Philosophy and the Internet

Philosophy and the Internet

BRLSI 12.7.16

Dr Matthew Edward Harris

Abstract

The internet has had a paradoxical effect with regard to truth claims. On the one hand, it has hastened the dissolution of ‘strong’ truth-claims by creating an irreducibly plural and decentred world. On the other, the internet allows a retreat into a world in which you are surrounded only by your own worldview, accessing information through one-sidedly religious, ethnic and/or political filters. Beyond truth-claims, the internet has raised important questions for ethics, with the anonymity it provides acting as a ‘shield’ to one’s true identity. This lecture will explore the philosophical and ethical issues pertaining to the internet.

 

  1. Vattimo: the internet, reality and value
  1. Vattimo and the internet

A piece of information and communications technology accessed currently by almost half of the world’s population, the internet in any form similar to how we recognize it today was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 out of research at CERN. A more complex, predominantly military history of the internet goes back up to two decades further. I am not going to be concentrating on the technical nature of the internet. Rather, as the setting and title of my talk suggest, I will be looking at some of its philosophical implications, especially as we are now well beyond the dark ages of dialup and most of us are well and truly ‘wired.’ To begin with in Part 1, I am going to be looking at the internet through the lens of the postmodern Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo (b. 1936).[1] You will have to bear with me for about ten minutes while I go through some quite dense theory, but I will summarise it in a way I believe everyone should understand, and then I will be able to get on to more concrete, familiar issues to do with the internet, albeit looking at them in a philosophical manner, referring back to Vattimo’s theory.

Still alive and writing, Vattimo is interesting as he was something of a prophet of the internet; his writings on the effects of information and communications technology in the 1980s applied even more obviously to the consequences of the dawn and rise of the internet in the 1990s and beyond. It is difficult to find an overall philosophy of the internet and/or the effect of internet in relation to the traditional aims and areas of philosophy. Often one will find, as with the ‘Internet of things’ conference at York University in 2014, that the internet is related to particular issues, such as the philosophy of power and economics, rather than traditional philosophical concerns such as ‘metaphysics,’ ‘truth,’ ‘reality’ and ‘ethics.’ What Vattimo offers is an engagement with postmodernity and info-communications technology, grounded in the history of Being (of what ‘is’), which is really the history of metaphysics. Vattimo sees the internet as the mechanism for our liberation, primarily from metaphysics (which shall be explained below) and consequently from oppression. In Part 2 I will be questioning this assumption.

            Vattimo’s starting point, philosophically is a criticism of metaphysics. Literally ‘beyond’ physics, Vattimo follows his main philosophical inspiration, Martin Heidegger, in understanding metaphysics as a total organizational principle, a fixed foundation for knowledge and a touchstone of truth. By this he thinks that the essence of metaphysics—the establishing of a permanent and certain ground for truth—silences questioning and closes down debate, reducing everything back to an unchanging grund (ground), whether it be Platonic forms, Aristotelian categories or the Kantian numinous. Metaphysics, through the use of reason, establishes foundations upon which truth is made objective and to which one ‘must give one’s assent or conform’ (Vattimo 1999: 43). Technology, the fulfilment of metaphysics, aims to link ‘all entities on the planet into predictable and controllable causal relationships’ (Vattimo 1988: 40). Calculability and control are at the heart of metaphysics’ essence. From Plato onwards, the history of Being (of what ‘is’) is a history of metaphysics, up to the ‘death of God’ in the philosophy of Nietzsche—Vattimo’s other principal inspiration—in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It was Nietzsche’ astonishing passage in Twilight of the Idols entitled ‘How the Real World Finally Became a Fable’ which puts the history of Being in sharp relief, which Vattimo draws on numerous times, such as in his book Beyond Interpretation, Vattimo links the death of God to the idea of the ‘true’ (or ‘real’) world becoming a ‘fable’ (Vattimo 1997: 7). Nietzsche describes how the ‘real world’ moves from an external, unchanging impersonal basis to that which is in the knowing subject, finally disappearing completely. Nietzsche starts with the eternal Platonic forms. With the rise of Christianity, the ‘real’ world is promised to the virtuous, faithful believer (as the kingdom of heaven). In the Enlightenment era, the real world is no longer promised, but is seen as a ‘thing in itself,’ or a Kantian noumenal realm necessary for guaranteeing experience which, ever since Descartes at the beginning of modernity, has retreated ever further into the subject. Empiricism comes to find no use for the noumenal world as ‘thinking becomes aware that what is actually real is, as the positivists assert, a ‘positive’ fact, a given established by science. Establishing, however, is precisely the act of the human subject’ (Vattimo 1999: 30). As a result, science and technology produce the world. Not only have we done away with the real, but also the ‘apparent’ (‘empirical,’ ‘phenomenal’) world, too (Nietzsche 1990: 50-51).

