Eric Kluitenberg on Mon, 12 May 1997 17:43:08 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> 'freedom' - LEAF 97 / ZKP 4

Dear nettimers,

I've decided to submit the text of my presentation at LEAF 97 in Liverpool
for ZKP 4. For sake of completeness here it is for the nettime list as


LEAF 97 - 'freedom'
Eric Kluitenberg

The text to follow was presented at the LEAF 97 symposium in Liverpool as
part of the Video Positive 97 'Escaping Gravity' festival. The text is a
first attempt to establish an argument from which recent discourses on
'freedom' in relation to the Net and the emerging information society may
be interrogated. The text also serves to establish a conceptual framework
from which I am trying to build the program of a highly concentrated
one-day conference to be part of the Interstanding 2 event in Tallinn,
October 8th 1997. In its unfinished state the argument is open for
suggestions, objections, conjectures and refutations, affirmations and
negations. Any such remarks are welcomed and can be sent to my e-mail

For sake of historicity I have left the text unaltered, except for one
reference where an elucidation of the concept of the 'atomisation of
information' in digital systems may be found.



I start my little presentation here from a very simple premise: The concept
'freedom' denotes something which is by nature unrestricted. If we are to
confine the concept we immediately destroy that quality which we
intuitively understand to be one of the most essential traits of 'freedom',
exactly this; the unrestricted. 'freedom', therefore, can never exist
within a closed system. 'freedom' can furthermore never exist in a
computer, as the operation of this machine relies on the scheme of digital
encoding which is by nature finite and exact. 'freedom' can for the same
reason never exist within digital networks as they rely equally on the
scheme of digital encoding (of information stemming from whatever source).

It would appear that this premise is banal, a platitude. Yet it isn't at
all. It touches the very essence of the virtuality which is the defining
imperative of the networked cultures. The implication of the notion that
the finiteness of the digital scheme excludes the very possibility of
'freedom' rather implies a radical political program. If we refine this
idea somewhat further it provides a very useful theoretical framework from
which to interrogate and critique some of the recent discussions that have
emerged around the politics of embodiment in relation to the Net, and the
political claims to free speech and freedom of expression for which the Net
is considered to be a medium of great potential.

It is in no way coincidental that I would propose to discuss the concept of
'freedom' in the context of this gathering. The social and cultural
transformations in the post-socialist societies which are the implicit
underlying theme of this meeting have been heavily implicated by the
rhetorics of freedom. More importantly the Net has been regarded with high
expectations (both in the former 'East' and 'West') as a new communications
channel which would provide unprecedented possibilities for free expression
of views and ideas, and direct and filtered access to a vast array of
information sources.

Though it is important to acknowledge this potential (it should least of
all not be denied), the implicit conflict in the notion of the Net as an
independent cultural sphere with the politics of embodiment has recently
become apparent.

The event which revealed this conflict most clearly and subsequently
triggered an intense discussion was the publication of the Cyberspace
Independence Declaration (February 1996) by John Perry Barlow, one of the
front men of the Net-civil rights group, the Electronic Frontier
Foundation. In this manifesto Barlow declares cyberspace 'the new home of
the mind' and claims its independence from Nation rooted law and politics.
The declaration itself was a reaction to the US Telecom 'Reform' Act, a law
which imposes serious restrictions on  free speech and the freedom of
expression via the Net.
        Barlow legitimises his claims by stressing the boundless global
dimension of the Net as a communications system, and more importantly by
seeking recourse in the disembodied nature of the social interactions which
take place via the Net. Though the traditional politics of the nation state
may still exert control over the physical bodies of their citizens, they
can no longer control the free deployment of the mind in cyberspace " a
world soon blanketed in bit bearing media", he maintains. The Nation based
politics of repression are thus equated with their material base and
located in the physical realm of the body, whereas the grass-roots politics
of freedom of cyberspace are equated with the immaterial spiritual realm of
the mind.
        This reduction is not only simplistic, it is also inherently
reactionary. Peter Lamborn Wilson has pointed out how the ideology of the
Net as a disembodied social sphere relies on an ancient Cartesian Mind/Body
split. These kinds of post-human theories often end up he muses in a kind
of contemporary gnosticism, in the sense of a hatred of the body.
        In his pirate utopia of the Temporary Autonomous Zone
Lamborn-Wilson has stressed the demand of the sensuous. Only when a free
enjoyment of sensual pleasures and physical experiences can be maintained
can any real sense of freedom exist. True freedom can never be achieved
when the body is condemned.

The next problematic aspect of the ideology of 'freedom' is the relation of
the liberated individual to her or his social environment. The demand for a
total liberalisation of both body and mind from political and social
repression implies an inherently anti-social stance. No social system can
exist, functionally, without an infringement on the freedom of the
individual to follow his or her most individual impulses, without
restriction. Conversely the uninhibited pursuit of individual impulses and
desires implies the destruction of the social sphere, which becomes a
battle-ground for conflicting individual interest. The liberalisation of
the individual, it would seem, can only actualise itself at the expense of
the social sphere.
The modern ideal of emancipation of the individual and the simultaneous
demand for social justice reveals itself as nothing less than a paradox
-and one that remains with us to present.

How then to consider the Net in relation to (the desire for) 'freedom'?

The virtuality should be considered the inescapable result of the
application of a digital scheme [Note: atomisation of information] inside a
machine operating with electronic speed. Digital information is information
without an analogy to its origin. All messages travelling through the
networks of interconnected digital machines become virtual, whether
textual, visual or tactile, when they are translated into this universal
code of atomised information, which is the prerequisite for the systems'
The Net can therefore never be the open space in which experience can be
liberated beyond the restrictions of any social, political, cultural or
operational code. The Net can act, however, as a strategic device to create
open spaces within the turmoil of conflicting social, political and
cultural signifiers.

There is yet another dimension which adds to the illusive nature of
'freedom'. Though 'freedom' can be experienced, it can never be understood,
as understanding would reduce it to an individual consciousness. This
reduction again would imply an unacceptable restriction of that which
should by nature be considered unrestricted. 'freedom' is the sacred of any
open society and in this way seems similar to the divine. The sacred can
never be defined and it can never be represented in a unique form in space
and time. It rather discloses itself as secret. Though it cannot be
represented it can be pointed at, alluded to, it can be named. But mostly
it discloses itself, its secret, by its absence.

The Net, then, as a strategic vehicle can be one important way to create
the open, undefined spaces (in society, in the physical world) where
'freedom' may perhaps be experienced, if only in a brief moment.


Note: Atomisation of Information

This point has been treated quite clearly by Nelson Goodman in his
discussion of analogue and digital systems in his book "Languages of Art"
(Hackett Publ., Indianapolis, 1976), Chapter IV - The Theory of Notation,
Section 8 - Analogs and Digits, pp. 159 - 163.

Eric Kluitenberg
Liverpool, April 12, 1997.

Eric Kluitenberg
Postbus 1448
9701 BK Groningen - NL

MEDIA-GN - Centre for Emergent Media
Tel. +31.50.313 83 43
Fax. +31.50.313 82 42

Tel. +31.20.669 0062

"The dew is upon the leaf.
 The night about us is restless."

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