One Zero

Seulemonde Conversation with
Professor Mark C. Taylor

"...students started using images, videos, music, and recordings to create
very different "texts."
- Mark C. Taylor

One Seulemonde:

As you pointed out in IMAGOLOGIES, business and the media use the technology all the time that you and Esa Saarinen used to conduct your international seminar. Beyond the fact that your subject matter was different from what is usually discussed in an international business teleconference, what was so unique about your seminar? For our readers/viewers unfamiliar with the stylistic nuances of "Imagologies," please explain what the seminar did for the participants, and perhaps for the instructors, to promote a way of seeing and thinking and writing based on an "awareness of the significance of the technologcal revolution that is taking place." How did the seminar go beyond theory to bring together theory and practice? Did the class, for example, begin to make images more than the object of study, as you say, "Also the medium of thought, action and communication?"

Mark C. Taylor:

Esa Saarinen and I began planning for our seminar for the global classroom in the summer of 1991 and conducted the class in the fall of 1992. The explosion of interest in the so-called information superhighway since that time makes it difficult to remember how little attention was being paid to technological developments in telecommunications only a few years ago. When we began, we knew almost nothing about how to mount such a seminar and found very little interest or support at Williams or the University of Helsinki. Thus, we turned to businesses and consultants for assistance. Since we had no money, we had to rely on the good will of people not usually associated with the university. After considerable effort, we were able to get the equipment and various forms of support that we needed to conduct the class. The seminar was completely interactive and involved both sound and images. The tables were set up in such a way that half the seminar table was in Williamstown and half in Helsinki. With the support of Finnish Telecommunications, we were able to use fiber optic lines rather than satellite. The seminar met for two hours once a week for the entire semester. In addition to the class sessions, students and faculty were in constant conversation through a listserv.

This was, to our knowledge, the first time such a seminar had been conducted internationally and for an extended period of time. Distance learning was, of course, well-established but the international aspect of our project and the length of the course were unique.

There were many surprising aspects to this experiment. Perhaps most unexpected was how well the technology worked and how quickly everyone became accustomed to the electronic space. At times, it really seemed as if everyone were in the "same" room. In other ways, however, the technology chnged the "form" and "substance" of what we did. For example, we were startled by the extent and the intensity of the use of email. (Again, remember this was 2 1/2 years ago.) The students were more involved in out-of-class discussions than in any other course I have ever taught. Many mornings when I would log on, I would have 15 - 20 questions from students in Helsinki. Not all the online traffic concerned the class, indeed several students developed very intimate relations on the net.

Our aim in the course was to bring theory and practice together by doing what we were theorizing and theorizing what we were doing. As we began to get more of a sense of the potential of this new technology, students started playing with it in different ways. A team of students who had worked together online initiated the discussion for each meeting. At first, these "presentations" were what we ordinarily expect in such meetings. But very quickly students started using images, videos, music, and recordings to create very different "texts."

In the course of the seminar, Esa and I wrote what eventually became IMAGOLOGIES: MEDIA PHILOSOPHY. In both the "form" and the "content" of this "book," we tried to capture the sense of the seminar. We tried to carry over the importance of images in contemporary culture in the design of the book. Though I was initially suspicious about the possibility of collaborative writing online, it actually worked out very well.


From a great deal of your own work, one can see the heavy reliance you have placed on deconstruction in your own thinking. That comes through in IMAGOLOGIES as well. You, for example, compare imagologies and deconstruction: "Imagologies follow the lead of deconstruction by giving up the search for secure foundations. The disappearance of the signified in the endless field of signifiers is embraced as an unavoidable cultural condition." Thankful as you are to deconstruction for signalling "the opening of post pring culture," you seem to want imagology to be something that comes after deconstruction, yet you seem to keep talking often about imagologies in deconstructive terms. What are some of the ways in which imagology radicilizes deconstructive writing and still relies, at least for a grasp of its philosophical implications, on the use and understanding of deconstruction? How, for example, is GLAS bound by book culture and how does it promote our understanding of "post pring culture?"

Mark C. Taylor:

As you indicate, deconstruction has played a very important role in shaping my thinking. The two most significant figures for me remain Hegel and Kierkegaard. I have always seen deconstruction as providing a way of working out a position that falls somewhere between Hegel and Kierkegaard. The other formative figure is, of course, Nietzsche.

