This is how it all starts.
Let’s begin by setting the context.
You are a conscious being, surrounded by analogue beings, or objects. All is very tangible. These are part of what you may consider to have a verifiable, objective sensory existence as they are available to your sensory awareness.
This is the physical reality, the world of flesh and blood, the meatspace, you would argue.
The screen you are facing and through which you are reading these lines exists indeed as a physical object, yet, you acknowledge, it also functions as an entry point for another kind of space.
That of cyberspace.
This space does not obey to Euclidian geometry laws, it does not consist of a void to be filled up. Yet it is comprehended as three-dimensional and is portrayed with a terminology of spatiality; for when describing the experience of it, one would articulate their activity accordingly to conventionalized spatial and directional metaphorical expressions. It comes to be described, perceived and experienced as such because humans get their input formed and structured from their cognitive make-up; from themselves, their bodies and their interactions with the world. It’s what Lakoff and Johnson call “embodied cognition”. In this sense, space and the means of its existence come to be relative and “produced by one’s own actions”.
Cyberspace does not pre-exist to humankind; it has been erected as a perceptual universe that can only be understood by humans. It exists in relation to them –this is specifically what characterizes Jakob von Uexküll’s “Umwelt”, or milieu. Uexküll rejects the idea that there is a unique world in which the apprehension of time and space is identical and valid for all species. For him, each being elaborates their own world by filtering the set of stimuli they get from their surroundings. The tick, for instance, encounters during its life only three sensations, all three in relation to its preys: the temperature of their blood, their odor, and the touch of their hair. These three stimuli cover the totality of a tick’s Umwelt. Each being has its milieu thus reduced to its very own surroundings and shaped according to the way they themselves make sense of it. The meaning of the components of this milieu does not exist in the absolute, it is the result of a set of relations.
Cyberspace is usually broken down into three distinct layers: physical (hardware and infrastructure), informational (programming and data processing and exchange) and cognitive (intellectual representation of beings and entities and their activities). And it’s through this last aspect, as Audrey Hérisson will argue, that cyberspace can be seen as a behavioral milieu –an Umwelt– whose elements exist again precisely because of the meaning humans confer to them. This understanding of a milieu excludes the idea that a space needs to necessary be part of the world of physical perception for it to be considered as such; it’s the relationship between a space and a human being that can confer it a spatial quality.
The term cyberspace first appeared in 1968 as the moniker of the collaboration between artists Sussane Hussing and Carsten Hoff. It stems from the other term of “cybernetics”, a then growing field of science building bridges across areas as broad as neurology, electronics and the study of social mechanisms. Mainly developed by mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener, cybernetics is concerned with the understanding, modelling and designing of the operating principles of any given complex system.
This new multidisciplinary field was going to help develop a technology-based artistic practice that brought together “computers, cybernetics, electronics, music, art, poetry, machines, as well as the problem of how to present this hybrid mixture”. In 1968, the London based exhibition “Cybernetic Serendipity” was the first of its kind to feature collaborations between artists and scientists and to explore the relationship between technology and artistic expression. Which then inspired Hussing and Hoff into developing cyberspace: an ensemble of sensory environments and experimental architectural structures that interrogate technology as a valuable asset for human life and built environment.
The notion of cyberspace became popular in the 1990’s after William Gibson used it in a series of three science-fiction short novels written between 1984 and 1988. Cyberspace, alternatively called the Matrix, was the digital dystopian arena in which a “consensual hallucination is experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation” as well as a “graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system”. An ecosystem then; in which humans agreed to live within and in which large quantities of data is processed, exchanged and configured in such a way as to give operators the illusion of control.
This vision of the future of information systems was not a demonstration of pure imagination. Rather, it was the result of what the internet’s ancestor –Arpanet– in the 1970’s, and before that the television in 1920’s, and before that the telephone in the late 1800’s, and before that the telegraph in the mid 1800’s, had already begun unfolding in terms of collective representations and practices of communication networks. Information transmission was increasing qualitatively and quantitively, geographical barriers were seen to be more and more overcome and profound changes were occurring in all aspects of communication, culture and human interaction with each of those technological advances.