What the death of God is not is a flat-footed atheistic denial of God’s existence. To make such a pronouncement would be to repeat the logic of metaphysics. Avoiding metaphysical repetition in this way, Vattimo also rules out a new beginning, including the Nietzschean project of a revaluation of all values. Nihilism cannot be a description of reality, nor can there be any new beginning after nihilism, for the ‘new’ was the modern metaphysical value par excellence. Instead, one gains emancipation from metaphysics from a Verwindung, a resignation-convalescence-alteration of strong metaphysical structures. This Heideggerian term is employed by Vattimo to denote a ‘twisting-free’ from metaphysics in this way. Metaphysics cannot be done-away with completely (for a completely new beginning, if even possible, would be to, but its traces can be twisted until are weakened of much of their violence. To avoid hermeneutical nihilism (or pensiero debole, ‘weak thought’ as Vattimo calls it) being regarded metaphysically as a meta-theory of interpretation, Vattimo grounds it historically as the culmination of a process of weakening, one that gradually brings to common consciousness the extent to which we are historically conditioned. Vattimo has attempted to explain this historical conditioning in many ways, with the fabulisation of the world culminating in the society of generalised mass communication being one such way.

            How do science and technology produce the world, and how does this production relate to the internet? Here Vattimo benefits from Heidegger’s thoughts concerning the link between technology and metaphysics, found in essays such as ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ and Identity and Difference. In this view, the essence of technology (techne) is nothing technological, but metaphysical. Technology is a mode of revealing in which something is brought forth external to its own natural mode of revealing (physis). Originally, this bringing-forth was in accordance with the nature of the object in its environment, such as a windmill bringing being turned by the wind. Over time, when production was mechanised in the industrial revolution and measures were standardised, revealing and production were not brought forth naturally but were instead ‘challenged forth.’ On the latter mode of revealing, things are pushed into production, and even if they are dormant their primary mode of revealing themselves is through their designation as ‘standing reserve’; even an airplane on a runway is waiting to fly. Even for ‘natural’ things, it is now impossible to think of the Rhine without hydroelectricity and tourism coming to mind. Crucially, humans do not escape challenging-forth, as can be seen in terms such as ‘human resources.’ In Identity and Difference, Heidegger uses the term Ge-Stell (‘enframing’) to express the apex, the culmination of metaphysical organisation and rational planning of the world. In the transpropriation, the whirling, reciprocal movement of the enframing of humans and Being facilitated by technology, both subject and object lose their metaphysical qualities, including these designations of subject and object: ‘The appropriation appropriates man and Being to their essential togetherness.  In the frame, we glimpse a first, oppressing flash of the appropriation’ (Heidegger 1969: 39).

            Vattimo reads this moment of the Ge-Stell in terms of the first flashing-up of Ereignis (the event of appropriation). For Vattimo, the Ereignis has its prelude in the Ge-Stell, with the world of technology giving rise to this realisation for emancipation from metaphysical epithets, such as ‘subject’ and ‘object.’ While Heidegger conceived the Ge-Stell (and therefore Ereignis, at least according to Identity and Difference) in terms of industrial, mechanical technology, Vattimo saw it as taking place through information and communications technology. The latter would control the former, as well as creating a multiplicity of ‘world pictures’ and messages. The infinite plurality of messages and pictures would have the effect of decentring the individual, making them roll from the centre towards X’ (Vattimo 1988: 20), which was one of Nietzsche’s many descriptions of nihilism (Nietzsche 1968: 8). Moreover, information and communications technology would be able to report events simultaneously with their occurrence, being filtered immediately through myriad ways of interpreting the world. This would reduce objectivity and blur (or even, collapse) the distinction between the ‘real’ and ‘apparent’ worlds.

