Towards a dramaturgy of differences

Essay by Siegfried Zielinski, published in "Interfacing Realities," 1997.

Towards a dramaturgy of differences

Interfacing Realities

"For why, the senseless brands will sympathize
The heavy accent of thy moving tongue,
And in compassion weep the fire out;
And some will mourn in ashes, some coal-black,
For the deposing of a rightful king.1"
An interface separates things, or the concept would make no sense.
An interface connects things, or the concept would make no sense either.
An interface marks a difference.

Consciousness, which we use to form ideas and to express them, for instance, in speech, is an interface; the oldest one we know. This is where world/worlds/reality/realities are formulated. With the help of this interface we try to comprehend what confronts us, in short: the other, in the broadest sense of the word, that which is not identical to us.

The interface determines the relation of the one to the other which is different and fundamentally unknown, and vice versa: through the interface the other presents itself to the one, and does this with respect to those aspects that are understandable.

In telematics, as in any form of communication which is based on technology, the interface separates and connects the worlds of acting subjects on the one side and the worlds of working machines and programs on the other side. It separates as well as connects media-people and media-machines. It is the borderline where the medium takes its shape.

In following the ideas of psycho-analyst Lacan, I make a distinction in the media discussion between the real and reality/realities (whether this is a reality which can be subdivided into many different realities, or whether I'm working with a concept of multiple reality anyhow, is really of secondary importance to me; in whichever direction one looks for the answer to this, it will not solve the problem but merely shift it). In principle, the real cannot be spoken in words or be laid down or understood in other sign systems. It is the ultimately unutterable. In simpler words: it is the area of the mind that is furthest from the symbolic and closest to physical experience, e.g. to desire and death. It is the unknown, which confronts us in the other and of which it is the non-constructed part. Bataille might have called it the impossible - as distinguished from the possible/virtual.

Reality refers to those dimensions of world/worlds which we can formulate and understand and which have been (co)constructed by us. At the end of the 20th century the realities we know have been strongly permeated and occupied by media. The Internet for instance is an interdiscursive media-reality, built from and established by social, technical, cultural and aesthetic et cetera realities.

In dealing with virtuality or the virtual (I try to avoid marketing jargon by not using the term "virtual reality") we are not dealing with a material world, a thing-world or a life-world, but with something immaterial, something that only exists as a program, as a symbol that we can perceive sensorially in the form of signs (in abstracta, figuratively, in image spaces, as icons, imaginary). The virtual now still has prosthesis-like extensions into the thing-world/life-world, in the form of data helmets, data spectacles or data gloves, the mouse, keyboards and so on. But these are merely the outward surfaces for the program underneath. The virtual is appearance, it fulfils the function of consciousness. The virtual is the interface, a rather friendly English word that denies the dramatic aspect of separateness implied in the German "Schnittstelle."

The big chance offered by extended telematics is to build a tension between the local and the global, between local identities and events on the one hand and world-wide processes/structures on the other hand: to respect the other in its otherness, to maintain and support its autonomy, and at the same time not to isolate it but to enable it to participate in the global exchange process. A permanent mixing (in the alchemist sense) without losing sight of the possibility of de-mixing. This will be the challenge for the next few years and decades.

Artists have a prominent task in creatively producing this tension. Ideally they are the agents of the local. Locality is the context of their actions, because without locality subjectivity cannot flourish. Artists therefore are especially predestined and suited to support and stimulate the local, and to create a sensitivity to its unfolding.

If I understand telematic art to be the art of connectionism, a form of n-dimensional connections, then its imaginative content would be the connection of the heterogeneous. To connect once again what is already globally/universally connected, would be a tautology. My idea of a connectionistic International encompasses the permanent rebellion of the individual against the whole as well as the hope for innumerable defeats of the whole against the individual. Relationships are ongoing experiments – or graves. The idea of the Internet as a mass grave is a horrible picture (of reality).

Current efforts in telecommunication and especially in the World Wide Web are aimed at hiding the differences between media-people, and media-machines and media-programs. The most important and dominating means in this hegemonic strategy is the illusion. Not in the sense of anything being at stake, but more in the sense of a risk-free identification with the world of icons, symbols and relations as it appears on the screen. This illusion is currently practiced in two ways: either through concepts of a primarily spatial orientation in the tradition of ars memoriae or through concepts that are primarily time oriented, as in the classical dramaturgy of Aristotle. The goal of this strategy, which is essentially a double strategy, is that the one (media-people) must have the illusion of being able to fully enter the other (e.g. the media-machines). This we call virtual reality or tele-presence. The other must enter the one by means of the illusion and must be able to take on its identity. This is essentially the world of metaphors.

The experience of the virtual (which is not identical with its program nor therefore with its symbolic content) is a first hand one, and therefore a subjective one. To put it quite bluntly: if this experience was to be organized collectively, that is, if the program of the experience would be forced upon us, it would mean a sort of digital fascism. In my view, collectiveness only has a place in the subjective experience of virtuality in the sense of being a utopian potential, a longing, an inkling of an impossible state. The possible (virtual) unfolds itself in a creatively/beautifully/aesthetically acceptable manner only in the tension between it and the impossible. All metaphors stemming from the linguistic phylum of "fluidity," streams, the ocean ... originate in longing.

