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<nettime> Oliver Marchart: Greetings from Neutopia
Pit Schultz on Sun, 27 Sep 1998 16:16:49 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> Oliver Marchart: Greetings from Neutopia


    Von: oliver {AT} t0.or.at (Oliver Marchart)
  Datum: 27.09.98, 14:23:03
Betreff: Oliver Marchart: Greetings from Neutopia

Greetings from Neutopia

For a Colonial Discourse Analysis of Cyberspace

by Oliver Marchart


 "As the price to connect to Cyberspace continues to rise by the privatiza=
tion of the Net, more and more souls are pushed out of the New World. The =
Old World is corrupting the New World which has the potential to liberate =
the dreams of the water inside the Global Brain".

This quote is taken from a printed collection mostly of e-mails, which has=
 been put together by Alan Sondheim. The sender is a Goddess by the name o=
f Doctress Neutopia (aka Gaia Queen) and her mail [1] bears the subject he=
ader: "Message from Neutopia". Doctress Neutopia and her Church is a USENE=
T "troll", a hoax especially designed as an easy target for critiques of e=
co-hippie-ideology. Nonetheless, in order to be operative the whole joke h=
as to sound realistic, that is to say, it has to employ already existing i=
deological material. The completely moronic neologisms of the Church - lik=
e "lovolution", "cyborgasm" or "soulization" - could quite easily stem fro=
m some "real" hippie-tribes of the Internet - a place highly susceptible t=
o neologisms. The Doctress Neutopia's cult is so "realistic", in a way, th=
at it became one of the rare and sublime moments where parody turns into r=
eality and reality turns into parody[2].

However, in the following I'm not going to take issue with the hilarious m=
etaphor of the Global Brain - mostly employed by people who seem to be lac=
king a brain of their own. Nor do I intend  to analyze the cyber-hippie or=
 eco-fascist mythology of the net. I would rather prefer reading Doctress =
Neutopia's e-mail as a hyperbolic example for what I would call the Coloni=
al Discourse of the Net3. One could find, needless to say, numerous other =
texts - which do not intend to "troll" people - sharing the idea of Cybers=
pace resp. the Internet as a kind of Utopia/Heterotopia/Dystopia. In other=
 words: a New World, a New Continent. But let us stick for a second to thi=
s specific fantasy and let us have a closer view on the first two sentence=
s Doctress Neutopia is sharing with us: "At first glance, entering into Cy=
berspace is like entering into a new frontier. The blank screen is like th=
e vacuum of Outerspace or in the beginning there was nothingness and then =
came the World".

What I cannot but admire is the precise way in which a whole genre of narr=
atives is condensed by Doctress Neutopia into a few phrases: What we find =
here is the notion of Cyberspace as a new "frontier"; the notion of Cybers=
pace as "blank screen"; the notion of Cyberspace as "vacuum"; and the idea=
 that this innocent "New-blank vacuum frontier screen-World" is being corr=
upted by the "Old World". All these concepts add up to an enormous liberat=
ory pathos which goes hand in hand with the fantasy of dark powers corrupt=
ing cyberspace: "Again, the New World has been colonized by the manufactur=
ers who push greed, private interest, the profit motive, pornography, and =
war".


"...a new frontier":

At least since Mondo 2000 titled "The Rush is On! colonizing Cyberspace" i=
n its Summer 1990 edition4, we know what Cyberspace is all about: a new co=
lony, a virgin land ready to be discovered and explored by "pioneers of cy=
berspace" (John Perry Barlow). The most prevalent concept within cyberspat=
ial Colonial Discourse, hence, is the notion of frontier (just think of El=
ectronic Frontier Foundation - no troll!). However, the metaphor of the ne=
w frontier is not exclusively employed in narratives of cyberspace but, of=
 course, it stands in the tradition of one of the American founding myths.=
 Frederick Jackson Turner in his canonical "The Frontier in American Histo=
ry" claimed as early as in the 1890s - a propos the Western frontier - tha=
t the "American character" was based on the very extension of "old" space =
into new territories.

