Media Temporalities in the Internet: Philosophy of Time and Media with Derrida and Rorty

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Media Temporalities in the Internet: Philosophy of Time and Media with Derrida and Rorty

In his book The Transparent Society Gianni Vattimo, the Italian media philosopher, advocates the „hypothesis“ that „the intensification of communicative phenomena and the increasingly prominent circulation of information, with news flashed around the world (or McLuhan’s „global village“) as it happens, are not merely aspects of modernization amongst others, but in some way the centre and the very sense of this process“ (Vattimo, 1992, 14 f). Vattimo’s hypothesis is shared by Jacques Derrida, the founder of postmodern deconstructionism. In the essay The Other Heading – Reflections on Today’s Europe Derrida formulated his basic media-philosophical diagnosis with a view to Europe as follows: „European cultural identity cannot … renounce … the great avenues or thoroughfares of translation and communication, and thus, of mediatization. But, on the other hand, it cannot and must not accept the capital of a centralizing authority …. For by constituting places of an easy concensus, places of a demagogical and „salable“ consensus, through mobile, omnipresent, and extremely rapid media networks, by thus immediately crossing every border, such normalization would establish a cultural capacity at any place and at all times. It would establish a hegemonic center, the power center or power station (la centrale), the media center or central switchboard (le central) of the new imperium: remote control as one says in English for the TV, a ubiquitous telecommand, quasi-immediate and absolute“ (Derrida, 1992, 39 f ). What’s expressed in this diagnosis is the inner ambivalence with regard to the basic structures of our understanding of the world and ourselves which is emerging in the wake of the comprehensive mediatization of human experience of time. On the one hand lies an indispensable chance in this for the constitution of „European cultural identity“; on the other hand it harbours the danger of „a hegemonic center’s“ establishing itself, one which might soar to become the media centre of a new imperium.

The thesis, underlying these thoughts, that historical change in our forms of communication and technological media assumes significance for the philosophy of time was developed by Derrida in the sixties in his early major philosophical work De la Grammatology (1967; Of Grammatology: Derrida, 1976). With recent „development of … practical methods of information retrieval“ (Derrida, 1976, 10) in view he there unfurled the programme of a time-philosophical analysis of modern mass media which had taken shape with Walter Benjamin (Benjamin, 1969) and Martin Heidegger (Heidegger, 1977; cf. Sandbothe, 1993) in the first half of the century and been taken up by Günther Anders (Anders, 1956) and Marshall McLuhan (McLuhan, 1995) in the fifties and at the start of the sixties (see Sandbothe/Zimmerli, 1994 and Sandbothe, 1996a). Derrida’s basic thesis in Of Grammatology is that the form of phonetic writing (i. e. one oriented towards the model of spoken language) which until now has defined the occident favours a certain understanding of time, namely that of the „linearist“ (Derrida, 1976, 72) concept of time centred around the temporal dimension of „presence“. However, with the transition from the dominance of the phonetic type of writing, oriented toward the presence of the signified in the voice, to a „nonphonetic“ (Derrida, 1976, 3) type of writing there results, so Derrida continues, a „deconstruction of presence“ (Derrida, 1976, 70) and hence the transition to a „delinearized temporality“ (Derrida, 1976, 87). From this Derrida, in Of Grammatology, draws the necessary conclusion of abandoning modern philosophy of time’s classical vocabulary: „The concepts of present, past, and future, everything in the concepts of time and history which implies evidence of them – the metaphysical concept of time in general – cannot adequately describe the structure of the trace“ (Derrida, 1976, 67).

The metaphors of the trace and the „différance“ (Derrida, 1982, 3-27) are put forward by Derrida so as to enable deconstructive thinking about time. The details of how a theory of time based on this might look is made clear by Derrida neither in Of Grammatology nor in his later works. The reason for this is that, according to Derrida, the structure of delinearized thinking about time is inchoate and can hence only be anticipated negatively in permanent deconstruction, the execution of which Derrida’s writing has commited itself to, right through to his most recent publications.

