Discourse Groundwork

Digging deeper into the Golden Age

"The scenes of a movie [...] can be shot out of sequence not because it's more convenient, but because all the scenes of a movie are really happening at the same time. No scene really leads to the next, all scenes lead to each other. No scene is really shot out of order. It's a false concern that a scene must anticipate another scene that follows, even if it’s not been not shot yet, or that a scene must reflect a scene that precedes it, even if it’s not been shot yet, because all scenes anticipate and reflect each other. Scenes reflect what has not yet happened; scenes anticipate what has already happened." – Steve Erickson, Zeroville

Today, in contrast to earlier times, the idea of a fully realized utopia, of paradise gained, is disturbing. Unfreedom, determinism, automatism are immediate associations and evoke images of a fanatically imposed totalitarianism. Whether situated in a glorious past or a projected future, the concept of utopia conveys an impression of narrowness that is contrary to our common ideal of broad-mindedness. It seems that if you would rather not actually live in the City of the Sun (Civitas Solis) or Schlauraffen Land (Brothers Grimm), and if you have had enough of paradise seekers and believers, the idea of the "Golden Age" can’t be approached with anything but irony. Even utilitarian proposals that aim to maximize happiness for the majority ultimately prove to be the conscious, inchoate moral tartuffery of exploitative, capitalist machinery geared towards the maximisation of profit.

In the 5th century BC Heraclitus wrote "the waking have one common world (éna kai koinòn kosmon), but the sleeping turn aside each into a world of his own (eis ídion apostréphesthai)." (DK B89) Here is a clear division between community life, which is exposed to the public eye, and an idiosyncratic private sphere. Yet, to Heraclitus’ mind this split is mediated and overcome by the power of logos, which, for him, defines the cosmos. The division of koinos kosmos and idios kosmos is, in fact, only a perpetual volte-face, a backwards-turning attunement. In this sense the dream does not imply an absence of perception. It would be truer to say that the idios kosmos – as the sentinel of sleep – constitutes an isolated, hermetic universe that nevertheless conceives itself into reality. "The dream reveals the ambiguity of a world, which describes the existence that is moving towards that world, and for whose experience it presents itself as objectivity. By breaking with the objectivity which fascinates waking consciousness and by reinstating the human subject in its radical freedom, the dream discloses paradoxically the movement of freedom toward the world, the point of origin from which freedom makes itself world." (Michel Foucault, Introduction to Ludwig Binswanger's Dream and Existence).

The predominant medium of our present-day lives, the Internet, provides a kind of public space that has never existed before, enabling individuals to publish on an unheard-of scale and to produce and communicate all manner of things and ideas. By its own logic the internet exhorts the subject as user to express him/herself through sharing, posting, status updates, comments, etc., and to be online as long and as often as possible. User behaviour is tracked by algorithms, and amalgamated into big data and its analyses. Considering the enormous total population of internet users, only relatively small, random sample surveys are necessary to produce reasonably accurate statistical results, which hints at an easy subjection of this public space to market dictates and influential lobbies. Far more important than laments about multiple user identities, explosions of creativity, and of completely new perspectives not materializing is the fact that the "Internet producer run wild", so fondly imagined and awaited, has in fact turned out to be a prod-user. The present form of "bestowing capitalism" (Alexandre Kojève) helps this development along by supplying an infinite number of free sites (search engines, social networking sites, shopping sites, information portals, etc.). Empirical evidence shows that while user numbers are steadily increasing, the number of online platforms sought out by any one user is on the wane. The major players and operators thereby pursue their own agendas. That means self-produced material published online may no longer be under the control of the respective prod-users, due to vague and non-binding legislation and norms, overt and covert censorship of non-authorized sites, as well as expropriation by platform operators even where content has been purchased (account suspensions and loss of e-book libraries, for example). Given this state of affairs – especially under market conditions – the Internet reveals itself to be a startlingly transparent and extensively monitored space, whereas to the average user it generally seems opaque and unmanageable. Seen from this angle, unlimited publishing and exchange possibilities, new designs and their unhindered, free communication/dissemination are as much an illusion today as they have always been: a big "As if!"