We know how prominent the concept is in regard to the specific American id=
eology. In extension - given the American hegemony over the Internet - we =
know about the prominent role of this concept in our cyberspatial imaginar=
y [5]. Yet, I would claim that the term frontier fulfills a concrete funct=
ion in the discursive setting of Colonial Discourse in general. If we take=
 a look at the discursive mechanism of constructing new world narratives w=
e can discover the following logics: The distinction between water and lan=
d, that underlies most narratives on major discoveries, seems to be blurre=
d as soon as land becomes equivalent to frontier. In this case land doesn'=
t denote anymore a kind of fixed and arrested territory but something flui=
d. The frontier in this sense takes on the characteristics of the wave (so=
 we can speak about "surfing" in contexts of electronic networking). Thus,=
 frontier plays the role of a hinge, a control button switching on and off=
 processes of de- or re-territorialization. Therefore it has something to =
do with fluidity and fixation of (post-)colonial signifiers.

Referring to the stories of Hern=E1n Cort=E9s and others Mary Fuller obser=
ves precisely that floating character of the frontier: "the narratives tha=
t set out in search of a significant, motivating goal had a strong tendenc=
y to defer it, replacing arrival at the goal (and the consequent shift to =
another kind of activity) with a particularized account of the travel itse=
lf and what was seen and done (...) Even goal-driven narratives like those=
 of Raleigh and Columbus at best offered only dubious signs of proximity i=
n place of arrival - at China, El Dorado, the town of the Amazons - phenom=
ena that, interpreted, erroneously suggested it was just over the horizon,=
 to be deferred to some later day". The conclusion we have to draw from th=
ese observations is that movement, fluidity and  non-fixation seem to belo=
ng to the narrative core of New Worlds, since unlike the structure of some=
 fairy-tales the motif of the quest doesn't culminate in the achievement o=
f the goal. No matter if we speak about the discovery of really existing o=
r of fictional places, Mary Fuller detects in all these reports that "the =
sequenced inventories of places and events replace, defer, and attest to a=
n authentic and exculpating desire for goals the voyages almost invariably=
 failed to reach" [6]. What generates the narrative structure is movement =
in space and not arrival. It is non-fixity and not fixation.

On the other hand, book-titles like "The Internet Navigator" (P.Gilster) o=
r "Navigating the Internet" (R.Smith/M.Gibbs), as well as expressions like=
 "Netscape Navigator" or "Internet Explorer", as well as colloquial expres=
sions like "cybernaut" and so on, indicate not only the fluid character of=
 cyberspace but also the colonial attempt to master this flux, to "navigat=
e" it, to map the waves. It is for this reason that we have to conclude th=
at the discourse of discovery is structured around three principles at lea=
st: Water as the very principle of non-fixation, something that threatens =
the enterprise of discovery and colonization. Land in the sense of stable =
territory that doesn't move under your feet and can be mapped and meticulo=
usly described. And finally frontier as something in between fixation and =
fluidity, that escapes the colonizing efforts by definition.

Now, arresting this escaping movement of frontier by transferring it into =
land - by fixing it - is what colonization (and politics) is all about: by=
 defining the limits you are defining the territory - as blood and soil, f=
or instance (it is in this sense that Michel DeCerteau claimed: "the centr=
al narrative question posed by a frontier is 'to whom does it belong?'"). =
As long as "land" is understood as frontier (in the American tradition) it=
 owns predicates indicating fluidity. Like a wave this frontier is unfixab=
le. You can surf on it but you can't arrest it. As soon as you arrive at t=
his frontier, as soon as "the West is won", so to speak, the colonization =
of the whole territory has already begun and fixation sets in. Now, "land"=
 doesn't mean anymore frontier; instead, it denotes a fixed and narrowly c=
ircumscribed, motionless terrain. It has lost all the predicates indicatin=
g the openness of meaning. At any rate, since this state of total coloniza=
tion is not likely to be achieved, the political meaning of frontier lies =
precisely in its nature of something which can not be fixed completely but=
 nevertheless has to be fixed in one way or the other [7].


