I have few intellectual rubs with contemporary cultural theory. However I become a volatile, vulgar pedant when seeing carefully configured scholarly works cut up and clichéd without any sense of context or history. E.P. Thompson, Germaine Greer, and Gayatri Spivak have been among the most quarried. Varied societal formations become "made, not born", the eunuch limbers through anti-feminist tirades, and subalterns descend from their pyre to represent an array of nameless, voiceless cultural figures. As the internet and world wide web have entered critical discourse, new intellectual clichés have been poached, specifically the phrase imagined communities. This provocative title has been excised from Benedict Anderson's most famous book to become a description of the virtual communities formed in and through the internet.
My paper works with the overarching aims of this Mots Pluriels special issue, and explores the appropriateness of Anderson's argument about the formation of the nation state to the communities triggered and moulded in cyberspace. This old theoretical master has schooled myriad new digital apprentices. My work commences with a detailed exposition of Anderson's work, serving to displace the binary of real and virtual communities. The second part is concerned with race and the conquering of territory, addressing the issue of whether virtual communities trigger colonisation by other means. The next section probes identity politics and e-democracy, with the final stages of the paper surveying Anderson's potent theorisation of print culture, and examining the relevance of his paradigm for the text-based constructions of identity in the virtual environment. While there is a desire to unravel popular metaphors of the web, my project has a distinct imperative: to critique the easy application of imagined communities to the virtual environment.
|Imagining the limits|
Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities defines the nation as an imagined political formation. That word - imagined - triggers consideration of self, identity and collectivity. It signifies for Anderson that the nation is "both inherently limited and sovereign" (15). Specifically, he asks why Marxist political formations outside of Europe, such as those in Vietnam, Cambodia and China, have been grounded within national spaces. For Anderson, these formations confirm that
A nation is a form of both consciousness and self-consciousness, as citizens must consent to their nationality.
We construct notions of who we are, and what we consider others to be, out of our imagining of nation, culture, society, citizen and individual. This manner of division can be socially damaging, culturally narrow and oppressive. Functional national ideologies enact closure, ensuring that few questions are asked of those who are excluded or under-represented in symbolic frameworks. As the great subaltern historian Partha Chatterjee has remembered, "the two greatest wars of the twentieth century, engulfing as they did virtually every part of the globe, were brought about by Europe's failure to manage its own ethnic affairs" (215). Therefore conflict is created when race and nation rub, rather than conflate. Because the nation state is a volatile ideology, it needs to feed off more powerful discursive formations, such as race. The aim of immigration policies and citizenship rituals is to align these social variables. Nationalism juts an identity out over a landscape. Conversely, race retracts subjectivity into a homogenous, seamless mould. To (over)emphasise one language above others naturalises the boundaries of race and nation. The meanings granted to a place infuse social subjectivity. The ease of this process serves to mask the complex processes of inclusion and exclusion. Even with these strategies in place, formulating a nationalised people remains a challenge. It is a fascinating process to explore how a group of people, encircled by a territorial boundary, creates a dominant mode of belonging and perhaps a community.
The nation appears as the fulfilment of a project that stretches over centuries; yet nations remain historically finite. Most have an extremely recent origin in the 19th century, with Australia only this year 'celebrating' a centenary of nationhood. There is a projection of individual diversity onto a collective narrative. Citizens never meet all members of the nation, so how is a consciousness of belonging established? As Anderson has stated, "communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined" (15). Consequently, attention must be paid to representational systems, or how space is infused with signs. While race feeds off binary oppositions (black/white, criminal/citizen), nationalism is a zone of liminality and fluidity. Nationalism is the embodiment of ambivalence, being neither intrinsically reactive nor progressive. Through the international restructuring of capitalist economies, the role of the nation state has changed, dialoguing with regional, local and global formations.
Much discussion of virtual communities is tangential to Anderson's work. Indeed, Howard Rheingold takes imagining styles beyond the national mode, arguing that "people in virtual communities do just about everything people do in real life, but we leave our bodies behind" ("Introduction"). While a digitised citizenry is distanced from bodily collectivity, it is important to acknowledge that national communities are formed around language and print, rather than corporeal performances. Therefore, the internet forms a meta-imagined community, a reflexive (re)interpretation of 19th-century nationalism. My concern with Rheingold's interpretation is that he too often sees virtual communities as new and innovative ideological formations, rather than as part of an ongoing semiotic stitching of self, identity and community. Cyberspace is not a "social petri dish" ("Introduction"), but merely the continuation of an experiment. This point is particularly well made by Katie Hafner:
The internet-based community perpetuates its origins in the same way as the nation state continues the paradoxes of early modern capitalism.
