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printed version in: Hermes. Journal of Linguistics, Vol. 24, edited by Carlo Grevy, February 2000.
pre-publication version: 1st of March 1996.

Mike Sandbothe

Interactivity - Hypertextuality - Transversality

A Media-Philosophical Analysis of the Internet

Introduction

Media forge our image of reality. This holds for media in the broad, in the narrow, and in the narrowest sense. By media in the broad sense I understand the forms of perception of space and time. They function as the fundamental medium of our perception and cognition in making objects synthesizeable as objects, i.e. as identifiable entities. This insight lies at the root of the "Copernican revolution" with which Kant prepared the fundament of modern philosophy. Post- Kantian philosophy, from Nietzsche, Hegel, Heidegger, Dewey and the late Wittgenstein through to Derrida, Goodman and Rorty has demonstrated that the strength of this fundament lies in its flexibility, openness and changeability. Our spatio-temporal "ways of worldmaking" 1 are not a rigid, uniform and ahistorical apparatus. The media for human construction of reality are forged far more by pictorial, linguistic and textual systems of signs, which are historically contingent and culturally divergent.

Image, language and writing are what's meant when I talk of media in the narrow sense. They have stood at the centre of many philosophical discussions in the twentieth century. The concern has always been to identify one or several of these media as being the transcendental basis of human understanding of reality altogether, or, at least, of the world-picture characteristic of Western culture. The spectrum reaches from analytic philosophy's "linguistic turn"2 and the diverse misunderstandings triggered by Derrida's early concept of a philosophical "grammatology", through to contemporary proclamations of a "pictorial turn"3.

It is currently becoming impossible to ignore the fact that neither media in the broad sense, nor media in the narrow sense represent fixed, unchanging structures which offer a firm footing for philosophical theory. The way we deal with them depends far more on institutional and technological developments which are taking place in the realm of media in the narrowest sense. This already holds for the influence which the printed media, radio and above all television have attained over our understanding of space and time as well as over our use of pictures, sounds and letters4. Given the influence that interactive data networks such as the Internet have on our perception and on our semiotic practice, the intertwined relationships existing between media in the broad, narrow and narrowest sense are becoming obvious. Space, time and identity are being inflected anew in the Internet. The traditional demarcation between image, language and writing is beginning to move in a radical way. With interactive data- networks the digital revolution is becoming the driving force of a comprehensive transformation which is redefining the practices by which we handle signs and, with this, the bedrock of our understanding of reality. In the following I shall look into this transformation process, whose dynamic for change can scarcely be overestimated, in three steps.

In the first part I shall expand upon the influence of the Internet on our experience of space and time as well as our concept of personal identity. This takes place, on the one hand, in the example of text-based Internet services (IRC, MUDs, MOOs), and through the World Wide Web's (WWW) graphical user-interface on the other. Interactivity, the constitution characteristic for the Internet, stands at the centre of this. In the second part I will show how the World Wide Web in particular sets in motion those semiotic demarcations usual until now. To this end I recapitulate first of all the way in which image, language and writing have been set in relation to one another in the philosophical tradition. The multimedia hypertextuality which characterizes the World Wide Web is then revealed against this background. In the third, and final, part I interpret the World Wide Web's hypertextual structure as a mediative form of realization of a contemporary type of reason. This takes place on the basis of the philosophical concept of tranversality expounded by Wolfgang Welsch.

Part 1: INTERACTIVITY

Before beginning with the analysis of the cultural practices which have come about within the Internet, I shall provide a brief overview of the current state of the Internet's development. In doing this basic questions of terminology will be cleared up at the same time.

Terminology and statistics

A comprehensive survey of the complex system of differing data networks which has arisen worldwide since the foundation of the American Arpanet at the end of the sixties is provided by John S. Quarterman in his standard work The Matrix5. In the preface Quarterman points out that "paper is not the most natural medium for discussions of electronic media."6 A book whose object is subject to a dynamic for change of this type is quickly outdated. The best descriptions, statistics, and analyses of the development of the Net are thus found in the Net itself7. They are - in accordance with their object - continually updated, reorganized and adapted in line with the latest state of developments. In this way it is possible, with the Net's help, to reconstruct the Net's self-organization on the descriptive level.

The newest studies published on line by Quarterman differentiate the "Core Internet", the "Consumer Internet" and the "Matrix"8. Quarterman understands by "Matrix" the comprehensive, worldwide network structure. A subset of the computers and computer users linked into the Matrix comprise the Consumer Internet. The Core Internet represents a further distinguished portion of the Consumer Internet.

In October 1995 the Core Internet consisted of "16.9 million users of 7.7 million computers that can distribute information by interactive TCP/IP services such as WWW or FTP."9 The Consumer Internet is comprised of the Core Internet's servers and the corresponding clients accessing the information provided by the server computers. In October 1995 it consisted of "26.4 million users of 10.1 million computers that can access information by interactive TCP/IP services such as WWW or FTP."10 The Matrix that includes networks with and without interactive TCP/IP services comprised around "39 million users of electronic mail as of October 1995."11 Quarterman concludes: "Of these three definitions, the one of the Consumer Internet is the closest to what most people think of as the Internet these days, so it is reasonable to say there are 26.4 million Internet users as of October 1995."12

The Consumer Internet's growth rates are exponential. The number of users has doubled in each of the last six years. If development continues at the same rate the Internet will soon be as widely disseminated a medium in daily usage as television or the telephone. Quarterman's results regarding the statistical gender distribution on the net are also interesting in this context. Earlier estimates claimed that the gender ratio on the Net was 9:1 in favour of males. Quarterman's studies provide contrasting evidence. Already in October 1994 the male preponderance was only 2:1.13 This means the Internet is by no means still an esoteric insider's medium for a few male computer nerds. Already today it is a medium used by everyman and everywoman over and beyond gender divisions.

