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<nettime> Why the Web Will Win the Culture Wars for the Left

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>From: CTheory Editors <>
>Reply-To: CTheory Editors <>
>Subject: Article 125 - Why the Web Will Win the Culture Wars for the Left
>Date: Tue, 15 Apr 2003 13:37:33 -0400
>  _____________________________________________________________________
>         *** Visit CTHEORY Online: ***
>  Article 125   03/04/15     Editors: Arthur and Marilouise Kroker
>  _____________________________________________________________________
>  Why the Web Will Win the Culture Wars for the Left:
>  Deconstructing Hyperlinks
>  ==========================================================
>  ~Peter Lurie~
>  Cultural conservatives in the United States have a lot of worries.
>  They fear that Grand Theft Auto and other video games will turn their
>  kids into crowbar-wielding criminals, they believe that Hollywood
>  will turn their daughters to floozies and sons to gigolos, and they
>  despise the constitutional barrier between church and state as an
>  unnecessary evil that has estranged religious beliefs from public
>  life and eroded the core values of our country.  Underlying all these
>  concerns is the overarching belief that moral relativism -- which
>  holds that competing claims to right and wrong cannot be judged
>  objectively -- is making America a godless, bankrupt country, and a
>  very dangerous place to raise a kid.
>  With Southern Republicans in control of all three branches of
>  government, conservative barricades appear well manned.  Just one
>  justice short of an invincibly reactionary majority on the Supreme
>  Court -- excluding moderate conservatives, for seven of the nine
>  current justices are Republican appointees -- and relentlessly
>  stocking the district and appellate courts with the most conservative
>  jurists they can find, the Republicans are pressing a deeply
>  reactionary social agenda.  The culture wars between the religious,
>  traditionalist right and the liberal, pluralist left have started to
>  look like a rout everywhere but in the larger, coastal cities.
>  Conservatives are recasting communities to be more comfortable with,
>  if not prostrate to, received authority in the form of literalist
>  interpretations of religious and political texts.
>  That success will be short-lived.  Long after the next bubble has
>  burst, the internet will have surpassed the hype generated by the
>  last one.  Not by changing the way we live and work, but by impacting
>  the culture wars and tipping the battle decisively to the left.
>  This will result not from the range of content available online, but
>  rather the process of finding it.  The architecture of the web, and
>  the way users navigate it, closely resembles theories about the
>  authority and coherence of texts that liberal deconstructionist
>  critics have offered for thirty years.  Deconstructionists believe
>  that close analysis reduces any text -- novel, statute, religious
>  work -- to meaningless blather.  The popular response to
>  deconstruction has always been that it's counterintuitive, that no
>  one reads that way, that it lacks common sense.
>  That will change.  Like reading or breathing, web browsing itself is
>  agnostic with respect to politics and culture.  Unlike reading or
>  breathing, however, surfing mimics a postmodern, deconstructionist
>  perspective by undermining the authority of texts.  Anyone who has
>  spent a lot of time online, particularly the very young, will find
>  themselves thinking about content -- articles, texts, pictures -- in
>  ways that would be familiar to any deconstructionist critic.  And a
>  community of citizens who think like Jacques Derrida will not be a
>  particularly conservative one.
>  HTML, hyperlinks, frames, and meta-tags are the essential building
>  blocks of the web. They combine to create a highly associative,
>  endlessly referential and contingent environment that provides an
>  expanse of information at the same time that it subverts any claim to
>  authority, since another view is just a click away.
