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Virtualization and Multi-cultural Global Cities.
by Carlos Hernan Betancourth (1996)



Unlike telephone calls or fax transmissions, which link specific machines at identifiable locations, virtual exchanges and their capacity for instantaneous transmission of information outputs over any distance (eg, electronic mail; financial and foreign currency markets, etc), link people at indeterminate locations (Mitchell, 1993, 1995a, 1995b; Betancourth, 1994).
This article briefly examines the implications of both the technical capacity for instantaneous transmission and the capacity to link people at indeterminate locations, for civic culture and public space. To explore these issues is important at least for the following two main reasons: it may contribute to an understanding of the role of virtuality in both, causing and helping to solve the civic problems faced by multicultural cities. And second, such an exploration could also contribute new ways of thinking about public space that offer a way into thinking a politics of difference.

By linking people at indeterminate locations, virtual interactions and ex-changes in virtual space (video-conferencing, portable telephone, e-mail) de-spatialize interactions. In so doing, they eliminate a dimension of social legibility traditionally provided by cities and their spaces: contrary to what occurs in a city or in a building in which where you are customarily signals who you are, in a virtual exchange there is as yet, at least, no such a thing as a better address, and you cannot attempt to define yourself by being seen in the right places in the right company. As I have argued elsewhere, (Betancourth 1994; 1995), such openness doesn't mean that the net doesn't have its own mechanisms for coding, class and turf construction such as passwords and a tendency towards the replacement of the internet as based on the written word for a medium based on voice and image transmission (eg, telepresence).
However, this doesn't detract from the interest of the social tensions and complexities of these transformations, as well as from the interest of the unrealized possibilities within net-life as an alternative to both liberal individualism and communitarianism, and thus as a basis for a politics of difference. This imaginary net-city is a differential space in which politics is possible and conflict unavoidable. It is then a dimension of the experience of city life and a metaphor of politics. And it is as a result of this that it becomes important to explore the main implications for multi- cultural cities of the net potential to eliminate a dimension of social legi- bility. To explore these issues implies at least to look at the implications of virtuality for civic culture, economic space and governance. But due to space limitations, in what follows, I can only deal with these questions in relation to the problem of 'civic culture' and of 'public space'.

Virtuality and Civic Culture

Sennett (1994) has convincingly argued that there are at least two forces that have contributed to the elimination of a civic culture in New York City (On the moral consequences of certain kind of city living, see also Berman, 1982). The first force is the regional transportation network for individual movement that provides those with a car and a home the means to escape and exit from the noise of strikers, beggars, and the distressed which had and still fill the streets of New York. Those who leave the city then withdraw from the possibility of interacting with the difference of the 'other' and thus from the possibility of building a civic culture(Sennett, 1994 pp 355-376). At this point one could speculate a bit and add to this, that this regional transportation network also contributed to the decline of what F. Braudel calls, the little firms..which made up New Yorks commercial and industrial substance...who contribute to a truly competitive world whose little units are both in competition with, yet dependent upon each other...it was the big firms, with their big production units out of town' which ousted the little man (Braudel, 1981) (I will come back to this issue in the second part of this paper when I will be dealing with the implications of virtuality for the return of the small firm. Betancourth, 1995). This trend towards leaving the city and withdrawing from the possibility of interacting with the difference of the other and thus from the possibility of building a civic culture, seems to be a fast-growing phenomena[1].

The second force that has contributed to the elimination of a civic culture is a tool for sensing reality: people use an image repertoire when they encounter strangers as well as when they interpret urban geography and the city (Sennett, 1992; 1990; 1994; Barthes 1978; Lynch 1960; Jameson, 1984, 1988, 1991). We then rely upon stereotypes or cues to determine the manner of person we are dealing with, the cut of their clothes or of their hair, an accent or a manner of speaking. In cities, people identify other people on the basis of their appearance, their social role or other singular characteristics. It is this phenomenon, rather than the dynamics of consumption (eg, greater abundance of commodities and services; greater speed in their delivery and consumption. Jameson 1991; Harvey 1990), which is the basis of city-life (Raban, 1974). But by using an image repertoire to encounter strangers, people become passive and withdraw from others when confronted with their difference. And by scanning ones surroundings through an image repertoire, a subject becomes indifferent to his new surroundings[2] (Sennett, 1994).

