Friday, June 10, 2016
Facebook has rapidly become an institution on the Net. It has dethroned MySpace as the premier site for representations of self-hood and the creation of social exchanges. What actually happens on Facebook? You can, of course, use it just like another e-mail account. That is a feature that joins Facebook with many other Internet programs, and substantiates it as useful. There is a utilitarian aspect to it, that gives it a base in what can be called social modes of production. That is, people use it to generate interest in themselves, not as commodities but as personalities. I am intrigued by the phenomenon of "status updates," and the performative aspect of their manifestation. For those who aren't on Facebook, once you have an account, you have the option of "updating your status" by giving a brief precis of whatever you happen to be doing at the moment. Your status update immediately appears on the front Facebook page of all of your friends. Thus, let's say you have 300 friends. That means that by updating your status, you have an instant audience of 300 people. Of course, not all of them are going to be on Facebook at any given moment, but the remarkable nature of the scenario stands. This is the kind of interchange that typifies digital consciousness: fast, fluid, without boundaries. Everything becomes performance; everyone is onstage all the time. Every status update takes on the quality of a gambit, an attempt to gain a social edge, lure people in. It is a one-way exchange: you give your audience something, in the hopes that they will give something back. In Barthesian terms, you can weave your own mythology, fashion yourself as a human signifier. Your success depends on how compelling others perceive your performance to be.
Others can comment on your status updates. Often, a miniaturized dialogue is created, that can occupy a number of different levels (both semantically and substantively.) Status updates range from the quotidian (X is washing her clothes) to the culturally informed (Y thinks that Joyce should've stopped at page 476) to the banal (Z is sleepy) to the risque (Q's got that lovin' feeling) and roundabout to the strictly self-promotional (R wants everyone to check out his new blog-post.) Risque status updates stand the best chance of getting commented upon, and comments can range from the dramatic (Ooh la la!) to the sarcastic (Yeah, that's great, Q), and all points in between. What's most striking about this kind of social intercourse is that language has never traveled this rapidly before. Appearances that used to be limited to the telephone (usually in the context of talking to one person at a time) and television (which is not an interactive or personalized medium) have now become available as tools for self-fashioning. Exchanges of language on Facebook are stripped of any function but to create mythologies; the bland appurtenances of our daily lives can become energized and glamorized by an encounter with a wide, geographically scattered audience, who are themselves performers on the same stage. The economy of linguistic exchanges on Facebook is very equal; rather than a privileged writer stooping to address a naive reader, or to reach across a gulf of complex intentionality, audience and performer are conflated on Facebook to the extent that, in the space of a minute, you can actively perform both roles. The donning and doffing of masks is compulsive and rather heady; signifiers are often felt rather than understood. Facebook is like a board game whose goal is to connect human dots; you have to pay attention to do well, and to learn how to use your intuition to read signs whose goal is the generation of more signs. Promiscuity of signification is rampant, and orgasmic.
There is, indeed, a sexiness to Facebook. Sexual intercourse, like digital consciousness, can be fast, fluid, and without boundaries. The twist in the tale is that love affairs are enacted on Facebook every day without ever being physically consummated. Why? Because you may fall in love with a friend across an ocean, or on another side of the country, or any place that is inaccessible. Promiscuity of signification does not necessarily lead to physical promiscuity. Many of these love affairs take on the quality of the kind that Andy Warhol envisioned: idealized, image-based, evanescent, Platonic. Yet they carry a frisson that is difficult to find anywhere else. It is a mixture of the foot-lights of the stage and a dimly lit bedroom. If it happens on Facebook, everyone can see it, and the latent exhibitionism which is a peculiar characteristic of Americans is very much in evidence. If a love affair is all language, does this make it a Deconstructionists nightmare? Signification as a substitute for physical caresses is the name of the game on Facebook. If the physical is elided, bodies become boundaries. It is worth noting that digital consciousness manifests as a sedentary physicality. It is created, nurtured and sustained by staying in one place, not demonstrating any forms of physical agility, all consciousness brought to bear on signification, social exchange, and self-fashioning. The mechanical consciousness of nineteenth century England had much to do with athletic vigor, the discipline of male bodies; digital consciousness is dreamier, has more to do with vigor as manifestated in agile signification. Digital consciousness creates a primacy of language. It seems more worthy not merely to do, not merely to say, but to do and then say in a performative utterance designed for a wide audience. Doing leads to saying, rather than vice versa. Primacy of language may mark the end of physical imperatives. Not that we will all stop making love because of Facebook, but that new forms and manners of sexual intercourse are being developed and demonstrated every day. Foucault said that discourse is power; on Facebook, discourse is sex.
