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nettime: CYBERPUBLICS IN INDIA - Ravi Sundaram 2/2


the Muslim minority.)

The second cyberpublic is therefore *doubly* coded by practices that seek to
map out a new conception of space beyond the nation, while at the same time
attempting to inscribe a new Hindu nationalist community in virtual space.

At the centre of this new landscape have been the growth of new technologies
of representation which have had the effect of disrupting the old tropes of
anti-colonialism and Nehruvian nationalism. If the village and the `economy'
functioned as a representational shorthand for the Gandhian and Nehruvian
imaginary respectively, the new cultural landscapes in the 1990's saw a
complex of initiatives centred around new narratives of consumption and
desire which resist easy historicist classification. These new practices
have centred around the rapid growth of television, video, music and one of
the world's largest film industries. Foreign satellites now beam images to
India, effectively breaking the state's monopoly over television; India now
produces one of the world's largest video and audio-cassette industries,
largely centred around the film industry.

The new cultural space is criss-crossed by a fluidity of
national/regional/global cultural styles mediated by the recognition of a
new agent - the "consumer-subject"; the old moral codes regulating desire
are being reconstituted and a new Hindu nationalist imaginary attempts to
cannibalise all these new practices for its political project. There is no
doubt that for the time-being at least, the claims of a legislative
modernity are suspect. The panoptic vision of a regulated cultural practice,
while voiced periodically, lacks the authority and legitimacy as in the
past.[21]

In this liminal space mediated by various cross-practices, the elite
cyberpublic occupies a hybrid space which attempts to emancipate itself from
the nation, its Border and its political public. The modes of representation
allude to a fluid space where the nation is present yet thoroughly
displaced, informed by a hybrid language, styles, and volatile mixture of
both presence and absence.

In this context, the Web offers the phantasmic possibility of playing with
an identity that recognises dis-placement. The Journey into virtual space is
the journey beyond the nation. For the web traveler, a typical member of the
displaced elite public in India, the West is recreated/simulated as a
*simultaneous* presence. There is a certain experience of web travel when
logging on from the Third World, that almost evokes Benjamin's analysis of
Baudelaire's *flČneur*, or the stroller in Second Empire Paris. The
web-traveler in the elite cyberpublic seeks out the virtual space of the web
to experience the "shock of the new", which Benjamin calls the distinctive
feature of modernity. The images of the web, like the city in Haussmannised
Paris are shot through with a phantasmic space where exist dream worlds of
desire and consumption - the arcades in Benjamin's story and the web sites
for our traveler. The city for the *flČneur* has a labyrinthine character,
with secret passages, a web of experiences and unknown dreams which is
sought out by the stroller.

This is where Baudelaire's *flČneur* - *the* mythic hero of modernism - and
the late 20th century Indian web traveler part. For the *flČneur,* the crowd
was the great veil between himself and the phantasmagoria of the city. For
the web traveler of the elite cyberpublic, the journeys into virtual space
perform the opposite function - of an emancipation *from* the "crowd" of
real time.

Web strolling from India is an entry into a space whose virtuality enhances
the feeling of being in the "West". In the context of other experiences of
space-time acceleration brought about by the television revolution of the
1990's this feeling is magnified. This is an entirely *new* geography of
desire, almost exclusively centred around sites in the West[22]. This is
quite distinct from the new ethnographies of travel in the West.

Writing from a Western setting, James Clifford points out:

An older topography of experience and travel is exploded. One no longer
leaves home confident of finding something new, another time or space.
Difference is encountered in the adjoining neighborhood, the familiar turns
up at the ends of the earth...

For the Indian web traveler, the incursions assume a search for a mythic
space of modernity, where "newness" is emancipated from *territory* . Like
Baudelaire's *flČneur* who sought out the crowd in his search for `ever-new'
, the web traveler journeys on the highway to look for the new. The web
sites constitute a simulated exhibition (`places of pilgrimage to the fetish
commodity'-Benjamin) where the traveler-consumer, like the visitor to the
19th century site, is asked, " look at everything, touch nothing." (Benjamin
in Frisby: 254:1986) These pilgrimages have the effect of an experience of
modernity (shock, ecstasy, entry into power-knowledge spaces) hitherto
unknown in the periphery - even for the elite. Yet they are fleeting
experiences - burdened by real time constraints[23]. For the web traveler
the fleeting experience of transcending the Border, rather than long-term
immersion into virtual space is the norm.

As mentioned before, web journeys are informed by a double-coding: one side
of which is the elite cyberpublic's emancipation from the old nationalist
grid. The other side is the creation of a naturalised space of "India" on
the web - initiated largely by Indians in the Diaspora. Dominated by
expatriate Indians sympathetic to Hindu nationalism, these web sites[24]
pose Hindu identity as isomorphic with India : a space purged of
ambivalence[25]. It is almost as if the old legislative modernity of the
Nehru period has been transplanted to virtual space, purged of its
democratic political sphere[26]. In the virtual space of `India' on these
web sites `Hindu' identity becomes an *artifact* - a contestable process is
replaced by a reified boundary. For the NRI, the virtual space of India
finally replaces the actual pressure of the Return. The Journey is now a
sanitised one - no longer fraught with tension - the shock and complaints of
peripheral poverty, the perplexities of cultural self-questioning. Here the
web sites act as markers of homogenised spiritual space, with rigid cultural
borders, where "India" functions as a virtual museum for those for whom
Hinduism can fulfill the great unfulfilled dream of legislative reason - a
world without ambivalence.