It may then follow from this above that if one was going to deal with the problem of a civic culture in a multicultural city by arousing sympathy for those who are other (Sennett, 1994), one would have at least to counteract the above forces by trying to reduce the use of private cars as well as the use of an image repertoire when encountering strangers and interpreting the city. An important step in this direction may be to try to see whether individuation and the above versions of the fully immediate community (footnote, 1 and 2), are the only possibilities emerging from the flows of virtualization an globalization. Virtuality and Individual Movement

Now, what is important to notice for our concerns here, is that if we were to follow Sennett (1994) and assume that those fleeing the central city were not going to deny any longer their shared fate and common destiny with those who remained in the central city, and say, attempted to reduce at least the number of car journeys in order to create conditions for the emergence of a civic culture, as well as to limit carbon emissions, we would have also to assume that large numbers of people in many distant locations would be willingto act on behalf of geographically distant populations or populations as yetunborn, and without any obvious selfinterest (on the production of global warming by means of increased emissions of carbon warming, see Yearly, 1991.
On the consequences of global consumerism for the physical environment, see Strathern 1992). That is, we would have to assume an 'imagined community' comprised of a present and future population which may endeavour to either conserve nature or to generate a civic culture, or both. Social identity here would significantly be a question of imagined communities, of imagining oneself to share a common history or destiny or fate with thousands or millions of others that one can never know (On imagined communities, see Anderson, 1991; Appaduri 1990, Lodge, 1983 and McCrone, 1992). Thus, whatever the collective good, what is important for our concerns here, is that both, the imagined community and the collective good to be produced by it are invisible and/or virtual in time and/or space.
What I am trying to suggest here is that large problems originating in the logistics of speed and virtualization such as the problem of creating a civic culture and conserving nature (but also poverty and health), may require for their solution the intensification of social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by geographically distant events and viceversa. That is, they require the lateral extensions of social connections across time and space (eg., virtualization and globalization). However, what maybe interesting to consider is whether the global media and supranational organizations could come to play a crucially important role in sustaining the notion of a global village: Green Peace, The Brundtland report and The Climate Treaty signed at the 1992 UNCED Conference in Rio de Janeiro, all talk of our common future because of the global character of the threats posed to nature (Environmental News From The Netherlands, 1994 no 3; and, 1995 no 1). These perceptions have in turn been assisted by the development of global mass media which have generated an imagined community of all societies inhabiting one earth (Friends of the Earth; Milieudefensie; Greenpeace). Such large problems originating in the logistics of speed and virtualization may then require for their solution not only virtualization and globalization, but the later in turn involve the circulation of images on a novel global scale; images which are of the entire globe; such as the image and the theme of one earth and a global village (On the role of image production in contemporary accumulation processes, see Lash and Urry, 1994). A global village that in turn could facilitate the construction of an imagined community comprised of a present and future population endeavour to produce a virtual collective good.

Thus, what seems to be paradoxical about the relationship between virtuality and multicultural cities is that where economies of signs and space function as flows the result is individuation (Lash and Urry, 1994), and, the mass media desensitizes the viewer to the real pain of the other, making it difficult for sympathy for those who are Other (and thus for a civic culture) to arise, (Sennett, 1994), the global media could play a role in sustaining the we of an imagined global community which maybe fundamentalfor the construction of that very same civic culture ( On the we of globalization, see Mazlish, B. and R. Buultjens (eds.) 1993; Lash and Urry, 1994; on the implications of a global community for national societies and economies, and for the dissolution of a national community of fate, see McCrone, 1992; Ohmae, 1990).

In what follows we will deal briefly with the problems and complexities that emerge when finding an identity is done in electronic space and telecommunications through imagining a simultaneity of thousands of others who are reading-viewing the same text-image at the same time.

Virtuality and image repertoires.

Following Sennett (1992; 1990;1994), Barthes (1978), Raban (1974) and, Lynch (1960), it could be suggested that as a result of people using image repertoires in the interpretation of both chance encounters with strangers and physical environments, a standard city could be defined as that place in which where you are tells who you are. And who you are in that city, will often determine where you are allowed to be. Of course, this is not a complete account and description of the experience of contemporary urban life. If I isolate this partial account is in order to argue from the premise that one of the fundamental conditions of city life and source of its dynamics, isnt only the fact of greater abundance of commodities and services, nor the fact of greater speed in their delivery and consumption ( as in the case of Harvey, 1990; Jameson, 1991), but the fact that in cities we live in constant and close proximity to strangers (Sennett, 1990, 1992, 1994; Raban, 1974). But the point is not only that our daily encounters with others are encounters with people we don't know, or know only a little, but that we use fragmentary glimpses, and snap-shots of the lives of others, in order to extrapolate, identify and make judgements about them: You may come from the right side of the tracks or the wrong, and everybody knows how to read this code: in the words of Sennett, Lynch and Barthes, you just compare new places to your image repertoire of where you belong, and the less the two correspond the more indifferent you feel about your new surroundings. In cities, we rely upon stereotypes or cues to determine the manner of person we are dealing with, the cut of their clothes, or of their hair, an accent or a manner of speaking. In cities, people identify other people on the basis of their appearance, their social role or other singular characteristics. In addition to this, Raban (1974) would argue that this mode of relating to others reacts back upon our own sense of self and we experience ourselves as actors (For an interesting reflexion on the problem of the actor, see Sennett, 1995). Thus, not only the use of image repertoires and geocode keys, but acting, affect our sense of ourselves and our lives: what characterizes the self in city life isthen a concern with identity and self-definition.