These two impulses meet in thinkers like Benjamin and Althusser, of course. Benjamin's notion of aura and the "auratic" in art have some relevance when applied to the Net. Though original art-objects are not readily available on the Net, what individuals do on the Net (more often than not) is create an aura, a mystique around themselves. The untouchable becomes the physical body that is elided from Web reality. Through photos, poems, prose, and other manifestations of self-fashioning, individuals make themselves as glamorous as possible, create illusions of availability, make themselves endlessly reproducible. So both sides of Benjamin's famous formulation are satisfied; an aura is created that can be reproduced ad nauseum. Aura, in Benjamin, comes from "authenticity"; the pictures of themselves that people put on the Net have a veneer of authenticity, evidence of a body made aesthetic by itself. People on the Net literally become art, become the agents of their own objectification. This is especially true on Facebook, where you can't see someone's pictures unless you are "friends" with them. An exchange is enacted: if someone accepts your friendship, they get an added human/social "possession," infinitely reproducible, and you get access to their embodied, aestheticized self-representations. What is unique about this exchange is that it in no way involves a cash nexus. It is self-contained within a social realm, that borders on the aesthetic without touching the economic. That's why the Net is a spiritual medium, and may provide the Zeitgeist of this century with its most potent talisman. Think of other mediums: television, movies, cell-phones, music. While Internet is not always free, exchanges on the Net (unlike seeing a movie, buying an album or a television, or making a long-distance phone call) displace the Marxist paradigm. As such, they have the capacity to enact a leveling of class and privilege, in which class boundaries are effaced. Boundary effacement I have touched on before, but it must be at the heart of any comprehensive Net theory. And it is (mostly) a good thing.
Literature has a special place in this scenario. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that poetry has a special place. The length of novels would (I would think) preclude them from an active engagement with Net-space. Or, that could take thirty or forty years to develop. For now, the comparative brevity and compact quality of poems make them ideal for Net distribution and consumption. "Consumption" is a key word here. Theorists have pointed out that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a demarcation was put in place (in literary terms) between "consumption" and "reception." Reception referred to dissemination of literature in small, tightly interwoven groups; this is the realm of what had been "court literature" and patronage. Here, poets knew who they were writing for and tailored their creations accordingly. As the nineteenth century began, literature gradually took on the qualities of a commodity, and poets no longer knew exactly who they were writing for. Though the Internet generally moves us in the direction of de-commodification, the same thing is happening now, in a more extreme fashion. Anyone who has sitemeter on their blog knows that hits come from all over the world, and, usually, it is impossible to determine who one's readers are. How do you write for an inchoate mass of people? This was the question for Wordsworth and Coleridge, and it is no less a question for us now, albeit taken to a new level of extremity. This combination of de-commodification and an insanely wide public audience is very novel. Poets have never dealt with anything like it before. Wordsworth's inchoate public could at least be traced to England; many of us receive hits from places like India, Pakistan, and Yemen. What are the implications? It will take years, and many Net Theorists, to work them out. But work them out they (and we) must, because it may be the key to whatever durability and permanence we hope to have. Oh, the irony...
Thursday, June 9, 2016
Digital language exists in an intermediate space; it is situated somewhere between speech acts, as they have come to be known, and print texts. Digital language is, in essence, an intermediate language. Until it becomes normative, a term will be useful to distinguish it from speech acts, on the one side, and print text on the other. The intermediate quality of digital text can be distinguished in calling it “speech-as-text.” Like speech acts, digital text partakes (potentially) of spontaneity, affectivity, reactivity, and the previously posited “velocity”; conversely, like print text, digital text can demonstrate the virtues of craft, rhetorical calculation, discursive subtlety, and semantic nuance. As an intermediate language, speech-as-text is, in its manifestation, already heteroglot; because people speak differently than they write (though this differential varies greatly from person to person.) Bakhtin’s formulations can be embodied by, or within, individuals. Speech-as-text resolves self-bifurcation, even as it creates a new textual self. The “between” quality of speech-as-text will no longer be apparent once it establishes itself and becomes normative (to what degree it may become as normative as print text is up for debate); speech acts, digital and print texts will be an established triad. What is important is that the widespread establishment of a new form of both self-consciousness and self-representation has implications that are simultaneously political, aesthetic, intellectual, and subversive. I want to focus on the political and subversive aspects to speech-as-text, for one simple, salient reason: discourses that are both genuinely subversive and genuinely political in the United States (and in other places) in 2009 are rare indeed. How did it get this way? In the answer, we may feel urgency in the pursuit of digital consciousness as a possible bridge to a new era.