Cyberspace, as perceived by Gibson and other science-fiction authors, futurologists and visionaries, was giving rise to new perspectives on computer technology and to drastic revaluations of all aspects of human life. It was holding, as Marshall McLuhan stated almost prophetically in Playboy magazine in 1968, “the promise of a technologically engendered state of universal understanding and unity, a state of absorption in the Logos that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace”.
Yet, Arpanet was initially founded under the Eisenhower administration in the 60’s as a military defense strategy following the Sputnik I launch. But what was instigated as a way to allow U.S. technological superiority, incrementally converged towards the almost demiurgic track McLuhan promised. Researchers were concerned with the technical developments of computerized communication networks, as well with what it was going to induce in terms of social interactions across each stratum of society. Additionally, the experiments undertaken in those relatively closed academic communities led other circles into developing somewhat utopian network models based on the notion of community, and the government-funded military context in which the technology had birthed got to be soon forgotten. In his book about the social significance of the internet, Patrice Flichy distinguishes three main tendencies in this utopian project. The first one was led by amateurs, hackers and anarchists who were willing to set up a system similar to that of the academia but accessible to ordinary people; the second one merged the hippie and New Age visions with a progressive and ecological approach of technology and technique in order to break away from a world they no longer aligned with; and the third one was rather seeing cyberspace as a vehicle to structuring communities, raising social awareness and generating public debate on a local level. In any case, labor relations were to be reshaped, control decentralized, minds elevated.
Freedom! equality! harmony! they brandished.
A revival of some sort of the 1789 revolution. And if cyberspace wasn’t to achieve this revolutionary ideal, then it was at least going to represent a straight continuation of it –only this time it was going to be led by a virtual community.
In 1987, Howard Rheingold, an active member of the Californian countercultural movement and a close collaborator to its leading figures, wrote a small article in the quarterly Whole Earth Review which had grown out of the original Catalog and in which he coined the expression of “virtual community”. In subsequent critically acclaimed and highly mediatized publications, he defined virtual communities as “social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace”.
That was the year 1993, and never had the internet been the subject of such attention in national media. Following the utopian template that LSD advocates drew two decades earlier, a new myth was to spread among the masses. That of an unprecedented form of social order, allowing disembodied, balanced, fluid, and emancipated interactions.
Now, you are to belong somewhere, they said.
Rheingold’s apprehension of virtual communities was mainly enthusiastic. He saw in them a rare liberating force, capable of bringing “enormous leverage to ordinary citizens at relatively little cost¬ –“intellectual leverage, social leverage, commercial leverage, and most important, political leverage”. But for all its futuristic pretensions, and ironically enough, Rheingold's imagination remained fundamentally conservative and nostalgic. He was essentially concerned with the restoration of a lost object: community. “The fact that we need computer networks to recapture the sense of cooperative spirit that so many people seemed to lose when we gained all this technology is a painful irony. I'm not so sure myself anymore that tapping away on a keyboard and staring at a screen all day by necessity is 'progress' compared to chopping logs and raising beans all day by necessary. While we've been gaining new technologies, we've been losing our sense of community, in many places in the world, and in most cases the technologies have precipitated that loss. But this does not make an effective argument against the premise that people can use computers to cooperate in new ways.” Cyberspace is seen here as rekindling the sense of family, of community. It recreates the ethos of the village pump and the town square.
Sociologist Serge Proulx and media researcher Guillaume Latzko-Tot argue that because there are so many definitions and conceptions of virtuality in physical sciences –physics, mechanics, optics–, then the understanding of the notion in relation to the real in social sciences and philosophy comes to be de facto broken down into different, possibly contradictory, approaches too. Proulx and Latzko-Tot will retain three of them.
Rheingold’s is one that they consider resolutive; virtuality as a resolution of the physical world, as what comes to fill the latter’s gaps. As what offers “a portal to the richness of the real”. This is an understanding of the term as a return to one’s veritable essence, or original nature, as the Latin origin of the term suggests –“virtualis”: virtue, power, force.
