Beth, perhaps we should begin our conversation by explaining how we each got into the on-line mode. I'm still amazed by the serendipity of it all in my case -- meeting you again for what turned out to be the third time, reconnected by a third party, and then getting on-line to share conversation via electronic mail. 1 Retrospectively though, I would say that I was moving towards going on-line because I was searching for an interactive way to do scholarly work, a responsive way. As a teacher, I was already practicing democratic pedagogy in my classroom, which was a good beginning, but I was still searching for other ways to be interactive and responsive.
You know, Bob, "responsiveness" was something I was looking for, too, but I never thought of it in those terms. I was in a big hurry to get my computer account and log on to "conversation." You see, it had been over a year since I finished all my academic work at the university. For a while, I kept myself occupied with studies for written and oral comprehensive exams, but those were now behind me as well and I found, in the aftermath, that I really missed the multilogue of the scholarly seminar, the discussions and the social meaning- making process. So, I logged on for conversation, to keep my mind active, so to speak. Although my motives had intellectual merit, I have to be honest and admit that it was more the need for social interaction that sent me on-line than any quest for knowledge.
The strange thing for me was that I wasn't getting what I would call responsiveness in scholarly seminars even. It still seemed that the professor was transmitting or broadcasting rather than responding; it was stilted. The school experience came across like one more mass medium for the most part. It had its moments when artful instructors made things look real, but it still wasn't what I was looking for. When I read the Clarke and Holquist biography of Bakhtin, I imagined people sitting around talking, drinking strong tea, and talking about intellectual things in a natural way; that was what I was looking for and not finding in the classroom, even the seminar classroom.2
In his essay "Requiem for the Media," Baudrillard says
The mass media are anti-mediatory and intransitive. They fabricate non-communication -- this is what characterizes them, if one agrees to define communication as an exchange, as a reciprocal space of a speech and a response, and thus of a responsibility (not a psychological or moral responsibility, but a personal, mutual correlation in exchange). We must understand communication as something other than the simple transmission- reception of a message, whether or not the latter is considered reversible through feedback. Now, the totality of the existing architecture of the media founds itself on this latter definition: they are what always prevents response, making all process of exchange impossible (except in the various forms of response simulation, themselves integrated in the transmission process, thus leaving the unilateral nature of the communication intact).3
If you plug school into this, you find plenty of response-simulations -- some good, some not so good, but none ultimately satisfying. I was also finding lots of talk about moral responsibility, for example, but an almost complete silence on the need to establish response-ability as a precondition. On-line conversation, however, is much closer to the tea room experience; response-ability does seem to be a precondition.
I find much I can agree with in Baudrillard's comments about media and about response-simulation. And I looked to the conversations I had on-line as responsive conversation in which the conversation as well as the response could happen at times convenient for me. But, as time went on, I began to wonder whether or not the responsiveness was not just another simulation. In this case, the simulation being initiated by me. I began to wonder whether or not cyberspace was the ultimate illusion factory, so to speak.
Let's face it, electronic conversation, while it seems rich and multi- dimensional, is in fact one-dimensional. Electronic conversation is entirely rhetorical; electronic communities are rhetorical communities. While I might attend any number of "real life" seminars in which to share conversation with colleagues, those "real" seminars take place in specific locations at specific times; those engaged in seminar conversation are entirely embodied. Electronic conversation, however, takes place under circumstances of chronotopic variation, hence the appeal of being able to engage in exchanges only when it's convenient to do so. The discourse is also completely disembodied; one hasn't the advantages of body language and facial expression to interpret how successfully one is communicating. But, on the positive side, one hasn't the disadvantages of visual cues like gender, race, age, body size, and/or physical ability to overcome.
I found it quite comforting to be able to cast in a conversational text the ethos of my choosing. When I talk to colleagues on-line, they have no clues about my appearance, no clues about my "legitimate" authority to speak. They judge me solely on the quality of my rhetoric. This is a real advantage for a short, middle-aged white woman with an obvious feminine voice and southern accent.
Beyond that, I don't have to worry about being interrupted when I'm speaking in cyberspace. I compose my message in isolation (even though I strongly sense the presence of my audience, people hanging-on to my every word) and at my leisure. No one says a word in response until I finish what I'm saying and strike the "send" button. For a short, middle-aged female with a feminine voice, southern accent, and a feminine style of argumentation, this is a great advantage -- at least I get a fair hearing.
But the question is, of course, do I? I strongly suspect that what I get is the illusion of a fair hearing. I create an ethos for my interlocutor and that ethos is, at the very least, one of a fair and open-minded person. I strongly suspect that the reason I'm so fond of communicating on-line is that I can disembody myself and create for myself an illusory world from what Baudrillard refers to as "the missing dimension."4 Free of my body and my voice, I can be wherever I want, whenever I want, as whoever I want in cyberspace.
