Australian Network for Art & Technology on Sun, 5 Oct 1997 20:57:17 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Linda Carroli: Community or Collaboration

(This text was found in a short version in the ANAT (Australian
Network for Art and Technology) newsletter. Let this not deceive
you, this article is not about art as such, its mediatheory.
While working in Kassel for the First Cyberfeminist International,
but also in a more general context (for as far as cyberfeminism
is not covering the whole of mediatheory, but that I will discuss
another time), I felt a strong need for clearer starting positions
to think or work from. It seems as if mediatheory and netcriticism
especially got stuck into a kind of regressive discourse after
its first extatic, almost victorious years. Both the old
optimism and the now dominating (?) nestling in familiar political
positions seem unworkable for me. Netcriticism, net.theory needs
much more attention at the moment then it is getting. We should build
on subtleties and details of what has been developed/written/thought,
combining them carefully, avoiding too obvious clichees.
This article takes a different kind of perspective, (not entirely new,
but too easily dismissed,) of how communication and exchange on the
net basically work, thereby creating a better insight and avoiding
false expectations or misunderstandings. After the mentioning of the
word communities in the "the user is the context" debate, I thought
it should be posted here.
This is the entire version, which we are allowed to preview by its
author Linda Carroli and the magazine Leonardo, where it will appear
as part of "Digital Salon". I hope this will also evoke more
Australian theory postings.    J*)


Virtual Encounters
Community or Collaboration on the Internet?

by Linda Carroli

The space of computer mediated communications such as the internet -
cyberspace - is constituted as an inhabitable, utilitarian and largely
unregulated terrain of global proportions which overlays and
reterritorialises existing nation-states, borders and territories.
According to Kiesler, Seigel and McGuire, the more notable traits of
computer mediated communications are the paucity of social context for
information, few widely shared norms governing its use, the absence of
regulating features and social anonymity.  Through the interplay of these
forces and network users, a social system has emerged which complies with
Stone's assertion that "a virtual community is first and foremost a
community of belief."  Implicit in the notion of belief is that encounters
on-line are not necessarily formed by consensus or formative of community
but rather by collaboration and connection. Virtual networks have come to
signify an intimate relationship between the local and the global which
heralds the dispersal of established cultural institutions and the
proliferation of diversity. Subsequently, computer networks provide the
space in which new relations are necessitated and can be developed and
formative of social networks. Given this, it is necessary to be suspicious
of modernist social formations and hierarchies and interrogate their
use-value and transposition in postmodern terrains as exemplified by the

This essay will examine the notion of 'community' as a construct or
elaboration of virtual environments, seeking to displace it as a normative
and unitary social formation. Underwriting western formations of community
are ideas of consensus, rationality and collectivity. This paper will posit
notions of radical encounter and collaboration as integral to the formation
of social networks via the internet. For Williams, the term community is
unusable as one via which distinctions can be made: "one is never certain
exactly to which formation the notion is referring. It was when I suddenly
realised that no one ever used 'community' in a hostile sense that I saw
how dangerous it was."   In the virtual environment, 'collaboration' has
perhaps usurped 'community', teasing out, as it seems to do, various
encounters with the 'other' as well as a shifted sense of process and
multiplicity. Collaboration bears its own set of implications for
socio-technological encounter, having inherited identity politics informed
by the postmodern as well as its sense of irony, fragmentation and
multiplicity which is absent from the notion of community. It is the
purpose of this paper to posit collaboration as formational of social
practice on the internet in ways which abrogate the notion of consensus,
adopting in its place critical and shifting positionalities of partiality.

The equation of cyberspace as a distinct social space of interactivity
renders it indistinguishable as either public or private space. It is
represented as the seamless extension of the private and public into each
other or as the interstice between the public and private, in which some
cease to be exclusively private and into which a range of identities can be
projected. As Stone argues, "the distinction between inside and outside has
been erased and along with it, the possibility of privacy."  In creating
disorder through the dissolution of public/private distinctions, the
internet, as a frame for a multitude of encounters, represents a departure
>from the political rationality in which, according to Foucault, the
"integration of the individuals in a community or totality results from a
constant correlation between an increasing individualisation and the
reinforcement of this totality."  That is, networks represent an
alternative political technology for individuals to exercise power or
escape domination from the political rationality of the state and its

