Digital representation re-imagines the morality and emotions of social interaction and mathematizes our experience of the physical world. In electronic media, human expression of selfhood, group-dom, and nationhood take up older media forms to articulate a sense of the contemporary scene.1 Hyper-text markup language (HTML), from this angle, is a new needlepoint. The analogy underlines the connection and continuity between traditional media, seen in the form of what we call “folk art”, and electronic media, which we tend to view as a dramatic break with previous types of communication. Needlepoint is a widely-known folk art and communicative medium in which individuals “sign” work that embodies a particular theme and sends messages stitched in cloth to others. Needlepoint does not occur in isolation because it expresses moral-emotional themes and may even serve as a focus for explicit interactivity as a circle of adepts surround a cloth in collaborative stitching. The resulting narrative underlines needlepoint’s mediative status by referring to broader thematics in the genre, winking to other media much as Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” does by incorporating previous oral narrative/myth. William Morris provided a framework in which digital and folk art techniques can be linked by arguing that arts and crafts such as needlepoint inject meaning into labour. For the industrial worker, Morris continues, arts and crafts provide
the opportunity of expressing their own thoughts to their fellows by means of that very labour, by means of that daily work which nature or long custom, a second nature, does indeed require of them, but without meaning that it should be an unrewarded and repulsive burden. 2
Morris saw liberatory and communitarian potential in industrialized work, which information technologies now digitally reconfigure into electronic media. In this sense, a pen, needle, brush or lathe is no different from a keyboard although the image of an information worker is more fluid (in a North America in which work has spilt into the home and well beyond eight hours for many) than that of the classic industrial proletarian.
The analogy HTML-needlepoint highlights the ubiquitous nature of representation and media. Needlepoint is a medium of communication over distance and through time whose writing parallels other forms. In effect, the communicative paradigm of human expression and mediated interaction extends in several directions. Cultural geography shows how groups and societies write stories of who they are into their environment, physically manifesting abstractions in a way that is seen in the case of Louis XIV. Having inherited an exposed and fractious kingdom, the Roi soleil set out not only to recast the mandate of heaven in his person, but also to manifest the grandeur of “France” in a suitable and viable embodiment. The task was undertaken by his military architect, Vauban, who constructed a series of fortifications around a frontier. Many of these structures can still be seen, for example, near Belgium or southwest of the town of Collioure in the Pyrenees-Orientales, in that portion of Catalonia that France wrenched away from Spain in the seventeenth century. The oeuvre of stitching a realm with stone fortifications and defendable borders gave rise to the appellation “hexagone” to refer to France. The term is commonly used in weather reports, which slips Cartesian mathematical projections (again, stylized representations of our relationship to the physical world) into a quotidien of falling rain or shining sun. The Sun King’s craft is a key component of the often unreflective spatial conception of power that is a peculiar specialty to the Western group of nations, although it has been taken up with gusto in India, China and elsewhere.3
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Walter Benjamin concurs with Morris’ assessment of the positive potential of industrial production. He further argues that mechanical reproduction profoundly alters the nature of artistic expression by removing it from the context of ritual and tradition, which he says destroys its “aura.” Benjamin contends that the process endows representation with a new political-revolutionary potential that is simultaneously empowering and dangerous. On the one hand, “for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual […and…] the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.”4 The process inserts hypermediacy insofar as art starts to consciously refer itself to a parallel universe of representation, politics, rather than pose as a recapitulation of a sacred moral-emotional order. Media in this way extends beyond monarchical marketing into everyday life. The intrusion of hypermediacy as politics then sparks a realization that representation is not sacred, but historical and therefore malleable. In turn, the relations expressed in representation and, perhaps most significantly, those who produce art, are represented in it, and act as its custodians are desacralized. In Benjamin’s view, mechanical reproduction thus has the potential to democratize culture because it awakens expression to its historical meaning. With HTML, expression can be read into online realities that are in this way de-scientized, that is, the aura of scientific truth is removed and their historic features come to the fore. Yet while he points to potential, Benjamin also warns that technology’s liberatory promise is mitigated,
If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war. The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society. 5
The same technology that abolishes distance between subjects heralds the advent of the vast ethnic cleansings, eugenics, and social engineering that ultimately drove Benjamin to despair and suicide. This is the paradox of modernity and post-modernity gone mad, forgetful of the context of human meaning, obsessed with the notion “that a medium must be new in order to be significant”,6 and so anxious to begin everything anew once more. The perpetual return to the garden is the paradox of human expression in all its contradictory tenderness, pettiness, love and cruelty. It is the story of two millennia.
