in the Age of Media, Computers, and Internet
PLATO AND INTERNET: PHILOSOPHY VS. LITERATURE, LITERATURE VS. NEW MEDIA
The production and the reception of texts is a means of two basic anthropological functions which, after Freud and Gaston Bachelard, will be provisionally designated as the function of the Real and the function of theUnreal 1. I proceed from the view that philosophy is the main instrument of the function of the Real in the European cultural tradition. Literature, on its part, is the privileged domain where the function of the Unreal is being fulfilled as an authentic topos of the potential, an experimentation space for the self and for the self’s worlds (this opposition carries on the tradition from Plato’s Republic to Iser’s distinction between the epistemological and the anthropological in his The Fictive and the Imaginary). Obviously this distinction, boldly and naively closes its eyes to the deposing of the opposition philosophy/literature effected by poststructuralism (and even earlier, by the Kantian Lange, for example, talking of Begriffsdichtung) 2. I must note, however, that I do not see the reasons for the suggested distinction as opposed to the poststructuralist theses, simply because it functions on a different plane and in this sense does not vindicate what poststructuralism denies. While Derrida, de Man and J. Hillis Miller pull down the borderline between philosophy and literature by deconstructing the logic/rhetoric opposition, here it is the relation between the Real and the Potential that becomes the criterion of separation. That philosophy builds fictions the way literature does is beyond dispute but it is an indisputable that throughout its history philosophy has claimed that these fictions are image of the reality (only today we recognize them as non-representational and auto-referential), an image I can find no better word to characterize than ‘imperative’, in the sense of final and alternativeless. I think it is evident that literature does not create such an ultimate reality, on the contrary it virtualizes (I will use the term virtual in the sense of potential, though, unlike French, they are not synonymous in English) any reality. So that, in placing this opposition initially, I will not only carry on the Platonic tradition but above all I will aim at examining the consequences of Plato’s gesture of opposing poetry to philosophy.
Are we not even today misled by this gesture, by which Plato ascribes to poetry the fall of the mimesis? Is it not exactly what impedes our asking the just and compelling question: in fact is not philosophy itself the mimesis true field of activity, is not precisely philosophy an attempt at creating a mimetic double, a conceptual image of the world 3? Philosophy seeks to get at and re-create the world, in this sense claims the privilege of being the imperative reality, the real’s territory. Literature on the contrary, has for its object just the opposite – to virtualize the real. Solely it dares to co-posit the virtual and the real, the phantasmic and the given 4. Therefore the literary reading is alternative, while the philosophical one – alternativeless, i.e. the philosophical systems are always mutually exclusive. Even when they influence each other, even when a conceptual transfer is taking place, they always drive at rejecting the alternatives, for they fight for a unique place – ‘the world’. Philosophy (including theology) strives to get at the truth about the world outside (though it creates a world in itself), to form a complete image of it, while literature creates a privileged version of the world. With it mimesis lies only in the creation act, not in the imperative positing of the double: as Lacoue-Labarthe puts it, the mimesis comes before ‘the truth’. We could say that philosophy is conceptually mimetic, while literature is mimetic in its modeling the world (we could find anticipations of this already in La Mettri and more recently in Nelson Goodman).
In attempting to postulate philosophy as an imperative reality, Plato attempts to renounce precisely the virtuality. Thus, banishing literature together with the virtuality (‘phantasms’, fiction, lie), he turns it into, fencing it off by his speculative move, an authentic territory of the virtual. With Plato, in fact, we have a mixed situation, the ‘literary’ is present but only to be ‘fenced’, discriminated, localized. And so, the act of initiation, by which literature is differentiated, is precisely its being repelled, rejected by Plato. It is ‘born’ through repulsion: philosophy takes it out of itself, of its volume. That is why in itself Plato’s philosophy is no longer literature, philosophy has wrung it out of it subjectivity, objectified it, unstitched it from itself. In The Republic philosophy behaves like a disgusted Madonna, unable to overcome its nausea at a creature separated from its subjectivity, capable of making into an object philosophy itself. This initiating gesture, however, is fatal to philosophy: it will always be identified with old age, wisdom, reason; the other turn of the opposition is reserved for poetry – youth, lunacy.
