From Internet to InteLnet: Electronic Media and Intellectual Creativity – An Interview with Mikhail Epshtein

Mikhail Epshtein.Mikhail Epshtein, a specialist in Russian culture, is also a philosopher, literary critic, essayist, and author of twelve books. His new book “Transculural Experiments: Russian and American Models of Creative Communication” (with Ellen Berry) is forthcoming from St.Martin’s Press (Scholarly and Reference Division), fall 1999. Epshtein lives in Atlanta (Georgia) and teaches at Emory University. He runs an internet site called “InteLnet” (English, new site, English, archival site, Russian. The site contains what he calls the Book of Books (Book 2), or Interactive Anthology of Alternative Ideas, a work that consists of virtual books (titles and fragments), a “Bank of new ideas,” and other projects.

Evgeny Shklovsky: How did you come to create “InteLnet” and The Book of Books?

Mikhail Epshtein: The source of both ideas is the same, a feeling that the traditional consecutive, syntagmatic format no longer works for texts. Consciousness cannot be presented as a textual sequence, just like an ocean cannot be presented as a river, a stream of water flowing in one direction only. I advocate a way of thinking which I would call paradigmatic and transcultural.

E. S.: What do you mean by that?

M. E.: I mean by that a space of consciousness in which all of its parts, themes and fragments coexist. I have always found it difficult to translate this spacial dimension into the language of time, to articulate one thing after another, rather than juxtapose them. In 1982, I started to work with the genre of the catalog that collects all possible judgments and opinions on a given subject by arranging them in virtual space, outside of any fixed sequence. In 1984, I started writing The Book of Books. I came up with that title only later, initially it was called the Dictionary of Alternative Thinking (Slovar’ al’ternativnogo myshleniia – SAM). It is a system of alternative ideas that question the established paradigms in the humanities. I was not acquainted with Thomas Kuhn’s Paradigms of Scientific Revolutions at that time, but I never stopped sensing that practically every generally accepted decision that is made in the humanities (philosophy, literature, ethics, linguistics) leaves room for an alternative, yet unexpressed, decision.

E. S.: A critique of the consciousness of the humanities, then?

M. E.: Not so much a critique, but rather an attempt to think of an alternative territory for the humanities, a territory that would include ideas and disciplines that possess their own reason and validity, without however forming part of the canonical history of consciousness. There are so many theories and concepts that were never conceived and realized in the history of ideas,because they failed to find their exponents. There are especially many gaps in Russian intellectual history because its actual and potential creators have been so dramatically suppressed, silenced, murdered, or exiled. In general, not all living people have the propensity to become thinkers and authors; perhaps for the same mysterious reason not all authors have the propensity to become living people. But their muted voices and unexpressed ideas still have the potential of shaping the future and of resounding in our consciousness, asking for articulation. I constantly asked myself: whose voices are prompting me the ideas which are looming in my mind but which do not quite belong to me. As Alexei Losev once noted in The Dialectic of Myth: “I will never believe that the battling voices inside me are mine as well. They are undoubtedly special creatures, independent of myself, which settled inside me, raising argument and uproar.” I am very interested in the biographical background and the personal identity of every such “alien” thought. Who is its author, Gavrilov or Kurilov? Or perhaps, Eikhenbaum–not the famous Boris, but the unknown Sergey… I am more interested in the name of a philosophy than in the philosophy of the name. It is clear, for example, that Kurilov’s philosophy is somewhat more refined and decadent than Gavrilov’s, which contains a lot of simplicity and even coarseness, yet at the same time also a certain angelic purity. There is nothing new in such thinking on behalf of others. After all, it was Socrates and his interlocutors who whispered his treatises into Plato’s ears… Without an author’s more or less overt collaboration with someone else, it is almost impossible to externalize and articulate any ideas: Hegel spoke on behalf of the Absolute Idea, Marx on behalf of the world proletariat, Bakhtin on behalf of the Marxists Medvedev and Voloshinov… Philosophical thinking, as distinct from everyday thinking, is the play with the possibilities of thought, the sphere of what is “thinkable” or “conceivable,” of what belongs to a mental state-of-being rather than to a real thinking individual. It was not someone called Hegel who was actually thinking this and that, it was the “thinkability” of world history on behalf of the Absolute Spirit that expressed itself in his philosophy. “It is rainy.” “It is thinky.” In The Book of Books I tried to fill the gaps that exist within the Russian humanities by imagining those thinkers and theories who were irrecoverably lost for the past, who never appeared on the historical record but are still vibrant and productive for contemporary thought. For example, the Philosophical Encyclopedic Dictionary published in Moscow in 1989 contains 815 pages. Yet if we were to add all those concepts, terms, movements, and thinkers that were left out of this dictionary–not, I should stress, by its compilers, but by the history of thought itself–then we would have to compile an additional volume of the same or even larger size – precisely the volume I started working on in the 1980s.

