Displacing the Body

The Question of Digital Democracy

Samuel Weber

Aristotle, it is well known, stated that philosophical thinking originated in wonder or surprise, thaumazein. Although the remarks I have to offer today are far too preliminary and tentative to make any claim at being philosophical, they do originate in a sense of wonderment. In an age increasingly dominated by electronic media, a certain theatricality seems not only to survive, but even to reemerge with renewed force and transformed significance. From military or strategic thinking to the more rarefied realms of post-Hegelian philosophy, theatrical perspectives assume an importance that could be qualified as paradigmatic, if the notion of paradigmaticity were not itself called into question by the theatrical. For it seems as if the notion of theatricality emerges precisely in response to an uncertainty about the conditions under which anything can be exemplified or indicated, alongside something else (para-deiknúnai: to show side by side).

How, why, in what ways and with what consequences has a certain theatricality reemerged alongside theory, strategy, politics and the media? And what of a space that is determined by such juxtaposition and contiguity? These are the questions to which I want today to begin to respond. And the emphasis, for me at least, has to be on the word: begin.

I have already begun by speaking not just of theatricality per se but of a »certain« theatricality. This qualification recalls the banal but all too forgettable fact that the same words do not always mean the same things. The history of »theatricality« is there, among other things, to remind us of this important truism.

To begin to understand what is at stake in the history of theatricality, it is helpful to return to a text of Plato's, one which, significantly enough, does not concern theater as such, but rather music, dance and song. The first passage I want to discuss is from Book III of the Nomoi, generally translated as the Laws. The Athenian has just recalled that his countrymen were able to resist the onslaught of the Persians only because of two interrelated factors, both involving fear: first of all, their fear of the enemy and of the conse quences of defeat; and second, »that other fear instilled by subjection to preexisting law,« which allowed them to turn fear into disciplined resistance (699c). The Athenian then however concludes his historical review with a rather enigmatic remark: Despite the obvious differences in their respective political histories, consisting above all in the fact that »they reduced the commonality to utter subjection, whereas we encouraged the multitude toward unqualified liberty,« the Athenian nevertheless appears to deny that difference by asserting that »our fate has, in a way, been the same as that of the Persians« (699e). Megillus, one of his interlocutors, is understandably puzzled and asks for clarification. In response to this request, the Athenian, somewhat surprisingly, cites the history of music as exemplary for the degeneration of liberty into license and for the collapse of a state of law. Formerly, he remembers,

»our music was divided into several kinds and patterns« and »these and other types were definitely fixed, and it was not permissible to misuse one kind of melody for another. The competence to take cognizance of these rules, to pass verdicts in accord with them, and, in case of need, to penalize their infraction was not left, as it is today, to the catcalls and discordant outcries of the crowd, nor yet to the clapping of applauders; the educated made it their rule to hear the performances through in silence and for the boys, their attendants, and the rabble at large, there was the discipline of the official's rod to enforce order. Thus the bulk of the populace was content to submit to this strict control in such matters without venturing to pronounce judgment by its clamors.
Afterward, in the course of time, an unmusical license set in with the appearance of poets who were men of native genius, but ignorant of what is right and legitimate in the realm of the Muses. Possessed by a frantic and unhallowed lust for pleasure, they contaminated laments with hymns and paeans with dithyrambs, actually imitated the strains of the flute on the harp, and created a universal confusion of forms. [...] By compositions of such a kind and discourse to the same effect, they naturally inspired the multitude with contempt of musical law, and a conceit of their own competence as judges. Thus our once silent audiences have found a voice, in the persuasion that they understand what is good and bad in art; the old sovereignty of the best, aristocracy, has given way to an evil ›sovereignty of the audience‹, a theatrocracy (theatrokratia). (Plato, Laws, III, 700a-d, transl. E. A. Taylor)

»Theatrocracy,« as the rule of the audience, is, for the Athenian, far worse than a democracy:

