If the electronic revolution soon succeeds, the world will be an electronic mirror cabinet and every individual a will-less, perfectly cybernetically functioning monad, predicts H.P. Jeudy in his book Les Ruses de la Communication
In Les Ruses de la Communication, Henri-Pierre Jeudy emerges as a prophet of doom. Firstly, he goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the French social theoreticians who have been trend-setting during the last twenty years have dug their own grave in their analysis and critique of social developments. Their theoretical violence has done nothing other than further the destruction of meaning that seems the logical consequence of the present seizure of power by techno-culture. All the quasi-critical illusions clung to by theoreticians throughout the years are dashed: the alternative, the end of the 'social', the third world, the return of ethics. I will not join in this discussion here. Rather, I wish to examine Jeudy's description of the techno-sphere and our world to come: the totalitarian regime of communication.
Custodian of the Arbitrary
For Jeudy, this means nothing less than war. On the one side is social life, with its contradictions, coincidences, vagueness and ambiguity; on the other is the machinery of communication that unceasingly strives for total efficiency and uniformity. Jeudy identifies the electronic network with the latter and perceives in it the full-blown workings of a process that is still a mere tendency in society: the general collapse of all meaning, the replacement of the public realm and sociality with a pre-structured abundance of artificial and arbitrary images, with which the individual is expected to identify. This is the epidemic eating at all words and social behavior: if everything can mean everything, then everything is equally pointless. The consequence is that everyone must become a perfect custodian of the arbitrary. As in the networks, says Jeudy, where only appearances exist and where everyone can refuse unwanted impressions. Where everyone auto-erotically follows their own ideal images and safe, pre-programmed desires, in fact. The system tolerates nothing other than transparent and clear images that mean everything and nothing. It is a nihilist desert, brightened by simulated forms of sociability, entertainment, public life, eroticism, etc.
This is what awaits us, according to Jeudy. And what he calls the 'networks' is the phantom of the catastrophe in full flower. If the electronic revolution soon succeeds, the world will be an electronic mirror cabinet and every individual a will-less, perfectly cybernetically functioning monad.
It is a very somber phantom. It is somewhat reminiscent of the objections to a telephone network at the turn of the century. Something a sociologist ought to notice. As a sociologist, one would expect him to maintain a distance from the form now being taken by networks and other telematic communities. In encounters with others in the Net, the bond with the ones and zeroes of the hardware and the technical architecture of the software is still pushed to the fore. The Net is still dominated by the style and interests of the business world. The infinity and appearance of immediate omnipresence radiated by the electronic communication systems has an intimidating effect and forms a strange, de-mythologizing (in earlier times, also a de-humanizing) power. Talk of the nervous system, neurons, enzymes, microelectricity, etc. would be experienced as a great desecration by those who, two hundred years ago, were in the habit of attributing their thoughts and feelings to their souls, which they imagined as ethereal ghosts somewhere in their heads or breasts. They would probably reach a conclusion similar to Jeudy's: if human beings are bio-chemical beings, then their consciousness and struggles are pointless. Or, in contemporary terminology: if the social loses to communication, all meanings are empty, all interpretations arbitrary. But perhaps communication is not the all-powerful system Jeudy assumes. It is quite conceivable that events in the Net will gradually become so complex and refined, so clogged and full of static, that communication loses out to the social; that everything that Jeudy considers lost appears again, albeit in another form, but with the same unpredictability, humor, strangeness, cultural multivariousness and hybrid 'meaning' as life itself.
The electronic realm is a desert that is being overgrown at a rapid pace. With everything that people have to offer: energetic, beautiful, bad, stupid and violent.
Jeudy's criticism is an important anti-venom for the guileless Californian evangelists preaching an Electronic Paradise, but he underestimates the ordinariness of the electronic media. Just as with the printed word, the electronic media will become a non-uniform universe where it is impossible to maintain order, and room must be made for all the 'chaotic' and 'different' things that inhabit the back streets and outlying neighborhoods. Indeed, for the most part, this will consist of utter, idle nonsense and trivial, useless information, just as most printed matter contains. Naturally, life in an electronic world will also make new, extremely confusing demands.
The Net now forming from thousands of islands of primitive and less primitive telematic communities is a new continent, as America once was. For a long period, its only inhabitants were brutes, money-grubbing scoundrels, adventurers, persecuted religious fanatics, escaped criminals, incomprehensible Indians, etc.
It took a while, a lot of blood flowed, quite a few masses of people were dragged there against their will, but it then became a real world with everything, a new culture, with new dimensions and combinations, other kinds of humor, other kinds of Otherness.
The technical tricks and spectacular little feats, the hackers and technical freaks are to electronics what the natural wonders and wildmen were to the new continent. Here, too, just as the usa when it was founded, it is swarming with cranks hotly proclaiming the new era, a heroic step forward for humankind, yes, a golden age just about to dawn, paradise on earth. This will finally be it: the kingdom of freedom and justice, begun anew in the wildernis of nothingness, with the dreamers, pioneers and wretched of the old world. The streets are paved with gold.
We should thus expect a massive wave of poor immigrants, gangsters, a civil war.
Jeudy's criticism of communication is valuable, but he overestimates the orderliness and efficiency of the electronic network. The ones and zeroes, the protocols and codes; what are they but maps of the sewer system, the pre-fabricated bricks in public buildings? As the volume of electronic communication increases, so do static, mysteries, crime and the impossibility of control. It will become more and more like a city, with all of a city's charms, mysteries and dangers.
The idea of communication culminating in perfection and emptiness is also a fallacy and is self-destructing. Injustice, stupidity and chaos will always be unleashed and battled over in the Net. The quicker, the better. There are no times of stagnation and decay. Stagnation and decay is of all times and may even determine the quality of existence. That communication is decaying as it acquires power: this is perhaps our fondest hope.
translation: jim boekbinder
Literature: Henri-Pierre Jeudi Les Ruses de la Communication Plon, Paris 1989, ISBN 2-259-02146-8