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What's the Matter with the Internet?

Author: Mark Poster
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2001
Review Published: March 2002

 REVIEW 1: Kathleen Fitzpatrick
 REVIEW 2: Rune Dalgaard
 REVIEW 3: Slavka Antonova

Back in 1993, not long after I returned to graduate school, a friend of mine excitedly told me about this new thing called the Internet. I'd had friends since high school who had tinkered with computer bulletin board systems, and I'd never seen anything interesting about those, so I responded dismissively. This friend, however, was insistent: "You have to see this. It's different." So, with his prodding, I signed up for a campus e-mail account, installed the software, and logged on. And then, not knowing what else to do with this Internet thing, like a good literary intellectual, I went out and bought a book about it.

I slowly discovered the myriad of resources "out there," and the many fun ways to kill time online. But I never really thought of the Internet as having any more than instrumental purpose in my life -- I hate the telephone, so e-mail was a tool that saved me much anxiety; the online OED kept me from the allergy attack I had every time I paged through the dusty volumes in the library -- until the summer of 1998, when I met IRL someone I'd previously only known through a listserv. I realized, with momentary shock, and then dawning awareness, that while there were some correspondences between the virtual person I knew online and the flesh-and-blood person standing in front of me, they weren't the same person at all -- and that, in fact, I was more interested in the one on my computer screen.

The implications that cyberspace holds for our understandings of identity and subject formation are among the many issues explored by Mark Poster in his recently published collection of essays, What's the Matter with the Internet? The "matter" with the Internet, as Poster argues throughout these essays, is precisely its immateriality, or rather its ephemerality, the ever-shifting pattern of electrons that calls modernist epistemology into question far more thoroughly than any prior postmodernist interventions. In fact, given Poster's interest in the machinic epistemology validated by the Internet, and given the impact that his book hopes to make on the field of cyberculture studies, a more appropriate title question for this collection might be "What's the Matter with the Way We Think about the Internet?"

As I first began to realize, in meeting a person who both was and was not the person I knew online, one of the problems with the way I had originally thought about the Internet was precisely the instrumentalism with which I greeted the new medium. The Internet, I thought, was a tool that one could do things with; that understanding, however, did nothing to explain the relationship I felt with a virtual persona. As Poster makes clear through his numerous interventions into the virtual, the instrumentalist perspective so rampant in conventional understandings of new media hinders any adequate analysis of the medium or understanding of its possibilities: "As long as we remain within an instrumental framework we cannot question it, define its limits, or look to new media in relation to how it might generate new cultures" (3).

Nor, however, can we easily adapt the study of older cultural forms to the study of the Internet. The specific "matter" of the Internet, its virtuality, disrupts all of the terms through which such cultural study has traditionally been undertaken. Poster's overall focus in What's the Matter with the Internet? is thus on the relationship between new media, as typified by the Internet, and traditional formations of liberal knowledge, including subjectivity, authority, and democracy -- and particularly on the ways that the Internet disrupts those modern concepts. Thus, he argues, the study of new media requires a profound shift in terms. Much current work, he suggests, attempts to keep Internet communication within the history of post-Enlightenment studies generally, thus reading in the Internet its vast potential for democratization and emancipation, or its corporate interpellation of the individual into networks of consumption, or its dangerous erasure of the "real." Instead, the Internet must be approached from a postmodernist, poststructuralist perspective, in which its deep reconfigurations of individual agency, authorship, nationality, and politics are foregrounded. Poster paves the way for this work not simply through a connection of poststructuralist theories to computer-based technologies, but rather by pushing beyond the current positions held by theorists from Gilles Deleuze to Paul Virilio, demanding simultaneously that any new theoretical apparatus account for the specific materiality of the Internet and that such an apparatus not fall under the sway of an easy technological determinism.

Poster sets the tone for this work in his first chapter, "The Culture of Underdetermination," in which he argues that, as opposed to the Freudian and Althusserian overdetermination of both the objects produced by older media and the subjected interpellated by those media objects, the radical instability of both subjects and objects created in the virtual realm results instead in an "underdetermination." Where print technologies supported the Enlightenment construction of the autonomous, rational individual, radio, film, and television began to alter the construction of that individual, shifting the subject/object distinction by undermining the relationship of information to some objectively existing outside world, and recasting the individual as diffuse, fragmentary, and multiple. These twentieth-century technologies of representation, however, while paving the way for the postmodern subject, ultimately sustained the modern sense of the individual by communicating liberal ideology broadly and instantaneously. By contrast, Poster argues, the Internet in its very technologies undermines that ideology:

    the Internet transgresses the limits of the print and broadcast models by (1) enabling many-to-many communications; (2) enabling the simultaneous reception, alteration, and redistribution of cultural objects; (3) dislocating communicative action from the posts of the nation, from the territorialized spatial relations of modernity; (4) providing instantaneous global contact; and (5) inserting the modern/late modern subject into an information machine apparatus that is networked. The result is a more completely postmodern subject or, better, a self that is no longer a subject since it no longer subtends the world as if from outside but operates within a machine apparatus as a point in a circuit (16).

