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<nettime> Hypertext pre0.2
Henning Ziegler on Fri, 4 Oct 2002 17:38:12 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Hypertext pre0.2




[...here's part 2 of the text... -Henning]


2 The Political Interpretation of New Media Objects

Form and content in discourse are one; once we understand that verbal
discourse is a social phenomenon.
—M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination

Before I go into a discussion of hypermedia and their socio-political
function, I'll attempt to justify my belief in the primacy of a political
interpretation of new media objects.  European cultural critics Richard
Barbrook and Andy Cameron have took some steps in that direction with
their essay "The California Ideology," but the result remains far from
being a coherent theoretical position.  In their text, Barbrook and
Cameron suggest that "a loose alliance of writers, hackers, capitalists,
and artists from the West Coast of the USA have succeeded in defining a
heterogeneous orthodoxy for the coming information age." This
'heterogeneous orthodoxy' is what the two critics call 'California
Ideology:' the idea that new media will make everybody "both hip and
rich," being able to "express themselves freely within cyberspace."
Barbrook and Cameron hold that this new media utopia is grounded in a
"wilful blindness towards (...) racism, poverty, and environmental
degradation," so they see a need for European theorists to step into the
picture "to develop a more coherent analysis of the impact of hypermedia
than can be found within the ambiguities of the Californian Ideology."
Although I find this position somewhat overstated, I would like my article
to be seen as part of the theoretical project to ground new media theory
more firmly in the social and political sphere instead of the lofty U.S.
West Coast cybertopia that Barbrook and Cameron describe.

	
In a somewhat less polemical approach, then, I'll try and make several key
concepts from Fredric Jameson's seminal book The Political Unconscious
fruitful for my approach to a politics of the interface. Basically,
remembering that "men represent their real conditions of existence to
themselves in an imaginary form" (Althusser 1971: 163), it is not hard to
see how the political could enter the analysis of hypermedia at all: The
interface is a cultural object that is indexical to the dreams and hopes
that we have, as well as to the conflicts that are raging across the
socio-political sphere.  What's harder to see is the primacy of a
political reading over other readings from theoretical schools such as
psychoanalysis, feminism, or deconstructionism; this primacy, however, is
precisely what I need to establish in order to make a reading of new media
objects in purely political terms sound plausible.  In The Political
Unconscious, Jameson asserts that he is not calling for just another
'method' of political criticism.  The social and the political, for him,
form the very backdrop of cultural production, so he rather holds that
"Marxism subsumes other interpretative modes or systems; or, (...) the
limits of the latter can always be overcome, and their more positive
findings retained, by a radical historicizing of their mental operations,
such that not only the content of the analysis, but the very method
itself, along with the analyst, then comes to be reckoned into the 'text'
or phenomenon to be explained" (Jameson 1981: 47).  In Jameson's view,
then, text, method, and analyst all become part of a larger political
configuration that can be uncovered by a historical analysis of the
methods' mental structuring of material; zooming into a code-only version
of cultural life, from this viewpoint, is too quick a move for an
understanding of the structural limitations (and possibilities) that are
at work in the culture the new media object originates from.  When applied
to new media studies, this means that the feedback loop from the new media
object (such as the interface of Netscape 7 or an authoritative hypermedia
CD-ROM) to socio-political reality has to be scrutinized alongside with
the code in order to see how we present reality to ourselves numerically
encoded through the interface.

On level of the philosophy of history, he does away with the fashionable
notion that ‘everything is a text’ (in a similar way, Régis Debray does
away with the ‘sign’ in favor of the structure in media studies ). Without
receding to an essentialist notion of history, Jameson holds that “that
history is not a text, not a narrative, master or otherwise, but that, as
an absent cause, it is inaccessible to us except in textual form, and that
our approach to it (...) necessarily passes through its prior
textualization, its narrativization in the political unconscious” (Jameson
1981: 35).  When uncovering this narrativization in the process of textual
interpretation, however, history never reveals its ‘true’ meaning to the
critic; the ‘real’ history remains the ‘absent cause’ for the ‘text’ as a
cultural production.  The structure of any text or new media object
becomes an expression of a specific historical configuration whose
‘authenticity’ can never be finally established; it remains a cultural
object that is indexical to a non-existent cause—the political
unconscious.  Significantly, Jameson also points to the necessity of
reading history through cultural objects: We are left with them as
‘traces’ of the political unconscious, or of our ideas of historical power
configurations.  In my mind, Jameson’s move of deconstructing essentialist
notions of ‘history’ by calling history an ‘absent cause’ while also
establishing a kind of ‘formalist essentialism’ with which struggles over
the interpretation of history can be discovered in the structure of
cultural objects convincingly establishes the primacy of a political
reading of old and new media objects.

