Cyberspace and the Virtual Public

by McKenzie Wark

© all rights reserved

Conceptualising Cyberspace
“I belong to the first generation in Australia born into a world in which television already existed”, writes Deakin University academic Scott McQuire.1 I think he also belongs to the first generation of Australian media theorists using this lifetime of experience as a background for thinking about how media technologies transform both our conscious and unconscious lives in an ongoing way.

For those of us raised by television, the so-called Generation X, it is clear that our perceptions are different to those who preceded us, who were weaned on cinema and radio. We are no better, no worse, just different. What is emerging in Australian media studies is a desire to confront the changes to media form since television on the basis of this experience of a prior transformation of which we are the product.

“Cyberspace is the defining figure for a sensibility produced by mediated cultures”, write Darren Tofts from Swinburne University, another of the TV generation of media theorists.2 In his experience, “cyberspace… invokes a tantalising abstraction, the state of incorporeally, of disembodied immersion in a ‘space’ that has no co-ordinates in actual space”.

While it may appear to some that technologies like the internet, multimedia, hypertext and so on created this space ex nihil, Tofts insists that “cyberspace has its own sedimentary record, and accordingly requires an archaeology”. These are just the latest gadgets in a long process of technologising the perceptions through which our bodies negotiate the world.

McQuire and Tofts go looking in different places for the conceptual prehistory of cyberspace. Tofts is interested in technologies of writing, from the clay tablet to the typewriter to the internet. McQuire traces the effects of photography: “The ability to witness things outside all previous limits of time and space highlights the fact that the camera doesn’t only give us a new means to represent experience: it changes the nature of experience”. While he is shy of using the term, he sees in photography a cause for the “anxious fascination with cyberspace”.

In my first book, Virtual Geography, I tried to tackle a different aspect of the evolution of cyberspace.3 Ever since the telegraph, technologies have developed that permit the transmission of information that can move more quickly than people or things.4 The telegraph, telephone, television are steps in the development of telesthesia, or perception at a distance. Being able to perceive events elsewhere makes it possible to think and act on a scale far beyond the local but with the speed of the immediate. The internet extends and refines these capacities.

While I take a different aspect of the past evolution of media form as the basis for thinking about the emergence and potential of cyberspace to Tofts and McQuire, I share a similar experience to these other two children of television. It is since television brought sound and pictures right into the living room that the degree to which media pervade and transform social space has really started to sink in, but it is only on the basis of being immersed in television that it is possible to think about the further potential for the transformation of culture by the development of these vectors.

Thirty years ago, Craig McGregor collected some of his insights into contemporary media and culture under the title People, Politics and Pop.5 Writing in 1998 rather than 1968, I felt a need to update that trinity to Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace. In the book I explain the transformation that I think shifted the figures in the landscape from people to celebrities, and from politics to culture. I this essay, I want to look into the third term, pop, its transmutation into cyberspace, and some of the ramifications of that change for culture.

There is a charming enthusiasm in Craig McGregor’s experience of pop that I think is a bit lost on me. Pop was already going stale in my time, and like Tofts and McQuire I’m too old to experience the cyberhype about the internet without some irony. For McGregor, pop was a potentially liberating force; for some people cyberspace was also meant to liberate us from the tyranny of pop culture and its mass media vectors.

The art of writing media theory in the 90s, having experienced more than one wave of media change fire up the imagination, is to steer between the extremes of cyberhype and technofear. But this is not just a matter of muddling through to a middle of the road position. Those who stand in the middle of the road get run over.

It is a question of examining what the real potentials are that lurk as yet undiscovered in the media’s transformations of culture. The writers who gathered around the Melbourne-based 21C magazine, including Darren Tofts, Mark Dery, Catharine Lumby and myself, tried to articulate a historically and culturally sensitive reading of cyberculture that could be critical but not too negative, creative but not too naive.6

Thirty years ago there was something of an unholy alliance of the new left and the old right ‘intellectuals’ against new forms of media-driven culture. This raised its head again in the 90s. The conservative pundit and veteran cold warrior Robert Manne commanded support on both left and right by revamping the bogey of “permissiveness” and arguing in favour of a return to censorship. He thought the screen versions of Jane Austen’s novels that were popular in the 90s were good models of family love. He seemed not to notice that they portrayed an era when women were barred from real jobs, from public life and could not even own and transmit property.7

