Emily Rosamond



Economies of Character (or, Character in the Age of Big Data)


This thesis examines the roles that literary, philosophical and moralistic concepts of character play with respect to contemporary art and, more broadly, to newly ubiquitous forms of social control: big data, “nudging” in corporate and governmental policy, the reputation economy (fuelled, in part, by “World 3.0” businesses such as Airbnb), and credit scoring. Many forms of data analytics predict individuals’ future actions by analyzing their past behaviour, or statistically situating them within flows of transient norms in their social networks.

Such techniques enjoy great predictive success; but as they gain traction, what happens to more open-ended conceptions of individuals’ futurity? How might artists respond to new pressures placed on character (as a representational concept governing perceptions of particularity and propensity) in the age of big data? Given that, historically, developments in the representation of character have been closely linked to economic changes, how might this link between character and economy be understood in relation to works that (whether consciously or not) respond to the emergence of big data and/or, more broadly, information politics? 

Examining both recent works pertaining to big data and past works that anticipate some of its tendencies, I attempt a novel theorization of character: character economizes personhood (if we understand personhood as a relational concept indicating some form of familiarity between a perceiver and a perceived person, thing, etc.). Furthermore, character places personhood within the speculative domain. While character has often been conceived as that almost-perceptible glimpse of tendency that can only be speculatively grasped in the present (as in Heraclitus’ well-known aphorism “character is destiny”), character as a perceptual relation with speculation takes on new significance in a neoliberal economy, powered by data analytics, that pervasively allocates value with respect to expressions of propensity.

I look to moments at which artists over the past century (from Duchamp to Eleanor Antin) have pointed to the pliability of character by constructing fictitious personas for/through their work, anticipating the widespread concern for character in contemporary art and drawing attention to the tensions between character as an expression of pliability and of essence (the relations between which will again be reconfigured in the age of big data). I examine works of art and literature that turn the economy itself into a “character” of sorts, and, in doing so, point to the ways in which first person “characters” can express a relation between perception and economic value. Finally, I examine recent artworks that respond to the tensions between character’s pliability and the increasingly strict controls to which it is subjected through finance, reputation and data. While it is tempting (and, to a large extent, useful) to understand new forms of algorithmic and financial control as extensions of surveillance apparatuses, the artworks I examine also do something more.

They invite viewers to think through the parameters of an ever-shifting politics of the embedded, first-person perspective. Representations of the first-person enact the tension between privacy and sharing that has become increasingly vital to market logics linking character to finance. The shared/private space of the first-person lends perceptual logic to the personalization of prediction afforded by big data, and stages contemporary conflicts between privacy and sharing, and between quantities of data and qualitative perception.