If the consequences had been even a democracy, no great harm would have been done, so long as the democracy was confined to art, and composed of free men. But, as things are with us, music has given occasion to a general conceit of universal knowledge and contempt for law, and liberty has followed in their train. ...
So the next stage of the journey toward liberty will be refusal to submit to the magistrates, and on this will follow emancipation from the authority and correction of parents and elders; then ... comes the effort to escape obedience to the law, and when that goal is all but reached, contempt for oaths, for the plighted word, and all religion. The spectacle of the Titanic nature of which our old legends speak is reenacted; man returns to the old condition of a hell of unending misery. (701a-c)

A democracy, although obviously not the political form of choice for the Athenian, would at least have respected certain »confines«: it would have been »confined to art« and it would have confined its demos to »free men,« thus excluding (but also presupposing, for its freedom) slaves. What is so frightening and fearful about the theatrocracy, by contrast, is that it appears to respect no such confines. And how, after all, can there by a polis, or anything political, without confinement? The previous divisions and organization of music into fixed genres and types is progressively dissolved by a practice that mixes genres and finally leaves no delimitation untouched or unquestioned. And if the driving force of such a development seems to be hedonistic, the fact that the »lust for pleasure« is qualified as being »frantic and unhallowed« suggests that here, no less than in its military struggles, the Athenians are driven as much by fear as by desire: or rather, that fear and desire are difficult to separate. (see Socrates' discussion of »pure and impure pleasures« in the Philebus, 52c et passim). The theatrocratic usurpation of the rule of law is driven by desire and fear as much as by the search for pleasure. At the same time, this drive appears to be associated not by accident with an acoustical, rather than a simply visual, medium: it is song, dance and music that break down most effectively the sense of propriety and the barriers that are its condition, giving the »silent« majority a voice and producing a hybrid music bordering upon noise. The emergence of the theatrocracy thus necessarily and essentially involves what today we would call multimedia. It is against this background that the reference to theater acquires a special significance. For the theater that is here referred to is not at all that of tragedy or comedy, and yet, it is still designated as theater. The theatron, as you know, designated the place from which one sees, but if the notion of theatrocracy retains this reference to a specific place or site, it is perhaps above all to underscore how the stability of that site is being increasingly undermined. In other words, the theatrical dimension of theatrocracy would define itself in relation to the unsettling of all institutional stability, beginning with the organization of the space of the theater itself and of the sights, visions (thea, theasthai, theorein) that it seeks to situate. Indeed, the force and fascination of the theatrocracy suggests that the disruption of the theatrical site is marked by a resurgence of a thauma, a wonder that draws one's gaze irresistibly, without in turn fully submitting to its control.

This impression is strengthened by the second passage from the Laws that I want to discuss today, from book VII. In it, the Athenian sketches another nightmare scenario, illustrative of the political hell into which Athens, in his eyes, has descended:

A magistrate has just offered sacrifice in the name of the public when a choir, or rather a number of choirs, turn up, plant themselves not at a remote distance from the altar, but, often enough, in actual contact with it, and drown the solemn ceremony with sheer blasphemy, harrowing the feelings of their audience with their language, rhythms, and lugubrious strains, and the choir which is most successful in plunging the city which has just offered sacrifice into sudden tears is adjudged the victor. Surely our vote will be cast against such a practice. (800c-d)

Public rites are thus disturbed by mobile choirs who lack all respect for constituted authority and who show this lack of respect through their very movement, refusing to stay »at a remote distance from the altar but often enough« entering »in actual contact with it«1. Through such proximity, the voices of these mobile masses can »drown« out the »solemn ceremony« just as the noise of the audience overwhelms the voices of reason and competence in the theatrocracy.

If we reflect on just what elicits condemnation in these two passages, we come to the following two conclusions. First, theatrocracy, which replaces aristocracy and is not even democratic, is associated with the dissolution of universally valid laws and with them, of the social space that those laws both presuppose and help maintain. The advent of theatrocracy subverts and perverts the unity of the theatron as a social and political site by introducing an irreducible and unpredictable heterogeneity, a multiplicity of perspectives and a cacophony of voices. This disruption of the theatron goes together, it seems, with a concomitant disruption of theory, which is to say here, of the ability of knowledge and competence to place and keep things in their proper place and thus to contribute to social stability. Furthermore, it should also not be overlooked that theatrocratic subversion originates not so much in the audience itself, which as it turns out only follows the example set by the poets and composers, whose experimentation with established rules in their own artistic practice set the fateful precedent of undermining the stability of all rules and laws. Thus, the exclusion of the poets and artists from the Republic finds a powerful vindication in this account of their responsibility for the rise of theatrocracy.

