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the postmodernity of cyberspace
(PoMo consciousness )
by adrian mihalache

Cyberspace seems to be par excellence the domain ruled by postmodern ideas. Much like the Western World for free-market ideology and the Eastern one for Marxist Modernism, cyberspace provides postmodernism a laboratory for experimentation and testing. Unlike Newtonian space, cyberspace is not a pre-existing void to be filled with moving (and living) particles of matter and thought, subjected to the universal laws of science and philosophy. It is rather an entity on the make, an unending surface of intersecting, but not necessarily interacting discourses, each developed according to its own assumptions and rhetoric.

The main figures of cyberspace--the cyber-surfer who explores the Web, the cyber-smith who builds up its places and founds its institutional sites, and the cyber-evangelist who promotes ideas, invites attention, and lures passers-by--are no longer the stable, coherent and rational selves of the Modern School, but the petulant, playful, multicentered, disembodied 'spirits' of postmodernism. They do not recognize such thing as 'universal truth' and reject the belief that reason and science offer a stable foundation for knowledge and ethical behavior.

The knowledge dispensed by the Web-based discourses is more often than not prudently considered as the product of partial and perhaps erroneous points of view. Science, as exposed on the Web, lacks the authority it used to detain as the paradigm of all knowledge. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the information acquired while navigating cyberspace corresponds to anything true or real. Whether true or false, no form of cyber-knowledge is deemed neutral, but partial and self-serving.

According to some postmodern critics, including Foucault and Lyotard, the discourse of truth represents only a highly effective means of exercising power. Henceforth, the truth of claims made in the name of knowledge is validated contextually, according to the rules and premises of a particular language game. According to Moscovici's striking formulation, postmodern criticism tends thus to translate the discourse of truth into relations of power and claims about reality into theories of representations (Moscovici, Claudia, Perusals into (Post) Modern Thought. University Press of America,R Inc., Lanham, New York, Oxford, 2000, p. 41). Consequently, when going cyber, the narratives naturally shifted “from discovery to invention, from coherence to complexity, and from poetics to politics” (Currie, Mark, Postmodern Narrative Theory. St. Martin Press, New York, 1998, p. 2).

Text (including all types of audio-visual signs) is the stuff that cyberspace is made of. Thus, this 'space' conforms to the postmodern claiming the primacy of text over reality. As a matter of fact, all we know about the world is based on more or less creditable, more or less reliable, and more or less deceiving accounts. The language these accounts are developed in, rather than denoting a commonly perceived reality, often refers merely to itself (Cf. Moscovici, op. cit., p. 5). Particular words are explained in terms of other words from which they are distinguished or to which they are compared (Moscovici, op. cit., p. 7).

According to Saussure's well-known theory, a sign generates its meaning not by pointing to an entity in the world, but rather by pointing to other words in the language system: the meaning of a sign is thus defined negatively, as different from other signs. 'Reality' is an effect actively generated by language rather than a pre-existing state passively reflected by signs (Currie, op. cit., p. 35). This conception finds its favorite environment in cyberspace, where the only reality is textual. The links provide multiple connections between 'signifiers' and 'signifieds,' in an endless process of signification. One must beware not to confound linking with zapping. While the latter offers the possibility to switch from one discourse to another, basically equivalent in their apparent variety, the first opens a new ramification in the tree of knowledge, providing, behind a concept, a story, beside a statement, an explanation, beyond a platitude, a metaphor.

In the postmodern realm of cyberspace no 'grand' narratives, all-encompassing stories, or over-pervasive myths either impose their guidance or legitimate specific approaches. We do not encounter in cyberspace such good old stories as the dialectic of the Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational/working subject, or the creation of wealth. It is true that the WELL virtual community and the Electronic Frontier Foundation that emerged from it tried to impose such a grand story, based on the myth of The New Frontier. It was meant to be a story of conquest and civilization, according to which cyberspace would be populated by nerds and geeks the way the West was colonized by cowboys, settlers and pioneers. However, the imperialist overtones of this narrative, together with the suggestion it bore of a Western cultural offensive in cyberspace prevented its diffusion and acceptance. Moreover, this story was already told and cyberspace deserved better than a Westward, ho! cliché. The 'grand' story, if it were ever to be developed, will be original or not at all.

The 'little' local narratives of cyberspace are mainly personal stories, attempts to explain one's peculiarity, one's unique experiences, one's persistent terrors. In cyberspace, one does not exist except in one's story or, as Currie (1998) says, “the only way to explain who we are is to tell our story, to select key events which characterize us and organize them according to the formal principles of narratives” (Currie, op. cit. p. 17). Such local personal essays are articulated in the vast web of the omnipresent and over-pervasive hypertext.

Copyright © 2000 Adrian Mihalache All Rights Reserved.

Adrian Mihalache is a writer currently living in Bucharest, Romania. He is a regular contributor to *spark-online.

 

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