In Aristotle we find the final constitution: his revision of the Father- Plato does not bring in question the initiation/rejection. Poetry can now be, speaking of the possible (or, the virtual), “more philosophical and wiser than history”, for it is already neither philosophy, nor history. Thus we can explain the paradox that the rational thinker, the systematic mind (Aristotle) becomes an apologist of literature, while the poetical Plato, the lover of allegories, accused by Longinus of “allegorical verbiage”, the poetry writer, who called Sapho, a poetess, a deceiver, “the tenth muse” – is its denier.
An important consequence of the described initiating act, caused by Plato, is the paradoxical status of literature, a corner stone for the proper understanding of our culture. We can remember Plato’s apparent contradiction between the tenth chapter of the Republic 5, on the one hand, and Ion and Phaedrus, where we find an apology of the poetical madness, leading to “the gates of Heaven”, on the other one (and also the Symposium passage in which Diotima defines the creation as transition from non-existence into existence: could we belittle the fact that Plato places the creation, poiesis, whose supreme manifestation, will, of course, be poetry, between the two most fundamental and original philosophical categories – existence and non-existence): in poetry’s inverted perspective, i.e., when Plato takes its viewpoint, madness can be a positive turn in the opposition in relation to a reason (a thesis demolishing the whole construction of the Republic, laid on reason’s principles), but it operate within its local 6 territory. The point is, that Plato does not envisage (or more precisely the archetypal structure of idealism prevents him from seeing) that there can be no local territory of the virtual. This is the origin of literature’s paradoxical status (for our reflection, of course) as a locality containing the global within itself.
With Plato actually this conceptual operation is connected with the offensive against mythology, with the process of its desacralization. In his Preface to Plato Havelock maintains that Plato’s accusations against poets, the rejection of mimesis are to a great extent linked to the fact that the poetic act is still burdened with the priestly gesturing. In this sense poetry is the domain of the Sacred’s degradation and consequently the poet is a degraded priest. Modern, historical man is not capable of taking the deadly responsibility for the global (comparable in its unbearableness with Kant’s categorical imperative) – the responsibility beard by the priest. That is why the poet acts out the global within a confined local space – the literary text. Indeed, by that, the poet may be unwittingly duplicates the priest’s function. He calls the world in question, sending it back to the Primordial chaos; he takes the responsibility in the competition for its re-building. And yet, the world comes to be understood increasingly as an individual world (Romanticism); experimenting his own world and his own self, the poet hardly bears, like the priest does, responsibility for the community.
If nevertheless I want to avoid Durkheim’s opposition between the profane and the sacred, continuing to hold from Bataille to Ren? Girard, if not even to Michel Serres (in Atlas), than I’d rather speak of the phases of the unfolding of fiction, of the gradual fictionalization of the world stating from the absolute reality to the complete potentiality. As the world of absolute reality I designate the world of mythology. Indeed, from our point of view in the mythological model the potential prevails over the real, but there ‘anything is possible’ 7 for everything is real (according to Vico, for example, everything in the myth is truth) 8 . Therefore, in mythology ‘anything is possible’ does not indicate complete potentiality: in a world where everything is real, there are not ‘blanks’, so there is no possibility for choice. Thence – the absolute determinism, the all-powerful Necessity, personified by Fate 9. If the starting point in the unfolding of the fiction is the ‘absolute reality’ pole, then it is logical to assume that we are moving to the complete potentiality pole – through literature, virtualizing the real and importing reality to the virtual (hence its central anthropological function), to ‘virtual reality’. Are, however, the new media the opposite (to mythology) pole? Are the wheel turned at 180 or at 360 degrees? Are the analogies used by the media apologists – between the media culture models and primitive society (McLuhan’s Global Village thesis), between the media art and the myth (mass media as the creators of modern myths in Morin) – accidental?
