‘Stay! Speak, Speak. I Charge Thee, Speak’: An Interview by Wang Fengzhen and Shaobo Xie J. Hillis Miller

‘Stay! Speak, speak. I charge thee, speak’. That is what Horatio says to the ghost of Hamlet’s father in the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Confronted with the thirty-three terrifying ‘interview questions’ posed to me in writing by Wang Fengzhen and Shaobo Xie, I feel like the ghost of Hamlet’s father charged to speak and account for myself, or I feel like George Eliot’s hypothetical novelist (in Adam Bede) in the witness box demanded to narrate his or her experience on oath. ‘How would you define countries like China, since they are on the margins of modernity and postmodernity?’ That’s what I mean by a terrifying question. How in the world could I begin to know enough about China on the basis of a few visits there to ‘define’ it? I have my strong ‘impressions’, but that is far from justifying an authoritative-sounding ‘definition’. Nevertheless, the interview questions are admirably eloquent and pertinent interrogations. They raise many essential issues that anyone working in the humanities and social sciences must confront today.

I am being interrogated in the most searching way by these penetrating and comprehensive questions. Each one would take a long essay or even a book to answer adequately. Since answering them all one by one in anything like an ample and sufficient way would be a more or less interminable process, like responses to an all-night interrogation, I shall answer in some consecutive remarks taking up as well as I can most of the various topics in the questions. The reader of these remarks should remember that I am a professor of literary study and literary theory, neither a political scientist nor a practitioner of cultural studies. My own work at the moment focuses on the question of speech acts in literature, especially in the work of Henry James and Proust, though I raise this question in the context or within the horizon of the political and cultural topics covered by the interview questions.

The topics I am charged to discuss by the latter include cultural studies, the presumed hegemony of Western capitalism, modernism and postmodernism as against modernity and postmodernity, nationalism and nationality, internationalism, the translatability of theory, ideology, globalization as the erasure of ‘real and objective difference’, essentialism, totalization, identity politics, gender, race, and class, postcolonialism, orientalism, the neo-imperialism or neo-colonialism of Western technology and economic power, the intellectual, the university in the age of finance capital, Jamesonian ‘cognitive mapping’, and last of all, in a single question, almost as an afterthought, the effect of new communications technologies.

Those topics make quite a mouthful, as one says, a little too much to take in at one meal. If I may be permitted to refer to my own work, my judgements about many of these questions are recorded, from the special perspective of current changes in the Western research university and in literary study, in Black Holes (Asensi & Miller, 1999). I cannot repeat here for lack of space the detail of what I say in my part of the book, entitled ‘Black Holes’, about globalization, nationalism, cultural studies, the effects of the new communications technologies, and so forth. My analysis there centers on a sense of the performative efficacy of political decision and action, that is on a claim that such decisions and actions are speech acts. I also defend there what I call a ‘community of dissensus’ as an important feature of the democracy to come toward which all men and women of good will all over the world, I am confident, are working.

As can easily be seen when the topics are abstracted from the questions and listed seriatim as I have just done, the subjects covered all belong to the language of a certain contemporary discourse. This discourse goes more or less under the name of ‘cultural studies’. More specifically, the topics are the key terms in a certain style of contemporary Western Marxism. The names of theorists most often mentioned or implied in the questions (Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Gramsci, Althusser) indicate that enclosure well enough. All the experts mentioned in the interview questions with the exceptions of Gramsci and Althusser are friends or acquaintances of mine, and I greatly honor and respect the work of all of them. That work is essential today, or, to put this another way, coming to terms not so much with ‘Marxism’ as with the work of Marx himself is more than ever necessary these days. This is especially true now when, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many in the West, for example notoriously Francis Fukuyama, are declaring the capitalist millennium, the end of history, and the end of any need ever again to read Marx.

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the authorities most often mentioned in the interview questions do not by any means cover the whole field of what counts today in our increasingly globalized thinking about politics, postcolonialism the humanities, technology, the university, and so on. Derrida is not mentioned, Lyotard barely so. No mention is made of Etienne Balibar, nor of Friedrich Kittler, nor of Walter Benjamin, nor of J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, nor of Deleuze and Guattari, nor of Judith Butler, nor of Thomas Keenan’s Fables of Responsibility, nor of Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins, nor of the work of Giorgio Agamben or that of Gianni Vattimo, nor of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy. The interviewers no doubt know the work of all these writers. Nothing obligated the interviewers to mention them, though their work, I would claim, is essential these days to thinking out the various topics mentioned in the interview questions. My point is that the questions are generated more or less completely by the terminology and conceptual apparatus of one piece of the field, not the whole expanse, in current thinking about these topics. This enclosure tends to limit to some degree the answers that might be given.

I might add that not all thinkers who are not explicitly Marxists are necessarily reactionary or ‘capitalist tools’, though that is an ever-present danger, one that must be vigilantly guarded against. All the Western academic Marxists mentioned in the interview questions with the exception of Gramsci, it may also be worth noting, are, like me, into capitalism up to their necks, since they are paid and given the privilege of carrying on their research by universities that are increasingly supported in one way or another by transnational corporations. The latter are characteristic institutions of late capitalism in an age of globalization and in a time of the hegemony of new communications technologies. Such corporations have a strong influence on the research and teaching agendas of Western research universities these days, especially in the sciences, where support comes increasingly from multinational pharmaceutical or technology corporations. Moreover, who can deny that this shift in financial support has also had something to do with the increasing marginalization and ‘downsizing’ of the humanities in Western research universities?