According to Reid, internet users constitute a social network who "share a
common language, a shared web of virtual and textual significances that are
substitutes for, and yet distinct from, the shared networks of meaning in
the wider community."  This is in keeping with Williams observation that
community is contingent on communication whereby "the process of
communication is in fact the process of community: the sharing of common
meanings, and thence common activities and purposes; the offering,
reception and comparison of new meaning, leading to the tensions and
achievements of growth and change."  However, such notions of commonality
are constitutive of consensual and rational organisation. While 'community'
describes a social form which is nebulous, it nevertheless alludes to
something which is whole and often geographically contingent, complying
with ideas about metanarratives, rootedness and permanence which deny and
falsify difference. Computer networks impinge on that order by providing an
alternative field in which to perform connection and interactivity, to
activate difference and fragmentation and in which rootedness to a place is
attenuated: however, this as an assertion is not intended to disavow
embodiment or location. Turkle evokes MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) as a
cyber-performance of 'community' which "imply difference, multiplicity,
heterogeneity and fragmentations. Such an experience of identity
contradicts the Latin root of the word, idem, meaning 'the same'."
Similarly, it contradicts notions of community as it is reliant on
commonality and sameness. For Rheingold, permeability between the on-line
and off-line is essential for the word 'community' to be applied to virtual
social worlds.  This contingency raises the question of whether community
can be formed via virtual networks - whether it is a valuable means of
describing and knowing virtual social experience - when it must be made to
work via the intersection of on-line and off-line experience.

Increasingly, economic, social, cultural and personal experience is being
performed through these virtual networks, tied as they are to movements of
international capital and militarism and shaping much of what is external
to them. The result is the resituation of both the human and the machine
whereby the human becomes "more situated within the technology and the
machine becomes part of the human world, boundaries to humanity's
inscriptions and meanings become blurred."  It is perhaps in this context
that the more duplicitous imputations of collaboration come into their own
as collaboration not only with others but also with technology: to
collaborate infers not only an element of co-operation, but also of deceit,
to somehow not be yourself. According to Turkle, "virtual communities
ranging from MUDs to computer bulletin boards allow people to generate
experiences, relationships, identities and living spaces that arise only
through interaction with technology."  Similarly, Haraway claims that "to
'press enter' is not a fatal error, but an inescapable possibility for
changing maps of the world, for building new collectives."  Cyberspace and
the relations therein remains negotiable, providing alternative
potentialities for the appearance of intimacy and partialism as is central
to Haraway's exposition of cyborg politics in which she develops the trope
of the cyborg, resultant from the collaboration of human and machine. The
cyborg acts as a disavowal of origin stories, constantly producing its own
illegitimacy to build less limited realities. As such, the cyborg operates
via interface, connectivity and multiplicity to actively subvert
traditional ideas about identity reliant on the notion of authenticity and
therefore, fixity.

According to Haraway, all technologies are regenerative/reproductive. Being
on the internet is akin to being located in "the womb of the pregnant
monster ... to produce a patterned vision of how to move and what to fear
in the topography of an impossible but all-too-real present, in order to
find an absent, but perhaps possible, other present."  Despite its
masculine and militaristic origins, the matrix of computer communications
is imprintable. As a form, the matrix is unconfinable and ungovernable: the
post-apocalyptic, artificial 'mother' which promises the regeneration of
those failed by Hobbes' artificial man, the leviathan. The implication here
is that whatever social networks and identities emerge on the internet,
they are constitutively different from their precedents, from those
external to it. A conceptual framework for these ideas about the generative
possibilities of the internet and notions of collaboration is possibly
aided by the notion of rhizomatics as articulated by Deleuze and Guattari:
the rhizome connects any point with any other point, and none of its
features necessarily refers to features of the same kind. It puts into play
very different regimes of signs and even states of non-signs ... It is not
made of units but of dimensions, or rather of shifting directions. It has
neither beginning nor end, but always a middle, through which it pushes and
overflows ... Unlike a structure defined by a set of points and positions,
with binary relation between these points and bi-univocal relations between
these positions, the rhizome is made only of lines: lines of segmentation
and stratification as dimensions, but also lines of flight or of
deterritorialisation as the maximal dimension according to which, by
following it, the multiplicity changes its nature and metamorphoses ... The
rhizome is an anti-genealogy. It is short-term memory or an anti-memory ...
In a rhizome what is at stake is the relationship with sexuality, but also
with the animal, the vegetal, the world, politics, the book, the natural
and the artificial ... all kinds of 'becomings'.