A brief look at the era we live in now will first be necessary. When we look back at the Aughts in America, I believe a central contradiction will be apparent. This is, in many ways, an era of extremes. Mainstream media outlets are dominated by personalities to whom it is impossible (for thinking people) to be charitable. These personalities are, almost without exception, imbeciles. They have created a social environment that goes beyond the “Disney Land” paradigm posited by Baudrillard; it is more like a Tom and Jerry cartoon, in which acts of terrible violence are committed (though these are displaced into verbiosity), and all to comic effect a few notches beneath burlesque. This is extreme; the obvious incompetence of the Bush regime has been equally extreme. Yet, what has my generation’s response been? What have young intellectuals accomplished in America? Have we sought to balance these negative extremities with “positive extremities” of our own (effective thought translated into effective action)? Culturally, the answer is manifestly yes, from Philadelphia on out; politically, much less so.
The consequence of our lack of action has been a sense of socio-political stagnation. If our passivity is in any way defensible, it is because “outlets,” in the traditional sense, have been unavailable. Organizations have not been established, organic political institutions (in the sense of “grass roots” rather than strictly “natural”) have not developed, few marches have been organized, few demonstrations staged. What has been accomplished has been ignored, more or less, by mainstream media outlets. Now, I am attempting to legitimize a new outlet for the creation of discourse. The Internet has already been used, freely and even-handedly, as an economic mode of production (I am thinking of the Obama campaign.) As a tool for the dissemination of high-level discourse, that would be capable of creating a new, revitalized sense of socio-political engagement among artists and intellectuals, we have not, to my knowledge, seen easy and swift vertical progress. Easy, swift, and vertical are all characteristics of digital consciousness— but until its terms are named, to the satisfaction of those for whom terms are a sine qua non, it will not be privileged as a unique medium in which new cognitive forays can be initiated.
Speech-as-text, as I have defined it, is capable of moving minds into new spaces. When intellectual purviews are expanded, we may see a renascence in America (and other places) to a realm in which societal and institutional structures do not appear as reified as they do now. Any new self that is fashioned holds the possibility of reaching the Other in ways that could not perforce be imagined. A state of being “between” at least moves the mind out of the slough of an overdetermined, vastly configured milieu. “Between” is active; it is dynamic rather than static or essential. In short, it offers advantages. I am hoping that those who want to see things start to progress again can honor the conceptual ground I am staking. The formal parameters of the Net, its heteroglossia and potentiality for the development of new literary forms (like blogs) make it one of the few things remaining in American society that can legitimately be called democratic. In a time of stagnation that, beyond the socio-political level, is marked by economic strife, any outlet that can still be called democratic must be clung to like a life-raft. An argument can be made that speech-as-text, falling in between speech and print text, winds up falling beneath them (falling short, in a bifurcation, of two “wholenesses.”) I respectfully disagree. An intensification of two time-worn linguistic forms, shot through with the urgency of crisis and criticism: this is how I would describe the (admittedly idealized) speech-as-text I have in mind.