Meanwhile, Senator Richard Alston, as Minister for Communications and the Arts, exerted influence to restrict our liberty to choose what we want to see on television, film and video. He relied on rather cruder and more theological scare mongering than Manne. There would be no more “electronic Sodom and Gomorrah”, like the popular commercial TV sex and relationship show Sex / Life, when Alston has his way. As columnist Brian Toohey remarked, “Sadly, a wrathful God has yet to turn Sex / Life viewers into pillars of salt.”8

Robert Manne’s kind of nostalgia for a nonexistent past is no less absurd than the McLuhanite cyberhype for an impossibly utopian future. But alongside these tired themes of control and development, the theme of community and identity has opened up into a much more productive debate. What I would call the virtual dimension of change, the creative potential to make things otherwise, has opened up within the space created by changing media vectors.

Cyberspace contains within it many possible forms of community and culture that have yet to be actualised. What I call urbanity is the art, culture and politics of trying to realise the virtuality the celebrities embody, the culture expresses, that cyberspace enables.

Intellectuals and Talking Heads
In the late 90s many on what was once the left either acquiesced to the moral authoritarian views of Alston and Manne, or actively supported them. The idea of liberty seemed to have run out of juice between the 60s and the 90s. On the road to building a fair and just and free society, many seemed to decide somewhere that there was not enough petrol to get us there.

Seeing the gauge waver around the half way mark, ‘intellectuals’ on both the left and the right declared the tank half empty, and advocated turning back. Few on the left or the right realised that the tank could also be seen as half full with enough to press on. Between the 60s and the 90s, criticism became a pervasive form in which ‘intellectuals’ asserted themselves.

I’m not happy with the term ‘intellectual’. As broadcaster Robert Dessaix discovered when he conducted interviews for a book and radio program on the topic, Australian intellectuals are wary of being called intellectuals. Unlike their French counterparts, “Any Australian whose name was included in a Dictionary of Australian Intellectuals would very likely sue for libel.”9

Dessaix dared extended the term to a number of interviewees, including myself, who offered some meek protest, but no writs. No-one seemed too proud to prohibit Dessaix from bestowing such a title over the pretence of objections.

But perhaps Australian intellectuals protest too little. We can all observe that heads and shoulders frequently appear, on television and behind lecterns at writer’s festivals and other literary pop festivals. These heads may or may not be attached to bodies. That is often a matter of conjecture. These heads are given time in which the top half of the head may hinge up and down relative to the bottom half, allowing sounds, emitted from the mouth, to form what talking heads qualified to speak about these matters call speech. This speech may or may not be attached to an intelligence, but that too is a matter for conjecture.

Hence the term intellectual calls for an unwarranted assumption. On the evidence Robert Dessaix provides, intelligence is not consistently demonstrated by the utterances of talking heads including my own. Empirically speaking, the term talking heads seems more accurate than the term intellectuals.

From the 60s to the 90s, the value of what talking heads say came to depend on their ability to say what was lacking in what they saw around them. Negative evaluation became the norm; the talking head became a nay-saying celebrity. What fell by the wayside was a creative and positive assessment of the potential that the actual state of things might contain for improvements in justice, liberty and fairness, or even for new and unprecedented values.

The 60s saw the rise of a radical attack on the conservative mainstream of the Menzies era; the 90s saw a conservative counter attack against the institutionalised forms of urbane libertarianism that existed during the Hawke years. The 60s was when economic luck seemed still to be holding; the 90s was when everyone realised the luck had run out. In the 60s radicals confronted their society with optimism and marshalled a will for change; in the 90s conservatives shouted down any talk of making life better, and preached compulsory morality as the only way to stop things getting worse.

I suspect that writing in the wake of the 90s might be harder than writing after the 60s. These are both periods when a writer of the left could not assume that her or his position in Australian society carried any legitimacy. The difference is that in the 60s there was a legitimacy to be won. As the bon vivant and gay adventurer Peter Blazey wrote of Melbourne in the 60s: “as the Vietnam war gathered pace, Carlton’s social lepers became morally superior to South Yarra’s silvertails who had manifestly backed the wrong horse”.10

In the 90s, it was left leaning talking heads, the writers and thinkers, Blazey’s ‘Carlton’, who were tagged with the blame for the social ills of the times. The Canberra economists that sociologist Michael Pusey labelled “economic rationalists” had to carry the can for the economic inequalities and uncertainties of the 90s.11 The social rationalism that accompanied it was sheeted home to the urbane instincts of the left.