            Information and communications technology, then, have many ways of bringing-about nihilism, for Vattimo. By reporting simultaneously with events, they collapse the distinction between real and apparent worlds. Through the proliferation of images and messages, they decentre the world and create epistemological levelling, confusion and ‘democracy.’ Cumulatively, they also bring about the ‘event of appropriation’ which Vattimo reads as a ‘transpropriation,’ where both Being and humankind reciprocate their characteristics endlessly until they are worn out. Following Heidegger, Vattimo sees humanism as a form of metaphysics (Vattimo 1988: 31-32). So if the strong, Enlightenment-based notion of the human being as an autonomous, sovereign self-legislator no longer is able to see itself in this way due to the decentring, disempowering effect of information and communications technology, then this is another way in which Vattimo sees technology—including the internet, with its lack of centre, infinite images and messages and control of other machines—as bringing metaphysics to an end.

Nihilism, for Vattimo, is ‘the discovery of the lie’ of truth as something stable (Vattimo 1993: 93), and that the world is just a fable, a play of interpretations. Vattimo sees the death of God as the aesthetising of both the world and the self, particularly in his earlier work. This is related to his interpretations of Nietzsche’s Übermensch. One of Vattimo’s interpretations of this figure is of a person who runs through the storage box of history (an image taken from the second of Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations), putting on masks and costumes and taking them off (Vattimo 1997: 72, 84). Nietzsche thought this was a bad thing, leading him to look for ‘suprahistorical’ forces to counteract this ransacking of history, but Vattimo thinks not only is this all we have, but that this ironic way of looking at history as a pastiche is liberating as it frees us from taking our heritage (which we cannot escape, only weaken) too seriously: ‘liberated, the Dionysian consciously opts for a multiplicity of masks’ (Vattimo 2002a: 196). These images and masks are taken in the way of moderation, of seeing them as styles chosen for aesthetic reasons, ones we may prefer based on our thrownness. One approaches them, and lives among them, as a person who is ‘over’ in the sense that they can tolerate diverse perspectives and flourish among plurality, taken in an ironic, distorted way. The effect of this plurality is to democratise the self and the world; hierarchies are reduced to an aesthetically pleasing play of interpretations. Vattimo thought radio and television contributed to this development, of bringing greater plurality to consciousness. In his view that weakening in this way is an irreversible process that comes ever more to consciousness, Vattimo seems to have been prescient, writing before the internet. The internet—with its blogs, social networking and marginal websites—exacerbates the democratising effects of earlier forms of media and communications technologies. The age of the internet truly is the age of the world pictures.

Even before the internet, presciently, Vattimo could write that ‘radio, television and newspaper became elements in a general explosion and proliferation of Weltanschauungen, of world views’ (Vattimo 1992: 5). I would argue that it is not so much that the worldviews have proliferated through the use of these kinds of technology, but that they have been represented more easily. Elsewhere in The Transparent Society, Vattimo writes that that ‘For us [living today], reality is rather the result of the intersection and ‘contamination’ (in the Latin sense) of a multiplicity of images, interpretations and reconstructions circulated by the media in competition with one another and without any ‘central’ coordination’ (Vattimo 1992: lvi, 7). The images are representations, objectifications of a will to power which, through their circulation, reveal themselves to be without objective basis, but are in fact contingent and competing. Vattimo sees the world as more than an aesthetic experience because of the emphasis he places on the history of Being, that the age of world pictures (late-modernity) has a history; hermeneutics is a response to tradition, to the history of Being (Vattimo 1997: 109). Nevertheless, Vattimo does refer to the death of God as ‘a dissolution of the real into ‘secondary’ qualities bound with the perception of the senses’ (Vattimo 2002b: 52).