Another way to put the enclosure of the interview questions within one part of the field is to say that the questions are to some degree, in spite of the freedom they allow the interviewee to answer anything he or she wants, what in the language of the courtroom are called ‘leading questions’, as when the lawyer asks the accused, ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ The questions imply and limit the parameters of the responses. An example would be the question already cited, ‘How would you define countries like China, since they are on the margins of modernity and postmodernity?’ This question assumes the pertinence and established or accepted meanings of the terms ‘modernity’ and ‘postmodernity’. If you are, as I am, dubious about those terms or suspicious of them, afraid they may beg all sorts of important questions, you have difficulty answering the question. The question programs the answer or gives the answer by already defining China as ‘on the margins of modernity and postmodernity’. The answer could only repeat or expand the information already encoded in the question. Yet another way to put this is to say that the questions are to some degree performative utterances, not just neutral requests for constative answers. The questions performatively declare or establish the code within which they may be answered. They ‘charge’ the respondent in a specific way. A ‘charge’ is a species of illocutionary speech act.

Why am I suspicious of the distinction between ‘modernity’ and ‘postmodernity’? Though I do not doubt the specificity of our present cultural situation nor its difference in many ways from that of the early twentieth century, I have yet to see a list of stylistic characteristics of so-called ‘post-modernism’ or ‘post-modernity’ that cannot one by one be shown to be already characteristics of modernism. No doubt what is called ‘post-modernism’ exacerbates and makes more salient these features, but there is continuity rather than a clean break. An example would be the eclectic and parodic mixture of artistic, literary, or architectural styles said to characterize post-modernism. This would make Picasso, Joyce, and Frank Lloyd Wright post-modernists. Another example would be the desire to go beyond, to be ‘post’ everything, to live beyond the end of history. This, however, is already a distinctive feature of so-called modernism, as in the work of Arthur Rinbuad. When Rimbaud said, ‘Il faut être absolument moderne (It is necessary to be absolutely modern)’, he meant just that, a need to be ‘post’ everything. Both modernism and postmodernism are caught in the paradox of an attempt to ‘make it new’, to be absolutely modern, to be ‘post’ everything, that always turns out to be a repetition, most often a parodic repetition, of something that has already occurred in the past. In an analogous way the American Revolution of 1776 justified itself by the model of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in England of 1688, just as the French Revolution, in Marx’s analysis, was a repetition of Republican Rome, and just as Louis Napoleon, according to Marx, repeated in the mode of farce the tragic mode of the French Revolution. These congruences between so-called modernism and so-called post-modernism are not surprising, since both belong to different stages of the new regime of telecommunications ushering in the information age. About that I shall have more to say.

I by no means deny, however, that it looks to me, on the basis of my extremely limited and amateur knowledge, that China has indeed developed quite differently from the West over the last couple of centuries. I agree that this might be defined by saying that China has not had in the same way as the West a ‘stage’ that can, with suitable care, with many precautions and provisos, be called ‘modernity’. I doubt, however, if this means that China should or could step back, and say ‘Hold everything. We are not ready for postmodernity. We do not at all like its chief features. Give us time to have a good long productive period of modernity. Perhaps we’ll decide to stay right there’. I shall explain why I think that would be impossible and even undesirable. This will allow me at least to touch on some important aspects of the thirty-three terribly challenging questions asked, the questions that charge me to ‘Stay! Speak, speak’.

I add, however, that though I cannot prophesy about whether China will become ‘modern’ or ‘postmodern’, I am confident that in the next twenty years or even less it will most likely become the largest and strongest economy in the world. The challenge will be to do that while avoiding the bad aspects of Western capitalism as it is now: radically uneven distribution of wealth and privilege, irresponsible destruction of the environment, uneven availability of healthcare because it has been turned into a business proposition, failure to honor animal rights, failures in human rights, for example in garment-making sweatshops in Los Angeles, many remnants of racial discrimination, and so on. Western capitalist countries by no means offer ideal paradigms for that ‘democracy to come’ for which we all work or should work. What I should like to see, utopian as it may sound, is not an arms race, nor an economic race for domination, but a race to see who gets furthest soonest toward the horizon of that democracy to come. In any case, if I had my life to live over again I would make learning Chinese a high priority, since I believe it behoves all of us in the West to learn the language and the culture of a country that will be increasingly important in the new globalized world.

The last of the thirty-three interview questions says: ‘The rapid development of new communications technologies has been changing the texture of our daily life. Would the development lead to new forms of constructive and powerful social organization, new kinds of communities?’ I answer that new communications technologies have already decisively transformed not just daily life but political, community, and social life. My answers to all the other questions – about modernity and postmodernity, about nationalism and internationalism, about ways to resist the global hegemony of finance capitalism, about ideology, about the university, about gender, race, and class – are inflected by my conviction that the new communications technologies are decisive in all these regions. Let me try to explain why and how.