The popularity of the reactionary writing of Paul Sheehan is symptomatic of this.12 Between the untimely death of the free thinking and free wheeling Blazey and the rise of the accusatory and scapegoating Sheehan, the times were a-changing back.

Or so the new reactionary forces, from Hanson to Sheehan, imagined. But in some respects the dynamism of technical change in media vectors, from the 60s to the 90s, irreversibly altered the cultural landscape of Australia. The era of massified pop media began giving way to an era of diversified cyberspace.

Where there’s a vector along which people might imagine new ways of life, then there is hope. Technologies do not create utopias all by themselves. Rather, they offer the potential for proposing new images and ideas of the good life with which people might choose to think and act of their own accord.

The opening up of such possibilities does not mean that only good possibilities eventuate. The flourishing of the populist right owes as much to the ongoing media revolution as does Green politics and other radical social movements. Cheap and fast media vectors, from desktop publishing to the internet, enabled a much more diverse fringe of cultures to coordinate and organise themselves. The web site for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party Ltd, established in April 1997, had 500,000 hits over the following 14 months.13

The dispersed media vectors of cyberspace were one factor that enabled populist movements to reach the point in the 90s where they could challenge the legitimacy of mainstream political culture from both right and left. The Greens brought down the Queensland Goss Labor government, and One Nation brought down the Borbidge National government that succeeded it. The major parties are no longer in a monopoly position in capturing grass roots electoral support on the ground and combining it with media clout.

In my book Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace, I’m particularly concerned with the effects of this transformation on the fortunes of the Australian Labor Party, and how it might respond to them. I think Labor still offers the best chance for reconciling justice with liberty, government with market, and adapting the fair go to a changing world. I side with the agenda for radical economic reform and with the forces for radical cultural change, but I temper this with a prudent affirmation of the value of traditional social institutions, such as parliamentary democracy, and the institution of the Labor Party which seeks power by composing electoral majorities across urban, suburban and rural electorates.

Labor has always been the practical means of advancing change, but if Labor is to remain the party of the people, it has to understand the culture of the people. The light on the hill, the traditional image of Labor inspiration and aspiration, may emanate from the cathode ray tube rather than the kerosene lamp.

In the 90s, Labor faced challenges, not just from the other institutionalised parties, but from new populist forces on both the left and the right. What made it possible to organise effectively outside of big media and big politics was, broadly speaking, cyberspace.

This is another factor that made the 90s a hard time to write about. I think the shape and speed of media in this postbroadcast age make it a different kind of culture, but because these media break down mass communication into smaller channels, it’s very hard to generalise as to what that culture might look like.

What made the possibility of challenging mainstream politics and culture a reality in the late 90s was the self-inflicted loss of legitimacy of the mainstream. The public started choosing their own talking heads from outside the mass media tank, and the mass media had no choice, in the end, but to accept Bob Brown and Pauline Hanson. Both are curious examples of very different kinds of activist celebrity, coming into the media from the provinces rather than from the urban centre.

Green politics and One Nation populism articulate very different visions of the rural good life. One came equipped with trouty streams, the other with semi-automatic rifles. Both were a challenge to the Sydney / Melbourne / Canberra triangle and the uneasy modus vivendi between economic and social rationalism sponsored by the country’s urban talking heads. In the 90s, the bush and the city joined battle for the hearts and minds of the suburbs.

Culture and Cyberspace
How is it possible that Australia exists? The geography of Australia is real enough. The state that controls the space of that geography is real enough too. So too the economy that produces and distributes its wealth. But neither geography, politics nor economics make Australia real to us as something present in our subjective experience. What makes ‘Australia’ seem real to ‘Australians’, as an abstract object of thought and abstract subject that is supposed to be thinking about it, is that there are celebrities, cultures and cyberspace.

In subjective experience, this thing called ‘Australia’ appears as a ‘virtual republic’. It is a republic in the sense of being a res publica, a public thing, with the additional meaning of a public reality that everybody shares in making, if not equally so. What makes it a virtual public thing is the paradox that while it is shared by all who make it real by imagining it and articulating it, everyone imagines and articulates it as something different.

