David Teh on 7 Nov 2000 00:17:16 -0000

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dear nettimers,

what follows is an excerpt (Chapter 3) from my thesis of 1999 entitled
"postmodern apocalypse" and can loosely be described as an analysis of
<'writing' after e-mail> or <discourse after Derrida's "The Postcard">.

to put it in context:  Chapter 1 was a reading of Arthur Danto's End of
Art thesis, carrying the suggestion that he unwittingly employed the
apocalyptic tone - 'pluralism as apocalypse'.  Chapter 2 was an analysis
of Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, which similarly proposed that an
apocalyptic structure underwrote his aesthetics of writing after
'globalisation'.  I would welcome any comments and feedback. many thanks
to Geert for his perspective.

In the latter half of his astounding demystification of the apocalyptic
tone, Derrida takes up a range of motifs first elaborated in the
"Envois" of
his book The Post Card.   While not ostensibly an apocalyptic text, this

book might be said to support all of the author's eschatological oeuvre
in a
unique fashion.  The candour of the "Envois", a catalogue of Derrida's
correspondence with an unspecified addressee, derives from their mostly
being unedited excerpts from an apparently private discourse.  Inspired
by a
post card encountered in Oxford's Bodleian Library, which depicts Plato
standing behind a seated Socrates who writes, The Post Card is primarily

concerned with challenges to the governing communicative order of any
restricted economy of knowledge, like that raised by the puzzling
of the Platonic genealogy seen in the card.  The post card in the
context of
the traditional monopoly of posts represents for Derrida an embodiment
precisely this sort of challenge.  By abandoning the formalities of the
letter - the concealment of the envelope; the absence of the sender's
identity and address; and its not being 'private' - the postcard
all that is "haphazard", "marginal" and thereby irregulable in the
system of
ordered postal communication.   In thus flouting its conventions, the
card threatens the system, it ignores the "rules of address".

In his later essay on the apocalyptic tone, Derrida specifically accords
the common, even endemic variations of tone in humanist discourse, a
disruptive function within the process of exchange which constitutes
academic communication.  So the apocalyptic voice, as a prime example of

this 'detoning' , undermines the restricted classical economy of
that is, the common rationality of knowledge cherished by Kant.  The
parliament of faculties is therefore itself directly challenged by all
unconventional  tones:

By its very tone, the mixing of voices, genres and codes, apocalyptic
discourse can also, in dislocating destinations, dismantle the dominant
contract or concordat.  It is a challenge to the established
of messages and to the policing of destinations, in short to the postal
police or monopoly of posts.

This "established receivability", which Derrida also calls the
"assurance of
destination" , is characterized first and foremost by certainty in who
speaking, a certainty ordinarily secured by the system's laws of address
in discourse the laws of publication, academic quotation and footnoting
carry this burden.  A unity of tone, which one presumes is now all but
impossible, would therefore be tantamount to a guarantee of identity; at
rate, it finds its antithesis in the use of the poetic, mystagogic
of apocalypse, which by its very nature 'detones', assuming forms - such
the imperative voice of "Come" , Derrida's apocalyptic injunction par
excellence - which defy any specificity in their transmission and
thus concealing authorship.  That this differentially proliferating
of voices and tones , equally endemic to both 'discourse' and
' , is thus an eminently apocalyptic structure should bear very serious
consequences for any analysis of recent developments in

While it may seem rather unusual to conclude a reading of two aesthetic
theorists with an examination of the internet, a new technology, and its

properly unfathomable implications for theory generally, it should be
enough from my discussion of Jameson's pluralist postmodernism (chapter
that recent advances by this communicative tool, and the mass media with

which the concept of this technology is becoming coextensive, are
inseparable, both formally and historically, from accounts of recent
cultural (or aesthetic) transformations.  For the 'medium' is the
instrumental agent in the progressive acculturation of the economic
or in other words (Jameson's), it must be recognized that the mode of
aesthetic production is becoming impossible to differentiate from the
of economic production proper, from the very mechanisms of wealth
accumulation and capital transaction.  I would therefore like to
these phenomena in light of the burdensome implications raised by
figures of apocalyptic exchange.