Despite such restrictions the subject (whether user, producer, or in most cased, both) is confronted with a never-seen-before quantity of instantly available information and, equally, has the means to produce and distribute more of the same with relative ease. Personal desire and idiosyncratic movement and behaviour must of course be expressed, must be communalized in the koinos kosmos, must be spoken, in order to be heard; but they are thereby placed in a context that is of greater scope, spatially and temporally, than ever before dreamed possible. If one ignores for a moment a certain “pressure to perform", fed primarily by the aforementioned market interests, ["Communicate (as often as possible!" – "Buy!" – "Share!" – "Comment!" – "Enjoy!"], then spaces that enable the evolution of personal, idiosyncratic content into creative vectors and attractors do open up. Obsessive or playful, individual or collective, objectives and bonds may be initiated and cemented, and may display enough potential to either undermine the dominant platforms in digital public space, to use them subversively, or even to engender new digital spaces for reflection and/or action. Numerous examples of interactions between user and producer cultures that establish laboratories (Wiki-based encyclopaedia, blogs, free archive cultures such as UbuWeb, etc.) and run them to beneficial ends already exist. Individual initiatives obviously rank among those examples, too – like a person somewhere in Connecticut who types out unpublished sci-fi manuscripts and posts them on the web – as do new artistic strategies developed within the Internet. Accordingly, the output of such idiosyncratic and collective laboratories should, indeed must, be read as a logical, creative response to the cultural upheavals triggered by extensive digitization. Lastly, and importantly, it should be noted that certain new cultural technologies exist only because of extensive mediatization, its ubiquitous availability and the infinite processing possibilities of digital tools, and so remain inseparable from the medium through which they are manifested.

In this context, what is important for subjects is not so much the information density and opacity of their respective threads, but their personal authority and the fact that they can remain true to their own actions/desires. The fact that everyone is (or, at least, feels) personally empowered to set the limits of their own actions and desires does not, however, necessarily imply that everyone will be challenged to transgress their alleged personal limitations, or exhorted to produce or be an artist, or to stake everything on their creativity. Such enthusiasm, kindled in the closing years of the last century, has ceded, to some extent quite rightly, to disillusionment. In any case, this constant demand, indeed this dictate to remain active at all times, and to continuously and immediately DO is a symptom, not a solution. The adventure actually lies in first noting the potential of far-reaching emergent effects, in raising one’s awareness of the new relationships, permutations and the great mélange of situations facilitated by digital technologies, and only then, in seeking to explore it. This also takes into account unexpected long-term effects: a newly defined relationship between the private and the public spheres and their respective genealogies; the questioning of the conditions under which we act; the potential to produce collectives of socio-political relevance; a renewed confidence in and enjoyment of one’s own actions, without submitting to the pressure of the attention economy extolled by the market; serene detachment from the post-historical verdict that "it’s all been done before, everything’s just recycled" and, more generally speaking, the insight that the interests of the market and of marketing are indeed weighty criteria, but by no means the only ones in this new public sphere.

In a nutshell, what if the Golden Age were neither a paradise lost nor an ill-omened future, but is rather a place where a "third type of law" is in force? Wolfgang Pauli was on the trail of this idea in his endeavour to position acausal synchronicity somewhere between classical determinism and blind chance. Such synchronicity is based not on a simultaneity of events, but on a coincidence of facts and circumstances related by meaning rather than causation, events that are perceived as belonging together despite their acausality.

This is surely the place to mention a Ticklish Subject (Slavoj Zizek) that needs to be brought into play to allow that the dream is subversive with regard to objective, contingent and immanent order. Thus the issue is really a synchronicity that connects internal (in this sense subjective) events with external (digital, encoded) events. This synchronous relationship must be considered from the standpoint of something new emerging from asymmetry. The inner event must precede the outer event or at least occur simultaneously, because it would otherwise still be possible to construe a quasi-causal relationship.

Even something new, however, arises not as a consequence of initial conditions alone, but only in the course of the aforementioned process. We are thus dealing with resonance effects, repercussions (echoes of a theme that is specified by instruments) and ritornellos. Only where these resound does the potential of the new grow insistent, and creative vectors and attractors offer ways out of the nurturance and closure (clôture) of the market and the status quo. It is not a deterministic state of being (est) that defines the situation (unless we are speaking of a personal or universal state of being), nor is it the unintentional, accidental results of info-technological feasibility. It is, rather, backwards-turning attunement, a folding and unfolding: a synchronous link (et).

Consequently, it is true to say not only that anyone who seeks to inform us of the conditions underlying the potential and the effect of the public sphere, the koinos kosmos, says far more about her/himself than about the public sphere itself, but also that all we think of as private, as the idios kosmos, says far more about the public sphere than about our private sphere. Such an apparently paradoxical surplus should be put up for discussion, because it will become patently clear that The Golden Age is now – both the dream and the reality of a culture.



Text: Andreas L. Hofbauer