In summary, Vattimo believes we are now living after the death of God in which metaphysics has come to an end: metaphysical beliefs concerning not only a real world, but also an apparent one have been dissolved into a play of world pictures created and disseminated by information and communications technology. The internet has accelerated the latter process, creating a decentred space in which value is flattened out and everything is both accessible and interchangeable. More voices than ever can comment on anything and everything, with official narratives undermined, especially ‘modern’ metanarratives such as ‘progress.’ A case in point can be with the recent Brexit debates, whereby the official line given by the government, via the BBC, was instantly challenged in the ‘Have Your Say’ comments sections. Also one can see the Arab Spring as having been enabled by social media. Hegemonies and dictatorships are undermined by the internet, and strong senses of the self (such as the Cartesian ‘ego’) and reality (the ‘real world’) are broken down by it, too. On this view, the internet is a positive tool for liberation.

 

  1. Sounding caution about the internet

Keeping Vattimo’s view on mind, it is now time to survey some reasons why he may have been too optimistic. Vattimo himself in recent years has admitted he was too optimistic about the liberating potential of information-communications technology. The negative points can be broken down into philosophical and ethical considerations and will cover the technology of identity, trolling, and the devaluing of ‘the artistic’ as an alternative to the status quo.

 

  1. Language and the technology of identity

It is a moot point whether the self has been eroded and weakened in late-modernity. Vattimo claims that interpretative plurality will make the agent who responds to the liberation of life, language and thought from metaphysics in the hermeneutical, interpretative form of an artist, one who is able to negotiate the plurality of world pictures afforded by the internet with detached irony. This artist, as Ubermensch, is a wearer of masks. In Vattimo’s eyes, the disinterested, ironic mask wearer weaves the tapestry of interpretations into a detached worldview held in a weak way. What one wonders is whether the internet, and social media, encourage weakening of strong structures in this way, or if metaphysical distinctions have been hardened as a result.

            Take Apple I-technology as an example. The IPhone, IPod and ITunes all put the self at the centre of the universe. More than this, they all gave rise to ‘downloading,’ ‘shuffling’ and rearranging pieces of musical art without context. Eclecticism could be seen as weakening the self by disregarding the intentions of the artist. If ‘Money’ were to be extracted from Dark Side of the Moon and placed beside ‘Waiting in Vain’ by Bob Marley and ‘If I Were a Carpenter’ by Tim Hardin, then the artistic vision (a form of will to power) on the part of Pink Floyd is weakened as it is now decontextualized from their artistic vision. Nevertheless, the Apple user who has facilitated this eclecticism is now the artist in the Vattimian sense in wearing the masks of different styles (Progressive Rock, Reggae, and Folk, respectively), but these different styles are rearranged in accordance to his or her preferences; the weakening of the artistic vision of others is dependent upon the newfound ability within technology to restructure music on the basis of one’s preferences. Arguably, through the compilation mix tape this ability already existed. However, through ITunes and downloading not only is music purchased in atomised ways, but is also consciously configured on the basis of products aimed at reinforcing the ego. The world revolves around a self with preferences that hoovers up and envelops plurality. In other words, plurality exists only insofar as it can be appropriated by the ego. That others have Apple products does not matter, as they, too, are egos with value insofar as they are ‘I’s, making this reasoning a form of postmodern categorical imperative. Dr Julian Baggini has recently written about the philosophical dangers of the new Apple smart watch. In particular, the gathering of data on what we eat, how much we exercise and so on gives rise to what he calls the ‘quantified self’ (Baggini 2015). Data on what we do, learn and spend time on could lead to obsession and inward focus. Moreover, going beyond Baggini, I think it could lead to compartmentalisation of the self, creating hierarchies between the compartments (the ‘health’ section of the self, the ‘social media’ section of the self, and so forth). Baggini writes, ‘The constant monitoring of our wellbeing also feeds the illusion that we can and should control what we can only influence’ (Baggini 2015), but I would go further and state that rather than ironic ‘mask-wearing,’ the smart watch promotes control, which is characteristically metaphysical.