The following brief phenomenology of cultural practices made possible by the Net are based on the interactive structure of the Consumer Internet. When, in the following, the 'Internet' or the 'Net' are spoken of, what's meant is the Consumer Internet in Quarterman's sense. The World Wide Web's graphical user interface is increasing central today in the Consumer Internet14. This was developed in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics. The first PC versions of WWW browsers, for employment of the World Wide Web's graphical user interface, were introduced in 1993 ("Mosaic"). "Netscape", the WWW browser currently most widespread, was developed in 1994. Text-based Internet services are integrated by browser programms in a graphically enhanced form.

Space, time and identity in the Internet

The Net opens up a new world to us. And it does this in a way differing from, say, a trip by car or aeroplane. When we fly from Berlin to San Francisco we also arrive in another world in which, partially, other laws dominate. But the basic coordinates of our understanding of reality - space, time, identity - remain unchanged. It is different when we leave 'real' life and proceed into the Net. The world becomes 'virtual'. The constitution of reality becomes a different one. 'Virtual reality' steps in taking the place of 'real life'.

The terms 'real' and 'virtual' are reflexive terms similar to the opposition of natural and artificial.15 Things only ever appear 'real' or 'virtual' from a particular perspective. If one considers the oberver's relativity then it's no surprise that the on-line world already seems more real to many professional Net-surfers than the 'real' world outside of the Net. I do not associate normative implications of any kind with the real-virtual opposition. I use this only to differentiate varying forms of construction of reality from one another on the descriptive level.

How does the virtual reality of Cyberspace16 affect our concept of identity? To begin with, it seems, not at all. Since in the Net too I'm usually out and about with my usual identity as the academic, Mike Sandbothe. I procure myself bibliographical information from the Library of Congress in Washington, make contributions to philosophical mailing lists to which I've subscribed, or confer with colleagues around the world via e-mail. At the same time, however, I also have the opportunity in the Net to set off to the anonymous channels of IRC or the fantasy environment of a MUD or MOO.17

IRC is the abbreviation for Internet Relay Chat. This is a complex discussion landscape which consists in a multitude of different conversational fora - the channels. People from all around the world meet here on line to converse textually, yet synchronously, under nicknames of their own choice, exchanging up to date information on diverse subjects. The subject areas range from ordinary Net chat, virtual flirting and discussions about technical questions concerning hardware and software, through to more or less academic conversations about literature, politics, philosophy, physics, medicine and other disciplines. I myself usually take part in these conversations with the nickname "philo" so as to prepare my conversation partners from the start for my irritating them with philosophical questions about the Net.18

MUD is the abbreviation for Multi User Dungeon. These are virtual 'gambling houses'. A number of different players simultaneously log into a fictional text-based game-landscape to fight with other players and programmed robots to collect so-called 'experience points’ and ascend the respective game's hierarchy to become a 'wizard' or 'god'. Wizards and gods have the power to change the game's landscape and to program problems which other players must solve.19

MOO stands for Multi User Dungeon Object Oriented. In contrast to strictly hierarchically organized, and in part somewhat violent, adventure-MUDs these are games centred around cooperation, solidarity, education and science. Every player has programming rights from the outset, i.e. can create rooms and objects and independently co-design the game landscape. In the USA MOOs have already been used for several years as interactive learning environments in which parents and children, teachers and pupils together can playfully acquire experience of the new medium Internet.20

In IRC, in the MUDs and MOOs I can present myself with an invented identity X or Y according to the context. Of course, I could also do this "in real life" - or, to use the Internet- jargon abbreviation, IRL - in some bar or other. But limits are imposed on me by my appearance, my gender, my physical and my social identity. This is not the case in the Net. In the Net, the day-to-day concept of identity is rendered void.

What's interesting in this is that there are fluid transitions between the normal Net-world of daily academic life and invented MUD, MOO and IRC identities. As such the IRC command 'whois', for example, makes it possible to relate the different nicknames of a user, who might be sojourning in several channels simultaneously, to his or her e-mail address, host and user IDs. But it should be borne in mind here that most Net freaks use several e-mail addresses and user or host IDs. The supposedly 'real' user and host identities can also be de facto virtual, that is different from the user's IRL identity and IRL location.

Many MUDs and MOOs are based on the permanent interplay between real and virtual identities. Thus in the MIT MediaMOO close entanglements and frequent transitions between players' academic and fictional identities are the norm. The MediaMOO is a text-based communications and research environment for media researchers. It was set up at the end of 1992 by Amy Bruckman, a doctoral student at the MIT MediaLab, and has been accessible to the Internet public since the start of 1993. In December 1994 MediaMOO already had 1100 active members from 29 countries.21 In 1996 a didactically conceived and educationally supervised virtual school-landscape - the MOOSE Crossing - was opened on the MIT computers for 800-1000 children aged from 10 to 12 years. This project is also being led by Amy Bruckman. On the title page of her publications the young Internet researcher provides, alongside her IRL name, the e-mail addresses of the fictional identities by which she is known in different places on the Net where she has carried out investigations and interviews for her research. In so doing she makes it clear how closely intertwined the different identities are with one another and how just this mesh of identities can be deployed for academic research.

