Utopia and the Internet 1

One of my favorite things about studying cultural studies in both the context of anthropology and cultural studies is the way that ‘keywords’ are always inter-related. I think that this was a big lightbulb for me when I was reading Raymond Williams’ Keywords: A Vocabulary For Culture and Society. Moreso than telling you what a word ‘means’– given that what it ‘means’ depends on its use and not some immanent feature of the thing– a dictionary only tells you the ways in which words are related to one another.

So, with that in mind, I open my post on utopia and its relationship to the internet. I think the difference between Internet and internet is again useful here: Internet refers to the time in which the Internet was a utopian space, whereas internet refers to the new reality of the matter. What I’m going to try to make clear in a very short amount of space is how the internet became (in a sense) utopian, and why it is no longer as such.

Utopia was the original name of the game for critique: critique being a combination of Kritikos (judgement) and Ceinan (to seperate). The goal of critique for Kant was to submit something for reflection and public discussion. Marx further embodied this, as he critiqued- made public- the ideology of the capitalist ethos and the contradictions that arose from structures of society that it created. In each of these, there is an essence of contrast, and implicit measuring against something- what would later be called by the Frankfurt school normative foundations.

The Frankfurt School project of Adorno and Horkheimer was about critiquing normative foundations in such a way as to pull apart the injustices caused by specific social structures. The main question for this school of philosophers was, “How is it that we identify injustices, and how can we reconstruct the normative function in order to separate those things of greater justice?” The caveat here is that the critique must always be done in such a way to account for our own ideological sublimation; critique is always done from inside a society and cannot be done from an imaginary position outside of it; critique must be immanent, as must be the normative conditions that we seek to install. To critique society as being terrible, and say it should be more like heaven, is a fool’s errand.

This required the good ol’ boys of the F-School to figure out a way in which they could define a more just space within society. Their task was to figure out and establish sources within society itself of emancipative conditions. Their problem was carving out a position of critique from within society itself, given that critique implies a distance that requires a norm against which to define systemic injustice. These guys were left Hegellians, liberal philosophers, who did not need Platonic ideals to understand what justice was and what society should look like; they instead knew that ‘how society should function’ could always be found within society itself, and would give us clues for dismantling injusitce. I’m sure you see where this is going now…

Fast forward to Internet: a democratic space of interconnectivity that allows anyone to access an array of information from anywhere. On the Internet, no one knew you were a dog. It was a space of non-discrimination. More importantly, it was a space for immanent critique. Internet was elevated to the level of utopia when it was leveraged as a space against which the systemic injustices of the terrestrial world could be picked apart. The Internet was made into a utopian space where all was more right than it was here. Internet became both a source of immanent critique, and a utopian ideal for the terrestrial world.

There was, however, a blatant disregard for the undemocratic relationship between the terrestrial world of ‘reality’ and the extraterrestrial Internet. One could not access utopia-net unless they had the resources. Cue the internet; the lower case denotating a demotion from utopia to public sphere. The internet, again lower case, also represents an absorbing of that first Greek meaning of utopia- no space. The internet was a good space, but it was also used in theory as space which it was not- the good place that was a no place (not a non-place, although the theorist of non-place Marc Augé would be interesting to deploy on the internet). Where the internet was an ideal space for critiquing society, and its use as such elevated it to the position of utopia, those seeking to be liberated quickly realized that the content of Internet– that is internet in a vacuum– was utopia, but the form of the internet and its inaccessibility highlighted deep lines of inequality. We could easily argue that the content Internet is an ideal space for critiquing the systemic injustices that are brought to surface by the form internet, but to divide these would be like dividing mind and body– something I take as negative, but we can discuss at a later time.

Utopia: it combines the Greek ‘not place’ with the English homophone Eutopia, ‘derived from ‘Good place’ in Greek. Utopianism is thought of as a bad thing for critical theory: an idealistic dream that is all good and well–pun intended–, but does not exist. Yet, utopian visions are foundational to political projects, like that of the Frankfurt School. The name of the game is, truly, immanent critique, but that critique is always in search of something like Internet to act as a model to make society more like the content of the internet.

Leave a Reply

One thought on “Utopia and the Internet