The Monetized Self

an animated man pulling a fingerprint like it is threadGiven what Culture on the Edge is all about, I was thinking, the other day, about this now common notion of “identity theft” — and the way in which it signifies a rather dramatic narrowing of how, at least in this one setting, we use that word, “identity.”

Because, for the term “identity theft” to work, we have to understand the self either mainly or exclusively as a shopper, a debtor, and thus the site where the buck stops — quite literally. That is, when someone “steals your identity” they are doing something other than impersonating you: they are loading you with debt that you did not know you were accumulating and thus whose acquisition you didn’t sanction — debts without the goods — and thereby turning the self into something whose worth is measured mainly in dollars and cents.

For example, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) defines it as follows:

Identity theft and identity fraud are terms used to refer to all types of crime in which someone wrongfully obtains and uses another person’s personal data in some way that involves fraud or deception, typically for economic gain.

What I find curious. however, is that the same DOJ site opens with, of all things, a quote from Shakespeare:

But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.
– Othello, act iii. Sc. 3

“My good name,” which once signified the wide domain of reputation and social standing within a community (the way one manages one’s place within a complex social world, akin to the Greco-Roman notion of being pious), is now distilled into your ability to make good on our debts — whether we incurred them or not. Thus identity — that thing often thought to be possessed somewhere in our interior — becomes a function of our credit cards, our “personal data” (i.e. passwords and PINs) — the means whereby the purchases that define us are made.

It is therefore ironic to me that the DOJ uses this Shakespeare quote, for I don’t think that what we today mean by identity, at least when we talk about identity fraud, is quite what that line from The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (first published in 1565), was all about. For in the meantime capitalism arrived on the scene and the social self was reinvented as a consumer — the monetized self.

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