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VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES VS IMAGINED COMMUNITIES.
Festivities. Reading, Chatting

Alexander Kiossev

web

On 16 November 1999, I received by my e-mail one of these wandering worldwide messages. It was mailed to me by my acquaintance from Germany Gerhard Cheika, an editor of the Neue Literatur magazine who, apart from me, had mailed it to at least 20 - 30 virtual persons. He himself had received it from the unknown to me Christiane Scherer, cscherer@zedat.fu-berlin.de. The subject of the message sounded really tempting and it is worth quoting in its entirety.

Dear friends - it is always worth a stab! Microsoft and AOL are now the largest Internet company and in an effort make sure that Internet explorer remains the most widely used program, Microsoft and AOL are running an e-mail beta test. When you forward this e-mail to friends, Microsoft can and will track it (if you are a Microsoft Windows user) for a two week time period. For every person that you forward this e-mail to, Microsoft will pay you $245.00, for every person that you sent it to that forwards it on, Microsoft will pay you $243.00 and for every third person that receives it, you will be paid $241.00. Within two weeks, Microsoft will contact you for your address and then send you check. I thought this was a scam myself, but two weeks after receiving this e-mail and forwarding it on, Microsoft contacted me for my e-mail and within days, I received a check for $24,800.00. You need to respond before the beta testing is over. If anyone can afford this Bill Gates is the man. It's all marketing expense to him.
Do Well!!!

Of course, I did not believe a word. Who was that anonymous lucky man? Or rather a liar? Or not even a liar but simply a clerk from the Advertising and Marketing Department of Microsoft. The whole stuff was obviously connected to the then ongoing court trial against Microsofts monopoly. My Bulgarian scepticism, however, did not prevented me from marking my whole mailing list and clicking the Forward: in only a few minutes or a few hours at the most (the providers are imperfect in Bulgaria, and the servers - slow) it would perplex the whole motley crew of my accountancies.

So I relayed it and forgot about it. But it was soon reminded to me. On 7 December 1999, 17:41:58 +02:00, Inguss Anderson andersi@ciue.edu.ee, surprised me with the following message: I will again quote it literary, short as it is.

To: kiossev@osf.bg
Some people are so cheap and incredibly naive.

Who was Inguss Anderson? A man, a woman, a beast, a fish or a hermaphrodite? Was he/she/it really existing? By the way it did not initially occur to me that Ingusss message referred to Microsoft and got rather scared lest it was a virus and that my naivety was in opening the message Then it dawned on me that I had been made a full of for having succumbed to the advertisement for ingenues, then got worked up and replied something in the sense that he himself was obviously not naive at all (it was meant to be an irony)

Today I assume that Inguss Anderson was a real person, somewhere in the countless American universities. I had entered a close, almost intimate relations with an unknown man. He/she was of uncertain sex, social status, ethnic origins, political belonging, age, etc I did not know and would never know anything about him/her. He or she had read my message and had answered it, our relations had edged closer to the scaring intimacy of a friendly row. He or she had dared to assess me and to carp at me, and I mouthed back with the same measure.

How was all this possible? And what did the fact that it was possible mean? Two people had never met before and they would never meet, and in spite of that for a certain period of the virtual time they had entered an intimate community, which allowed them to get into a row. And further, why not, to make it up, to become virtual friends, to fall in love with one another (if I.Anderson belongs to a sex close to my sexual preferences?). I knew nothing of him/her and was nonetheless insulted, i.e. I was in face to face relations with a person with whom I was supposed to be only interface to interface relations. This was all further complicated by the fact that Microsofts add was forwarded to me by Gerhard Cheika - a man whom I know, respect and in certain sense even love. And he in turn had received it from the unknown Christiane Scherer.

This all resembled a complicated case of moral and digital injustice where the Internet had entangled in a virtual intrigue my innocent self, my acquaintances and unknown people, Bulgarians, Germans, Americans, friends, digital roles, commercial companiesAnd since I could seek justice for this unwarranted offence, my whole mailing list was potentially participating in the affair. Canadians and Macedonians, Slovenians, Israelis, Bulgarians, Swiss, Lithuanians, universities, NGOs, government officesTherefore my e-mail was capable of creating intrigue, insulting and insulted which means intimacy. At the same time and along the same lines it was capable of being a market, an advertisement and promotion. Besides it lined up in a strange community my friend Cheika, the great Bill Gates, the unknown Scherer, the mysterious Inguss, all my professional e-mail acquaintances and indefinite number of unknowns to whom this message was forwarded And the message could still be cruising the nets and tying up still new people, roles and institutions to this strange community

* * *

In fact, every medium and every communicative situation imply a certain type of community. Yet, what kind of the community was the one created by these new kind of medium? As it is known this is the basis of the most notorious Shannon-Jakobson scheme which sees in every communicative situation the most abstract roles: sender - recipient - message - code - context - medium. But what was the interacting community assumed by this strange medium?

If taken seriously, the question as "what kind of communities the WWW creates" can only be resolved in a comparative historical and cultural perspective. The specifics of the new medium and the collective identities which it can bring about can only be outlined through the technique of contrast and differentiation. Hence, we shall undertake a brief historical deviation - it is a matter of fact that every communicative medium establishes communities: not only because, in its capacity as a medium, it connects people but also because at its entrance and as well as at its exit it sets up conventional roles, typical positions which have to be occupied by the participants in certain type of communication, it binds these roles together into a system and thus designs an abstract community of roles. What I am interested in here are the specific differences among these communicative assemblages.

As Lyotard has indicated in The Post-Modern Situation, the spoken word and the ritual narrative performed these functions for the archaic societies. Analysing the narrative knowledge of the Kashinawa tribe, he showed that the oral ritual narrative was a symbolic mechanism by means of which the tribe reproduced not only the key social roles in its own world but also the universe of individual names which can occupy these roles - i.e. that the narrative fixes the model combinations of the typical and individual positions of the man in the world and this is what makes it an instrument for the reproduction of an archaic communal identity.

