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Vectors of the Virtual in New Media Theory John Johnston FOR THOSE SERIOUSLY INTERESTED IN LITERATURE, the Internet and computer-mediated communication simultaneously offer a new resource and pose a new threat. A resource, because in addition to reviving epistolary exchange in the form of e-mail, the Internet provides a new way of doing research from the comforts of one's own desk, by allowing direct access to a growing wealth of information, including numerous on-line professional journals. A threat, because many fear that these new modes of access are changing not only the means of communication and research but the very nature of these activities, altering what and how we read and write, as well as producing deleterious effects on our very language. Thus, in The Gutenberg Elegies literary critic Sven Birkerts argues that the electronic millenium will inevitably bring about an erosion of language, the complexities and expressive capacities of the language we now use and assume being gradually replaced by "a more telegraphic sort of 'plainspeak,'" with an attendant flattening of historical perspective and "waning of the private self."1 In this view the Internet continues or even increases the debilitating effects on literary culture produced by radio, cinema, and television. But predictions also run in the contrary direction . Theorists like Pierre Levy herald the formation of the many new "virtual" communities and on-line identities—indeed, the creation of a new Internet "superlanguage"—as prospects for a more egalitarian, even Utopian, society.2 This double and polarized reaction to technological change is of course historically familiar. A classic example is Plato's denunciation of writing and his banishment of the poet from the Republic. In Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates argue that writing things down not only weakens memory but worse: it promotes lying and the irresponsible propagation of fictions, since the writer never has to meet face to face with his or her interlocutor. But in The Republic this defense of oral culture is reversed and the poet as its representative sent packing. In his remarkable study, A Preface to Plato, Eric Havelock explains mat poetry in Plato's still mostly oral culture is associated with an aggregative, paratactic style reflecting a fluid, situational, and dispersed subjectivity, whereas the Republic must be founded upon an absolute and unquestioned truth arrived at in an abstract, analytic style. The Republic thus requires a fixed, coherent, and stable subject, the very subject (Havelock suggests in a later book) produced by alphabetic writing. Adding vowels to the original Semitic alphabet, Havelock argues, allowed the 92 Summer 2003 Johnston Greeks a new level of abstract, analytic, visual coding of the elusive world of sound, and it is Ulis new abstract philosophical language, not the antiquated "poetic" language of Homer, that must be the medium of education. That Plato never makes the argument in exactly these terms does not mean he was an incompetent media theorist; it attests, rather, to the complexity of writing technology 's almost invisible interiorization, as scholars as diverse as Jack Goody, Adam Parry, and Walter J. Ong have demonstrated.3 It may be reasonably assumed that the effects of the new electronic media are bound to be similarly complex, or at least as contradictory and conflictual. In recent discussions of new media theory, for example, very different definitions of the concept of the virtual have been proposed, which in tum reveal significant divergences in how the cultural implications of the new media are formulated and understood. Before examining these differences, I would like to indicate briefly how "the virtual" dimension of the electronic medium becomes an issue in hypertext and several Internet artworks. Most early efforts in new media theory by literary scholars focused on hypertext, as "writing" in the electronic medium is usually called. Books like Michael Heim's Electric Language (1987), where the word "hypertext" never appears but the idea or method is treated under the techno-philosophical rubric of "word processing," Jay David Bolter's Writing Space (1991), and George P. Landow's Hypertext (1992) are all concerned with reading and writing in an electronic medium. This means first that the text—the signs, letters, and spaces—appears by means of illuminated...


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