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  • Of Bugs and Rats: Cyber-Cleanliness, Cyber-Squalor, and the Fantasy-Spaces of Informational Globalization
  • Terry Harpold and Kavita Philip

1. Just So Stories

Three hundred million souls,... swarming on the body of India, like so many worms on a rotten, stinking carcase,—this is the picture concerning us, which naturally presents itself to the English official!

—Swami Vivekananda, East and West (1901)1

The central event of the 20th century is the overthrow of matter. In technology, economics, and the politics of nations, wealth—in the form of physical resources—has been losing value and significance. The powers of mind are everywhere ascendant over the brute force of things.

—Esther Dyson, George Gilder, George Keyworth, and Alvin Toffler, “Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age” (1994)2

Nineteenth-century Indian social reformer Swami Vivekananda’s choice of metaphor for his fellow subjects—teeming, disease-bearing maggots—reflects the horrified fascination for the native he perceived in the colonial gaze. Faced with the task of figuring the colonized Other, western social and ethnographic discourses of the period dwell, with symptomatic insistence, on a semiotic of grotesque and infectious bodies. A fundamental challenge to the integrity of the European psyche appears to have been: how could the colonizing subject imagine the radical alterity of the native without introjecting its forms, that is, without being seduced or infected by the traits of its difference? Christopher Herbert’s history of nineteenth-century ethnography links its strategies for narrativizing the primitive to Methodist founder John Wesley’s fantastical theology of sin—both, Herbert observes, were shaped by the violent desire for and the abomination of that which seemed to be beyond representation. The tropologies of colonial discourse, he writes, played against and within a field of forces “prior and alien to and implicitly destructive of symbolic order” (Herbert, 31).

The spectacular appropriation of technoscientific modernity by the postcolonial global citizen appears at first glance to have consigned images of the filthy and irredeemable autochthon to the discarded lapses of history.3 In place of insistence on an unbreachable ontological difference between peoples, narratives of twentieth- and twenty-first-century informational globalization announce the imminent arrival of an all-inclusive global community.4 Unlimited access to data, the unfettered movement of capital and labor, and liberal-democratic freedoms of speech and the marketplace will ensure—the proponents of this narrative claim—that all human beings may become subjects of the new civil information society. This happy narrative presumes a historical rupture with the psychic and political-economic orders of the Ages of Exploration and Colonialism, and celebrates the creation of a new ethnographic field in which to anchor the technological subject of our time. It openly acknowledges faults of distribution and access within the current state of the global network, but only as engineering problems—“bugs”—which will one day be corrected by technical mastery and/or entrepreneurial initiative.5

Euphoric claims of an emerging universal network are belied by statistics detailing the vast numbers of unwired global citizens, state and corporate control of network content, and gendered, raced, and class-bound disparities in access. Evangelists of the informational order predict a systematic rectification of these shortcomings; opponents of globalization worry that only those shortcomings which impede the machinery and flow of capital (or which are irrelevant to its dominions) will be eliminated. Recent cultural criticism of informational globalization has noted that global communicational and economic networks may be (depending on the analyst’s theoretical and political position) homogenizing and/or particularizing, totalizing and/or fracturing, radically novel and/or predictably repetitive.6

Rather than debate content-based significations of the cross-cultural encounter entailed in such understandings, we wish to step back from such formulations and ask why encounters with the cultural and technoscientific Other are structured in particular ways. We propose that the faults which fascinate enthusiast and opponent alike, far from being merely technical or developmental blockages, are, rather, constitutive elements of an imaginary which intensifies and refigures political-economic differentials along a familiar axis: that of civilization and savagery, cleanliness and filth, health and disease. Both utopian and dystopian dreams of techno-globalization attempt to govern...

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