The implication of identity techniques is relevant for other mediums of other times and other cultures - for instance for the religious book, its interpreters, its listeners and its readers. The big religious communities arise basically around sacred books - the Vedi, the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud - which are the founding blocks of their identity. These sacred and safeguarded texts identify the chosen people, they prescribe the list of permitted names, they outlay the sustainable cosmic landmarks, the legal and moral laws, they segregate the live from the dead, this world from the other world, they tie up the problems of the personal socialisation and the personal moral with the faith of the tribe, they secure the links among the generations That is to say - they fit in and thus determine the personal and the collective identity into a concise picture of the universe. This is confirmed by the models of their utilisation - they are not very suitable for individual reading, their typical reproduction is liturgical songs or the ritual festive recitation - acts of recycling and strengthening the unity of the religious community. The same refers to the model of their exegesis - the patristic model of the holy interpretation, for instance, with its four levels - literal, allegorical, moral and anagogic - makes an effort to sustain precisely this dialectics of the communal identity. This model consistently interrelates the holy history with the real history, the exemplary biography of Christ simultaneously with the fate of the individual soul and with the fate of the world and the Christian community, thus measuring up the immeasurable1 - translating the individual destiny into the code of the collective destiny and vice versa, by uniting those into the categories of transcendent moral and fixing up the empirical trough transcendent paradigms. Therefore, both the contents and the patterns of use of the religious book bolster an imaginable religious community which in the case of Christianity is ecumenical, and coincides with the boundaries of civilised human kind.

The culture of the printed book, its mass market and educational circulation as well as its individual use - reading - creates new forms of communities and communal identities. As it is pointed out by B. Anderson, the initial spreading of the printed book brought about a ferocious competition among several types of audience. The reading society around the humanitarian circles which mastered Latin gradually isolated themselves due to the sophistication of the humanitarian Latin language which approximated that of Cicero but distanced itself significantly from the church Latin and the spoken tongues: the market of printed books in Latin got slowly saturated from 1450 to 1600. Parallel with that, the ecumenical unity of the Christian world was questioned by the Reformation, with its culture of the mass-scale-printed book and the numerous new translations of the Bible. Thirdly, in connection with the overall economic crisis in Europe by mid 17th century, the editors and printers discovered a new product - the cheap popular book of the national spoken languages. Therefore, in the dawn of the modern era the printed book established three competing historical audiences: the proficient in Latin humanitarian elite, the protestant public and the burgeoning national public - in historical perspective the later was destined to crowd out the other two in the slow motion from religious to secular modern culture. A new genre appeared - the novel - which, in terms of its mass circulation and by dint of its spiritual and social role was rightly called the Secular Scripture, the mundane "holy" genre.

But are these actual reader audiences the communities that the book creates as a specific medium? Do their empirical borders coincide with the identity patterns that the printed book sets up as a medium? Unlike the Holy Scriptures, printed books do not reinforce transcendent grounds of identity, they do not support sacred and unchangeable values, models and paradigms. The Secular Scripture is a changeable and variegating contents, it is a polyphony of social voices, it describes the adventures of a hero who is a seeker of values and identity in a world where the values are scattering and competing - in what sense then does the book medium create identity patterns?

This calls for leaving the historic and sociological explanations and setting out on a brief detour into the theory of the book, the reading and the reader. The issue of the link between the WWW and the new type/types of communities led as a long way away - the historic deviations turned into theoretical ones.

* * *

In his work, Interpretation Theory; the Surplus of Meaning, Paul Ricoeur analyses the key transformations brought about by the written fixation of speech across all the elements of the notorious Shannon - Jakobson scheme of communication. In most general terms they can be described as a disintegration of the immediate communication closely related to a certain situational context and a separation of the text which becomes semantically autonomous, i.e. the text becomes a system of meanings settled within itself and demanding an understanding by itself; it is silent, self-sufficient and can not be inquired by specifying questions. This autonomy manifests itself, firstly, in its relation with the author, his intention and the meanings which he wants to invest into the text but it also manifests itself in relation to the audience: the text nonetheless gets an autonomy away from any concrete reading audience. No matter what readers the author wanted to address, the printed work actually finds itself targeted towards each one who is capable of reading and understanding it: therefore it has a potential to be grasped by every possible reader. It targets an unidentified and, in this sense, universal audience. This unidentified universal audience has an open nature - the work indefinitely produces new audiences, therefore, it enlarges the circle of communication and initiates new communication modalities. This renders the recognition of the work by the audience unpredictable but the transformations in the act of communication incurred by the written word exceed the alienated authorship, the semantic autonomy of the text and the universalization of the audience: they affect the most important - the referential scope of the text itself. Due to its autonomy of meaning the written work breaks free from any reference encrusted in a situational, material and contextual circle: it obtains over-situational referentially designating a whole assembly of over-situational references rather than one situation.

Thus, being quite different from the Holy Scriptures and far away from providing transcendent grounds of identity, the printed book, nevertheless, takes on the role of a universalising instrument. Accordindig to Ricoeur's hermeneutics, it brings about universal forms of communication, universal modes of the reader and the reading audience and in the long run opens the very opportunity of man to inhabit an above-situational world. Ricoeur makes a special point of the books snatching humanity from the tyranny of the absolute here and now and broadening the horizons of the things existing and existence itself.

It can be argued, therefore, that the book is a medium creating paradoxical open and empty universal models of identification with an ultimate universal community. The later does not coincide with the actual reading audiences whose empiricism is restricted by market, religious, linguistic and incidental historical factors.

An apt question here would be weather it is not possible to relate the whole culture of the universal values of the Enlightenment with this imaginary ultimate and paradoxical audience implied in the book? In what kind of connection with this framework modern communicative condition are Leibniz idea of a universal language, Kants moral imperative, or the basic reservoir of secular transcendent values - the idea of classics, masterpieces and classic authors regarded by Sainte. Beuve as contemporaries of all ages and having as a major feature, according to Eliot, their non-provinciality (i.e. their universality).

Apropos, in this direction several Bulgarian contributions to the theory of reading were produced during the second half of the 80s, and I am willing to say a few words about them.