In contrast to Derrida, Richard Rorty has until now only dealt with issues of media and time philosophy in passing. Nonetheless the guidelines for a pragmatic theory of time and media can be inferred from Rorty’s scattered comments on this topic. In his considerations Rorty, who as the intellectual pioneer of American neopragmatism counts among the most influential present day philosophers, goes one step beyond Derrida. He advocates the thesis that with the end of epistemology, already diagnosed in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Rorty, 1980), and with the transfer to a pragmatic variant of hermeneutics not only has the classical vocabulary of temporality become obsolete, but the philosophical question about time altogether. He directs this thesis not only against the epistemological mainstream which determines the tradition of modern philosophy, but also against Derrida’s grammatological deconstructionism.

Rorty criticizes Derrida and his followers for overestimating the public, political dimension of deconstructivism (Rorty, 1996 and Rorty, 1998, esp. 96 f). Rorty is of the view that Derrida’s actual strength first finds expression in his more recent works. This strength lies, according to Rorty, in giving up the transcendental project of an „ironist theory“ (Rorty, 1989, 122), which still determined Of Grammatology, and replacing it with „private allusions“ (Rorty, 1989, 122) in order to personalize philosophy by „falling back on private fantasy“ (Rorty, 1989, 125). In texts such as Derrida’s The Post Card (Derrida, 1987) Rorty admires the author’s „having had the courage to give up the attempt to unite the private and the public“ (Rorty, 1989, 125) and having instead consistently spelt out philosophy as a private project of individual self-creation. And Rorty criticizes Of Grammatology insofar as its centre is formed by the attempt – which in its criticism of metaphysics itself remains metaphysical – to develop a „negative“ theory of time as a phenomenon of „trace, reserve, or differance“ (Derrida, 1976, 93).

Rorty’s comments about media are also to be understood against this background. They are based on the lesson, gained from Proust, that „novels are a safer medium than theory“ (Rorty, 1989, 107). More important than a profound media theory grounded on a philosophy of time is, in Rorty’s view, the practical efficacy which can derive from narrative media such as „the novel, the movie, and the TV program“ (Rorty, 1989, xvi). Rorty’s concern here is primarily with content, that is, with the concrete narratives, which are offered by the media. They are to contribute to bringing us further in the „process of coming to see other human beings as ‘one of us’ rather than as ‘them’“ (Rorty, 1989, xvi). The central task of the media lies, according to Rorty, in the creation of concrete solidarity between people who have grown up with different vocabularies and who could learn step by step through the media to intertwine their vocabularies with one another.

The philosophical analyses, presented by Derrida, of the deep implications which media technologies could develop for the basic structures of human temporality appear, from Rorty’s viewpoint, to be a vain undertaking destined to failure. Indeed one must agree with Rorty that the in-depth media-philosophical hermeneutics outlined in Derrida’s Grammatology are a kind of historized transcendental philosophy. Nonetheless Rorty will be unable to deny that the attentiveness to the temporal forms and perceptive structures which are establishing themselves in the tele-technological interplay between human and machine is an important factor to be considered when judging the solidarity-inducing effects which can derive from electronic media. In the following I would like to attempt to bring together both aspects that of „content“ accentuated by Rorty and the „formal“ aspect foregrounded by Derrida by taking a look at the Internet.