Opposite to this view is one that discredits virtuality as only a representation or simulation of the real. A reduced version of it. Illusory and misleading, would it be at worse, and with no added value at best.
And further away from these dichotomic visions, lies a third one that claims a hybridisation of the real and the virtual, where both are constantly feeding of each other in a circular and dynamic movement with no clear delimitation between them.
Nevertheless, the former utopian narrative was the one to prevail. And often would its advocates consider cyberspace as part of a different, radically separate realm, on which sovereignties not only should not, but could not, exert any form of control.
This separatist vision may have, ironically enough, contributed to the rapid freezing of utopian strivings, as it failed in acknowledging the ways in which cyberspace and “real” space remain inextricably interconnected. Cyberspace alters indeed the physical world’s dynamics and lived experience as much as it gets altered by it, because the users remain, ultimately, part of the physical world. Julie E. Cohen remarks that seeing it as a separate space actually “denies the embodied spatiality of cyberspace users” who get to be in both spaces at once, and “overlooks the complex interplay between real-space geographies of power and their cyberspace equivalents”. “The cyberspace that has resulted from all of this activity is an utopia inhabited and produced by real people, and thus, by necessary implication, no utopia at all”, she proceeds.
In his 1967 short-lecture “Of Other Spaces”, Michel Foucault challenges common views on spatiality and temporality by introducing the concept of heterotopia.
Heterotopias are “placeless places” characterized by juxtaposition, simultaneity and displacement. And in which “the ordinary rules of behavior are, in different ways, suspended to permit the enactment of a variety of processes and rituals that do not occur in ordinary spaces”. They thus hold social orderings of their own but are to be distinguished from the ever imaginary utopias as they are in fact very much real. Effective utopias would they be. Among them are for instance brothels, cemeteries, theater stages, gardens, mirrors. Mirrors come to actually be particularly similar to cyberspace in that they both involve a complex play of gaze and put their subject in an ambivalent state of being: simultaneously visible and concealed, included and excluded, present and absent. Mirrors do have a physical existence, but they give access at the same time to a virtual space; “It makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there”. Similarly, screen devices serve as thresholds. They open onto an in-between place that disrupts traditional territorial and temporal demarcations and have one’s presence duplicated.
Your screen very much exists in the meatspace – yet you look at it and reconstitute yourself in an alternate space while simultaneously remaining at your place.
You are there, but also over here.
Apprehending cyberspace as a heterotopia –an alternate space anchored in the physical world– rather than an utopia thus admits the probable fall into malleability and possible coercion into institutional frameworks.
In reality, parallel to early technopolitical utopianisms emerged the then unpopular idea that the ramp up of technology and the advent of the internet was going to in fact only stabilize, even consolidate, the status quo. Very early into the first experiments with computation and communication networks, social scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool sketched out the ramifications of the internet and, while highlighting its certain democratic potential, warned against authoritarian overstepping for speech regulation and freedom limitation.
Rheingold himself feared a downfall of the technology and warned against the non-immune character of cyberspace; “the odds are always good that big power and big money will find a way to control access to virtual communities; big power and big money always found ways to control new communications media when they emerged in the past. (…) What we know and do now is important because it is still possible for people around the world to make sure this new sphere of vital human discourse remains open to the citizens of the planet before the political and economic big boys seize it, censor it, meter it, and sell it back to us”.
And so they did.
Cyberspace gradually turned into, as Gibson had predicted in his dystopian setting, a panoptical superstructure methodically stacking and harnessing data. And in its capacity as a heterotopic space permitting the co-existence of several contradictory configurations, cyberspace was “capable of juxtaposing and expanding free space with restricted space, institutional space with home space, private space with public space” argues Eddie Piñuelas. It was thus becoming a field in which the greatest forms of liberty were manifesting yet under the most malicious forms of regulation and surveillance. And much like in Gibson’s cyberspace again, for this opaque surveillance to be able to take place, it had to be “consensual”. Users had to be one way or another complicit of their own monitoring as they were to allow, more or less directly, the gathering of their personal data.