Too often, theorists of virtual communities ignore how the nation state transformed the performance of identity. As Barry Wellman and Milena Gulia offer:
Belonging structures in the last two hundred years have rarely been based on in-person contact. Significantly, for the purposes of my paper, Wellman and Gulia also ignore the irony of their position: that web-based communication is a textual, print-based culture. There is no separation of real life and virtual communities. This continuum approach to the internet is verified through the easy movement of the print-based hegemonies of the nation state into cyberspace. English was the language of 19th-century British colonisation. It is the primary language of search engines. Too often, (formerly) subaltern peoples must express their resistance in the language of the coloniser. As Anderson acknowledges, we must focus not on the authenticity of interpersonal relationships, but on the imagining styles that allow affiliations to occur. That makes the systematic disguising of the nation state within internet theories even more ponderable. For example, Wellman and Gulia state that "virtual communities are simultaneously becoming more global and local" ("Net Surfers Don't Ride Alone"). It is the time for an intellectual pause, to promote the theoretical interchange between the global and the national.
Computer-based social relationships need to be understood beyond an economically rationalist framework of efficiency, productivity and the global movements of capital. Actually, identity formations are always multiple, and context-specific. Therefore, a national affiliation is also gendered, classed and raced. The style (of) identity changes, depending on the space and time in which it is actualised. However not all groups exhibit this fluid flexibility. Empowered groups match off-line movement with on-line behaviour. Such a judgement is confirmed by Robin Hamman's study:
Hence, fresh online identities are not incubated in virtual communities. Actually, they are a performance of both digital and analogue power. The next section demonstrates how the imagined, somatic differences of race return the body to analyses of virtual communities.
|Race to the future|
Through language, differences form subjectivity. Being positioned to write culture, nation and race, an identity verbalises specific linguistic values. In myriad formerly colonised nations, proficiency in a European language is considered to be the dominant, unchanging, stable and secure base of all cultural values. The European construction of knowledge is saturated with representations of modernity. Narrative histories grant continuity to the citizen. As Balibar has stated, "every 'people,' ... is the project of a national process of ethnicization" (105). This strategy imposes a network of differences that administer and police social space. Nationalism is powerful because it is woven with racism. In this way, segregation and separation are naturalised. Bauman has argued that there is a desire to 'protect' the citizens from cultural ambivalence. He recognises that "identities may be safe and 'unproblematic' only inside a secure social space" (16). Thus, considering the volatile web- and internet-based spaces, capricious subjectivities are forged that stimulate searches for limitations, restrictions and boundaries.
Racial thinking is not marginal to contemporary thought. Racial divergence is determined not by biology, but by the meanings granted to somatic distinctions. This "imagined biological differentiation" (Miles, 70) not only creates dominant groups, but also triggers subordinate resistance. As a result, categories like black, woman or gay are not only a way to label and demean others, but trigger politicised, alternative communities. These identities hold meaning - not because they are real or authentic - but because they are the basis for political alternatives. However, the unmarked sign - the white, the middle class, the masculine - does not overtly verbalise an identity, but provides an invisible, structuring grammar for social truths. The process of colonisation does not end when the colonisers leave the country, but continues through language, media and technology. It is the negotiation of ambivalence that remains the crucial strategy, and this tactic is moving from national imaginings to virtual communities.
The internet, as an electronic frontier, is a site of liminality, dominance and resistance. As Roger Clarke suggests, "the internet is at the crossroads between community and commerce" ("Encouraging Cyberculture"). Therefore 'netizens' must chart a highly ideological space. Without a centralised architecture, the internet forms multiple moments of political and social pedagogy. Yet, as with colonialism, there is a need to authenticate truths and attempt to construct singular, narrative structures of development and progress.
