Pit Schultz on Sat, 5 Oct 96 23:21 MET

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nettime: Sociotronics - Oliver Marchart

Settlers, Indians, and the Cavalry
or How to Subvert Electronic Identities

by Oliver Marchart


In his essay őFinding as Founding‚ Stanley Cavell asks himself why this new 
America is said by Emerson to be yet unapproachable. Then he gives a range 
of possible answers starting with the following, in my view the most 
striking one: őFirst,‚ he says őit is unapproachable if he (or whoever 
belongs there) is already there (always already), but unable to experience 
it, hence to know or tell it; or unable to tell it, hence to experience it.‚ 
(Cavell, 1989: 91)

Stanley Cavell touches with this passage at something we could call the 
logics of the always already, which is  central in any meaningful 
conceptualization of the discovery of new continents. But first let me give 
you the main question that is going to lead the line of my argument in this 
paper. How can we reactivate the subversive or emancipatory potential, if 
there is one, of cyberspace resp. electronic networks (I will use these two 
terms synonymously in this context).

I will give you my answer to this question right at the beginning: In order 
to reactivate this political potential we have to overcome the illusionary 
perception of the medium as something with a pregiven essence in itself, a 
natural being of its own. Media donęt have natural charateristics that 
determine our perception of  them. Itęs the other way around: it is our 
construction that determines the nature of the medium. But there is a 
certain approach to media,  a rhetoric of immediacy that claims that we just 
have to find out certain pregiven characteristics of electronic networks. 
Such an approach denies the fact that the medium is nothing else than őthe 
place between the phones‚, which is the definition of cyberspace by Bruce 
Sterling (Sterling, 1993: xi), and it is characterized by confusing 
narratives about electronic networks with supposedly őreal‚ qualities or 
properties of electronic networks.  But these qualities are nothing else 
than the result of a narrative construction that in the case of electronic 
networks has quite a lot in common with so called őNew World Narratives‚. 

Thatęs why we can call Cyberspace a new yet anapproachable continent. The 
discovery of new continents always leads to the repetitive projection of old 
myths on their white surface. What we discover doesnęt belong to the surface 
as such. It is our occidental imaginary that is projected onto these 
continents: India, China, Australia, America, Cyburbia. In this sense it is 
perfectly clear that the electronic networks partly represent a new America: 
an always receding horizon/frontier which has to be discovered and at the 
same time protected in its untouched innocent state. Or to put it more 
technically: amongst other narratives there are many new world narratives 
employed in order to constitute a social image of electronic networks and 
amongst these narratives the American narrative is predominant.

Hence, it wonęt surprise that we can observe the revival of social 
roles/characters/ personae such as that of the cowboy (console cowboy is the 
term Gibson uses in his novels for his cyberpunks), anarchists and 
terrorists (hackers, cypherpunks), liberals (the EFF), Indians (maybe us - 
after the commercial conquistadores have taken over) or the United States 
Cavalry (NSA). But we have to be careful: The matrix doesn't serve as a 
screen for the psychotic obsessions of some individuals but as a screen for 
our occidental imaginary, which has always been projecting its own myths 
onto newly discovered continents. This is not the first time in history. 
These social fantasies, respectively their incarnation or casting, is what I 
call the sociotronics of Cyberspace. So sociotronics primarily and simply 
designates the realm of the social in electronic media, the on-line-social. 
And this social is constructed through repetitive narration, exactly the 
same way as the off-line-social is constructed. 