Another phenomenon that works in this same way is that of cookies. Until recently, Vattimo thought of the internet as facilitating weakening. Through political campaigns by media magnates, such as Berlusconi, he has lost faith in the ability to find emancipation from strong structures through the internet, but this is only because he has seen how power can be exerted on a Marxist conception of power, that is, from the top down and imposed. Expressing his concern about control in the media, Vattimo sees it as a possibility for those who own the media in a country to control the outcome of elections by causing the ‘immobility’ of the electorate who move within an information ‘bubble’ that the media outlets own (Vattimo 2007a: 48).  It is still implied in Vattimo’s thought that the structure of the internet (or, better, its lack of structure) should enable the possibility of emancipation from metaphysics through weakening. However, cookies reinforce the strong sense of self by configuring adverts and preferences that give the appearance of the world being all about you and that you have successfully imposed your will upon the world, shaping it to your tastes. Even more than with Apple technologies, this imposes a unity on the plurality, reducing the liberated metaphors back to the will of a singularity: the self.

            Beyond these piecemeal issues concerning identity, Vattimo’s pupil, Santiago Zabala, has attempted to distinguish between merely being ‘online’ and being ‘wired’ (Zabala 2012). To an extent these distinctions refer to different ways of using the internet. Nevertheless, Zabala is not merely doing semantics, but referring to something more philosophically profound. Being ‘online’ refers to a use of the internet consistent with having an email address, doing some surfing, maybe some online shopping and doing you banking online. By contrast, being ‘wired’ means that to all intents and purposes you live your life online and cannot do without it. Social media invites people to be ‘wired.’ Personally, I found the recent Brexit event to be an example of demonstrating the difference between the ‘online’ and the ‘wired.’ The referendum generated a lot of bad blood between people and caused many fallings-out around the country. My 62-year-old mother in law took the online insults very personally and ‘defriended’ people on Facebook, which she has been using now for about three years since she got her first iPad. I told her simply not to look at Facebook or use any form of social media, but she did not even seem to register my suggestion. I mentioned this same suggestion to other people saying similar things at the time. It is as though to people who are wired, if you are not on social media or if something is not searchable on the internet, it simply does not exist. You sometimes here the phrase “Youtube link, or it never happened.”

            The main danger of being wired, though, is not simply addiction. As Zabala puts it:

For the wired West the danger of the internet does not lie in going crazy from too many hours spent online, although this is becoming more common, but rather in considering a wired existence transparent, free, and vital for your life rather than an active threat. Although being wired assures you an identity on the web, that is, a position in the new wired world, it also frames your existence within the possibilities and limitations of the web.

By ‘transparent’ it simply means that what you see is what you get; there is nothing more to you than meets the eye roving across the profile page. The more worrying aspect than transparency is that of living a life bounded by the limitations of the internet. Zabala notes that even the internet’s creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, considered this to be an issue. Zabala does not elaborate on this issue too much, but we can try to fill in the blanks. It does not mean anything such as state censorship or control; these are issues, but they are not at the philosophical level, but the political and are less pronounced than are often regarded (see Galliott and Reed 2016). Rather, think about the issue of being ‘wired’ at the meta-level. Consider Twitter, among the most popular forms of social media, restricts you to 140 characters. Similarly, as today mobile technology and the internet go hand-in-hand, predictive texts and searches are also restricting, doing the thinking for you and using the same vocabulary (as it is predicted based on other searches). Hans-Georg Gadamer, a significant influence on Vattimo and Zabala, said that ‘Being, that can be understood, is language.’ Heidegger also said ‘Language is the house of Being.’ Both of these quotations emphasise the centrality of language for our very identity, of being who we are, and even the very instruments of thought and understanding. For Vattimo, we can only think and express ourselves through the textual traditions we inherit, and it is our vocation to have an attitude of ‘pietas’ towards them, of creating further textual ‘monuments’ in which the current generation interpret what has gone before and put forward something of their own. My fear is that language is increasingly being reduced to the level of function and of communication for its own sake. Chances are that vocabulary will shrink and, as a result, we will be left with a smaller ‘house.’