In several of his works of the same period2 the Bulgarian literary scholar and historian of culture Bogdan Bogdanov analyses the triad writing-reading-book in the context of the modern open societies. These societies are characterised by instability of values (a mosaic nature, non-comparability and competition among values instead of a harmonic value cosmos) and an unstable individual: not only mobile in the way of values, simultaneously existing in a multitude of hardly compatible value systems but also active in the field of values, seeking, needing a universal and comprehensive value environment. Reading does an important service, precisely to this non-identical and less-than-well integrated into the community individual: it offers him or her an ideal environment (fiction as a mechanism of a symbolic interrelation between concrete and universal), and an ideal community (an abstract audience of equal reading individuals bordering with the human kind - Bogdanov views it as an imaginary community of the communitas type). Unlike Ricoeurs hermeneutics upon which he draws, Bogdanov puts the emphasis on a function of reading which targets most of all the reader him/herself. We could call it transcending or, if we prefer psychoanalytical terminology - sublimative. Reading for Bogdanov is a transforming communication which allows the reader to change, to become more adaptable to the world of the open society, to better absorb the dialectics of associating actual and ideal, or, if we look at it from a different point of view, of the I and the non-I which means I and somebody else, I and the world (Bogdanov). The large culturally typological and sociological scale of his research allows Bogdanov to make an analogy between the functions of reading (or respectively writing) in the culture of the open society and the function of the feast in the closed society. The later is committed to the task of reproducing the universal (sacred) world and the identity of the primitive community, of binding up the particular with the universal, the fragments and the whole, of integrating firmly the individual into the community, of liquidating temporarily the hierarchy in the community and of establishing communitas - type of community as well as of submitting the community and the world as a whole to a specific trail. In his later works3 Bogdanov outlined even more clearly his own disengaging from the semiotic hermeneutics of Ricoeur towards a general philosophic anthropology of literature: he clarified further both the analogies between reading and the feast and their borders: in his interpretation literature is an act of transformation which places the individual in the world (see Heidegger). Writing and reading of literature are a means of breaking away from the narrow boundaries of a mans own empirical situation or community but also from the individuals own confusion and controversial multitude of values: this transformational act provides individuality to the reader but together with that it makes him or her capable of finding a place in an ultimate, unrestrictedly open and universal community. Thus the partial, mosaic modern individual, trough the act of reading/writing overcomes his/her partiality and fragmentation and gets integrated into a perfect comprehensive world in an ideal communitas.

In the course of the Bulgarian discussion back then, I allowed myself certain criticism towards the anthropological large scale of this approach. I noted that the social and communicative chain preordains the reading but does not coincide with it - as an experience submerged in an immediate readers everyday world, it has a structure of its own. I was building my analysis on the premises of the unstable, "triple" identity of the book as an everyday object, text and world: this suggested to the reader different modes and opportunities for reaction. This in turn allowed the act of reading to be viewed not one-sidedly and normatively as an active transformation but rather as a relational structure where the existential transformation is only a possible but not an indispensable aspect. In this relational structure, one or another of the various readers roles is made actual by the particular reader against the background of the other roles which have not been activated: the actuality of reading is realised against the backdrop of its potential. The existential transformation of the reader (carried out by his/her immersion in a concise and composed world devoid of accidents) was, according to my interpretation, in an alternative relation with other possible dispositions of the text: e.g. with the aesthetic contemplation of the fine objectivity of the word, with a comprehensive reaction (identification - alienation) towards the totality of the alien conscience embodied in the work, i.e. the transforming readers role was in a constant alternative relationship with the distant aesthetic and hermeneutic one. Therefore, in my interpretation the active reading was not presented as a direct sublimation and transport to a universal world and communitas but as a tense competitive and dynamic relation between different worlds and different audiences, which the reader in the course of his/her readers conduct incessantly selects and correlates. Reading is an act which does not copy the compulsory character of the archaic festivity. Instead, in its very structure it carries the modern freedom - a constant choice and comparison of readers roles. Reading does not entail mandatory operations, it does not place automatically the reader in the ideal realm of the universal humankind but rather throws him/her to the competition of various imaginable worlds, of different role reactions and different communities. The very universal communitas - audience discussed by Bogdanov was again presented as an alternative relation - it can be the uncertain multitude of the equal and transforming individuals but it can just as well be the blurred society of typical, anonymous and repetitive roles - the reader is thus split between the ideal mankind and the anonymous stereotypical and diffident mass.

In reference to the issues discussed herein - how the medium creates communities - my analysis was again leading to a field of alternatives. The artefact of the book which is non-identical in itself (simultaneously an object, a text, a world and a message) provides the reader the opportunity to be over-individualised but at the same time to experience him/herself as somebody else, to be typical, repetitive, indiscernible from the others: the individualisation, the typifying and communication proved intertwined in alternative but mutually implied relations. Therefore, reading emulates and reproduces the structure of the open society and "empty" form of universalization to a much higher degree simply because reading is liberated from the compulsory nature of the transcendence, that is, the normative and statutory, independent from the will of the individual man transporting of the imperfect individual to another much better, perfect and holistic world/community. Unlike the feast, reading does not superimpose a transition from the profane to the sacred but leaves an empty, undetermined dimension to the discretion of the individual choice and freedom. As another argument, I was also claiming that reading is lacking a sanctioning authority.

* * *

So, what is the situation that we found ourselves in? In order to answer the initial questions referring to the character of the social relation brought about by the Internet, we dashed into historical diversions. The historic and sociological evidences of the printed book and its empirical audiences let to the conclusion that the models of identity and social integration imposed by the new medium in the 15th and the 16th centuries (the printed book) can not be attained by an empirical approach. Entering the theory of reading as a communicative act, however, led us to hardly compatible and controversial claims. Now we are facing the need of a concise theoretical background which gives us a feeling of further distancing ourselves from the initial query. I could just as well bring into the picture the psychoanalytical interpretation of reading or the biblio-therapeutic programmes. I could further complicate the picture by the deconstructivist reversal of the relations between writing and communication - it is known that by this paradigm of thinking - writing, i.e. the infinite differential field of graphisms does not originate from, but rather precedes and predetermines communication, it is a transcendent condition for /failure of/ communication.

I dare to assure my reader that the attempt for comprehensiveness of the theoretical picture is not only a diversion and to ask him/her for a bit more patience. This attempt will gear us with important tools for further analysis when we get back to the issues associated with digital media.

If I am to further supplement the picture of the theoretical arguments on reading as a medium I would prefer to turn to some much more fundamental views which gave its major profile by the late 70s and in the 80s. I shall focus on the views of the receptive aesthetics and in particular the views of its most important theoretician Wolfgang Iser. Due to the shortage of space, I will present here only the most important notion of his theory of the readers act: the implicit reader. I will present this notion in a peculiar correlation - it will be compared with the views of the readers role and the role of the imaginable, closed within the text reading audience of Benedict Anderson in his groundbreaking book The Imagined Communities. The reason for this comparison and its functions will become clear further on in the course of the analysis.