The media temporalities of the Internet

In 1995 the American computer sociologist Sherry Turkle published a book entitled Life on the Screen. Identity in the Age of the Internet which can already be considered a classic of humanities Internet research. In this book the author advocates the interesting thesis that the concrete conditions of experience in the Internet make accessible a multitude of those relationships formulated by Derrida and other postmodern philosophers in the sixties and seventies as complex theorems in esoteric language. Turkle describes the Internet’s computer mediated communication against this background as an experience through which Derrida’s thinking is brought „down to earth“ (Turkle, 1995, 17). George P. Landow and Jay David Bolter had already arrived at similar results in the eighties in their investigations into the basic hypertextual structures of electronic textuality used on stand alone computers. Thus Landow, in his book Hypertext. Convergences of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, emphasizes that „something that Derrida and other critical theorists describe as part of a seemingly extravagant claim about language turns out precisely to describe the new economy of reading and writing with electronic virtual … forms“ (Landow, 1992, 8). And Bolter makes clear in his book Writing Space. The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing that „the electronic medium can demonstrate easily what Derrida could only describe laboriously in print …“ (Bolter, 1991, 166).

I would like to illuminate more closely the background to the view advocated by Turkle, Landow and Bolter the view that in the Internet basic ideas of postmodern philosophy are coming into their own as concrete communications practices by looking at Derrida’s grammatological deconstruction of the linear concept of time. My guiding thesis in doing this is that the pragmatic line of argument which Rorty defends against Derrida gains particular relevance in view of the Internet (cf. Sandbothe, 1998). What requires complex philosophical deconstructions in the medium of the printed book, becomes a pragmatic everyday experience by means of a contingent change in the structure of media. The solidarity-inducing effect of the Internet’s networked semiotic structures comes to light clearly in the factual emergence of „virtual communities“ (Rheingold, 1994). But it’s not only, and not primarily, content which leads to solidarity. To this extent Derrida remains partially right against Rorty. It is the chance to shape together ourselves the conditions of presence which brings humanity together. In this temporal pragmatics lies a particularly fascinating dimension of the new medium which has not been sufficiently considered in Internet research to date, and which I would now like to talk about.

The World Wide Web’s graphical user interface stands at the heart of the Internet today. The older, classical Internet services are to be distinguished from this. Counted among these older applications are services ranging from e-mail and talk, Net News and mailing lists, through to IRC, MUDs and MOOs. Common to all of these is that, in contrast to the hypertextual World Wide Web, they are oriented solely toward the model of linear textuality. Alterations in our practical dealings with signs which are relevant for the philosophy of time and media can already be ascertained in the use of these simple communications services. In the following I will restrict my analysis to these simple services. I would like to demonstrate such alterations using the Internet’s three most important synchronous communications services as examples. By this I mean IRC, MUDs and MOOs.

IRC is the abbreviation for Internet Relay Chat, which is a complex communications landscape consisting of a multitude of different conversation fora, or channels. People meet here on-line from all over the world, using nicknames they have chosen themselves, in order to converse with one another in the written form, but nonetheless synchronously, and to exchange up to the minute information on diverse themes. The subject areas range from day-to-day net gossip and virtual flirting, technical questions concerning hardware and software, through to more or less academic conversations on literature, politics, philosophy, physics, medicine and other objects. IRC was developed in 1988 at the University of Oulu (Finland) by Jarkko Oikarinen (Rheingold, 1994, 179).

MUD is the abbreviation for Multi User Dungeon, which is a virtual gaming „haunt“. A number of different participants log in simultaneously in a fictional text-based game landscape in order to collect so-called „experience points“ in combat with other players and programmed robots, and to advance in the respective game’s hierarchy to being a „wizard“ or „god“. Wizards and gods have the power to alter the game landscape and to program the problems which the other participants have to solve (see chapter 5 of Rheingold, 1994, (145-175), as well as Turkle, 1995, esp. 180-186). The first MUD was created in 1979 by Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw at the University of Essex (Rheingold, 1994, 151).

MOO stands for Multi User Dungeon Object Oriented, which – in contrast to the strictly hierarchically organized and sometimes quite violent adventure MUDs – are games in which cooperation, solidarity, education and science are central. Every participant receives programming rights from the start, i. e. he or she can create rooms and objects and independently contribute to the shaping of the game landscape. It was James Aspnes, a graduate student at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who, in 1989, came up with the idea of conceiving such democratic MUDs and thus foregrounding the development of virtual communities. In the USA MOOs have been being used for several years as interactive learning environments in which parents and children, pupils and teachers can together playfully gather experience with the new medium Internet (see Bruckman, 1997).