"...the vacuum of Outerspace...":


A certain branch of the vacuum-paradigm of cyberspace, sometimes called th=
e "cues filtered out" approach, presupposes that disembodiment is supposed=
ly allowing for an open reinvention of the self. These highly common ideas=
 of, for example, unproblematic identity-switching, gender-swapping and so=
 on, are embedded in a rhetoric of self-creation and self-invention based =
on the assumption of a voluntarist subject, that is, a subject that sets a=
nd defines the conditions of his/her own possibility. By assuming the abil=
ity to define one's cyberspatial identity at will one is reinscribing, lik=
e Michelle Kendrick puts it, "the myth of a coherent identity that exists =
outside and prior to the technologies which create cyberspace" [8]. Of cou=
rse, this identity, a voluntarist subject, does not exist, but not, as Ken=
drick would have it, because of the "technological real", by which she und=
erstands the material effects virtualizing technology has on subjectivity.=
 It is simply because nobody can define at will the conditions of his or h=
er possibility, not even in electronic networks.

Why, then, is cyberspace not a vacuum? Because something or someone is alr=
eady there. But who? Is there a way to encounter the "other", the Net-nati=
ves? Let us approach this problem by way of analyzing a typical colonialis=
t text: "Virtual Reality Warriors. Native American Culture in Cyberspace" =
by Patric Hedlund. The article, published in High Performance, narrates th=
e story of David Hughes, described as "the Colonel", "the Cursor Cowboy", =
"Singer of ASCII Songs", "Poet Laureate of the Network Nation", who, back =
in the early 1990s, invented an algorithm he baptized NAPLPS, which stands=
 for North American (sic!) Presentation Level Protocol Syntax. The algorit=
hm is supposed to wrap pictures and words together for artistic means so o=
ne can put it on galleries in cyberspace.

On one of his promotion tours, Hughes gave a workshop to a group of "nativ=
e" American artists. Patric Hedlund reports that "though he didn't realize=
 it at first, he'd finally found a people who could share his vision and t=
hen expand it". The article goes on praising the simplicity of Hughes's te=
chnology - obviously especially suited for "natives": "NAPLPS is as simple=
 and ingenious a next step as smoke signals and the tom tom". Moreover, th=
ere seems to be a natural bound between the spiritual potential of cybersp=
ace and the spiritual heritage of people with a close relation to nature a=
nd to their ancestors: "Using NAPLPS and telecommunications to extend the =
reach of their ancient stories and images wasn't much of a leap at all for=
 people accustomed to hearing their grandparent's voices when they look up=
 at the stars." [9]

There are at least two levels of Colonial Discourse to be found in this ar=
ticle: 1. The article reports how cyberspace (thereby standing for "cultur=
e" in general) was brought to the American "natives" by "Poet Laureate of =
the Network Nation" David Hughes. On this level, the colonial force is the=
 singing "Cursor Cowboy" whose aim is to enlighten the colonized.
2. On a more general level, the text itself re-colonizes the "natives" by =
constantly putting them in a position of privileged access to "nature", "s=
pirituality", "customs", "heritage", etc. The new communication technology=
 serves only as an extension of these substances, a means of their re-impl=
ementation. On this level, the colonial force is the author's voice and th=
e "natives", hence, are nothing else than a projection of Patric Hedlund's=
.


"The blank screen..."


The lesson is the following: There is not a single level of Colonial Disco=
urse where we can encounter the "real natives". But there is no complete u=
nrestricted reinvention of the self either since the white surface - calle=
d the New Continent - is just a discursive assumption: you will never enco=
unter a completely white surface, a vacuum. But what do you encounter inst=
ead? In this sense the analysis of Hedlund's article shows one interesting=
 phenomenon: What you discover is always your own image in a reversed form=
 (the only thing Hedlund, for instance, informs us about is her own prejud=
ices). This sentence - since obviously it paraphrases the Lacanian communi=
cation formula - has an axiomatic status. Wherever you go, you are always =
already there. Speaking about "the other" from an ontological viewpoint th=
erefore only makes sense as long as we mean a radical other. And in this c=
ase we can't say anything about it. In all the other cases, we don't speak=
 about the other - the frontier's beyond - in any meaningful sense of the =
word - but about parts of ourselves: that is to say, we speak about the sa=
me.