Thus, the city in a certain sense is constituted by signs, and its inhabitants cannot fully dissociate from these signs and representations (Calvino, 1979).
The inhabitant of the city is not longer a subject apart from this acting and performance, that originates in the dynamics inherent in the experience of cities (Raban, 1974). Such processes of identity formation through the receipt of messages and apparently at work in the city (Raban, 1974), may be also at work in the experience of the net (See Betancourth, 1994. See also below the case of electronic texts and electronic communications).

But, even if living in cities maybe a performing art (Raban, 1974; Patton, 1995), the use of image-repertoires and geocode keys in cities, reinforces the ideal of a community that privileges unity over difference, thereby denying the reality and value of irreducible differences between individuals and between types of people (Young, 1990b; Michael, 1994; Betancourth, 1993). Such social homogenity is sometimes regarded-as in the case of the work of Habermas (1989)-, as a good thing and cultural diversity isn't encouraged because it makes no positive contribution to the public good. This ideal of a community threatens to reinstate the structures of exclusion which operate in ethnic and other forms of chauvinism (on such ideal of community as the basis for aggressive foreign policies, see Huntington, 1993a; 1993b). This ideal is therefore undesirable as well as implausible (Young, 1990b; Michael, 1994; Betancourth, 1993). But what is important to notice for our concerns now, is that this ideal is founded upon a unitary ideal of subjectivity which misrepresents the play of unconscious forces, desires and language in terms of which individual identity is achieved (Young, 1990a) This ideal of community presupposes an ideal of direct, unmediated social inter-action between persons which denies the mediation through language, voice and gesture which operates even in face-to-face encounters (Young, 1990a; 1990b; Sennett, 1992, 1990). Yet, the community can have no unmediated knowledge of itself, any more than any subject within the community can have unmediated access to consciousness (Michael, 1994).

Thus, not only rapid movement, and fragmented geography (Sennett 1994) but also such a 'standard city as the one partially described above may also encourage the use of an image repertoire, and the disposition to classify and to judge immediately. An image-repertoire then, functions like a calculable program that transforms a judgement and a decision into a programmable effect of determinate causes. This is important because what it implies is that if there is going to be moral or political responsibility, that is, if sympathy (response-ability) for those who are Other (Sennett, 1994, paren- thesis added, cb) is going to arise, such judgements and decisions would have to come into being and be structured in a space that exceeds the calculable program, the image repertoire, and the geocode key. The question then becomes: what would be the experience and the experiment that such a space would have to provide in order for it to be able to exceed the calculable program and the image repertoire? Such experience would have to be able at least to discourage the use of an image repertoire, and the disposition to classify and to judge immediately. It would have to be able to render the totalization, fulfillment and plenitude of such judgments, impossible.

Now, what may be interesting to notice in this regard, is that by linking people at indeterminate locations, virtual interactions and exchanges in virtual space de-spatialize interactions, and thus, eliminate the dimension of social legibility-eg, the image repertoire and the 'geocode key-, provided by the standard city described above: "(to discuss my homosexuality publicly), is something that would have been unthinkable for me even a year or two ago.., If I had relied on more traditional ways of meeting people, like going to bars, or going to meetings of various organizations, or picking up gay publications, it never would have happened" (P.H.Lewis, NYT August 21, 1995).

But virtual exchanges don't only de-spatialize interaction and eliminatesocial legibility. In fact, unlike television the internet isnt only decentralized and interactive but based on the written word (See recent debate about the internet, in Harpers Magazine, August 1995. See also The Economist, July 1st 1995). This then implies that virtual exchanges and the language of the net may also entail what J. Derrida in another context, may call spacing(Derrida, 1974; 1988) (Due to time and space limitations we cannot deal here with the implications of such spacing for telecommunications in the net when the latter is based on image, voice, multimedia and telepresence. But for an initial attempt on this, as it may relate to teleworking see Betancourth, 1994; see also below the case of electronic text and 'electronic communications).