This participatory input to power modalities allows an understanding of power structures following a horizontal model instead of a vertical one. Foucault in fact supports the idea that power is a set of relations rather than an entity or an organ that can be possessed, gained or handed and exerted on given bodies. Power is omnipresent within human relationships. It is mobile, fragmented and always subject to deterritorialization and reterritorialization. It is not merely “attached to the boundaries of the institution (i.e. the prison, the school, the mental hospital)” but instead spreading “throughout the entire social body”, Piñuelas insists.
In reality, the exercise of power “incites, it induces, it seduces, it makes easier or more difficult; in the extreme it constrains or forbids absolutely; it is nevertheless always a way of acting upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action”. Power can only be exerted on subjects that are free to make their own choices and the more possibilities open up to the subject, the more power enactments there will be. Because power is a conduct of conducts: it comes about by adjusting the way subjects make sense of the possibilities that are offered to them and by configuring the field in which they all appear.
In one of his most notable writings, “Code”, American lawyer and political activist Lawrence Lessig notes the importance of establishing a constitution, in the sense of an “architecture” that “structures and constrains social and legal power, to the end of protecting fundamental values”. The foundations of freedom do not simply appear, they get laid. And the then underlying threat for cyberspace to turn into a space of control instead of one of liberty lays precisely in the anarchist idea –lack of authority and hierarchy as a natural state of affairs for human society– of letting cyberspace just be. Because the architecture that is to rise with no form of intervention and regulation at all is one unavoidably powered by social interest –profit, accumulation, competition; “Liberty in cyberspace will not come from the absence of the state. Liberty there, as anywhere, will come from a state of a certain kind. We build a world where freedom can flourish not by removing from society any self-conscious control, but by setting it in a place where a particular kind of self-conscious control survives. We build liberty as our founders did, by setting society upon a certain constitution.”
And so deepened the disenchantment.
Formerly let to believe that they were to thrive in a pure domain, cyberspace users were shown the inevitable political and economical grip it would fall under. And of the former utopian endeavors now remain profoundly nostalgic sentiments; longings for the promised Global Village that was to never arise; appraisals for the lost revolutionary fervors; and yearnings for continuity in a fragmented world where “utopia went dystopic”.
In the late seventeenth century, was coined the term of “nostalgia” –made up of the combination of the Greek words nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain)– by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer in order to refer to a newly diagnosed neurological illness afflicting Swiss mercenaries, students and health workers who were to fight, study and work in remote lands. Nostalgia was a medical condition, a state of fever, paranoia and lassitude that was potentially fatal if left untreated, but thought to be readily cured by a return home. Hofer identified the brain as the seat of the disease, claiming that nerve fibers that store impressions of one’s native land are in constant motion; patients suffering from this disease would obsessively dwell on images of home. Nostalgia, according to Hofer, was a disorder of the imagination, and those suffering from it fantasized about home, leaving no psychological space for thoughts about the present world. By the end of the 20th century, as it got progressively embedded into the emergent science of psychiatry, nostalgia was no longer regarded as a brain disease. It too started to be admitted as a cultural practice and to take the metaphorical meaning of longing for a lost place by way of the Romantics. The understanding of the notion moved increasingly towards the temporal pole; nostalgia was now also characterized by the simultaneous regret at the inevitable passing of time, and overvaluation of that specific time. Yet, the term was still tainted by clinical connotations at the time, and only in 1979 that it would gain academic attention following sociologist Fred Davis’ first in-depth sociological analysis.
