Charles Bernstein’s reflections on populism, democracy, and authority in the turbulent waters of web discussion groups and other new Internet sites.
Electronic Pies in the Poetry Skies
Electronic Pies in the Poetry Skies
Language reproduction technology - from the alphabet to the printing press to our current systems of photoelectronic reproduction - has a history of democratizing social space while at the same time not democratizing it enough.
Freedom is a relative value, not an absolute. The question is always freedom for what or from what, freedom for whom or from whom.
The utopian vision of the open spaces of the Web may also hold out the false promise that everything, at last, can be heard.
Nonetheless, our ideals for technology may incite greater freedom even if these ideals are not, perhaps cannot be, reached.
Authority is never abolished but constantly reinscribes itself in new places.
There is a virus out there but it is not trying to get to your hard drive but your outsides and insides.
The greatest contribution of small presses and magazines of the past fifty years has not been that they have been more “open” than the trade or commercial presses but that in many cases they have been more selective.
Every new path to freedom creates new, sometimes even more intractable, obstacles to freedom.
The goal of democratizing the Web, understood as an end in itself, may sometimes conflict with the creation of sites that allow for the articulation of alternative perspectives.
Populism is not the same as market share.
Access is a method not a goal.
The absence of physical or temporal bars to exchange in various interactive spaces does not necessarily allow for a greater range of exchange.
The group dynamics that hamper exchange in “live” settings have colonized our electronic interactions.
& you can never completely rid yourself of this virus but you can be a more or less hospitable host.
Decentralization allows for multiple, conflicting authorities not the absence of authority.
Authority is dead; editing begins.
Mass culture is not the same as popular culture.
Fostering dissent on the Web requires the invention of new formats.
Authority in the defense of liberty is not linear.
The destruction, in the U.S., of TV and radio as a space for the articulation of alternative political, ethical, and aesthetic points of view haunts all who imagine that new technologies might serve ends other than those of the market or its ideological underwriters.
For interactive sites such as discussion groups, it is always useful to consider whether the structure precipitates resentment over exchange, the average over the particular, mediocrity over difference, voice over thought, immediacy over reflection, recirculation over invention.
The purpose of supporting unpopular culture is not necessarily to make it popular, but this does not mean that preserving unpopularity is itself a virtue.
In some ways, the intimate space of email discussion can leave one feeling more vulnerable to animosity than in “live” settings, where the presence of others serves as a buffer.
Freedom is never free.
The structural problem is how to foster counter-hegemonic perspectives, including aesthetic ones, within an environment where accessibility and democratization are often used to erode such perspectives.
The Internet provides new opportunities for rumor, gossip, exploitation, and innuendo.
The lobotomizing of radio and TV has been done under the banner of democratization: Let the Majority Decide! Down with the Authority of Elites!
“This time it will be different” but never (quite) is and never is not (quite).
Majority rule via market and ratings systems, like our winner take all political system, has been far more effective than any state-run censorship in ensuring the minority rule of those with the greatest capital accumulation.
Electronic space is neither free nor unlimited because our lives are neither free nor unlimited.
Corporate America is now constructing elaborate Web on-ramp systems to control the flow of hits; that’s why AOL bought Time/Warner and not the other way around.
In some of the new Internet environments, there is a fairly high tolerance for flaming, ad hominen attack, libel, and diatribe, as if resentment is a measure of honesty.
The megacorporate control of the flow of hits, of consumer - not citizen - attention is far more important than short-term profits because the system of preserving profits depends upon it.
& sometimes there is nothing you can do about the virus, and those may be just the times when it seems most urgent to imagine that you can do something.
Not all unpopular culture is equal or equally worth supporting.
What’s the alternative?
The very ease of posting to a list may sacrifice necessity (not the same as substance) even while allowing for immediacy (not the same as urgency).
Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure.
The Web necessitates ever more editing, more intensive intervention, lest our alternative spaces be rendered vacuous, or desperate, by default launching people into the official flows of information.
Yet righteous outrage is as likely to shut down exchange as provoke it.
Web space is not so much disembodied as differently bodied. And those different bodies can be as scary as the demons that haunt our dreams for human freedom.
While the proliferation of unmoderated spaces does of course allow for some of the otherwise unheard to speak, in the resultant din it may be impossible to hear them.
We remain vulnerable to destabilization by agent provocateurs but also by provocative agencies within ourselves, our desire for purification through self-immolation.
Knowledge is constituted by the available information in a particular time.
It’s not technology that will change the possibilities for dialogue but politics.
In my own experience as the editor/moderator of a listserv, I found it hard to be as grumpy as I needed to be and hard not to be too grumpy about the results.
The automation of language reproduction and exchange possible with the Internet is very alluring as it seems to save so much labor-intensive work in comparison to print publications or letters; ultimately, this is illusory since the labor of selection, editing, and involving participants/readers is still the essential ingredient, while the technical work of site and list formation and maintenance are themselves relatively complex and time-consuming tasks.
For alternative voices to make a difference, space must be created and maintained so that they can not only speak but also be heard; and this means creating spaces that earn the trust of their participants.
As much as we may be troubled by the growing concentration of “webfotainment,” we also need to be wary that as many of the most “ungoverned” sites purvey disinformation as offer critique.
Automation of language reproduction doesn’t make things simpler but more complex.
If the discussion is always starting from scratch, the participants with greater experience may drop away.
Public space requires protecting rights as much as allowing access.
The contribution of small press publications is that they articulate specific, not general, aesthetic values; that they do not allow market forces to be the primary arbiter of value; and that they provide sharp contrasts with the otherwise available literature of the time.
Some disagreements are too extreme to be articulated politely.
The hardest thing is to create spaces that not only provide information but that also allow for exchange.
My own reluctance to impose sufficient restrictions almost allowed those antagonistic to the list to destroy it.
It may be as useful to participate in a conversation “over your head” as “at your level.”
The virus is in our systems of social reproduction.
The ideal of civility is as often a ploy to suppress dissent as a means of facilitating dialogue.
But because some things are beyond redress it does not follow that every circumstance is without recourse, nor every case without prospect.
There is a pleasure, also, in delusions: not of grandeur but of agency.
There’ll be a pie in the sky when you die.
But not likely.