But it is only in the second passage, or scene -- since, as the Athenian himself notes ironically, his own arguments are themselves often quite theatrical, despite (or because?) of his aversion to theatrical spectacle -- (it is only in the second scene) that the subversive force of the theatrocracy actually reveals itself: it resides in its power to move and disrupt the consecrated and institutionalized boundaries of place, for instance, those that separate the »altar« from the public. Theatricality demonstrates its subversive power when it leaves the theatron and begins to wander. At that point, it is no longer confined by the prevailing rules of representation, aesthetic, social or political; its vehicle is irreducibly plural and even more, heterogeneous: not just »a choir« but »rather a number of choirs« which »turn up« in the most unexpected places, disorganizing official sacrifices, not so much through brute force as through the seductive fascination of their chants, »harrowing the feelings of their audience with their language, rhythms, and lugubrious strains« and thereby subverting the success of the sacrificial ceremony. They do not storm the altar from without, as it were, but simply sidle up next to it, in »actual contact with it« brushing up against it without overrunning it; touching it and touching all those who cannot resist the insidious force of their »lugubrious strains«. The power of such choruses is seductive, contagious, hypnotic. It breaks down the borders of propriety and restraint in others, and at the same time are difficult to control or to classify themselves. For what makes these »choirs« all the more wondrous is that they seem to be composed neither of amateurs nor of professionals. And yet, since the need to which they respond seems undeniable, the Athenian is led to make the following, exasperated suggestion:

If there is really any need for our citizens to listen to such doleful strains on some day which stands accursed in the calendar, surely it would be more proper that a hired set of performers should be imported from abroad for the occasion to render them, like the hired minstrels who escort funerals with Carian music. The arrange ment, I take it, would be equally in place in performances of the sort we are discussing... (800d-e)

This »arrangement [...] would be equally in place in performances of the sort we are discussing« for the simple reason that the relation of employer to employed, the »hiring« of professional musicians, would impose a relative recognizable social role on the parties involved. Hired, professional musicians can be expected to know their place. And it is precisely this that is at issue in the theatrocracy: knowing one's place. Or rather, having a place that is stable enough that it can be known.

It is such stability of place and of placing that the theatrocracy profoundly disturbs. In this respect, its perverse effects are only the culmination of Plato's worst fears concerning mimesis in general:

...the mimetic poet sets up in each individual soul a vicious constitution by fashioning phantoms far removed from reality, and by currying favor with the senseless element that cannot distinguish the greater from the less, but calls the same thing now one, now the other (Republic, X, 605b-c, my italics - SW).

Imitation destroys the self-identity of the »same« and the fixity of values by implanting »in each individual soul« a propensity which confuses phantoms with reality and »calls the same thing now one, now the other«. The exemplary space in which such a »vicious constitution« can unfold to the extreme is none other than the theater, in which mimesis is, as it were, (dis-)embodied in the audience:

And does not the fretful part of us present many and varied occasions for imitation, while the intelligent and temperate disposition, always remaining approximately the same, is neither easy to imitate nor to be understood when imitated, especially by a nondescript mob assembled in the theater. (604e, my italics - SW)

Assembly in a theater is, for Plato, the sinister parody of the assemblage of citizens in the forum. For in the theater, everyone tends to forget their proper place. And, as already suggested, the fascinating power of theatrical mimesis cannot be explained simply by an appeal to »pleasure«, not at least in any univocal sense of the word. For, as the words of Socrates just cited make clear, it is »the fretful part of us« rather than the »intelligent and temperate disposition,« that presents the most »varied occasions for mimesis.« The power of those errant choirs, we recall, was displayed in the irresistible appeal of their »lugubrious strains«, which defied and defiled the official ceremonies of sacrifice. It is as much through the appeal to fear, care and mourning as to simple »pleasure« that theatrocracy seduces and establishes its rule.