Jacques Derrida, in a striking passage written by one or another of the protagonists of The Post Card, says the following:

. . . an entire epoch of so-called literature, if not all of it, cannot survive a certain technological regime of telecommunications (in this respect the political regime is secondary). Neither can philosophy, or psychoanalysis. Or love letters. . . . Refound here the American student with whom we had coffee last Saturday, the one who was looking for a thesis subject (comparative literature). I suggested to her something on the telephone in the literature of the 20th century (and beyond), starting with, for example, the telephone lady in Proust or the figure of the American operator, and then asking the question of the effects of the most advanced telematics on whatever would still remain of literature. I spoke to her about microprocessors and computer terminals, she seemed somewhat disgusted. She told me that she still loved literature (me too, I answered her, mais si, mais si). Curious to know what she understood by this. (Derrida, 1987: 197, 204)

Mais si, mais si‘ means something like, ‘but still, but still,’ or ‘nevertheless’, or even ‘perhaps . . .’ said with a certain doubtful or interrogative intonation. ‘Si‘ is a yes in response to a negation, a doubt of that negation. English has no corresponding way of saying ‘yes’. I have no idea how one translates either ‘mais si‘ or ‘perhaps’ into Chinese. This small example of the difficulties of communication across languages relates to an important issue raised by question number ten, the one that begins by asking ‘Is theory translatable or not?’ The short answer (a fully adequate one would take many pages) is that of course theory, like anything else, is translatable, but that nevertheless it is untranslatable. On the one hand, anything can be translated, perhaps especially ‘theory’, since it deals to some degree in abstractions and universals, as its name (in Western languages at least) suggests. The word ‘theory’ carries etymologically within it the notion of clear seeing. On the other hand, theory cannot be translated, that is, really ‘carried over’ without loss into another language, another culture, other institutions, without being transformed into the idioms and applied within the special conditions of that other language and culture. The latter are to some degree incommensurate with those of the original language. ‘Translate’ in this case has to be taken in a strong sense, as the name for a more or less radical transformation, not a neutral carrying over from one language to another. The problems that will no doubt arise in translating this present little essay into Chinese are an example of that. I do not see any reason to be scandalized or made anxious by this. Each culture should feel free to appropriate the theory of another culture and transform it to its own uses and purposes. A strong culture should be willing to take responsibility for doing that. I shall return later to this notion of transformative responsibility.

What Derrida or rather his protagonist in The Post Card says in the citation I have made is truly frightening, at least to a lover of literature like me or like the protagonist’s hapless interlocutor, the American graduate student in comparative literature who was looking for a dissertation topic. What the protagonist says arouses in me the passions of anxiety, dubiety, fear, disgust, and perhaps a little secret desire to see what it would be like to live beyond the end of literature, love letters, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. It would be like living beyond the end of the world.

Derrida’s words in The Post Card also perhaps generate in most readers the passions of disbelief and even scorn. What a ridiculous idea! We passionately and instinctively resist the statement that Derrida makes in such a casual and offhand way, as though it goes without saying. How could a change in something so superficial, mechanical, or contingent as the dominant means of preservation and dissemination of information, the change, to be precise, from a manuscript and print culture to a digital culture, actually bring to an end things that seem so universal in any civilized society as literature, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and love letters? Surely these will survive any change in the regime of telecommunications? Surely I can write love letters by email! Surely I can compose and transmit literature or philosophy or even a love letter on a computer connected to the Internet just as well as I can with handwriting or with a typewriter or through a printed book? How is psychoanalysis, based as it is on face to face interlocution (it’s called the ‘talking cure’), tied to the regime of print and to be brought to an end by a shift to digital culture?

Derrida’s curt and even insolent words arouse in me a passion of disgust like that in the graduate student to whom Derrida gave such strange advice. This advice, by the way, was, taken by Avital Ronell, in her own way and no doubt not as a response to any direct solicitation from Derrida. Both Proust on the telephone and Derrida’s The Post Card figure in Ronell’s admirable The Telephone Book (1989), itself in its format an anticipation of the new regime of telecommunications coming into being. Laurence Rickels (1988, esp. chapters 7 & 8; 1989) has also already written brilliantly on the telephone in modern literature, psychoanalyis, and culture generally, as has Friedrich Kittler (1997: esp. 31-49).

Nevertheless, that is what Derrida is claiming: the change in ‘regime of telecommunications’ does not simply transform but absolutely bring to an end literature, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and even love letters. It does this by a kind of death-dealing performative fiat: ‘Let there be no more love letters!’ How in the world could this be? Insofar as Derrida’s words, either those he (or one protagonist of The Post Card) said to the graduate student, or the words you or I read now in that book, generate the passions of fear, anxiety, disgust, incredulity, and secret desire, those words are a ‘felicitous’ performative utterance. They do what they say and help bring about the end of literature, love letters, etc., just as saying ‘je t’aime (I love you)’, as Derrida argued in a recent seminar, not only creates love in the speaker but may generate belief and reciprocal love in the addressee, the one to whom the words are spoken. In spite of all his love for literature, Derrida’s writings, for example Glas, or The Post Card itself, have certainly contributed to the end of literature as we have known it in a particular historical epoch and culture, say the last two or two and a half centuries in Europe and America. The concept of literature in the West has been inextricably tied to Cartesian notions of selfhood, to the regime of print, to Western-style democracies and notions of the nation-state, and to the right to free speech within such democracies. ‘Literature’ in that sense began fairly recently, in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, and in one place, Western Europe. It could come to an end, and that would not be the end of civilization. In fact, if Derrida is right, and I believe he is, the new regime of telecommunications is bringing literature to an end by transforming all those factors that were its preconditions or its concomitants.