In IRC, MUDs and MOOs writing functions as a medium of direct synchronous communication between two or more conversation partners who are physically separated and who, as a rule, have never seen each other. Up to a point the anonymity peculiar to the textual medium of the book is connected in the pseudonymity of „on-line Chat“ with the synchronous interactivity and immediate presence of the conversational partners which characterize spoken language in face to face communication. In computer mediated communication features which previously served as differential criteria for the distinction between language and writing are becoming entangled. The transitions between language and writing become fluid. The traditional distinction of spoken language as a medium of presence is undermined by the „appresent presence“ of the participants in the written conversation of on-line Chat. It is this performative writing of a conversation in which language is interactively written instead of spoken, that I call the tendency toward scriptualization of language. Corresponding to this, as a parallel phenomenon, is a tendency toward the verbalization of writing. The medium of writing is used in the conditions of book printing as a distributive technology which excludes the immediate interaction between sender and receiver. In contrast, the Internet opens up possibilities for usage through which writing can be deployed as a medium permiting constant switches in position between sender and receiver in a flexible manner similar to that of spoken conversation. It is this language-like, that is reciprocal, usage form of an interactively used writing in conversational mode which I call the tendency toward verbalization of writing.

The parallel nature of the two transformation tendencies toward scriptualization of language and verbalization of writing indicates that neither of the two referents – neither spoken language nor writing remains unaltered. In on-line Chat language functions as writing, that is, the spoken word realizes itself in writing as a sign of a sign. And at the same time writing functions in on-line Chat as an interactively modelable and contextually situated writing of language, that is, the written word is no longer misinterpreted as the sign of an authentic sign – with the latter itself being no longer sign-like – instead it is understood as being the sign of a sign of a sign and so on, i. e. as an unending semiotic process with a pragmatically determined relative end.

Through the double decentralization of language and writing taking place in the Internet the grammatological fundament for a delinearized temporality is being prepared by media technology. Space and time are, from Derrida’s perspective (unlike, say, that of Kant), not a priori forms of intuition transcendentally underlying the system of empirical signs. They are far more the effects of a grammatologically describable structure. To quote Derrida: „Origin of the experience of space and time, this writing of differance, this fabric of the trace, permits the difference between space and time to be articulated, to appear as such, in the unity of an experience“ (Derrida, 1976, 65 f).

What with Derrida somewhat nebulously and quasi-transcendentally trades under the name „fabric of the trace“, is met with in our experience of time in the media conditions of the Internet as the concrete practice of modified sign usage and the associated transformations. In place of a hierarchical framework of representation in which the orientation of signs toward the transparent presence of the signified is central comes in the Internet a mesh of pragmatic appresences and semiotic interrelations. The temporal interplay of these appresences no longer takes place here in the theoretical horizon of representation, but is bound into the pragmatic context of concrete performed actions. It is this transition from a theoretical temporality of representation to a temporal pragmatics of semiotic action which distinguishes the Internet’s media signature.

What does this mean for the specific experience of time which users have in dealing with the Internet? To answer this question it is helpful to contrast the temporal conditions being practised in Internet use with those temporal schemata which are known to us from the use of television. Whereas television prescribes its recipients a fixed linear time track, the timing, that is the temporal arrangement of on-line meetings in MUDs and MOOs takes place through individual agreements between users. Here too, of course, certain regularities in practice quickly establish themselves. But these regularities are appointments you make yourself, which can be made the object of dealings and discussion within the Internet’s virtual communities. In place of a prescribed presence, conveyed to passive recipients by the medium of television, come in the Internet’s communication services socially constructed times of presence, within which users constitute their identities on the bedrock of writing-based interaction in a context of shared plans for the future.