I suspect that in concealing some things, other things are revealed. I would want to say that in electronic conversation you reveal, through your word choice and metaphor choice, for example, your desires. You reveal the contours of your world-view, the contours of the world you would like to see in ways that might not be apparent in other mediums, including face to face.
Although Baudrillard may not be writing about electronic conversations as such, his comments in "Requiem" allude to a potential which I think such exchanges in fact have:
In effect, an immediate communication process is rediscovered, one not filtered through bureaucratic models -- an original form of exchange, in fact, because there are neither transmitters, not receivers, but only people responding to each other. The problem of spontaneity and organization is not overcome dialectically here: its terms are transgressed.5
In other words, I am thinking that you're onto the transgressive aspect of electronic conversation, but that you're describing it dialectically, in terms of illusion/reality. Graffiti, according to Baudrillard, is similarly transgressive, yet still responsive:
Graffiti is transgressive, not because it substitutes another content, another discourse, but simply because it responds, there, on the spot, and breaches the fundamental role of non-response enunciated by all the media. Does it oppose one code to another? I don't think so: it simply smashes the code. It doesn't lend itself to deciphering as a text rivaling commercial discourse; it presents itself as a transgression.6
So I would say, if there is a dichotomy, it's transgressive vs. non-transgressive rather than illusion vs. reality. What you feel subjectively in electronic exchange may be a heightened responsiveness to your own signals, but this sensation may ultimately not be recoupable as illusion. I am thinking that the subjective aspects of electronic conversation are better recouped as transgressive or hyperreal.
I don't follow the allusions to graffiti relative to electronic exchange. For one thing, it's hard to see that particular medium, graffiti, as conversational in any except the most remote of senses. But, I do think it's worth exploring electronic conversation from the perspective of hyperreality. Let's first agree on terms. Hyperreality, as I understand it, is the realer-than-real; it's reality without distance from that reality, therefore without perspective. As interesting example is Baudrillard's Teflon-coated pan in which one heats water to boiling. Although, as he points out, the pan transfers heat to the water, it does so without ever physically touching the water.7 This is as close as one can actually come to the paradox of touching without having contact. There is, for me, this same kind of "lack of distance" between interlocutors in cyberspace -- quite an illusory lack since there may indeed be all the distance in the world. I may, for example, feel the direct contact heat of conversation with someone in Thailand while I, in actuality, am here at my terminal in Greensboro, NC.
Referring to graffiti, I was thinking only that if electronic conversation is transgressive, like graffiti in some sense is, we would need to model it in a very novel way. If it falls outside of normal parameters, then it would be misleading to describe it in normal terms. My question, for example, concerns whether or not it is misleading to characterize the "contact heat" you feel from an electronic message, from Thailand or anywhere else, as illusory.
It does seem to transgress our customary paradigms for understanding distance, and Teflon hay be a helpful new metaphor for describing this transgression, but I am not so sure the old metaphor of illusion is helpful. An old metaphor which might work, though, is emotional distance; for example, we might compare the old-fashioned intimacies of letter writing to the new-found intimacies of electronic conversation. And what would be the overall connection? In a "real life" seminar, a lot of daydreaming goes on; people can be very much elsewhere and yet sit in the same physical space with others. Or, longtime partners who share the same house can remain strangers to one another in some ways. But, in electronic exchange, you could be next door "hearing" my keystrokes or you could be in Thailand; in either case, we might be closer in some says than if we were sitting together in the same seminar at the same time. Thus, conversation in cyberspace defies/transgresses normal categories, causing us to have to rethink our terms.
Along these lines, hyperreality is, to me, like scurrility rather than illusion. Hyperreality transgresses at one end of the reality-effect spectrum and scurrility transgresses at the other. Electronic conversation can indeed be too much, although I'm not sure what it is too much of. Too much of self, maybe. Too much awareness that we construct our own reality, maybe. In any case, how can we describe this world from a perspective-less position, up close like perception must be to infants? What mileage do you get from describing this in terms of illusion?
I agree that there's a too-muchness to electronic conversation, and I would be so bold as to claim that what it's too much of is indeed Self. What I construct when I construct you, my interlocutor, is whole-heartedly what I desire. You become the perfect Other, which is Self. So, you bringing up the difficulty inherent in describing cyberspace from a perspective-less position, up close like it must seem to infants, is very apropos. Self, Other, mirror phase -- all are Lacanian concepts (or concepts that Lacan appropriates from Freud).
As I understand it, the Self is one with the universe prior to birth (what Freud refers to as oceanic consciousness); the Self exists in a state of unity. At the moment of birth, unity is destroyed, perhaps making birth the original sin metaphorized in Genesis. But, there can be no real return to the mother's body, no going back to the Garden. The original oceanic experience of unity translates for Lacan into Object A after which we are in perpetual quest, looking for "mother's body," the original Self, in Other.
