Some of liberal democracy’s deepest convictions rest on assumptions about free (or nearly free) and complete access to information. These assumptions, tied to our dreams about liberal American democracy at least since the passage of the Bill of Rights, go something like this: more information is generally better than less information; the more widely information is disseminated, especially throughout the general populace, the better; perhaps most crucially, the wider, cheaper and more comprehensive the popular access to information the better. We might imagine the most radical element of this liberal dream of democratization in the utopian (and not coincidentally, Borgesian) image of a vast library containing accessible copies of every printed, public or significant (but how to decide this, and who?) document in human history, open all hours, admitting all, forbidden and forbidding to none.1
Yet in several domains today, radical doubts have begun to be raised about the project of total information access, and even moreso about the liberal-democratic vision it is supposed to inform.2 Often, these doubts have been phrased politically, especially with regard to underlying theoretical politics that are, to be sure, crucial for understanding the structure of our public and private life. 3 In less academic spheres, grave concerns about the ultimate effects of multinational conglomerate, corporate control of the media (especially journalism) have been raised, most strongly though not at all exclusively by Noam Chomsky. 4 Yet these various criticisms have not yet come full circle: for what is unexamined—or more accurately what is displaced—in the dream of total information access itself is precisely capital, and the inextricable linkages of capital to the American democratic project.
The dream of total access endures even in many of the most radical critiques of capitalist society—if nowhere else than in the implicit claims for the value of additional information that arise in the seemingly endless processing of textual and cultural critique. To the degree that every interpretation is another text, every additional text advances the implicit belief that more information can contribute, in some minor way at least, to a better world.
Moreover, the state of much recent “media,” “culture,” and “information” phenomena suggests a rapid conglomeration of knowledge-technologies, within which the total processing and also the general neutralization of information remain largely unexamined. As profound as their impact on the state of culture may be the rows of cultural studies and feminist and race-critical volumes lining our bookstores, the glossy (or more often today, matte-coated) journals that accompany them, speak to a version of the dream of ultimate information, a state of pure processing power in which just telling the story under enough pressure and from the right angle will make it available for the right agents, perhaps even provoke emancipatory action.
But to what degree is this implicit vision a covert version of the dream of total information access? For however deliberately difficult (and here, just for a second, can one not begin to understand their canny prescience in this regard) Jacques Derrida’s critical texts, or those of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Jacques Lacan, Hélène Cixous, even Michel Foucault, is not part of the vision of cultural studies to “interpret” these texts, to “do things” with them, to make their critical energy available? And what does it mean to carry out these actions—in the name of a personal professionalism, a personal egotism, an institutional necessity, to which almost none of us can claim meaningful resistance—what does it mean to put them forward as part of a system of information whose very essence may not be primarily, as we thought, accessible and useful knowledge, but instead the “filthy lucre” of capital?
We must set aside some of the most directly urgent of these issues for the remainder of what follows. For in order even to suggest that they have substance, we have a great deal of work to do at their heart, which is namely the equation, or isomorphism, or at the very least proximity, of what we today call “information” and what we have historically called “capital.” It may well be—and this again would...