Its existence is not predicated on any agreement as to its essential features, as the Hansonites insist. Rather, its existence, like the existence of the ‘fair go’, is predicated only on the possibility of disagreement about its qualities. Australia is that which Australians disagree about; Australians are the people who disagree about the possible pasts, presents and futures of Australia. Or at least so I argued in my second book, The Virtual Republic.14

What makes it possible to become this people who disagree about this public thing is the existence of a matrix of vectors that thread images and stories together, and thread them also into people’s lives. Images and stories, weaving in and out of everyday life, connect people to each other. From the telegraph to the telephone, to telecommunications, these vectors change, and in the process they change the way subjective experience of reality gets made.

The subtle shift from a modern world experienced via people, politics and pop, to a postmodern world experienced via celebrity, culture and cyberspace is an effect of changes in the means of communication, but also in the accumulated techniques available in everyday life for reading what is communicated. Moving from pop to cyberspace, Australians start to see their collective and individual identities differently.

Australians have many different ways of thinking and feeling, but ‘we’ nevertheless share a cyberspace within which cultural differences are not only negotiated and adjudicated, but creatively combined. The most visible signs of this process are celebrities. They embody not just the particular cultures from which they come. They embody also something beyond. We may not like the same celebrities, we may not like any of them at all, but it is the existence of a population of celebrities, about whom to disagree, that makes it possible to constitute a sense of belonging. Through celebrating (or deriding) celebrities it is possible to belong to something beyond the particular culture with which each of us might identify. Cyberspace provides the vehicle, celebrities provide the fuel, and culture is the journey.

Cyberspace mixes images and stories from the cultures of different places. What celebrities do is articulate the possible points of difference and combination that arise between those cultures. Both the recognition of differences, and the possibility of reconciling them, are things that come about because of cyberspace.

The emerging vectors of cyberspace are what made it possible in the 90s for there to be ‘public things’ in a world that long ago outgrew the space of the town hall or market square. The development of cyberspace is what made it possible to partially bypass the limitations of television as a substitute space for the public square.

Celebrity, culture and cyberspace are the concepts through which I want to explain how ‘Australia’ comes into existence as something people know in their bones, but about which there is a constant friction of difference, since no two people ever experience it as the same thing.

Out of this chaotic dance of information passing between public life and private worlds, how is it possible to create a majority that has a positive sense of the possibilities for an open, dynamic, urbane Australia? That is the problem for the Labor Party at the end of the 90s. It has to find a third way between unpopular reform agendas and populist hostility to change.
McKenzie Wark is senior lecturer in media studies at Macquarie University, and is the author ofVirtual Geography (1994),The Virtual Republic (1997) andCelebrities, Culture and Cyberspace (1999). With Brad Miller he co-produced the multimedia work Planet of Noise (1997). Since 1991 his columns on culture and media have appeared in the Australian.

This extract of Wark’s latest book,Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace, (Pluto Press 1999) is republished here with the permission of the author and Pluto Press.

Read a review in Australian Humanities Review.


1 Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity, Sage, London, 1998, p. 7, and below, p. 2 and p. 85

2 Darren Tofts, Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture, Gordon + Breach Arts International, Sydney, 1998, p. 15

3 McKenzie Wark, Virtual Geography: Living With Global Media Events, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1994

4 An argument first proposed by James Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, Unwin Hyman, Boston, 1989

5Craig McGregor, People, Politics and Pop: Australians in the Sixties, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1968

6 Anthologised in Ashley Crawford and Ray Edgar (eds), Transit Lounge, Craftsman’s House, Sydney, 1997

7 Robert Manne, ‘Strong Women, Stronger Morality’, Australian, 8th April 1996

8 Brian Toohey, ‘Naked Truth on Redheads’, Sun Herald, 28th June, 1998

9 Robert Dessaix, Speaking Their Minds: Intellectual and the Public Culture in Australia, ABC Books, Sydney, 1998, p. 6

10 Peter Blazey, Screw Loose: Uncalled-For Memoirs, Picador, Sydney, 1997, p. 139

11 Michael Pusey, Economic Rationalism in Canberra: A Nation-Building State Changes its Mind, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1991

12 Paul Sheehan, Among the Barbarians, Random House, Sydney, 1998

13Liz Johnson, ‘The Hanson Cult’, Bulletin, 16th June 1998, p. 27

14 McKenzie Wark, The Virtual Republic: Australia’s Culture Wars of the 90s, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1998

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