In the example of the choirs, the result was an audience moved to tears. But there is another aspect of mimesis gone wild that marks the power of that theatricality that Plato, himself the consummate dramaturge, knew only too well: the power of laughter.

There are jests which you would be ashamed to make yourself, and yet on the comic stage, or indeed in private, when you hear them, you are greatly amused by them and are not all disgusted at their unseemliness ... there is a principle in human nature which is disposed to raise a laugh, and this which you once restrained by reason, because you were afraid of being thought a buffoon, is now let out again; and having stimulated the risible faculty at the theatre, you are betrayed unconsciously to yourself into playing the comic poet at home. (Rep., X, 606)

Laughter »breaks out« and breaks down the barriers of propriety, transporting the stage from the theater to the home, undermining the division of public and private space, disturbing domestic tranquility. In the outbreak of laughter, articulate, reasonable discourse is progressively drowned out by the reiterative amplification of gesticulations that can, upon occasion, suggest a body out of control.

It is precisely this link between theatricality and laughter that marks what I have referred to as the reemergence of the theatrical paradigm. Had I more time today, I would try at least to sketch out the broad lines of this reemergence, passing by way of texts such as Kierkegaard's Repetition, Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, Benjamin's Origin of the German Mourning Play and his essays on Brecht, and culminating, perhaps, in the writings of Artaud, or more recently, in Derrida's Specters of Marx. The list could obviously be extended at will. Instead, however, I will limit myself to extrapolating just one or two motifs from these texts in order to suggest how this reemergence of theatricality might bear upon the cultural, political, physical and metaphysical effects of what, for want of a more precise name, we call the »new media«.

First, from Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy:

At bottom the esthetic phenomenon is simple; one need only have the ability to see continually a living play and to live perpetually surrounded by hosts of spirits, and one is a poet; one need only feel the drive to alter oneself (sich selbst zu verwandeln) and to speak out of alien bodies and souls, and one is a dramatist.
Dionysian excitation is capable of communicating to a whole multitude this artistic power to feel oneself surrounded by such a host of spirits, with whom one knows oneself to be inwardly one. This process (Prozeß) of the tragic chorus is the originary dramatic phenomenon: seeing oneself altered before one's very eyes (sich selbst vor sich verwandelt zu sehen) and now acting, as though one had really entered into another body, another character. This process stands at the beginning of the development of drama. ... Here already the individual gives itself up by entering into an alien nature. And what is more, this phenomenon arises epidemically: a whole crowd feels itself enchanted in this way. (8, my translation)

Nietzsche's account of the tragic chorus as dramatical Urphänomen both radicalizes and transforms the Platonic nightmare vision of the theatrical: contrary both to certain other statements of Nietzsche himself, in the Birth of Tragedy, and even more, to a certain reception of this text, the »dramatical phenomenon« described by Nietzsche never loses its theatrical dimension; which is to say, it never simply results in a mystical, ecstatic union with »the Lord and Master, Dionysos«. The chorus, Nietzsche insists, does not cease to »look at« this God, even if the sole way he can be seen is not as a figure but rather as a split or doubled phenomenon, as a process of Verwandlung: metamorphosis, transformation, or as a movement. The German word used here by Nietzsche, Verwandlung, suggests moreover that this movement is not simply locomotive in character, does not simply involve a change of place. The root of the German word, Verwandlung, is: wandeln, which comes from the verb for turning: wenden, in turn related to winden: to wind, also in the sense of to twist, coil or twine. In short, the movement Nietzsche is alluding to is more like a twisting and turning, a spasm or a tick, than a goal-directed linear and continuous process. At the same time, throughout the Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche never ceases to insist on the inseparability of the Dionysian from the Apollonian, which is why this text is concerned ultimately more with theater than with religion. The »visionary« dimension of the theatron is conserved, but also altered, and it is altered precisely insofar as the nature of its site (in the sense of situs, but also its sight) is changed. Instead of functioning as a closed container of equally self-contained bodies2, the theatrical site splits, stretches, twists and turns into a space of alteration and oscillation, of Verwandlung. It is the space of a body that no longer takes its orders from the soul.

