McKenzie Wark on Mon, 7 Jun 1999 19:36:57 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Wertheim/Pearly Gates of Cyberspace


>From Plato to Porno: 
Margaret Wertheim's Pearly Gates of Cyberspace
McKenzie Wark

One of the more remarkable things about the Sydney Writer's Festival is
just how popular it is. People really want to come and see the people who
write the books they like -- and the books they hate. 

As anyone who has published a book here knows, the only really
book-friendly media is Australia is ABC radio. Having a book out usually
means being booked into an endless series of interviews in ABC Radio
'Tardis Booths', little rooms connected to much bigger spaces -- the
broadcast footprints of every ABC regional and metro transmitter. 

But while ABC Radio is pretty open and embracing of new writing, ABC TV is
terminally brain dead.  Like those 99% fat free deserts, ABC TV 99% brain
free. The 1% is usually on the religious affairs show Compass.

As the reading public has become better and better educated, ABC TV just
gets dumber and dumber. Its ideal of 'literature' is one of those endless
BBC frock and carriage soap operas, based on some safe novel or other by
someone even more safely dead.

So no wonder people flock to things like the Sydney Writer's Festival,
where the writers are refreshingly alive. Last week's Sydney festival even
included an appearance by Margaret Wertheim at Sydney Town Hall -- a rare
recognition of a talented expatriate Australian whose name is not James,
Hughes or Greer. 

I had the privilege of playing what in a TV talk show would be the "second
chair" at the Wertheim event, so interviewer John Doyle could have someone
on hand to fill in the gaps while Margaret drew breath. Doyle is best
known nationally for his comedy work as Roy Slavin, but he was also a
first rate radio host on Sydney's ABC metro station 2BL. But this was a
talent the mentally challenged programmers at ABC TV were unable to use,
and so here he was, doing live and intelligent talk at Sydney Town Hall. 

Margaret Wertheim is the author of Pythagoras' Trousers, and was in town
promoting her new release, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace (Random House).
Its a remarkable book, in that unlike most books about cyberculture, it
doesn't think it all started 15 minutes ago. Wertheim traces the history
of cyberspace right back to the roots of western civilisation itself. The
book could be subtitled "from Plato to Porno".

There is a persistent dualism in western thought, one that finds something
unsatisfactory abut this world and seeks a better one, elsewhere. Wertheim
traces this to Pythagoras, who thought numbers were the mystic clue to an
otherworldly realm of purity and eternity. Another big figure in this
dualistic concept of things is Plato, for whom only the eternal forms were
real. All transitory appearances in this world are illusory. 

Christianity transformed this intellectual dualism into a more emotionally
appealing one, making this other world the route to eternal salvation (or
damnation), and being even more stern in its denial of the value of this
actual living and breathing world of change and suffering. Which is why
Nietzsche called Christianity "Platonism for the masses."

Wertheim does an excellent job of explaining the centuries-long adventure
of this dualistic world view. Dante provided a vivid tour guide of the
highlights and lowlife of the space of the Christian imagination. Doubling
this world was not one but three others -- heaven, hell and purgatory.
These spaces were imagined to be physically connected to actual, everyday
space, but also different to it. 

Giotto starts a centuries-long "deconstruction" of this dualistic space,
by turning attention to the accurate representation of this-worldly
appearances. In a wonderful summary, Wertheim shows how science undermined
the dualism of the Christian world. 

Science drew on Platonism in a different way, not as the licence for an
other-worldly cosmology of heaven and hell, but as the source for the
believe that this world was itself the product of a rational and pure
geometry of forms. She traces this monist view of things through the three
dimensional universe of Newton to the four dimensional one of Einstein and
the five, ten and eleven dimensions posited by some contemporary
theoretical physics.

Wertheim puts the 'space' back into cyberspace'. She argues that the rush
to embrace cyberspace has all the enthusiasm of a religious revival. In a
world disenchanted by scientific rationality, cyberspace reintroduces the
possibility of an other-worldly realm. If one of the historical legacies
of Platonism is to reduce the appearances of this world to pure math, the
other is to propose another, better world that is enchanted and eternal --

The enthusiasm for cyberspace as a realm where the mind is freed from the
body, or even where the universal soul can come together without the
worrying differences of age and race and gender and class is an ancient
idea playing itself out via a new technology. 

Wertheim is rightly sceptical about the transcendent claims for
cyberspace. The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace is an extraordinarily broad and
deep explanation of where bad ideas about cyberspace come from. It implies
the need for another book, one that traces the underground history of
alternative views of space, from the pre-Platonist pagans to the
affirmation of this world in Nietzsche and the pantheistic heresies of
Spinoza and Deleuze. For our Dante we might read William Gibson as a
voodoo pantheist, rather than in the dualistic terms Wertheim proposes.

The "cyber-utopians" Wertheim critiques have the same limitations as the
mainstream Platonist and Christian thought from which they branch. They
deny the value of this life. They refuse to come to terms with the heady
mix of suffering and joy in the face of fate and chance that Homer and the
Greek tragedies were so profoundly able to acknowledge, affirm and

Not everyone wants to deny this life and escape into the promise of
another one. People still want to create the old fashioned kind of public
life, the "agora" or town hall meeting -- often to be with people like
Wertheim whom they have met through the media, be it radio or newspapers
or the internet -- or even TV. Not everyone wants from cyberspace a denial
of this world. For a lot of us it is an extension of it, something that
adds virtuality to this life, adds new possibilities for new and different
ways of life, rather than being a negation or evasion of it. 

McKenzie Wark lectures in media studies at Macquarie University.


This column originally appeared in The Australian newspaper

"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
 -- McKenzie Wark 

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