rhetoric in the late age of the internet


Some 25 years ago, Jay Bolter described the “late age of print” not as an era when print media were disappearing but rather as time when the question of an impending end began to characterize how we understood the technology. In imagining a late ago of the internet, some semantic clarification is necessary. I do not think we are in a moment when we are questioning the end of a time when information is digital and networked. If any thing, that transition is only beginning. However, we do appear to be in the late age of a particular version and vision of the web, and its confluence and shared fate with postmodern theory is worth noting, particularly for those of us in the humanities.

Here are two curious articles worth a read. The first and briefer one in the NY Times, “‘The internet is broken:’ @ev is trying to salvage it” focus on Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and his somewhat quixotic attempt to forge a respectable public online sphere through his online publishing venture Medium. Williams recounts a familiar problem: “The trouble with the internet, Mr. Williams says, is that it rewards extremes. Say you’re driving down the road and see a car crash. Of course you look. Everyone looks. The internet interprets behavior like this to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them.”

The other is a far longer and somewhat meandering tale about the emergence of a transhumanist, alt-right movement called neoreactionism by Shuja Haider in Viewpoint. Haider tracks the emergence of this concept focusing on a few controversial figures, including one Nick Land, a mid nineties postmodern philosophy professor turned apparently mad turned clearly into a quite extremist alt-right ideologue. The whole thing certainly reads like a late cyberpunk Neal Stephenson/Bruce Sterling mash-up, a combination of Snow Crash and Distraction  maybe. I won’t attempt to summarize this article for you except to offer this “It’s a strange intellectual path that begins with ‘Current French Philosophy’ and settles on a right-wing Silicon Valley blogger whose writing is more Dungeons and Dragons than Deleuze and Guattari.”

You could look at Land’s story as an idiosyncratic tale of theory gone horribly wrong… You could if you weren’t able to trace the resonances between transhumanism and posthumanism that have been there for decades. You could say they’re two sides of a coin. You could think about how the internet was born into language about rhizomatic hypertexts, cyborgian politics, temporary autonomous zones, and so on and in the interplay between cyberpunk literature and the “theory-fictions” of the era (which Land himself still writes). Arguably all of this is fairly plain to see in A Thousand Plateaus where the potential for liberatory, nomadic, anti-state lines of flight can easily turn fascist. How does one discern the differences among the transcapitalist will to a globalist erasure of state power, terror networks grounded in anti-modern, anti-global religious fundamentalism, and the alt-right, libertarian, technocratic opposition to government? In some respects it’s easy, right? However, each is a version of a kind of rhizomatic, deterritorializing, nomadic assemblage operating against the modern, liberal, nation state.

While we’re at it, of course, we need to keep in mind that really all of critical theory in the humanities  is aimed at dismantling the state as well–as patriarchal, capitalist, colonialist, etc. Is there a Left version of these deterritorializing politics? Sure. There are a variety of leftist accelerationist politics that essentially look to speed up and/or push through capitalism to whatever comes next. As Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek write, “We believe the most important division in today’s left is between those that hold to a folk politics of localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism, and those that outline what must become called an accelerationist politics at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology… an accelerationist politics seeks to preserve the gains of late capitalism while going further than its value system, governance structures, and mass pathologies will allow.” Perhaps you find the idea of a leftist accelerationism enticing, but it’s worth remembering how easily these ideas turn fascist.

But let’s turn back to Evan Williams, Twitter, and Medium. In effect, Williams hope appears to be that the Internet could become some version of an egalitarian,  Habermasian public sphere: a place where all citizens (or netizens as we once romantically imagined ourselves) could gather for rational conversation and deliberation. In this scheme, it’s a move in the opposite direction: a reterritorialization of the web to reassert the modern state and its political rhetoric. I sympathize with the desire to do something about the mess that has been made of the web by capitalism, fundamentalism, extremism, and what ultimately amounts to little more than a pure affective urge to self-destruction, but an adequate response doesn’t lie in the 20th-century.

As much as the needed response is not a technological fix, it also is not not a technological fix. We simply need, for one thing, a better understanding of our digital media-ecological rhetorical situation. That’s something rhetoricians can provide, and while I wouldn’t say it’s the biggest piece of the puzzle, there’s still plenty of work to do. The question the late age of the internet poses is what will follow. That is, what follows on the social media communities and digital marketplaces that typify our daily engagement with the web and represent the globe’s most visited websites? The web began in the nineties as a fantasy about escaping the real world, as a place where we would have separate second lives and form parallel virtual communities. And the social web that followed in the next decade largely built on that fantasy by making it more accessible. But we can’t really think about the web that way. The digital world is not a separate world, as if it ever really was. We need a new web, one that supplants the social web as the social web supplanted web 1.0, one that recognizes the rhetorical-material stakes differently.

It’s anyone’s guess how to sort out the larger political problems, with time one would suspect and let’s hope that we have enough of it to spare. But if we’re happy with the contention that print technologies spurred literacy and hence democracy and capitalism but also a fundamentalist reaction, then certainly we can ask the same questions of digital media. What can we build? Hopefully something better than is on offer here!