While it is impossible to overestimate the contribution made by Derrida, it seems to me that those who have followed him have reached a certain dead end. In many ways, deconstruction has reversed itself by becomeing predictable. For the past several years, much critical debate has seemed to be the eternal return of the same. I have not been very impressed by the novelty or importance of so-called new departures in the wake of deconstruction. The way to extend the deconstructive project is not to continue repeating what Derrida has done but to take the lessons he has taught us and use them in new and different ways.

Another strand that contributes to the shaping of IMAGOLOGIES is the ongoing debate about postmodernism. For several years, I have been very interested in the visual arts. My work and painting and architecture eventually led me to realize the broad cultural role that art is playing in our world. In a certain sense, the work of art in the age of electronic reproduction is nothing less than society and culture. Derrida has, of course, written extensively and brilliantly on painting and architecture. These analyses need to be expanded by extending the conversation to other theorists. I am not thinking here so much of Lyotard as of Baudrillard and some cultureal theorists who are making creative of his work.

Once having grasped the stakes of deconstruction, it seems impossible to "move beyond" it. Nor is it possible simply to remain with it. As we advance into the electronic environment, writing, textuality, etc. are radically transformed. One of the most significant changes is the role of images in the constitution of culture. I coined the word "Imagologies" with the word "Mythologies" in mind. My point is not to recall Barthes but to invoke the sophisticated analyses of the way in which myths function that have been elaborated by sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists. Though the distinction can be drawn in a variety of ways, Geertz's distinction between "models of" and "models for" serves as a useful point of departure. Images, which are mediated by increasingly complex networks, function to provide models of and models for the way in which individuals and groups apprehend experience. Electronic media provide something like a constantly shifting template that serves as a cultural a priori. We need to examine much more carefully how this imagological register is constituted and how it functions.

One of the problems that deconstruction constantly faces is to articulate an ethics and a politics. As someone who has spent a good bit of time studying religious and ethical positions, I have never been much impressed by many of the discussions. The force of deconstruction -- and it is considerable -- is crucial. But what is to be done in the wake of such criticism is often far from clear. This is, I believe, one of the reasons so many followers of Derrida seem unable to do anything other than repeat the deconstructive moves they have mastered. I think that the exploration of so-called cyberspace creates the opportunity for interventions in cultural processes that are radically and politically significant.

In considering all of these issues, it is too simple to oppose print and post-print culture. As you suggest, GLAS is a hyptertext *avant la lettre.* It is hard to believe that Derrida wrote that text nearly 20 years ago.

Print will not go away any more than the radio disappeared with the emergence of television. Technologies have a way of layering in which the old returns anew and the new is reconfigured by the old. What is different in the electronic environment is that the "stuff" of writing is in transformed. Once you are in a digital environment, word, image, and sound are different inscriptions of the same "stuff." The challenge, then, is to "write" in all of these ways at once. This does not only involve creating multimedia texts -- though this is surely an important undertaking -- but to develop new ways of writing that are made possible by the new media.


In your AOL interview, you said your recent experience of virtual reality gave you a "different way of viewing hyptertextuality." could you explain that in more detail than you did in the interview? How did you look at hyptertextuality before? What changed? What are some of the philosophical implications of those changes? Do those implications change any of the implications you saw in your earlier way of viewing hyptertextuality?

Mark C. Taylor:

The media hype surrounding virtual reality makes it very difficult to know what to expect when one enters this strange space. People are led to believe that VR is highly representational. Thus, when they encounter cartoon-like figures, they are inevitably disappointed. But representation is not the point. As one navigates in cyberspace, the very experience of space is transformed. You are able to move in ways that you have never before moved. One VR environment that I have explored has proven particularly suggestive. Surfaces and spaces twist and bend in ways that approximate mathematical knots. You can move around these spaces at extremely high speeds and shift from space to space in unexpected ways.

How is the experience of VR related to the conceptualization of hyptertexts? Hyptertexts, like VR, take many forms. At the most rudimentary level, the hyptertext seems like nothing other than an elaborate footnoting system. As you click on a word, you move to another text that is more-or-less elaborate. The inclusion of images, videos, and sounds does not really change the contours of this spatiality. But when you begin to think of the hyptertext as something like a know thorugh which you navigate, the linerity of the text is undone in a far more complicated way. Furthermore, the styles and strategies of associative thinking become much more intricate. It becomes possible to think in terms of knots rather than stacks. This conceptual shift is quite significant.