E. S.: Is this a historical fantasy? What is its genre? Does it have any precedents?

M. E.: I would call this genre a virtual document. Unlike science fiction, and fiction in general, this genre proceeds not from reality to fantasy, but rather in the opposite direction: it creates a hypothesis and gradually incorporates this hypothesis into reality, a movement by which the virtual document becomes inreasingly real. If in the beginning the document is “documentary” only in form, later it absorbs and transforms reality and becomes a document in the proper sense of this word. The truth evolves on the basis of falsification. For instance, the Rosicrucians, a powerful European mystical movement, began in 1614 in Germany with the publication of a false document that described the life of the wandering knight Rosenkreuz and his brotherhood. In all likelihood, this brotherhood never existed, yet the historical movement originated on the basis of this fiction. A virtual document is not documentary in the beginning, but it has the chance to become documentary in so far as reality begins to correspond with it. Another example is the Cabala, a system of Jewish mysticism, which also started with a falsification: the authorship of its foundational book Zohar was attributed to the 2nd-century Palestinian rabbinic teacher Simeon ben Yohai and thus gained enormous authority, yet, in fact, this book was written more than a thousand years later by the Spanish Jew Moses De Leon (1250-1305). The major movement in Christian and especially Orthodox thought, apophatic theology, originated from the writings of someone who lived in the 5th or the 6th century and who hid behind the name of the Athenian Dionysios the Areopagite (1st c. A.D), an acquaintance of the Apostle Paul who is mentioned in the New Testament. The value of these forgeries does not diminish because they stand at the beginning rather than at the end of the intellectual movements, movements which they not only portray but, in fact, initiated. A document can correlate with reality from two sides: from the side of the past–a factual document, or from the side of the future–a virtual document. A virtual document produces a reality similar to what it portrays, i.e. instead of reflecting reality it brings reality in correspondence with its contents. If we imagine history as unfolding from the future to the present rather than from the past, then the so-called “forgery” turns out to be the primary document which signals the beginning of a certain historical process that is then projected on the past, from where it supposedly had originated. For instance, in order for the Cabalistic movement to start at a given historical moment, it has to receive its own book of revelation, which in order to gain authority has to be presented as a document from a distant past. At this point we witness a certain temporal interference, overlapping waves of times: the historical future casts its mythical shadow on the past, retroactively inscribing in the past its own cause and origins.

E. S.: How did you benefit from the Internet?

M. E.: The discovery was staggering. My consciousness had finally acquired a technique of adequate self-description. Empowered by the Web, thought is free to start its route from any place and to proceed in any order, without squeezing itself in the temporal sequence of sentences. There is the book, and then there is the dictionary. For me, these are two principally different verbal universes. For me, a dictionary is structurally superior to a book. A variety of books are merely the illustration of possible uses of one dictionary. Usually, the opposite is assumed, in the sense that there are many books on the basis of which, by compiling their quotations, a dictionary is put together. It is of course possible to put together a dictionary of Russian philosophy by dissecting and indexing many texts that belong to this tradition. However, for me, texts and books originate, on the contrary, in the “invisible” dictionary, like speech originates in the rules of grammar. What we have in a dictionary or an encyclopedia is a system of concepts, each one of them subject to a myriad of interpretations. On this basis we can produce as many texts as we wish, each illustrating one or several dictionary entries. A book on cooking, for example, is an illustration of the term “cook.” Thus a dictionary extends into the infinity of texts that present competing definitions and elaborations of its entries. A dictionary is the prototype of a whole library. What attracted me to the Internet was precisely the fact that it organizes texts by the methods of the dictionary.

