Date: Mon, 12 May 1997 17:25:15 +0100
From: Eric Kluitenberg


Eric Kluitenberg

The text to follow was presented at the LEAF 97 symposium in Liverpool as part of the Video Positive 97 ‘Escaping Gravity’ festival. The text is a first attempt to establish an argument from which recent discourses on ‘freedom’ in relation to the Net and the emerging information society may be interrogated. The text also serves to establish a conceptual framework from which I am trying to build the program of a highly concentrated one-day conference to be part of the Interstanding 2 event in Tallinn, October 8th 1997. In its unfinished state the argument is open for suggestions, objections, conjectures and refutations, affirmations and negations. Any such remarks are welcomed and can be sent to my e-mail address:

For sake of historicity I have left the text unaltered, except for one reference where an elucidation of the concept of the ‘atomisation of information’ in digital systems may be found.

I start my little presentation here from a very simple premise: The concept ‘freedom’ denotes something which is by nature unrestricted. If we are to confine the concept we immediately destroy that quality which we intuitively understand to be one of the most essential traits of ‘freedom’, exactly this; the unrestricted. ‘freedom’, therefore, can never exist within a closed system. ‘freedom’ can furthermore never exist in a computer, as the operation of this machine relies on the scheme of digital encoding which is by nature finite and exact. ‘freedom’ can for the same reason never exist within digital networks as they rely equally on the scheme of digital encoding (of information stemming from whatever source).

It would appear that this premise is banal, a platitude. Yet it isn’t at all. It touches the very essence of the virtuality which is the defining imperative of the networked cultures. The implication of the notion that the finiteness of the digital scheme excludes the very possibility of ‘freedom’ rather implies a radical political program. If we refine this idea somewhat further it provides a very useful theoretical framework from which to interrogate and critique some of the recent discussions that have emerged around the politics of embodiment in relation to the Net, and the political claims to free speech and freedom of expression for which the Net is considered to be a medium of great potential.

It is in no way coincidental that I would propose to discuss the concept of ‘freedom’ in the context of this gathering. The social and cultural transformations in the post-socialist societies which are the implicit underlying theme of this meeting have been heavily implicated by the rhetorics of freedom. More importantly the Net has been regarded with high expectations (both in the former ‘East’ and ‘West’) as a new communications channel which would provide unprecedented possibilities for free expression of views and ideas, and direct and filtered access to a vast array of information sources.

Though it is important to acknowledge this potential (it should least of all not be denied), the implicit conflict in the notion of the Net as an independent cultural sphere with the politics of embodiment has recently become apparent.

The event which revealed this conflict most clearly and subsequently triggered an intense discussion was the publication of the Cyberspace Independence Declaration (February 1996) by John Perry Barlow, one of the front men of the Net-civil rights group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In this manifesto Barlow declares cyberspace ‘the new home of the mind’ and claims its independence from Nation rooted law and politics. The declaration itself was a reaction to the US Telecom ‘Reform’ Act, a law which imposes serious restrictions on free speech and the freedom of expression via the Net. Barlow legitimises his claims by stressing the boundless global dimension of the Net as a communications system, and more importantly by seeking recourse in the disembodied nature of the social interactions which take place via the Net. Though the traditional politics of the nation state may still exert control over the physical bodies of their citizens, they can no longer control the free deployment of the mind in cyberspace " a world soon blanketed in bit bearing media", he maintains. The Nation based politics of repression are thus equated with their material base and located in the physical realm of the body, whereas the grass-roots politics of freedom of cyberspace are equated with the immaterial spiritual realm of the mind. This reduction is not only simplistic, it is also inherently reactionary. Peter Lamborn Wilson has pointed out how the ideology of the Net as a disembodied social sphere relies on an ancient Cartesian Mind/Body split. These kinds of post-human theories often end up he muses in a kind of contemporary gnosticism, in the sense of a hatred of the body. In his pirate utopia of the Temporary Autonomous Zone Lamborn-Wilson has stressed the demand of the sensuous. Only when a free enjoyment of sensual pleasures and physical experiences can be maintained can any real sense of freedom exist. True freedom can never be achieved when the body is condemned.

The next problematic aspect of the ideology of ‘freedom’ is the relation of the liberated individual to her or his social environment. The demand for a total liberalisation of both body and mind from political and social repression implies an inherently anti-social stance. No social system can exist, functionally, without an infringement on the freedom of the individual to follow his or her most individual impulses, without restriction. Conversely the uninhibited pursuit of individual impulses and desires implies the destruction of the social sphere, which becomes a battle-ground for conflicting individual interest. The liberalisation of the individual, it would seem, can only actualise itself at the expense of the social sphere. The modern ideal of emancipation of the individual and the simultaneous demand for social justice reveals itself as nothing less than a paradox -and one that remains with us to present.

How then to consider the Net in relation to (the desire for) ‘freedom’?

The virtuality should be considered the inescapable result of the application of a digital scheme [Note: atomisation of information] inside a machine operating with electronic speed. Digital information is information without an analogy to its origin. All messages travelling through the networks of interconnected digital machines become virtual, whether textual, visual or tactile, when they are translated into this universal code of atomised information, which is the prerequisite for the systems’ operations. The Net can therefore never be the open space in which experience can be liberated beyond the restrictions of any social, political, cultural or operational code. The Net can act, however, as a strategic device to create open spaces within the turmoil of conflicting social, political and cultural signifiers.

There is yet another dimension which adds to the illusive nature of ‘freedom’. Though ‘freedom’ can be experienced, it can never be understood, as understanding would reduce it to an individual consciousness. This reduction again would imply an unacceptable restriction of that which should by nature be considered unrestricted. ‘freedom’ is the sacred of any open society and in this way seems similar to the divine. The sacred can never be defined and it can never be represented in a unique form in space and time. It rather discloses itself as secret. Though it cannot be represented it can be pointed at, alluded to, it can be named. But mostly it discloses itself, its secret, by its absence.The Net, then, as a strategic vehicle can be one important way to create the open, undefined spaces (in society, in the physical world) where ‘freedom’ may perhaps be experienced, if only in a brief moment.

Note: Atomisation of Information

This point has been treated quite clearly by Nelson Goodman in his discussion of analogue and digital systems in his book "Languages of Art" (Hackett Publ., Indianapolis, 1976), Chapter IV - The Theory of Notation, Section 8 - Analogs and Digits, pp. 159 - 163.

Eric Kluitenberg Liverpool, April 12, 1997.