* * *

Isers term the implicit reader does not imply the solitude of an abstract transcendent subject, even though Iser himself claims that the term is a transcendental model whereby the inducing structures of the text can be described (page 66). This category for Iser is the system of pre-orientations which the fictional text offers to its possible reader. I.e. the implicit reader is a simultaneously orientating and controlling institution, it is a text programme which has to start off certain dispositions and reactions of the reader and then to oversee and monitor the reading process. The actual reader is to an extent voluntarily within the power of this programme, he/she voluntarily takes on the role which is prescribed by the programme.

However, this textual programme does not imply a lonely subjectivity of the readers role; on the contrary, according to Iser, it is based on a certain multitude of subject positions inside the fictional text. Further complicating the term by means of the sociological category of the interaction and the semiotic category of the hierarchical structure of levels, Iser sees it as a higher derivative of a complex intertwining of perspectives in the text. The empty role of the reader is a synthesis of this implicit for the text complicated multitudinous nature: it is the superior relationship between more or less personified fictional positions, roles and viewpoints - of the characters, of the figures of the explicit narrator, of the explicit reader, of the plot perspective, of the act and style of narration, etc. Therefore, this pluralistic nature is a micro-model in a hierarchical sociality locked within the text, i.e. in Isers theory of reading, the phenomenological abstractness of the readers empty role is indispensably enriched by this inter-textual dynamic and hierarchic sociality by the dynamic relation of perspectives, positions and viewpoints of the text which are transposed into it. Thus, for Iser the supervising semiotic programmes are willing to cluster the whole textual micro-society into the lonely eye of the reader.

Secondly, the real reader of the text carries out (here Iser follows Wayne Booth4) something like a voluntary surrender, he seems to conclude something like a voluntary agreement with the author: the author suggests a certain readers role (namely the role prescribed through the synthetic figure of the implicit reader) which the reader agrees to take up. The very metaphors which are used here - agreement, voluntary - imply the communal relationship, a version of a social treaty valid for the social roles in the field of literature and reading. Here, we can go further into Isers direction and state that the very agreement of the actual reader implies that the role as suggested was found acceptable by him/her, compatible with his/her cultural and value codes, and in this acceptability and sharing of values we can seek an implied community of another type which is different from the internal textual multitude of perspectives. If we put it a bit crudely and metaphorically, a relationship between two pairs can be discussed here - the implicit reader and the textual community behind him, and a real reader with an actual cultural and historic society standing behind him, sharing certain norms5.

In his book The Imagined Communities Benedict Anderson seems to say something similar. For him the modern novel (like the newspaper) is a communicative technology putting together the very chronotopos of nationalism. The national novels produce unified homogenous imaginable topos by means of fictional techniques. This kind of novel is full of typical (repetitive and representative for the national whole) details and characters and, even more importantly, it relates to the idea of an analogically homogenous, inhabiting and moving trough it social community, i.e. to Anderson the novels are what elaborates the unified image of the mother land and the people which are forms of the collective imagination without which the originating nation would not be able to think of itself, to perform the constitutive act of self identification.

The question is how this collective form of imagination becomes socially valid, which is the subtle coercion which makes people accept it and start thinking of themselves and their communal status through it?

At this point Andersons analysis is permeated not only by the fictional topos and the fictional community but also by the fictional communication. This imaginary territory is endowed by the imagination with yet another element - the fictional image of the reading audience.

Anderson describes a possible novel situation including characters, which are never found together within a single novel but are experienced by the reader as existing together notwithstanding. How come this placing the characters in a binding society which he discusses?

Let me quote: This community is a social entity of such a hardened reality that its members A and D (characters in a novel which may just as well not know one another) can be described even as passing one another by in the street without knowing about one another at all and still being connected. The second one is that A and D are held in the mind of the omniscient reader The novelty in this imaginable world is that all these actions are done at one and the same clock, calendar time but by personages which may not know one another at all. Page 40.

Here Anderson describes the community, the conscience of the omniscient reader and the empty homogenous clock time of one of the earliest Philippine novels as factors equivalent in meaning and importance - but this is hardly true. The mediator which makes possible the existence of the empty chronological temporality of the co-existence is precisely the reader and in particular the typified fictional role of the omniscient reader.

This is proved by the next Andersons analysis where he describes the homogenous horizon, the common topos in a Mexican novel. Another quotation: This adventure tour dhorison - hospitals, prisons, small villages, monasteries, Indians, Negroes - is still not tour de monde. The horizon is clearly limited - colonial Mexico. Nothing designates more convincingly this sociological space that the use of plural forms. It invokes the image of comparable prisons, none of which matters in itself yet all of them are representative (in their simultaneous individual existence) of repression in this colony.

Here, as well as in the previous example, a reader is assumed having a common background knowledge with the character, the author and the other readers. The border between the novelistic and actual time as well as the border between novelistic and actual space prove negotiable because the texts of these early nationalist novels have a very specific implicit reader. From the view point of the early Iser, Anderson simply describes one of the affectional structures of the authority implicit reader - he analyses the way the text demands the reader to take a certain position, to perform a series of identification acts as a matter of course.

In this case, however, it matters what the position is and what kind of identifications these are. The textual strategy of such works presumes the identity of the implicit reader with a fictional homogenous multitude of similar readers: an audience which shares his or her view point, impressions, opinions, attitudes - in fact an audience of equal and similar individuals where all readers have common cultural code. At the same time, for this strategy of the nationalist literary discourse, the internal homogenous audience of the text, the fictional communitas of implicit readers is identical to the external audience of actual readers. The text imposes an imaginary unity, equality and fraternity upon the actual variegated audience consisting of different ethnic, language and social groups. As a mechanism of orientation and control, the implicit reader instigates and surreptitiously compels the well reading actual reader to perform two consecutive identification acts: 1. He/she him/herself, his/her class, ethnic, linguistic or micro-cultural belonging notwithstanding, feels integrated within the fictional public of equal, akin and resembling him/her individuals, speaking one and the same language and sharing one and the same contextual knowledge. 2. The identification of this ideal homogeneous public with the actual heterogeneous public of the less than ultimately emerged nation. Thus the text binds together four roles - of the unknown real reading individual, of the actual heterogeneous reading audience, of the clearly defined fictional reading individual and the fictional homogenous audience. The text compels the real reader to accept in his imagination as brothers the unknown and the different ones, thus homogenising in his imagination this unfamiliar multitude, to experience a communitas of fellow-countrymen. This sequence of identifications prescribes compulsory parameters of time and space - defining them as homogenous enclosures of this imaginable fictional - real community, defining in addition their basic landmarks - the self assuming here and now. The latter leads to the phenomenon called publicity - an official communicative space shared by a community having a common code, context and notorious communicants.