It cannot have escaped the contemporary reader of this deconstruction
the questionable receivability (of the post card or apocalyptic
which so beguiles Derrida has proliferated wildly in the context of the
recent digitization of communication.  I shall now offer a brief
of what I take to be the paradigmatic model of communication yielded by
so-called "internet revolution" or "internet age", particularly the
ascendant mode of interpersonal, commercial  and intra-corporate
that has come to be known as 'electronic mail' (e-mail).  It is not my
intention to attempt to theorize it comprehensively, or 'map' this
system as
any sort of totality; rather, I will try to reveal a few of its
characteristics, and to isolate and highlight some aesthetic ones, as a
summary 'case-in-point' for the Derridean analysis of tone.  In the
of this summary I hope it will become quite clear that, firstly, the
internet is a prodigiously, and perhaps uniquely pluralistic  space;
secondly, that the information economy, and its internal economy of
quasi-postal exchange, are governed by an apocalyptic structure which
exemplifies Derrida's system of 'dislocated destination'; and finally
this medium, as it has been understood, represented and sold (as
in the Western and global market, surely constitutes the most articulate

expression to date of both a pluralist apocalypse and an apocalyptic

The internet is the pluralist mechanism par excellence.  Cyberspace, in
furnishing the subject with a hyper-abundance of 'information', is
itself a
product constructed in large part on the basis of a limitless promise,
infinite autonomy and an unconditional hospitality , not to mention an
indefinite freedom and seductive (though properly 'virtual') anonymity.
only is everything allowed, but everything is possible.  Under the
of the latest technology, the most recent version, or the ultimate
connectivity, some sort of 'everything' is instantly accessible and
simultaneously available.  From the first moment it is presented to us,
in its formative years, before it has come to encompass the entire
sphere of
production, even (and perhaps particularly) to the computer-illiterate
debutante unable to discern its real limits, it is given in its
totality.  It has everything.  Its freedom is the absence of prohibition

and the infinite abundance of possibilities.  In a realm where anything
possible (no rules), 'everything' (that is, what is promised, but not
and every thing') becomes impossible.  The internet is thus the only
we know in which both everything and nothing are possible.  You can do
anything but you cannot do everything.  The prospect of 'anything' which
offers is a freedom, a freedom which, in a peculiar and restricted
sense, is
available.  But this universal digital pluralism also offers all of
or 'everything', up for consumption at the same time, as a graspable
totality or a do-able whole.  To this extent it lies, because choice,
an infinite choice, is not tantamount to freedom, (just as the act of
does not amount to self-determination).  The promise of cyberspace is
false and illusory, insofar as it is a promise of everything.  All of
may be summarized in an observation of the difference between
and "every thing".

Amongst the more graspable of the absolutes it offers is the ability to
transcend geographical hurdles, not the least of which is distance
Perhaps more instrumental are the mercantile perks: the idea of
hours' becomes redundant, new consumers can be engaged around the globe
"24/7", and the threat of censorship all but dissipates, since the
also allegedly transcends the geo-political and regulatory barriers -
the jurisdictions of each and every state may be so fleetingly visited,
practically none are engaged; it would be impossible for each
sovereignty to
be observed or exercised without unfathomable depths of confusion.  All
which is to say that the law of cyberspace is the law of the market, the

lowest common denominator of this international cacophony of regulatory
agendas, the mere grunt of an ultimate accession to the logic of

Yet I should pause here to remark that even in the superficial sense, as
write, it is not yet everything.  As the extension of and replacement
the telephone, and its conflation with television, its ascendance is not
complete.  As the becoming of a total world market, the pot of gold that
always driven the expansion of capital, it has not yet even properly won
fidelity of trade.  But while it is not yet everything and does not yet
everything, this has not stopped it being packaged, presented and
as total and fully articulated plurality/multiplicity, as an endlessness
combinatory possibility that finally transcends the unity of reception,
of Being, the singularity of the subject and the coherence of man.  That
will eventually achieve these ultimate expansions seems inevitable to
though horrific to some.