>  These basic technical tools are similar to deconstructionist
>  analytical tools.  Hypertext markup language (HTML) provides graphic
>  display instructions to the web browser.  Codes control the
>  presentation of each web page, including pictures, colors, fonts and
>  the organization of text.  Without HTML, a web browser would show a
>  continuous scroll of plain text.  Although HTML is normally
>  invisible, the viewer can select a viewing option that exposes the
>  program codes.  With HTML visible, the structure of each web page is
>  laid bare, like a theater with transparent curtains and sets, so the
>  lighting crew, scaffolding, director and actors in the wings were all
>  visible.  Hyperlinks, which often appear in underlined blue text,
>  provide the essential connectivity of the web, enabling the user to
>  jump from one page to another, a sort of black hole through which a
>  viewer can jump in and emerge in another place.  Framing divides a
>  web site into separate windows, each displayed in a separate part of
>  the screen and independently functional.  Hyperlinks connect each
>  frame, allowing the user to move among screens without leaving the
>  site.  Search engines organize information on the web as well, while
>  helping users locate information they want.  Google returns a short
>  description of and hyperlink to a list of sites ranked by likely
>  relevance.  In many cases the web page communicates to the search
>  engine through metatags, which are encoded in the HTML and usually
>  consist of key words that provide an associative description of the
>  site itself.
>  A person engages the web in much the same way that a
>  deconstructionist critic approaches a text.  Deconstruction, which
>  denotes a process rather than a belief system, shows how novels,
>  statutes and court opinions collapse upon themselves, making their
>  underlying assumptions absurd.  For the deconstructionist, each text
>  is endlessly referential, a web of associations and connections that
>  is finally ambiguous.  The structuralist critic Ferdinand de Saussure
>  set the foundation of postmodern thought by describing language as a
>  system of signs.  Each sign was made up of a signifier (the word
>  itself) and the signified (the concept or meaning). [1]  Saussure's
>  first principle was that such signs are arbitrary. [2] The letters s,
>  i, s, t, e and r suggest a girl or woman who shares the same parents
>  as the referent, but the idea of this woman "is not linked by any
>  inner relationship to the succession of sounds s-o-r which serves as
>  its signifier in French." [3]  Indeed, the woman at issue could as
>  simply be represented by another succession of letters or sounds.
>  For de Saussure, the relationship between the signifier and the
>  signified was merely historical and therefore arbitrary.  The letters
>  b, o, o and k could have signified a flying animal, but were instead
>  doomed to represent a bound sheaf of printed papers too rarely
>  capable of flight.  Since each sign (the word) has meaning only
>  because it doesn't signify something else (the actual book), and the
>  words themselves are arbitrarily assigned, meaning itself is only
>  relational -- it cannot be grasped on its own.
>  Meaning, then, is not contained or conveyed by a word or series of
>  words because it is dependent on what those words do not contain or
>  convey.  Meaning is part of a process, in which words are examined
>  with respect to other words, which lend meaning only in relation to
>  still more words.  As Terry Eagleton wrote ten years before anyone
>  other than Tim Berners-Lee had heard of the World Wide Web, language
>  "look[s] much more like a sprawling limitless web where there is a
>  constant interchange and circulation of elements." [4]
>  Deconstructionists advanced de Saussure's work by detaching the
>  signifier from the signified and arguing that meaning is present only
>  in words that themselves are indeterminate and relational. [5]  Each
>  word or sign in a sentence is linked to all the others, forming an
>  infinite or at least inexhaustible network.  Every text, fiction and
>  nonfiction, statutes and religious works, has a flickering or
>  suspended quality: its meaning is  whatever may be grasped by a
>  particular reader at a particular time. [6]
>  Deconstructionists believe that writing and reading is a discourse, a
>  kind of open conversation or play, through which the reader pieces
>  together a meaning by distinguishing one word from another.  A
>  favorite tactic of such critics is to analyze a detail in the text
>  until it unravels the entire structure of the work and renders it
>  incoherent. [7]  Widely-accepted interpretations -- such as the moral
>  of the story of Exodus is the inevitable empowerment of repressed
>  groups -- come to appear naive.  Indeed, the Supreme Court has done
>  something similar with the 11th Amendment.  After 200 years as a
>  curious backwater of the Constitution, the 11th Amendment now stands
>  at the center of the Court's jurisprudence, the foundation of the
>  increasingly broad doctrine of sovereign immunity (a phrase found
>  nowhere in the constitution), that is radically broadening the power
>  of state government at the expense of both Congress and citizens, at
>  the same time that it casts doubt upon received ideas about nearly
>  every other aspect of the United States Constitution.  A
>  deconstructionist would not argue that the Supreme Court is right or
>  wrong about federalism and state power, but only that such radically
>  divergent interpretations of the same text indicate that any appeal
>  to an authoritative meaning, including an investigation into the
>  intent of the author (in this case, the framers of the Constitution
>  and Bill of Rights), will be a misguided and ultimately fruitless
>  project.