* * *

Let us try and do something like methodology synthesis of all these theoretical perspectives.

We found out that the complex of writing-printed book-reading is a profound transformation of the Jakobsons scheme of the communicative act. In its paradoxicalness this frozen communication without clear communicators (Ricoeur, Bogdanov) produces beyond-situationalness, snatches the individual away from the narrowness of the immediate dialog situation (Ricoeur). Within its possible boundaries this communication opens before the reader the opportunity to participate in a universal, i.e. lacking particular characteristics, world and a universal, i.e. undefined audience (audience by which freedom is a structural characteristic). The actual reader is invited by the book to transform him/herself in this universalising fashion but is not due to do it, he/she is free to choose among variety of roles - a universal one (self transforming), a hermeneutic one (aware of the otherness), esthetical one (observing the text from a distance as a fine spoken object) or the role of the consumer of mass-scale stereotypical fantasies. Instead of the transition from sacred to profane, statutory in the archaic cultures, the printed book offers a fan of opportunities - as an eventual transition to a definitive, empty and indefinite universality, having also hyper-links (as we would say today) to consumption and entertainment, to the aesthetic contemplation, to the communication with the Other. The actual reader is free to select these or other roles and to see them trough against the background of the rest which have remained unseen trough.

This freedom of the actual reader, however, is not without consequences. In order to keep it within a certain framework, the text has elaborated an internal authority - the implicit reader. This is the texts orienting and overseeing programme, targeting the real readers and designed to channel their reactions and restrict their arbitrariness in order to get the good reading. On the other hand the control is not absolute - the implicit reader is a structure indefinite enough, in order to find its way to still newer and newer particular historic and reading audiences.

Thus the printed book may overwrite the restricted historical tastes of one or another era and its ideal communicative realm (it can be described as existing between the poles of the complete individualisation of the reader and his or her complete inclusion in a universal community) does not coincide with the various empirical readers nor with the various historic concrete reading audiences of different age, cultural belonging, nation, etc.

Are we not talking of an empty abstract field of opportunities being filled in by the various epochs and audiences? In fact, the relation between this realm - the universal audience and the particular empirical audiences is a bit more complicated than a simple exemplification. This is due to the fact that between the ultimate universal reading humanity and the separate reading individual interferes an outstandingly important authority. What we mean here is a peculiar reading audience, a mediator between the concrete and the abstract, empty universality: the authority of the nation, of the imaginable community of equal individuals related into an organic community. As Benedict Anderson has pointed out, this key ideological construction of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries is a specific social output: the of the mechanisms of the implicit reader and the implicit reading audiences were very important factors (among others, of course).by its production. The image of the nation in certain novels (and sometimes in other literary genres) of the late 18th and the early 19th century has proved formative not only for the literary but for the modern public communication in general - this imaginary audience participates as a necessary symbolic form in constructing the actual national audiences. Unlike the model and abstract character of the implicit reader discussed by Iser, the fictional national audience is a concrete historical phenomenon (its form is different and specific across individual historic periods, languages and national literatures). But precisely because it is not an abstract and empty model (such as the implicit reader) nor is it the empty limit of universality (such as the implicit undetermined audience) but a particular historical phenomenon, this fictional audience may acquire extremely important functions. It may intervene and define the character and the shape of the symbolic power in modern societies - it is actually the very form of the collective, shared imagination, through which the nation thinks itself, performs the act of self identification. And this means that a historically concrete and specific form of the abstract implicit reader - this of the implicit homogenous national audience - becomes the most important form of modern communication and modern sociality. This institutionalised imagination participates in the construction of the homogenous national time, space, language, cultural heritage. It is ultimately the institutionalised and reproducible common form of the indirect distant identity of the national community.

On the other hand, this means that the whole process transposes the opposition real - fictional. The implicit fictional public of the novels and the explicit real public of the new media, the newspapers, the political debates, the social discourses are fancied as one and the same thing: they coincide within the manner in which the nation imagines itself. This is a new form of an institutionalised (which means converted into a valid social reality) imagination through which the individual may experience him/herself as interrelated with other individuals which he/she has not seen, does not know and will probably never know. The implicit literary audience constructed in the novels and the poems becomes the indispensable imaginary glue which sticks together in a real relationship the national publicity and the national communication.

This has two consequences. Firstly, the national publicity ideologically presents itself not as a media product, an intermediate communication, but as an immediate intercourse. It compels the communicators by prescribing for them the parameters of the shared background knowledge, of the common context, code and communicators. This framework condition of the communication even determines the all-binding national here and now. The national audience ideologically presents itself not as established in an indirect, distant and mediated network of communications and media (post, telegraph, press, literature, journalism, publicity, etc.) but as being submerged in the immediate situation of the native communication (whereby it reminds the oral immediate discourse of the archaic face to face cultures). Or, to put it in simpler terms - it coerces everyone to have shared native framework chronotopos of the communication.

Together with that, this fictional-real publicity continues to present itself as carrying out a "sublime" transformation to a larger quasi-sacred world and community which overrides the everyday life and is very often heroic, dramatic and historical. So,. the national public, this strange hybrid between real and fictitious, shrewdly merges within itself the pole of the situation, the clannish proximity, the immediacy and the pole of the big universal world. Spawned by the culture of the printed book, it presents itself on the ideological level as a paradoxical synthesis of the characteristics of the spoken face to face community and the big universal and unidentified modern world. Thus the nation conceals its internal social stratification and portrays itself as a homogenous and quasi-universal community - an immediate communitas of equal blood brothers and sisters (as it is well known, these are the most frequent metaphors whereby the nation dubs its own members) which together with that plays the role of a universal world and an universal community.