From the point of view of the use of the terms potential and real adopted here, the media ‘virtual reality’ shares more characteristics with what I called ‘absolute reality’ of mythology, then with the potentiality (the French ‘virtuality’) in literature and arts in general. The feigned virtuality of the computer is an ultimate reality, because there are not ‘blanks’ in it either: it embodies the meaning space, physicalizes semantic links, ontologizes the frames of reference. It is no chance that the phenomenon of the autistic self-confinement within the ‘virtual reality’ (computer games, for ex.) raises more and more apprehensions – autism is precisely self-confinement in an ultimate reality, inability to overstep the borders, to transcend the I in the meaning space, which lies at the very root of the arts and literature.
That’s why today’s rise of the new media affects the very core of philosophy – its privileged status as the Real’s territory – in claiming to be a direct image, a mimetic double of the Reality. They sublate philosophy’s conceptual mediation; the Reality, the truth of the world need not to be sought for, reconstructed or constructed any more: it is given without any effort, it is here and now. They substitute actual reality for the conceptual reality of philosophy. On this view, the media do not endanger literature and the arts in general in their essence, insofar as they are not encroaching on the latter’s territory (or to be more precise, on the latter’s transterritoriality), but rather marginalize them by laying excessive emphasis on the Real. The rise of literature since the end of the XVIIIth century, the establishment of the first art schools with global claims (Romanticism and Realism) are accompanied by a crisis in philosophy – its gradual displacement, its initial relativization, especially after Hegel 10. This same epoch is the epoch of the advance of the information media, the first of them – the press. Therefore the rise of the new media in the cultural space is parallel to the rise of art. The struggle between the potential and the real starts from here: while literature has won the battle with philosophy, thereby it has paved the way for the new media, battled against them and at first side been reduced to a vassal status. We can risk suggesting the following rough historical typology of the arts’ reaction to the advance of the new media. The first gesture of the arts is the scotomisation of the new media, the refusal to recognize them and thus to battle against them, to battle for the Real. But is the withdrawal towards extreme virtuality (for ex., the vanguard painting’s anti-mimetism – the phantasmic worlds of surrealism, the abstract painting’s renunciation of representation) not somehow connected with the advance of photography and later of cinema, i.e., with the appearance of new media that mechanize the mimesis and actualize the real’s territories? The second reaction is art’s submission to the political gesturing which leads to a hypertrophy of the message at the expense of the work of art’s immanent being (a tendency which in a broad sense characterizes the postmodern age): in this case, however, having decided on a counter-offensive, on a subversion in the real’s territories, art perhaps renounces its essence, the potential. And it is exactly in the real’s total domination in the present where the real danger lies, for remaining only within the given, deprived of the possibility of outside projection, of the outlet on the new identities, of the potentiality, one would be befallen by Don Quixote’s end, who by having given up the madness (i.e. the potentiality) is slain by the “sorrow without a fight”.
The actual reality of the media – concentrated on information, making a cult of the news, the ‘now’ – builds an image of a world of/in a permanent present 11 (the very establishment of the terms ‘information’ and ‘communication’ as paradigmatic concepts today is symptomatic enough). The privileged objects and territories of its focalization are those of the actual: value is what is now (the top ten and fashion’s industry mechanism). The value of re-reading (phenomenon connected with the anthropological value of the arts, attributing reality to potential worlds: the act of re-reading is an expression of the thrill of the return to a parallel world) is reduced to minimum with the media culture: what is the value of the last year’s news or top ten? Thus the actual reality is eternal changeability, non-identity with itself, elusiveness. The permanent concentration on the ‘now’ moment prevents any moment from being transcended in time which is necessary for the production of meaning 12. In so far as the memory of succession stands at the basis of culture, the media world of permanent present is ontologically problematic world.
It is not difficult to conjecture that this displacement, the concentration on the ‘now’ moment is the result of the tremendous pressure of the avalanche-like information accumulation in contemporary world. The present day situation is unique with the fact that as a result of the education and technology development as well as of the political and social changes in the post-colonial and post-capitalist wold, for the first time one could refer to humanity as a whole as to an information subject. If we also have in mind the demographic boom, then the information amount becomes colossal and makes us think of the today’s situation as of a super-situation.