>  The Web is a postmodernist tool that inevitably produces a
>  postmodernist perspective.  It is an unobvious result.  After all,
>  social conservatism is the kind of grass-roots movement that the
>  internet should complement.  The Web improves the coordination of
>  far-flung constituents, aiding organization, recruiting and the
>  dissemination of information while reinforcing beliefs by increasing
>  the number of sources with consistent viewpoints.  Conservatives who
>  have long complained of the liberal bias of the major media can now
>  avoid those sources altogether, customizing a diet of news from
>  like-minded online sources.    Cass Sunstein has emphasized the
>  danger inherent in what he calls cybercascades, where people who
>  share similar views communicate only with each other, reinforcing
>  their own perspectives but precluding exposure to new ones. [8]
>  There have always been conservative and liberal newspapers, Sunstein
>  notes, "[b]ut the emerging situation does contain large differences,
>  stemming above all from a dramatic increase in available options, a
>  simultaneous increase in individual control over content, and a
>  corresponding decrease in the power of general interest
>  intermediaries." [9]  As options multiply, intermediaries narrow.  If
>  every consumer of information creates a "daily me", which filters all
>  unpalatable news and opinions, the citizenry will become increasingly
>  parochial. [10]  More broadly, Sunstein worries that cybercascades
>  will fragment society, slim political and cultural discourse and
>  clear the shelves and stalls of the marketplace of ideas. [11]
>  Credited to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and based on a theory that
>  John Stuart Mill first sketched, this marketplace sifts and exposes
>  the truth and value of competing theories.  If the marketplace
>  metastasizes into isolated stalls, free speech will quickly lose its
>  value and the marketplace of ideas will close for lack of customers.
>  Sunstein's prophecy is politically neutral: the internet will
>  enervate the intellectual vigor of all movements by isolating them in
>  cyber chambers that echo with cheers and wild applause.  There is
>  every reason to believe, however, that the Web will subvert
>  conservative thought even if conservatives themselves browse friendly
>  terrain, from to to  The content
>  available online is much less important than the manner in which it
>  is delivered, indeed, the way the Web is structured.  Its influence
>  is structural rather than informational, and its structure is
>  agnostic.  For that reason, parental controls of the sort that AOL
>  can offer gives no comfort to conservatives.  It's not that Johnny
>  will Google "hardcore" or "T&A" rather than "family values;" rather,
>  it's that Johnny will come to think, consciously or not, of
>  everything he reads as linked, associative and contingent.  He will
>  be disinclined to accept the authority of any text, whether
>  religious, political or artistic, since he has learned that there is
>  no such thing as the last word, or indeed even a series of words that
>  do not link, in some way, to some other text or game.  For those who
>  grow up reading online, reading will come to seem a game, one that
>  endlessly plays out in unlimited directions.  The web, in providing
>  link after associative link, commentary upon every picture and
>  paragraph, allows, indeed requires, users to engage in a
>  postmodernist inquiry.