This takes us to Jameson's understanding of historical reality. Generally,
Jameson's does away with the fashionable notion that 'everything is a
text' (in a similar way, Régis Debray does away with the 'sign' in favor
of the structure in media studies in his notorious Media Manifestos).  
Without receding to an essentialist notion of history, Jameson holds that
"that history is not a text, not a narrative, master or otherwise, but
that, as an absent cause, it is inaccessible to us except in textual form,
and that our approach to it (...) necessarily passes through its prior
textualization, its narrativization in the political unconscious" (Jameson
1981: 35).  When the critic uncovers this narrativization in the process
of the interpretation of a cultural object, however, historical reality
never reveals its true meaning, but rather remains the absent cause for
the production of the cultural object.  What's uncovered is not reality
but the form of its interpretation.  Significantly, Jameson also points to
the necessity of reading history through cultural objects: We are left
with them as 'traces' of the political unconscious, or of our ideas of
historical power configurations.  Jameson's move is thus twofold: While
receding from essentialist notions of 'history' by calling history an
'absent cause,' he also establishes a kind of 'formalist essentialism'
with which struggles over the interpretation of history can be discovered
in the form of cultural objects (books, CD-ROMs, etc) and their structural
limitations (and possibilities).  Political criticism of any cultural
object, then, will attempt to extract structural antagonisms that are
indexical of a historical dialectic as 'absent cause.' Furthermore, when
one understands form as "sedimented content" (Jameson), "the individual
narrative, or the individual formal structure, is to be grasped as the
imaginary resolution of a real contradiction" (Jameson 1981: 77).  The
cultural object can now be interpreted as a strategy for unification of
differences which retains certain traces of those differences in its form.  
How does an interface make the world coherent?  Are authoritative
hypertexts simply a strategy for cutting something coherent into pieces,
only to paste the parts into a mosaic whole again?  What's the function of
an authoritative hypertext if, given the right computer program, many
people can authorize texts that enhance or contradict the original
version?

But let's inquire a bit more into how hypermedia can be said to be
political for now.  Starting from a Jamesonian, formal approach to new
media studies, I think that Ernesto Laclau's post-Marxist notions of
hegemony, decision, antagonism, and articulation will provide a few more
interesting ideas for the discussion of particular new media objects.
Laclau's theoretical framework starts from the understanding that
"self-determination is not the expression of what a subject already is but
the result of its lack of being instead" (Laclau 1996, 55).  This point
nicely enhanced Jameson's theory, in that it lays the foundation for a
questioning of how new media objects might be used to influence users
economically and politically: The pointing and clicking subject emerges
through interaction with the human computer interface (HCI); it does not
meet with a computer program 'on an equal level.' Determined to constitute
herself, then, the user identifies itself with various interface
objects/designs, since "self-determination can only proceed through
processes of identification" (Laclau 1996, 55).  The critical point here,
of course, is the decision taken with whom or what to identify.  For
Laclau, this decision is undecidable in the final instance, so the subject
(simulating its own completeness) emerges in the distance between the
undecidability of the structure and the decision: I can not really decide
why I browse the Web with Microsoft Internet Explorer of Netscape 7, but
my decision makes me (personally) a Netscape 7 user.  The subject/user's
decision is further complicated due to the fact that she is a part of a
larger socio-political group and is therefore necessarily represented by
an individual that hegemonically 'stands for' this group (nobody can
decide on all issues all the time).

Now if this theoretical outlook sounds like a gloomy perspective for what
some analytical philosophers call the free subject, let's not forget that
the antagonisms of the interface contain possibilities for resistance as
well: Hegemony is an "experience of the limit of all objectivity" (122)
since "the presence of the 'Other' prevents me from being totally myself"
(125).  The impossibility to fully constitute oneself (let's say, for the
AT&T telephone company in the face of severe hacker attacks in 1990) opens
up a sphere for the critical "rewriting of the (...) text in such a way
that the latter may itself be seen as the rewriting or restructuration of
a prior historical or ideological subtext" (Jameson 1981: 81).  To come
back to the 'California Ideology:' It incorporates into its world view the
idea that politics has come to an end and that resistance is merely a
matter of 'culture jamming.' These radical cultural turns, which, as
Barbrook and Cameron have pointed out, ironically comes from the very
people that participated in the 'countercultural' movements of the 60s,
overlooks the ways in which political antagonisms are inscribed into the
limitations and possibilities of new media objects as indexical strategies
for the unification of socio-political differences.  Or, as Jameson argues
in The Political Unconscious, "the convenient working distinction between
cultural texts that are social and political and those that are not
becomes something worse than an error: namely, a symptom and a
reinforcement of the reification and privatization of contemporary life"
(Jameson 1981: 20).  So it's important to keep in mind that the political
criticism that I have layed out in this chapter will not lead to the
'unmasking' of new media objects as feedback loops into an economic system
which they were originally opposed to: The benefit of a formal, political
analysis is that it won't automatically lead to the theoretical dead-end
for new media or cultural studies of seeing opposition as only preparing
another underground trend for the multinationals to recycle in their next
campaign.  Jameson puts it this way: The "lesson of the 'vision' of a
total system is for the short run one of the structural limits imposed on
praxis rather than the latter's impossibility" (Jameson 1981: 91).


::

Henning Ziegler
http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/~hziegler 

New article:
"The Digital Cowboys - Hackers as Imagined Communities"
in NMEDIAC, The Journal of New Media & Culture, Summer 2002
http://www.nmediac.net



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