One of my colleagues, Bill Moore, has suggested the following question: There are at least two different places in IMAGOLOGIES where Media Philosophy is discussed in terms of what it seeks to REGENERATE - in one place, it mentions regenerating modernism and in another, "to regenerate everybody" (Netropolis 9). That regeneration is often understood in a religious sense led me to also notice certain parallels that might be drawn between Media Philosophy and the New Testament, notably where you liken powerful academic critics to high priests, and their academy to a cathedral. What else I find is a kind of virtual theology where instead of the Word becoming flesh, the word becomes Image; also worth noting, followers are asked to take a Kierkegaardian "leap of faith in the age of faithlessness" as a matter of becoming as children in order to enter into "the kingdom of the simulacrum," and also as a matter of wiring "the world for Hegelian GEIST" (Simcult 3), the touch of which induces the ecstatic--for "once the mediatrix touches you, subjectivity explodes into higher energy awareness of its own objectivity." Connecting all this to your insistence that "images must b inhabited" exhibits a striking version of the same sense in which Christians see themselves related to Christ (as seen in the notion of "putting on" Christ or being baptized into his body). What should we make of these kinds of parallels? If, as you also suggest in Subjects 6 that "Schizophrenia becomes a generalized cultural condition," and if Media Philosophy is about "regenerating everybody," then to what extent does Media Philosophy constitute an electronic religious cure for schizophrenia?

Mark C. Taylor:

This is a very complex question that admits of no simple answer. There is a way in which the compu-telecommunications networks entangling us are extensions of something like the Hegelian logos. But the qualification is important because of the logic of nets and webs IS NOT the same as the logic of systems and structures. I am just beginning to work out these differences and am not yet in a position to be much more precise on this topic. There are, however, other aspects to your question that deserve attention. No, cyberspace does not offer a cure for our schizo condition. To the contrary, it might exacerbate it. But the analysis of schizophrenia -- and here I am thinking of Jameson's famous analysis -- in relation to postmodernity is often onesided. If Jameson were not so biased in his approach, he would have realized that Kierkegaard long ago defined what Jameson describes as schizophrenia in the first volume of "Either-Or." Again, the problem is that schizo/integrity, etc. formulation reinscribes precisely the binaries and oppositions that need to be reconfigured.

As for the religious or theological dimensions of cyberspace, much could be said. One of the things that has long fascinated me is the spiritual use to which this technology is being put. A colleague in anthropoloty and I have started a listserv named "Techspirit" in which people are discussing the spiritual possibilities opened by the net. There is a strange intersection of technophilia and spirituality ranging from the relatively traditional to the somewhat marginal. You only need to explore the net for a brief time to see what is going on in these areas.

But on a more philosophical and/or theological level, cyberspace raises interesting questions. As you have indicated, the electronic environment enacts the disappearance of the signified in the play of signifiers. If this point is made in theological terms, the reinscription of the signified in signifiers can be understood as the death of god, which is enacted, in a radical incarnation. The figure who makes this move possible is, of course, Nietzsche. Embodiment, in this case, is complicated because the body, which is its site, is virtual. But virtuality is not the opposite of reality; to the contrary, so-called reality is more virtual and so-called virtuality more real than their simple opposition implies.

The question of regeneration or renewal in relation to the avant-garde takes us back to the ethico-political stakes of these issues. It has long been obvious that the early avant-garde art assumed the role that religion had often played in earlier times. It is difficult for us to revive the faith that seemed to come easily to early 20th-century artists. Indeed, I do not think that it is possible to return to this kind of faith. But there are also limits to cynical reason. We must find ways to act in the absence of any hope of accomplishment.

In many ways, the dream of the avant-garde was to transform society into a work of art. Art, in this way, bacame the template for socio-cultural change. Paradoxically, contemporary media culture is realizing this dream -- albeit in a very different way than the avant-garde intended. Worlds are being transformed by images -- and these transformations are going to take place regardless whether or not cultural critics are involved in them. The challenge, therefore, is to find ways to intervene in processes of cultural transformation and thereby not to leave everything to the multi-national corporations and governmental agencies.