Culture Machine, Reviews


Vincent Mosco (2004) The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace.

Cambridge and London: MIT Press. ISBN: 026213439X

Bernadette Wegenstein

The Digital Sublime is a useful book for those of us semioticians who are interested in understanding the discourse universe around and beyond the digital turn, as well as the technologies that have brought this turn upon us, mainly the computer. Mosco provides a classic and firm analysis in the structuralist tradition of Barthes, Lévi-Strauss, and other French philosophers of the twentieth century, carving out the deep structure of cyberspace and the consequences of its 'epochal transformation in human experience' (3). In the first part of the book Mosco analyzes three central and growing cyber-myth regimes: the 'time-myth' that famously announces the end of history; the very popular 'space-myth', declaring the end of geography; and the obviously even more problematic 'power-myth', proclaiming the end of politics. In the following chapter Mosco includes the precursors to the computer - i.e. the telegraph, electricity, the telephone, radio, and television, demonstrating very convincingly that all these technologies have generated similar mythical narratives in the past, such as the transformative power of cable television for a 'wired nation' (132). Historically, Mosco positions his own approach to the myths generated by the digital turn as a response to the extraordinary boom-and-bust cycle dating back roughly to the year 2000, when the collapse of the dotcom and telecommunication industries led to the stock market crash.

As for the end-of-time myth, Mosco offers a rewarding critical reading of what he terms 'cosmic thinkers', from Teilhard de Chardin, Daniel Bell, and Francis Fukuyama to Mark Dery and Eric Davis. The basic argument in the philosophy of these thinkers of the end-of-time myth is that the new digital age, as prophetically foreseen already by the theologian Teilhard half a century ago, terminates history, giving rise to a new sphere, the 'noosphere' (after Teilhard de Chardin): 'It ends history because, ultimately, the noosphere's growth destroys the material substrate and frees itself to expand in pure thought' (71). The other end of the mythical spectrum inherent to the digital revolution is the popularized notion of the loss of geography and its consequential breakdown of borders that go way beyond physicality. Cyberspace supposedly brings together the realms of culture, politics, and economics, breaking down, for instance, the distinction between business and governmental interests (112). Thus, the transformation of territory in cyberspace affects social class and other political borders. Mosco offers a critical reading of popular end-of-geography bestsellers such as Frances Cairncross' The Death of Distance, in which Global Peace is presented as a result of vicinity and reconciliation in cyberspace. He quotes William J. Mitchell's City of Bits and Etopia as important counter-readings to the 'buoyant optimism' (90) of such authors as Cairncross. Mosco, of course, is in good company with a variety of recent important publications that question the end-of-geography myth (among many others) - from journalistic investigations such as No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs (2000) by Naomi Klein, to Wendy Hui Kyung Chun's Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (2005), or Laura Penny's entertaining politically-enraged rant, Your Call is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit (2005).

Mosco does not see the need to analyse computing or digital technology in their materiality, as for him the potential for social and economic change lies mainly in their cultural force. Or, at least, that is what interests him. Less convincing is thus Mosco's light opinion of 'embodied physicality' (21-22) and his very brief examination of the question whether or not the issue of embodiment is even significant for our 'digital future'. The intrinsically corporeal nature of the digital image and its genesis from the bodily experience of the world has recently been studied in such neo-phenomenological approaches as Hansen's New Philosophy for New Media (2003), Sobchack's Carnal Thoughts (2004), or in my forthcoming book Getting Under the Skin (2006). It is no news that the materiality of communication has been at the center of media theory since McLuhan's media relativism, or since Kittler's historical analysis of the materiality determining 'discourse networks,' or even more generally since Flusser's and Belting's theories of media (images) as interventions in the world. Mosco is no phenomenologist, however, but rather a political economist (see his previous book, The Political Economy of Communication), which becomes most clear in his last chapter on 9/11 and his analysis of the end-of-politics myth. Mosco departs from the World Trade Center as the 'first genuinely utopian space of the information age' (144). No other site would better embody the technological sublime than the Twin Towers. In this political-economic final chapter Mosco makes an elegant turn from the three central myths in question to real-time politics and history:

The end of history, the end of geography, and the end of politics are compelling myths, and they are made all the more powerful with the expansion of cyberspace. However, with the spread of anti-globalization movements, and the substantial boost that cyberspace has provided them, even more so with the events of 9/11 and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it appears that time, space and power have returned with a vengeance. (174)

The WTC tragedy, hence, becomes a symbol for all of the myths examined in Mosco's book: the end of history, of geography, and of politics. In a somewhat more journalistic excursion on the reconstruction myth of Ground Zero, Mosco talks about the meaning of the memorial site, criticizing the slow and politically charged process of rebuilding the World Trade Center site, including such myth-carriers as the Freedom Tower. Mosco's narration resonates with a number of recent books, including the architect Daniel Liebeskind's autobiography, Breaking Ground: Adventures in Life and Architecture (2004), in which it becomes clear that 9/11 and what will embody this site for the future is first and foremost a question of political machinations. 

As Mosco informs us toward the end of the book, his main purpose in The Digital Sublime was to explain the nature of the cyber-myths and to show their 'force in the growth of three of the central myths of our time' (13): the end of history, the end of geography, and the end of politics. What becomes most clear through his analysis is that since the turn of the millennium the computer - no longer the sublime icon of mythology - has entered the 'prosaic world of banality' (6). Having lost its role as a source of utopian vision, computer technology has now become an important force for social and economic change. In the classic tradition of structural semiotics, for Mosco cyberspace remains first and foremost analyzable as a 'mythical space,' a space that reveals and conceals, and that is organized in terms of a surface and deep structure (even though Mosco does not use this traditional terminology). Mosco stands in the tradition of Barthes and others, for whom myths are 'depoliticized speech because they purify social relations by eliminating the tensions and conflicts that animate the political life of a community' (31). The Digital Sublime is an important contribution of its kind for understanding a medium not in its material nature, but as a discursive universe. However, as so many have taught us in the past, the true meaning of a medium will only reveal itself at a point that I do not think has yet come. These cultural implications of the mythical structure of the 'digital sublime' are yet to be fully seen. Mosco offers an important contribution to understanding the 'meaning' in the creation of some of the most evident and popular myths about the transformational power of the digital in politics and economics - at least for those who want to get into the question of 'meaning' these days.

Bernadette Wegenstein, a linguist and semiotician, was born in 1969 in Vienna. She received her Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures from Vienna University, and is currently an Assistant Professor in the department of Media Study at the University at Buffalo, US, where she also directs the Film Studies Program. Her first book on the representation of AIDS in the European Media appeared in 1998 with Vienna University Press. She is the author of Getting Under the Skin: Body and Media Theory, forthcoming from the MIT Press in 2006, and of numerous articles on body criticism, performance art, and feminism. In her current research project, Cutting the Real, she studied the cultural phenomenon of body makeover reality television shows and produced the documentary, Into the Mirror: the Viewing of The Swan.