One consequence of this state of affairs is that the relation of life and death is no longer construed according to the logic of simple opposition. When Nietzsche writes that the »individual« gives itself up to this movement of alteration both by entering into alien bodies and souls and at the same time by seeing itself thus splitting apart, he describes a reflexive movement that does not come full circle. In the gap opened by such non-circular reflexivity, the scope of life and death is altered. For what ensues is not just a plurality of individuals but the fracturing of each individual. And in the space of this irreducible divisibility of the »individual« no simple »collection« or »collective« can take place. This transforms the relation of the living to the dead by disrupting the place of each. The «lively play« to which Nietzsche refers (in the passage just cited) therefore requires an observer who lives »surrounded by a host of spirits« . The perspective from which this spectacle must be seen is thus that of not just of an irreducible plurality, of a »host«, but of an irreducible spectrality. As a »host of spirits« individuals do not merely cease to exist: they exist, but as dividuals , divided between spectator and actor, alien and identical, entering into an alien body and soul, on the one hand, and remaining sufficiently detached to see itself in the process. The individual thus altered is both here and there, and yet neither simply here nor there, simply itself or simply other. It is the movement of a certain errancy and oscillation, and it this that make it something like the ghost of itself, lacking an authentic place or a proper body.

Such traits begins to indicate just how and why a certain theatricality could be compatible with the spread of contemporary, electronic media. As Marshall McLuhan has observed, »Nothing can be further from the spirit of the new technology than ›a place for everything and everything in its place.‹« This phrase served as a motto for a book published in 1985 that bore the telling title, No Sense of Place. In it, Joshua Meyrowitz sought to investigate »the impact of electronic media on social behavior« by interpreting that »impact« in terms of the changing sense of place. Since then, it has become more or less accepted to speak of the »delocalizing« effects of electronic media. But the notion of »delocalization« tells only part of the story and taken by itself it can be highly misleading. For what is at stake in the changes being brought about by the spread of the new media, and in particular by their electronic varieties, involves not just a »delocalization« of »physical settings: places, rooms, buildings and so forth,« as Meyrowitz wrote in the Preface to his book3 but rather a change in the very structure and function of such settings. The passages we have been reading, from Plato and Nietzsche, remind us of what is not any less decisive for being evident: namely, that there can be no movement of delocalization without an accompanying relocalization. And moreover, that the two need not be construed as being simply symmetrical: what results from the self-abandonment of the individual as described by Nietzsche is not simply another individual, in the sense of an alter ego. What results rather is a dynamic spectacle that both offers itself to sight while at the same time eluding any simply perceptual grasp. This is why Nietzsche, in the text we have quoted, stresses the traversing of limits and frontiers rather than the emergence of a new figure, and be it an alien one: the individual sees itself »as though it had entered into a foreign body and character«. In short, the spectacle is one not just of a movement from one place or body to another, but of a splitting, a fracture or whose only proper place seems to be that of the interval or ... of the interruption.

A similar insight informs the approach to theater of Walter Benjamin. Although it is in his book-length study of the Origins of the German Mourning Play that Benjamin elaborates most extensively the relation between theatricality and modernity, I want here instead to discuss very briefly a later and shorter text which seeks to respond to the question, »What is Epic Theater?«. Brecht's epic theater offers Benjamin with a point of departure for reflections on the general situation of theatricality in the 20th century.

What is at stake today in the theater can be more precisely determined with respect to the stage than with respect to the drama. It involves the filling-in (Verschüttung) of the orchestra pit. The chasm which separates the players from the audience (Publikum) like the dead from the living, this chasm, whose silence in the play heightens the sublimity ... this chasm, which among all the elements of the stage most indelibly bears the traces of its sacred origin (this chasm) has lost its function. ... The stage is still elevated, but it no longer rises out of fathomless depths; it has become a podium. This is the podium upon which one must settle (sich einzurichten). (GS II.2, S. 519/539, Illuminations, p. 154 -- translation modified)

What begins as apparently a fairly familiar gesture of defining theater in terms of what today would be called a »level playing field« -- one in which the aesthetic sublimity of fiction is brought down to earth -- reveals itself to be in the Nietzschean tradition, not that of Dionysian ecstasy, but that which confounds the living with the dead. The level playing- field that is established by the »filling in« of the orchestra pit paradoxically puts the living on almost the same level as the dead. To reduce the bottomless pit separating players from audience, stage from orchestra, was, for Benjamin (if not for Brecht) not so much to create a »Living Theater« as what Tadeusz Kantor years later was to call a »Theater of the Dead«.