One of Derrida’s main points in The Post Card is that it is a feature of the new regime of telecommunications to break down the inside/outside dichotomies that presided over the old print culture. The new regime is ironically allegorized in The Post Card in somewhat obsolete forms, that is, not only in the many telephone conversations the protagonist (or protagonists) have with their beloved or beloveds but also in an old-fashioned remnant of the rapidly disappearing culture of handwriting, print, and the postal system: the postcard. The postcard stands as a proleptic anticipation of the publicity and openness of the new communications regimes. A postcard is open for anyone to read, just as email today is by no means sealed or private. If an example of either happens to fall under my eye, as Derrida makes explicit for postcards and letters not only in The Post Card but also in the admirable essay called ‘Telepathy’ (1988), I can make myself or am magically made into its recipient. The postcard message, or the email letter, that falls under my eye, is meant for me, or I take it as meant for me, whatever its addressee. This certainly happens when I read the passage from The Post Card I have cited. The bad or even disgusting news the speaker conveyed to the graduate student, news of the end of literature, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and love letters, is also conveyed to me. I become the recipient of this bad news. The passions that what the protagonist said generated in the graduate student are also generated in me.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing Derrida says in the passage I have cited, at least from the perspective of the thirty-three interview questions, focusing as they do on politics and culture, is that in the power the new regime of telecommuniations has to bring an end to literature, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and love letters, ‘the political regime is secondary’. More exactly, Derrida says, ‘in this respect the political regime is secondary’. ‘In this respect’ means, I take it, that he does not deny, nor would I, the importance of political regimes, but that the power of the new regime of telecommunications is not limited or controlled, except in a ‘secondary’ way, by the political regime of this or that nation.

I should go somewhat beyond what Derrida says here to claim that all the questions raised by Fengzhen Wang and Shaobo Xie about nationality, modernity, postmodernity, ideology, postcolonialism, globalization, gender, race, class, and so on can only be answered accurately by taking into account what is called the second industrial revolution. The second industrial revolution, as everyone knows, is the shift in the West, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century but accelerating ever since, from an economy centered on the production and distribution of commodities to an economy increasingly dominated by the creation, storage, retrieval, and distribution of information. Even money is now primarily information, exchanged and distributed all over the world at the speed of light by telecommunications networks that also transmit literature in digitized form. Several of Henry James’s novels, for example, are now available on the Internet, along with innumerable other literary works, works, that is, belonging to the now rapidly fading historical epoch dominated by the printing press.

Photography, the telegraph, the typewriter, the telephone, the gramophone, cinematography, radio, tape recorders, television, and now CDs, VCRs, DVDs, cell phones, computers, communication satellites, and the World Wide Web – we all know what these new devices are and how their power and effects have accelerated over the last century and a half. The possession and consequent effect of these devices, as Masao Miyoshi and others have frequently reminded us, is unevenly distributed among various countries and peoples of the world. Only about fifty percent of United States households at this point have personal computers, and of course the percentage is immensely smaller in many other countries. Nevertheless, in one way or another and to one degree and another, almost everyone’s life has already been decisively changed by these technological gadgets. The changes will accelerate as more and more people come, for example, to have access to the Internet, just as so many people already have access to television. The changes occurring include a transformation of politics, nationhood or citizenship, culture, and the individual’s sense of selfhood, identity, and belonging, not to speak of literature, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and love letters – all those topics about which the interview questions ask plus some I add with Derrida’s help.

In a paragraph in a recent seminar Derrida expresses his sense of the way the new regime of telecommunications brings about the decline of the nation state (about which we hear so much these days) as well as a transformation of the individual’s sense of identity and privacy. Derrida stresses the strange combination of solitude and a new kind of being with others of the person using a computer to reach the World Wide Web, as well as the breakdown of traditional boundaries between inside and outside brought about by new communication technologies. As this epochal cultural displacement from the book age to the hypertext age has accelerated we have, in Derrida’s view, been ushered ever more rapidly into a threatening living space. This new electronic space, the space of television, cinema, telephone, videos, fax, e-mail, hypertext, and the Internet, has profoundly altered the economies of the self, the home, the workplace, the university, and the nation-state’s politics. These were traditionally ordered around the firm boundaries of an inside-outside dichotomy, whether those boundaries were the walls between the home’s privacy and all the world outside or the borders between the nation-state and its neighbours. The new technologies invade the home and the nation. They confound all these inside/outside divisions. On the one hand, no one is so alone as when watching television, talking on the telephone, or sitting before a computer screen reading e-mail or searching an Internet database. On the other hand, that private space has been invaded and permeated by a vast simultaneous crowd of ghostly verbal, aural, and visual images existing in cyberspace’s simulacrum of presence. Those images cross national and ethnic boundaries. They come from all over the world with a spurious immediacy that makes them all seem equally close and equally distant. The global village is not out there, but in here, or a clear distinction between inside and out no longer operates. The new technologies bring the unheimlich ‘other’ into the privacy of the home. They are a frightening threat to traditional ideas of the self as unified and as properly living rooted in one dear particular culture-bound place, participating in a single national culture, firmly protected from any alien otherness. They are threatening also to our assumption that political action is based in a single topographical location, a given nation-state with its firm boundaries, its ethnic and cultural unity.