For at least 350 years, since the Peace of Westphalia imposed a shaky international geometry by consecrating a state-centred balance of power and laid to rest Medieval polycentric politics, Western and later global political representation have been dominated by the notion of space. In one sense, spatiality simply recapitulates the Roman idea of greatness, which was linked to the amount of territory occupied, but it also expresses the interaction between peoples at a distance who located one another on maps; “for centuries, our knowledge of faraway peoples and places depended on reports and maps from courageous (and sometimes foolhardy) sailors.”7 This global I-Thou was graphically illustrated by maps of the world that I remember from public school upon which the British Empire and Commonwealth were always coloured light pink. Extension of British rule across a vast area was implicitly seen as reassuring evidence of the rise of civilization, rule of law, and a “community of nations.” For an English-speaking North American born and educated in the pink bits, it also means that “color” is a quirky colour, still another mediation. The map communicated a long-distance message that those pink bits represented a “people” who shared certain historical experience, laws and institutions, and loyalties.
A canvas of sectorialized spatiality has dominated politics and power since Westphalia, but neither is solely reduced to extent for as much. The collapse of the British Empire, for example, embodied a politics of place, that is, an experience of power and politics in a specific location as opposed to their spread across given territories. The relation space-place is seen in electronic communication that re-introduces levels of representation into a series of opening windows and simultaneous e-mail, video, audio and textual messaging, much as fifteenth and sixteenth-century Italian painting set relations in windows ordered by religious themes. Bolter and Grusin argue that postmodernity moreover re-situates human relations within a meta-narrative of information. From this vantage point, HTML more clearly joins the crafts of needlepoint and politics as a mediated articulation of human experience. Beyond the gateways and channels ringed by HTML fortifications, Paul Virilio observes that this information age bears its own hierarchies,
an even more radical divide between those who will live under the empire of real time essential to their economic activities at the heart of the virtual community of the world city, and those, most destitute than ever, who will survive in the real space of local towns, that great planetary wasteland that will in the future, bring together the only too real community of those who no longer have a job or a place to live that are likely to promote harmonious and lasting socialization.8
Virilio pinpoints power, but his spatial conception of authenticity (rousseauiste nostalgia for home?) misses mediation. He overlooks the actual spatial coexistence of wealth and poverty in information society. The poor and the privileged are in every place, no longer tidy and separate, or thought to be.
The pedigree of place-based power is illustrated in Irish political culture. Never noted conquerors (and relishing that role), the Irish nonetheless willingly and unwillingly explored and scattered. An Irish people was propelled by conquest, hegemony and calamitous famine to spread outward from the island while retaining their attachment to a sense of Irishness and nostalgia for lieu. Fintan O’Toole recounts that an elderly Irish immigrant visited an exhibition in late-nineteenth century New York City that included a giant topographical map of the island of Ireland. The representation was divided into the 32 counties of Ireland upon which the public could walk. Each mathematized depiction of county contained soil brought from the actual physical place. Overcome with emotion at this immediate contact with her “homeland” (ie. the soil of Eire, not the map), the aged immigrant sank to her knees. She spent a few minutes hovering over the mathematical representation before recovering and stumbling away, genuinely and deeply moved by a joining with her own private Ireland through the medium of a map.9 The power of place seen in this incident still shapes perception among the many (40?) millions who identify Irishness with a sense of place, identity and community of interest rather than a small republic on a rainy island off the shores of northwestern Europe.
Like a topography of Irish counties, HTML facilitates representation of place through the substructure of multi-windowed imagery on the Web. HTML is a code, formula and language that facilitates visualization and textualization of a narrative for a polycentric information age, an age in which, once again, truth is no longer bipolar but multi-leveled. In this narrative, Bill Gates effuses about the liberatory profits of tech, Kurds broadside pan-Turkish imperial ambitions, Serbs stage “ping attacks” on NATO, a search engine locates hundreds of recipes for key lime pie, Chinese democrats circulate a petition that protests the current regime in Beijing, hackivists jam Echelon and Pakistani protesters deface their governments’s Websites following the recent coup. It is also a platform for stories of the Mars Explorer, Liberace Museum, Roy Rogers and other masculine sub-genres pre-occupied with the single, unfeeling, rational gaze (whether of planets, capes or horses). But rationalized spatiality has become one level among a multiplicity.
