Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The De-politicizing Tendencies of the Hyperreal

As we spend many of our conscious hours in virtuality, there is a temptation to overstate the importance of goings-on in cyberspace. I say yes, swim in the text, but keep your head above the liquidity and the unmoored relativity of language.

Marocharim, in his posts The Slacker Effect and Mona Lisa Overdrive, questions the triumphalist tendencies of social media over the realm of the real. In a nutshell, he does not think that ‘cyberactivism’ is a substitute for agency in the real world. I will be the first to agree with him, but I do not think that agency in either world need be mutually exclusive. Isn’t the divide between the real and representation artificial? And do they not mutually bleed into each other?

But do let us acknowledge the de-politicizing tendencies Marocharim has pointed out. Here the battle is drawn between the Word and the Flesh - the materiality of modernity and the fluidity of postmodernity.

The debate between structuralists (modernists) and post-structuralists (postmodernists) is not new. The first rests on the certitude that there is truth to be known and all knowledge builds foundations to seek truth. Politics then proceeds from this quest. For example, it is true that that Democracy is a good way of governing a self-ascribed community. It is ‘good’ because it rests on principles of equality and justice. Equality and Justice are truths that rest on the material. They are universal values that must be sought and upheld by all humankind.

The second school has attempted to unravel many of the claims of the modern era. Post-structuralists argue that there is no truth – at least no single version of it. Democracy, at least the dominant version of it, they will argue, is a construct unique to the history of a specific place and time. The specificity which lays claim to universality is a dominating and destructive act. While the work of post-structuralists is useful in revealing the heretofore hidden modes of control and domination in knowledge, the uncertainty this has unleashed has destroyed many of the bases from which we as subjects act. If we are unsure about the values ‘equality’ and ‘justice’, whether it is good or bad given the specificity of this place, time and context, what would motivate us to act? What makes us political?

Another triumph of modernity is placing history in a linear continuum, thus the belief in ‘progress.’ One progresses from point A to point B to point C and so on. Implicit in progression is an assumption that point B, is ‘better’ than point A. Thus we can conclude that progress has eliminated slavery. Slavery is bad. Equality is good.

These are some controversies, for decades still unresolved, between the modern and the postmodern, between the Flesh and the Word.

So let us go back to the earlier problematic posed. Is agency or conscious action in the ocean of texts, that is, the cyberworld, a substitute for conscious action in the real world? Obviously not. It is good (see, I’m making a modernist argument here) to acknowledge the limits of cyberactivism. It is good to acknowledge that the Word will not, by itself, transform the world. A simple reality check will alert us to the fact (again a modern invention) that there are still places in this country with no electricity!

Before we become dispirited about the inherent limits of the Word, let us not forget those who read and write it. To read and write constitute conscious acts. To read and write about politics are political acts. But it is important to note that these are beginnings, not ends in themselves.

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