>  Reading the bible online at is a typically
>  interactive effort, one that despite the intentions of the Biblical
>  Studies Foundation, which operates the site, explodes the authority
>  of the text.  The viewer chooses any of eighteen different versions
>  of the bible, and then finds a matrix of hyperlinks organized by
>  chapter and verse that link to the requested section.  Four frames
>  provide the biblical text and accompanying information, including
>  footnotes hyperlinked to other sources with explanatory material, a
>  hyperlinked index of every other chapter, and links to the Biblical
>  Studies Foundation's homepage, as well as other related sources.  The
>  site also contains the customary search function, which appears on
>  the left, and of course the internet browser itself has a search
>  function that is always visible, so that an engaged reader may be
>  constantly toggling between biblical text, commentary in the
>  footnotes, word searches suggested by the bible or footnotes or a
>  combination of both.  Readers unfamiliar with a word may click on the
>  footnote with a short definition or synonym.  If that is
>  unsatisfactory, typing the word into the search function will yield a
>  link to a dictionary of biblical words, terms and phrases that may
>  offer a more refined and accurate definition.  The reader may be
>  satisfied and return to the text or pursue the matter further,
>  needing just two clicks to find the same passage in an alternative
>  translation.  If the reader is interested in a historical analysis of
>  the passage, a search for 'biblical history' yields and array of
>  relevant academic and religious sites from all perspectives.  A
>  reader might devote a day to pursuing a single passage, a single
>  line, finding herself farther and farther afield from the original
>  text and translation.  Indeed, she might forget which site she was
>  reading.  Reading the bible online is an exploration of multiple
>  sources, commentators and bibliographic tributaries.
>  Reading any other presumptively authoritative text online presents a
>  similar experience.  The US Constitution is available at, among other
>  sites, _www.usconstitution.net_.  Most clauses include hyperlinks to
>  commentary from well-known and lesser authorities.  Footnotes provide
>  short summaries of legislative history and important court decisions.
>   A review of the Second Amendment, upon which the entire gun control
>  debate rests, led this reader to twenty-four different sites, each
>  directly or indirectly linked, offering finely spun phrase-by-phrase
>  analysis.  And that was just the first sentence of this short
>  amendment.  By the time the curious reader returns to the original
>  text, her head will be cocked back, distrustful, possibly exhausted,
>  certainly skeptical if not despairing of any authoritative
>  interpretation.  Indeed, she may come to believe that there is no
>  original meaning at all.  Eagleton wrote:
>       That any such transcendental meaning is a fiction ... is one
>       consequence of [deconstruction].  there is no concept which is
>       not embroiled in an open-ended play of signification, shot
>       through with traces and fragments of other ideas....  Consider, in
>       our own society, Freedom, the Family, Democracy, Independence,
>       Authority, Order and so on.  Sometimes such meanings are seen as
>       the _origin_ of all the others, the source from which they flow;
>       but this ... is a curious way of thinking, because for this
>       meaning ever to have been possible other signs must already have
>       existed.  It is difficult to think of an origin without wanting
>       to go back beyond it. [12]
>  The Web invites, even demands that its users go back, forward, around
>  and elsewhere in an associative search for meaning.  Jonathan Culler,
>  in a discussion of Barthes, writes: "The text is ceaselessly
>  traversed by codes, which are the source of its meanings." [13]
>  Structuralists such as Barthes and Deconstructionists like Derrida
>  created a revolution in hermeneutics by identifying the codes that
>  inhered in every line of prose.  Not long ago, one had to be a
>  graduate student to grasp the concept.  No longer.  The Web
>  illuminates these codes for everyone to see and, much more
>  importantly, use.
>  In this light, the conservatives' fear of moral relativism is
>  well-founded.  Absent some divine authority, or lacking any consensus
>  about the existence or nature of such authority, relativists believe
>  that morality is socially determined, wholly dependent on standards
>  existing in a community at a particular place and time.  In a
>  pluralist society, then, there can be no consensus regarding good and
>  evil.  If it is not quite true that anything goes, tolerance dictates
>  that we must respect the choices that others make, even if they are
>  repugnant to others in the community.  Same-sex marriage, under this
>  view, is no more right or wrong than the traditional variety, and we
>  cannot condemn those who practice it.  Moral relativism is often
>  considered to be inversely proportional to the strength of religion.