The Red metaphysic hinges on a privileged Other (Jesus) transcending the Body. The Blue metaphysic hinges on a Body already disembodied. Blue physicality is mediated; the Self is already doubled by disembodied voices. The Blue relationship to Jesus is one partly based on commensurability— the Otherness of Jesus is a half-Otherness. Jesus is situated within a realm of workable discourse; his is a privileged, disembodied voice among other privileged voices. His bifurcation (body/discourse) becomes a token of commensurability rather than a manifestation of difference. What exalts Jesus in the Blue metaphysic is a perceived (and readily perceptible) singularity; a sense of resolved binaries manifested in effective (and affective) discourses. Jesus, as was recorded, masterfully orchestrated his own speech acts; engendered to be transcribed into print, then recuperated as more speech acts. This circle of speech acts around textuality gives Jesus discursive speed and fluidity in the Blue metaphysic. In the Blue, Jesus is within; in the Red, Jesus is above. Jesus is appropriated, in the manner of a commodity; yet his appropriation does not let him remain Other, as in the Red metaphysic. Red defends Jesus (who remains Other); Blue appropriates him (but locates him as within possessive circles.) Between defense and appropriation are shared characteristics— subjects compete for degrees of potency of defense or extent of possession-via-appropriation. Competitive ideologies immediately arise in the realm of interpretation (the realm in which defense and appropriation most readily manifest.) Pursuant to this, of course, Jesus is defended and appropriated for “America.” Jesus, more than a shibboleth, becomes “Jesus,” a linguistic sign for a sense of interiority that is bifurcated between Red and Blue. “Jesus” and “America” are, in fact, commensurate linguistic signs; both connect the personal (privatized in Bodies) and the transcendental (disembodied.) Yet “America” enjoys privileges that “Jesus” does not; the offering up of Bodies for instrumental use. In an important sense, “America” has greater currency than “Jesus”— that is why I have saved its discursive treatment until the end of this particular chapter.
“America,” as a signifier, is embodied by the Red and used by the Blue. What is personal for the Red is instrumental for the Blue— though it is a substantial irony that more instrumental use is made of Red Bodies than Blue. Where “America” and Otherness is concerned, Redness locates Otherness first in the entire non-American world; Blueness locates Otherness first in each other (Blueness engendering far greater diversity and thus more competition possibilities), then in Redness. The Red totalizes “America”; its material and economic status (though obviously faltering) is the way things should be (overdetermined, for the Red, by a preponderance of solid Bodies); the Blue is often profoundly indifferent to “America,” except in its value as a rhetorical weapon, as specific discursive circumstances necessitate. “America” is a linguistic sign-as-center; words around it, “liberty,” “freedom,” “justice,” sit in uneasy relation both to Red insistence and Blue indifference. Subtle discourses do not suit the aims of either the Red or the Blue— they point ineluctably to the hollowness of both Bodies and commodities. What is important is that America, as it is already lived around “America,” forces no pertinent engagements with its own bifurcated ethos and praxis. Engagements, if they occur, are kept on their sides, within their circles— the Other is often a distant-at-best reality. I am speaking of high discursive levels— the levels of discourse around political campaigns and within the purview of the mainstream media do not count here. Why should it? Extreme discursive crudity is equally Blue and Red— it is done often for profit, centered on Bodies, and thrives on an ethos of direct, destructive competitiveness on all levels. That is why an America around “America” needs a new context that the Internet (and IT) can provide. It is not entirely commodified (yet), it is disembodied, and it does not necessitate the employment of an ideology of competition. It is an unavoidable fact that Blue and Red ideologies share more in common than many suppose, under the aegis of humanity and the human— competition engenders an intense fear of Otherness, which is personalized, politicized, and totalized. This is visible at both personal and institutional levels— it is an agent of erosion.
A speech-as-text that specifically addresses “America” as a linguistic sign must be determined by a rubric that is at least somewhat specific. Otherwise it might degenerate into cacophony. In fact, I.T. must establish that speech-as-text, in its very intermediacy, has an almost unlimited potentiality for what might be called “cacophonous textuality.” This is heteroglossia gone crazy; a mesh of so many voices pursuing so many divergent discourses that what is manifest is a kind of “speed metal.” Whether or not this is a negative thing, is to be determined by individual sensibilities, in atomized relationships to it. Nevertheless, this is immaterial to my current discourse. The first determinative exercise that must be pursued, in finding the America around “America,” is a more stringent definition of a characterization I have somewhat heedlessly (though in the spirit of digital consciousness) employed: “The Red and the Blue.” We know the commonsensical usage of this term, as it breaks down along American Party Political lines. However, I would like to posit that “The Red and the Blue” touches a realm of both ethos and praxis that runs deeper than Political Party lines would suggest. The formulation is, admittedly, limited by its generality (that, unfortunately, borders perilously close to presumptuousness) and its obviously partisan nature. But how can it be shown that it is merely partisan? Who can say that the “redness” or “blueness” of a particular discourse or discursive context is merely political, in the strict sense of the word?
