Friday, May 01, 2009
I.T. and Historicity
Comparing the ideologies built into Internet Theory to the ideologies that established and supported the Enlightenment (and led to the French Revolution) begs an important question: how does this project, and the implicit ethos and praxis of the Net, relate to history? What is the potentiality for historicity, where the Net is concerned? There is no doubt that the Net is a historical phenomenon; but it is not really the Net itself that is the question, it's what (if anything) Net-Life will lead to in a fractured populace. Just as the Net has widened the boundaries for literature, and made general literacy more common, two hundred years ago print periodicals were established and maintained for the edification of a new middle-class reading public. The Edinburgh Review, edited by strict task-master Francis Jeffrey (a liberal Whig who nonetheless lobbied to keep class demarcations in place) was the first publication to take Wordsworth to task; Blackwood's, run by Tories, attacked young John Keats, and the attack was thought (falsely) to bring on Keats's early demise. The upshot of these publications was a new level of public awareness of literature, and a new kind of casual reader; one who knew important names (and general outlines of author's profiles) without necessarily reading entire oeuvres. This is what good, comprehensive web-sites can do for literature: create a new kind of reader, whose standard may be lower than those of experts and devotees, but who are nonetheless familiar with the conflicts, issues, and trends that are shaping literary history as they happen. The Net itself, in the abstract, demonstrates Revolutionary, "Enlightenment Possibilities": class levelling, equal opportunity, and an implicit affirmation of individual subjects on quests for expressive freedom. Individual web-sites are a different story: they are public in function, but privatized in form; they speak from a particular angle about particular things; they are designed to promulgate agendas; and they tend to be atomized by these agendas.
What we want from the Net is largely determined by the role that we feel art should play in society. Some artists think that art belongs in the public sphere- that it should be out in the world, demonstrating its own ideological coherences, increasing the cultivation and awareness of the populace, giving its audience something to look up to and live for. Others prefer the notion of private sphere art- that art is for individuals to appreciate, to be kept as a kind of personal possession, something separate from and having little relation to the praxis of daily life, a digital commodity that should (paradoxically) remain priceless. This debate about the function of art, about in which sphere it belongs, has been going on for centuries. I would argue that the basis of Internet Theory, its potentiality for political awareness, praxis, and subversion, makes it a model for a resolutely public sphere approach to literature (and art.) However, I am aware of a contradiction that is not easily surmounted: I am writing this book in language that most readers will find recondite. As such, I am speaking from a position of comparative weakness; arguing for utility in non-utilitarian language. Yet, this book is not to be an aesthetic object; it is meant to go into the public sphere and reach those who have in interest in creating a new vision of "America," through a new tool that has yet to be fully developed, plumbed, and exploited: the Net. The basis of this theory is not private interest, but public inquiry, and if the language (used discursively) is abstruse, I will have to live with the consequences.
It is important to note, however, that these issues will be played out (are, in fact, being played out) whether or not this book reaches a substantial public. The Internet has created its own sphere, placed somewhere between the public and the private- the same way that speech-as-text is an intermediate language, placed between speech acts and print text, the Internet has engendered a sphere that is intermediate, and has its own unique position. Crowds do not gather to go on the Net, as they would gather around a demagogue or rabble-rouser; the Internet is a manifestation of a kind of public sphere, but is generally viewed in private. Thus, "mob psychology" is not likely to be a factor, as it was during the French Revolution. What the Net can do is to reach individuals, who can then take the ideas and ideologies they have gleaned from the Net and disseminate them in whatever realm happens to be apropos (schools, bars, offices.) This is an ideal scenario; the disembodied quality of Internet voices makes misunderstandings more likely. Yet Reception Velocity means that these misunderstandings can be cleared up rapidly if (and this is a big "if") subjects care enough to sort misunderstandings out. What is the telos I am envisioning with all of this? A new political ideological framework to create a new America around "America." If a new ideology (and an efficacious one) is to be created, modesty, in 2009 America, is no kind of virtue. Why? Because as is readily visible in mass media contexts and in the geographic size of the nation, you have to shout quite loudly in America to get anyone to listen.
I have encountered interest, fascination, but intense discomfort with the way I have used Red and Blue archetypes. I have employed them, knowing them to be reductive, because I think they serve a useful purpose: in a population as sprawling and inchoate as America's, large trends are difficult to find. The Red/Blue binary has already, very demonstrably, manifested in the context of Presidential elections. As such, it seems like fair game to me, especially taken out of the realm of the sociological and into the realm of the metaphysical. Nevertheless, I understand that bifurcating America (murdering it to dissect, in Wordsworth's terms) leaves me open to accusations of intellectual naivete, hypocrisy, and narrowness. At this point, I have a double response: that these accusations would be (and are) true to a certain extent, but that the archetypes are both visible and viable enough that I will continue to use them. The narrow nature of these archetypes will be a weakness, perhaps an Achilles' heel, of this discourse, but will allow me to do what I want. To get around "America," we have to know what "America" is; in a nation of two-hundred fifty million, this is no easy task. Red/Blue is both limited and limiting, but if one wants to work on a broad canvas, broad strokes are often necessary. To bring this roundabout: my teleological vision, not just of this project but of the Net in general, is to create subjects who actually know what they mean when they call themselves "Americans." I have been stunned that not one person I have asked has had any kind of definition of what being "American" constitutes. The project is leading down the vista of Internet possibility to the vista of American possibility; hopefully, it is already beginning to do so.