Derrida calls this set of assumptions the ontopolitopologique. It is not surprising that since the new communications technologies challenge these assumptions there should be powerful reactions to what Derrida calls ‘une nouvelle et puissante avancée de la pro-thèse technologique qui, de mille façons, ex-proprie, dé-localise, dé-territorialise, extirpe, c’est-à-dire, au sens étymologique, donc radical de ce mot, déracine, donc désétymologise, dissocie le politique du topologique, sépare de lui-même ce qui a toujours été le concept même du politique, à savoir ce qui lie le politique au topique, à la cité, au territoire, à la frontière ethno-nationale (a new and powerful advance in the technological pros-thesis that, in a thousand ways, ex-propriates, de-localizes, de-territorializes, extirpates, that is to say, in the etymological and therefore radical sense of this word, uproots, therefore de-etymologizes, dissociates the political from the topological, separates from itself what has always been the very concept of the political, that is, what links the political to the topical, to the city, to the territory, to the ethno-national frontier)’.1

The decline or weakening of the nation state’s autonomy, the development of new electronic communities, communities in cyberspace, and the possible generation of a new human sensibility leading to a mutation of perceptual experience making new cyberspace persons, persons deprived of literature, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and love letters – these are three effects of the new telecommunications regime. No doubt one effect of this endangering of various privacies and enclosures by prosthetic telecomunication devices (as the telephone is an extension of the ear) is to exacerbate by reaction defensive nationalisms, often separatist nationalisms within once secure nation states or unions, as is the case in Africa or in the Balkans today, or to inspire the horrors of genocide and ‘ethnic cleansing’. Fear of these new technologies also generates defensive moves like attempts by the United States Congress to control the Internet, for example in the Communications Decency Act. This act is clearly unconstitutional, a breach of the right to free speech guaranteed by the United States Constitution. It has been judged so by the courts.

What is perhaps most scandalous about the radical effects of new telecommunications is the way none of these gadgets’ inventors, so far as I know, intended or foresaw any such thing as the effects their inventions have had. The inventors of the telephone or of the magnetic tape recorder were doing no more than exploiting technological possibilities, playing creatively with wires, electrical currents, vibrating diaphragms, plastic tapes, etc. These scientists had no intention, so far as I know, of putting an end to literature, love letters, philosophy, or the nation state. It is the incommensurability between cause and effect plus the accidental aspect of the huge effect, no less than a radical disruption, interruption, break, or reorientation in human history, that is so scandalous.

Some of my Chinese readers might say that these effects of new communications technologies may be salient in the West but that they are hardly important yet in China, nor are likely to be so for the foreseeable future. That may be to some degree the case, but each time I return to China I see more and more people on the street carrying cell phones. More and more people I know there can be reached by email as well as by fax. Beijing, like Los Angeles or London, has its ‘cybercafés’, places where people can drink coffee, talk, and have access to computer terminals. Eighty percent of Chinese citizens, I am told, now have access to television. Television in China, as in the United States, so I have been told, broadcasts not only national programs but local, regional programs, thereby reinforcing not only national unity but also the uniqueness and individuality of separate regions. Television is a force for what is called ‘glocalization’.

When I was last in China I was taken to visit the birthplace of Mao Tse-tung and to see the location of his wartime hidden headquarters, along with the museum of objects associated with his life. Among the letters, photographs, articles of clothing, weapons, and so on, was an antiquated tape recorder and tape player, a huge, cumbersome, and now thoroughly outmoded affair. Nevertheless, unwieldy as it looks now, that tape machine seemed to me when I saw it a powerful emblem for the indispensable role of new telecomunications in the success of the communist revolution in China, just as World War II in Europe was fought on both sides with the radio as much as with the air bomber. The magnetic tape recorder was developed in Germany during World War II as part of the war effort, just as the Internet was the fortuitous result of an American scheme called ARPANET to connect military, government, and scientific computers so that they would survive the nuclear holocaust we all feared during the Cold War. The scientists who devised the ARPANET had no intention to make possible that seemingly irresistible force for globalization, the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web as we know it now is the result of a creative or, as I should say, ‘performative’ appropriation of something that was devised for a quite different purpose.