The rhizome forms the line between points, and therefore forms both the
connection and the flight, the in-betweenness of collaboration by which the
'one' is always divisible. Collaborations are multiplied - as diverse as
cybersex, MUDs and chat - operating in an ever-expanding field of
connectivity and rendered not only active, but interactive. It is
process-oriented, disordered, never a beginning nor an end. Encounters are
inherently collaborative. The encounter is generative, heralding the
possibility of any number of 'becomings'. The encounters are sites of
transit and the encounter itself is transitionary. According to Turkle, the
internet is the site of reconstructed relationships whereby community and
identity can be perceived as 'cultural work in progress' rather than as a
given.  As performed in cyberspace on the internet, encounters are measured
as moments - the ethics of which are not always apparent - in which subject
positions are not fixed. For Haraway, "politics rests on the possibility of
a shared world. Flat out. Politics rests on the possibility of being
accountable to each other in some nonvoluntaristic 'I feel like it today'

Locating this type of accountability as community is problematic as it
evokes the binarist antagonism of individual/community in which the
individual with attributed rights is privileged over the community,
inscribed with an ethic of care. According to Young, "individualism and
community have a common logic underlying their polarity, which makes it
possible for them to define each other negatively. Each entails a denial of
difference and desire to bring multiplicity and heterogeneity into unity,
although in opposing ways."  The notion and practice of collaboration
impinges on that privileged sense of order, operating between the
'individual' and the 'community'. Collaboration, in this context, infers
identities which are viral, liminal, hybrid, syncretic and potentially
destabilising. The encounter, implicit in collaboration, represents the
site for reinscribed cultural and identity politics in which, as Turkle
states, "we have learned to take things at interface value. We are moving
toward a culture of simulation in which people are increasingly comfortable
with substituting representations of reality for the real ... We join
virtual communities that exist only among people communicating on computer
networks as well as communities in which we are physically present."  In
this context, those ideas of belief, as espoused by Stone and the practice
of collaboration become integral.

Collaboration, representing both the connection and the flight, provides
the context for more detailed consideration of virtual social networks as
the viable means of demonstrating and attending to desire, diversity and
difference without subscribing to the legitimising force of consensus.
Lyotard notes his wariness of the practice of consensus, calling for "an
idea and practice of justice that is not linked to that of consensus."
Consensus denies difference, imposing its own hegemony. The type of social
encounters resultant from this shift are inherently different to the
utopian "ideal of community [which] entails promoting a model of
face-to-face relations at best."  In the fragmented space provided by the
internet, consensus is impossible and irrelevant, a utopian ideal. So
framed, collaboration attends to multiplicity and partiality without
subscribing to consensus as a manifestation of commonality and an
articulation of the unitary. As an act of collaboration, social encounters
can subscribe to and "develop a self-conscious politics of partiality ...
which does not absorb difference with a pre-given and predefined space but
leaves room for ambivalence and ambiguity".

Young proposes a politics of difference be developed to replace "community
as the normative ideal of political emancipation ... A model of the
unoppressive city offers an understanding of social relations without
domination in which persons live together in relations of mediation among
strangers with whom they are not in community."   It is advocated here that
computer networks provide a utilitarian space for establishing this model
and appraising the means by which a semblance of collaboration may be
achieved therein: to encounter and exchange with the stranger is to
collaborate in interactivity and connection to achieve unknown and
unspecified results. Probyn identifies Foucault's technologies of the self
as a means of investing the process of community with care for difference
and as an operational question for community:
central to the technologies of the self is an attention to the passion of
knowledge, a passion which does not reify knowing but rather entails a
probability that one occasionally will lose oneself, only to find it in
another place, caught up with other knowledge and people, in the reflection
of another angle and perspective.

The proposition in this essay is that the internet can operate as 'another
place' in which one can 'lose oneself' and that being 'caught up' with
others involves a collaborative encounter rather than a consensual one. For
Probyn, the point is to put difference
to work not as adjectives to 'oppression' but rather as constituting an
image-repertoire of conjunctural selves to be spoken ... The self is not an
end in itself; rather it is the opening of a perspective, one which allows
us to conceive of transforming our selves and our communities ... It is to
make the sound of our identities count as we work to construct communities
of caring, to technologise and transform ourselves in the care of others.