But it's not just the traditional concept of personal identity, but the everyday experience of space underlying this concept which is transformed by the virtual Net-world.22 As a cursor-identity I move quite independently of the real world and its geographical distances. I move in the Net's digital space and beam myself from continent to continent without any role being played by real separation. As such, even when I'm out and about in the Net under my normal academic's identity, I still find myself in virtual mode. In cyberspace everything is present here and now.

This leads to change in our experience of time. On IRC, in the MUDs and MOOs there is no night. It is always day. Somewhere in the world people are always awake to populate the Net's countless meeting places. The screen only knows how to glimmer. The virtual world is independent of sunlight. There is no unitary, somehow natural time which partners in communication could presuppose as self-evident. Rather they must onerously inform one another about their respective local times and adjust for the differences if they want to meet on the Net. The horizons of time are in constant motion.

Interactivity in the mode of a-presence

Until now I have gone into the changes relevant not primarily to the World Wide Web, but to text-based Internet services such as IRC, MUDs and MOOs. I shall now concentrate on the specific features of the World Wide Web. To do this it is helpful to compare the media structure of the Internet with those media which have decisively forged our daily life until now: with television and the telephone. Whereas television can only be described as a one-way street in terms of its communicative structure - information flows unidirectionally, exclusively from the broadcasting institution with its programme mandate to the passive TV consumer - the Internet is an interactive and multidirectional medium. Every receiver is a potential transmitter. This already holds for traditional text-based services like IRC, MUDs and MOOs. The World Wide Web's specificity consists in that these systems' simple interactivity is decisively enhanced and fashioned by the World Wide Web's graphical interface.

Everyone who has a PC, an Internet connection, the corresponding software, and perhaps in addition access to a (video) camera and a scanner, can design their own multimedia Web pages in the World Wide Web, can devise and make available their own programme. Of course it's possible to create pages for each of the varying real and virtual roles which you play within and without the Net. These can be intertwined with one another through hyperlinks. In the same way networked links can be made with the Web pages of cybernaut friends and with every other data provider to be found on the Net.

The flexible transition from the position of recipient to transmitter and the possibility of individual programme design are familiar to us from the structure of ordinary conversational situations. The telephone, which reproduces these situations over spatial distances, is already an interactive technology in this sense. In telephone communication we choose our partner in communication ourselves and, by contributing to the conversation, assume influence over the 'programme' in a figurative sense. But, with the exception of telephone conferencing, the telephone's bidirectional communicative structure is limited in relation to the Internet's multidirectionality. Furthermore - if you neglect answering machines - the auditive telephone medium, bounded to the human voice, permits no self-presentation which is independent of one's own presence. It's exactly this which becomes possible through the World Wide Web.

My Web page is a miniature double of my self, in some cases even the creative invention of a new self, of a new identity, which I had previously hidden from myself and others, and which now mediatively interacts with other people in my absence. The particularity in the World Wide Web's media structure lies not least in this new dimension against telephone and television, that of a so to speak ‘a-present’ interactivity independent of my real presence. Through this our identity is pluralized in its rudiments. The images we have of ourselves and which others have of us gain a life of their own independent of our presence. These plural identities stand in intertwined relations with other real and virtual Net identities which we act under in different contexts on the Net. Our Net personality is composed of a mesh of varying roles, identities and functions, which we can strictly isolate from one another, or consciously link with one another. The technical possibility of these entanglements results from the second specific feature of the World Wide Web: from hypertextuality.

Part 2: HYPERTEXTUALITY

Whereas the classical Internet services, from e-mail and Talk, Net News and mailing lists, through to IRC, MUDs and MOOs are oriented towards the model of linear textuality, the qualitative transition to non-linear hypertextuality occurs in the World Wide Web. In order to work out the semiotic changes which accompany this transition, it is helpful to remind ourselves first of all of the classical distinctions which have determined our dealings with signs until now.

The classical triad: image, language, writing

Traditionally in philosophy language and writing, as abstract and arbitrary sign systems, are contrasted with images, as a concrete and natural medium for representation.23 In this images are afforded a peculiarly ambivalent status. On the one hand, in the tradition reaching from Plato to Hegel, they appear as "an imitation of looks"24 , that is as intensified appearance. The media of language and writing supposed to be more resistant to mere appearance are opposed with the apparent image. On the other hand the image functions in the mainstream of Western tradition, in which cognition is thought of as representation and truth as adequaetio, as a positive exemplar25. Language has been interpreted since Aristotle as a tool for the arbritrary designation of mental images (ideas) representing reality which "are the same for all"26. Correspondingly, writing came to be degraded as a tertiary supplement. It served, according to this tradition, to materialize the phonological signs of spoken language and to make them storable. The ideal to which language and writing are therewith subjected in equal measure is the procedure of adequate, neutral representation derived from the model of images27. Where language and writing are unable to fulfil this ideal they drift into a position exposed to the suspicion of deception, a position occupied by the image in book X of Plato's Politeia. Jacques Derrida in the Grammatology unveils and attempts to deconstruct this constellation28.