Davis approached nostalgia as an act anchored in present context that says a lot more about contemporary social configurations than about the past itself, as it plays a crucial role in “constructing, maintaining, and reconstructing identities”. For him, the nostalgic memory serves as a wellspring, a supplement that nourishes the individual toward tackling the vagaries of the future. In “Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia”, Davis distinguishes three dispositions for the nostalgic yearning: simple, reflexive and interpreted, what he also calls first, second and third order forms. Simple, first-order nostalgia is the belief that things were better before than now; in this order, people would enjoy the experience pervasively but leave it unquestioned. In second-order, reflexive nostalgia, the nostalgic feeling is accompanied by empirically oriented questions concerning the truth, accuracy and completeness of the nostalgic memory. In third-order, interpretative nostalgia, the nostalgic feeling resembles a process of phenomenological analysis. It is accompanied by reflections that move beyond issues of historical accuracy and addresses the nostalgic experience itself. Now, according to Davis, the more questioning and distant one’s relationship to the past –the less simple it is and the more interpreted– the better.
However, convinced that the world was moving toward not only greater individual freedom and scientific development but toward a more just society, Karl Marx believed that to continue to do so, all elements of the past must be left behind –what has passed indeed and what has remained of it. “Let the dead bury their dead and mourn them”, he states in 1885. As Marcos Piason Natali remarks: “The very word traditionally used to refer to the left in English and other European languages—variations of “progressive” emphasizes commitment to the future, while the words that describe the left’s adversaries “conservative” and “reactionary”—suggest devotion to the past.” Marx’s own devotion for the future rests on the one hand on the notion that there are too many old and archaic ideas that would poison present and future potentials for social justice and on the other on the notion that only if the bourgeoisie rises enough to become incapable of sustaining its own contradictions that capitalism would fall; “What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers”. Progress was thus not only inevitable, but also necessary.
Yet, scholar and artist Svetlana Boym points out the dual tendencies of nostalgia – embodied within nostos and algos – and identifies two main types: restorative and reflective. According to her, nostalgia is informed by a fundamental ambivalence: it repeats the unrepeatable and materializes the immaterial. She gives the visual example of a cinematic image of nostalgia which is “a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images – of home and abroad, past and present, dream and everyday life. The moment we try to force it into a single image, it breaks the frame or burns the surface” . Restorative nostalgia stresses the etymological first part of the term, nostos, and tries to perform a “transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home”. One who experiences restorative nostalgia does not think of themselves as nostalgic. Rather, they believe that they are seeking the absolute truth. This kind of nostalgia is often closely linked to politics, and “characterizes national and nationalist revivals all over the world, which engage in the antimodern myth-making of history by means of a return to national symbols and myths and, occasionally, through swapping conspiracy theories”. Thereby, the restored past (or the myth of a restored truth) holds no sign of deterioration nor of passing time. Rather, it narrates a story of perfection and eternal validity. On the other hand, reflective nostalgia focuses on the second part, algos, and delays (or prevents) the homecoming, possibly ironically too. Boym explains that the “focus here is not on the recovery of what is perceived to be an absolute truth but on the meditation on history and passage of time”. It does not celebrate grand narratives; it puts the truth into doubt and acknowledges the impossibility in restoring the past. The distinction is succinctly expressed the following way: “Restorative nostalgia evokes national past and future; reflective nostalgia is more about individual and cultural memory”.
As Boym points out, manifestations of collective and individual nostalgia often burst out following rapid and profound changes: war, migration, social mobility, technological breakthrough, upheavals or regime changes. For instance, The French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution, the Velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe and the 1979 Iranian revolution were accompanied by political and cultural demonstrations of longing and yearnings for former, presumably merrier, times. And more specifically, just months after the political transformations of 1989 and 1991 in the former Soviet bloc, communist iconography and semiotics begun acquiring new visibility instead of fading into obsolescence. That, to the point that many had to raise the alarm about the new wave of reactionary –or in Boym’s terms, restorative– nostalgia in media and public discourse and warn against the manipulation of communist history for political gain. “The last Soviet decades begun to be seen as a time of stagnation, or alternatively, as a Soviet golden age of stability, strength and ‘normalcy’, –a view prevalent in Russia today” declares Boym. Yet another crossroad that is often met with nostalgic sentiments is the one of the once dreamt of, the never –or almost– realized, the formerly probable. Nostalgia usually points back to the past but can as well include elements of utopian imagination and feed off unrealized possibilities. Nostalgia and utopia hold in fact similarities in that one and the other come from a desire for re-enchantment and answer a present disenchantment. Both, usually perceived as opposites, come from a feeling of impotence in the face of present disillusions, point to spaces that do not exist, or have ceased to exist, and possibly imply an over-idealization of the past.