So, after birth, we are only fragmented selves harboring unfulfillable desires for an Other to perfect us. Infants, of course, have no sense of their fragmentation, thus it is the mirror, by reflecting, that instructs us, that gives us perspective of sorts. We look into the mirror and see an ego-self.
In many ways, I "look at" the computer screen as I would look at a mirror, a surface upon which I see the reflection of my own ego and desires. I am thus seduced not by an interlocutor, but by my own image, what I create. I idealize, for better or for worse. As Baudrillard says in Seduction
Seduction cannot possibly be represented, because in seduction the distance between the real and its double, and the distortion between the Same and the Other, is abolished. Bending over a pool of water, Narcissus quenches his thirst. His image is no longer "other;" it is a surface that absorbs and seduces him, which he can approach but never pass beyond. For there is no beyond, just as there is no reflexive distance between him and his image. The mirror of water is not a surface of reflection, but of absorption.8
The only "mileage" I get out of using the word "illusion" is that I feel it most closely circumscribes my meaning. I think that what happens between interlocutors in cyberspace is, indeed, illusion.
"Illusion" circumscribes your meaning or circumscribes your desire? The difficulty I have with Freud and Lacan, and grand theory in general, is that so much can be annihilated with it. Doesn't this trouble you? As an alternative to Freud/Lacan, let's say that human nature is socially mediated and technologically mediated. Conversation is a clear example of social mediation. Computers are a clear example of technological mediation. Computer conversation, electronic conversation, in this sense doubles human nature -- and in the transaction a double is produced, by which I mean a novel subjectivity or persona. Let's furthermore say, then, that I have a desire to construct the subjective dynamics of electronic conversation with terms such as "transgression" and "doubling" and you have a desire to construct those same dynamics in terms such as "seduction" and "illusion." Since we are socially constructing this text, how will we mediate our conflicting desires? I now extend my question about the "mileage" of terminology: not, then, what mileage you get from using words like "illusion," but what mileage we get. My argument for not using such terms is that they provide a ground for dismissal of whatever work is done on electronic exchange as somehow less-than-real (i.e., illusory). What we get from talking in terms of transgression and doubling is a world wherein there is no position from which anyone could declaim on reality in order to dismiss illusory processes, or declaim on illusion in order to claim ownership of the real.
Baudrillard concludes "Requiem" by asserting that "what is strategic in this sense is only what radically checkmates the dominant form." 9 Having already identified the dominant media form to be simulated or quasi-responsive (e.g. the call-in radio show which, because it is controlled at one end only, simulates responsiveness), what would checkmate the dominant media form would be genuine responsiveness. Electronic conversation enacts genuine responsiveness insofar as the control is dispersed much more evenly between participants. What you are arguing -- that electronic conversation is illusory in this other personal sense of over-full projection of ego onto the screen -- seems not to be the case at least on the level of experience and politics; I mean it may be that ultimately we are deluded and in fact really do want nothing more than to return to unity in our mothers' bodies -- just as we are deluded into thinking we are really responding to one another in cyberspace -- but it doesn't feel that way to me. For example, when we put ourselves and our students on-line for discussions in the classes we taught last fall, people and power relationships were transformed; the usual power channels were transgressed.10 Even if it could be demonstrated that this kind of thing is an attempt to return to the mother, suppose we just say that whatever allows a sense of return is good, rather than illusory. For me, terms like illusion have a way of degrading experience and it's not my desire to do that.
In the remarks you cite from Baudrillard's "Requiem," you suggest that electronic conversation is an example of a reciprocal, truly responsive relationship, that there exists between interlocutors a kind of self/other relationship. Interestingly, I would say, then, that electronic responsiveness is more illusory while the call-in radio show responsiveness is more real. After all, there is a power disparity between the radio host and his caller and power disparities are real. The host, as owner of power, treats his caller, to whom he condescends to give air-time, as other. The further apart are self and other, the less reciprocal or responsive their exchange. Electronic conversation seems to close the gap between self and other as Baudrillard directly points out in "Xerox and Infinity":
Thanks to his computer or word processor, Telecomputer Man offers himself the spectacle of his own brain, his own intelligence, at work. Similarly, through his chat line or his Minitel [electronic conversation], he can offer himself the spectacle of his own phantasies, of a strictly virtual pleasure. He exorcises both intelligence and pleasure at the interface with the machine. The Other, the interlocutor, is never really involved: the screen works much like a mirror, for the screen itself as locus of the interface is the prime concern. An interactive screen transforms the process of relating into a process of commutation between One and the Same. The secret of the interface is that the Other is virtually the Same: otherness is surreptitiously conjured away by the machine.11
Now, I think we need to consider this carefully. I think we need to weigh this against what he has to say in his theories of seduction. It's quite easy for me to see the computer screen as a mirror surface, reflecting (doubling, if you prefer) my own desire, closing the gap between self and other.