But may be, in exchange, the informational abundance offers us the alternatives by way of which the human dream of absolute freedom of choice could come true? It turns out, however, today we can judge by our own experience of that, that the very possibility of choosing has its limit. Therefore the possibility of over-choice actually deprives us of the freedom of choice. The informational field’s over-saturation does not permit of free operation with information. The informational tension determines the necessity of incessant text processing, while the very tracing, classifying and processing of information turn into a huge problem 13. Devouring the necessary operational time, they, to a great extent, reduce the possibility of creation of a single conceptual system to enable the integration of the decoded meanings. They fill up and exceed even the real time, the time necessary to obtain freedom and for the meaning itself to be realized. Thus meaning is replaced by information 14. Information is availability, i.e. necessity: we live in a Universe of necessity. Meaning is connected with the Potential, the possible, for it to be realized we need an ‘empty’ space its energies to unfold in, where new meanings can radiate, where polysemy’s vectors come burst forth (the absence of ‘blanks’ explains the striving after univocality in the deterministic universe of information). Therefore, the literary text, if we go back to the privileged domain of the potential, sublates the wholeness of the signified, focalizes, brings certain objects, certain meaning networks, certain subworlds into prominence (I allude to what Iser calls fictionalizing act of selection) – to ‘open’ space, where the real can be virtualized, where the world and language can be filled with new content, through which their survival can be safeguarded, where a meaningful result, new essence, new object can be created. The opening of an empty space allows the welding together, the coupling of elements in a whole (a process guaranteed by the forces of the virtual): only the wholeness can be polysemic, in processuality there are only leaps from one meaning to another, but no polysemanticism. That is why the actual world is a fragmentary world. It lacks the empty needed by any fiction and has rejected the virtual, which completes the real.
It is important to put emphasis on the following: the media are not some intentional evil, they are the result of the same process which problematizes the arts: the informational super-situation. The rise of the new media is part of a larger process, comprising the whole cultural sphere, a process we cold metonymically signify as the process of ‘internetalization’ of semiosphere – the necessity of constant transfer of information from one information bearer to another. Simultaneously, to save time and to guarantee the speed of informational transmission the volume of the text has to be compressed. As a result the film gains advantage over the novel, the article – over the monograph. The establishment since XIXth c. of the short story as a literary genre and of the scholarly papers as a scholarly one (doubtless connected with the rise of the press) is symptomatic. The book, the integral scholarly work, dominating for centuries faces a new alternative. The shorter text is more communicable and in a scholarly community that has expanded beyond belief it is impossible to effect the exchange of information guaranteeing development solely through books. Therefore the book is beginning to turn into an aristocratically non-functional genre. But is it possible for a stable referential network to unfold in the new minimalistic genres? Do they not remain fragmentary, impossible without the macrotext’s fundament? Yet while the papers remain performative gestures of Books (which have been, will be or will never be), the news (auto)introduce/recommend themselves as performative (and autorepresentational) gestures of the World. By the self-attributing of a global subject, they guarantee their identity. Thus any of their propositions turns out to be unfalsiable. But if this subject is crossed out, i.e. if the foundation of the auto-representational performative is taken away, they will lose their grounds and collapse irretrievably. It is apparent that the de-substantiation, as a result of over-expansion inevitably leads to particularization. If, according to M. Weber, the age of the establishment of the printed books is the age of the creation of the profession, today we witness this process’ radicalization. The age of the virtualizing the writing is also an age of disintegration, of differentiation of professions into sub-professions – operational functions, of instrumentalizing the subject and his/her local world 15.
We could say that the postmodern culture’s general characteristics – synchronization of diachrony, deprivation of cultural paradigms’ hierarchic character, understanding the cultural tradition not as a gradation of values but as absolute co-positing, in the end point to a crisis of productive models, the result of the over-accumulation of information and trying to decrease its traction force but actually producing the opposite effect, the extremely dynamic development of technologies with their constant simplification of the mechanical reproduction of texts, of human culture products.