The primary virtue of Benjamin's text, in our context at least, is that it begins to »flesh out« just how theatrical spectrality can be concretely construed. At the center of Benjamin's response to the question »What is Epic Theater?« is the notion of gesture. Epic Theater, Benjamin asserts, is above all gestural theater. Or rather, it is a theater in which gesture have been made citable. Citable, and not just »quotable,« as we read in the published English translation. Even in English, to »cite« is not simply the same as to »quote«. And this is all the more the case in German, where even today the verb zitieren still carries with it its etymological resonance of citare, to set in movement. In English, this resonance is buried in verbs such as »incite« and »excite«. And yet movement is only half the story here. For in both German and English, »to cite« has yet another meaning that is crucial for Benjamin. To cite means not simply to set something in movement, but also -- as American drivers know only too well -- to arrest movement. As in the sense, of course, of receiving a summons to appear before a tribunal in order to account for an excess of speed.

In short, for Benjamin, the »stage« in respect to which epic theater, and theater in general, today, must be situated, is determined as the site (situs) and as sight but also and above as a space of citable gestures. Why however this emphasis on citation and why precisely gesture?

Concerning the first part of this question, Benjamin's response brings together the two dimensions of citation, that of inciting and arresting, by retracing their common origin to the fact that »the basis of citation« in general is »interruption«. Citation, then, involves not simply a setting-into-motion or a setting-to-rest, but a disruption, a detachment, a dislocation and a relocation from which the violence of a certain legality is never entirely absent. And »interruption«, Benjamin reminds his readers, »is one of the fundamental procedures through which form is given«. (536/151) In other words, if we have reason to regard »form« as the constitutive category of modern aesthetics, then Benjamin here is indicating that the origin of the work of art, its very »formation«, is based not so much on a model of creativity or construction, much less on one of expressivity, but rather on a process of separation, by which an intentional, teleological movement -- call it a »plot« -- is arrested, dislocated and reconfigured. Reconfigured as what? Precisely as gesture.

Gesture is the theatrical category that replaces the aesthetic concept of form in Benjamin's rethinking of theatricality. Like the notion of form, that of gesture for Benjamin has as one of its essential attributes that of being »fixed« and »delimited«:

In contrast to the actions and undertakings of people (gestures have) a definable (fixierbaren) beginning and a definable end. This strict, framelike closure of every element in an attitude (Haltung), which however as a whole is caught up in the living flux, is even one of the basic dialectical phenomena of the gesture. From this results an important conclusion: we obtain gestures all the more, the more frequently we interrupt someone in the process of acting (einen Handelnden). (521)

A gesture, then, is a bodily movement that interrupts and suspends the intentional- teleological-narrative movement towards a meaningful goal, thus opening up a different kind of space in which a certain incommensurable singularity can emerge. As the site of a citation, this place is never closed or self-contained, since it must inevitably refer to another place, an elsewhere or alibi, the place from which it has come and which we must rediscover in a future, altered state. This is why the citational movement of Epic Theater can also refer not just to the past, but in referring to the past yet to come, the past to be re-cited, also points forward to a future that might be otherwise. Brecht's theater, Benjamin notes, places its accent

not on the great decisions, which lie along the expected lines of perspective (Fluchtlinien der Erwartung) but rather upon the incommensurable, the singular. »It can happen that way, but it can also happen entirely differently (ganz anders) - this is the basic attitude of anyone who writes for the epic theater. He relates to the story the way the ballet teacher does to his pupils. His primary concern is to loosen her joints to the limit of the possible. (525)

The essence of gesture, then, is not its goal, but the joints that make all bodily movement possible.

My time is up, I fear, and so I will only be able to gesture toward the mediatic promise of my title: if I have spoken, at least indirectly, a bit about the displacement of the body, what then about »digital democracy«?

