For me, things always seem to reduce themselves to position and desire. Tom’s recent question, drawn from an insightful reading of the article Kierkegaard’s “Mystery Of Unrighteousness” In The Information Age, resonates:
Weinberger offers the vision of a more intimate communion, via the Net, liberated from the tiresome vapidity of the public as media-construct. But if Kierkegaard were to charge that such intimacy is still an evasion of the concrete responsibilities of the face-to-face encounter?
Possible resolution of this question can be addressed in two ways. As I’ve argued before, the deixis of a speaker is a key concern. Without an implicit positioning of the speaker, the utterance cannot be decoded adequately. This to me, is the central problem that causes ambiguity on the web, rather than the larger concerns of identity. Kierkegaard is really on target, regarding its ties to face-to-face interaction. But I also like Weinberger’s theorizing regarding the growth of consubstantiality due to the indirect, pointed nature of web discourse.
Exploring some finely tuned linguistic assumptions points out one potential reason for demoting Kierkegaard. From the perspective of semantic or pragmatic analysis of discourse, deictic expressions are anchored to specific points in a communicative event. According to Lyons:
The grammaticalization and lexicalization of deixis is best understood in relation to what may be termed the canonical situation of utterance: this involves one-one or one-many, signaling in the phonic medium along with the vocal-auditory channel, with all the participants present in the same actual situation able to see one another and to perceive the associated non-vocal paralinguistic features of their utterances, and each assuming the role of sender and receiver in turn . . .There is much in the structure of languages that can only be explained on the assumption that they have developed for communication in face-to-face interaction.
The problem in analyzing web discourse is that the “canonical situation of utterance” represents a space where all face-to-face bets are off. Consequently, the function of deixis is even more complex. The idea of “concrete responsibilities” is remote, in a world which exists only as words on a screen. However, the paralinguistic features of utterances are still intact, and struggling for resolution in a situation where there is only a recent canon of web writing to draw from regarding appropriateness behaviors. In an important sense, we are adrift in a sea of texts, with little in the way of tradition to build from. The closest analogous situation, I think, is in the rise of print culture in the 18th century. But it is dangerous to rely on history alone, to explain the problem of deixis on the web.
There is another way of looking at this positioning problem: through the lens of desire. Few people have looked as closely at that problem as Roland Barthes:
I am caught in a double discourse, from which I cannot escape. On the one hand, I tell myself: suppose the other, by some arrangement of his own structure, needed my questioning? Then wouldn’t I be justified in abandoning myself to the literal expression, the lyrical utterance of my “passion”? Are not excess and madness my truth, my strength? And if this truth, this strength ultimately prevailed?
But, on the other hand, I tell myself: the signs of this passion run the risk of smothering the other. Then should I not, precisely because of my love, hide from the other how much I love him? I see the other with a double vision, sometimes as object, sometimes as subject; I hesitate between tyranny and oblation.
Thus I doom myself to blackmail: if I love the other, I am forced to seek his happiness; but then I can only do myself harm: a trap; I am condemned to be a saint or a monster: unable to be the one, unwilling to be the other: hence I tergiversate: I show my passion a little.
(A Lover’s Discourse, 41-2)
The reluctance to reveal one’s identity, one’s position, one’s deixis, can also be taken as a sign of love. It is the dual position of lovers, who both desire to reveal themselves, and to hide as a sign of their mad love in a new, exciting, and desirous situation where they now can meet the world, through their words. Position, and desire, are complicated indeed. Weinberger’s utopian optimism need not be dismissed at the first introduction of fear into the equation. There are many kinds of fear, and many of them are proudly positioned at the forefront of new desires. All the same, it’s hard to dance with a partner when you don’t know where they are. I suppose I prefer to read the anchor position, the defining social situation on the web, as closer to the perverse logic of love rather than fear.
I suspect that Kierkegaard’s worry that fear is a flaw is largely unfounded. Without the dangerous exhilaration provided by fear, love would not be as strong. And the distanciation brought out by anonymity and pseudonymity could be just another part of the lovers dance, as it flirts with the possibility of new social situations. Sometimes the road is dark, and people hesitate to show the full force of their desire.