A virtual community, like a national imagining, must be built through narratives of origin and the sharing of language. The internet provides a context for identity politics. Importantly, for scattered diasporic communities, resistance can be activated beyond national boundaries. It is a way to prevent the disaggregation of the other. Yet the electronic infrastructure has not developed in a uniform, ordered fashion. As Nils Zurawski reminds us, "the blessings of the information age have by no means reached all people and countries of the world" ("Ethnicity and the Internet in a Global Society"). Therefore, the argument that the internet can correct race-based societal injustices or facilitate indigenous self-determination must be based on a reading of economic and social conditions. Disempowered communities find a repetition and shift of ideologies from the non-electronic to the electronic sphere. The third section of this essay therefore explores the relationship between identity politics and e-democracy.
|E-vading the revolution|
A political imperative of internet studies is to theorise, with both precision and care, the confluence between national and virtual communities. Racial differences and colonial infrastructures punctuate both these narratives. It is necessary to ponder whether the online discourse is creating a citizenship that formulates a different, and perhaps better, public sphere. If the virtual community is of political benefit, then those privileged with access must fight for the connectivity of the disempowered. The empowered provide the rules, names and definitions that designate the disenfranchised. For virtual communities to create a more equitable imagining, the epistemology of European history - of accuracy, truth and citation - must be dislodged from its status as the primary skeleton of society.
The key is to consider the social accountability of the internet. After industrialisation, power and discipline rarely operated directly on the body politic. The complex mediations have only been increased through the heterotopic nature of cyberspace. It is therefore difficult to track the performance of online identity. This is not simply caused through a supposed retraction from corporeal determinism. There is a flexible mesh of selves and spaces. Allucquère Rosanne Stone shows the consequences of this quilting of identity politics:
The convoluted, repetitive and humorous application of multiple inverted commas triggers an intervention in the singular narratives of a fixed identity and location. This splice between body and subject is continuing the project of industrialisation and the nation state, triggering both alienation and hegemonic consensus. Therefore, stressing the 'real world' or 'real life' is displacing a discussion of the constructed, artificial and political nature of all identity formations.
Identity is an historical, context-specific performance. What makes a virtual community politically disconcerting is its capacity to mask societal inequalities. The nation state has masked a consideration of the class structure: virtual communities merely intensify this process. Sherry Turkle has discussed this decentring of class, citing Thomas, a 24-year-old university graduate who was overeducated, underemployed and stripped of self. He stated: "MUDs got me back into the middle class" ("Virtuality and its Discontents"). This judgement either verifies the inadequacy of Marxist economic determinism or the hegemonic naturalisation of societal inequalities through virtual communities.
Obviously the internet unsettles notions of democracy and the public sphere. Mark Poster is rightly critical of the customary tropes of internet theory: "access, technological determinism, encryption, commodification, intellectual property, the public sphere, decentralisation, anarchy, gender and ethnicity" ("CyberDemocracy"). To avoid these overwrought phrases, it is necessary to stress the movements between the analogue and digital realms. The phrase virtual communities, as a description and metaphor, suggests that the technology can actually create a social organisation. Yet the internet, and all technology, cannot be bracketed from history, institutions and discourses.
The public sphere, in its post-Habermasian inflection, is a space of communication, where truths and structures are negotiated and maintained. For such a formation to function, it must be a site of universal access and rationality. Derived from Aristotle's polis, the aim is to promote communication between all citizens, regardless of rank or power. However, the saturation of the English language on the web makes such a dialogue difficult. There is much desire to frame the internet as "a real leveller" (Slocombe, "Community Action Goes Global on the Net"), a new way to promote political activism or even cyberterrorism. But Colin Beckles attacks the technophilic suggestion that the next revolution will be virtual, affirming the obvious: "those primarily engaged in this type of 'Net' politicking will be whites" ("Virtual Resistance"). Language and race will remain powerful barriers to cyberdemocracy or social change. Obviously, other identities, communities and movements suffer distinct and resolute exclusion from the virtual. The final component of my investigation explores one structural reason for this exclusion: the text-based nature of this politics.
|Now read this|
To theorise virtual communities necessitates an understanding of how language and print culture constitute subjectivity. Anthropologists, including Levi-Strauss, too often defined civilisation through the activity of writing. To create a space between the colonised's 'culture' and the coloniser's 'civilisation' exoticises the native for a European audience. Therefore, to assess the imagining of virtual communities, a considered theorisation must be made of how print culture configures the understanding of democracy and citizenship.
