Lorne

Foucault and the Interweb

As per our conversations in class, I find it significant that programming language uses English commands and terms, as well as the fact that most languages of the world have adopted English vocabulary for computer technology. For example, in French, you would say “site web” (with a slightly different pronunciation– seet), changing the order of the words to reflect a French grammatical structure, but still using the English terms, albeit in a slightly altered form. So, when we look at PHP and see its structure of “if a, then b, echo c”, etc, we see (as Fazeela has pointed out before) a replication of not only the actual words, but also the grammatical structure of the English phrase, sentence, and paragraph.

In this regard, then, I think Foucault’s ideas of discourse analysis can work when thinking about the digital realm. Admittedly, I still only halfway get what he’s saying at any point, and find myself constantly cycling back over paragraphs and pages to see if he’s changed narrative voice, or to see where the particular tangent I’m following actually begun. (That’s just a fairly irrelevant complaint about the difficulty and density of his writing style.) However, when thinking about the ideas I’ve noted above, the fact that computer language and methodology is based within English vocabulary and (more importantly) the grammatical structure of English, I think that an analysis of understanding itself, as it is constructed through language, and which Foucault provides us, can be a valuable tool by which to understand the digital realm, mimicking as it does the structures and methodologies of language.

This relates a bit to the point I made in class last week, and which I think Foucault makes as well–that no object exists in perfect isolation, but as part of a continuous and whole system. So in this regard, as I mentioned, I think it’s a valuable exercise for us as Digital Humanists to think about the Internet, and the digital realm in general, as merely being extensions or adaptations of existing ideas, technologies, systems, and methodologies. In this regard, while specific sources elude me right now, I remember learning not long ago that, as early as the 14th century, people were theorizing about the idea of bits of information being transmitted across distance, contained within sparks of energy. By the same token, a recent book compared the Internet to the telegraph, noting that a lot of the same cultural shifts can be observed (including “on-line dating”, spam, and more), and the author’s thesis was that, while the telegraph was a quantitative shift (a change in our entire conceptual framework), the internet is merely a qualitative shift (a change or adaptation of technology and ideas that we are already intimately familiar with).

All that is to try to make my case for the idea that, as I pointed out last week, being firmly in the midst of the “digital revolution”, it might be hard for us to see the ways that our current situation is less of a wholesale cultural shift than we might think, and is simply a broadening of the technologies and ideas that have been around since the telegraph in the early 1800’s (and possibly even long before that).

So, while he’s not talking directly about the Internet, or even about technological development, I think Foucault is alluding to some of these ideas when he points to the “difficulty of saying something new”, or when he says that an object “exists under the positive conditions of a complex group of relations” (45). In that regard, when he refers to the fact that “two objects, or two types of enunciation, or two concepts may appear, in the same discursive formation, without being able to enter–under pain of manifest contradiction or inconsequence–the same series of statements”, that they can be “two incompatible elements formed in the same way and on the basis of the same rules”, it seems to me this idea can be carried across to understanding the differences between a Word 97 document, an RTF file, a text message, and a Word 2011 document. They are formed, to some degree, in the same way and on the basis of the same rules, yet cannot enter (“under pain of manifest contradiction or inconsequence”) the same programs, software, documents, etc.

I also feel that Foucault comments on this sort of phenomenon when he says that “the lower levels are not independent of those above them. Theoretical choices exclude or imply, in the statements in which they are made, the formation of certain concepts, that is, certain forms of coexistence between statements” (73). This relates to the point I’m trying to make about how the Internet, and digital technology, may be in many ways less new or revolutionary than we may currently believe. That’s not to say that the development of the personal computer and the Internet are not incredible changes in technology (and even in cognition), but simply to assert that, as Foucault seems to, the coexistence and continuity of statements, of ideas, and even of technology.

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One response to “Lorne

  1. I thought of your attention to what you have called the “digital divide,” but also the manifestations of power already present in the interpretations of what humanists are digitalizing, when I read this quote:

    “[discourse] appears as an asset — finite, limited, desirable, useful — that has its own rules of appearance, but also its own conditions of appropriation and operation; an asset that consequently, from the moment of its existence (and not only in its ‘practical applications’), poses the question of power; an asset that is, by nature, the object of a struggle, a political struggle” (136).

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