.

[57] DBW 6: 220.

[58] DBW 6: 220.

[59] DBW 6: 224.

Clifford Anderson: A goal of one strand of AI research (so-called “strong AI”) seems by contrast aimed to cross this divide. But your paper raises the important question of how to judge when an AI crosses the divide, forensically (a la Turing) or perhaps responsorially?
Michael Hemenway: I LOVE the Buber thought experiment! Would be fascinating to put Buber in conversation with Bruno Latour’s Actor network theory and how human actants relate to other actants in the world.
Gotlind Ulshoefer: I think here it would be helpful to look closely what manipulation means in order to detect the underlying power structures because I was wondering if this kind of “obvious” influence on the behavior or decisions of voters is the same as the structuring of decision-options as e.g. google search results.
Kate Ott: These are definitely the narratives we need. Do you think the constitution of digital technology leads us there as well and reinforces the responsorial imagination?
Florian Höhne: Yes, i do: As you argue in your book (“Christian Ethics for a Digital Societey”) digital technologies provide experiences of relationality and being part of a network. That makes it more likely, i would argue, to narrate narratives like that and imagine oneself in that way. Unfortunately, digital technologies also provide the opposite experience, f.e. of being helpless an meaningless faced with an overwhelming network-power.
Kate Ott: I understand the shift to a responsorial imagination, but I’m not quite sure why this imagination has to act on behalf of others or for the relative better. Is it because of an implicit recognition of relationality and interdependence? Also, my other work on children and ethics has strong resonances with the idea of responsorial imagination that I would like to further explore -
Kate Ott: This resonates with what I’m pulling from Gebara. What do you think about a commonality there?
Kate Ott: Similar to the concept of “they” that I’m trying to play with as a multiplicity in unity.
Kate Ott: I wonder if this is a bit different than what you describe above. The minor offenses are usually something done offline recorded online and thus the offense isn’t manipulated by the seductive power of digital tech. Maybe I’m missing the definition or examples of the minor offenses? Can you give me an example? Either way, I don’t think the forensic image of personal accountability works (or is fully explanatory) offline or outside of a digital culture as you can tell from my paper ;).
Kate Ott: Interesting. Are you referring to things like digital triggers (a message notification light) that can cause behavior modification, emotional response, etc?
Kate Ott: Yes! Is this only in a digital culture or exacerbated in that space?
Florian Höhne: I would think: not only the digital culture, but i am going to show it for the digital culture
Kate Ott: I think this is important and would like to see it explored in our conversation.
Florian Höhne: Yes: I agree, i would like to see the individual-collective accounatbility/sin/action issue explored in our conversation too! :)
Kate Ott: Interesting that Kant interprets, “secrets of all hearts” to mean an individual punishment per person rather than a judgement on humanity more generally with an accordance based in a calculation that considers the power dynamics of the social imaginary, as though a social action is enacted based in a personal decision-making vacuum.
Florian Höhne: … yes: and this imagination is even institutionalized in many legal systems as well as vibrant in popular scapegaoting-cultures…
Kate Ott: How is this racialized, gendered, age-dependent, etc? Are some people more or less “persons” based on how the social imagination weighs personal accountability?
Florian Höhne: Thank you! Those are very good question. And your excellent paper helps a lot to adress them, i think. Further below, i have tried to situate this imagination at least in a certain class which points to the racial and gender-bias that comes with it as well, maybe. One of my main intention is to show the basic ambivalence of such imaginations: While they are gender and class bound on the one hand, they simultaneously serve as precondition for holding those in power accountable.
Kate Ott: Another connection to “stories” to discuss throughout the conference.
Florian Höhne: Indeed! I think there is a lot about narratives and stories, we can talk about and shall discuss. Looking forward to it!
Hanna Reichel: Hm. If I take your description of the manipulative powers at work above seriously, I would not want to “maintain a sense of agency” - I’d rather call out the lack of it. To put it differently: Is this new conception of personhood helpful in addressing the ISSUES that emerge from the digital developments, or does it serve to PLACATE?
