The Extreme Self (2021) | featured image

What Is Identity in Our Digital Age of ‘The Extreme Self’?

Do you look “real” in virtual space? Such existential questions are central to ‘The Extreme Self’, which explores identity in our digital world.

The Extreme Self
Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, Hans Ulrich Obrist
Walther König
July 2021

The Extreme Self is not only an art book but it’s also a spectacle and a manifesto. Cultural critic Shumon Basar, artist and author Douglas Coupland, and curator and art historian Hans Ulrich Obrist have collaborated with more than 70 artists to create a document that is aesthetically and philosophically compelling. The Extreme Self is a sequel to The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present (2015), co-authored by the same trio. Coupland expanded on the extreme present in his 2016 talk at The Long Now Foundation, explaining that “the future and the present now exist at the same time. It’s why time doesn’t feel like time anymore. We’re inside the future.” 

The extreme present results in part from foreclosing on the future. The Extreme Self begins with the assertion that not only do we no longer know when we are, we no longer know who we are. The fragmented self that is central to the psychological study of trauma is seemingly analogous to the extreme self: as a result of the digital bits of self we leave behind in the cloud, we end up everywhere and nowhere at once. The authors gamely call this a “huge data smudge” that we’re leaving behind, forever.

On one spread, the left-hand page is yellow with the simple text, “Who matters more: The individual or…” printed in black. The facing page, with its black background, repeats “thecrowdthecrowdthecrowd” to fill the entire page in yellow text. The juxtaposition is stunning. In a tiny note at the bottom left, styled after an online comment, is the phrase “there is a difference between being lonely and feeling lonely”, drawing attention to the certainly of the individual as a known self in contrast to the anonymous, endless crowd. Does one want to belong? Is solitude preferred?

The following pages continue this thread, noting that “The opposite of the self is no longer the crowd.” After this we are confronted with one of those bold statements central to the discussion underway here: “Traditional binaries keep collapsing.” “Data” itself remains a term overused and undefined in popular discourse, and this inspires one of the many lexical games central to the playful sense of foreboding that runs through the book.

Because of the cultural transformation we are experiencing, the individual is now becoming the extreme self. Unlike the ambiguity of “data”, Basar, Coupland, and Obrist work to define the extreme self in as many ways as possible. The definition evolves, cumulatively, through engaging with the book’s images and text.

One possible articulation of the self is through the metaphoric voice, which in digital spaces is formed through words, image, or video, depending on where you choose to post this version of self. Everyone has a voice, but who is listening? If having listeners (Followers, Likes, Retweets) matters as a means of affirming one’s sense of self, to what extent will we create a revealing and perpetual self for public consumption? This is one of the articulations of the extreme self, existing in the cloud far more than in an embodied human presence. 

A simple question on a single page, plainly asks, “Does my skin look too real?” What does “real” even mean in the age of you? As an existential question, asking if you look real in a virtual space is central to the project of The Extreme Self. “Real/Fake” is no longer an adequate binary because it fails to be applicable in the same way that it has been understood in the past. 

If, as the book implies, the extreme self is a fragmented self, do we ever feel whole? Or is the sense of being a whole, singular person an illusion? In certain cultural moments, the porousness of the self is seen as a virtue, making possible a deep connection with the community or with a higher power. Now, however, that porous nature leaves us feeling lonely, a theme that runs through The Extreme Self.

Loneliness as a social phenomenon in the United States has been a prevalent theme from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) to Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, Kristen Radtke’s recent graphic novel. The emotional consequences of social isolation were both generalized and amplified by the pandemic, yet loneliness is also central to life online.

The Extreme Self depicts the circumstances of the present moment, pairing language and images in ways that affirm the suspicions and discomforts that have been difficult to articulate. There are many small pleasures to be had in the “just right word” moments that create shared understanding with the reader. That pleasure works effectively by also keeping at bay some of the anxiety that comes along with examining the extreme self. 

RATING 8 / 10