In recent debates prompted by Derrida, Goodman, Rorty and others, images are no longer apprehended as being demarcated from signs, but as sign systems in themselves, to be analysed according to the model of language and writing. Frequently however certain traditional presuppositions are adhered to. So, for example, it's usually assumed that the difference between linguistic, textual and pictorial signs is a difference which is founded in the semantic and/or syntactical structure of the respective system of signs29. These assumptions contrast with the thesis, which goes back to the late Wittgenstein, that a sign is first defined through its usage as a image, as a sound or as a letter30. It is insisted by various authors however that even in conditions of a usage-theory of signs that there be a unitary way of applying something as image, as language or as writing. At the base of this view is the idea that certain features of the usage are to be named which distinguish 'image games', 'language games' or 'writing games' as being image games, language games or writing games. These general features are to permit the internally unitary definition of the varying sign games and the clear division of the different sorts of sign from one another through a usage theory of signs31.

One must object to this that a consistent execution of a pragmatic usage theory of signs would indicate that we have to deal with complex bundles of image, language and writing games which too will exhibit no unitary feature common to all elements of the respective set. The metaphor of "family resemblances" was introduced by href="http://www-und.ida.liu.se/~y92bjoch/filosofer/wittgenstein.html">Wittgenstein to describe complex entangled relationships of this type32.

In addition to the internal entanglement of image, language and writing comes the external entanglement which determines the relation of the three sorts of sign to one another. Just as a general essential feature cannot be identified to define image as image, language as language, and writing as writing, no firm dividing lines can be fixed between the different types of sign. Pictures, sounds and letters are always intertwined or demarcated relative to and dependent on media in the narrowest sense, which set out the framework of their use. The previous media system, in which audiovisual and print media were clearly divided from one another suggested strict demarcation between the sorts of sign. The World Wide Web's multimedia mesh of signs does away with this separation and redefines the relations.

Hypertext's digital mesh of signs

Before I begin talking about the mesh of image, language and writing which characterizes the World Wide Web, I would like first to come back to the text-based Chat programs (IRC, MUDs, MOOs). Chat programs developed independently of the World Wide Web but are increasing being integrated into the Web. In Chat programs writing functions as a medium of direct synchronous communication between conversation partners who are physically separated and who, as a rule, have never seen each other. The anonymity specific to the textual medium of the book is connected in "Chat" with the synchronous interactivity and immediate presence of the conversational partner characteristic of spoken language in face to face communication. In Chat's "Computer Mediated Communication" features which previously served as difference criteria for the distinction between language and writing are becoming entangled33. That means that the use of written signs in the context of the new medium Internet leads to a change in the system of signs as a whole. The transitions between language and writing become fluid. The traditional distinction of spoken language as a medium of presence becomes problematic. Writing experiences a rehabilitation.

The consequences for semiotics which result from the cultural practices arising in the World Wide Web as a whole are more complex than the effects just described in the realm of Chat programs. On the one hand, in that the World Wide Web incorporates text-based Chat, it picks up the usage of writing in analogy to spoken language made possible through these services. On the other hand however, in that the World Wide Web is characterized by hypertext documents, writing is reorganized in a new way pictorially.

Hypertext34 documents, which constitute the core of the World Wide Web can be structured by means of the simple HTML language (HyperText Markup Language) so that the text represents not a fixed linear sequence, but functions as a network to be actively composed. Every building block of text (node) contains a multitude of keywords, pictograms and pictures which can be clicked on with a mouse: these are the so-called "links". These easily set up and flexibly variable points of intersection bind the nodes into a rhizomatic network. Hypertext technology has profound effects on the writing and reading of texts.

Every reader lays his own trail in the text whilst reading. Or rather, every reader composes the object he reads through the active selection of the links provided. The individual reception perspective determines the succession of text building blocks. Reading is no longer a passive process of reception, but rather becomes a process of creative interaction between reader, author, and text.

The writing of texts changes too. Writing becomes an occurence involving the productive networking of associative complexes. The manifold relations existing between the various trains of thought developed by the writer can be recorded and represented via hyperlinks. Whereas the linear book or essay text artificially linearizes the complex entangled relationships which exist between our thoughts and forces them into a hierarchical ordering, hypertext allows a direct representation of the structures and connections which are belatedly and inadequately recreated in a book through footnotes and indexes.

In hypertextual conditions writing and reading become pictorial operations. The writer develops a netlike framework, a rhizomatic image of her thoughts. This image is multiform and complex. It consists in a plurality of varying paths and references which the reader forms into new thought images resulting from interplay between the text's open structure and the reader's interests and perspectives.

Equally, in the hypertext medium the writer is no longer in a position of omniscience. Whereas the traditional author is responsible alone for sketching out the closed system of the book or essay he writes, hypertextual writing and thinking can take place in immediate interaction with other people's writing and thinking. Since in principle every file available in the Internet can be integrated into one's own writing the opportunities for interaction are unending. The reference system is limitless. You could say that the World Wide Web as a whole is a single giant hypertext in a state of permanent change, in constant motion.

Through the World Wide Web's hypertextual data mesh it becomes possible to mirror directly the dynamics of knowledge transformation which characterize modern science. The medium of books and the associated publishing institutions have long been unable to come to terms with the exponentially climbing dynamics of knowledge. The time elapsing between the writing of a text and its publication by the publishers amounts to several months or even years. This gap in time is overcome by immediate publication in the Net. It is even possible to work on a book or an essay in the Net itself. Even the creation of the text then takes place in a public mode, i.e. in close cooperation with other Net users who contribute with their comments to the work in progress.

The World Wide Web doesn't make hypertextuality obligatory. The book's linear structures can be depicted straightforwardly in the World Wide Web. What's more, most texts currently found in the Net are not hypertexts, but completely normal essays and books which have been converted into HTML code and revised a little for the Net. At the moment the World Wide Web serves predominantly to make books and essays more accessible more rapidly. So, for a philosopher who's familiar with the Internet, it's no longer a problem to get hold of works by Immanuel Kant or John Locke on screen or to view the papers published in the Net from conferences which he considers important.