  1. Trolling and tribalism

Even assuming Vattimo is right in his contention that information and communications technology will lead to liberation (or ‘emancipation,’ as he prefers), one has to ask: ‘liberation for what…?’ If nihilism is indeed the condition of postmodernity, whereby info-communications technology has reduced, flattened Being to exchange value in which everything is interchangeable and ‘common currency,’ what is there left to do, to believe? This has provoked some different reactions. On the one hand, the phenomenon of ‘trolling’ has begun in which there really is no purpose to anything anymore beyond generating ‘lulz,’ that is, of deliberately winding up complete strangers by taking advantage of the anonymity afforded to them beyond the internet. Like punk rock and kitsch, it is a consequence of postmodern nihilism. On the other hand, there is a danger Vattimo foresaw in tribalism. Referring to it in more technical, Nietzschean terms as ‘reactive nihilism,’ Vattimo recognised that when there is no overarching, objective yardstick by which propositions or beliefs are judged, some people might well retreat into their own particular ethnic, religious, political and social groups. Both of these problems will be briefly outlined and discussed.

Internet discussion as a new phenomenon has attracted significant research attention, but ‘trolling’ as a particular behavior has not (Hopkinson 2013: 5-6). Hopkinson notes the exception is Hardaker (2010) who analysed trolling into four aspects: aggression, deception, disruption, success. These aspects are primarily conflict-based, which raises the question about why online trolling has these features. Hopkinson notes that trolling is enabled by the physical remoteness of the participants from one-another, which has a dehumanizing effect (Hopkinson 2013: 6): ‘when involved in antagonistic interaction, it is easier to see one’s opponent not as a real human being but as a mere character in a form of game. This in turn may lead to a heightened intensity of antagonism’ (Hopkinson 2013: 6). In turn, the antagonism is exacerbated by the anonymity of the internet (including fake names) which lowers inhibitions (Hopkinson 2013: 7). Internet conversations also have the characteristic, inherent in the nature of the troll, to move from what Kleinke (2010) calls ‘propositional content’ to ‘personal disagreement,’ with the ad hominem being the staple of trolling ‘flame wars,’ where disagreements quickly escalate (Angouri and Tseliga 2010). This is ironic because the ad hominem is an attack on the face of the opponent, but online the opponent is largely faceless; it would seem, logically, to be the least potentially successful attack. Add to this the tendency in multiple person conversations for threads to get tangled, losing the argumentative thrust, and the internet seems to be the place where logic and order come to die. Anonymity afforded by the internet allows for trolls to wear masks in order to facilitate their trolling. Trolls play different roles: sometimes sarcastic, other times inflammatory, other times diversionary. Trolling comes from a lack of sense of purpose and belonging, and it is difficult to find a coherent ethical reaction to this overreaction to a sense of radical freedom.

Reactive nihilism presents an opposite, but no less ethically troubling, problem; ‘opposite,’ in the sense that it comes from taking one’s own position not too lightly, but too seriously. This seriousness does not arise from any attempt at justification through recourse to a universal standard, as the internet (along with other communications technology) has robbed it of its force. Any justification from one’s position comes from a leap of faith, or simple tradition. This is the response of the fundamentalist. It is no coincidence that the internet has given rise to more fundamentalism, extremism, conspiracy theories and marginal views. One may not question this assertion by saying that the internet should give exposure to so many other views that it would lead people away from fundamentalism. The difference is that the internet is an active technology, not a passive one. Television, radio and print media would tell you what is important through a hierarchy (main news, and so on) and would tell you things whether you wanted to hear or not. The internet gives you nothing at its barest; all you have is a search engine. Your news acquisition is generated through your preferences. You may decide to search for news through social media, so your news will be filtered through the comments and retweets of your friends, who are likely to think, act and respond like you. Through these friends and websites you are more likely to link up with other people around the world who think like you, enculturating and habituating yourself to certain ways of thinking. Even before the rise of social media, Lim wrote ‘the Internet has become a means of self-definition for Islamic fundamentalist movements’ (Lim 2005: 3) through the flow of money, information and connections around the world of like-minded people (not to mention the spreading of propaganda). Lim continues, that ‘The Internet facilitates the collapse of geographic barriers and the extremely fast creation of global meta-narratives’ (Lim 2005: 3).