Now given the conflation of ideological agendas uncovered in Danto's
of pluralism, it will not come as a surprise that the pluralism of the
internet, promising to transcend all these barriers at once, is very
mistaken for democracy itself, for the idyllic space of an unfettered
speech.  The truth of the matter is of course far more complex.  A
transmitted by e-mail undertakes a complex but sometimes instantaneous
journey ; its route includes multiple translations and any number of
intermediary computers, and thus comprises an indeterminate sequence of
'acts of transmission'.  Along the way it may be transcoded into the
language of a different computer operating system, or may silently cross
number of national or geographic boundaries completely unchecked.  In
instances it will be received and interpreted by an intended addressee
almost instantaneously, in others it might lie dormant in a nodal
system before its passage is complete - but in every case, it leaves a
of itself at every juncture: it replicates itself and undergoes
démultiplication at every stage of its journey; and this fractious
replication is in some sense the impost upon its carriage: it will
inevitably and without exception be accessible (if not always
legible) to an unknowable succession of interceptors.  So the anonymity,
cloak under which an unprecedented explosion of transgressive
(of correspondence as well as imagery) has taken place, turns out to be
illusory.  If there is protection for the individual in this medium, it
only that afforded by a sheer inundation, and not a liquidation, of
identity.  Far from affording anonymity, the internet creates a new
depth of
identity, inscribed with an absolute 'traceability'.
In the traditional postal system of imperial capitalism invoked by
there were always only three entities that were a party to any
communication - the sender, the receiver and the 'monopoly of posts'
(usually the 'state').  In throwing its content open to the eyes of all
came in contact with it at any stage of this transmission, the postcard
scuttled the predictable economy of this system, threatening the
which was discharged of its primary function, the maintenance of privacy
authorial specificity.  In the era of multinational capital , then, it
perhaps to be expected that postal monopoly will confront its nemesis:
supra-national network of e-mail, in which virtually every transmission
is a
post card.

So to return to The Post Card, where Derrida himself did so, both
' and the 'postal principle' are destabilized, and perhaps surpassed, in
same fashion.  For omitted from the "Envois" was a bundle of fragments
the same corpus, which by chance were hidden until after its
and which make up a piece entitled "Telepathy".   It is here that the
ramifications of the apocalyptic structure upon how we communicate in
present digital age are eerily and presciently exposed, even in 1988:

I am not putting forward the hypothesis of a letter which would be the
external occasion, in some sense, of an encounter between two
subjects - and who would already be determined.  No, but of a letter
after the event seems to have been launched towards some unknown
at the moment of its writing, an addressee unknown to himself or herself
one can say that, and who is determined . . .on receipt of the letter;
is then quite another thing than the transfer of a message.  Its content
its end no longer precede it.  So then, you identify yourself and you
your life to the program of the letter, or rather of a postcard, of a
which is open, divisible, at once transparent and encrypted.

Hence, we have seen that the apocalyptic tone, at once diagnosed and
practiced by Derrida, may be present in every act of communication, from
once rigid disciplinary realms of academic discourse to the intricate
hidden movements of the information economy.  If it has in fact been
embedded in even the most 'rational' forms of writing, if only on the
of linguistic structures, it would nevertheless seem to be now
upon the very means of communication themselves, creating a system of
exchange in which some intimation of the end, and with it an entirely
questionable authorship, attach to every single transaction of meaning
'information'.  In marketing itself as an infinite plurality, the new
realizes, in itself, an apocalypse of knowledge.  In the era of the
internet, not only does every utterance say the end of correspondence,
the system itself is both an exemplary model of apocalyptic mystagogy,
and a
sign of the end.

david teh, 1999.

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