In contrast to this the authentic hypertext-style writing and thinking measuring up to the features of the new medium still represents a demanding future task. Schools and universities, teachers, academics and authors must first of all be prepared for this. For this purpose it is to be expected that classical texts of the tradition be made available as genuine hypertexts, i.e. as thought networks bound together by links35. This is not as revolutionary and extraordinary as it seems at the first glance. Antique texts, which we today naturally read in book form already have a similar media transition behind them. They were originally written on papyrus rolls, without punctuation, page numbers and contents pages, and were first implemented in book form afterwards36.

It's not only written texts, but pictures too, that is scanned photographs and videos, which play an important role in the World Wide Web. These too function mostly according to the traditional model, namely as a kind of quasi-reference. They interrupt the flow of references and represent artificial end points of menus, i.e. impasses in hyperspace. There are however on the Net more skilled forms of picture presentation which are more appropriate to the hypertext medium. This involves furnishing different areas of the picture with "source anchors" which respectively refer to various "destination anchors". The picture itself then functions as a hypertext. If I activate a link within an picture I am refered to other pictures, written texts, or Chat programms. The picture no longer appears as the referent and termination of a menu, but becomes a sign itself with references to other signs. In the same way as written hypertexts, hypertextual pictures serve as semiotic intersections in the unending referential framework of cyberspace.

If you consider the internal data structure of digital pictures then it becomes clear that the pictures composed of pixels are reminiscent of writing in character. With the corresponding editor programs the elements which comprise the digital picture can be exchanged, moved and altered just as the characters within a written text. In this way pictures become flexibly editable scripts. In the digital mode the image loses its distinguished status as a representation of reality 37. It proves itself to be an aesthetic construction, a technological work of art whose semiotics result internally from the relations of pixels and externally through the hypertextual references to other documents.

The pragmatic restriction, thematic and goal-directed structuring of textual and pictorial elements of the World Wide Web is achieved through user activity. The user's creativity constitutes the referential framework which provides answers to questions which had been posed before Web browsing began. Through the application of Net search robots, i.e. automatic index programs like InfoSeek, Lycos, WebCrawler or World Wide Web Worm, which is quickly learned, as well as the use of archiving and structuring tools such as Bookmarks and Hotlists the Net newbie, first threatened with being 'lost in cyberspace', in time becomes a sovereign Net navigator.

The Net navigator, or cybernaut, has learned to find his way around in the rhizomatic flood of hypertext links. She knows that there's no original text, no 'authentic' document to which all other documents are to be related. She's figured out that on the Net it's primarily a matter of forming little machines, creative text formations and meaningful images of thought out of the manifold and dispersed textual nodes. These machines, formations and images, which didn't exist previously in this way and won't continue to exist in the future, are ontologically transitional in type. The logic of transition is a logic of transversality. Thinking and acting in a way which does this justice is determined by transversal reason.

Part 3: TRANSVERSALITY

The philosophical concept of transversality has long been familiar within mathematics and geology38. It was first used in a philosophical context by Jean-Paul Sartre. It was first coined as a philosophical term by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. The application to the theory of reason and the systematic extension into an edifice of thought was performed by Wolfgang Welsch in two steps. A first draft of the concept of "transversal reason" was set out by Welsch in Chapter 11 of his Unsere postmoderne Moderne39. The systematic elaboration followed in Vernunft. Die zeigenössische Vernunftkritik und das Konzept der transversalen Vernunft40. What are the basic ideas of Welsch's theory of transversal reason, and how can they be related to the media transformations of our understanding of reality described in the first two parts of the current essay?

To answer this question I shall concentrate on the systematic account developed by Welsch in the second part of his book on reason under the title Transversal Reason41. To begin with it should be highlighted that Welsch develops the concept of transversal reason without consideration of media philosophical issues. My interpretation strategy results from this fact. It follows the pattern used by George P. Landow to interpret Derrida in his book Hypertext. The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, and which he described as follows: "[...] something that Derrida and other critical theorists describe as part of a seemingly extravagant claim about language turns out to describe the new economy of reading and writing with electronic virtual, rather than physical forms."42 From early on Welsch had - unlike Derrida - emphasized the "exoteric" character of postmodern thinking43. What links him however with Derrida in terms of 'electronic writing' is the fact that Welsch too has not explicitly thematicized the connection between the constitution of reason he describes and the media conditions of possibility of this reason which come to light in digital networks.44

The central ideas of Welsch's concept of transversal reason can be summarized through three basic theses. Firstly, the constitution of rationality is characterized by an ineluctable disorderliness. Secondly, reason is in principle capable of reconstructing and precisely describing this disorderliness. Thirdly, it's only when reason productively analyses the subconscious entanglements of rationalities that it will be suitably equipped to solve contemporary problems. The first thesis is directed against the idea dominating from Kant through to Habermas and Lyotard that reason is concerned with an orderly framework of rationality types clearly divided from one another. The second thesis opposes the danger of diffusion which has led, especially in the setting of posthistorical thinking but also with some postmodern philosophers, to a position of arbitrariness and of 'anything goes'. The third thesis makes it clear that applied and problem-oriented philosophy must in no way amount to a simple application of abstract philosophical models to reality. In its pragmatic and transversal version it is capable of reflexion about those constellations of rationalities which are effective practically and which are already determined in their inner by contingent realities.