Secondly, this paradoxical placement of the national publicity between the two poles of Ricoeur - the narrow actual situation and the above-situational universal world - does not stand in the way of its being a powerful controlling mechanism which stipulates norms - from the norms of the good reading to the norms of the communal moral. Being propped up by social institutions (press, publicity, other media) it is a supervisory and sanctioning instrument substantially more powerful than the implicit reader who keeps to the text. The major coercion is the homogenisation and the compulsory unification - it covertly requires of all readers/social members to regard themselves as equal, uni-ethnic, close members of their communitas. Its normative character is not only a programme of the text but also fixes up the mandatory framework values of public opinion. This ideological normativity manages to conceal from the individual two things - 1. The social stratification, the hierarchy and the contradictory character of the social structure - they are merged in a native communitas, 2. The fact that the national world is not universal.

* * *

How did the branching out e-mail chains, connecting Gerhard Cheika and Bill Gates, myself, Christiane Scherer and the legendary Inguss Andersons (plus countless and unfathomable quantity of mailing list participants), relate to the above communicative societies? Are the social links created by the spoken communication, by the religious hand-written literature and by the mass-scale printed book comparable to the cobwebs of electronic network communities?

The above historical and theoretical excursion has finally made such a comparison possible. Within the frames of this brief text, however, I can only emphasise several points:

1. WWW is not (simply) a medium

The first possible thing to say is that the transformation of the media has led to a situation where the new high tech trans-communication should not be already called a medium, i.e. something in-between, an intermediary. The reason is that these new media have ceased to be intermediating - they are no longer extensions of the eye, the ear, the arm, and the voice as the classical communication theory used to see them. The new multimedia interactive virtual cobwebs have stopped being in-between - between the sender and the recipient of the message, between the author and the reader, between the beginning and the end of the chain of the communication. The Shannon-Jacobson scheme of the communicative act has so much been transformed that in certain sense it is no longer valid. The electronic networks are not traversed, they are least of all a mediating space, crossed by a message in a linear route, emitted by the sender and received by the recipient. The communication is multi-channel and multi-sensor, the messages seem to be hovering without a source and without an addressee in the space - preceded and succeeded by similar messages, they have no beginning, middle and end, they are being forwarded but they are also mailed to one side, up and down across new regions of the cobweb Mailed to somebody in its capacity as a personal letter, a message can be relayed to many and get transformed into a publication, a declaration or an appeal, an add, a purchase But it may just as well not be directed at all and be turned from a letter into blabbing in some of the countless chatrooms or settled down in a website or database which are not mailed but get hit. The reverse transformation - from the website and the database to an intimate message - is also possible. Together with this admirable dynamism, its unstable category and location, the message (this term may only be in quotes now, it is increasingly relevant to call it a file or a document) can be preserved, copied, archived and opened in every single moment, its information never gets lost unlike that of the immediate spoken communication but is sealed in a digital form.

But this virtual conservation is different from the one in the printed books, texts and works. It is not entirely, but still very much unlike, this frozen and artefactual communication - the printed book, which, as we saw, is capable of offering to the human being a universal world and an empty universal audience. Having lost their character of a mediator, the networks have also lost their nature of artefacts and have disclosed themselves as a dynamic virtual world to the virtual humankind. Or, even better - to virtual worlds and virtual humankinds.

If however, metaphors like virtual worlds and virtual humankinds are not to sound hollow, they should be unfolded analytically and it should be explained how they differ from such communities created by the printed book as the ultimate universal humankind and the national audience. As we saw in Benedict Andersons book, the latter are indispensably thought as being localised in certain imaginary toposes - the territory of the native homogenous space.

The structure of the virtual environment can not be speculated through the metaphors of the universal homogenous territory (world, planet, country, motherland). It is chainlike, hierarchical or tree-like, it strings fields, intertwines information and audio-visual regions which get opened like Chinese boxes within one another, allows sudden hyperlink hops. It compels the surfer (as opposite to the communicating or the reading one) to meander across potentially endless constellations of various virtual forms of life. Unlike the abstractly universal and imaginable communities of the book (which are construed and localised within similar imaginary toposes) the virtual worlds keep their individualised concreteness and heterogeneity across various spots, pages, addresses, bases, however, their chainlike linkages are potentially infinite.

Anticipating this process Boudriard wrote: From now on, our real ambience is the universe of communication. This is where it differs substantially from the idea of nature or environment of the 19th century, While those ere correlated with physical or biological laws (determinism of the substance, inheritance and species) the ambience is basically a network of messages and signs, and its laws are the laws of communication. (pages 223 - 224).

2. WWW puts virtual and real in a new relationship

Our living in a virtual environment can be perceived as something rather literal - the statistics show that the American school and collage students ageing from 16 to 22 spend between 10 and 17 hours per week at the computer - i.e. 9-12% of their awake time. But the pure amount of living time is not everything. Some of the vital activities which structure life are sifted through the Internet: a large number of people find jobs this way, others overcome their loneliness with the virtual acquaintances, sometimes becoming actual marriages. We could add up some more - virtual shopping has actual consequences, virtual political action can lead to toppling governments, virtual finance operation can lead to real bankruptcy. Important institutions move house into the Internet - markets, administrative institutions, banks, foundations. I recently read somewhere that more than 15 000 English towns and local authorities have their own websites.

When they start off their virtual life, the very institutions begin to get changed. This also has a reference to the official political institutions which can conduct sudden polls and inquires, thus taking advantage of the potential of the heightened and liberated discussion energy. Together with that, however, the institutions have to take stock of the accessibility and transparency of information and the interactive character of the electorate which itself can carry out instant plebiscites and referenda.

