REVIEW: Andrew Herman's and Thomas Swiss' The World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory: Magic, Metaphor, Power


Ben Agger

Enculturation, Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall 2000

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It is about time that the Web and the internet are theorized this side of euphoria! The Herman and Swiss collection contains valuable meditations on the impact of the Web on society and culture, shorn of the cheerleading of Wired magazine, Negroponte, Turkle, and Gates. The left has finally begun to rebut this vacant optimism. Paralleling this collection, theorists such as Doug Kellner, Tim Luke, Mark Poster and Nick Dyer-Witheford address information technologies as dialectical phenomena, both enabling a global capitalism and its culture industries and, conceivably, providing a forum for critique and counterhegemony. The contributors to this volume, mostly Americans, work mainly in sociology and communications programs. The book is rich in theoretical insight and empirical detail, unfolding from a stage-setting theoretical paper by Robert McChesney that situates the Web in corporate, global capitalism. This chapter alone makes the book worth buying.

After treating various topics of interest, the book closes with an edifying chapter by Stuart Moulthrop, who used to be involved with the e-journal Postmodern Culture. In this concluding contribution, Moulthrop argues that it is not even clear that the Web, as a clearly identifiable phenomenon with boundaries and an interior, exists at all. It is more a product of theory, which dubs interrelated aspects of information technology, the internet and the World Wide Web. 'Web,' in the Foucaultdian sense, is the sticky environment in which human interaction is increasingly trapped, busily devoted to shopping, entertainment, and chatting as ways of being in the world that do not fundamentally challenge the dominant social, political and economic order. Although Moulthrop does not argue from Foucault, he raises many of the same questions as Foucault about the nature of power.

In other chapters, authors treat such topics as the role of space and place in a cyber-era critical theory, conspiracy, utopian/dystopian views of the Web, software piracy and copyright in cyberspace, hypertext links, awards on the Web, online community making, and literacy in the cyber-era. There is not a weak chapter among these, even though some chapters paint with a broader and more theoretical brush than others. Emerging from this body of work is a concerted view of the internet and the Web as moments in a contemporary (and future) stage of capitalism in which relatively low-friction information technologies need to be theorized as circuits of capital, globality, the culture industry as well as possible vehicles for resistance. What I like most about this collection of papers is the tendency to shy away from celebration, which permeates much writing about the impact of the internet on society and culture. At the same time, the authors collected here are not dystopian, refusing a technological determinism or reductionism that simply reduces the Web to a vehicle of commodification, social control, and concepts like the Panopticon. Herman and Swiss acknowledge that the internet and Web are dialectical phenomena, possessing the potential to deepen domination and at the same time to become avenues of resistance, organization and even emancipation.

So much writing on the Web is celebratory because the Web is situated in contemporary capitalism, which, as the Frankfurt School recognized, tends to suck all institutions and practices into social, economic and cultural reproduction. As such, the Web, for example, through so-called e-commerce facilitates shopping, marketing, cultural diversion/entertainment. In a sense, the Web is interesting as a means of social reproduction and social control because it blurs the boundaries among institutions that, since Durkheim and Weber, sociologists theorized and studied as separable economy, polity, family, religion, media. It does so because, in Haberma's terms, it colonizes peoples everyday lives, bringing the world into homes, offices and even automobiles and transmitting people into the world, with minimal friction. What economists call transaction costs are significantly diminished when one can read a newspaper online, purchase airplane tickets, chat with friends (and strangers) in distant places, collect information about peoples criminal records. The concept of transaction costs is applied to the costs of doing business, although it can be extended to a host of human interactions. In Fast Capitalism, which I published in 1989 just as I was getting online, I address the impact on society and culture of accelerated relationships, notably reading and writing. Today, I would use the term instantaneity to characterize the relatively frictionless, colonizing implications of Web-mediated interactions for the traditional public/private relationship. Temporality and spatiality are certainly at issue when people are connected both synchronously and asynchronously to social institutions, and to each other, through the global reach of the Web. Time and space shrink, as do so-called transaction costs, in this even faster stage of capitalism. Where in the 1930s and 1940s critical theorists theorized and opposed the collapse of the public sphere, today we must be concerned about the eclipse of the private sphere, a trajectory that is paralleled in the work of Habermas as he has moved from his 1962 Habilitationsschrift on the structural transformation of the public sphere to his 1981 books on the colonization of the lifeworld (in the framework of his evolving communication theory).

I want to phrase the agenda of critical theory as a defensive maneuver, protecting privacy and the subject against the colonizing, totalizing agenda of what the Frankfurt School theorists called "administered society." Administration--social control--is enhanced when the boundary between private and public spheres becomes permeable and is even effaced altogether. The Web has the potential to do this, resulting in institutional de-differentiation that imperils democracy, community and meaning. All things being equal, institutional differentiation protects the private sphere, blocking "total administration," colonization, Panopticon and the like. Both German and French theorists have drawn attention to the eclipse of the subject, privacy, reason, democracy in post-WWII capitalism, even if their diagnoses and resolutions of this are somewhat different. Derrida's important Specters of Marx certainly narrows the distance between French theory and Marxian-inspired German theory. He even suggests an emancipatory agenda appropriate to a virtual capitalism.

If the subject is at stake, today as during the Holocaust and Siberia, the internet needs to be theorized in that light. To what extent do information technologies that engender what I am calling instantaneity lead to institutional de-differentiation and especially the eclipse of privacy? To what extent are these tendencies counteracted by tendencies toward what I would call authoriality (or Habermas "dialogue chances") opened up by friction-free literary work and community building on the internet? I address these tendencies and countertendencies in my forthcoming Self and Cybersociety and Do Books Write Authors? I contend that we cannot resolve this without a sustained empirical look at society and culture in an era of global information technologies that have not yet been addressed systematically by critical theory. This is the work that lies ahead of those of us who recognize that the Web - Foucault's Panopticon - and perhaps assail privacy just as it may possess the potential to revive the public sphere in an era of electronic democracy.

For us to continue to think in this direction, as the authors collected in this volume demonstrate, we cannot prejudge what Merleau-Ponty called the adventures of the dialectic; revolutionary teleology and negative dialectics are both to be rejected as lacking nuance.


Works Cited

Herman, Andrew and Thomas Swiss, ed. The World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory. Routledge: New York, 2000.




Copyright Enculturation 2000

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