Both trolling and tribalism are both on the same, negative side of the same nihilistic coin in the sense that one does not care about the other; if nihilism can give rise to liberation, as Vattimo thinks, it can also give rise to indifference to one’s neighbour. In response to trolling and tribalism, Vattimo did seek after an ethical dimension to the hermeneutical nihilism of postmodernity, finding it in his own heritage as a Catholic ‘half-believer’ who had moved away from his origins but had found a coincidental link between his apparently lost faith and nihilism. The internet can unify and solidify in groups and exclude people, or allow for connections with out-groups depending upon how the individual internet user interprets their own existence and existence of others. Vattimo, reaching back into his heritage, picked out the term ‘caritas’ as one which he regarded as defining of the Christian message which, paradoxically, he saw as the driving factor, and limit, of secularisation, a phenomenon usually identified as the move away from religion. What Vattimo means by caritas is somewhat vague, but I read it as an ethical attempt to ground hermeneutics (the philosophy of interpretation) in something historical, in a message. This ethic is the corollary of kenosis, which Vattimo means—again somewhat in an unorthodox manner—is God’s announcement of himself as God the Son, as the incarnation of Christ on earth as a new dispensation, a revelation of his friendship for his creation rather than the mastery he displayed in the Old Testament. In more recent work from the last ten years Vattimo has tried to express his notion of caritas as some kind of postmodern ‘Categorical Imperative’ (Vattimo 2007b: 42), in that once one realises one’s own historical contingency and situatedness, one should respect others like oneself. I have commented on this aspect of Vattimo’s ‘return to religion’ extensively elsewhere and I will not go into it more now, save to mention that Vattimo’s reasoning is unlikely to convince even Christians, let alone anyone else.

 

 

  1. Devaluing the artistic as an alternative to the status quo

My final point concerns the idea of liberation and the internet from the standpoint of the artistic potential—or lack of—afforded by the internet. The point I will make is that the internet allows for creativity, but not artistry in the sense of it being the medium through which a great work of art emerges. What does this mean and why is this important? I will deal with these two, related questions in turn. Beginning with the latter, my understanding of the importance of art comes from Vattimo’s understanding of Heidegger on art.            By drawing upon Vattimo’s book Art’s Claim to Truth, I can show how he has developed an understanding of how a work founds a world which is similar to Heidegger’s interpretation of Hölderlin in some ways, albeit different in others. In this book, Vattimo writes ‘To dwell in the world founded by the work is to live in the light of it. The history of an epoch is, in the end, solely an exegesis of one or more artworks, wherein a certain ‘epoch’ of being was instituted and opened’ (Vattimo 2008: 159). Heavily influenced by ‘On the Origin of the Work of Art,’ Vattimo interprets the founding of a world (the event of the opening of a clearing, or ‘lichtung,’ which gives the light of disclosure to Dasein) as instituted by a work which draws from the earth, the permanent reserve of meaning which is not identifiable with nature (Vattimo 2008: 157). One is thrown into a linguistic tradition, and Being appropriates by happening through Dasein dwelling among between the earth and world (among other factors too complex to go into here). However, in ‘On the Origin of the Work of Art’ there is conflict between the earth and world, as one also finds in the Contributions, such as talk of ‘strife’ between earth and world (Heidegger 2012: 25). For Vattimo in Art’s Claim to Truth, ‘The earth…represents the permanent ontological reserve of meanings, which makes is [sic] so that the work cannot be exhausted by interpretation’ (Vattimo 2008: 157). The work opens worlds through an infinite plurality of interpretations which come from it, but there is a ‘permanent reserve of new interpretations’ in the work ‘and for this reason Heidegger sees in it the presence of the earth, which is always given as that which withdraws and holds itself in reserve’ (Vattimo 2008: 157). The importance of the work is because it ‘has a privileged link to Being in that it connects the world to the earth as permanent reserve of meanings, and thus to Being itself in its originating force’ (Vattimo 2008: 157). With regard to hermeneutics, ‘Interpretation…is always a linguistic event, which is made possible by the community of language shared between speaker and listener, presupposed as the basis of any conventional institution of meaning’ (Vattimo 2008: 148). Here is the influence of Gadamer in Vattimo’s argument: Being is through and through linguistic, and so interpretations are linguistic events.