A reflection on this might constitute a response to the interviewers’ questions eleven and twelve, the ones about ideology. It would be a rash intellectual who would dare to affirm that we have reached an ‘end of ideology’. Ideology does not vanish that easily, if ever or at all. Nor do I think that Marx’s analysis of ideology in The German Ideology has by any means lost its pertinence today. For both Marx and Louis Althusser, though in somewhat different ways, ideology is a phantasmal imaginary superstructural effect of human beings’ actual material conditions of existence, that is, the mode of manufacture, distribution, and circulation of goods under which those human beings live. For both Marx and Althusser ideology is not transformed by lecturing people or by rational argument but by changes in those material conditions of existence. Nor is ideology just an innocent subjective spectral insubstantial set of mistakes. It has power, often unfortunately, to intervene in history and make things happen, as for example in the effects in the state of California, where I live, of repressive immigration laws and of the absurd law declaring English the official language of California. Though Paul de Man was not a Marxist he was a good reader of Marx’s The German Ideology. Both Marx and Althusser might have agreed with the definition of ideology he gives in The Resistance to Theory: ‘This does not mean that fictional narratives are not part of the world and of reality; their impact upon the world may well be all too strong for comfort. What we call ideology is precisely the confusion of linguistic with natural reality, of reference with phenomenalism’ (de Man, 1986: 11).

I would add to what de Man says that it is not so much language as such that generates the delusion of ideologies, but rather language as moulded by one or another medium: voice, handwriting, print, television, or the computer connected to the Internet. All these reproductive technologies exploit the strange propensity to dwell in fictional or phantasmal spaces that each human being has. The bodies of readers, television viewers, users of the Internet – bodies in the sense of eyes, ears, nervous systems, brains, passions – are used, by way of an extravagant propensity peculiar, at least in its hyperbolic form, to human beings among living creatures, to become the theater of fictions, phantasmagoria, swarms of ghosts. We lend our bodies to the bodiless and then are prone to act in the material world on the strength of that fictitious embodiment. Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, and Conrad’s Lord Jim acted in the social world on the basis of fantasies incarnated in them through reading books, in a haunting that the reader of these novels repeats in reading about it, as he or she raises in his or her turn the ghosts of Don Quixote, Emma Bovary, and Lord Jim. That is the work or working of ideology. How much more powerful even than books are these new communications technologies to do that work!

New communication technologies are making a quantum leap in the generation and imposition of ideologies. They do this by a kind of hallucinatory hypnotic conjuration. This is easy to see, though by no means easy, or perhaps even possible, to understand clearly. The means of understanding it are caught in the thing to be understood. It used to be the newspaper. Now it is television, cinema, and, increasingly, the Internet. These technologies, it might be argued, are in a sense ideologically neutral. They will transmit whatever they are told to say. Nevertheless, as Marshall McLuhan notoriously said, ‘the medium is the message’. I take it this means, as Derrida in his own way is saying, that a change in medium will change the message. To put this another way, ‘the medium is the ideology’. Ideology, for de Man, as for Marx and Althusser in their somewhat different ways, is not an easily correctable error existing at the level of rational consciousness. It is a powerful unconscious error. In ideology, says Althusser, ‘men represent their real conditions of existence to themselves in imaginary form’ (1972: 163). De Man’s way of putting this, in the passage I have cited, is to say that what we call ideology is a confusion between linguistic and natural reality. In ideology something that is a purely linguistic phantasmal or spectral creation is taken to be an accurate representation of things as they are. This error is taken so much for granted as to be unconscious. Of course that is the way things are, we say to ourselves. Since an ideological aberration is so unconscious, so taken for granted, it is impossible to eradicate it simply by pointing out that it is an error, just as you cannot cure someone of being in love by pointing out the defects of the beloved.

I would add to these formulations, as I have already said, the claim that it is not just language as such that creates and enforces ideology, but language or other signs as generated, stored, retrieved, transmitted, and received by one or another technological prosthesis. This is as true of manuscript and then print culture as it is of digital culture today. Althusser lists in the essay already cited ‘the communications ISA (press, radio and television, etc.)’ (1972: 143), as one, along with education, the political system, the juridical system, and so on, among the various Ideological State Apparatuses. The regime of print generated the possibility of literature, love letters, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and the modern concept of the nation state. The new regime of telecommunications is now generating new forms replacing all these. These new media – cinema, television, the Internet – are not just passive matrices that transmit in unchanged form ideological or truth-telling content. They shape what is ‘sent’ by their means and transform that ‘content’, willy-nilly, into expressions of the messages the medium itself puissantly imposes. That is what Derrida means by saying ‘in this respect the political regime is secondary’. You cannot write or send love letters or literature on the World Wide Web. When you try to do so they turn into something else. Henry James’s The Golden Bowl becomes a different thing when I download it from cyberspace. Nor are politics and the sense of citizenship the same to a user of the World Wide Web or to a television-watcher as to an old-fashioned reader of the newspapers. The transformation of political life by television has been strikingly evident in recent presidential elections in the United States. People vote on the basis of the way the candidates come across on television, not on the basis of an objective assessment of alternative programs, nor any longer on the basis of what they read in the newspapers. Fewer people read newspapers at all.

It is easy enough to specify what are the most salient features of the new set of (no doubt ideological) presuppositions being transmitted now everywhere in the world by the new regime of telecommunications. It is easy because many authorities have already told us what they are, among them Jacques Derrida in the passages I have cited. The print age made possible the modern nation state, the imperialist conquest of the world, colonialism, revolutions like the French and American revolutions, psycholanalysis, love letters, and philosophy from Descartes through Locke and Hume to Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger (the latter three already unwilling and anxiously part of the age of the typewriter and the gramophone).

