Culture Machine, Vol 5 (2003)

CM2003 Article: Clinton

Database Fever

In Archive Fever, in what has quickly become one of the most frequently referred to passages in his oeuvre, Jacques Derrida suggests that new media technologies are not only transforming the process of analysing, communicating and conserving knowledge, they are transforming the very nature of knowledge (what it is today, what it was in the past, and what it can be in the future).

The example Derrida gives in Archive Fever concerns the effect of email on the psychoanalytic archive (although he also refers to literature, philosophy and love letters in a related passage in The Post Card). But what of the effect of different electronic technologies on other fields: cultural studies, literary studies, gender studies, politics, history, science, law, medicine, biology, anthropology, art history, say? Or on our ideas of the book, the letter, the university, the library, the art gallery, the museum? Do CDs, VCRs, DVDs, cell phones, computers, printers, faxes, the Internet, the World Wide Web, hyper-text, e-mail, the e-book, Bluetooth, MP3, WiFi et al produce possibilities for prosthetically improving the performance of our current disciplinary fields and forms of knowledge - in terms of the speed of production, the amount of material that can be stored, the ease of information retrieval, the geographical range of distribution and hence dissemination, reductions in reproduction and staffing of costs, etc. - as in the UK government's plans for an e-university? Or does our present 'discourse network', to adopt Friedrich Kittler's term, contain the potential to bring such fields and forms to an end? What happens to teaching, writing and research when the gift economy - recognised through peer-to-peer computing (P2P), open source, freeware or shareware - is taken as a model for the communication, publication and exchange of ideas? Or when, as has already been the case with some contributions to Culture Machine, such as 'This is a Test' and 'Hypertext as Subversive?', writers of digital texts stop trying to merely transfer print aesthetics into an electronic form and start producing texts which are 'born digital': texts which are not restricted to the book or essay format but which, for example, take the database as the 'new symbolic form of [the] computer age', as Lev Manovich suggests, and consequently 'do not tell stories . . . don't have beginning or end; in fact . . . don't have any development, thematically, formally or otherwise which would organise their elements into a sequence'; or which are produced as 'codework' by entities which may or may not be machinic, thus problematising even traditional notions of authorship

It is with some of the effects new media technologies have on knowledge - its content as well as its form - that this 'e-issue' of Culture Machine is experimenting, by both analysis and performance.