            Now it can be seen how the work relates to linguistic conventions in Vattimo’s mind through the Kuhnian language of the paradigm shift (revolutionary science) being developed through normal science, the day-to-day linguistic exchanges. For instance, Vattimo writes that ‘A historical world…is always born through the institution of language…the establishment of linguistic conventions always comes after the birth of language’ (Vattimo 2008: 121). As with Heidegger’s work on Hölderlin, the work is the site of an opening of Being in language which acts as the founding of the world for a community which dwells in the truth of the work, which nonetheless conceals as it reveals. The main difference in Vattimo’s analysis is that he downplays the role of the gods. Vattimo relates this ontological analysis of the role of the work to the Bible, and here one gets a hint at what he means by ‘community.’ Valgenti has stated that ‘Vattimo does not provide an explicit analysis of community’ (Valgenti 2015: 30), and he is right. Nevertheless, one can infer what Vattimo means by the term when he talks about ‘belonging’ through inheriting a linguistic tradition based on a work, and above all the foundational work in the West: The Bible. ‘The Word of God does not signify a preconstituted world; rather, it creates it’ (Vattimo 2008: 121). The Bible as a work ‘embodies a real prophetic character, instead of being a purely historical document of a past event…the unsaid that lies in its background is not something provisionally concealed but constitutive’ (Vattimo 2008: 119). By the ‘unsaid,’ Vattimo means ‘earth,’ the permanent possibility of new meaning from the text. As for the scope of new meaning, the importance of the Bible is primary for Vattimo when he says that, ‘In the case of the Bible, we stand before an entire civilization that constitutes and develops itself as the exegesis of a book.

            Although to a greater or lesser degree the world has always been plural, prior to the internet there has always been not only more centrality, but also more distance; works were able to establish themselves and become canonical. Vattimo has been able to identify works with entire cultures, such as Dante for the Italian, Dostoyevsky for the Russian, Shakespeare for the English, and the Bible for the West (Vattimo 2013: 43). Paradoxically, although the internet connects more people than ever before in an ever-growing world, through reactive nihilism it promotes ever greater numbers of subcultures and more and more creativity. More pieces of art are being created than could ever be digested: songs, pictures, memes and so on and so forth. With far fewer pieces of art, fewer subcultures and genres, and more cultural homogeneity, less busy lives and longer attention spans great works of culture had attention afforded to them. This attention gave rise to a deeper appreciation, and more importantly people meditated on the themes in different ways, spiritually, through song, through adaptations for theatre rather than primarily through instant comments of 140 characters or fewer. When a work of art—film, video clip, song, picture, text—is uploaded to the internet, the response is not only instant, but the author hopes it will be instant, or it will be buried under the avalanche of newer, competing works of art. There is neither the time, then, nor the space for the space for a work of art to become paradigmatic. With that goes the possibility, according to the Heideggerian—Vattimian axis of thought on art, for genuine change to occur, of a liberation from the late-modern world of internet enframing.

 

  1. Conclusion

To conclude, while Vattimo sees in information and communications technology the sole opportunity to move away from the violence of metaphysics through its proliferation of images and messages getting thought away from anchoring itself in a stable, permanent ground, I would be more sceptical. For me, the internet can reinforce ‘strong’ notions about the self, encourage a dangerous sense of triviality or tribalism, and can remove the basis for artistic development to provide for genuine alternatives to the ‘enframed’ sense of ‘wired’ life in the late-modern world.

 

 

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[1] This lecture borrows significantly from my article: Harris, Matthew E. “The End of Metaphysics? Gianni Vattimo on the Will to Power as Art in the Age of the Internet.” Odradek 1:1 (2015): 7-39.