All three theses can be illustrated with the aid of the interactive hypertextuality of the World Wide Web. In doing this I allow myself to be guided by the assumption that the World Wide Web is a medium in which the - for the book culture, subconscious and hidden - disorderliness of rationality, which was taken by Welsch as his subject, comes explicitly to light. First of all however it's important to append a distinction which is central to the understanding of Welsch's basic theses. It is explained by Welsch in the Introduction to the second part of his book. I mean the distinction between rationality and reason. In recourse to the Kantian distinction between understanding and reason Welsch defines reason as that faculty whose task it is to reflect upon the relationship between different types of rationality45.

The first of the three basic theses relates to the relationship between rationalities. To begin with it leaves aside the issue of reason in the sense of a faculty of reflexion which goes beyond these. The relationship between rationalities is defined by Welsch as "rational disorderliness"46. Whereas, from Kant through to Habermas and Lyotard, the framework of rationalities has been conceived of guided by the book, namely as a relational framework of separate, in themselves autonomous chapters (Kant, Habermas) or aphorisms (Lyotard), Welsch in recourse to Derrida and Deleuze compares "the real consitution of rationalities"47 with "moving and changing, net and web-like architectures"48. Welsch shows in detail that the classically ordered framework of cognitive, aesthetic and moral-practical rationalities is a superficial phenomenon. A contingent network of "family resemblances"49 between different paradigms and alliances of paradigms form the fundament for this. The maxim for rationality theory resulting from this states that "the whole traffic system of both the horizontal and the vertical connections [is] to uncover"50. It will thus be demonstrated, Welsch continues, "that the [...] interparadigmatic [...] entanglements are mostly not hierarchically, but laterally organized. The connection has more the structure of a network than of stratification."51

Against this background the World Wide Web can be interpreted as an eminent medium of transversal reason. The entanglements and transitions analysed in detail by Welsch become media reality in the World Wide Web as electronic links. Welsch's reinterpretation of the classical triad of rationalities as an "effect of family resemblances"52 can be illustrated directly with the World Wide Web. In the World Wide Web the classical distinction between the varying types of rationality plays an important role. Thus three different highways can be differentiated on the theoretical level: the (cognitively accented) Information and Commerce Highway, the Education Highway (serving moral-practical aims), and the (aesthetically founded) Entertainment Highway. However, in our practical dealings with the Net - other than outside of the Net - we are aware at all times that these distinctions are introduced by us into a complex framework of hyperlinks whose internal family resemblances constantly shift, and which produce different configurations according to different perspectives. Whereas the medium of the book and thinking schooled thereby conceals rather than clarifies these relations, the World Wide Web makes them explicit.

The second basic thesis of Welsch's theory can also be fruitfully deployed for the philosophical analysis of the World Wide Web. Unlike the first, this thesis does not relate solely to the mesh of rationalities, but focuses on the faculty of reflecting reason which operates within this mesh. It is this faculty's task to correct "the insufficient self-comprehension and the excessive self- confidence of paradigms"53 from which the net of rationality types is composed. Paradigms tend to ignore their position within a net of nets and the relativity resulting from this. They are transfixed by their objects and self-forgetfully obscure the stuctural conditions of their abilities. If they do perceive of their own surroundings, the conditions of their own possibility, and their competitors then it's mostly in the mode of denial or reprimand. They declare themselves to be the sole true and valid paradigm, make false claims to exclusivity, and tend to an implied absolutism. It is the task of transversal reason to inform the rationalities arising from paradigms of this twofold self-misunderstanding: "Where this twofold explanation is successful, reason's interventions transform the singular paradigms from their merely rational to their reasonable form."54

The World Wide Web confronts us with similar problems. This is already demonstrated by the resistance with which the establishment of a consistently hypertextual practice meets. Every text, every picture, every Web page tends to proclaim itself the centre of the Net. The problem recurs on the technical level: every Web browser, every provider of access to the Net implicitly or explicitly claims to be offering the only true and authentic access to the medium. Even taking a glance at the definition of the whole, the battle over the 'true' World Wide Web dominates. There are firstly those proclaiming this to be the Commerce Net, secondly those in favour of the Education Net, and still others in favour of the Entertainment Highway. Each party of course considers itself the exclusive and sole binding govenor of the Net.

But it's not only the initial problems of radical plurality to which transversal reason reacts, rather the operation of this reason itself can be illustrated with the help of the World Wide Web. On the level of texts, pictures and Web pages, search robots, bookmarks and hotlists function as instantiations of transversal reason in software. Just as transversal reason, these are characterized by "purity, emptiness and superiority"55. The Net tools named are independent of content, purely formal structures for the generation of relations. They supply the user with the means required to break through the excessive self-estimation of the subsystems and to cast light on the Net's hyperlandscape, i.e. the intertwined connections between the Web pages. On the level of browser programs, the free availability of shareware versions of various Net browsers and on-line discussion of their advantages and disadvantages contribute to preventing the establishment of a browser-monopoly. Traits of transversal reason can be recognized in this too. The same applies on the level of providers of Internet access: Transversal gateways, through which the various providers are linked to the World Wide Web and to each other, relativize the view of the Net given by a particular provider. It should be emphasized in this that, on all three levels (Web pages, browsers, providers), it's not a matter of just a media realization of a theoretical faculty, but rather of practical demands and concrete tasks which mark the way for future media policies.