This in no way negates the things that happened to us and to our students in the electronic exchanges; it in no way makes our experience unreal. But, I still think that it's the essential quality of the interface to function as a mirror, to seduce. In the long run, it's the seduction that facilitates communication, understanding, learning, and a sense of human fulfillment that strikes us as union with another when it's really the self that we find.
Okay then, in terms of my now proliferating explanations of electronic conversational phenomena I would want to add this: the boundary between self and other has been dissolving for some time now under the signs of the social construction of reality and intersubjectivity, and that what Baudrillard proposes in this passage from "Xerox and Infinity" is precisely a merger of self and other (in the Same), so why should this be thought of as any big deal? If there never was a self and there never was an other, because both were already and always merged, then what happens in electronic conversation is routine, run-of-the-mill. Our brains, including the "spectacle of our brains" that we see on the computer screen are not our own anyway. When we "exorcise intelligence and pleasure" on the screen we find that we are composed of the so-called others anyway. This scares us, and so we run off and come up with complicated theories which reinstate the familiar boundaries. Even Baudrillard gets scared. He retreats all the way back to medieval terms -- exorcism no less-- to talk about electronic media. Rather than reinstating reality/illusion as you want to do (a modernist dichotomy), he wants to reinstate self/other (a medieval dichotomy). Either way you slice it, it slices all the same. Again, I would say that this talk of terminology is important and pertains directly to making maps of the electronic conversational terrain.
So you say that the dichotomy between self/other is a false one. Without bringing into the discussion any metaphysical or mystical considerations, create for me a narrative of day to day life in a world where this dichotomy does not, to some extent, exist. Let's reduce it to something really manageable, you Bob and I Beth meet on Monday morning at the local coffee shop to talk. There's no dichotomy between self and other . . .
Actually, I don't have to create much because, if you recall, we've already done something quite like non-dichotomy at the local coffee shop -- we "merged" there several weeks ago when we met our colleague to talk about an essay that we'd all just read -- not quite to the point of finishing each other's sentences, but nonetheless. . . . Then later, we had a long string of e-mail exchanges about what had happened between us two, finding ourselves to some degree co-responding univocally to a third party. So, I would only ask what it was like for you? For me, it was scary and also exhilarating; boundaries were dropping; the world was looking different.
Louis Althusser talks about how we are constantly "hailed as subjects" of a particular, individualistic sort.12 Meetings at coffee houses, writing, reading, etc. are all stages on which we are called to see ourselves as "me Bob" and "you Beth." We don't see that these are particular stagings of self until we experience some other kinds of stagings, and electronic conversation is one of these other kinds of stagings. It hails us as socially constructed selves but most of the world is still set up to hail us as individually constructed, ex nihilo, selves. It's irresistible to try to restage electronic exchange in terms of self/other because that's what we are used to. It totally perverts the meaning but makes it comfortable.
About that day at the coffee shop, I agree that it approached a dissolution of self in other, a blurring of the boundaries, but it was still not you Bob and me Beth without the dichotomy of self and other. Let's imagine that we did progress to the point of finishing one another's sentences, or, even better, we began to speak in stereo, expressing thoughts in perfect unison. Let's even go so far as to say that we found a doctor who would agree to sew our tiny little heads together, to hook up our circulatory systems, etc., we would still only be approximating more closely a merger of self and other.
My point is that at all times, and in all places, there is to some extent a boundary between self and other. We cannot completely do away with boundaries that separate us, at least not until we shed our mantles of flesh, and at this point, one must speak only in metaphysical or mystical terms. Beyond the pale, we may very well be reunited, but that's merely speculation. Let's focus on to what degree the boundaries dissolve in electronic exchange. I will say that the interface as mirror surface does traditional interpretations of Narcissus one better. You see, in psychologically reductive theory, Narcissus only saw his own reflection but never moved beyond seeing himself. But I don't think Narcissus was admiring himself so much as confusing himself with an other. In electronic conversation, after Narcissism, we may be able to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves, thereby weakening any convictions we might have held that Other actually exists. Because the discourse is disembodied, it's easy to let the mantle of flesh be shed in a way that's psychologically analogous to death.
I agree that complete merger is impossible in the physical world, but that would be dichotomous anyway in relation to complete individuality of the ex nihilo type. So, we are in the middle, in the soup, and I'm comfortable there. There will always be a me Bob and a you Beth; my point was only that there are many encouragements to see only that and to exclude the complexity of identity as a social and technological mediation, to reinscribe familiar terms and dichotomies in unfamiliar settings/stagings such as electronic conversation.
Prior to this meeting at the coffee shop, you and I had found some contact points with one another, but when we added in the third party we discovered that we two responded to her with a unusual degree of mutuality. Maybe that's the key -- what had been agreement on points somehow, through our long history of electronic exchange and its concomitant dissolution of self/other boundaries, became agreement in response; so we're looping back to the theme of responsiveness, adding the mutuality of responsiveness.