The level of popular narratives is entangled with the level of high-brow 
fantasies of the social such as the ideas of political philosophers. Under 
the surface of popular imagination there are many vague ideas and patterns 
of political philosophy returning. Classical attitudes towards the question 
of society and community. An example: Whilst a őRousseauian‚ faction seeks 
to protect the matrix as one would protect an untouched rural happyland, 
there is also a liberal faction seeking to institutionalize rights 
(őCyberrights Now‚), which presupposes either a Lockean right to resist or a 
Hobbesian state of nature which has to be shaped by an electronic social 

However, the thesis of my second and much shorter part will be that one 
should not stop at this level of sociotronics but rather point out that itęs 
just the outcome of pre-cyberspatial sedimented practices transfered into 
cyberspace (and therefore carrying along unpleasant features of western 
metaphysics, such as phallogocentrism etc.). Given the highly eurocentric 
perception of this space as a new continent to be colonized - its being part 
of colonial discourse - the question now will be how to liberate cyberspace 
from these imports. What is needed (as one task of an e-subversive program 
or manifesto) therefore is to overcome sociotronics and arrive at electronic 
politics; politics in a very specific sense: meaning the reactualization of 
the political potential of sedimented social myths and identities. It 
remains to be seen how fruitful it can be to translate the discussions on 
strategic identity, parodic repetition, radical difference and so on into 
the realm of electronic networks. 

discursivity and narrativity

Now the time has come for some conceptual processing. What does it mean to 
say that many studies in media theory belong to the genre of New World 
Narratives. First we have to distinguish between discourse and narratives 
since they are always likely to be confused. A discourse or a signifying 
system - and this is something discourse analysis tells us - is structured 
around a binary opposition that serves as its organizing principle. A 
narrative is structured around binary oppositions as well, since it is part 
of a larger discourse, but furthermore it is filled up with sedimented 
patterns of action (story-patterns), making a highly őnaturalized‚ impression.

The new right discourse on race and sexuality for example,  which Anna Marie 
Smith has analyzed so masterly is composed of a whole bunch of narratives 
(Smith 1994). On the one hand we have the Thatcherite and Powellite 
discourse that is unified by means of negation  - negation of something 
different to this discourse - (specifically the negation of black immigrants 
and homosexuals.) But on the other hand this discourse combines many 
narratives much older than Thatcherism which can serve the discourse as 
hosts, the same way as classical antijudaist narratives entered the 
discourse of modern antisemitism. (for example the őAnderl vom Rinn‚, the 
story of a child ritually killed by jews) The story of jews killing a 
christian child and even eating it is a specification of the pattern of 
people eating children and goes back at least to the myth of Chronos. But 
the specific meaning it transports at different times and different places 
arises out of the discursive context of this narrative pattern of 

On the other hand the fact that cyberspace is created via narration has 
nothing to do with the vacuum-paradigm of cyberspace, that presupposes 
subjects without predicates - the so called őcues filtered out‚ approach. 
This vacuum paradigm about disembodiment is supposed to allow an open 
reinvention of the self. These ideas of  for example unproblematic 
identity-switching and so on are embedded in a rhetoric of self-creation and 
self-invention based on the assumption of a voluntarist subject, that is - 
in my definition of the word - a subject that sets and defines the 
conditions of its own possibility. In my view such a voluntarist subject 
doesnęt exist, nobody defines at will the conditions of his or her 
possibility, not even in electronic networks. 

alterity and the always-already

One reason why there is no open reinvention of the self is that the white 
surface of the new continent is just a logicaly necessary assumption but you 
will never encounter a white surface in reality. Because something is 
already there. And the analysis of older New World Narratives shows one 
interesting phenomenon: What you discover is always your own image in a 
reversed form. This sentence - since obviously it paraphrases the Lacanian 
communication formula - has an axiomatic status. Wherever you go, and here I 
take up Cavell, you are always already there. This means: Although the 
Sumo-wrestlers in Nintendo games are intruduced at a moment in time that is 
anterior and exterior to their incorporation into occidental american 
narratives, at the very moment as we discover them in the Nintendo play they 
are already part of our own culture, part of ourselves, they are not anymore 
Japanese in a strong sense. Since as long as they belong to the otheręs 
culture we canęt perceive them at all. In this sense for us the original 
őexotic‚ Sumo-wrestlers would have the status of a Kantian Ding-an.sich. 
Speaking about őthe other‚ from an ontological viewpoint therefore makes 
only sense as far as we mean a radical other. And in this case we canęt say 
anything about it. In all the other cases we donęt speak about the other - 
in any meaningful sense of the word - but about parts of ourself: that is to 
say, we speak about the same. My point here is that alterity always means 
radical alterity or it means no alterity at all.