The consequences are clear: The New World is always already the old one in=
 a reversed form. The other you discover is always already the same in a r=
eversed and thereby slightly rearranged form. There is no way of grasping =
the radical other, because as soon as you manage to grasp it, it immediate=
ly becomes part of your own. That's why Cyberspace is discursively constru=
cted as a new yet unapproachable continent [10]: The discovery of new cont=
inents always leads to the repetitive projection of old myths on their sup=
posedly blank screen. What we discover doesn't belong to the screen as suc=
h. It is our occidental imaginary that is projected onto these continents:=
 India, China, Australia, America, Cyburbia. Cyberspace serves as a screen=
 for our occidental imaginary, which has always been projecting its own my=
ths onto newly discovered continents. Every Never-Never-Land is an Always-=
Already-Land. It might be because of this underlying logic that the electr=
onic networks are said to represent a new America: an always receding hori=
zon/frontier which has to be discovered and at the same time protected in =
its untouched innocent state.

Recently, Slavoj Zizek made the same point in regard to Conrad's "Heart of=
 Darkness", Poe's "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket" or Rid=
er Haggard's "She" [11]. According to Zizek, the key paradox in these colo=
nial stories has to be seen in the fact that in the non-colonized core of =
the New Continent, in the "Heart of Darkness", in this phantasmatic beyond=
, we find again our own law, the law of the "white man". In the center of =
otherness we discover only the other side of the same, of ourselves: our o=
wn structure of domination. Or in case of "Arthur Gordon Pym", what he fin=
ds on his way to the Antarctic Pole after passing through a village inhabi=
ted by completely black "natives" (even their teeth are black) is "a shrou=
ded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller amon=
g men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness =
of the snow" [12]. The structure of these tales, according to Zizek, is th=
at of the Moebius-strip: If you go on long enough what you'll find is not =
the complete other place - but your own one.


For a Colonial Discourse Analysis of the Net:


So, can this logic of rediscovering the Old in the New be legitimately see=
n as one of "corruption", as Doctress Neutopia would have it? I claim such=
 an ethical injunction is illegitimate. Ziauddin Sardar's "alt.civilizatio=
ns.faq: Cyberspace as the Darker Side of the West"[13]is one of the texts =
which have a lot of valuable insights to offer for a Colonial Discourse An=
alysis of the Net. Unfortunately, even Sardar falls into the very trap of =
Colonial Discourse by calling cyberspace "the Darker Side of the West". So=
 while he rightly assumes that people are projecting themselves on the wor=
ld of cyberspace thereby "forging digital colonies on behalf of Western ci=
vilization" he conflates this theoretical insight with moralist lamentatio=
ns: rootless, alienated individuals without any real identity are posting =
Nazi-propaganda or fantasies about pedophilia and other sexual perversions=
, turning the whole Net into a "toilet wall", and so on.

By complaining that all of this had nothing to do with "intimacy, tenderne=
ss or any other human emotion", by claiming that "one can't learn simply b=
y perusing information, one learns by digesting it, reflecting on it, crit=
ically assimilating it", and by complaining about the infection of non-Wes=
tern cultures by the Western "virus" of boredom, Sardar is not only giving=
 in to purely Western ideologies like humanism, pedagogy and a biologist l=
anguage of disease, he is also employing the highly colonial motif of a pl=
ace beyond "spiritual poverty", inhumanity and alienation.

What I was describing above are significatory principles and not moral one=
s. A critique of Colonial Discourse of the Net can only proceed from withi=
n the discourse of colonialism, and the first step would be to describe th=
e mechanism of its construction. It is in this sense that I can only subsc=
ribe to what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak says: "what I find useful is the s=
ustained and developing work on the mechanics of the constitution of the O=
ther; we can use it to much greater analytic and interventionist advantage=
 than invocations of the authenticity of the Other"[14]. One of these mech=
anisms - from the perspective of hegemony theory - clearly is the articula=
tion of a chain of equivalence. It is the "New Continent" or "New World" w=
hich, as central metaphor, is linking notions like "frontier", "dark space=
",  "vacuum", or "blank screen" together in a chain of equivalences; and -=
 vice versa - these notions specify our very ideas about this "New World".=
 By linking the latter to signifiers like love, eco-feminism, etc. - like =
in the Doctress Neutopia-hoax or related discourses - our ideas, again, ar=
e specified in a certain way.