Unable to develop into a project, the lost anticipated bliss, or utopia, of cyberspace is precisely one subject to longing. This longing can be articulated by way of exploring, visiting, keeping alive or sustaining the now obsolete and deserted last few remaining parts (or websites) of cyberspace from the 80s to 00s. A sort of modern-times exploration, or perhaps excavation work, for the retrial of a forgotten heritage. In fact, many of the users engaged in such deeds have developed a certain kind of ruinophilia. A love for modern ruins that keep alive memories of a projected time and space or that of an aborted future. Those websites are places of suspended temporalities and subsist as testaments of a hasty end. They remain untouched since the very time their existence was declared obsolete, thus gaining the status of “physical” manifestations of a given prospection, in both of its optimistic and tragic dimension. Former cyberspace users pay visit and mourn what they have lost. And new internet users do so too, fascinated by what they have not known, or eager to verify the completion of what they wished they knew. Historian Antoine Picon speaks of contemporary architecture ruins as, in an ironical reversal of the conventional understanding of ruins, agglomerates of signs of the several alterations that the urban landscape has been through. Unlike traditional ruins, their temporality is ambivalent; they do not ensure an understanding of linearity or continuity. He states: “In traditional landscapes the productions of man, his constructions in particular, surrendered themselves progressively to nature in the form of the ruin... There is nothing of the sort in the contemporary city where objects, if they don't disappear ail in the one go, as if by magic, are instead relegated to obsolescence, a bit like the living dead who endlessly haunt the landscape preventing it from ever becoming peaceful again” . Similar to modern-times buildings, the very majority of contemporary online spaces accumulate transformations and often bear no sign of decay. One transformation crushing the other, one update outdating the other. The few remaining untouched cyberspace spaces thus become spaces of, and for, resistance and subversion. Their only existence being the incarnation of the possible revival of past aspirations.
In fact, philosopher Ernst Bloch claims a retrospective outlook on the future and a non-prospective look on utopia, and remarks that the future is to be discovered in the aspirations of the past, as an unfulfilled promise. According to him actually, utopias are fundamentally nostalgic. “Human longing in both forms –as impatience and as waking dream– is the mainsail into the other world. This intending toward a star, a joy, a truth to set against the empirical, beyond its satanic night of incognito, is the only way still to find truth”, he states. In “The Principle of Hope”, he encourages an unearthing of the past’s lost debris and a re-activation of its unfulfilled claims in the pursuit of a more just future. This apprehension of utopia finds its source in Bloch’s understanding of the idea of being as a ‘Not’, an absence from which something emerges but that remains intact in the fabric of being as an original absence. The ‘Not’ has only been forgotten, it has sunk into the subconscious, or has been repressed, but remains rememberable and is disposed to dawn up: “Not with which everything starts up and begins, around which every Something is still built. […] The Not is lack of Something and also escape from this lack: thus it is a driving towards what is missing”. In suggesting that there is a fundamental and profound link between the ‘Not-Yet-Become’ content of the material world and a ‘Not-Yet-Conscious’ in human beings, Bloch turns humans into authors of a utopian history engraved into the fabric of reality itself. “The Not-Yet-Conscious in man”, he writes, “belongs completely to the Not-Yet-Become, Not-Yet-Brought-Out, Manifested in the world. The Not-Yet-Conscious interacts and reciprocates with Not-Yet-Become, more specifically with what is approaching in history and in the world”.