I do not say print was the single ’cause’ of these features of culture from the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries. No doubt other factors contributed, other inventions like the steam engine, the postal system, the spinning jenny, gunpowder in its reinvented European form, more and more powerful and efficient guns, and so on, just as the internal combustion engine, the jet plane, the transistor, rocket engines, and so on have been necessary for the second industrial revolution. What I do claim, however, is that all these features of the now fading culture depended on print, on the newspaper, on clandestine printing presses turning out manifestos, on the printers who brought out, sometimes against censorship, the books of Descartes, Locke, Richardson, the Marquis de Sade, and so on through Dickens, Balzac, Marx, and Dostoevsky, down to Proust and Joyce.

Print encouraged and reinforced the assumption of the separation of subject and object, the separate unity and autonomy of the self; the authority of the ‘author’; the difficulty or perhaps impossibility of knowing verifiably the mind and heart of the other person; the regime of representation or of a certain kind of mimesis (‘There is reality’, we used to say. ‘Here is its representation in the printed book, to be measured by its truth of correspondence to the extra-linguistic reality that is out there’); the assumption of the nation state’s ethnic unity and autonomy. reinforced by all those state apparatuses Althusser lists, including the ‘Communications ISA’; the enforcement of laws and regulations by printing them; the constant reinforcement of a certain national ideology through the newspaper; the development of the modern research university as the place where the ethos of a given nation state is inculcated in future citizens and servants of that state. ‘Give me control of the printing presses’, it used to be said, ‘and I shall control the whole nation’. Now such a person might say, ‘Give me control of all the televisions stations and all the radio talk shows, and I shall control the world’.

All these features of print culture, the reader will note, depend on relatively rigid boundaries, frontiers, walls: those between one person and another, one class, race, or gender and another, one medium and another (print, picture, and music), one nation state and another, consciousness and the objects of which consciousness is conscious, extra-linguistic things as they are and the representation of those things in language, one time and another (as reinforced, for example, by the tense structure of Western languages as used in printed historical narratives or in novels).

When the printing press gradually gives way to cinema, television, and the Internet, as is now happening with increasing rapidity, all that changes. All those once solid frontiers are blurred. The self dissolves into a multiplicity of selves, each generated by whatever prosthetic device I happen to be using. That is one reason why love letters will be no longer possible. I become a different self on the telephone or on the Internet, no longer the same person as the one who wrote love letters and sent them through the postal system. The subject/object dichotomy on which philosophy from Descartes to Husserl depended vanishes also, since the television or cinematic or Internet screen is neither objective nor subjective but an extension of a mobile subjectivity that is ‘wired’ into it. That is one thing Derrida may mean by saying the new regime of telecommunications will bring an end to philosophy. The opposition between representation and reality also disappears. All that swarm of television or cinematic or Internet images, so many ghosts invoked or conjured into existence by the machines, breaks down the distinction between fiction and reality, just as it breaks down the distinction between present, past, and future. It is often difficult to distinguish between news and advertising in television ‘shows’. A printed novel, at least in Western languages, tells the reader by the system of verb tenses whether something being described is to be thought of as taking place in an imaginary present or whether it belongs to something to be thought of as past for the present-tense narration. A television or cinematic image belongs to a strange ghostly species of non-present present, nor is it always easy to tell whether something is ‘eyewitness news’, that is, something that is claimed to be happening at this moment, or whether it is a ‘simulation’, as they say. Many people believed and perhaps still believe that the United States did not really land men on the moon, but that the images of the moon-landing were created in some television studio. How would you be sure, since the only testimony is those dancing images on the screen?

The new communications media are also transforming the university, for better and for worse, making it less and less a self-enclosed ivory tower serving the interests of a single nation state, more and more penetrated by those transnational corporations that pay for its research. The new research university is also a place where new transnational communities and solidarities can be developed.

The boundaries of the nation-state are also being broken down, for example by the Internet, since more or less instantaneous access to sites from all over the world is possible to anyone with a computer, a modem, and a service provider. The Internet is a powerful force for globalization and for the weakening of the nation state. The frontiers between the different media, finally, are also more and more erased. Visual images, auditory sequences (such as music), and words are all indifferently transformed by digitizing into streams of zeroes and ones. Like television and cinema, the computer monitor with attached audio speakers mixes inextricably images that appeal to eye, ear, and the ability to decipher written language. The new regime of telecommunications is incorrigibly a multimedia affair. Reading as the private and exclusive activity of a man, woman, or child ‘curled up with a good book’ gives way to ‘surround sight’ and ‘surround sound’. The latter inundate ear and eye with a swarm of ghosts that are neither present nor non-present, neither incarnated nor disincarnated, neither here nor there, neither dead nor undead. These spectres have enormous power to invade the mind, feelings, and imagination of the person who raises them by pressing the button on the remote control, and to bend mind and feelings to their shapes. Since many of these phantoms are figures of the utmost violence, as in so much of cinema and television today, it is as if the fears that in the old print world lurked in the depths of the unconscious are now brought out into the open, for better or for worse, where we can behold them face to face, see and hear them, not just read about them. The distinction between consciousness and unconsciousness, the basis of psychoanalysis, no longer holds. That, I suppose, is what Derrida may mean by saying the new regime of telecommunications is bringing an end to psychoanalysis.