Thus, if one were to borrow here Derridas studies of language, one might be able to offer the following speculative remarks. Like the written word, in the language of the net the sender and the receiver and the context are all absent. This then implies that contrary to what Barlow and Kelly suggest (in Harpers Magazine, August 1995. But see also Heim, 1991; and Lenier, in Stacks; 1989), language in the net may not only function outside of the control of the publisher and of the agent, but it may also function outside of the control of its producer. And, since it may function outside of the control of its producer, it may also threaten the integrity of the closed circuit defined by sender and receiver (or the problem of the integrity of context and destination. See below, for some preliminary illustrations of this). Thus contrary to Barlow, Kelly, Heim, and Lenier, who argue for the transparency of meaning in cyberspace, and, for the absolute match between concept and apperance (between the word that I type into my computer and e-mail to you and the word that comes out on your end there is nothing but the digital transformation taking place. It is not mediated, Barlow, in Harpers Magazine, August 1995), what I am trying to suggest here is that the fact of electronic-communication by means of electronic language also implies difference and distance in both temporal and spatial senses: it therefore implies the possibility of misunderstanding, of distorted or failed communication. Thus contrary to what Barlow, Heim and Lenier suggest, the net community-and to borrow Michael (1994) words in another context-, may not be able to have unmediated knowledge of itself, any more than any net-subject within the community can have unmediated access to consciousness.

Let us briefly illustrate these two propositions, as follows:

A first and preliminary illustration of this above, may be provided by the ease with which electronic communications and text can be changed. Thus, by the time a reader tries to locate an electronic text referred to by an author, the text may have changed and the cited version may not longer exist. An electronic document may be modified unpredictably, by its author or other interested parties. Such alterations cannot be anticipated either by the writer or the reader. Therefore a reader who consults an electronic text at different times in the year can end up with different texts each time. And, because an electronic document would not and need not remain stable, readers maynot be able to get back to the 'original text' a writer consulted, read and cited. And since electronic documents as distinguished from print documents may reduce the ability of readers to verify and authors use of a source, electronic texts may then encourage the circulation of error (Such problems of verification also appear at the level of electronic photographs). The writing, research practices and customs of a community of writers who value the careful documentation, or recording, of research, as described by say the MLA Hand- book for Writers of Research Papers (Gibaldi, 1995) which attempt to discourage the circulation of error, as well as to guarantee the cohesiveness of such a community, may prove to be ineffective in the case of electronic documents. If I were to borrow Derrida (1979) and Webers (1987) words in another context, It could then be suggested that in a certain sense, electronic unstable texts may be unreadable inasmuch as they cannot be definitively delimited or situated. Thus, the (MLAs) desire to read an electronic text properly, that is, once and for all, maybe frustrated. This isnt then to say that unstable electronic texts can be classified as indeterminate and thus able to put an end to the question of judging. It is neither to suggest that electronic documents make decisions and judgement impossible. It is rather to suggest that in electronic texts, judgement is "haunted" by the experience of the undecidable (On undecidability, see Derrida, 1979; 1988).

Now, what is important to notice for our concerns here is that completeness and coherence may not be possible for the undecidability of electronic texts. That is, that the effect of the latter maybe to render totalization, fulfillment and plenitude impossible. It can then be suggested that in a certain sense unstable electronic texts have the potential to become a space capable to exceed the calculable program and the 'image repertoire', by providing us with the experience and the experiment of the undecidable (See pp. 7-8 above).
But, before we move back into the relevance of all this for the problem that interest us now, namely, the problem of civic culture in multicultural cities (Sennett, 1994; Raban, 1974), let us briefly consider a second illustration.

The second case maybe as follows:

It has been suggested that Cyberspace is being colonised by Republicans from Newt Gingrichs wing of the party(The Economist, August 26th-September 1st 1995). But has the conservative futurist policy agenda as embodied by The Progress and Freedom Foundation (http://www.pff.cug/project.html), being able to colonise cyberspace? Have all those bits surrendered to The House Speakers ideological Program, where all possible subjects and objects are supposed to be co-present to each other? Or to put it in other words, has such an interpellation been able to confirm the subject in its identity and its place through the receipt of electronic messages?
First, the ideas that Mr. Gingrich and his supporters would like to get rid off from the clasroom, are omnipresent on the net. Even now, the student who can click on the Christian Coalition and on the Progress and Freedom Foundation (http://www.pff.cug/project.html), is just few clicks away from a safe-sex manual, or, soon, from the controversial National History Standards, or from the CAN-RW (Campus Activists Network, Right Wing Alert). Thus, even if as The Speaker preaches, young Americans must click into the third wave information age to get ahead, so they will inevitably click into, and perhaps buy into, every alternative life style, postmodern art form, and political heresy that he has vowed to destroy. In the practice of telecommunications, an ideological electronic sending doesnt necessarily and always arrive. And, this may not be without serious implications. To deal with this in different words, let us go back briefly to Lash and Urry (1994). In their text, the word telecommunication (the discourses of the ideoscape and mediascape, p.314), seems to appear where the concept of interpellation (hailing) is introduced in Althussers Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses(1971). For Althusser interpellation is supposed to confirm the subject in its identity and its place through the receipt of messages. Like Althusser, for Lash and Urry, the discourses of the ideoscape and mediascape interpellate selves previously rooted in shared meanings and background practices, and convert these selves into "Is" through the process of individuation, normalization and atomization. But what if, in practice, and as as the case above may demonstrate, an ideological electronic sending doesn't arrive?
Far from always connecting, ideological electronic sendings never do: or to paraphrase Dienst (1994) studies on Television, the subjects look in on a message as if listening secretly to what is said in private, as if peeking at someone elses mail, unsure if the address might turn out to be apostrophe (or what may also be the info-route of desire). Like television, electronic communication could be said to transmitt a regime of representation that now crosses through all possible objects and all possible audiences without nece- ssarily representing or reaching any of them. Ideological electronic sendings are, then, the circuit between a reception of a representation and a sending back- a representation of a reception. Thus the saturation of the social field by ideological transmissions becomes organized and visible only when it reaches an address or reception device, like a computer screen, or a subject-position.
Yet, as the two empirical cases above have tried to demonstrate, this very same reception devices force us to think the difficulty in assigning contextual determinations to the most widely disseminated transmissions: the fact is that Gingrichs ideological program and 'horizon of sense, the final destination of everything is somehow jamed; there is some sort of signal at work that disintegrates the circuits and postpones our accession to the Speakers ideological program and to any program in general, for that matter. Which is to say, that the media celebrity, the Internet, could then be conceived as ideology (as a system),that is, as a mass of sendings or a flow of representations whose force consists precisely in the fact that they are not perfectly destined, just as they are not centrally disseminated (telecommunication could then be defined as this jostling circulation of words, pictures, and messages). This is not to say that information may not be calculated in exchange-value terms according to 'the cost of the information, measured in the time necessary for its formulation and comprehension, which must be minimized while its exchange value is increased by the multiplication of references, allowing it to reach a broad public (Alliez and Feher, 1987). The point is that this cybernetic perfection can only be an ambition for a single capital; with many capitals, centrifugal forces will always drive the information commodities toward differentiation and noncommunicating circuits.

But if the the reader-viewer doesnt find an identity through imagining a simultaneity of thousands of others who are reading-viewing the same text- image at the same time, how is an identity constituted and constructed in the net? That is, if the birth of printing meant a substitution of the auditor (she who received the information on a mouth to ear basis as opposed to) by the reader(he who received the information on a page to eye basis) what different typology of social subject may emerge from the electronic paradigm? In other words, if in the face to face exchange of orality, the subject constitutes herself as a member of a community, establishing ties between individuals; and if in the written relation or printed exchange, the subject constitutes herself as a rational being, autonomous, as a stable interpreter of the word, capable of establishing logical relations between symbols, from within her isolation and solitude, how does the subject constitute herself in the electronic exchange of simulations? What does occupy the place of the community of speakers, when, and as no one speaks with the person who is listening, as the subject doesn't find a clear identity facing her conversation? Can the subject of the 'electronic era base herself on the Cartesian I think, therefore I am; or does she need to assume her fragility with a Lacanian they think of me, therefore I is not (On the problem of identity-construction in the net, see Betancourth 1994).

What these two cases above suggest is then the following: First, that not only global versions of Andersons (1989) imagined communities-communities other than ordinary immediate communities-, may find their basis in virtual space (See above, virtuality and movement).
Second; that to a greter extent we are not so much thrown, hailed, interpellated into communities, but decide which communities-from youth subcultures to new social movements-, we shall throw ourselves into. Global versions of Andersons (1989) imagined communities arent the only alternative. The invention of communities is then a sort of conduct which we more frequently enter into when navigating through virtual space. Or to borrow Lash and Urrys (1994) words, in a related context, new communities are being more frequently invented, so that such invention of community, such innovation becomes almost chronic. It is no longer the exception but the rule.