Such commitment to the ongoing theorising of the self operates as a
political position from which to activate the technologies of social and
personal transformation in which the differences of active speaking
subjects and the disclosure of differences has value and by which unitary
formulations of community are destabilised. Such an equation further
relates to the proposition that social relations as they are performed
on-line are akin to those of the unoppressive city which Young describes as
"places where strangers are thrown in together."  In this setting,
"politics must be conceived as a relationship of strangers who do not
understand one another in a subjective and immediate sense, relating across
time and distance."

The conditions of computer mediated communication, as extrapolated
previously by Kiesler, Seigel and McGuire, indicate that these politics are
integral to the formation of virtual social networks. From Reid's
observation that "users' acceptance of IRC's [Internet Relay Chat]
potential for the deconstruction of social boundaries is limited by their
reliance on the construction of communities,"  it can be surmised that
certain aspects of 'making our identities count' have taken a secondary
position to the formation of an idealised and possibly normative virtual
community. This is why other practices of social interaction and
individuation, such as encounter and collaboration, which destabilise the
process of unitary community and identity need to be made operational. For
Lingus, western societies have deferred to a practice of the rational
community which conceals and excludes:
beneath the rational community, its common discourse of which each lucid
mind is but the representative and its enterprises in which the efforts and
passions of each are absorbed and depersonalised, is another community, the
community that demands that the one who has his own communal identity, who
produces his own nature, expose himself to the one with whom he had nothing
in common, the stranger.

The notion of a 'community of strangers' has increasing currency by virtue
of its inherent contradiction, intervening on the sense of commonality
which forms community as a unitary whole. Given that many cultural and
social indicators remain invisible and available primarily by disclosure in
a virtual context, "one enters into conversation in order to become an
other for the other."  Accordingly, internet interactions involve a number
of self-representations via "the creation of replacements and substitutes
for physical cues and the construction of social hierarchies and positions
of authority."  As well, these processes of representation can operate to
compensate for some perceived lack, as desire for the other, or, as
previously stated, for building less limited realities. In the confluence
of representation and reality in virtual environments, simulation takes on
greater significance in reflecting desire and identity by hypertextual
strategies which are inherently collaborative. It might also require a
fascination with the abject whereby one "imagines its logic, projects
[one]self into it, introjects it and as a consequence, perverts language -
style and content".  According to Turkle, "in my computer-mediated worlds,
the self is multiple, fluid and constituted with machine connections; it is
made and transformed by language; sexual congress is an exchange of
signifiers; and understanding follows from navigation and tinkering rather
than analysis."  Technology becomes facilitative in the deconstruction of a
range of conventional and normative categories of interaction. The
displacement of such constrictive conventions permits internet users to
generate their own modes of relating which defines them as a network of
strangers, produced and reproduced as and by collaboration.

In cyberspace, anonymity renders everyone who enters a stranger and then,
strangers to each other. For Kristeva, radical strangeness is built into
human psyches and place-bound identities. In cyberspace, an in-between
space, the borders of one's self are both threatened and drawn, blurring
one's identity, making currency of the decentred self. McAfee argues that
"even though the experience is profoundly unsettling, it produces an
awareness of one's being there."  For Kristeva, this is this experience of
the abject - defined as "the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite"  -
which is duplicitous where "a time of oblivion and thunder, of veiled
infinity and the moment when revelation bursts forth."  In the annihilation
which marks the experience of border-dwelling, what it is to exist is
revealed, making (non-unitary) selfhood possible. In the intermediary space
availed by the internet one only has awareness of oneself and all others
are strangers. According to McAfee, "the foreigner presents an opportunity
and not an abyss. By being shaken loose from the they, this self sees the
radical strangeness of others as the continual possibility for being a
subject, a split subject whose mirror is always partial. Without
completion, possibility thrives."  It is in these encounters with
strangers, outside the realm of the nation-state or the rational community,
that Kristeva suggests an ethics of respect for the irreconcilable. Such an
assertion correlates with Haraway's formulation of cyborg politics in which
the politics of encounter are neither naturalised nor absolute, but in a
constant state of flux, open to negotiation, sociability, perversion and