For Anderson, print capitalism is a necessary determinant of nationalism. Latin, through much of the second millennium, was the language of a literate Europe, a population widely dispersed, but few in numbers. Anderson recognises that "relatively few were born to speak it and even fewer one imagines, dreamed in it" (42). After 1640, when fewer books were printed in Latin, publishing was no longer a global formation. The flexibility of dynastic borders was undermined by the growth in vernacular languages. The decline of Latin's hegemonic truths created spaces for new narratives of origin, community and belonging. Print became a commodity that also secularised the population. The decline of definitive, manuscriptal knowledge transformed print-based information into a reproducible formation. At this point, print languages created the potential for national spaces and ideologies. New languages of power were formed. Through much of Europe's 19th century, reading signified authority. Not surprisingly, the most significant site in forming a national imagining was primary education, where language and history were taught to a captive audience via textbooks.
The relationship between community and communication is obvious, with both words derived from the Latin root, communis, or "common". The word's dual meanings - of vulgarity and collectivity - carry through to the virtual environment, explaining the political and social tensions surrounding notions of community. Jan Fernback and Brad Thompson believe that "virtual community as a concept is still amorphous due to a lack of shared mental models about what exactly constitutes community in cyberspace" ("Virtual Communities: Abort, Retry, Failure?"). The narrative, ritualistic and communicative practices are not yet providing the saturating allegiances of the nation state. The need to manage competing historical threads creates dissonance between readers and writers, of rhetoric and composition. There is what Beth Kolko describes as "the conflation of production and reception, reading and writing" ("Building a World with Words"). The MOOs and MUDs are not the only sites for the text-based building of virtual worlds. While inscription creates alliances and affiliations between consumers and producers, flaming, the language of argument and agitation, can destroy communities.
Through the hostility, confusion and politics, much nostalgia pervades theories of virtual community. There is no reason why a more equitable system should emerge in the information age, when it did not surface in the agrarian or industrial eras. Further, through the hybridity and complexity of social structures, the nostalgic rendering of a virtual community is becoming more damaging. Marc Harris demonstrates the ruthless reification of this inequality through a discussion of Panama as the "new virtual nation". He argues that the virtual corporation, which is a product of downsizing and a desire for economic efficiency, will produce the virtual state. The colonising imperative is stated overtly: "Britain may have been the model for the 19th century, but Hong Kong and Panama could be the model for the 21st" ("Panama"). The free market fuels such a blunt, overt remaking of a national imagining into a virtual community. This relative episempolity is a remaking of prior political formations. The language of the market becomes the universal translator of self, identity and community. Therefore the marginalisation and exclusion of the national narrative is only increased. Fictive capital has replaced Balibar's "fictive ethnicity" (96).
Rheingold is concerned that virtual communities may lead to commodification of the public sphere ("Disinformocracy"). Yet Notess believes that "the communications and community side of the Net continues to flourish" ("On the Net"). The pervasiveness of e-mail, guest books, mailing lists and chatrooms raises questions about the relationship between democracy, relativism and consensus. Yet barriers of cost, cultural capital and time discredit utopic readings.
A national culture is a shorthand bundle of traditions, histories and otherness. Such a grouping of ideas transforms a consciousness into a self-consciousness. Ross Poole realises that "language provides for a basic form of intersubjectivity: those who speak the same language are capable of sharing their experiences, emotions and thoughts" (54). This shared linguistic performance is rendered even more influential when entering text-based cultural formations, such as the internet. American English predominates, and there are consequences for this linguistic hegemony. Disturbingly, Troy Schneider notices that:
While idealists may present the virtual community as the social future, there is a necessity to recognise the ideological frontiers that are negotiable: sport, shopping and banking. Therefore, the virtual community creates an imagining that is actually national, specifically American. The modern past is (re)presented and (re)imagined as a simulacrum nation.
When theorising virtual communities from the perspectives of national imaginings, it is clear that these social organisations are on the same discursive bandwidth. Both are disembodied modes of communication. The national body politic, like internet politics, is a metaphoric entity. While cyberspace grafts a keyboard prosthesis to the body, the nation state is a political prosthesis. Both result in deterritorialisation and disorientation. For a dispossessed population, the key is to use guerrilla tactics to create alternative spaces of meaning, memory and identity.
By reminding theorists that virtual communities contain the trajectory of national imaginings, there is an acknowledgment that the public space has not occupied a physical form through much of the 20th century. There is much of the old world in this new world. Windows is not only an operating system, but a metaphor for identity. Myriad other surfaces, texts and portals are available behind that solitary façade of the immediate work space.