Now, what seems to me problematic and relevant for what we are discussing here, is the sort of judgement involved in decisions to join new invented communities. We would like to pause here for a second or two, and notice in passing, that for Lash and Urry (1994), the sort of judgement involved in such decisions to join new invented communities, is what they call aesthetic reflexivity:aesthetic reflexivity means making choices about and/or innovating background assumptions and shared practices upon whose bases cognitive and normative reflection is founded. Unlike cognitive or moral judgement, aesthetic judgement doesn't involve the application of a universal rule to a particular case. It involves the application of a previous particular case to a particular.(pp 316). Which is to say that there arent concepts at work in this case of judgement. Yet, without stopping for a minute to think about the consequences of this, Lash and Urry (1994. pp318) see such judgement at work all over the place: the we at issue isnt just a phenomenon of ethnic identity and new communitarian social movements but is also integrally involved in worklife, consumption and hence the class structure. Thus reflexive production is only comprehensible in Germany and Japan in terms of information structures rooted in the we. Such reflexivity is then fundamental to contemporary accumulation processes.
Yet, what seems to be at stake in this so-called aesthetic reflexivity maybe much more complex than Lash and Urry (1994) are willing to acknowledge. Let me get briefly into this by going back to our discussion on 'image repertoires above.

First, let us recall that, the use of image repertoires is one of the main forces contributing to the elimination of civic culture in multicultural cities (Sennett, 1994; Raban, 1974). Re-call also that certain cities encourage the use of an image repertoire, and the disposition to classify and to judge immediately.
There is completeness and coherence where image reportoires are concerned. Thus, if civic culture, that is, ethical and political response-ability, is going to be re-established, such completeness has to be at least, rendered impossible: However, without significant experiences of self-displacement, social differences gradually harden because interest in the Other withers (Sennett, 1994, pp371-372). It was suggested above that by confronting us with the experience of undecidability where 'the pleasure of wholeness maybe impossible, electronic texts and electronic sendings, paradoxically, may have the potential for making completeness impossible and thus for enhancing our capacities to live in proximity with strangers. Which is to say that the judgement at work in the invention of new communities involves a decision that can only come into being in a space that exceeds the calculable program. Such a decisionis then structured by the experience and experiment of the undecidable. Yet, it is very diffcult to see how a decision so structured works within what Lash and Urry (1994) call, reflexive production in Germany and Japan (We will come back to this in Betancourth, 1995).

It is then as if for communication to occur in the net, words must still travel. It may then follow from this that in spite of both, the nets de-spatialization of interaction, and speed of transmission, the net still seems to signify through time and thereby involves a break in what Derrida calls, self-presence. As a result of this, both the traditional concept of language as self-enclosed and continous communication of sense, as well as, to borrow, Sennetts words, the notion of a 'self-sufficient and complete individual', seem untenable in the net. This then implies that since communication takes place without my bodily presence or the sound of my voice, others who know me quite well may not realize how I look or how I present myself in person, and thus maybe unable to make the usual inferences from that: If he had relied on more traditional ways of meeting people, like going to bars, or going to meetings of various organizations, or picking up gay publications, Dubberly would have never been given the courage to discuss his homsexuality publicly. Meeting and chatting electronically with gay men and lesbians on-line gave him that courage (P.H.Lewis, NYT August 21, 1995).

The net then may allow differences of religious, cultural or sexual orientation to flourish in ways not possible in more homogeneous communities. Contrary to what seems to occur in the physical world as studied by Barthes, Lynch and Sennett, one cold speculate even further and suggest, that in the net you may not be able to use an image repertoire when you encounter either strangers or your surroundings. The Economist also captures this quiet well when they write that, 'when a company receives an order by e-mail, it cannot be sure that the message actually came from the purported sender, hasnt been tampered with, and was sent on the date claimed (The Economist, August 5th- 11th 1995).
In the net not only can I very easily conceal, leave carefully ambiguous, or falsely signal gender, race, and social situation, but it may also become a 'space' for feeling what Sennett (1994) identifies as the precondition for the construction of a civic culture, namely, (bodily) insufficiency, dissatisfaction, and incompleteness, and that we have been referring to here as the experience and the experiment of the undecidable. In the net, then, presence-as defined by Derrida, that is, as the full essence of a being that is there where it is, that gathers there where it is-, is not able to succeed in being there and in assembling there, since the thereness, the being there, only exists on the basis of this work of traces that dislocate itself: as the case above has demonstrated, all possible subjects havent surrendered to the House Speakers ideological program, where all possible subjects and objects are supposed to be co-present to each other. Thus, such an interpellation isn't always able to confirm the subject in its identity and its place through the receipt of electronic messages.
The net language may then be susceptible to the effects of spacing. In the net, presence, that is, a self-sufficient and complete individual, may be dis-located in the process of performing an act of communication. The net experience makes us feel incomplete. And as such, it may have the potential to become that place in which Sennett says, the incompleteness and the incoherence needed for the body to become a civic body, could also be experienced (Sennett, 1994).

