Henning Ziegler on Fri, 12 Jul 2002 21:15:08 +0200 (CEST)

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[rohrpost] Hypertext [part 2 of 5]

[Part 2 of a 5 part paper, corrections or comments are very welcome]

2 On the Political Interpretation of New Media Objects

Henning Ziegler

Form and content in discourse are one; once we understand that verbal discourse is a social phenomenon.
—M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination

In their essay “The California Ideology,” European cultural critics Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron have argued that “a loose
alliance of writers, hackers, capitalists, and artists from the West Coast of the USA have succeeded in defining a heterogeneous
orthodoxy for the coming information age.”(2)  This ‘heterogeneous orthodoxy’ is what the writers call the California Ideology: The idea
that new media will make everybody “both hip and rich,” being able to “express themselves freely within cyberspace.”  Barbrook and
Cameron hold that this utopia is grounded on a Californian “willful blindness towards (...) racism, poverty, and environmental
degradation,” so they see a need for Europeans to step into the picture “to develop a more coherent analysis of the impact of
hypermedia than can be found within the ambiguities of the Californian Ideology.”  Although I find this argument somewhat overstated
(and I’m not sure if I would call the resulting ‘more coherent analysis’ a “rebirth of the modern”), this paper could be seen as a part of
the theoretical project to ground new media theory in the social and political sphere instead of a lofty West Coast  utopia.

	Several key concepts from Fredric Jameson’s seminal book The Political Unconscious might prove useful in this regard.
Basically, remembering that “men represent their real conditions of existence to themselves in an imaginary form” (Althusser 1971:
163), it is not hard to see why the political should somewhat enter the analysis of new media objects or ‘texts’ at all.  What’s harder to
see is the primacy of a political reading over other readings from theoretical schools such as psychoanalysis, feminism, or
deconstructionism, this primacy, however, is precisely the notion that I need to establish in order to justify a reading of new media
objects in purely political terms.  In The Political Unconscious, Jameson asserts that he is not calling for just another ‘method’ of
political criticism—since the social and the political form the backdrop of cultural production, he rather holds that “Marxism subsumes
other interpretative modes or systems; or, (...) the limits of the latter can always be overcome, and their more positive findings retained,
by a radical historicizing of their mental operations, such that not only the content of the analysis, but the very method itself, along with
the analyst, then comes to be reckoned into the ‘text’ or phenomenon to be explained” (Jameson 1981: 47).  In his view, then, text,
method, and analyst all become part of a larger political configuration that can only be uncovered by a  ‘radical historicizing’ of the
methods’ mental structuring of material—zooming into the ‘text only version’ is just too quick a move for a comprehensive
understanding of the structural limitations that have been at work in the society the cultural object originated from.  But how does
Jameson arrive at this conclusion?

	On level of the philosophy of history, he does away with the fashionable notion that ‘everything is a text’ (in a similar way,
Régis Debray does away with the ‘sign’ in favor of the structure in media studies(3)).  Without receeding to an essentialist notion of
history, Jameson holds that “that history is not a text, not a narrative, master or otherwise, but that, as an absent cause, it is
inaccessible to us except in textual form, and that our approach to it (...) necessarily passes through its prior textualization, its
narrativization in the political unconscious” (Jameson 1981: 35).  When uncovering this narrativization in the process of textual
interpretation, however, history never reveals its ‘true’ meaning to the critic; the ‘real’ history remains the ‘absent cause’ for the ‘text’ as
a cultural production.  The structure of any text or new media object becomes an expression of a specific historical configuration
whose ‘authenticity’ can never be finally established; it remains a cultural object that is indexical to a non-existent cause—the political
unconscious.  Significantly, Jameson also points to the necessity of reading history through cultural objects: We are left with them as
‘traces’ of the political unconscious, or of our ideas of historical power configurations.  In my mind, Jameson’s move of deconstructing
essentialist notions of ‘history’ by calling history an ‘absent cause’ while also establishing a kind of ‘formalist essentialism’ with which
stuggles over the interpretation of history can be discovered in the structure of cultural objects convincingly establishes the primacy of
a political reading of old and new media objects.

	On the formal level, then, a political criticism of any cultural object will attempt to extract structural antagonisms that are
indexical of a historical dialectic as ‘absent cause.’  This reading strategy is, of course, to some extent based on Engels view that “all
history (...) was the history of class struggles” (Tucker, MER 699): Form and content of a cultural object are not two opposite aspects
to be discussed; rather, dialectic historical struggles are manifest in the form itself.  Furthermore, when one understands form as
“sedimented content” (Jameson), “the individual narrative, or the individual formal structure, is to be grasped as the imaginary resolution
of a real contradiction” (Jameson 1981: 77).  The cultural or new media object is a strategy for unification of differences which retains
certain traces of those difference in its formal limitations.  It is important to note, however, that the object is not different ‘from itself’ (in
the sense of Derrida’s différance), since the differences do refer to historical struggle, if only as an ‘absent cause.’  Interestingly,
Jameson mentions two aspects of new media objects in his argument which will prove useful in my later analysis: The pluralism of
(class) struggle and the relationality of all antagonism: “For Marxism (...) the very content of a class ideology is relational, in the sense
that its ‘values’ are always actively in situation with respect to the opposing class” (Jameson 1981: 84).  If the cultural interface as a
new media object is a site of differences, those differences take on the form of multiple, opposing views that ‘overdetermine’ (Ernesto
Laclau) the interface and that, furthermore, only work as active oppositions: I am not what I’ve set a hyperlink to.

	The method of European criticism against the ‘California Ideology’ then becomes something like “the rewriting of the (...) text in
such a way that the latter may itself be seen as the rewriting or restructuration of a prior historical or ideological subtext” (Jameson
1981: 81).  In a way, the California Ideology incorporated into its world view the idea that politics has come to an end and that
restistance is merely a matter of ‘culture jamming.’  This cultural turn, which, as Barbrook and Cameron have pointed out, ironically
comes from the very people that participated in the ‘countercultural’ movements of the 60s, overlooks the ways in which political
antagonisms are still structurally inscribed into new media objects.  Or, as Jameson says, “the convenient working distinction between
cultural texts that are social and political and those that are not  becomes something worse than an error: namely, a symptom and a
reinforcement of the reification and privatization of contemporary life” (Jameson 1981: 20).  Importantly, however, the kind of political
criticism that I have advocated here does not lead to the ‘unmasking’ of new media objects as mere feedback loops into the system
which they were originally in opposition to.  The benefit of a formal, political analysis is that it doesn’t automatically lead from the view
that ‘everything is culture’ to the cultural studies dead-end of seeing opposition as only preparing another ‘underground trend’ for the
multinationals to take up.  As Jameson relativizes, “the lesson of the ‘vision’ of a total system is for the short run one of the structural
limits imposed on praxis rather than the latter’s impossibility” (Jameson 1981: 91).

(2) Barbrook, Richard and Andy Cameron, “The California Ideology,” http://www.wmin.ac.uk/media/HRC/ci/calif.html.
(3) See Régis Debray, Media Manifestos (London, New York: Verso, 1996) 133-170.

[End of part 2]

Henning Ziegler, Berlin

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