The relations between the real and virtual communities should not be presented as a great technical progress alone. Just like every other technology and every other medium the virtual networks do not only facilitate society but also create newfangled problems and inequalities. The reason is simple - the instant accessibility which I discussed abow, for certain groups and communities is inaccessible. Hereafter, I will quote the results of A UN research, which proves that America (and the world) is becoming socially divided along the line of Internet access haves - have-nots, furthermore, this line meanders along old class and ethnic divides and deepens them. While 73% of white students own a home computer, only 32.9% of African American students own one. In mid-1998 industrial countries - home to less than 15% of people - had 88% of Internet users. North America alone - with less than 5% of all people - had more than 50% of Internet users. By contrast, South Asia is home to over 20% of all people but had less than 1% of the world's Internet users. English is used in almost 80% of websites and in the common user interfaces - the graphics and instructions. Yet less than one in 10 people worldwide speaks the language. In the words of the UN report: Geographic barriers may have fallen for communications, but a new barrier has emerged, an invisible barrier that,true to its name, is like a world wide web, embracing the connected and silently - almost imperceptibly - excluding the rest. The typical Internet user worldwide is male, under 35 years old, with a college education and high income, urban-based and English-speaking - a member of a very elite minority worldwide. The consequence? The network society is creating parallel communications systems: one for those with income, education, and -literally - connections, giving plentiful information at low cost and high speed; the other for those without connections, blocked by high barriers of time, cost, and uncertainty and dependent on outdated information. With people in these two systems living and competing side by side, the advantages of connection are overpowering. The voices and concerns of people already living in human poverty - lacking incomes, education, and access to public institutions - are being increasingly marginalized.[5] Although I have dealt only with those aspects of the UN report that concern communications and information technology, the report contains a lot of other disturbing news about the gaps in biotechnology and other technologies. Just as information technology is increasingly in the hands of a few worldwide, so are most other new and rapidly advancing technologies. For example, the top 10 largest multinational corporations control the following percentages of their respective worldwide markets: commercial seed, 32%; pharmaceuticals, 35%; veterinary medicine, 60%; computers, 70%; pesticides, 85%; and telecommunications, 86%.[7] Consider the sheer power that is implied by the control of 85% of the pesticides in the world! What seems to be needed here is a new group of missionaries: high-tech and information-technology missionaries. Perhaps we need a high-tech Peace Corps. But the least we can do is make a resolution.

3. WWW is characterised by absence of transcendence

Earlier, I used the expression the surfer is crossing potentially infinite constellations of various virtual forms of life. I am afraid that to some this could sound grandiloquent or almost occult like the free roaming of the lonely spirit across otherwise inaccessible worlds, evoking memories of Jack Londons Star Wanderer or Jonathan Livingston Seagull. In fact, there is nothing sentimental or, God forbid, occult: the virtual is not astral. The astral spaces and bodies are the classical form of religious transcendence - they are an elevation to principally ideal and esoteric existences, spiritual levels, communities and worlds. There is no transcendence in the Internet, of course - yet there is an infinitely entangled cobweb of horizontal dynamics which leads from the website of Faucault readers group to the one of the great classical authors, then to that of the Wimbledon tournament, then to a watch auction, then to horse races, then to a Bulgarian chatroom, then to a database of academic magazines, then to the individual website of why not of Inguss Anderson? But let us leave this personage, who constantly plagues my plot, alone for a while. The question is that the cobweb is short of an authority which could be fully in charge, supervising, orienting - no matter if it is the Lord, the hyper-Ego or the implicit reader. The virtual environment is based on the principles of the uncontrolled (or at least hard to control) instant accessibility end interactivity. The consumer is not only free to act out his or her arbitrariness - he/she is constantly urged to fulfil his/her preferences, nobody is in control of him/her when he/she abandons Shakespeares sonnet for the erotic page peeping trough a little window at the bottom of the screen or afterwards visits the website of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Everything that surrounds him/her in the virtual world is user-friendly, it is tailor-made in order to be interactively manipulated by the consumer according to his/her preferences rather than according to the idea of normatively transforming him/her. As it was noticed by Lyotard as early as in 1979, this ultimate democracy almost does away with the most traditional modern authority - the authority of the teacher and the professor. The latters competence can not compare to the vast and accessible databases stored somewhere in the virtual spaces. By the way, Internet itself is brimful with ruminations of teachers on the Internets role in the teaching process. They praise or mourn different things, but one of the most symptomatic complaints is that the students give too much credit to the information in the Web, they are not critical of it and can not tell the grain from the gigantic heap of electronic chaff. This is a grouching over the diminished role of the disciplinary authority deprived of the opportunity to select and rank the electronic sources by the democracy of the network, of the opportunity to differentiate between truth and suspicious claim, between original and forgery: everything that is in the web claims to be trustworthy.

The disintegration of the authority called by Lacan In The Name of The Father leads to certain infantility of the network - the lack of borders between texts, genres, prestigious and non-prestigious areas, instant accessibility, effortless hyperlinks, without a hampered access or access only for the initiated, (to put it "anthropologically" - without the tortuous rites of passage). This instant all-around accessibility reminds of what Freud used to call the infantile oceanistic feeling - the feeling of the untorn connection, of belonging to the integrity of the world which the foetus is supposed to experience in the womb.

However, we are compelled to ask ourselves what the integrity of the world is like. The new web-like integrity is deprived of transcendence, let me emphasise this once again. It does not relate to the anagogic movement whereby the small, the separate, the partial, the fragmented is lifted towards the absolute, the universal, the integral, nor does it relate to the German Bildung - the slow absorption, the dialectical transposition of the Other and Alien in the form of culture which intimately shapes and educates, transforms and institutes the soul, which is acquired by tutoring of the own identical self. The model of the world integrity implied in the electronic network has nothing to do with what other distant ages understood by Whole World. For instance, it is infinitely distant form the model of integrity created in the 12th century in the anonymous writing The Book of the Twenty Four Philosophers: God is a sphere whose centre is everywhere and its periphery is nowhere. The shambles and the intractable infiniteness of the WWW is very far from the vision of the perfect, absolute and concentrated within itself integrity, which is centred in every possible point. The other way round - the web is unsettled, intrinsically dynamic, it constantly tempts the individual to move, to surf and to navigate across the oceanistic virtuality rather than to get a "sublimation". The passages in the electronic cobweb are designed so as not to offer opportunity for the uplifting from the profane to the sacred, from the empirical to the universal - all the links lead from one profane place to another profane place, from one empirical address to another empirical address.

4. WWW is a heterogeneous universality

These heterogeneous tangles of virtual toposes - bases, addresses, sites, chains, networks, trees are matched by a variety of audiences and communities. The accession to the big an universal public is achieved not by means of quality - trough the subliminal jump into universal and homogenous communitas - but by means of quantity - through the constant electronic nomadic roaming from one place to another, from one virtual company to another, from one particular community to another, all the way to the potential infinity. The international audience preserves its dazzling heterogeneity and fragmentation, but its scale unbelievably outgrows the personal experience and the real situations inhabited by the electronic consumer.