Touching again on Baudrillard's "Requiem," at the time he was writing this piece, he evidently believed that something like genuine transgression is possible. He clearly sees this transgressivity as non-dialectical or non- dichotomous (in particular as disrupting or stepping out of the sender-receiver terms of standard communication), and he cites graffiti production as an example of transgressive communication. It remains unclear to me if he would include electronic conversation as transgressive, or whether he would say it's just an instance where the receiver and sender (self and other) are one and the same person, thus a non-transgressive internalization of the same old standard terms of communication. In any case transgression is a very different metaphor than seduction, but in a way seduction is transgressive in the sense that it defies the standard approach to meaning and so on, more like an implosive transgression that an explosive, graffiti-like, one.
Does the implosive transgressivity of electronic exchange also connote an explosive transgressivity in the political sense because it allows for the possibility of non-bureaucratized exchanges between people? Baudrillard alludes in this text to going beyond bureaucratic models towards people responding to each other; this is the radical potential of electronic conversation as I see it. We saw this potential made kinetic in our electronic classroom; we watched our authority as teachers becoming much more responsive, less prescriptive, and so on. It seems to me there is this larger potential for political transgression of the usual categories such as superior/subordinate, receiver/sender, etc. in electronic exchange. Anyway, I now see seduction as meta-political, as a strategy which defies political strategies as they are usually defined, but as having a politics all the same.
Has electronic conversation been a transgressive force in our lives (you Beth and me Bob)? Subjectively, I would clearly say yes: witness our experience of mutuality of response. Politically, I would also say yes: witness our collaborative writing, constructing a platform from which to speak in the public realm.
There's some interesting digging to be done in regards to this phenomenon, and I hope the digging won't find itself reaching too quickly issues of word choice and definition. Okay, we had found those "contact points" to which you refer; we named those contact point positions "meta-liberality." 13 Then, we met with a third party and found that not only do we share the meta- liberal position, we also share the same notions about appropriate response. It was the responding that became mutual. So "response" was to our colleague, but to one another it was something else. There was no "re" to it -- it was more of an ur communication, spondere rather than re-spondere. We no longer had to re- spond because, I think, the self/other boundaries had been dissolved through the process of electronic communication. We came to see not only our self in each other but each other in our self such that we, in metaphorical ways, had be-come each other. What about the electronic medium facilitates this? I wouldn't say that spondere doesn't happen outside the medium, but I suspect it happens much more rarely.
As for transgressing the standard terms of communication, the question is, what are the standard terms of communication. If I recall my theory correctly, communication happens when a message is sent and is received; there's not necessarily any feedback. And I know from reader-response theory that we all construct the meaning of a text, a communication, based upon our own contexts, experiences, what Frank Smith calls the "theory of the world in our heads."14 I don't see graffiti as transgressive except in the most crude sense. I could, though, see seduction as transgressive based on communication theory. To effectively communicate, one (the sender) would not intentionally withhold the message in part or in whole. Seduction however requires a secret, a with-holding, a missing dimension. Thus, seduction transgresses communicative law.
Here it becomes quite complicated. I do see electronic conversation as seductive; it's just that locating the point of seduction is not so clear cut. Sometimes, the rhetor (the message sender) intentionally withholds information -- for example gender, race, age, credentials, marital status, whatever. Complicating this further is that the withholding may be intentional or just a by- product of the fact that electronic exchange is disembodied. In other words, in normal face to face conversation, we're not accustomed to declaring our gender, age, race, credentials, etc. because these things are visible and the people with whom we speak often know us. So, on the level of the rhetor, the seduction may be conscious (which Baudrillard might see as evil), or unconscious.
Seduction also may occur on the part of the message receiver. I see this as primarily an unconscious self-seduction in which the reader creates from the text and its missing dimensions an idealized interlocutor. What the reader pours into the gaps is therefore himself, thus the screen functions as mirror. Only when he becomes conscious of this seduction, this self-seduction, can he begin to read himself in what he reads in others.
What I'd like to do is play with that notion of "people responding to each other" by rewriting it as "people re-sponding to each Other." Perhaps this transgresses the psychological Law of the Father that commands us to separate existences. Electronic conversation is transgressive so far as it encourages us to unity.
I think I follow, but would like some elaboration on what you call the meta-political aspects of seduction. Perhaps Baudrillard lends insight in Seduction when he points out that
The strategy of seduction is one of deception. It lies in wait for all that tends to confuse itself with its reality. And it is potentially a source of fabulous strength. For if production can only produce objects or real signs, and thereby obtain some power; seduction, by producing only illusions, obtains all powers, including the power to return production and reality to the fundamental illusion.15
Thus, seduction is political about the political, a source of power, transgressive, and therefore potentially dangerous to the existing order.
