larvatus prodeo

Descartes has a term, larvatus prodeo, which I think bears some merit in the context of the anonymized communcations of the internet. It means “to go forth/to emerge, masked/ghostlike”. In Descartes’ original usage, it was an idea of protection through masquerade for the controversial thinker. Regor Sebba translates a French copy of a lost Latin work, Olympica, written by Descartes in his youth: “As an actor, to conceal his blush of embarrassment, enters the stage masked, so I step forth onto the stage of the world, masked.”

Sebba points to a contrast in Descartes’ thought, between res cogitans and persona cogitans. The first is simple ‘res‘ a being, a material, ‘cogitans‘ that thinks, ponders, engages in thinking. ‘Persona‘, though, this is intriguing: ‘persona‘ a mask, a character that presents itself to the world. Perhaps Descartes was already beginning to make the move to the idea of the dualism which would later make him famous. A dualism between a presented self as a Lacanian masquerade, and the real, material, thinking individual that sits behind this, as a form of puppeteer.

Larvatus prodeo, then. I would prefer to read it as a ghostlike emergence, rather than a concealing of a self in a communicated framework, it is a wispy ethereal presence of a subject in a networked space. By engaging in a process of constant contact and individuation in a communication matrix, flitting across spaces and moments of discussion, communication, and aesthetic experience, a real self is invested with a semblance of identity. But, to be true to Descartes’ usage, the classical reading would have to be along the lines of the capacity for a transcendent notion of the self that expresses itself through material substrates, such as the network, or the human body.

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