Furthermore, in the virtual surroundings of text-based communications worlds users themselves have the chance to invent and to program the narrative description of the virtual space in which they, along with other participants, move. Space no longer seems to be a given entity, within which you simply move around passively and on which you can have no influence whatsoever. Rather it becomes a consciously constructed and aesthetically staged artefact. Along with the rooms around which on-line agents move, the times in which respective narratives are played out are also staged by the participants themselves. The peculiar virtual spatiality of MUDs and MOOs corresponds with their specific temporality. Unlike with television or computer games designed for stand alone machines, the inhabitants of the Internet’s communicative, text-based worlds of MUD and MOO are not forced into prescribed simulations of space and time, but rather experience space and time as creatively shapeable constructions of their narrative and cooperative imagination. In MUDs and MOOs a theatricalization of space and time takes place. Participants who have and make use of programming rights become the architects and dramaturgists of a virtual theatre, on whose electronic stage the spatio-temporal base structure of our perceptions itself becomes the object to be staged (see Sandbothe, 1997a).

The text-based constitution of these communications landscapes is of central importance for the peculiar narrative spatiality and temporality of MUD and MOO worlds. Through the anaesthetic reduction of communication to the medium of an interactively functioning script the visual, acoustic and tactile cues which we subconsciously presuppose in face to face communication become the object of conscious construction in the medium of writing. The appresent presence of participants in on-line Chat means that, so as to be present as a Chat participant at all, we must describe to the other participants what we look like, how our voice sounds and our skin feels, in what time and space we move, and, all in all, what kind of beings we are in what kind of a world. Our actions and the interactions with our communications partners and virtual objects also take place in the medium of digital writing, that is, in the process of interactive writing and in the mode of the sign itself.

The interpretive nature of our everyday understanding of ourselves and the world as well as the constructed nature of our „ways of worldmaking“ (Goodman, 1978) are in this way becoming explicit and experienceable for everybody. Therein lies an important enlightening dimension of the interactive, writing-based forms of Net communication. In the interactive writing of MUDs and MOOs our dealings with signs prove themselves to be a practice which is concerned not with the representation of an extra-semiotic reality, but with constructive action in and through signs. To this extent it can be said in a quite pragmatic and concrete sense that within the Internet reality becomes the interplay of signifiers, a textual web of mutually referential signs, whose meaning no longer refers to a sign-neutral externality, but constitutes itself intersubjectively in the dimension of concrete interactions.

Media philosophy

Against this background I would finally like to come back to Rorty. Rorty suggests apprehending media as literary forms of narrative which through their „sad and sentimental stories“ (Rorty, 1993c, 118f ) can effect solidarity. His hope is that with the help of media we might succeed in bringing together groups of people who have grown up in different social, political and geographical cultures and with varying views by „linking through a thousand small stitches and … conjuring up a thousand small similarities“ (Rorty, 1994a, 87). This utopia, one which understands „moral progress in the sense of increasing sensitivity and growing receptiveness for the needs of an ever increasing multitude of people and things“ (Rorty, 1994a, 79), can be directly related to the transcultural communications practices which are characteristic of virtual communities in the Internet.

In his book Collective Intelligence. Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace the French hypermedia philosopher Pierre Lévy describes the Internet as „the creation of a new medium of communication, thought, and work“ (Lévy, 1997, XX ) which will „enable us to think as a group … and negotiate practical real-time solutions to the complex problems we must inevitably confront“ (Lévy, 1997, XXVII ). Lévy bases this view on a social vision of the Internet which had already been formulated in 1968 by the heads of the American Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). With a view to „on-line interactive communities“ of the future, the two ARPA chiefs Licklider and Taylor wrote: „In most fields they will consist of geographically separated members … . They will be communities not of common location, but of common interest. … life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity“ (Licklider/Taylor, 1968, 30f ). This quote makes it clear that even in the military context of the ARPANET, which was developed by the US Defence Ministry at the end of the sixties and from which the Internet was later to follow, the social dimension of the network played a central role.