E. S.: What is the difference between Internet and the “InteLnet” you have invented?

M. E.: The Internet is a worldwide web, “InteLnet” is an intellectual web. The Internet is mainly informational network that absorbs texts, newspapers, advertisements, facts, etc. I am interested in the Internet not as a storehouse or a display of ideas or units of information, but rather as a new method of organizing and producing thought. What is the Internet, in its most primitive sense? The capacity to switch from one area of the universe to another by merely pushing a button–from one layer of information to another, from the history of the Papua to the physics of plasma. What does the Internet contribute to the humanistic thought? Technology, cybernetics, electronics have all done their job in creating the Web. But how can philosophy fill in these endless vessels of communication? This brings us to the ancient myth concerning the competition between Athena and the skillful weaver Arachne, as narrated in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. When Athena saw that Arachne had produced a flawless tapestry, one finer even than the goddess of wisdom herself could weave, she transformed the proud princess into a spider that crawled off into the recesses of her web. The lesson to be drawn from this myth is, firstly, that thinking is also a sort of weaving and, secondly, that wisdom should absorb the beauty and complexity of the web rather than destroy it. We need a new tactility of thought, a “spiderism” that would be able to cross instantaneously the boundaries of various disciplines. The question is whether humanistic thought is able to match the technological possibilities of the Internet. InteLnet was designed to become a humanistic replica of Internet, an instrument of its own self-consciousness.

E. S.: Have you been disappointed on this score?

M. E.: “InteLnet” has several branches. One of the most important ones is the “Bank of New Ideas,” an interactive system that allows all interested users to deposit their ideas in a designated site. The deposited idea is thus registered and preserved for future generations. This investment serves as an act of patent for these new ideas and as a trigger for their dissemination. A month after its inception, in August 1995, “InteLnet” received an award from the London Institute of Social Inventions, which now hosts a project that has incorporated the principles first exposed in “InteLnet,” except that they are technologically much better equipped thanI was (and am). Thus, I suppose, technically, “InteLnet” was successful. However, technical thinking will probably always be ahead of humanist thinking, Arachne will always (not only in the ancient myth) win a weaving competition with Athena. It seems as if there are many more channels of communication than essential tidings to fill them. Media by far outpace and surpass their message. The opposite was true before the advent of the TV and the Web. Then, there were never enough channels to communicate important issues which could have changed the life of humanity. In the future, it will rather be the case that there will not be enough substance to fill the numerous channels of information. There will be more and more speaking about what is basically not worth speaking about, simply because the technical possibility to speak exists… What is called “postmodernity”, with its aesthetic superficiality, intertextual games and self-irony, is perhaps one of the first reactions to the inevitable degradation of the message in the proliferating systems of communication.

E. S.: Is InteLnet primarily a pedagogical project?

M. E.: Frankly, I don’t like the notion of “pedagogy” per se which, literally, means “leading kids” and, in its Greek origin, referred to a slave who escorted children to school. I don’t like the didactic maxim “repetition is the mother of learning.” I find more instructive the art of improvization, a certain mutual unpredictability in the interaction of independent minds, including the interaction between a teacher and a student. With InteLnet, I intended to create an intellectual impulse, a Dionisyan ecstasy of mind, that would transcend the boundaries of one consciousness and usher in various movements, circles, sects, or thinking communities. InteLnet is a mechanism for the dissemination of the so-called “memes” (from “memory”), intellectual “genes” capable of maximum productivity and designed for the generation of new intellectual movements and systems of thought. That impulse does not imply a will to power, it is rather a will to think, the will of one thought to join another thought, the desire to be no longer held within the frame of a single scientific or scholarly paradigm. Such “nomadic” thinking constantly goes beyond its own boundaries and, therefore, seeks new authors, transcending into new fields and disciplines.

E. S.: Your attitude towards virtuality was expressed a while ago…

M. E.: Reality is usually contrasted with non-reality, with the categories of the possible and necessary. Such a contrasting is appropriate within the context of modal distinctions, but not everything can be included within such a context. Virtuality is supra-modal, it collapses the distinction between the actual and possible. This theme is discussed in my forthcoming book (in Russian) “The Philosophy of the Possible and Modalities of Thinking: An Introduction to the Post-Critical Epoch.”

E. S.: The Book of Books is a metaphor of culture that endlessly multiplies its own interpretations, and thus could be likened to a living tree whose branches grow out of other branches. To what extent is such a comparison justified?