Both practices discussed in this cyberpublic are, in the old Marcusean
sense, affirmative. In the first instance journeys into virtual space
function as either a new post-national hybridity emerging from the new elite
enclosures of India. Here "hybridity" seems to have a very different
function from the heroic status accorded to that term by post-colonial
intellectuals in the West. In the case in point hybridity emerges from the
new liminal cultural landscape of 1990's India but also performs an act of
closure vis-ą-vis the popular-political. The aporetic position of this elite
cyberpublic vis-ą-vis the national through its new cyberjourneys is
compromised by its complicity with the power of both local and multinational
capital. On the other hand, the Hindu nationalist attempt to territorialise
virtual space with its rhetoric of origins, of contamination, and of
naturalisation remains the most reactionary attempt to invert the old
Journey.

CYBERPUBLIC III Bulletin Boards, Activists and the search for Alternatives

The third cyberpublic remains the most ambiguous of the three domains of
cyberdiscourses in India. Existing in the fluid space between of the state
cyberpublic and the elite domains of the web, this cyberpublic contains
within it a wide range of actors seemingly unconstrained by either the state
or the transnational market. The map of this cyberpublic is typically
rhizomic, a constantly-shifting zone of activist networks, small bulletin
boards and dissident scientists. The borders of this cyberpublic are, once
again fuzzy, sometimes operating within the grid of the national state
network, sometimes playfully intruding into the more privileged web space
dominated by private/multinational capital. Less hybrid than experimental,
this public speaks to the possibility of radical reconstitution of
electronic space as one which touches real time through its myriad surfaces.

In the opening up of electronic space beyond the frontiers of the
state/market dichotomy, bulletin boards (BBS) have played a crucial role.
Numbering just a few score until last year BBS's have mushroomed not only in
all the major metros but also in small towns all over India. Led by a
combination of small business persons, computer/telecom graduates and those
with skills acquired in the trade the BBS's cater to a sector of the
population who find both the web and the state networks inaccessible either
due to prohibitive costs or lack of an imaginative space.

Initial BBS discussions concentrated largely on the computer trade -
reflecting the users immediate concerns. Recent discussions have been
broader, concentrating on politics and sexuality. The latter is a topic that
most System operators tend to be wary of (most discussions are not yet
on-line), but this has not prevented frank discussions of issues that have
hitherto remained invisible from the public sphere. The BBSs have to walk a
fine line, with recent media stories about sites offering explicit pictures
for free downloading. State regulation is also a threat, with recent
legislation threatening to tax the BBS's heavily - this threat seems to have
receded , for the moment.

The BBS's are a recent phenomenon in India, and one is yet to see even the
kind of experiments that the CommuniTree group initiated in the United
States in the 1970's. However any comparison, or even the suggestion of
`fitting' India in an evolutionary schema based on the development of
virtual systems in the West would be wrong. For a very, very, long time to
come electronic space will be out of the reach of the majority of the urban
population, let alone the those who live in the villages. The importance of
the BBS's remains elsewhere.

Existing between the space of state control and the power of global capital,
BBS's offer a novel form of agency *within* the discourses on virtuality. To
sections of the urban population disembedded by globalisation and subject to
the shock-like experience of the new Haussmannised city, the BBS's offer an
important zone of engagement and the possibility of a new performative
space. I use the latter with some economy. It is the very novelty of the
BBS, along with its semi-underground status which opens up the possibility
of experimentation - a process which has just begun. As sites proliferate,
so will the variety of experiences , the inventiveness and technosocial
practices. Women, hitherto a marginal voice in the BBS community, are slowly
making their appearance. Strategies of self-representation remain dominantly
realist, with users only using different `faces' when discussing explicit
issues. The historical identity of realism and scientific practices was
hammered into the popular space by nationalism - hence the tendency to stick
to a realist mode during the *initial* moment of initiation into
technoculture by most novices. It seems to me that the time for a genuine
*aufhebung* to a new non-realist mode of representation is already on the
agenda of the BBS community.

Social movements, nationalism and technoculture

Most social movements in India have as their point of departure the
cartography of the post-independence nationalist state. As pointed out
earlier, the state privileged a model of development, iconised the dam and
the steel mill as the imaginative reference points of development. The
official discourse on science and technology remained within the framework
of the developmental modernism imposed on the periphery. Here science and
technology were opposed to culture, abstracted from notions of play,
creative tradition and aesthetic experiment.

What is important is that the sites of nationalist science were symbolised
by the magnified products of developmental modernism - the dam and the steel
mill. The new social movements that emerged after the 1970's generated a
critique of the technological/developmental imaginary of nationalism,
stressing a range of alternative practices. The various movements (those of
women, untouchables, anti-dam) did not pose a cohesive alternative, their
opposition to state-sponsored technological practices was generally uniform.