The reactivation of early-internet memory finds its expression in sampling too. In the injection of a few aspects of earlier stages of cyberspace –back when the utopian project was still contemplated– into present-day online spaces. That, through for instance system architecture (organization and implementation of computer systems), network models (communication and social services), formal arrangements (page characteristics and layout), codes of representation (signs and symbols), and sometimes as simple as through the use of cyberspace-old iconography and semiotics (imagery and vocabulary).
Fragments of the past are to be encoded into stratums of the internet the same way perhaps pieces of nature (herbariums, greenhouses, aquariums) started to be incorporated into nineteenth century urban bourgeois homes. Those domesticated sections of a distant wildlife were cherished precisely for their incompleteness, their ruin-like dimension, and for the memory they evoked. To echo Boym’s analysis of reflective nostalgic practices, these remodeled ruins, unlike complete reconstructions, allowed one to experience the lost object affectively, as an atmosphere and to set up a space for reflection on the passage of time.
Pushing temporal reiteration further even, some users proceed to total emulations, integrating in their newly constructed internet spaces at least all of the enumerated above aspects at once. In their desire to go back to so it would be made possible to go forward, these users engage in a reproduction or repetition work to be compared to reenactment practices.
Reenactment consists of re-playing or re-doing a prior event, art piece, or act and is mainly associated with historical (often battleship) events, performance art and theater. As Rebecca Schneider notes, “in many ways, reenactment has become the popular and practice-based wing of what has been called the twentieth-century academic memory industry”; as the practice gained great popularity as much within performance art milieux as within entertainment and historical spaces (history museums, theme parks, preservation societies). Often that reenactments place their instigators as well as their spectators in the midst of the action; therefore the act is not to only be seen, watched or reiterated from a distance, but to be experienced, or to be felt. The act of reenacting, and to witness a reenacting, necessarily implies gestuality, tactility and mobility. As Schneider argues, “the value of crossing disparate and multiple historical moments to explore the ways that past, present, and future occur and recur out of sequence in a complex crosshatch not only of reference but of affective assemblage and investment”.
One could think of reenactments, Schneider says, as the “ongoing event itself, negotiated through sometimes radically shifting affiliation with the past as the present”. In this sense, historical events may never be really terminated and would carry within them inevitable cycles of return. “It is the very pastness of the past that is never complete, never completely finished, but incomplete: cast into the future as a matter for ritual negotiation and as yet undecided interpretive acts of reworking. In this way, events are given to be past, or to become past, by virtue of both their longingness and their partialness, their incompleteness in the present.” Therefore present online spaces that are to reenact past ones, or borrow aspects of past ones, place themselves in an unfinished event that is necessary to act upon present and future advents.
These newly erected online arenas of confrontation –and perhaps contestation too– hold the capacity of parasitizing their sanitized and conditioned surroundings, thus of de-naturalizing dominating realities: that of internet spaces, and “real” spaces. Feminist essayist Adrienne Rich says about the act of critically looking back into historical events that it is an act of survival, of keeping alive: “Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for women more than a chapter in cultural history; it is an act of survival”. And indeed, if it is not about keeping alive (or putting back to life) the object of the return then it is at least a way of keeping oneself critical, of keeping oneself alive –of surviving.
And If indeed one needs to be dead –to echo Marx saying– to visit the ghostly theater of cyberspace, then the inhabitants of such spaces of dissidence are to be compared to walking –living– dead. The archetype of the walking dead, or that of the zombie, finds its origin in the imagery of African slaves in early Hollywood film. The origin of the term is attributed to the Mitsogho tribe in Gabon, West Africa, who used the term ndzumbi to refer to corpses. African slaves who arrived to the colonies of Haiti, Martinique, and Jamaica between the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th after much suffering, popularized its usage in the new land. The fear of being possessed and exploited by another person is one of the most notable features of all the folklore revolving around zombies, and is probably rooted in the terrible memories of years of slavery. One would argue that the motif of the zombie is one that is to be compared to present day non-conformists who refuse to be part of capitalist, abusive systems; to those who refuse to be exploited –eaten– by the other; to those who create for themselves survival spaces.
And perhaps those are to never die because one cannot kill the already dead.