The horizon appearing in the considerations by Lévy, Licklider and Taylor of a dimension of the Internet leading to the formation of transgeographic communities and transcultural solidarities is based not primarily, and not solely, in content, but already results from the fact that interactive networks reveal forms of communication which ease the emergence of transversal interest-based communites. In IRC, MUDs and MOOs it becomes possible for people separated in space and time, and to this extent living in different worlds, to live virtually in a common world whose basic spatio-temporal coordinates they construct together in a cooperative process of negotiation. The enlightening dimension of interactive Net communication mentioned above – which can bring about an awareness of the interpreted and constructed nature of our day-to-day understanding of ourselves and the world – plays an important role in this. For the recognition of the contingent character of even our deepest beliefs represents an important basis for transcultural dialogue which is concerned precisely with interweaving contingent beliefs of varying origin with one another (cf. Welsch, 1995).

The philosophical backgrounds which codetermine the social, political and enlightening aspects of new media are, admittedly, not considered by Rorty, whose considerations have until now been restricted to classical mass media such as „the novel, the movie, and the TV program“ (Rorty, 1989, xvi). The reason for this lies not least in that Rorty so sharply delimits the public-political sphere of media from the esoteric vocabularies of philosophy. Philosophical vocabularies are, on his view, to be understood as their authors’ private projects of self-creation, allowing little to be said about their relevance for common sense. And if philosophical vocabularies do find their way to the common man, which according to Rorty is also quite possible in exceptional cases, then this occurs „in the long run“ (Rorty, 1993b, 445), that is, in the spectrum of historical developments which are to be measured on the scale of centuries (see also Rorty, 1991, 72 f).

In my view corrections are to be made to this conservative estimation of the significance of philosophy in the age of new media technologies. The parallels described which exist between Derrida’s Grammatology and the transformations occurring in the Internet have, I hope, made it clear up to a point that the „process of European linguistic practices changing at a faster and faster rate“ (Rorty, 1989, 7), described by Rorty himself in the first chapter of his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, simultaneously leads to more rapid and more radical changes in the philosophical bedrock of common sense than Rorty is prepared to admit. For this reason Rorty’s comments in which he calls „the esoteric matters with which Derrida (is) obsessed (e. g. the presupposed primacy of speech over writing)“ (Rorty, 1995a, 440) „a vagary on his (i. e. Derrida’s) part“ (Rorty, 1991, 96, footnote 17) which is „irrelevant (at least so far as we can presently see) to the public life“ (Rorty, 1995a, S. 448) also seem to me to be in need of revision. Statements of this kind ignore the media-philosophical significance due to Derrida’s considerations in the context of new communications and information technology (see already Ulmer, 1985). A media-pragmatic reading of the Grammatology can help in gaining an insight into the interplay between the development of philosophical vocabularies, the establishment of new media technologies, and changes in the common man’s everyday understanding of self and the world.

If one interprets the technical media of modernity as machines, with whose help whole societies can acquire new vocabularies, new temporalities and new ways of worldmaking in a relatively short time, then it becomes clear that issues of media politics have genuine philosophical dimensions and that philosophical theories of media have eminently political aspects. These relationships are in need of a differentiated analysis, one in league with neither the cultural critique of a post-historical media eschatology nor with the retreat of philosophy to a supposedly private domain of individual self-creation. What I have in mind is, in contrast to this, an active interplay between media philosophy and media politics in the Internet age, one which critically codetermines new technologies. An interplay such as this would be of particular importance in the conditions of increasing commercialization of new technologies. For through the unreflected commercialization of interactive networks there exists the danger that the opportunities contained by the Internet might turn into risks.

Translated from German by Andrew Inkpin.

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