Florian Höhne: To my view which is informed in this case particularly by the Praxis-Theory of Bourdieu, one needs a certain habit of understanding oneself as an agent, as having the right to speak and ask questions in order to “call out the lack of it”. If the necessary option faced with certain digital phenomena were protest and fundamental critique (which i am as yet not completely convinced of but not opposed to either), this very critique and protest would need critics and protesters, hence agents who can imagine a reason to protest. Does this make sense?
Hanna Reichel: should this be “who”?
Florian Höhne: of course, yes: who. Sorry.
Hanna Reichel: were they, though? depending on how you define “the digital” it may not have originated with the computer, but with statistics (see Nassehi), and there are other possibilities. I think your and Kate’s point about the notions of personhood also suggests that “the digital” might in some ways have been at work a lot before, say, the internet and social media.
Hanna Reichel: yeah, ok, I am more with you now
Florian Höhne: I’, glad to read that: This was also the punch line of the former paragraph…
Hanna Reichel: So are you suggestiong that we should we see our unconscious, “manipulated” actions (as described above) as God’s activity? That seems highly dangerous
Hanna Reichel: This to me still seems to be pretty much within a strong notion of conscious decisionmaking - precisely the thing which your account of constitutive and seductive power above debunked as a myth… Do you think Bonhoeffer has traction here?
Hanna Reichel: Because it seems the development in digital cultures is not just that we aren’t able to fully weigh the consequences of our actions - but that we do things without “deciding” to do them. This, to my mind, seems to be a different problem. Does that make sense?
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Hanna Reichel: I really like this idea, but I am as of yet completely unsure how it would track unto digital phenomena. i am curious what you will do with it…
Hanna Reichel: Does the imagination of oneself as an actor actually have this kind of empowering effect? … Is your fundamental criticism aimed at the corrosion of the imagination or at the corrosion of the actual freedom of the decision-making? Because, especially in the kind of nudged environment you describe, I might very well be under the impression of making a free choice (whether it’s voting or purchasing or sharing pics) while I have been manipulated into it. My image of myself would not empower me here, it might even prevent me to see the sinister reality. On the other hand, I might be completely capable of making unmanipulated decisions (whatever that might be) without thinking of myself as an autonomous agent…
Hanna Reichel: I don’t understand how seduction undermines conscious decision. I mean I get why certain environmental nudges etc might make it more difficult to stick to a decision to not share information, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t change the fact that you either decide to share the information or decide not to share the information. The repressive power you described earlier may use force to “nudge” us but that doesn’t take away freedom of choice and decision-making as such, does it? So all I am saying is, I am not sure i see where the exact game-changer lies here. (I have tried to formulate one in my own contribution, because like you I actually do think that we are facing powers that do not track unto our conscious decisions and work independent of them. I don’t think nudging is already it. I’d be curious to hear what you think of it.)
Florian Höhne: I think it is the personalization of the nudging that bypasses conscious decision-making and changes the game: The nudge appears to my consciousness as part of a socially shared reality (in which everybody is faces with the same nudge and might differently react to it) while it is a reality tailored to my preferences. This personalization and its invisibility is what bypasses consciousness, i would say.
Hanna Reichel: again, if it is manipulative, this means we are attributing an intended, conscious activity behind it - basically the kind of personhood you claim is eroding in this process. Maybe manipulation is not actually the most helpful category for this? Or is your thesis actually that the concept of sovereign etc. personhood migrates from the individual human agent to… whoever it is now that sits there “manipulating” us. Algorithms? Code? Alexa? Alexa’s developers? etc.
Florian Höhne: Good point. I have to think about that.
Hanna Reichel: That sounds very sinister. While I would parse them a little differently, I do generally agree with the shift in the kind of power structures you describe. But maybe the “desire” for an autonomous, conscious subjects re-asserts itself in your own description by ascribing it now to the entity exerting the power? I.e., are we sure that there is a “manipulator” on the other side"? I think the erosion of personhood in terms of conscious decisionmaking and attribution pertains to both “sides” here
Hanna Reichel: I must say that I see these three different types as not as different as they are often presented to be. All of these are mechanisms of power that are constituted in and through acts of subjectivation. I.e., they produce and rely on a particular type of self-consciousness which is complicit in the exercise of this power over the person.