Reading the "Requiem" text, my general impression is of someone who dislikes the six o'clock news. The notion of media treated in this particular essay seems archaic, written prior to electronic mail exchange. Nonetheless, I take this from the text: "the dialectic itself . . . has reached the moment of deadlock." 16 This made me start thinking about the difference between the dialectical and the dialogical, made me think that what happened in our classroom and what happens in our electronic exchange can be more aptly described and dialogical or multilogical rather dialectical. The latter suggests argumentation, a logical exchange of arguments. Thus, it is to a degree inherently confrontational, with a view to winning. Dialogical, on the other hand, suggests a conversational exchange of ideas. The argumentation, as confrontation, is diffused; mutual understanding rather than winning is what counts. Electronic conversation as a dialogical form transgresses dialectic terms by breaking the deadlock with a view to exchange.
But what has been transgressed for you Bob and me Beth as examples of electronic interlocutors? Is it the Law of the Father?
Let's say that electronic conversation allows for the construction or realization of the self as a perpetually half-full glass. If we go the direction of construction, then we enter into the realm of the cyborg; electronic exchange literally enables a re-constructed human ontology, one that never existed before. If we go in the direction of realization, we enter into something like Sartre's formulation of the self as "being and nothingness," in perpetual suspension; electronic exchange enables us to realize the true nature of our selves. But in either direction, we could say that it powerfully models something about human nature, and either way we could say that it transgresses the Law of the Father because through it we connect to others and to ourselves. Otherwise, we could just say that what is modeled is fascination -- something like watching a spinning top, or getting caught up in a brain teaser which transforms ontological boredom into ontological trance.
Combining all these possibilities, it might be the proliferation of selves via electronic conversation which fascinates and transgresses; it might be that creating and re-creating selves electronically in effect allows us to perceive our other selves differently as well. According to Carl Pribham, perception is the effect of "mismatch" between what we expect to find and what we in fact find. This explains, for example, how it is possible to notice that something is different in an otherwise familiar room or street before you, in fact, notice that someone has moved a painting, cut down a tree, or what have you. What you perceive first is the mismatch or difference, then you perceive the things which have been moved, removed, etc.17 Electronic conversation, by adding cyberselves to our repertoire, perhaps similarly affords us opportunities to notice our usual selves through the initial generation of difference or mismatch. Having a child around is perhaps fascinating and insightful for parents in much the same way; the play of identity/difference, match/mismatch, provides "sweet confusions" of ontology which enable perceptions, including perceptions of our familiar selves, which would otherwise not be possible. In this way, parents learn things about themselves through their children.
Anyway, for me, this loops back to the cyborg again, and the particular features of the self that is in electronic exchange. We have to remind ourselves that this screen-thing hums because it too is embodied -- it is, after all, a piece of machinery. In this sense, there is a danger of sorts in referring to electronic conversation as disembodied. In fact, it's differently bodied; it transgressively constitutes and/or reconstitutes embodied selves.
As for Baudrillard's position on the potential of seduction to "[obtain] all powers, including the power to return production and reality to the fundamental illusion," it seems overdone in a way. More and more, it looks to me like graffiti- transgression speaks of 1968 and seduction-transgression speaks of 1979. What I am able to see is a move from explosive, explicit, oppositional politics to implosive, implicit, strategic politics -- a move from a first order use of language as expression to a second order use of language as rhetoric. This partly explains evil for Baudrillard. Plato saw this too, the potential for evil in those nasty rhetorician-sophists. It also somewhat explains our need to haggle over terminological nuances. In an electronic world defined as rhetorical, what could be more important than the choice of descriptive and analytic terms?
This particular connotation of "rhetoric" represents a return to the classical roots you yourself allude to by bringing Plato and the Greeks into our discussion. I am reminded, too, of Julia Kristeva's observations that a rhetorician is in this sense not one who invents language, but is rather one who is fascinated with language's symbolic function, someone who "seduces it in the Latin sense of the verb -- he `leads it astray.`" But, I would like to emphasize that this kind of rhetorical seduction is not always to the ends of evil as Plato cautioned. In either case, for good or for evil, the cyber-rhetorician, like her traditional counterpart, attempts to "seduce the [law of] the father by rhetorical affectations," weaving from materials of the existing symbol system (language) a snare in which to hold fast Father and thus, transgressively, return incestuously to Mother.18 Return to one and an-other.
Electronic communication between interlocutors is, of course, carried out in text, in the words one types on his interface and sends through space to another. Beneath the interface the words pass through the cyber-territory wherein the proliferation of selves of which you speak may occur. This proliferation Kristeva calls heterogeneity.