This being so, shouldn't we assume that every discourse is already a troll=
 since it cannot refer to any underlying "reality" but has to construct th=
e latter out of contingent elements? That is to say, isn't the Colonial Di=
scourse of the Net already something like a troll in itself, a mere constr=
uction or articulation of a chain of signifiers? Couldn't something like S=
ardar's moralist construction of the Net as "toilet wall", for instance, p=
erfectly qualify as a troll? And isn't Hedlund's construction of "natives"=
 who are supposedly "playing tom tom" with the Net even very likely to be =
a troll? The answer can only be doublefold. First: It is not a question wh=
ether or not Colonial Discourse is a troll. The question is who has the po=
wer to play the trick. Second: It is precisely because of the constructed =
character of every discursive chain that, in principle, Colonial Discourse=
 is open for anti-colonial rearticulation. Let's do it.


1) Doctress Neutopia: "Message from Neutopia", in Alan Sondheim (ed.): Bei=
ng Online. Net Subjectivity, New York (Lusitania Press) 1997, pp.61-64
2) Even her entire dissertation can be found on the net. See the Neutopian=
 homepage: http://genesis.tiac.net/neutopia
3) It goes without saying that the concept of Colonial Discourse Analysis =
was developed first in Edward Said's magisterial work Orientalism, London =
(Routledge & Kegan) 1978. For an elaboration on Colonial Discourse Analysi=
s of Electronic Networks in respect to Techno-Orientalism, see Oliver Marc=
hart: "The East, the West and the Rest: Central and Eastern Europe between=
 Techno-Orientalism and the New Electronic Frontier", in Convergence. The =
Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 4.2 (Summer 1998), pp.56-7=
5
4) For a critique of Mondo 2000 and related ideologies see Vivian Sobchack=
: "Democratic Franchise and the Electronic Frontier", in Ziauddin Sardar a=
nd Jerome R. Ravetz (eds.): Cyberfutures, London (Pluto Press) 1996, pp.77=
-89; as well as one of her earlier versions of this article: "New Age Muta=
nt Ninja Hackers: Reading Mondo 2000", in The South Atlantic Quarterly 92:=
4, Fall, pp.569-584
5) For a discussion of the colonial in general and American VR-myths in pa=
rticular see Chris Chesher: "Colonizing Virtual Reality. Construction of t=
he Discourse of Virtual Reality", 1984-1992, in Cultronix 1/1, http://engl=
ish-www.hss.emu.edu/cultronix
6) Mary Fuller and Henry Jenkins: "Nintendo and New World Travel Writing: =
A Dialogue", in Steven G. Jones (ed.): Cybersociety. Computer-mediated com=
munication and community, Thousand Oaks/London/New Delih (Sage) 1995, p.63
7) For a description of this logic see: Ernesto Laclau: "Why do Empty Sign=
ifiers Matter to Politics?", in: Emancipation(s), London (Verso) 1996, pp.=
36-46
8) Michelle Kendrick: "Cyberspace and the Technological Real", in Robert M=
arkley (ed.): Virtual Realities and Their Discontents, Baltimore (Johns Ho=
pkins University Press) 1996, p.146
9) Patric Hedlund: "Virtual Reality Warriors. Native American Culture in C=
yberspace", High Performance No.52, Spring 1992, pp.31-35
10) In his essay "Finding as Founding" Stanley Cavell - by referring to Em=
erson's characterization of America as yet unapproachable - claims that "i=
t is unapproachable if he (or whoever belongs there) is already there (alw=
ays already), but unable to experience it, hence to know or tell it; or un=
able to tell it, hence to experience it". Again - the logic of the always-=
already. Stanley Cavell: This New Yet Unapproachable America, Albuquerque =
(Living Batch Press) 1989, p.91
11) See Slavoj Zizek: The Plague of Fantasies, London (Verso) 1997
12) Edgar Allan Poe: "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket", in=
 Complete Tales & Poems, New York (Dorset Press) 1989, p.852
13) Ziauddin Sardar: "alt.civilizations.faq: Cyberspace as the Darker Side=
 of the West", in Ziauddin Sardar and Jerome R. Ravetz (eds.): Cyberfuture=
s. Culture and Politics on the Information Superhighway, London (Pluto Pre=
ss) 1996, pp. 14-41
14) Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: "Can the Subaltern Speak?", in Patrick Wil=
liams and Laura Chrisman (eds.): Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theo=
ry, New York (Harvester Wheatsheaf) 1993, p.90
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