Thus I come to the third basic thesis of Welsch's book on reason. Philosophy which operates guided by transversal reason is already practice in its core. Transversal reason has no need for a belated application to concrete problems but is already eminently political in itself. This last aspect of transversal reason also comes into its own in the World Wide Web. Writing and thinking in the Net are of themselves already practical operations. That means first of all at a completely fundamental level: they are artisan in character. Writing and thinking in the Net cannot be separated from the creative installation of hyperlinks, from the aesthetic design of Web pages, from the formative work with graphical editor programs and skilled HTML encodement. These are all practical, i.e. artistic-artisanal, operations through which the writer is torn out of the position of the pure observer and bound within concrete interactional contexts. Something similar can be said of the way we deal with Net tools. Work with these tools, but also the hypertextual structure itself lead to the user being refered, from the supposedly pure theoretical investigation which he strives for, to institutional entanglements, to seemingly remote connections and political contexts. This differentiates open work in the World Wide Web from the closed world of the book.

The results of my considerations can be summarized in three points. Firstly, the World Wide Web proves itself to be a genuine medium of transversal reason. Secondly, the concept of transversal reason establishes itself as a basis for a pragmatic media philosophy. Thirdly, the task for this is to demonstrate in detail the relationship between media in the broad, narrow and narrowest sense as a relationship of transversal entanglements. On this basis the media transformations of our understanding of reality which are taking place in the age of digital network technology can be philosophically analysed and pragmatically implemented without speculative bombast.