Florian Höhne: I agree, that the difference particularly between constitutive and seductive power ist not that huge. Sofar, i thought the difference between repressive and seducitve power were significant because they differ in the mode of subjectivation through which they work. But i am open to changing that opinion .
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Hanna Reichel: ha, this is what I discuss as “disciplining surveillance” - I think it has a very strong implicit theology, and the genealogy of its current forms, e.g. in the emergent Chinese Social Credit System, include Bentham’s panopticon and Hieronymus Bosch’s tabletop on the Seven Deadly sins - all of them mediate the disciplining effect through self-consciousness, which — i would argue — is actually not so much a condition as an effect of these processes!
Hanna Reichel: “object”?
Florian Höhne: Yes, of course: objekt.
Hanna Reichel: I think these are very interesting questions indeed, even more as they are very elucidating for what prompts us to treat other HUMANS as persons… In the case of machines, it seems that acts of recognition essentially assign personhood rather than intrinsic qualities. Maybe that is true for humanity as well, in phenomenological as well as theological perspective. I am thinking here of a fascinating chapter in @BeniFriedrich’s dissertation as well…
Benedict Schöning: Following my previous comment I would say, it presupposes a voter who reacts to his environment and the abbility to manipulate this environment.
Benedict Schöning: I guess I follow Stalder 226-228 thinking this different: A cybernetic system does not need to get behind the mask - it treats its objects as black-boxes, stimulates them, measures their reaction and changes the stimuli. Thus it does not treat humans as self-conscious beings. For this system it does not matter (and is not accessible), what exactly is manipulated in the obejct und thus it does not matter if this object is man or machine.
Florian Höhne: I don’t think your comment is thought differently—it just presupposes a different perspective: I was not talking from the perspective of the manipulating cybernetic system but from the perspective of the manipulated “person”. While the former does not have to get behind the mask the latter still can make the experience that something erosive got behind his or her mask—an experience that makes the imagination less possible to be the actor of one’s own actions.
Benedict Schöning: imagination of?
Florian Höhne: YES: “It needs the imagination of a consciously deciding self, accoutable for its actions and in control thereof.”
Benedict Schöning: See also Stalder p. 226.
Benedict Schöning: This also reminds me of Reichert, Ramón: Die Macht der Vielen. Über den neuen Kult der digitalen Vernetzung (Edition Medienwissenschaft) Bielefeld, 2013.
Florian Höhne: Thank you for this reference! :-)
Benedict Schöning: Scapegoating is in this sense not a biblical picture but an idea of its later reception.
Florian Höhne: Of course, thank you for clarifing this!
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Frederike van Oorschot: May I ask you a question on my paper, Florian? What do you think in the light of this description about my attempt, to redefine an authority of Scripture as a procedural and relational recognition? I am looking forward to your comments
Florian Höhne: I will look into yours.
Frederike van Oorschot: This reminds me of Kate Otts description of the relation between technology and culture…
Florian Höhne: Reading her article i found myself very much agreeing to her third notion of technology. So: yes! ;)
Frederike van Oorschot: I think we should discuss this distinction very carefully, related to all issues of our workshop. Thank you, Florian!
Kate Ott: Yes, agreed. This is an important point. I would also like to consider further the role of the technologies and the humans used here that is distinct from the concept of digital participatory cultures as described by Henry Jenkins.
Frederike van Oorschot: What I wonder about often in debates on the thing-person bias in digital contexts - and I may ask the question here, too: Does a human-lika practise of conversation, you decribed above, necessarily blurs the distinction between things and persons? Or is it more the irritating/confusing “surface” for the user, we are concerned about? In orther words: What is changing exactly: the surface accessible to the user oder the distinction between things and persons? I think, this is of special importance for thinking about imagining oneself and “things” in the digital.
Benedict Schöning: I would replace “surface” with “inter-face” (to add even more complexity). Interfaces are mutually influential: The machine is operated via an anthropomorphic interface, humans act through machine interfaces that become more and more transparent. The “face/person” is thus only accessisble through an interface - as is the machine. There the change happens in digitality.
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