Rather than characterise virtual encounters as being formative of rational
community this essay has considered various discontinuities for rewriting
social interactions in a multitude of differentiated contexts availed by
the internet. Given that new technologies have been associated with the
dispersal of cultural institutions or hegemony, it would seem an exercise
in redundancy to seek to transpose the construct of community into a
virtual environment, especially given its association with unitary social
formations. I have sought to represent computer mediated interactions as
collaborations based on processes of interactivity, connectivity and
encounter, as ephemeral performances of multiplied and shifting identities
in cyberspace (an abyss) for the purpose of outlining the inadequacy of the
term community for on-line social practice. In so doing, this essay
partially accounts for a practice of complexity as one which repudiates
binarist production of identity and which generates an awareness of 'not
knowing'. Subsequently, virtual environments provide for encounters with
'the stranger' who, in most off-line contexts, would be seen as an
interloper requiring assimilation rather than as an opportunity for
perverting unitary formations of the social and generating expanding fields
of social interactivity and connectedness.


Word Count: 3380


1 Sara Keisler et al cited in Elizabeth Reid, "The Electronic Chat: Social
Issues on Internet Relay Chat', Media Information Australia, No 67, 1993, p

 2 Allequere R. Stone cited in Donna Haraway, "The Promises of Monsters: A
Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others' in Larry Grossberg, Cary
Nelson and Paula A. Treichler, Cultural Studies, Routlegde, New York, 1992,
p 325

3  Raymond Williams (Culture and Society), cited in David Watt,
'Interrogating 'Community': Social Welfare Versus Cultural Democracy', in
Vivienne Binns (ed), Community and the Arts, Pluto Press, Sydney, 1991, p

4 Allequere R. Stone, 'Will The Real Body Please Stand Up? Boundary Stories
About Virtual Cultures', in Michael Benedekt, Cyberspace: First Steps, MIT
Press, Massachusets, 1992, p 105

5 Michel Foucault, "The Political Technology of Individuals", Luther
Martin, Huck Gutman & Patrick Hutton (eds), Technologies of the Self: A
Seminar with Michel Foucault, Tavistock, London, 1988, p 161 - 162

6 Reid, op.cit., p 70

7 Raymond Williams (Culture and Society) cited in David Watts, ibid., p 61

8 Sherry Turkle, Life On The Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet,
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1995, p 185

9 Howard Rheingold (The Virtual Community) cited in ibid., p 246

10 Bernadette Flynn, "Woman/Machine Relationships: Investigating The Body
Within Cyberculture", Media Information Australia, No 72, 1994, p 12
Turkle, op.cit., p 21

12 Donna Haraway, 'The Promises of Monsters', op.cit., p 327

13  Donna Haraway, ibid., p 295

14 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, On The Line, Semiotext[e], New York,
1983, p 47 - 49.

15  Turkle, op.cit., p 177

16  Donna Haraway quoted by Constance Penley and Andrew Ross, 'Cyborgs at
Large: Interview with Donna Haraway", Constance Penley and Andrew Ross,
Technoculture, University of Minneapolis Press, Minneapolis, 1991, p 11

17  Iris Marion Young, "the Ideal of Community and the Politics of
Difference", Linda Nicholson, Feminism/Postmodernism, Routledge, New York,
1990, p 307

18  Turkle, op.cit., p 23

19 Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained to Children, (trans.  ),
Power Institute of Fine Art, Sydney, 1992, p 24

20  Young, op.cit., p 302

21  Ien Ang,"I'm a feminist but ... 'Other' women and postnational
feminism" in Barbara Caine & Rosemary Pringle (eds), Transitions: New
Australian Feminisms, Allen & Unwin, Sydney,1995, p 58

22  ibid., p 302 - 303

23  Elsbeth Probyn, "Technologising the Self: A Future Anterior for
Cultural Studies" in Grossberg et al, op.cit., p 509

24  ibid.

25  Young, op.cit., p 318

26 ibid.

27  Reid, op.cit., p 68

28  Alphonso Lingus, The Community Of Those Who Have Nothing In Common,
Indianna University Press, Bloomington, 1994, p 10

29  ibid., p 88

30  Reid, op.cit., p 70

31  Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, Columbia University Press, New York,
1982, p 16

32  Turkle, op.cit., p 15

33  Noelle McAfee, "Abject Strangers: Toward and Ethics of Respect", in
Kelly Oliver (ed), Ethics, Politics and Difference in Julia Kristeva's
Writing: A Collection of Essays, Routledge, 1993, p 121

34  Julia Kristeva, op.cit., p 4

35  Julia Kristeva cited in McAfee, op.cit., p 121

36  ibid., p 132

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