Metaphors are comparisons. As means of denotation (including aesthetic denotation and its potential meaning) metaphors hover between imagery, symbolism and mystery. Metaphors arise from the need and power of mind as well as of emotion "not to be content with the simple, the usual, the plain, but to endeavor to search for something else, to linger with what is different, to unite what is twofold."2

Metaphors are constructed in order to enhance, to compress, to enrich, to uplift something, otherwise they would only proliferate in the imagination of their constructor. This "something" is either spiritual or physical. Metaphors are constructed to ennoble the physical with the aid of the spiritual or to visualize the spiritual, make it profane and concrete (objectify it) by a comparison with the physical.

In this world of metaphors the relation to life is remarkably central. Biology as a discipline has kept its leading role. The underlying idea is that life is continuous, flowing, forever moving (and that therefore it is also harmonious). The world of machines and programs has been constructed and calculated according to a plan. Everything in it is based on numbers and on the logical and systematic relations between numbers. In this sense it is a coherent and consistent world, in all the complexity that playing with numbers allows. The world of living things is not based on such a reliable scheme. The main difference is that it is principally irreversible. Technological, social as well as cultural systems are extremely discontinuous in both their origins and their current expanse. All metaphors that promise a free flow of information, that want to describe the ocean as a navigational grid - streams, genes, rhizomes and the like, or that want us to experience communications structures as trees or root systems, will fail in this respect.

Telematic networks connect technical artifacts and complex systems of artifacts with political, cultural and aesthetic structures and therefore they already connect the "twofold." The Net itself is already a comparison, a trivial image, a shallow rendition of the complex communication process the word evokes with me. If we are primarily concerned with its connective potential we should try to describe it as such: connectionism versus a naive fishermen's village idyll.
Not only in the present discussion on and about the Net is this connection of complex physical units with immaterial units and structures once again being compared/combined with the living/life, or aspects thereof. This also contains the effort to uplift what is profane (the technical, the political ...) as well as the objectification/externalization of what is not or barely understandable, of what is structural (and therefore in essence spiritual). Both tendencies need to be criticized.

In telematic networks nothing flows, let alone freely. The process of the Net is discontinuous and determined locally as well as globally. In telematic networks nothing evolves "genetically." They obey the laws of programs/rules, however complex they may be. Only to those for whom life itself is a program (or for whom the program is life) this equation makes sense. The filigree, non-hierarchical root systems are hidden, under the ground. What grows out of them, is hierarchically structured, because as soon as it becomes visible, it is connected to the process of civilization. Telematic networks have already progressed to the stage of visibility.

The landscape metaphor is useful, in so far as landscape, like architecture, is already of a conceptual/constructive nature. Landscape is a civilized, structured living space. But - to ask a trivial question - is it what we really want? If developed telecommunication phenomena and structures are potentially (and therefore virtually) dynamic, chaotic, non-linear and multi-dimensional, then what sense does it make to submit them to the same laws that created our landscape?

Of course metaphors have a practical use as well, for instance for those who build programs and machines. Karlheinz Barck formulated this as follows in his study on Poetry and Imagination (1993) where he discusses Giovanni Battista Vico's concept of Scienza Nuova: "Combining parts, constructing analogue relations, comparing and distinguishing between similarities of things - these characteristics define the methodology of the inventive work of engineers, and those are [...] the hallmarks of any metaphorical language."

In my view what we need is a language (of text, images, sounds and their connections) that does not conceal the technical and political/cultural character of artifacts, systems of artifacts and the structures of extended telecommunication in the wider sense, but that exposes it, evokes it and refers to it when it is being used. Discontinuity, dynamics, switches, contacts, drivers, energies, interruptions, power, distribution ... the potential in relations is as rich as the technical and political/cultural domain itself.

I insist on the dualism of media-people and media-machines or programs. Dualisms are a necessity, if we want to arrive at some clarification at all. Maybe they are a transitional stage, but I'm convinced that art which dramatizes the interface as a border between the one and the other is the only way to reach a quality of connection which distinguishes itself from a simple decision for the one or the other.

I'd like to make a case for an experiment with an interface ...
- that is not based on "virtual reality," but on contingencies, on potential single events instead of a homogeneous, calculated make-believe world;
- that leaves open the possibility that it is a (technically/grammatically) constructed world that we are dealing with through media, and through which we are to gain access to the other;
- that allows for an experimental relation of the user with the interface;
- that isn't so much a catharsis, but more of an epic provocation;
- that doesn't forget, however, that the world of communication is a world of sensations without which no one would bother to make contact with the others or the other.

Why do we always assume we have to start everything from scratch and that we have to re-invent the world as a whole every day again?

I thank Otto E. Rössler and Wolfgang Ernst for their valuable suggestions.

Anyone who is theoretically or artistically interested in the interface should at least be familiar with the following literature:
The work of S.J. Gould (especially "Punctuated Equilibria: The Tempo and Mode of Evolution Reconsidered," 1977); "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus" by Wittgenstein; the work of Edmond Jabès (especially "On Subversive Agency"); "Bio-Adapter" by Oswald Wiener, the radical subjective concept of an interface from the perspective of the individual as a collection of attractors; Brechts "Kleines Organon für das Theater" and his "Me-ti - Buch der Wendungen"; W. F. Gutmanns "Organismus und Konstruktion I" (1987); Ilya Prigogine's "Vom Sein zum Werden. Zeit und Komplexität in Naturwissenschaft" (Germany: 1979); as well as the key essays on the heuristic of media apparatusses by dentist Jean-Louis Baudry.

1. Shakespeare, "Richard II," Act 5, Scene 1.
2. G.W.F. Hegel, "Ästhetik, Bd 1 Gesammelte Werke," Ausgabe Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main.

© 1997 Siegfried Zielinski / V2_

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