I’ll summarize the exposition of the grounds for opposing philosophy and the new media in the light of the rôle (or, more precisely, of the transformation of the rôle) of writing. Writing’s mediation enables the creation of a conceptual image of the world, the very autonomization of the image; in this sense philosophy is a supreme manifestation of writing. How then to explain Plato’s phonocentrism? Do his invectives against writing in Phaedrus and in Seventh Letter no underline philosophy’s foundations? Following his line of argumentation, we can conclude that Plato rejects writing, in so far as for him it threatens the real. But what writing opposes is in fact the absolute reality of mythology. Thus we see how Plato, mythology’s desacralizator, again finds himself in ambivalent position. The course of his reasoning can be reconstructed as follows: Writing attempts to usurp the image’s place. But it too turns out to be an image different from the thing, and even more from the idea of it. It surreptitiously duplicates the Divine onomathesis, the creation of names by the Onomathetes, discussed in Cratylus and Charmides. It works against the sign’s motivation, against its intrinsic identity. The introduction of mediation, of simulacrum dims the prototype, obstructs the contact with the authentic, and consequently takes away the possibility to control it. In this way, fighting mythology, Plato paradoxically supports it. Standing outside mythology, he recognizes it as the virtual’s territory – not accidentally with Plato ‘myth’ enters in opposition with ‘logos’. Myth is lie.
Today we can find the ‘other side’ of Plato’s negation in the electronic media and computer electronic texts. If with Plato there was resistance to establishment of writing which at the same time became his philosophy’s medium, today’s ‘virtualizing’ of writing perhaps marks its exhaustion from the inside. This exhaustion can be linked with the establishment of models, close to mythological ones. Plato simultaneously fights mythology and writing but in the long run writing’s crisis is the main symptom of the resurrection of the mythological. The rejection or rather over-jection, over-stepping beyond the classical form of writing 16 means the rejection of the mediation, of the medium mediating the Reality, i.e. questioning its absolute character. The code is objectified in the new media’s virtual reality, which in fact is a new absolute reality, in so far as it insists on the obliteration of the distinction between image/sign and object. The reality of the electronic machine in particular is a reality originally deprived of potency in that it is based on a pre-programming through an over-determined code, in other words, it is a reality of the extreme necessity. The machine is deprived of the possibility to operate with polysemantic symbols, i.e. to originate new meanings, which is a result of essence transfer based on the polysemantic use of concepts. Consequently, the definition ‘virtual reality’ is paradoxical in this case.
Actually what initially privileges the computer’s role in text processing is the fact that its mediation approaches a more final result (the typed text). Unlike the typewriter, it allows to enter the typed text’s ‘operative memory’ and thus de facto represents a direct continuation, the crown of Gutenberg’s revolution: the typed text is no longer only an a posteriori result, it is an a priori act. Compared to the original typewritten text the manuscript turns out to be akin to thought’s, ‘the inner text’’s relation to the manuscript itself. It is this inner text that is the initial virtuality from where the modal transition begins – through the field of desire to the field of necessity. This initial role of the computer was decisively outrun with the appearance of the Internet. If the computer is a hypertrophied projection of the typewriter, Internet is an over-projection of the Library. Internet is a unique attempt, most probably on an unprecedented scale, at compressive accumulation of a vast body of information within an extremely narrow framework. As an informational model it possesses greater operative capacities compared to the classical model of the library. In this sense it represents an attempt to create a reduced model of the informational world, to embody, to localize semiosphere. Thereby, however, it turns out to be genetically burdened with all the problems considered so far: the action of the diffusion between the striving after permanent actuality and the value transcending the ‘now’ moment persists; the illusion of actual communication leading to non-productive processuality has not been overcome; the problem of the hierarchization and classification of information, the problem of all the sciences, from philosophy, linguistic semantic, logic to mathematics and information theory remains unsolved.