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 
reversed form. There is no way of grasping the radical other, because as 
soon as you manage grasping it, it immediately becomes part of your own.

However, this process of discovering something that is already there is not 
boring. Quite on the contrary: it is fascinating, for it tells you some 
truths about yourself. Probably at this point we come near to an explanation 
of our fascination in confronting cyberspace. Again, let us approach this 
fascination problem by means of an off-line example. What was the reason for 
the fascination Western spectators felt witnessing the őRevolutions of 1989‚ 
in Eastern Europe. Jeliza Sumic-Riha and Rado Riha argue that the Western 
spectators recognized the truth of these events őto be a return to the 
origins of democratic experience, that is, to the extent to which these 
events were seen to constitute an answer - one already realized in the West 
- to the fundamental question of democracy. The West thus saw in the East 
the confirmation of its own truth. But it saw its own truth in a very 
specific way.‚ (Riha and Sumic, 1994:147)

An answer already realized in the West: the answer was democracy. But it was 
not simply the reinvention of democracy that fascinated the West. It was the 
very fascination of the East that fascinated the West. The West was 
fascinated by the fascination Eastern European actors felt towards Western 
democracy - őtheir naive belief in - Western democracy‚ (Riha and Sumic, 
1994:147). Does this help us in understanding our fascination with new 
worlds. Maybe it is the very fascination that belongs to the other, the eyes 
of the natives staring at us, their mouth wide open, that fascinates us. Is 
the fascination of the colonizer or the explorer result of the fascination 
of the discovered themselves who take the explorers for gods? A cunclusion 
that seems to me inherent to the approach of Jeliza Sumic and Rado Riha.

Or should we go even one step further and claim that what fascinates most is 
not the encounter with a radical alterity but with the same (sameness), with 
oneself.  There is only one experience that is more disturbing then to 
realize that I am not identical with myself - there is another one instead 
of me - and this even more disturbing experience is to discover that the 
other one is me. We can detect these two settings in horror stories or 
movies, where finding a double - a őDoppelgänger‚ - is surely more 
frightening than simply loosing my identity or having the need for an 
exorcism, since someone else has taken over my body, although this might be 
an unpleasant experience as well.

So I propose that at least one source of fascination may lie in the 
discovery of something we already know (why else should we be so fascinated 
by cyber-cafés or cities, electronic highways, piazze virtuale). How amazing 
it is that we discover ősociety‚ at a place where we would have expected 
bits and bytes. So my thesis is that to a certain extent people are puzzled 
by cyberspace not because itęs totally opposed to real world but because 
itęs exactly the same as real world.

There is an entire genre of stories1- humourist or tragical of their nature 
- playing exactly with this idea. I give you an example. Some explorers land 
on an unknown tropical island and what they expect is either only some 
primitive uncivilized natives or no people at all. But as they cross the 
island they discover a Club Mediterranée or something. Civilization is 
already there, thatęs the message. A stronger well-known version of these 
settings is the following: some castaways are starving to death, whilst the 
next city lies just behind the next dune.  The messages of this kind of 
popular narratives can be diverse, but one of them - especially concerning 
the first version of the story - clearly is: it is illusionary to think you 
could escape civilization2. Civilization is always already around the 
corner, even if nobody knows. (However, you can starve to death right in the 
centre of civilization). Every Never-Never-Land is an Always-Already-Land.

some discourse analytical observations

Now we should have a look at the discursive mechanism of constructing new 
world narratives. I think we will discover three different functions. One 
highly prominent concept is the notion of frontier (Electronic Frontier 
Foundation and so on). We can speculate a lot about what`s lying behind this 
notion in the context of electronic networking. Mary Fuller for example 
speculates that őthe drive behind the rhetoric of virtual reality as a New