The heterogeneity is also manifest in the incoherence of the electronic subjects - the differences in the personal e-mail addresses and the WWW extensions of the type .com, .net, .edu, .org, etc. makes it evident that the net places horizontally and on an equal footing trade companies and universities, sects and individualities, government institutions and subversive hacker groups, chatrooms, databases, markets and auctions, academic conferences, advertising and erotic exhibitionism. The private is mixed with the public, the official with the subversive, the prohibited and the taboo. There are sites which one visits as if they are foreign shops and there are sites which one visits as if they are foreign homes.

Things get further complicated by the existence of, apart from the extensions com, .net, .edu, .org, etc., of indices designating the national belonging - .at, .bg, .uk, .fr, .de, etc. The nations, the great imaginable communities are placed side by side with the companies, networks and academic institutions. Therefore, their position in the hierarchy of compulsory communities is watered down and almost lost. From their homogenous communitas, there are links leading to exhibitions, auctions, tourism, schools, electronic searching of lost relatives and friends. The network looks like a gigantic container which can hold and virtually double everything that exists.

The heterogeneity of the network and its communities has another dimension.

The Inguss event clearly demonstrated that from the view point of its communicative potential, the Internet e-mail confused and crossed, jumped and opened the communicative modalities, the discoursing communities and roles which are traditionally perceived as separate and autonomous - publicity, market, friendship, nation. This type of communication functions as a transgressive network for the sake of which we could borrow from Bruno Latour names coined for a different case - hybrid, entangled collection, mess. The Internet mess crosses the borders of these traditionally modern fields within each one of which an individual would have a confirmed and specific communicative role (let me remind some of the most important role positions in the communicative spheres thought by Modernity as indispensably separated: a comprehensive I - You relationship, buyer against seller, the speaker before its audience, a citizen among other citizens). The heterogeneity of the network questioned even the extreme points of the abstract Shannon model - who was in fact the sender and who - the receiver in this potentially infinite and branching out chain of e-mail messages? The same referred to the genres - the personal letter, the advertisement and the political declaration were intertwined beyond separation. This all could be likened to a dialog in a play where the first partner is at home, his name is Bob and he is singing, whereas the other is at the market place, his name is Salesman and he is declaiming adds and the third one is in an invisible parliament, his name is Leftist and he is delivering political speeches against the aggression of advertising. More could be added: for instance, the fourths name would be Gerhard Cheika, he would be in Berlin and in this occasion would simply be repeating somebody elses words; the fifth one was the unknown Christiane Scherer who kept silent.

* * *

There was one, however, who did not keep silent and who, through the heterogeneous fields, sites, networks and cobwebs had mailed me a quite precisely addressed rejoinder which had pricked me like a needle. How had Inguss discovered me amidst the virtual sea? I only knew his name. Or did I even know the name? Was it not possible that behind the name another man or another woman was masked having another identity? Or even worse: as the notorious anecdote about Homer and the Iliads authorship went, Ingusss message might not be written by himself but by another Internet inhabitant under the same name? The variation of roles in the communicative space of the e-mail was coupled with the suspicious identity of the individual participants - they could play, alter their roles, disguise themselves, imitate, change their sex or social belonging, their property, and there was no authority who could check who Inguss was - a man or a woman, a beast or a fish or hermaphrodite. So, the instant accessibility had its other side, the instant retrievability, the opportunity to vanish off contacts, the freedom of the unengaged and irresponsible communication which escapes all traditional risks of human interactions The electronic network could apparently liberate the person not only from the statutory sublimation or from the native community - it could liberate man from himself, it could give him/her the opportunities cherished by Luigi Pirandello to present him/herself under a different name, to have a variety of faces, roles and not be engaged with his/her own identity.

What is in a name released on the Internet?

Links to other similar names followed it, it was lined up together with thousands of other Andersons6 in the SEARCH optionThereupon, it could crawl out across the expanse of the Net up to the limit of its self-sufficient mysteriousness

Deep underneath the crust of my rationality nurtured in the atmosphere of Balkan superstitions, of communist and post-communist conspiracies, weird suspicions were rearing their ugly heads. Was it accidental that exactly while I was reading and getting excited about the imagined communities of B. Anderson and Iser's implicit reader, somewhere from the WWW virtual abyss, a message popped up blending in its address the two characters - andersi@ciue.edu.ee - Iser's "I" and Anderson's name? What was in this coincidence - was there anything at all?

Perhaps, a virtual omen had descended on me precisely while I was bashing away at a classical printing culture genre - a linear, traditional conference paper? I suddenly realised that, once again, I was making academic attempts addressing as always the outdated universal intellectual audience. Trying to reflect on the new Internet-medium, I was deep involved in the old one - that of writing, printing and publishing. And while I wrote, investigating the chaotic heterogeneity and empiricism of the new Universality, the all-round accessibility, the combination of immediacy and distance, the crisis of the anagogic way and the Bildung, the shortage of transcendence in the electronic webs, and so on and so forth, something important and virtual had happen. May be the very Spirit of the new hyper-time, the empirical Transcendence of the links, disguised like Inguss, Iser and Anderson, having quilted the universe in its omnipotent WWW, had deigned to visit me. With a condescending irony, he/she/it/they had mailed me a personal message.

It simply read: You are so cheap and incredibly naive.

 

 

NOTES

1. Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious, Cornel University Press, 1981. [back]

2. The most interesting of them is Reading, Writing and Literary Text as Problems of Culture, Bulletin Sociological Review, extraordinary issue, 1987. [back]

3. Bogdanov, B., Literature, Literary Text and Work, in the collection Communicating with the Text, Sofia 1992. [back]

4. He quotes Booth: The authors creates, in short, an image of himself and another image of his reader, he makes his reader as he makes his second self, and the most successful reading is the one in which the created selves, author and reader, can find complete agreement. [back]

5. The differences, incompatibilities, innovations, provocations, etc. which are possible here and which can set apart the readers role implicit in the text from the typified role of a real reader in a certain cultural and historical milieu which are possible here do not change things - the provocations, inconsistencies or differences in principle imply the abstract effort towards agreement. The effort needed to restore the community. Here reading reveals itself to us as a medium which as all communicative media implies and produces communities. [back]

6. This paper is translated in English by Georgi Pashov. The translator of this paper received the same "get rich quick" message from a pretty Swedish poetess called Eva Lee Anderson, which, no doubt, is a meaningful coincidence. [back]

 

 

Alexander Kiossev
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E-magazine LiterNet, 25.02.2000, 2 (3)