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George Landow

Related: print culture - academic


George P. Landow is the founder and current webmaster of The Victorian, Postcolonial, and Cyberspace and Hypertext sites. He is Professor of English and Art History at Brown University and an early hypertext critic and theorist. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Landow [Sept 2005]

See also: http://www.victorianweb.org/cv/gplbio.html [Sept 2005]

From early modern print culture to hypertext

An example of a late 1990s techno-utopian text on the liberating political powers of the internet:

George Landow contends that "the history of information technology from writing to hypertext reveals an increasing democratization or dissemination of power" (174). If this is true, then the texts of the Enlightenment and the hypertexts of the postmodern age can be seen as related moments in the historical liberation of information. Dan Nguyen and Jon Alexander refer to the Internet as "an enormously liberating force working against hierarchies of all kinds. This is the democracy citizens in advanced nations always dreamed of. What people are creating on the Internet is a conversational, demassified, non-representational democracy that transcends the nation-state" (111). It can be quite interesting to explore this development with students. With their great Encyclopedia, Diderot and other Enlightened philosophes dreamed of distributing knowledge throughout the world--or at least, throughout that part of the world which could afford the Encyclopedia's prohibitive subscription costs. In principle, the Net would seem to bring us closer to this Enlightened dream of free, universal information. For one thing, the Net evades the material cost of book production. After all, it costs nothing to copy a computer file. Theoretically, the Net could therefore serve as an Encyclopedia of greater size and scope than anything Diderot ever imagined.

Despite the lofty ideals of the philosophes, of course, the texts of the Enlightenment were hardly available to everyone. These texts were read by a literate minority with the money to purchase books. Similarly, despite the claims of Landow and others that hypertext necessarily leads to democratization, the postmodern philosophes of today are often stymied by a commodification of information which is in many ways quite similar to what went on during the Enlightenment. As Mark Poster points out, "the system of private enterprise does not easily surrender to the liberatory potentials of historical circumstances. Every effort is made to commodify information, regardless of how inappropriate, unlikely, ludicrous, or inequitable are the consequences" (75). Frequent Web surfers know that many Web sites require a credit card number for access, and even "free" sites are often supported by advertising. Michael Joyce argues that this commodification of information extends into the university as well: "we ration hours [of computer time] among our students, and allot technological upgrades to our colleagues, accounting hours and upgrades alike as actual capital within an intellectual economy" (93). During the Enlightenment, social distinctions were drawn between those who could afford books and those who could not. Distinctions today exist between those who can afford a computer powerful enough to run Netscape Navigator 4.0 and those who cannot. It would appear that the electronic age has its own well-developed class structure.

And yet as Poster points out, the Net is also one of the few places where meaningful protest can take place today: "the factory site, with its massed, impoverished workers, no longer presents, for so many reasons, the opportunity of revolutionary talk. If contestatory language is to emerge today, it must do so in the context of TV ads and databases, of computers and communications satellites" (80). This suggests that electronic communication may make possible a radical new kind of revolutionary politics. Particularly interesting in this context is the fact that it is possible, on the Net, to speak from a position of perfect anonymity. Surely this helps to explain why so much language on the Net today is not only contestatory but also radical, shocking and bizarre.

Students in a course on the Enlightenment might be pleasantly surprised to learn that anonymity played a similar role in the political culture of eighteenth century France. Robert Darnton points out that some of the most radical printed texts of the Enlightenment had no author. "They were the public discussing. They expressed the on dit, or talk of the town" (Forbidden Bestsellers 80). One can scarcely resist drawing a comparison between the radical, anonymous pamphlets of the Enlightenment and the vibrant, perpetual conversation that takes place throughout the world on Usenet newsgroups today. Certainly Usenet is the public discussing, and this public, like its Enlightened predecessor, frequently says things that are quite scandalous, all from behind the cloak of a comfortable electronic anonymity.

Of course, not everyone is delighted by the Net's free-flowing, worldwide conversation. One must consider here the recent attempt by the United States government to limit electronic speech through the so-called Communications Decency Act. Again, this invites comparison with the political culture of the Enlightenment. Net culture, much like the print culture of France during the Enlightenment, challenges the artificial distinctions which government attempts to impose upon it. The CDA claimed to be aimed against pornography--but where does pornography end, and where do politics and philosophy begin? Many feminists expressed justifiable concern, for example, that certain discussions about abortion could be labeled "obscene" under the CDA. Darnton points out that when we examine the turbulent political culture of the Enlightenment, "the seemingly self-evident distinction between pornography and philosophy begins to break down. . . .It no longer seems puzzling that Mirabeau, the embodiment of the spirit of 1789, should have written the rawest pornography and the boldest political tracts of the previous decade" (Forbidden Bestsellers, 21). The distinction between radical politics and pornography was not clear during the French Enlightenment, nor is it clear in today's Net culture. Indeed, Net culture almost obsessively promotes contestatory speech, including the "rawest pornography," and this seems very much in harmony with the spirit of the Enlightenment.

What is interesting about these brief examples is that they show how the seeds of a postmodern micropolitics are to be found in the political culture of the Enlightenment. As Darnton has pointed out, the lasting political meaning of the Enlightenment may not lie in the supposedly emancipatory metanarrative of Rousseau's Social Contract. Rather, it may lie in the scurrilous scribblings of Darnton's "grub street" hacks (Darnton, Literary Underground). These political pornographers produced a micropolitical discourse which challenged power on capillary levels invisible to a Voltaire or a Diderot. For centuries, this discourse was lost, obscured behind the monolithic texts of the "high enlightenment." Now that the discourse of the "low enlightenment" emerges once again, we see this culture reflected in the networks of the postmodern age. We begin to see that modern power is most effectively challenged not by metanarratives which reinvent and reinscribe power, but rather by electronic micronarratives about ethnicity, sexuality, vegetarianism, Taoism or even the Grateful Dead, to name just a few. --1998, http://mcel.pacificu.edu/history/jahcI1/Call/democ.html [Sept 2005]

Search string used: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&safe=off&c2coff=1&q=%22print+culture%22+philosophy+pornography+politics+enlightenment

See also: print culture - philosophy - politics - enlightenment


  1. Hyper/Text/Theory - George P. Landow [Amazon US]
    Scholars of literature and philosophy confront some of the issues raised by interactive hypertext, the 11 essays covering nonlinearity, politics, and the new writing. Specific topics include the reader's narrative, closure and indeterminacy, liberation and complicity, and an experiment in hyperrhetoric. No index. Paper edition (unseen), Annotation copyright Book News, Inc. Portland, Or. --amazon.com

    In his widely acclaimed book Hypertext George P. Landow described a radically new information technology and its relationship to the work of such literary theorists as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes. Now Landow has brought together a distinguished group of authorities to explore more fully the implications of hypertextual reading for contemporary literary theory.

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