It is my contention, specifically to be revealed in digital text, that this formulation, “The Red and the Blue,” in fact characterizes a gulf that may be impassable. It is not only political, but covers every level of praxis, and, where praxis is concerned, little is held in common by the two sides. Where the Red and the Blue coalesce is here: in a specifically American ideology of competition. This ideology formulates the Other (in this case every commensurate Other) as a direct threat. Both The Red and the Blue place this ideology in the realm of commodities: I have this, the Other has that. Perceived ownership of commodities and the privileged, envious gaze of commensurate Others confers status. There is, however, a fundamental difference; where The Red is concerned, competitive ideologies are often transcribed directly onto bodies. The body, in its materiality, becomes a signifier, and a substitute for commodities. Redness has, in fact, pre-Marxist materialism as a distinguishing characteristic. By pre-Marxist, I mean hinging on an emanated physicality as more status-pertinent than production or appropriation of commodities. To reduce this to praxis (for both sides): what if I were to wander each morning into a truck-stop in Oklahoma, wearing a yarmulke?
I have never pursued this mode of action but, as a member of the Blue intelligentsia, I assume, through many years of observation (which may be personal or media-based), that, as a mode of action, this would be somewhat akin to putting out a cigarette on my neck. My cultural capital would be effaced by my status as a vulnerable body. An Oklahoma trucker would not have this problem in Times Square. These formulations are reductive to the point of absurdity; so why are we compelled to engage in them so often? Are they based in truth or paranoia? The geographical sprawl of America determines that any praxis of attempting to answer these questions with authority is doomed: unless, of course, the dilemma could be brought online. This could be one of the great projects of I.T.: to determine whether The Red and the Blue is a lingering myth or a tenacious reality. All outward indicators point, in fact, to a tenacious reality: but pointing at something does not equal legitimating it. Why shouldn’t the heteroglossia of digital consciousness include Red voices? Through a sort of negative affirmation, can they show us the America around “America”? How this is to be done is a mystery. In a culture where the grossly physical is privileged, disembodied voices, especially disembodied theoretical voices, may not have much clout. I could see things turning cacophonous rather quickly: but is cacophonous textuality not a more honest rendering of “America” than anything else?
What would the idealized speech-as-text I have posited look like? It would be foolish to privilege a certain kind (or manner) of digital text stylistically or formally; the development of individual (and individualized) discursive styles seems inevitable. I would, however, opine that circumstances necessitate a certain thematic angle for digital text; if we want to establish, from the outset, the socio-political viability of digital text as a manifestation of digital consciousness. What needs enumerating is what lessons (if any) we have learned from the debacles of our era. It may be naively optimistic to posit this moment as the possible inauguration of a new intellectual era (as manifested in a new textual praxis); but that we would all actively desire the inauguration of a new era (of any kind) is (I would hope) past questioning. What have the past ten years taught us about America? Parenthetically, I will continue to use the first person plural, in the hopes that what I say is already both widely thought and widely felt. If it is not, the onus of responsibility for a misled or misleading discourse falls on me. I believe that we have all probed the signifier “America” and seen something new. What we have seen amounts to this: there is, as in the nineteenth century, a Civil War taking place in America, and its manifestation is dead bodies— but not ours. To unpack this thoroughly would take volumes (digital and print); in the interests of compression, it may be efficacious to state the absolute and irrevocable incommensurability of “The Red and the Blue.” Very few who read this will not consider themselves “resolutely Blue”; those who espouse the ideologies of the Red are (largely) anathematized as (subaltern) Others. Yet “America” means them and us; it is as if Israel and Palestine were nominally (and thus ineluctably) co-joined. So if we say “America,” and call ourselves “Americans,” what do we mean?
