Electronic Time and the Serials Revolution
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Electronic Time and the Serials Revolution

Discussions of electronic publishing have focused on the political dangers of the new technology and on commercial entanglements that deny the medium’s utopian promise. The net may soon disappear, it is said, between commercialization and censorship, between the business of representation and the representation of business. Baudrillard sees in virtuality a timeless dystopia, a Disneyland without depth: Disney

seeks to erase time by synchronizing all the periods, all the cultures, in a single travelling motion, by juxtaposing them in a single scenario. . . . . Disney realizes de facto such an atemporal utopia by producing all the events, past or future, on simultaneous screens. 1

Virilio, who has also found something to appreciate in things fastmoving, cautions that technology is inherently totalitarian and sees a new power-class emerging through the net. 2 These twin fears of the virtual and the technological represent the standard political response to electronic communication. The general discussion of electronic media, including Web and internet-based publishing, follows this suit. It is clearly important to keep discussing the dangers that more overtly political and commercial interests pose to the net. 3 It is also worth recalling the argument that print has safeguarded rational exposition and that, with the advent of electronic venues (William Buckley’s “Firing Line” being a notable exception), the age of reason is over. 4 My concern here, however, is with a less visible and more formal threat to the potential of electronic publishing: the rhetoric of the serial. To a large extent, as Zizek has observed, the net makes visible what is already here. 5 The net, in important ways, works with and not against our existing paradigms, an issue the general discussion does not touch. How, then, does electronic publishing contribute to its own potential loss?

The medium’s utopian element is one reason which I will discuss later on. As Martin Spinelli has argued, utopian thinking which characterizes the reception of emergent media like the radio makes it harder to consider real issues in electronic serial publishing: “An emergent medium,” writes Spinelli,

represents a structural change in communications technology around which social change is promised . . . . the rhetoric of these promises prevents any real understanding [End Page 445] of the material place of the emergent medium in our lives. 6

You can’t have art without resistance in the materials, as William Morris says, and the material resistance of electronic publishing is, in part, its fabulousness, its mythical time, its ethereal order—its apparent lack of resistance.

Another reason electronic publishing helps substantiate the arguments of its detractors lies in the rhetoric of seriality. Two of the serial’s rhetorical moves concern me here. First, and most obviously, the periodical produces a particular model of order, that of serial succession. The series is one of the most pervasive of Western metaphysical orders. With family trees, the hours and the days, houses of the sun, and apostolic generations, Western culture has organized time and phenomena in succession. Serials extend this vocabulary. In serials, issues are numbered and appear in volumes—in this they replicate the library itself (Borges’s great Library is, in contrast, more like the periodic table of elements). And the uniformity of articles and features produces the idea that valuable information is ordered; its greatest information is order itself. So the function of serials is not only to determine what counts, but also to count. As Derrida writes, “the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future.” 7 Second, the serial connects history with timelessness. It appears in time (and sometimes on time), with an exaggerated dramatization of this timeliness; at the same time it is an open form, like a diary, and has no closure or end. 8 It is always not-yet, evermore about to be. This open gesture toward a receding future connects the present of the serial with its timelessness. Furthermore, the work published in each issue is supposed to belong there by virtue of an intellectual affinity that relates to the journal’s identity over time...