This proliferation of selves of which you speak is precisely the heterogeneity that Kristeva locates in the other of text, inviting identification but denying it at one and the same time. Each self seems to be "me," but, as she points out, "it is not me, it is a non-me in me, beside me, outside of me, where the me becomes lost." The textual territory is therefore peopled with self/non-self, the same and the different at the same time fused and barred. The text, she says, "bounces back to me echoes of a territory that I have lost but that I am seeking within the blackness of dreams . . . lifting up the dismembered, sleeping body. Territory of the Mother.19
Reconstituted cyborg-selves are just such echoes bounced back from the interface, a virtual territory from which the body can be re-membered. Perhaps I could more accurately say that the particular body that is disembodied in electronic exchange, is the one normally hailed in pedestrian social stagings while the body impossibly re-membered is a chorus of selves seldom hailed, elusive if not illusive. The dissolution of boundaries between the particular body and the chorus, while bodily experienced, yet remains elusive. I don't think this "new" human ontology is new at all; I think it's actually primary ontology -- oceanic -- but lost, cast irrevocably into the territory of the lost. As close as we can get is the interface where the variety of cyber-selves appear, illusively, as others.
Reflecting on our work/words, I think that we get very quickly to a point where the words looks like exoskeletons because what we're talking about or getting at is the juice flowing around and through them. I am thinking of Marshall McLuhan's idea that technologies represent amputations/externalizations. Perhaps the machine, the different embodiment that we effect in electronic conversation is the externalization of the husk or covering for the nervous system, such that what we get in this exchange as soon as we begin to operate in cyberspace is huskless, the juice only. I mean to say that the machinery itself, the humming box with its glowing screen, represents the externalization not of the whole body but instead the externalization of just the casing, the "flesh" around the nervous system. If we get into it, just a little bit, the whole thing goes liquid.
Without a doubt, I agree that we get to the juice behind the words, the symbol system. You may wish to call this "differently bodied" rather than "disembodied" (which smacks at bit to much of political-correctness anxiety -- "differently" connoting some state not in the normal ways of thinking and looking), but I still prefer the latter as an accurate descriptor. In electronic exchange, I can get right to the juice because of the absence of the usual visual signals one gets from the body.
I wonder to what extent some would see what we're talking about as soul or essential self . . . or, in Jungian terms, as a collective experience of human intelligence, being.
And, in terms of the Self/Other boundary dissolution, when we get into cyberspace exchanges and the thing "goes liquid," whose juice are we getting into? Our own (as rhetor), the juice of the Other (as receiver), or the collective juice, the oceanic consciousness? Many people who get carried away with electronic conversation say things like "you get to know others from the inside, out." What this kind of claim reflects is a limited view of the juice -- that the Other in his otherness is actually what one sees. It completely dismisses (or fails to consider) the possibility that a good deal of what one sees is actually Self, not Other. And, beyond that, that in seeing Self in Other and Other in Self, the juice becomes the collective. It's this last possibility, once we're conscious of it, that's so thrilling to me.
I'll grant your preference for "disembodied" as a descriptor of electronic conversation, but I still prefer "differently bodied" -- not because it's more politically correct but because it reminds me that I am merging my human ontology with machine ontology as I type at the keyboard with my eyes riveted on the blips of light being instantly produced in front of me. I don't know; maybe someone would read this as Jungian soul; someone else might read it as Freudian anal, kids playing with feces, fascinated by the product; what was inside is outside, and so forth. In any case, I need to keep with the particularities of this differently bodied experience. The person at the terminal is, in effect, the aestheticized egghead version of the cyborg. A merger across the last great (false) divide between humans and technology is now in process. Describing the state as differently bodied allows me to cross that divide with my eyes open. And following this thread, I would say that the cyborg as a figure, even a mythical figure, is much more suited to what is going on in electronic conversation than is Narcissus, although a merger of Narcissus and the T1000 might more accurately capture it.20
One may very well abandon Narcissus; but, the person at the terminal must first see the Narcissism before abandoning it. I see this as a kind of progression that follows along these lines:
In thinking about the cyborg, though, I'm troubled by the thought of it being human/machine in the way we normally think of cyborgs. I'm beginning to see it as more of a human/human, machine mediated. I'm suggesting something beyond cyborg reality.
I was thinking about this last night, this "Other in Self" in relation to past real-life relationships of mine -- the sort of thing where one might say "he or she became part of me" and literally mean it. No doubt this is where exorcism gets its punch, same with voodoo I suppose. Our ontology is such that it does indeed seem to be collective to a much greater degree than we might like to think, and (looping back to Louis Althusser again) it gets scary to step outside of the separations, the Law of the Father, because in thousands of ways every day we are hailed or called into being as individual, separate beings. It may be the most audacious feat of human engineering to make this individuality feasible, like an intricate levee system, and electronic conversation just may be making fiber-optic sized holes, one by one, in the system of separations. There won't be a flood, but rather a saturation. Cosmic consciousness coming right up? Could be. But for me, it's got to have a body, too -- the Internet is a physical thing, requiring maintenance and all the rest.
It's in many ways a frightening prospect to "spondere" because our culture simply doesn't support selves hailed into being in that relationship. For a very real example, Bob/Beth will most certainly not get a job. You Bob will get a job and me Beth will get a job, but not Bob/Beth. As you say, that would be a mismatch in the marketplace, a transgressive alternative.