Let us examine “America” as a textual sign (whether it be manifested in the context of speech acts, print or digital text.) Because it co-joins The Red and the Blue, the iterated “America” forces us to acknowledge (and manifest in the acknowledgement) the Other that we (rightly, I believe, pun intended) anathematize. If we affix it as a designation to ourselves, in a manner of self-fashioning, we also connect ourselves, inescapably, to the Other that we anathematize. If “America” thus stands as a doubly bifurcated linguistic sign (first in its status as a representation, secondly in representing as entity constituted by two incommensurate parts) then, insofar as representations are capable of precision, its utility as a precise signifier is nil. To call something (a subject, or an object of thought) “American” is thus roughly equivalent to dubbing something “European”; it tells us something, but not much. A newly constituted “America” would take for granted the double bifurcation that now inheres in “America” as a textual sign. No sign is entirely solid, but some signs are more solid than others. “America,” as it exists today (and has for the last forty years) is as fluid and “between” as speech-as-text. A middle “America,” as representative of a state or mode of consciousness, needs not only to be re-constituted, it needs to be created (almost) ex nihilo. Fluidity is a compensatory quality of extremity and precariousness; what is the step beyond double-bifurcation? What is the America around “America”? I hesitate to privilege the Internet as the obligatory locale of the creation of a new “America,” because it needn’t be. But, without privileging this discourse unduly, I will say that new contexts often necessitate new significations. The Internet is not the only place, but it is as good a place as any. Digital consciousness, in its velocity and fluidity, mirrors qualities of what has been essentialized as “American”; this is what America has been in its youth. Age and wisdom, born of strife, can make it less a fetish and more a vehicle.
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.
Objections have been raised to me that much of the substantive content that constitutes the Net is negative. Even within the realm I have privileged (blogs), "flame wars" have taken their place as a not uncommon occurrence. What is a flame war? Essentially, a flame war is discourse gone bad; a digital conversation that has degenerated into a digital argument. As always, Reception Velocity insures that these fracases are fast and fluid (almost as fast and fluid as argumentative and/or discursive speech acts.) I see flame wars as positive incidents (apropos, considering how many I have been involved in), for several reasons: because they affirm speech-as-text as an adequate means of rhetorical display; straddle the line between public and private sphere engagements (and can thus, ideally, engender mass cultivation and availability as a "personal possession" at the same time); and because they subvert Romantic notions of the author as separate and atomized. When someone is flamed, a double vulnerability is made apparent: the target is exposed as subject to public censure (and even, sometimes, ridicule); the culprit displays in him or herself the weakness of the warrior- those who take the initiative to attack are most likely to be attacked. In this double vulnerability is the element of the human that grants digital consciousness amnesty from accusations of coldness and, to some extent, superficiality (flame wars tending to peel back and expose woundedness and insecurity.) An author in duress is more human than an author atomized.
Flame wars only get to be a nuisance to the extent that certain Net writers become addicted to the adrenaline rushes and frissons that they engender. Those who go around looking for flame wars are to be avoided. A healthy flame war involves both spontaneity and calculation, like a high stakes game of chess- as the one that happened between myself and several other poets over "post-avant" a few months back. Misunderstandings created self-revelations- I was accused of being (more or less) someone's dupe, and was forced to publicly state both the ethos and praxis of my poetics, and their connection to an entity known as post-avant. The revelation of character, where literature is concerned, comes to light in flame wars- what is usually visible (on the American side) is ideologies of competition and the desire for instant gratification. That substantial definitions of terms can (and usually do) take years to sink in is lost on the American, who wants resolution, affirmation, and acceptance now.
So bloggers are left to answer a pertinent and potentially confounding question: when to flame and when not to flame? When is it profitable to use specific names, and when to generalize? It would seem wise to apply the dictum of Wilde's Lord Henry Wotton: "one cannot be too careful in the choice of one's enemies." In other words, you learn certain lessons in maintaining a blog: if you flame a fool, or get drawn into a flame war with a fool, you will get a foolish response. Flame an intelligent poetry blogger in a purposeful way, and you may begin a valuable discourse. On the other hand, it is possible to be blind-sided, in such a way that self-defense is simply necessary. One cannot always choose the Other that one encounters. Heteroglossia is not always fun; it can be painful to be addressed in an alien language (especially when it seems to hold no rhyme or reason.) Yet this post is meant to act discursively, rather than as a how-to manual; what is important is that flame wars are both valuably illustrative of the most positive attributes of digital consciousness and valuable as incidents that demonstrate their own kind of heterogeneous logic.