Translated by Andrew Inkpin


  1. Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett 1978). [back]
  2. Richard Rorty, The Linguistic Turn. Recent Essays in Philosophical Method (Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press 1967). [back]
  3. William J. Mitchell, Picture Theory (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 1994) esp. 12-13. Cf. here also the essay by Aleš Erjavec in the current volume. [back]
  4. For the impact of media in the narrowest sense on space and time cf. Zeit-Medien-Wahrnehmung, eds. Mike Sandbothe and Walter Ch. Zimmerli (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft 1994) as well as Mike Sandbothe, Mediale Zeiten. Zur Veränderung unserer Zeiterfahrung durch die elektronischen Medien, in: Synthetische Welten: Kunst, Künstlichkeit und Kommunikationsmedien, ed. Eckhard Hammel (Essen: Blaue Eule 1996) 133-156. [back]
  5. John S. Quarterman, The Matrix. Computer Networks and Conferencing Systems Worldwide (Burlington: Digital Press 1990). [back]
  6. Quarterman, The Matrix, XXVII. [back]
  7. A compilation of important sources is found in the World Wide Web on the IRTF Survey Working Group home page (http://www.zilker.net/swg). The Matrix Information and Directory Services (MIDS) co-founded by Quarterman are also included amongst these sources. These can be viewed at the following WWW address: http://www.mids.org/mids/index.html. [back]
  8. Cf. here John S. Quarterman: MIDS Press Release: Sizes of the Internet in October 1995, in: Matrix News, no. 601, January 1996. An on-line version is found via the MIDS web pages (as above). [back]
  9. Ib. [back]
  10. Ib. [back]
  11. Ib. [back]
  12. Ib. [back]
  13. Cf. here John S. Quarterman, Summary of the results. Second TIC/MIDS Internet Demographic Study, in: Matrix News, no. 504, April 1995, as well as Quarterman and Smoot Carl-Mitchell, Is the Internet all Male?, in: Matrix News, no. 505, May 1995. [back]
  14. An up to date overview of the state of the World Wide Web's development is provided by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Inside the World Wide Web (Indianapolis: New Riders Publishing 1995). [back]
  15. Cf. Wolfgang Welsch, "Künstliche Paradiese. Elektronische Medien und andere Welten", in: Universitas. Zeitschrift für interdisziplinäre Wissenschaft, 106-117, esp. 108f. [back]
  16. The term 'cyberspace' was coined by William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer (New York: Ace 1984). Just as the term 'virtual reality', it was first used to designate audiovisual and tactile simulation technology which transfer the user into artificial three-dimensional computer worlds with the aid of data suits and data helmets. It is only in the last few years that both these terms have been extended to the digital spaces of the Internet. I use both terms in the sense of their being referred to the Internet. [back]
  17. Cf. here and in the following: Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen. Identitiy in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster 1995), esp. Chapter III, 177-269. [back]
  18. An understandable description and analysis of IRC can be found in Chapter 6 of Howard Rheingold's popular Internet book The Virtual Community. Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley 1993). Cf. also on the same subject Elisabeth Reid's comprehensive investigation Electropolis: Communication and Community on Internet Relay Chat, Honours Thesis, Department of English, University of Melbourne, 1991 (on-line version: http://www.ee.mu.oz.au/papers/emr/index.html). A summary of Reid's study can be found in Intertek, vol. 3.3, Winter 1992, 7-15. [back]
  19. Cf. here Rheingold, The Virtual Community, Chapter 5. Elisabeth Reid has provided a comprehensive analysis of communications structures in MUDs: Cultural Formations in Text- Based Virtual Communities, Masters Thesis, Department of English, University of Melbourne, 1994 (on-line version: http://www.ee.mu.oz.au/papers/emr/index.html). [back]
  20. Cf. here Rheingold, The Virtual Community, Chapter 5, esp. 191ff and 215ff as well as the pertinent studies by Amy Bruckman (see footnote 17). [back]
  21. Cf. Amy Bruckman and Michael Resnik: The MediaMOO Project. Constructionism and Professional Community, in: Convergence. The Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Spring 1995, vol. 1, no. 1, 94-109 (via ftp: media.mit.edu/pub/asb/papers/3cyberconf). For the interplay of identities in the MediaMOO see also: Amy Bruckman, Identity Workshop. Emergent Social and Psychological Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Reality (via ftp: media.mit.edu/pub/asb/papers/identity-workshop). [back]
  22. Cf. here and in the following: William J. Mitchell, City of Bits. Space, Place, and the Infobahn (Cambridge, Mass./London: MIT Press 1995). [back]
  23. Cf. for a survey: Bernard E. Rollin, Natural and Conventional Meaning: An Examination of the Distinction (The Hague/Paris: Mouton 1976). [back]
  24. The Republic of Plato, translated by Allan Bloom, (New York: Basic Books 1968), 281 (598b). [back]
  25. This was shown critically by Heidegger. Cf. in particular his essay The Age of the World View, in: Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row 1977). [back]
  26. Aristotle, Categories and De Interpretatione, translated by John L. Ackrill (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1994), 43 (16a). [back]
  27. For a critical analysis of this approach cf. Richard Rorty, The Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1979). [back]
  28. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press 1976). [back]
  29. A position of this type is advocated (taking up Goodman's argument) by Oliver R. Scholz in his book Bild-Darstellung-Zeichen. Philosophische Theorien bildhafter Darstellung (Freiburg/Munich: Alber-Verlag 1991), esp. Chapter 4, 82-110. [back]
  30. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosphical Investigations. Third Edition (New York: Macmillan 1953). [back]
  31. Cf. here David Novitz, Pictures and Their Use in Communication: A Philosophical Essay (The Hague: Nijhoff 1977) as well as Soren Kjorup, Pictorial Speech Acts, in: Erkenntnis, vol. 12, 1978, 55-71, and from a broader, linguistic perspective Manfred Muckenhaupt, Text und Bild (Tübingen: Narr 1986). [back]
  32. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 32 (§67). [back]
  33. Cf. Elisabeth M. Reid who examines in detail how the "sharp distinction between the spoken and written word" (Reid, Electropolis, 1) becomes blurred in Computer Mediated Communication. [back]
  34. The word 'hypertext' was coined by Ted Nelson in the sixties. In his "Xanadu Hypertext System" he was one of the first to attempt the technical implementation of the hypertext concept. Cf. Ted Nelson, Literary Machines (Swarthmore, Pa.: Self-published 1981). But Douglas C. Engelbart was the first to successfully achieve this goal with his oN Line System (NLS) in 1968. The idea of hypertextuality in a broad sense can be traced back to Vannevar Bush. This early pioneer of associative information retrieval had already projected a new, technically advanced architecture of scientific thought and research in his article "As We May Think" which appeared in Atlantic Monthly (Vol. 176, pp. 101-108) in July 1945. The "Memex system" he designed was conceived as a mechanical apparatus which, through "associative indexing", should make it possible that "any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another" (Bush, http://www.isg.sfu.ca/~duchier/misc/vbush">As We May Think, 34). Cf. George P. Landow, Hypertext. The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore/London: The John Hopkin University Press 1992), 14-18. [back]
  35. An overview of projects of this type currently running or already realized is found in: Hypermedia and Literary Studies, eds. Paul Delany and George P. Landow (Cambridge, Mass./London: MIT Press 1991), Part III: Applications, 185ff. [back]
  36. Cf. Leighton D. Reynolds and Nigel G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1978) and Jay David Bolter, Writing Space. The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (Hillsdale, N.J./London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 1991), esp. Chapter 6. [back]
  37. Cf. here William J. Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye. Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era (Cambridge, Mass./London: MIT Press 1992). [back]
  38. Cf. here and in the following Wolfgang Welsch, Vernunft. Die zeitgenössische Vernunftkritik und das Konzept der transversalen Vernunft (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp 1995), 367-371. [back]
  39. Wolfgang Welsch, Unsere postmoderne Moderne (Weinheim: VCH Acta humaniora 1987; 4th edition Berlin: Akademie Verlag 1993). [back]
  40. See footnote 2. [back]
  41. I shall not consider here the question of the relation between this account and Welsch's outline in his book on the postmodern. Cf. Wolfgang Welsch and Mike Sandbothe, Postmodernity as a Philosophical Concept, in: Comparative History of Literatures in European Languages: Volumes on Postmodernism, Vol. 1, ed. by Hans Bertens and Douwe Fokkema, (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co. 1996). [back]
  42. George P. Landow, Hypertext. The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology(Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press 1992), 8. [back]
  43. Cf. Welsch, Unsere postmoderne Moderne, Weinheim 1987, esp. 202-206. [back]
  44. Welsch presented a first analysis of the Internet in his essay Information Superhighway or Highway Number One (in: Living. Das Kulturmaganzin, vol. 7, no. 1, 1995, 42-43). He does not however establish here a direct relationship to the concept of transversal reason. [back]
  45. Cf. here Welsch, Vernunft, 437f. For the history of the distinction between understanding and reason cf. ib., 804-826. [back]
  46. Ib., 447. [back]
  47. Ib., 448. [back]
  48. Ib., 943. [back]
  49. Welsch in recourse to Wittgenstein, ib., 534ff. [back]
  50. Ib., 601. [back]
  51. Ib., 601. [back]
  52. Ib., 534. [back]
  53. Ib., 673. [back]
  54. Ib., 673. [back]
  55. Ib., 631ff. [back]

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