The relevance of the theatrical in an age of electronic media is to raise precisely the question of the site (and the sight) of the body -- or rather, of bodies, for there are more than one, more than one kind and above all, more than one way of construing those bodies. To speak of the body, in the singular, gendered or not, almost inevitably involves the more or less surreptitious privileging of the human body over all other kinds. To emphasis the citability of gesture as the site of theatricality, by contrast, is to call attention to the body as something other than an organic whole, as something other than a container of the soul, as something other than what today is so often and so confidently referred to as »embodiment« (the correlative of »empowerment«). It is precisely the self-evidence of this »in« or »em-« that the notion of theatricality as citable gesture calls into question. This can be illustrated, in conclusion, with my final point: that of »digitality« as itself involving a certain type of pointing.

In his discussion of place and its relation to the body, in Book IV of the Physics, Aristotle distinguishes the way place can be said to »contain« bodies from the way these in turn »contain« their organs:

The next step we must take is to see in how many ways one thing is said to be in another. In one way, as a finger is in a hand, and generally a part in a whole. In another way, as a whole is in its parts; for there is no whole over and above the parts. ... Again, as the affairs of Greece are in the King, and generally events are in their primary motive agent. ... And most properly of all, as something is in a vessel, and generally in a place. (210, 14-25)

What happens, however, when the function of the finger is no longer determined primarily through the fact that it is located »in a hand« as »generally a part« is located »in a whole«? What happens then to the »in« and to the body? It is precisely the possibility of such dismemberment that fascinated Benjamin in the new media and their technologies, just as its »uncanny« and »automatic« aspects fascinated Freud. The hand is the organ of grasping, of appropriation, of perception and conception, of seizing and of controlling. The finger, by contrast, is that of pointing and of touching. At the periphery of the body, the finger points us elsewhere. In so pointing, it gestures not simply beyond the confines of the individual body as a self-contained whole, but, more radically, beyond the confines of place as such, which is to say, of place as the unmovable container or field required for objects of perception and of consciousness to take place. In pointing, the finger touches the other, or at least a certain exteriority. It can also in so doing try to put the other in its place. But as a place that can be touched, it is never simply separated from the pointer. It is a place of contact and hence, as place, never fully self-contained. It is in this sense that a certain digitality interested Benjamin, who, at the end of his essay on »The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility,« was moved to speculate upon what he called the »optical unconscious« and its relation to the »tactilityu that governs the relations of humans to their living spaces. Unlike Aristotle, Benjamin did not clarify the distinct and complex relations between fingers and hands. And yet inasmuch as he was interested in touching, rather than simply grasping, his emphasis upon tactility implicitly suggested a structure of otherness - Benjamin called it »dispersion» (Zerstreuung) - that was not under the unitary command of consciousness, whether as perception or conception.

And since there is no more time available, I will close by asserting simply that the digitality of the digital, which, as Negroponte as suggestively asserted, replaces »atoms« by »bits«, in an analogous manner points us towards the ever-present necessity of reconstituting those bits and pieces into some sort of body or reality, be it »virtual«. The power of the media today lies both in the technologies of dismemberment (of the »analogical«) and the possibilities of reconfiguration that ensue. No digitality however will ever fully relieve us of the task of reconfiguring the analogical, a task in which bodies, as the site of citable gestures, pointing elsewhere, will always have a singular role to play. Not the least of these »bodies« , nor simply »metaphorical«, is that political body known as the »people«. Only when the body of the demos is recognized as the analogical alibi of an irreducibly heterogeneous digitality, will the question of digital democracy will be approachable. And it is the history of theatrocracy that will have set the stage for this approach.


  1. One is reminded of Walter Benjamin's account of the tendency of the modern »masses« to break down distance in »bringing closer« all things (Das Kunstwerk, GS I.2, p. 479). (Back)
  2. »The place of a thing is the innermost motionless boundary of what contains it. ... If then a body has another body outside it and containing it, it is in place...« Aristotle, Physics, Book IV, 212a. (Back)
  3. Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place, New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985, p. ix. (Back)
Los Angeles, May 2, 1996