[rohrpost] Hypertext [part 2 of 5]

Henning Ziegler henning.ziegler@epost.de
Fri, 12 Jul 2002 21:17:09 +0200

[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 disc=
ourse is a social phenomenon.
=97M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination

In their essay =93The California Ideology,=94 European cultural critics Ri=
chard Barbrook and Andy Cameron have argued that =93a 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.=94(2)  This =91heterogeneous ort=
hodoxy=92 is what the writers call the California Ideology: The idea 
that new media will make everybody =93both hip and rich,=94 being able to =
=93express themselves freely within cyberspace.=94  Barbrook and 
Cameron hold that this utopia is grounded on a Californian =93willful blin=
dness towards (...) racism, poverty, and environmental 
degradation,=94 so they see a need for Europeans to step into the picture =
=93to develop a more coherent analysis of the impact of 
hypermedia than can be found within the ambiguities of the Californian Ide=
ology.=94  Although I find this argument somewhat overstated 
(and I=92m not sure if I would call the resulting =91more coherent analysi=
s=92 a =93rebirth of the modern=94), this paper could be seen as a part of=
the theoretical project to ground new media theory in the social and polit=
ical sphere instead of a lofty West Coast  utopia. 
	Several key concepts from Fredric Jameson=92s seminal book The Political =
Unconscious might prove useful in this regard.  
Basically, remembering that =93men represent their real conditions of exis=
tence to themselves in an imaginary form=94 (Althusser 1971: 
163), it is not hard to see why the political should somewhat enter the an=
alysis of new media objects or =91texts=92 at all.  What=92s harder to 
see is the primacy of a political reading over other readings from theoret=
ical schools such as psychoanalysis, feminism, or 
deconstructionism, this primacy, however, is precisely the notion that I n=
eed 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 =91method=92 of 
political criticism=97since the social and the political form the backdrop=
 of cultural production, he rather holds that =93Marxism 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 =91text=92 or phenomenon t=
o be explained=94 (Jameson 1981: 47).  In his view, then, text, 
method, and analyst all become part of a larger political configuration th=
at can only be uncovered by a  =91radical historicizing=92 of the 
methods=92 mental structuring of material=97zooming into the =91text only =
version=92 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 =91everything is a text=92 (in a similar way, 
R=E9gis Debray does away with the =91sign=92 in favor of the structure in =
media studies(3)).  Without receeding to an essentialist notion of 
history, Jameson holds that =93that 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=94 (Jameson 1981: 35).  When =
uncovering this narrativization in the process of textual 
interpretation, however, history never reveals its =91true=92 meaning to t=
he critic; the =91real=92 history remains the =91absent cause=92 for the =91=
text=92 as 
a cultural production.  The structure of any text or new media object beco=
mes an expression of a specific historical configuration 
whose =91authenticity=92 can never be finally established; it remains a cu=
ltural object that is indexical to a non-existent cause=97the political 
unconscious.  Significantly, Jameson also points to the necessity of readi=
ng history through cultural objects: We are left with them as 
=91traces=92 of the political unconscious, or of our ideas of historical p=
ower configurations.  In my mind, Jameson=92s move of deconstructing 
essentialist notions of =91history=92 by calling history an =91absent caus=
e=92 while also establishing a kind of =91formalist essentialism=92 with w=
stuggles over the interpretation of history can be discovered in the struc=
ture 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 w=
ill attempt to extract structural antagonisms that are 
indexical of a historical dialectic as =91absent cause.=92  This reading s=
trategy is, of course, to some extent based on Engels view that =93all 
history (...) was the history of class struggles=94 (Tucker, MER 699): For=
m and content of a cultural object are not two opposite aspects 
to be discussed; rather, dialectic historical struggles are manifest in th=
e form itself.  Furthermore, when one understands form as 
=93sedimented content=94 (Jameson), =93the individual narrative, or the in=
dividual formal structure, is to be grasped as the imaginary resolution 
of a real contradiction=94 (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 impor=
tant to note, however, that the object is not different =91from itself=92 =
the sense of Derrida=92s diff=E9rance), since the differences do refer to =
historical struggle, if only as an =91absent cause.=92  Interestingly, 
Jameson mentions two aspects of new media objects in his argument which wi=
ll prove useful in my later analysis: The pluralism of 
(class) struggle and the relationality of all antagonism: =93For Marxism (=
...) the very content of a class ideology is relational, in the sense 
that its =91values=92 are always actively in situation with respect to the=
 opposing class=94 (Jameson 1981: 84).  If the cultural interface as a 
new media object is a site of differences, those differences take on the f=
orm of multiple, opposing views that =91overdetermine=92 (Ernesto 
Laclau) the interface and that, furthermore, only work as active oppositio=
ns: I am not what I=92ve set a hyperlink to.

	The method of European criticism against the =91California Ideology=92 th=
en becomes something like =93the rewriting of the (...) text in 
such a way that the latter may itself be seen as the rewriting or restruct=
uration of a prior historical or ideological subtext=94 (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 =91culture jamming.=92  This cultural tu=
rn, which, as Barbrook and Cameron have pointed out, ironically 
comes from the very people that participated in the =91countercultural=92 =
movements of the 60s, overlooks the ways in which political 
antagonisms are still structurally inscribed into new media objects.  Or, =
as Jameson says, =93the convenient working distinction between 
cultural texts that are social and political and those that are not  becom=
es something worse than an error: namely, a symptom and a 
reinforcement of the reification and privatization of contemporary life=94=
 (Jameson 1981: 20).  Importantly, however, the kind of political 
criticism that I have advocated here does not lead to the =91unmasking=92 =
of new media objects as mere feedback loops into the system 
which they were originally in opposition to.  The benefit of a formal, pol=
itical analysis is that it doesn=92t automatically lead from the view 
that =91everything is culture=92 to the cultural studies dead-end of seein=
g opposition as only preparing another =91underground trend=92 for the 
multinationals to take up.  As Jameson relativizes, =93the lesson of the =91=
vision=92 of a total system is for the short run one of the structural 
limits imposed on praxis rather than the latter=92s impossibility=94 (Jame=
son 1981: 91).

(2) Barbrook, Richard and Andy Cameron, =93The California Ideology,=94 htt=
(3) See R=E9gis Debray, Media Manifestos (London, New York: Verso, 1996) 1=

[End of part 2]

Henning Ziegler, Berlin