>  The prevalence of the former, however, has surprisingly little to do
>  with the decline of the latter.  Religion is hardly in decline, at
>  least in the United States.  A higher percentage of Americans go to
>  church, mosque or temple each week than went both one and two
>  centuries ago.  By any measure, America is the most religious of all
>  Western industrialized nations and arguably the most religious of any
>  country outside Islam.
>  Perhaps for that reason, conservatives blame the kind of liberal
>  elites who tend to congregate in New York newsrooms and Northeastern
>  classrooms.  These usual suspects condescend toward religion at the
>  same time that they mandate tolerance for all lifestyles and teach
>  postmodern theories suggesting that received beliefs tend to be
>  arbitrary or self-serving or both.  This argument tends to overstate
>  both the liberalism and elitism of the accused along with their
>  influence, and it misses the most powerful and pervasive source of
>  moral relativism: the Web.
>  Technology undermines traditional belief systems even as it creates a
>  belief in a kind of heavenly paradise, a kind of Technopia.  In his
>  book _The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected
>  World, _Larry Lessig argues for an open society in which everyone has
>  access to information and the tools necessary to contribute to the
>  community and succeed within it. [14]   A former colleague of
>  Sunstein's at the University of Chicago who migrated to Stanford, the
>  very capital of Technopia, Professor Lessig believes that the Web
>  could create an interconnected, information- and idea-rich republic.
>  He warns, however, that unless we balance private ownership of
>  intellectual property and the public's ability to refine and build
>  upon it, we will never inhabit such a place. [15]
>  Open, shared platforms of content and code must be the foundation of
>  such a radically free, creative and informed society, but an unholy
>  trinity of Congress, the courts and large corporations has
>  effectively sealed media and software platforms by lengthening
>  copyright laws and strengthening intellectual property protections.
>  The most recent example is the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension
>  Act, which extended by 20 years both existing copyrights and future
>  copyrights.  A copyright grant is a limited monopoly, a reward for
>  innovation, but the reward, if too generous (long), will surely
>  stifle it, for any increase in copyright term strengthens monopolist
>  practice and isolates innovation from improvement in much the same
>  way that Sunstein fears that cybercascades weaken the dialogue of
>  democracy. [16]  For that reason Lessig predicts that
>       ...two companies -- AOL Time Warner and Microsoft -- will define
>       the next five years of the Internet's life.  Neither company has
>       committed itself to a neutral and open platform.  Hence, the
>       next five years will be radically different from the past ten.
>       Innovation in content and applications will be as these platform
>       owners permit. Additions that benefit either company will be
>       encouraged; additions that don't, won't....Content and access
>       will once again be controlled; the innovation commons will have
>       been carved up and sold. [17]
>  If software code, the DNA of the internet, is privately held,
>  citizens will be cyberserfs on corporate estates.  There can be no
>  freedom without commons.  Businesspersons, artists and academics must
>  be free to graze on the rich field of ideas that lead to further
>  innovation.  In his previous book Professor Lessig argued that just
>  as police regulate cities, code regulates cyberspace. [18]  If state
>  police power was the principal concern of the 20th century, corporate
>  control of code should be that of the 21st. [19]  Just as we defeated
>  Hitler and Stalin, the argument continues implicitly, so must we
>  strike AOL and Microsoft.  Corporations wield power invidiously,
>  veiled by the promise of free markets, effectively co-opting the
>  institutions that should balance public and private ownership.
>  Lessig will.  For many technologists -- those who believe that
>  technology, properly configured, will save the planet -- he is the
>  much-lauded (and well-schooled) David against an array of corporate
>  Goliaths.  As chairman of, which is dedicated
>  to increasing the sum and access of intellectual property online,
>  [20] and as lead counsel for the petitioner in _Eldred v Ashcroft_,
>  [21] in which he challenged the constitutionality of the Bono
>  Copyright Extension Act, Lessig has argued that Congress had
>  overstepped the authority vested by the Constitution by essentially
>  marching the copyright term toward perpetuity. [22]  In January, the
>  Supreme Court disagreed, upholding the act.  His fight continues.