HTML narrates the post-Cold War, postmodern place. It reconfigures human love, death, power, lust, misery, and treachery in a new digital setting. Like needlepoint, HTML remediates previous mediating forms, much as Jeannette Winterson notes that “the function of the Victorian novel is not to uncover the world but to recover it; to smooth it out in a matching fabric, to give it a coherence it would not otherwise possess.”10 This recovering is not new to the media age and its coherence assumes many forms. In “The Nights of Cabiria”, a Roman prostitute dreams of romance and respectability. Betrayed and robbed by her tricks, Giulietta Masini nonetheless loves, lives, rebels, is moral, is human. She turns to the viewer, eyes brimming with tears. We understand, seem to experience, her will to live and love, understand that this is a story for sentimentalists. “It’s only a story”, her eyes say to us. This postmodern moment as modernist documentary of the life of a Roman whore becomes us and we are freed to live pain, cry, suffer, shed the Cartesian strait-jacket. Masini’s knowing look aligns itself with Warhol’s cheeky Marilyn as reproduction after reproduction stretches to the horizon.
The narrative functions of HTML supply agency for the complexities of human experience and representational types. Janet Murray notes that “hypertext is not new as a way of thinking and organizing experience” since similar principles are present in the Torah, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and The Dictionary of the Khazars, but “it is only with the emergence of the computer that hypertext writing have been attempted on a large scale.”11 HTML facilitates multidimensional story-telling since it lubricates the aestheticization of digital environments.As Oscar Wilde notes “the mark of all good art is not that the thing done is done exactly or finely, for machinery may do as much, but that it is worked out with the head and the workman’s heart. I cannot impress the point too frequently that beautiful and rational designs are necessary in all work.”12 The significance and impact of HTML, like that of needlepoint, lies not in the truth of what is told, but rather in their telling, which is social, told at specific moments, socially altered, and part of socio-political argument. Echoing Benjamin’s aestheticization, de-spaced and re-placed politics are less a realm of debate, decision and resolution in a movement toward absolute truth than one of representation of human experience. Politics through HTML becomes a decorative art that more explicitly re-imagines the social. This is already seen daily in North America and Western Europe, where individuals, families and groups turn on their TV sets and then walk away, leaving the turmoil and suffering of the world as a backdrop, a decorative element, to their daily routine. The pain and suffering of each is here recast as a universal, but taken off the cross and slotted in primetime. Events on the screen become fixtures, remind us of the time of day, the week, the weather outside and another massacre.
1. This is generally the argument made by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983) focused on one form of mediation: the “imagined communities” (nations) of post-1789 politics.
2. William Morris, “Art and Socialism”: http://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1884/as/as.htm, accessed November 10, 1999.
3. In late May 1999, India and Pakistan engaged in a series of border clashes over the disputed region of Kashmir. Although conflict between Hindus and Muslims preceded the European intrusion into South Asia, that event facilitated its re-embodiment as a war of nationalisms (Indian and Pakistani).
4. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, in Illuminations, Glasgow: Collins, 1977; p.226.
5. “The Work of Art”, p.244.
6. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1999; p.270.
7. Howard H. Frederick, Global Communication and International Relations, Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1993; p.16.
8. Paul Virilio, Open Sky (trans. Julie Rose), London: Verso, 1997; p.71.
9. Fintan O’Toole, “No Place Like Home”, in The Lie of the Land: Irish Identities, London: Verso, 1997; pp.160-172.
10. Jeannette Winterson, “A Veil of Words”, in Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, Toronto: Vintage, 1995; p.87.
11. Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, New York: The Free Press, 1997; p.56.
12. Oscar Wilde, “House Decoration”, reprinted from Essays and Lectures by Oscar Wilde, London: Methuen and Co., 1908: http://www.burrows.com/founders/house.html, accessed May 2, 1998.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, in Illuminations. Glasgow: Collins, 1977.
Bolter, Jay David and Grusin, Richard. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1999.
Frederick, Howard H. Global Communication and International Relations. Belmont, Cal.: Wadsworth, 1993.
Graham, Brian. In Search of Ireland: A Cultural Geography. London: Routledge, 1997.
Jordan, Tim. Cyberpower: The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace and the Internet. London: Routledge, 1999.
Morris, William. “Art and Socialism.” http://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1884/as/as.htm, accessed November 10, 1999.
Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: The Free Press, 1997.
O’Toole, Fintan. “No Place Like Home”, in The Lie of the Land: Irish Identities. London: Verso, 1997.
Virilio, Paul. Open Sky (trans. Julie Rose). London: Verso, 1997.
Wilde, Oscar. “House Decoration”, reprinted from Essays and Lectures by Oscar Wilde. London: Methuen and Co., 1908, http://www.burrows.com/founders/house.html, accessed May 2, 1998.
Winterson, Jeannette. “A Veil of Words”, in Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. Toronto: Vintage, 1995.