In this new form, cultural objects are "underdetermined," unstable, and wholly contingent: "Not only are these objects formed by distinct practices, discourses, and institutional frames, each of which participates in and exemplifies the contradictions of capitalism and the nation-state, but they are also open to practice; they do not direct agents into clear paths; they solicit instead social construction and cultural creation" (17). In this manner, the new, virtual, reality that we encounter in cyberspace fundamentally disrupts the relationship between subject and object; such modern dialectics, then, are of little use in studying the Internet.

In the succeeding chapters, Poster explores the modernist epistemologies that the Internet lays to rest, as well as the postmodernist theories that have previously attempted to account for such disruptions, interrogating how the peculiar materiality of the Internet might be better explored. In Chapter Two, "The Being of Technologies," for instance, Poster demonstrates the shortcomings in contemporary theories of technology in accounting for the specifics of the information machine, including both Baudrillard's and Virilio's attempts to translate their theories of film and television technologies to the Internet. By instead mingling the work of theorists such as Félix Guattari and Pierre Lévy with Heidegger's writings on technology, Poster is able to argue "that there is a being of technology and that it varies depending upon the material constraints of the technology" (35), and that information machines in particular resist the enframing logic posited in earlier technologies precisely because of the underdetermined nature of the objects created through virtual technologies. Poster returns to this question of the virtual in Chapter Seven, "Theorizing the Virtual: Baudrillard and Derrida," in which he contends with both theorists' forays and failures in theorizing virtuality, arguing again for an acknowledgement and assessment of the specific materiality of the human-machine interface.

In Chapter Three, "Capitalism's Linguistic Turn," Poster adopts the notion of the linguistic turn from philosophical discourse, using it to explore the shifts in the production and distribution of commodities that results from the mode of information, arguing provocatively that the economy of the Internet is best characterized as an economy of sharing. As an aside, one must note that this chapter, and particularly the section on the hegemony of market principles on the net, suffers slightly from having been completed before the dot-com bubble burst; however, in this recognition that the deep economic impact of the Internet lies not in the goods that are bought and sold there, but rather in those that are freely given away, Poster's argument transcends the corporate hoopla. In fact, there are hints throughout the essay that Poster saw what was coming, particularly in his suggestion that the Internet produced an era of "hypercapitalism" (58), a term that can be read both in the sense of extremity and in the Baudrillardian sense of the illusory.

But it is in Chapters Four and Five that the real value of What's the Matter with the Internet? lies. In "The Digital Subject and Cultural Theory," Poster "brings together an analysis of the technical conditions of authorship in print and in cyberspace with the theoretical proposals for understanding the question of the construction of the author" (63), arguing that much previous work has either contended with the material specificity of the digital or the theoretical complexity of subjectivity, but none has managed both. In this chapter, Poster begins with Benjamin's analysis of the rupturing of the "aura" of authority in the age of technical reproduction, and proceeds through Foucault's analysis of poststructuralist authorship. However, he furthers Foucault's analysis, by introducing the Butlerian notion of the performative as a means of accounting for the particularity of virtual authorship, arguing that the subject exists in a persistently incomplete state of auto-configuration in cyberspace. Further, in "Authors Analogue and Digital," Poster picks up the distinction between analogue and digital authorship suggested in the previous chapter, arguing that critics of new forms of writing need to explore the "alteration in the material structure of the trace" (78) produced in the shift from print to electronic forms of publication. By exploring the historical development and uses of analogue forms of authorship, including print and broadcast media, Poster is able to articulate the effect of the "shift in the scene of writing from paper and pen or typewriter to the globally networked computer" as "a move that elicits a rearticulation of the author from the center of the text to its margins, from the source of its meaning to an offering, a point in a sequence of a continuously transformed matrix of signification" (91).