The critique of grand narratives has deflected attention from national histories and postcolonial resistances. Ernest Gellner reminds us that "neither classes nor nations exist as the inevitable and permanent furniture of history" (143). The study of culture, though, remains important. It is through investigating the imaginings of self, space and community that a past punctuates the present. A real, authentic history is not redeemable or reclaimable. This loss of definitive origins presents a highly liberatory potential for "vernacular memory" (Fritzsche, 103). For this alternative memory to be politically viable, there must be a fight for digital, multi-literate spaces of knowledge.
Internet studies theorists have an opportunity to transform the national-based formation of history. Such an interrogation is particularly significant in Australia. As J.M. Powell has affirmed, "ever anxious about real and apparent 'identity' crisis, Australians have in recent years been increasingly better served by interdisciplinary academic writings" ("Revisiting the Australian Experience"). It is timely to stress the reverberations between national and virtual imaginings. Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities is one of the most significant works of the last twenty years. By granting such work a detailed intellectual function, rather than using it as an easily footnoted cliché, the scholarly rigour and depth of internet studies can be not only imagined, but confirmed.
 This consent is managed hegemonically. Empowered classes must reach beyond their own interests and organise disempowered groups so that they consent to their own oppression. As A. Simon has stated, "a class cannot achieve national leadership, and become hegemonic, if it confines itself only to class interests" (23).
 As Anderson has suggested, "nationalism thinks in terms of historical destinies, while racism dreams of eternal contaminations" (136).
 Steve Woolgar makes this point very effectively, arguing: "The realms of virtual and real are much more interrelated than we have been lead [sic] to believe" ("Virtual Society?").
 For more on the consequences of this process, please refer to Subramani's "The Oceanic Imaginary".
 This ironic, responsive representation of cultural domination is theorised by Edward Said, who states in Orientalism: "England knows Egypt; Egypt is what England knows" (34).
 Ambivalence is best theorised by Homi Bhabha in "The Other Question" (71).
 See "Self-Determination in the Information Age", a solid study by Scott Crawford and Kekula Bray-Crawford.
 Guillermo Delgado-P. and Marc Becker state: "Native activists and scholars have observed that patterns of economic inequality which exist elsewhere have been reproduced in access to electronic media" ("Latin America").
 Sarah Green and Penny Harvey express this political imperative very clearly: "to fail to connect would be disastrous, and to fail to help those who can't help themselves to connect morally reprehensible" ("Sealing Place and Networks"). Not surprisingly, Manchester - as one of the first industrial cities and the focus of the early studies of Marx and Engels - has been a site of negotiation of the new virtual communities; see Harvey's "Social Contexts of Virtual Manchester".
 Peter Ludlow is quite correct in arguing: "Perhaps the critics are showing undue deference to RW. Or even stronger, perhaps the critics have failed to see that RW is itself social construction, having no more, and in some cases less claim to authenticity that [sic] a number of robust VR communities" ("Self and Community Online").
 Dana Ott realises that "access to the Internet will likely require literacy in English, for the most part, to enjoy the benefits" ("Power to the People").
 For example, Claude Levi-Strauss states: "It is unnecessary to point out that the Nambikwara have no written language, but they do not know how to draw either, apart from making a few dotted lines or zigzags" (388). Significantly, there is the assumption here that obviously the Nambikwara do not write, and are therefore outside the structures of civilisation.
 A significant - and often displaced - argument is that this print-based knowledge system served to erode the plurality of languages. In fact, indigenous languages were frequently undermined by the new print-based systems that provided the historical conditions for the formation of the nation state. As Anderson has suggested: "the convergence of capitalism and print technology on the fatal diversity of human language created the possibility of a new form of imagined community, which in its basic morphology set the stage for the modern nation" (49). However, I would like to problematise Anderson's notion of 'fatal diversity'. Indigenous languages of the formerly colonised have survived. The current boom (and revival) of Welsh and Maori in particular demonstrate that linguistic diversity remains - and is frequently encouraged through the potentials of the internet. The New Zealand government site performs the bicultural nature of the nation state by featuring both English and Maori.
 For a discussion of flaming in communities, see William B. Millard, "'A Great Flame Follows a Little Spark'".
 Such a judgement is confirmed by Raymond Pearson in "Imagined Communities" (1390).
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