M. E.: Quite justified. I have developed the idea of “transculture” where culture itself turns into an object of creation. How is that possible? Usually culture is the result of many creative efforts in various areas or disciplines: someone draws a picture, another person writes a poem, yet another composes music or invents a formula, and the combination of all this becomes culture. But how can one create a work in the “genre” of culture? Isn’t this tantamount to making a clap with one hand (as is suggested in a Zen koan). I think that Russian culture, unlike its Western counterpart, is inclined to make culture itself the object of cultural creativity. This happens in part out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the achievements of the divided and highly specialized sciences and arts. Skryabin, Berdyaev, Merezhkovsky, Viacheslav Ivanov and all the artists belonging to the so-called “Silver Age” raved about the idea of an “apocalyptic” transformation of the entire culture, and even Marxism was accepted in Russia as a project that would transform culture as a whole. In the 20th century, culture suffered from this totalizing experiment because it was brought under the governance of politics (which comprises only one small segment of culture). Totalitarianism means the usurpation of the entire culture by one of its parts–in the case of the 20th century, politics. In the future, totalitarian danger could also come from technology, science, art, or even morality. What I call “transculture” and what proceeds from the Russian tradition of “culturology” is a level of cultural self-consciousness whereby culture can organize and transform itself rather than be a victim of various totalizations. The transcultural project defies not only the dominance of politics over culture, but also all totalitarian claims of technologism, scientism, aestheticism, moralism, religious fundamentalism, and other “isms” that impose the characteristics of one part of culture on its whole. Transculture traverses the boundaries of racially, ethnically, politically and professionally divided cultures.

After all, what is culture? It is a system that releases people from natural necessities and physical dependencies through symbolic mediations. For example, “taste” is the measure of relief from starvation, “love” is the measure of relief from sexual starvation, and a “word” is the measure of relief from the sensual pressure emanating from an object. In overcoming natural determinations, culture simultaneously creates its own system of determinations, symbolic dependencies in the form of beliefs, customs and rituals, what has been called “the prison house of language.” Consequently, there is a need for a new mechanism that would make it possible to escape from this prison. The end of the 20th century has taken steps in precisely that direction. Many people who position themselves beyond or outside the culture to which they belong by birth acquire a transcultural consciousness that arises on the borderline of different cultures. In the West, especially in the USA, there is the idea of “multiculturalism” which asserts that all cultures are equally worthy, but that the individual belongs to one culture only, i.e., to the culture into which s/he is physically born. In this paradigm, cultural identity is attributed to race, gender, or ethnic group. I find this idea very conservative, even reactionary because it reduces culture to its natural origins whereas culture is constructed precisely by acts of “disorigination,” by routes of escape from nature. It is true, of course, that natural origins can never be fully deleted from the symbolic system of culture. There is hence a recurrent tension between “inborn” and “constructed” properties. Since culture is still “natural” in many respects, it needs to be “culturized” by a second order of liberation and “dis/origination” which is enacted by what I call transculture. Of course, just like culture does not simply abolish the human being’s existence in nature but rather adds to it a new level of meaning and value, transculture doesn’t abolish a person’s existence in the culture in which s/he was born and raised; it rather adds a new level of release from these secondary, symbolic determinations. What I am trying to do in the Book of Books is to offer an alternative study of culture that does not simply describe existing cultures but instead attempts to create a field of possibilities for new cultures.

E. S.: You have also written about the informational explosion and about the trauma of postmodernity. Is the Book of Books an antidote to that trauma, or is it rather one of its sickly consequences?

M. E.: The Book of Books focuses on the transformative rather than the informational capacities of consciousness. What is important to me is consciousness itself, and how a fact, once it has become conscious, can undergo many unexpected semantic transformations. The smaller the amount of information, the more I feel the intensity of that transformation. To become conscious of one meager fact and then to observe how new sciences, new disciplines, new movements proliferate from its divergent interpretations–this is the hermeneutic joy underlying the construction of the Book of Books. From various combinations of very few facts one can create a number of new theories which indeed occurred during the history of thought. It is not the information, the sum total of facts that is essential here. It is thought itself that is, like nature, valuable in the diversity of its creative forms and picturesque landscapes. After all, to look at a pine tree and to see it as a future log or a telegraph-poll is not the best way of contemplating a tree. Similarly, to see a thought simply as a unit of information or as an element of science, technology, or ideology is not the best way to perceive active, living thought formations that are as at least as organic for human beings as the natural environment is. This is, in short, the discipline “ecology of thinking” that I suggested in the 1980s.

E. S.: In the Book of Books you invite anyone to become your co-author. Is this an act of self-sacrifice, an invitation to a dialog, or both?