Thus, social relations predicated upon difference and mediation seem to be instantiated in net-life. The net is then a place in which different kind of people live in relative proximity to one another, sharing services as well as spaces but not always belonging to an ideal single community. In-conclusion:

First, what seems to be paradoxical about the relation between virtuality and multicultural cities is that while the 'logistics of speed and of the image tend to eliminate a civic culture, both, globalization and virtualization defined as the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities, as well as the role of the global media in sustaining these worldwide social relations, may actually contribute to a reduction of the forces-eg, individual movement and image repertoire-that tend to eliminate that very same civic culture.

Second, by de-spatializing interaction and by eliminating the dimension of social legibility (the image repertoire and the geocode key above), virtual exchanges also introduce a spacing as a place for the experience of in-completeness of the self and thus for the emergence of a civic body (On the emergence in the net, of what Prof. Sennet may call, civic compassion, see Barlow, in Harpers Magazine, August, 1995).

Third, the creation of what one may call virtual public spaces, may be relevant to multicultural cities not only in the sense that they may pro- vide an opportunity to prevent the marginalization of specific location and population groups from the supply of information, but in the sense that they may contribute to solve what Sennett calls, the difficulty of arousing sympathy (eg, ethical and political response-ability) for those who are other (Sennett, 1994. Parenthesis added, cb).

Fourth, in a multi-cultural city characterized by diversity, such virtual public spaces could become an alternative to a situation in which, for a gay person seeking a governmental response to AIDS or to the underclass mother whose family is engulfed by drugs and guns, a media's attitude of distance and objectivity about such life and death issues may constitute a hostile act. Virtual public spaces could then become an alternative to Haberma's notion of an impartial public sphere (Habermas 1989) which lays itself open to a critique of universalism which ignores specificity and difference. Such audiences will search for and soon find other media: ascending media (web pages, online discussions, MTV news) that make no pretense of being objective, comprehensive or even substantial.

Fifth, this is not to say that such ascending media have not failed or dont still have a long way to go. It is simply to suggest that digital media could make it possible for people to interact, something traditional media inhibit through their commitment to objectivity. If, as was suggested above, the ideological electronic sending of messages dont necessarily always arrive, this idelogical sending is unstable as sign and as event. That is, such electronic sending cannot simply be the transmission of a meaning to the subject. The electronic interpellation doesnt necessarily confirm the subject in its identity and its place, since both, message and subject seem only to appear on the occassion of a telecommunication. As a result, on-line communication often breaks down barriers, forcing sender and receiver to deal with each other in terms of the transaction at hand, and as displaced and incomplete selfs, to use Sennetts words again, rather than as self-sufficient individuals and as group members. As such then, on-line communication can become a form of public space in which we might deal with our differences and find rational solutions to fumdamental problems (Katz, 1995).

Sixth, this is not to suggest that there is not a role for the physical world to contribute to the making of this place on which the emergence of civic culture seems to depend. But since my interest here has been focused in the implications of virtuality for civic culture, we would not go into this now (but see Betancourth, 1994, 1995).

Seventh, this article has emphasized the positive aspects of virtualization: the possibilities it opens for a decentered subjectivity; for the affirmation of difference and the attendant possibilities for new forms of social being (for a negative account of related issues in what Jameson calls, hyperspace, see Jameson, 1984; 1988; 1991; as well as Harvey, 1990). Thus, in a sense the moral and political interest of this image of virtuality we have offered here, derives from the sense in which it embodies a kind of relationship which people may have to one another. In a sense, such an ideal of the net, could function as a metaphor for what Young and others call 'a politics of difference (Young 1990b; Michael, 1994). As its best, net- experience embodies an ideal form of social relations between strangers, a form of co-existence that one could call-and to borrow, Youngs (1990b) words again-, an openness to unassimilated otherness.