Thus when the computer was initially introduced in the 1980's as the
neo-modernist successor to the dam, the hostility of both the new social
movements and the old Left was total. They parodied the utility of the
computer in a peripheral society like India, a critique that generally
echoed then prevalent notions of utility, sustainability and concerns about
workforce cutbacks. The fact that the computer was introduced with the
old-style developmental rhetoric made the movements even more
suspicious.[27]

Today in the 1990's, the movements have come to not only accept the computer
but also the creative possibility of networking. This is a dramatic change,
for which a number of factors have been cited. In the first place the old
movements are in a crisis - many have disintegrated and joined the NGO
sector. The crisis of old-style nationalism and Marxism have reshaped the
old reference points for the movements. The fast-growing NGO sector is
linked to global donors, the sector's incorporation into global electronic
space is only a matter of time. It seems to me that these factors are a
necessary but not sufficient explanation for the widespread acceptance of
electronic networks among the movement-community. At the heart of the
transition are hidden issues of desire and identity which have been brought
into play.

The old sites of the large-dam and the steel mill were enlarged symbols of
the nationalist will-to-power, generating the violence of displacement and
the destruction of local communities. As violent symbols these `sites' are
still the focus of large movements. On the other hand, the world of virtual
space that exists `behind' the computer lacks any corporeal violence
associated with developmentalism. It seems to me that virtual spaces began
to evoke a world of pleasure and initiation for individual activists,
without the violence of developmental modernism. A certain aesthetics of
experimentation had already been experienced by activists in their search
for alternatives to developmentalist disasters. With the coming of e-mail,
the Internet, and later bulletin boards a liminal space emerged, where
utopian desires for modernity, the possibility of experimentation "without
destruction", overlapped with the pleasures of initiation rituals into
technoculture. Further there is the possibility of a dialogue with the self
: the more rounded forms of identity in the nationalist period mistrusted
ambivalence. In every sense new boundaries of imagination and agency have
been created.

To be sure, only a very small minority of activists are still connected .
Those who are either urban, relatively affluent, or have access to global
funds. But what is remarkable is the widespread legitimacy of electronic
space among dissenters and activists, who would be equally critical of the
technological monuments of nationalism. It could be argued that the entry of
virtual spaces posed technology as a cultural practice in a way that the
developmental modernism[28] of the Nehruvian period (with the singular
emphasis on *monuments*) could never do. It anticipates a new situated
technosocial space, perhaps a `cyborgness' for the periphery. I use these
terms with considerable hesitation, for reasons that will be spelt out
later. But following Donna Haraway's call for "situated knowledges" we can
argue that new sets of practices could emerge in India which may mark the
transition from the binary spaces of developmental modernism.

Developmental modernism operated within a Third World version of what
Foucault has called the blackmail of the Enlightenment. Foucault uses this
formulation in his famous essay on Kant's "What is Enlightenment" to refer
to the violence of the philosophical choices presented by the Enlightenment:
"you either accept the Enlightenment and remain within the tradition of its
rationalism...;or else you criticize the Enlightenment and then try to
escape from its principles of rationality..."(1984:43) There is, says
Foucault, simply no other choice: *no tertium datur*. In the Indian case,
the canvas was less Olympian: it operated within the rather simplistic
oppositions of development/science/progress versus
tradition/reaction/stasis. For many decades the first triad was
overwhelmingly hegemonic, based on the state's monopoly of power and
violence and even extending to old -Left oppositional movements. It is only
in the recent decades with the rise of the new social movements, that
elements of a genuine *aufhebung* have emerged. The old oppositions do not
hold securely anymore - a discursive space of questioning has emerged,
energising new exchanges on technology, tradition and popular
experimentation[29].

The current generation of activists have been reared on this new diet, where
opposition to large dams and displacement could go hand in hand (wherever
possible) with ventures into virtual space. This transition is so
significant that it is remarkable that it has gone unnoticed[30].

Nevertheless, despite the richness and potentials of the third cyberpublic
in negotiating a space between the market and the state, the access to
virtual space still remains a *privilege*. The plans of the state network
ERNET to connect 8,000 colleges and schools will undoubtedly expand this
public, however their is an urgent need to fight for cheap, publicly
accessible networks. The current neo-liberal mood of the ruling elite is
hostile to any public space in the electronic media, a long battle is ahead
for activists[31].

Conclusion: Artificiality, modernity and alternative furtures in the
periphery

We can now go back to Jameson's characterisation of our time as an inverted
millenarianism. It cannot be denied that for the spectacular nineteenth
century ideologies: marxism, liberalism and nationalism, the logic of
disillusionment is complete. The great *aufhebung* has, in fact not obtained
- the rather the idea of the *end* confronts all. The grand social subjects
of the 19th century (the proletariat, the middle-class, the nation) have
been confronted by a landscape of *death*:. We are faced with the death of
the social, the death of the subject, the death of the author, the death of
the real, the death of the nation etc., etc. It is as if Adorno and