M. E.: It is essential to me that thought should form its own environment by overstepping the boundaries of individual consciousness. In InteLnet, one of the techniques of the expansion of consciousness was the Bank of new ideas: the thoughts of other people were accumulated on this site and became open to general observation and dissemination. Now I would like to build a road in the opposite direction. The Book of Books site hosts the “germs” of ideas, theories and disciplines designed to reach the consciousness of other people under the condition that this consciousness is prepared to adopt them, to take responsibility for these drafts and fragments, to develop them into the more mature and refined forms of books, articles, or essays. I may, for example, post an idea or a project on the web, thereby asking others to become the foster parents of this project by turning it into an article or a book. That book will in the process become their complete property. I am happy to relinquish my authorial rights to other people who will adopt and consummate these ideas. After all, these ideas were not quite mine from the beginning. Though I did not take them from from books, they were nevertheless “in the air,” like alien, unknown voices seeking their incarnation through me. As I have already said, to me, a dictionary is a blueprint or a prototype of the future library. I would like the Book of Books to grow into the 21th-century Library of the Humanities, a library of which we in Russia were deprived in the 20th century because the thinking portion of our population was to a large extent exterminated.

E. S.: Where does the concept of truth fit into the endless intellectual possibilities and thought transformations you have mentioned? Is this an essential notion for you?

M. E.: Yes, the concept of truth is precious to me, like the lost sheep of the contemporary intellectual herd. On that score I disagree with many postmodern theorists. In fact, the entire 20th century is an all-round critique and denunciation of truth, beginning with Marx and Nietszche who replace the notion of truth with concepts such as power, will, desire, instinct, class, and political interest. This is a favorite topic with Foucault and Lyotard: truth as a tool for asserting power. Even where such thinking is propagated within a leftist, neo-Marxist, political frame, and aspires to fight the institutions of power that it critiques, the result is all too frequently the direct opposite. If any truth is a form of power or a struggle for power, and if any rude violation of the truth is no more delusional than the sacrificial service to it, – then all resistance to power is void, for there is nothing but power. If “love you neighbor” and “kill your rival” are both statements and strategies of power how can I discriminate between them and oppose the power that kills? I have always thought that truth is the place that allows one to stand outside of power, even to resist power. Truth makes us free. If there is no difference between power and truth, then there is no hope. If reason has no ability to exceed the limits of power, if the gigantic historical work of the human mind and imagination contains nothing beyond the will for power, then any opposition is impossible and the leftist idea, without leaving its place, turns into a totalitarian one. It seems to me that, in this regard, leftist postmodern theorists such as Deleuze, Foucault, Lyotard, or Jameson, are unintentionally preparing the ground for a new, postmarxist totalitarianism. In America, this can be seen also in the context of the intense politicization of all discourse, including the academic one: the epistemology of power passes into the hermenutics of suspicion. All discourse is immediately interpreted in terms of power, how it serves certain political strategies and goals.

E. S.: What exactly do you mean by truth?

M. E.: Truth is the ability of my mind to reach another mind, to overstep its own boundaries, the ability to realize my own mistakes and to recognize the righteousness of the other position. If there were no truth, then I would always be right, and the mistake would be that of the other. Truth is what makes possible our errors, it is that which is not subject to our strength or desire. Perhaps we are not granted the capacity to know the truth, but we are supposed to know that we do not know it. If there were no truth, there would be no obstacles to our absolute righteousness and to the war of all against all. What I am searching for as an author is not the persuasion and consent of my readers but rather their growing disagreement and ability to dispute my thought. I am constructing my discourse in such an exaggerated, accentuated manner that it would be impossible for a thoughtful reader to accept my position completely. I want to provoke in others a resistance to my thought and, in this way, instigate a variety of alternative judgments and interpretations. It is the difference of opinions that delineates the place of truthÑit emerges precisely in the gap between diverging positions. Truth is what we can disagree on, it is what we can inquire into without finding an answer, it is what lies beyond my and your consciousness, and what, therefore, demands a consciousness greater than ours. I do not like what is called “critical thinking.” I can construct alternatives for existing ideas and disciplines, but the construction of alternatives is not a critique that says: I know where the truth lies. Truth is not something that needs to be claimed, it is, on the contrary, something that prompts us to acknowledge our own ignorance and delusion. Closest to the truth would be an idea that not only challenges established opinions but also prompts a challenge to itself and thus emerges on the boundary of two disagreements.

Translated by Anahit Simonyan. Revised and expanded by Mikhail Epstein.

A different version of this interview was previously published in Russian under the title “Eti idei – iz vozdukha. Kak rozhdaetsia Kniga knig” (“These ideas are from the air. How the Book of books is born”), in Nezavisimaia gazeta, #19 (1835), February 4, 1999, pp. 9, 11.