Before we go any further, we must consider the idea of digital dualism. While Nathan Jurgenson created the original typology of digital dualism, “jennydavis” reimagined it in a way that is much more salient to this subject by mapping it onto materiality as follows:
Pure Digital Dualism: This is an Ideal Type in which digital and physical are fully separate, share no properties, and do not interact
Mild Augmented Reality: Highly digital or highly physical, with small amounts of digital/physical interaction
Augmented Reality: Physical and digital are explicitly intertwined and mutually constitutive, but maintain unique properties
Strong Augmented Reality: Physical and digital, though maintaining separate properties, are deeply intertwined, mutually constitutive, and inseparable
Pure Integration: An Ideal Type in which the physical and digital are one in the same.
I seek to map devoteeism on Tumblr onto this typology to understand if the notion that its impacts extend into our physical world is valid.
At it’s root, this map represents a spectrum between disembodiment (strong digital dualism) and hyper-embodiment (weak digital dualism and strong augmented reality. Devotees, like Chris, express feelings of “hyper-connectivity,” in which they are able to speak openly about their sexual attractions while leaving the risks and limits of the body behind. Tumblr becomes a way for devotees to access their “true selves.” Each of us has likely experienced how much of a difference it can make to find out that you are not alone. The ability Tumblr creates for users, specifically devotees, to find each other and know that they are not alone creates the appearance of disembodiment, or mild augmented reality.
When one compares devotee culture on Tumblr to the push back, it becomes clear that disembodiment is a fallacy. Here are a few examples:
“My point is this: It doesn’t really matter what sexual preferences you have. No matter how obscure or common they may be in our society, nothing gives someone the right to behave in a way that makes another person feel like a sexual object.” - Becomingbionic
“On Devotees: "Does someone’s fetish for large breasts or long hair or big muscles or tall height also scare you?"
Gimpunk used this as a counter-argument to why they think it’s okay to fetishize disabled people.
So I was talking about it with my (admittedly abled) friend, because the argument made logical sense to me but I felt there was still something squicky about it. My friend mentioned that there’s still a power differential. Like, in a perfect world, everybody could like anything and that’d be okay. But in our world, there’s a history of power imbalance between able-bodied and disabled people, and a history of dehumanizing disabled people, and we still live in a society built on ableism. So (at least to me) it feels like objectification and yuckiness (even though, again, in a perfect world it’d just be a preference).” - secretsofthedisabled
One of the most powerful examples of the pushback came from user lindseyelarson:
“REASON #1 I DON’T LIKE DEVOTEES (PEOPLE WITH A FETISH FOR DISABLED PEOPLE)
Okay so Google has this great feature where you can search using an image. Since I’ve been having issues with devotees on that one post of photos from my scholarship entry. I was hoping that I hadn’t attracted any of the sickos who take images without permission and post them to other sites. Well that didn’t fucking happen. There was one listing not associated with me.
This whole fucking website makes me wanna vomit! I left an angry message.
So in short, there will NEVER be another photo of me showing my wheelchair or any other piece of equipment relating to my disability on my blog. Because of these fuckers. “
In this example, lindseyelarson posted photos of herself that she did not intend to be erotic. Devotees then found those pictures on her Tumblr and posted them on an external site to share in the pleasure they received from them. If this example of her photos being taken from one website and moved to another without her consent is any example of how it may spread outside of the web, we are in trouble. Not only has Tumblr facilitated these actions, but it also contributed to the personal feelings of validation of devotees and the all too real feeling of the subject in the images having her power taken away. The decision not to post photos that show her disability would have massive consequences if everyone felt forced to do the same. This culture is thus forcing disability into hiding and limiting the power of people with disabilities to do anything about it.
The claim of disembodiment crumbles when you look at this bigger picture. Augmented reality, veering on strong augmented reality, is a more realistic point on which to map devoteeism. As long as devotees live believing that their actions on Tumblr have inconsequential impacts, augmented reality cannot be considered strong. It is worth noting that not discussed in this post are pretenders and wannabes, which veer further from embodiment toward disembodiment, but such a discussion is too complex to begin here. The nature of augmented reality, however, remains as the best lens through which to look at this phenomenon. Tumblr offers a unique way of engaging with our own experiences and emotions in a new context without ever truly offering a separation from those motivations. And most importantly, the two are deeply intertwined. Acknowledging the consequences of our experiences on Tumblr on the way we understand ourselves, others, and go about out day to day lives is critical as this conversation moves forward.
Before concluding this post, I want to make something very clear again: devoteeism and disability fetishes are not inherently bad or inhuman. They are not something someone should be ashamed of. I honor the personal testimonies many, many people out there who say that their attractions are out of their control. I do not want to condemn an already oppressed group of people, stigmatized for the few extreme people who commit crimes serious enough to enter the public consciousness. I do, however, want to challenge the idea that the actions one does online have little or no consequences for people when they log off. In particular, I seek to dismantle the idea that using Tumblr is not an act, when in reality, it is a powerful one. I also want to acknowledge again that the devotee culture I discuss is not representative of all devotees. Positive accounts of devoteeism can be found here and here. While I do not necessarily agree with them, I do hope that this post will motivate some to explore the topic further from the other side, so those posts are a good place to start.
“Anonymous asked: What you probably don't understand is. . .” http://becomingbionic.tumblr.com/post/79292783145/what-you-probably-dont-understand-is-that-people-dont
“Devotee PSA.” http://winglssdemon.tumblr.com/post/68165929830/devotee-psa
“Most devotees are nice. Some are dreadful.” http://dreadfuldevotees.tumblr.com/post/65532779782/most-devotees-are-nice-some-are-dreadful
“On Devotees: "Does someone’s fetish for large breasts or long hair or big muscles or tall height also scare you?”” http://secretsofthedisabled.tumblr.com/post/24249444492/on-devotees-does-someones-fetish-for-large-breasts
“Reason #1 I don’t like devotees (people with a fetish for disabled people).” http://lindseyelarson.tumblr.com/post/50961422041/reason-1-i-dont-like-devotees-people-with-a-fetish
“Submission from Ryan.” http://dreadfuldevotees.tumblr.com/post/74770397098/submission-from-ryan