And why wouldn't we want to be a part of a movement that would make this cyber-communication a disembodied mystical thing? You're assuming what? Let's assume that I see electronic conversational media as catalysts. Once the spondere relationship is catalyzed, could we continue with the media? I suspect we could. And if you'd agree, then we're obviously not talking about cyborgs in the usual sense of the term. This is why I say the spondere is a human/human relationship, machine mediated. Insofar as humanity meets humanity to a great degree in cyberspace, there is about the experience something mystical and beyond any language we use to describe it. Considering our epigraph, Lisel Mueller's wonderful poem "There Are Mornings," she says that it's a plot that calls for her to turn to stone but the sun, intervening, fills her with life, the power to resist turning rock hard, desiccated. In much the same way, the Law of the Father, the plot, would have us turn to stone pillars; the "sun," the divine and the unnamable, however fill us like a mystical secret. Perhaps, in electronic conversation, the contact heat at the interface is similarly the mirror that burns, reflecting this secret, when we pass.
The cyborg figure is indeed troublesome/frightening. But I think we need to embrace that troublesomeness to some extent, and you provide a way to do that. Human/machine/human is a cyborg that goes beyond cyborg reality as it is usually conceived. But even this model is conventionally disturbing, maybe because it disrupts our need to see ourselves as apart from technological, social, and biological/natural mediatedness. The anti-mediations belong to the Law of the Father, and a high and dry desert God. To refuse these separations is to be voluptuously mystical, to bring the Goddess, the Mother, like a splash of water into the arid territory of our exile.
Could we continue our work without electronic conversation? Sure, and Ulysses could have walked on his journey rather than sail; but, we would not have had this experience, right now for example, of writing this essay together. To regard the machinery part of our work as "just the vehicle" or a "catalyst" is the subtlest Law of the Father, the law which also says that women are merely vessels, separable from meaning. Do we want to reinscribe this? I argue for the cyborg as a way of arguing for the nothing that matter and meaning are together divine. But I still like your idea of extending cyborg sense beyond the human/machine dyad. Maybe we are arguing about how many cyborgs can dance on the head of an egghead, but I don't think so. What do you think?
1 Bob alludes to our past acquaintance with one another in a seminar we both
attended in the summer of 1991. Months later, we met again briefly to discuss
issues in teaching, Finally, in May 1994, we were reintroduced to one another by
a mutual friend in the department of English who felt that Bob and I should talk
about our mutual interests in cyberspace.
2 From Mikhail Bakhtin, by Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1984) There are many differences between a "circle"
such as Bakhtin's group and an academic seminar. Mainly, in this instance, I am
referring to the difference between having one's intellectual activity knit into life
and having one's life knit into intellectual activity. As I read this biography, it
was the former that appealed to me.
4 Seduction, pg. 67.
6 Ibid. 183-84.
7 In America, Baudrillard actually refers to this surface as the "interface." Because
of the interface ("the code of separation" or pan surface), heat is transmitted "as a
message" rather than as heat itself (32-33).
8 Seduction, 67.
10 In the fall of 1994, Bob and I collaboratively designed and taught an
interdisciplinary course in which students in education and students in English
composition were linked together via a single VAX electronic conference.
Conversation and discussion occurred only in electronic text, resulting in a
leveling of the usual hierarchies of authority. This class is discussed in depth in
chapter 5 of this work: "Conversations: Learners Learn about Writing/Writers
Write about Learning."
11 The Transparency of Evil, 54.
12 "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," Lenin and Philosophy and Other
13 Interestingly, throughout the history of our collaborative relationship, Bob and I
have seldom seen eye-to-eye on the more pedestrian details of social, cultural,
psychological, or philosophical nature. We have, however, found that in regards
to over-arching moral and ethical concerns into which all other issues can be
subsumed, we are in firm agreement. Bob and I have named this position "meta-
liberalism" to indicate that we allowed for liberal interpretations of liberalism,
that our ultimate position was one of inclusion as opposed to one of totalitarian
14 Understanding Reading, 57-58.
18 "From Identity to An Other," Desire in Language, 138-39.
19 ibid., "The Novel as Polylogue," 163.
20 Claudia Springer writes "the T-1000 [the liquid metal cyborg in the movie
Terminator 2] has the ability to transform himself into a stream of silvery liquid,
and he can fashion himself into any shape. . . . He is the embodiment of feminine
fluidity and as such is a particularly frightening adversary. . . " (96). Here, we
regard the T-1000 as a hybrid of male musculature and feminine fluidity, thus
embodying the complex, dual protectedness referred to earlier in the text. In
terms of scale-shifting, it is interesting that the T-1000 meets his demise in an
industrial setting when he is thrown into a vat of molten metal; in this single
gesture the macro scale (the industrial setting) and the micro scale (the properties
of liquids) are fused, revealing that the control mechanism for the metal man is
both larger and smaller than his human-scale body.