Internet Theory is closely related to a concern that is pertinent, both to America and to the entire Western world- the necessity (in 2009 and after) for a totalized sense of humanity, as it actually subsists on a global level. Bourgeois ideologies are difficult to overcome, particularly in America- material abundance is (often) presupposed, and minor setbacks in material gratification are taken for major crises. A "downsized" America is still the richest country in the world (despite China's recent displays of affluence), and Americans (particularly Blue Americans) have the tendency to view America as a miniaturized version of the world, rather than as an autonomous state, raised far above its neighbors in affluence and military power. Worse than taking affluence for granted, many Americans do not consider themselves to be affluent at all- only the super-rich are deemed to be legitimately wealthy, and those beneath gaze up, we assume, in envy and admiration. When competitive ideologies are thwarted, they transmute into a kind of "helplessness before riches," an envious gaze that has its roots in a feeling of absolute lack that is purely illusory. Illusions are always dangerous, but this kind is particularly pernicious- rather than positing the subject (through grandiosity and conceit) as having more than he or she has, this kind of illusion shows a wealthy subject to him or herself as being impoverished. This phenomenon, of bogus impoverishment, is endemic to bourgeois life in America- that nothing (materially speaking) is ever enough, and that economic modes of production are hegemonic to the extent that nothing else actually exists.
What is important to my thesis is that digital consciousness, in its ideal form, subverts both the base and the superstructure of American bogus impoverishment (the base being the perceived inadequacy of economic modes of production to produce an adequate superstructure, thus displacing the actual Marxist paradigm with an illusory one.) It is doubtlessly true that many Americans use the Internet to stalk celebrities (enacting a post-Roman sensibility), but there is no context or medium that cannot be abused. Moreover, in a digital context, stalking is far less destructive then in other contexts; traces are quickly covered over, the ability to disguise the Self is super-available, and actual violence is less of a possibility. However, the very ease with which linguistic traces are covered over can be problematic for serious discourse. This is a legitimate weakness of Net discourse, and difficult to surmount. What concerns us here is merely the implicit (and necessary) insult to bourgeois illusions of impoverishment visible, in the Net's own richness.
The richness of the Net can only be fully appreciated when thinking people recognize the cultural capital that can be gained there. However, it will first be necessary to recognize the inadequacy of Bourdieu's formulation. More than one of Bourdieu's formulations, in fact, suffer from the intellectual equivalent of bogus impoverishment that I have ascribed to bourgeois America. What is the ideology behind "cultural capital" and the positing of intellectuals as the "dominated of the dominant class"? It is an ideology of competition (though Bourdieu was not American) that nonetheless wants in to the institutionalized avarice that it reacts against. Bourdieu's strategy in these formulations is to join by competing, to emulate-via-rebellion. Bourdieu pays overt homage to the system he seemingly disapproves of; he defines himself in their terms. Thusly, he makes himself, and the thinkers he is speaking for, subaltern. It is the ambivalence of wanting in and out at the same time, and is not, in my opinion, the most intelligent strategy for subversion. "Cultural capital," puts culture, like held capital, strictly in the private sphere; culture is (as in Pater) a personal possession, leading (possibly) to a state of self-absorption and atomized lethargy. The indolence of the rich becomes the indolence of the cultured; the atomization of a materially wealthy subject becomes the atomization of an intellectually wealthy subject. All this cuts against the grain of digital consciousness and IT, which wants culture to be available for usage in the public sphere. Rather than cultural capital, what we should seek to develop is cultural fluidity; a sense of self-comfort in navigating the terrain that connects public and private culture, public and private discourse, public and private encounters of Otherness.