The present text started with Plato and here, at its end, I will return to him again in order to get engaged in a confrontation as risky as it is schematic: a confrontation between the types of attitude to the world which we find in Plato’s philosophy and Internet. Even to this day new solutions to the main problem in Platonic studies, the problem of the unity of his philosophical system, are suggested. Without simply expressing agreement with Jaspers’ thesis of the in principle aporetic character of Plato’s philosophy, I would say that Plato understands philosophy as a space for experimenting with a multitude of different models of the world rather than the creation of a single complete and coherent model. It is probably the case for the ecstasy caused by the cosmos’ existence is so intense that it can not afford the luxury of one and only worldview. In other words Plato’s philosophical subject is an ecstatic subject, a subject experimenting with his potentiality in a multitude of models. What is paradoxical, ambivalent with Plato is his attempt to ‘establish’ the Voices, springing from him, speaking themselves through him, in the Otherness; he tries to stop the chaos and to conceive philosophy as an instrument for the creation of the imperative reality. But the co-positing of separate voices in Plato tells that the potential precedes the individual; Plato himself however gives it up for the sake of the real. And although he failed to create philosophy as imperative reality, it is he that introduces the thought of it as such, he, that sets the vector of its self-reflection. Therefore later philosophy to easily establishes the Father Plato in the position of the imperative, as the creator of the first conceptual imperative - ‘the objective idealism’. Plato the Ecstatic co-exists with Plato the Administrator.
I will risk and describe the subject-object relations in the Internet space as an inversion of the discussed Plato’s model. In the Internet space a multitude of subjects enter in one and the same model while at the same time trying to de-administrate the reality. This phenomenon in an incarnation of the ambivalent simultaneous action of the globalization and tribalization processes. The attempt to go beyond the given reality, to enter the global virtual reality, actually leads to hermetization in particularized micro-contexts creating local identity. And yet, the opportunity to cross the borders of local realities offered by Internet relativizes the media absolutization of the real. Leaping from one reality to another, the dynamic transition through verisimilitudes co-posited in a common space, opens room for the virtual, for acting out new meanings. Although based on the new media technical means, Internet in fact operates against them. They are fundamentally different in the Internet space there is feedback, i.e. anyone can be active subject, and not only passive object, information consumer. For that reason Internet possesses enormous de-administrating potential, it works counter-adaptively, against the media’s unifying power, creating common identity models. The power of Internet’s alternative reality comes from the possibility the subject has been given of positing the projections of his inner, desired, phantasmic, virtual identity. In this sense the relation between Internet’s ‘virtual reality’ and the ‘real’ reality available is no longer the simple relation between prototype and image, idea and copy: it is not clear where the authenticity ends and where simulation starts. If the media ‘feed on’ our phantasms in order to ease our potencies trying to go beyond the real, Internet provides us with a form, framework for these phantasms’ embodiment. Whence its fundamental paradox: how to reconcile the protean nature of the phantasm uncontainable within real borders with the pregiven frames’ determinism?
On this basis of the discussion so far the Internet/New Media relation can be compared to the relation literature/philosophy. Internet is not only a product, but also probably a Trojan horse for the media world. Michel Serres, interpreting the virtual reality in his Atlas, writes: “No techniques has any chance of spreading if it does not replace an already existing human or cultural ability. Hence all cultures have long been visiting virtual spaces.” And, really, even though literature and the arts are marginalized today, the anthropological function performed through them - the necessity of overcoming the on-handness of the given, of an outlet on new worlds and identities - cannot disappear 17. Therefore, in the long run, neither philosophy, nor the new media can do without literature in as far as the real is impossible without the potential/virtual which precedes, gives rise to and sustains it. May be the day of a pan-fictionalization of the real, of the establishment of total potentiality is coming as a consequence of literature’s conquest, from within, of the spaces of the real. For philosophy and its rival, the new media, to be possessed by literature, would mean their co-positing of different verisimilitudes, their acquisition of the capacity to cut across into neighboring worlds, their finding of a new, dynamic subjectivity whose identity is based on difference. I hope, if we really lived long enough to see the day of ‘literature’s death’, foretold by gloomy prophecies, we would be able to say: literature’s end is its beginning.