>  Victory will not elude Professor Lessig, though it may surprise him.
>  A public weaned on the Web will be increasingly sensitive to the
>  value of open platforms and the possibilities inherent in shared
>  media and code.  The increasing ease with which even moderately
>  trained musicians mix and sample recorded works, and the resulting
>  battle between the Recording Industry Association of America and the
>  music lovers that support its member companies, is just the first of
>  many disputes that will reshape copyright law and practice.  Citizens
>  who are no longer awed by received authority will use the
>  instantiations of that authority -- whether in the form of text,
>  graphics, music or code -- for their own purposes.
>  Professors Lessig and Sunstein sketch despairing visions because they
>  have missed the essentially deconstructionist nature of the Web.  The
>  architecture that media and technology companies control to stifle
>  innovation, and that citizens use to cordon themselves from genuine
>  debate, will at the same time foster an open, inquisitive and
>  markedly liberal spirit.  Problems associated with the control of
>  ideas and the compartmentalization of dialogue will persist, but a
>  newly emergent majority on the Left will rise to tackle them. It's
>  all in the code.
>  Notes:
>  ------
>  [1] Ferdinand de Saussure, _Course in General Linguistics, _Wade
>  Baskins, trans., (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), ch. 1.
>  [2] Ibid, 12-14.
>  [3] Ibid.
>  [4] Terry Eagleton, _Literary Theory _(Minneapolis: University of
>  Minnesota Press, 1983), 129.
>  [5] Ibid, 128.  See also Jonathan Culler, _Structuralist Poetics:
>  Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature_ (Ithaca:
>  Cornell University Press, 1975), 243-245, discussing Jacques Derrida,
>  _Writing and Difference_, Alan Bass, trans. (Chicago: University of
>  Chicago Press, 1980).
>  [6] Eagleton, 128-129.
>  [7] Ibid, 133.
>  [8] Cass Sunstein, _(Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press,
>  2001), 49.
>  [9] Ibid, 11.
>  [10] Ibid, 13.
>  [11] Ibid, 8-10.
>  [12] Eagleton, 131.
>  [13] Culler, 243.
>  [14] Lawrence Lessig, _The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons
>  in a Connected World_ (New York: Vintage Books, 2002) (first
>  published by Random House, 2001).
>  [15] Ibid, xxi-xxii,6.
>  [16] Ibid, xxi-xxii.
>  [17] Ibid, 267.
>  [18] Lawrence Lessig, _Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace _(Basic
>  Books, 1999), 86.
>  [19] Ibid.
>  [20]  ("Our aim is not only
>  to increase the sum of raw source material online, but also to make
>  access to that material cheaper and easier. To this end, we have also
>  developed metadata that can be used to associate creative works with
>  their public domain or license status in a machine-readable way. We
>  hope this will enable people to use the our search application and
>  other online applications to find, for example, photographs that are
>  free to use provided that the original photographer is credited, or
>  songs that may be copied, distributed, or sampled with no
>  restrictions whatsoever. We hope that the ease of use fostered by
>  machine- readable licenses will further reduce barriers to
>  creativity.")
>  [21] _Eldred v Ashcroft_,  Sup Ct 01-618. Argued October 9, 2002;
>  decided January 15, 2003.
>  [22] Brief for Petitioners, _Eldred_, 18.
>  --------------------
>  Peter Lurie is a lawyer, a graduate of Dartmouth College and The
>  University of Chicago Law School, where he worked on two independent
>  papers with Judge Richard Posner, studied critical theory and the
>  interrelation between law and literature.  He has written for the
>  _New York Press_ and _Shout Magazine_.  He is also the cofounder of
>  Virgin Mobile USA, a wireless voice and internet company aimed at the
>  youth market, where he serves as General Counsel.
>  The views expressed are his own.
>  _____________________________________________________________________
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