In three of the final four chapters of What's the Matter with the Internet?, Poster turns to issues more expressly political. Chapter Six, "Nations, Identities, and Global Technologies," explores the globalizing effects of the Internet, for good and for ill, but with an attempt, as Poster points out, to focus on its "emancipatory possibilities" (101). Chapter Eight, "Virtual Ethnicity," investigates the means by which the "collective intelligence" of the Internet "situates the individual in a virtual object, an unfinished, contingent state where identity is a temporary, fluid link to a process of creation, an underdetermined entity whose recognition is never a mis(s) because it never congeals into permanence, a subject position that is 'never before' rather than 'always already'" (169-70). And Chapter Nine, "CyberDemocracy: Internet as a Public Sphere?," assesses the possibilities for the Internet's political impact, arguing that previous scholars have remained mired in the terms of modern liberal democracy and have failed to see the genuine paradigm shift that the Internet represents.

While Poster's broad engagement with contemporary critical theory and his insistence on pushing beyond the poststructuralist position by acknowledging the specific materiality of Internet technologies make What's the Matter with the Internet? an important piece of new work both in the field of critical theory and in cyberculture studies, some of the book's assumptions of its own innovations are at times problematic. For instance, in "CyberDemocracy," Poster argues that the Internet must not be imagined as a tool, but rather as a form of community -- "Put differently, the Internet is more like a social space than a thing, so that its effects are more like those of Germany than those of hammers" (176) -- but does so without acknowledging the growing body of work on cyberculture, beginning with Howard Rheingold, that has already made that move. For this same reason, the chapter on "Virtual Ethnicity" is deeply problematic, not so much in its conclusions as in the assumptions it claims to be arguing against. First, while Poster largely restricts his focus in this chapter to ethnicity proper, drawing upon his own experiences in the "CyberJew" forum, he at moments in the chapter troublingly reduces "race" to a special case of ethnicity, failing to consider the important distinctions between the two forms of social categorization. More importantly, however, while he at one early moment in the chapter acknowledges the anti-essentialist strain in contemporary critical theory, he nonetheless associates all critical work that attempts to treat race and ethnicity as important centers of political action with essentialism. By ignoring the long history of critical race theory that treats "race" as a cultural construct whose importance lies not in its physical manifestations but rather in the social formations that have grown up around those traits, Poster misses the important sense in which race and ethnicity have always-already been virtual. He argues, for instance, that because "the bodily markers of ethnicity (physical attributes and vocal accent) are invisible on MOOs, such ethnicity as exists in these electronic communities is fully virtual" (165); in this, he seems to assume that race and ethnicity in the "real" world are contained within these bodily markers, while such identities in the virtual world are performative, constructed in language. Without ignoring the importance of the racially or ethnically-marked body, it is important to remember that much contemporary critical race theory argues that in fact the meaning of "race" has less to do with phenotype than with the legal, social, and interpersonal structures built up around such bodily markers. Thus, while Poster's conclusions about the fluidity of identity-constitution in the virtual social space are apposite, his dismissal of such earlier work leads him to ignore the political potential that still inheres even in a non-essentialized understanding of race.

The most useful aspect, finally, of What's the Matter with the Internet? is in certain ways its most frustrating feature as well: Poster has a keen sense of where cyberculture studies should ideally be headed, and throughout the book he recasts the main areas of its inquiry in dozens of newly articulated questions. For instance:

    What are objects like in electronic communities? What are they like in helmet-and-glove virtual reality technologies? What are they like on e-mail, computerized databases, World Wide Web pages, Internet Relay Chat channels? How are identities associated with the body, such as gender and ethnicity, configured in these virtual "places"? How are these genders and ethnicities different from and similar to those of television shows, telephone conversations, synchronous meetings, serendipitous urban encounters, massed refugee camps, and rural dwellings? (18-19)

    What are the conditions of democratic speech in the mode of information? What kind of "subject" speaks or writes or communicates in these conditions? What is its relation to machines? What complexes of subjects, bodies, and machines are required for democratic exchange and emancipatory action? (181)

Poster's questions are fascinating. But his conclusions rest in this reframing of questions, in this setting of new directions, and thus the most interesting work that he projects for the future is often not in fact done in this book. What's the Matter with the Internet? does, however, leave us with a clear theoretical grounding for new investigations, and a crucial understanding of the need to move away from instrumentalist understandings of new media and toward those approaches that combine a focus upon the specific materiality of new information technologies with an interest in the new cultures to which those technologies are giving birth.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick:
Kathleen Fitzpatrick is Assistant Professor of English and Media Studies at Pomona College. Her work has appeared in Literature/Film Quarterly and Raizes e Rumos: perspectivas interdisciplinares em estudos americanos, and she has reviewed for the Film-Philosophy online salon and for H-Net. She has essays forthcoming in two new volumes, UnderWords: Perspectives on Don DeLillo's Underworld, and Pynchon's Embodiments: Tales Beyond the Rainbow's End.  <KF004747@pomona.edu>

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