Eighth, but such openness which isnt always found in urban social relations, isnt always found either in net-social relations. That virtual exchan- ges despatialize interaction and destroy the geocode key and the image repertoire doesnt mean that the net doesnt have its own mechanisms for cod- ing, class and turf construction (Betancourth 1994; 1995). Like cities, there are hierarchies of wealth and power within the net that create asymmetrical and impenetrable barriers between segments of the population. In fact, that e-mail is all based on trust may be fine for the days when the internet was a place for academic discourse, but useless in the days of electronic commerce (The Economist, August 5th-11th, 1995).
What is the solution to this problem? In order to elaborate on this problem of new forms of regulation we would have to deal with the issue of virtuality and economic space. This in turn would require that we look at what maybe going on at the level of economic virtual organizations. But due to time and space limitations we wont go into this now (but see Betancourth 1995).

Instead, let us end with the following: that openness to unassimilated otherness isnt always found in urban and net social relations, doesnt detract from the interest of the normative ideal of net life as an alternative to liberal individualism (eg, a public sphere that presupposes independent (male) property owners who would congregate for public debate, see Habermas, 1989) and communitarism (eg. a public sphere that presupposes a welfare state capable to guarantee equal access to all citizens without regard for their status as property owners. Habermas, 1989). Against the ideal of community one should insist upon the value of the kinds of politics as a relationship of strangers who dont understand one another in a subjective and immediate sense which occur in the net. Against liberal individualism, one must insist upon the value of the kinds of coexistence and interdependences which occur in the net. But such a notion of public space, though closer to Negt and Kluges (1972) concept of a fragmented, multiple sphere, would have to be able to move away from a position of privileging positionality (eg, Negt and Kluges con- cept of a proletarian counter public sphere) to one of acknowledging spatial- ity (Betancourth, 1993). Such a move may take us towards an understanding of identities as always contingent and imcomplete processes rather than determined outcomes. That is, towards a space for feeling what Sennett identifies as the precondition for the construction of a civic culture, namely, (bodily) insufficiency, dissatisfaction, and incompleteness (Sennett, 1994). Such a move would have also to be able to challange Jamesons revival of Lynch image repertoires as cognitive maps as well as his social theory based on some sort of global-local duality that equates (as in Lynch, op.cit 1960), the local with a cultural space of stasis, ontological meaning, and personal identity-that is, the place-, and the global with the site of dynamic change, the decentering of meaning, and the fragmentation and homogenization of culture-that is, the space of global capitalism (Jameson, 1984; 1988; 1991). A similar divergence may be also found in Castells duality between the space of place-in which social movements operate-and, the non-spatial space of flows-in which the economy operates (See Castells, 1989.) This duality is implicitly present in Jamesons notion of the confusion wrought by late capitalist hyperspace. This thinking leaves only two spaces open for practical reason as well as for politics: think locally/act locally, or think glo- bally-act globally. Which is to say that Jamesons depiction of depolitization wrought by the supposed confusion of late capitalist hyperspace reveals an unwillingness or inability to imagine a politics and a space of simultaneity, that is, a politics and a space in which single political acts can be orchestrated through multiple targets, operating at a variety of institution- al and geographical scales, mediated by the appropriation of the global means of mass communication by some sort of transnational grass root movement, and reflecting the multiple identities of the new social subjects of global grass-roots movements (Notice that one could read Derridas recent call for a New International in this direction. Derrida, 1994). Thus instead of assuming single subject positions, one would have to challange place bound identities (as those invoked by Jameson when he invokes the need for cognitive maps), by invoking an imagined geography, a spatiality that draws connections across oceans and continents (Betancourth, 1993).


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Carlos H Betancourth
Stuyvesant Oval Apt 3B
New York, NY 10009
tel: 212-254-2181
e-mail: chb13@columbia.edu


[1].'the fastest-growing residential communities in the nation are private and usually gated, governed by a thicket of covenants, codes and restrictions. By soem estimates, nearly four million Americans live in these closed off gated comunities. About 28 million live in an area governed by a private community association, including condominium and cooperatives, and that number is expected to double in the next decade' (Egan, 1995)

[2]. Thus, 'even if Americans have long had gated communities (peopled by the very rich and by retirees, and built around a lake or golf course), wht maybe different now, is that a big portion of the middle clas families in nonretirement, largely white areas of the country, have chosen to wall themselves off, opting for private government, schools and police' (Egan, 1995). One of the biggest consequences of this trend as it was suggested above, is that the nation will become more balkanized. As homeowners withdraw into private domains, the larger sense of the community spirit may disappear. The worst scenario for America with this trend, would be to 'have a nation of gated communities where each group chooses to live among people just like themselves and ignore everyone else' (Egan, 1995).

by Carlos Hernan Betancourth

Web Architecture Magazine, Issue 01, July-August 1996. All rights reserved