Of course all those books on my shelves are also powerful instruments for the conjuring of ghosts when I read them. They are therefore powerful tools for reinforcing the ideologies embodied in the medium of the printed book: the ghosts of Hegel’s ‘Geist‘ or Heidegger’s ‘Sein‘ when I read Hegel or Heidegger, the ghosts of the unconscious or of Freud’s patients, Irma, Anna, or Dora, when I read psychoanalysis, the swarming ghosts of all those characters in all those novels when I read works of fiction: Fielding’s Tom Jones, Stendhal’s Fabrizio, Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, George Eliot’s Dorothea, Henry James’s Isabel, Joyce’s Leopold Bloom. All books, as Friedrich Kittler says, ‘are books of the dead, like those from Egypt that stand at the beginning of [Western!] literature’ (1997: 37). Books are so many powerful conjuring devices for raising all those phantoms, the phantoms of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literature.

The ghosts on the television or cinema screen, however, seem much more objective, public, and shared, much less dependent on my own effort of conjuration than is the private act of reading a book. Moreover, as I have said, these new telecommunications technologies, so many new devices for raising ghosts in a new way, also generate new ideological matrices. They break down, for example, the barrier between subject and object, consciousness and the objects of consciousness, that is presupposed by Hegel’s Phenomenology.

What should we do in this new and unprecedented situation? Most of the interview questions invite a diagnostic or constative response, that is a description or critique of the present situation. A few of the questions, however, invite a different sort of answer, that is an active performative engagement with the present situation or an intervention in that situation to change it for the better. An example is question three: ‘How to recuperate or mobilize counter-hegemonic agency or human praxis in a world so penetrated by capital? Is it possible to form an alliance of historic bloc against the dehumanizing total system?’ My response so far would change the question a little to ask how it is possible to recuperate or mobilize counter-hegemonic agency or human praxis in a world so penetrated by the new regime of telecommunications that is such an important a feature of the present global economic system. As I have suggested, with Derrida’s help, the new telecommunications regime may have been created by capitalism but it exceeds its creators and takes on a force and life of its own. That is what Derrida means by saying ‘In this respect the political regime is secondary’. This is also what gives us our chance: the openness of the new telecommunications to be appropriated for the mobilization or recuperation, the creation of the new alliances, question three invites us to imagine or project.

How can this happen? One answer is to recognize that critique or diagnosis always has a performative as well as a constative dimension. My answer to the questions has deflected the questions in an active intervention toward taking more account of new communications technologies. Though these technologies have a powerful effect on the meaning of what is encoded in the new forms, nevertheless they can be appropriated for new forms of co-operative human praxis against ‘the dehumanizing total system’. The appropriation of new communications technology can take place in the name of new cyberspace communities of diversity. I call, these, following Bill Readings (1996), ‘communities of dissensus’. Giorgio Agamben calls this association of diversities ‘the coming community’ (1983).

The new communications technologies can also be used to facilitate performative acts of political responsibility. Those acts respond to a demand coming from the future anterior of that ‘democracy to come’ as a sort of possible impossibility. If it were programmed as an inevitable future, if it were ‘possible’ in the sense of certainly foreseeable, it would not require our praxis. It is only as unforeseeable and as impossible without a break in the programmed continuity that it invites or demands or obliges our performative praxis.

A model for this might be that sentence in the United States Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. On the one hand this sentence asserts that these truths are self-evident. They do not require political action to be made true. On the other hand the sentence says ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident’. ‘We hold’ is a performative speech act. It creates the truths it claims are self-evident and invites whoever reads these words to endorse them, to countersign them, to work for their fulfilment, as an ancestor of mine, Samuel Hopkins of Rhode Island, signed the United States Declaration of Independence. The words invite us to work towards their fulfilment in further performative acts. The promise embodied in those words has by no means yet been entirely fulfilled in the United States. Though the words belong to the past, the past of the moment of the founding of our country, they invite from the future, as a future anterior, their more perfect fulfilment, calling to us from the horizon of that democracy to come.


1. From a recent unpublished seminar on witnessing and questions of responsibility, my translation.


Agamben, G. (1983) The Coming Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Althusser, L. (1972) ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards An Investigation)’, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Asensi, M. and Miller, J. H. (1999) Black Holes (Cultural Memory in the Present). California: Stanford University Press.

De Man, P. (1988) The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Derrida, J. (1988) ‘Telepathy’, The Oxford Literary Review, 10: 3-41.

Derrida, J. (1987) The Post Card. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

Kittler, F. (1997) Essays: Literature, Media, Information Systems (edited by J. Johnston). Amsterdam: G+B Arts International.

Readings, B. (1996) The University in Ruins. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Rickels, L. (1988) Aberrations of Mourning. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Rickels, L. (1989) ‘Kafka and Freud on the Telephone’, Modern Austrian Literature: Journal of the International Arthur Schnitzler Association, 22, 3/4: 211-225.

Ronell, A. (1989) The Telephone Book. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Copyright © J. Hillis Miller, 2000.

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