If it can be argued that YouTube, through creating post-modern consciousness in vast numbers of people (beyond artists and the culturally inclined), is performing a service (of improvement and cultivation) to society, the matter and manner of "post-modern virtue" needs to be looked into. That is, it cannot be taken for granted that post-modern consciousness is necessarily a good thing; if it is a good thing, the reasons for this must be enumerated. This is a particularly useful exercise because YouTube is not the only Web program that is instilling post-modern consciousness; Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and even Google are all having roughly the same effect. One argument that can be posited is that post-modernizing consciousness has (ideally) the effect of reducing class boundaries, through making different forms of information widely available. It used to be that if you wanted to pick up information about something abstruse or arcane, you had to wait for an opportune time to make a jaunt to the local library. The amount of information that people could absorb was limited by how much leisure time they had. This is especially true of people who do work that does not involve much cognition, people in what have come to be known as "subaltern" positions. Now, the Net has made many poems, parts of novels, song lyrics, and other texts readily available for free. Post-Modernism has more connection to 18th century "Enlightenment" ideologies than people realize; the ideal is of a populace, armed with knowledge. Class leveling, of course, can take more than one form: people who in earlier days would not have thought to write have become active text creators on the Net. The stale elitism that would proclaim the hegemony of print texts is not merely declasse but moribund; speech-as-text is already widely used and recognized. The problem is that it is not widely used and recognized by "professionals," those with a vested interest in creating the kind of durable texts that have a shot of developing and maintaining continuing life. This project is specifically designed to clear a path for others who do not write ephemerally to adopt speech-as-text as a new mode of communication, in a manner of supplementing print and enacting a spirit and ethos of egalitarian expansion. So, the tendency to efface class is one post-modern virtue.
Another is the creation of a new kind of Individualism. As things were before, artists, writers, and others were pretty much confined to their geographical locations. If you lived in, say, Cleveland, you interacted with others of your particular ilk in Cleveland. If, for some reason, you did not feel comfortable in the milieu that you found yourself in, you just had to bite the bullet and patiently wait for things to change. With the Net, this problem has been greatly reduced. The irony is that this is particularly true for those who happen to be supplementing print text with speech-as-text. Just communicating over the Net is one thing; but when this leads to exchange of books, and this exchange is fruitful, there is very little not being fulfilled that is fulfilled when geography is not an issue. Digital consciousness and print consciousness can stimulate and fulfill each other; no conflict between forms is necessary. In fact, successful textual relationships that run on both cylinders can be (are, I have found) more fulfilling than relationships that either run on one or the other cylinder. So, the point is that post-modern consciousness, rather than posing a direct threat to tradition, can actually enrich textual traditions of reception, consumption, and general exchange. Given a choice between an inchoate reading public and a Net audience, a Net audience would seem to be preferable, because it "talks back" (even when the talk happens to be dissonant) and because Reception (defined as textual work dissemination among a small coterie audience) and Consumption (defined as textual work consumption by a mass, unknown, faceless audience) can happen simultaneously. The Internet itself, like IT, is all about levels: how many are operative at any given time, both as regards individual subjects and as regards different forms of mass consciousness. I am of the opinion that the many-leveled, many-tiered nature of digital consciousness is a virtue, often specifically because, contrary to popular belief, it reinforces traditions rather than effacing them.
Ultimately, the most salient virtue of post-modern consciousness is that, if it does not engender addictive behaviors (which, admittedly, it sometimes does), it is a stimulant to participatory behaviors. The more destructive and/or insidious forms of culture all involve manners and forms of passivity: watching a TV set (which is not colloquially known as a "boob Tube" for nothing), going to the movies, listening to music. You can watch a good movie and witness incidents of heteroglossia; can watch, say, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy having a heteroglot encounter; if you a perceptive viewer, you can internalize this incident and interpret it in your own way; but it does not engage you directly. Post-modern virtue manifests as a subject who actively seeks out heteroglot encounters; who creates speech-as-text as a mode of engaging the Other; and who also knows that this engagement happens across lines of class, race, and gender. This is why I feel that YouTube serves a positive purpose other than just as a place to watch cool old videos (though it is good for that too); YouTube says in bright neon letters, You can engage the world; it grants a fundamental sense of agency that is lacking in other arenas. That YouTube has not been picked up as a means of engagement by more professional level writers is disappointing, but it will change. Few know that print itself was once considered subaltern; courtesans and court poets for decades preferred to write things out and distribute them in manuscript. Print was crude, vulgar, and took on the negative attributes of the commodity. Now, after centuries of hegemony, print has its first serious rival. As happened with print, Net publishing is (in some circles) considered vulgar and the realm of the subaltern; but if enough serious writers pick up on its possibilities (and I am confident that they will), there is nothing outside the text may become there is nothing outside the Net. Post-modern has the virtue of bringing us forwards, rather than backwards; of engaging more Others, and less our own coteries; and of creating the heteroglot encounters that these engagements inevitably engender.