Forget about Andy Warhol's petty promise of fame for fifteen minutes. We will all become angels, and for eternity! Highly unstable, hermaphrodite angels, unforgettable in terms of computer memory. In this cold cubic fortress of pixels that is cyberspace, we will be, as in dreams, everything: the Dragon, the Princess, and the Sword.
(Stenger 52)

Fortress of pixels

Housed within an 18-story geodesic sphere, Disney's Spaceship Earth "explores the history of human communications" by giving customers the opportunity to "Ride the Time Machine from the Dawn of Civilization to the Beginning of Our Tomorrow" (Walt Disney Co., "Spaceship Earth," "Intercot"). A press release issued by the ride's sponsor, AT&T, describes the ride's function more baldly, asserting that "the new ride and an interactive communications exhibit area entertains [sic] visitors of all ages with the wonders of AT&T's leading-edge technology." The ride lasts just under 13 minutes. Beginning with a shamanic ritual in a Lascaux-like cave, we proceed through the invention of writing by the Egyptians (featuring "authentic recreations of actual graphics" [Walt Disney Co., "SE Fact Sheet"]), the invention of the alphabet by the Phoenicians, a Greek amphitheatre, and so on through communications history, eventually arriving at the "revolution" of the present. A teacher conducts classes by computer-screen; a mother puts her daughter to bed by video-phone; a scientist conducts a test by remote hologram. "Physical distance is no longer a barrier to communication," intones the voice of Jeremy Irons. "We live in a truly Global Neighborhood." Now a vast network of fiber-optic cables surrounds us, shooting beams of light back and forth along its strands. In a moment the network twists together above our heads and twines around a model of the geodesic sphere of Spaceship Earth, a mîse en abyme of the ride itself, placed next to a sign bearing the AT&T logo and reading "Bringing people together anytime, anywhere."

It would be hard to find a better dramatization of cyberspace, in all its utopian sublimity and corporatized banality, than this centerpiece and symbol of EPCOT Center. Starting with the Buckminster-Fuller-inspired geodesic sphere (indeed, starting with the name of the ride, which is borrowed from Fuller's writings) the ride places front-and-center the utopia-or-oblivion sentiments of the American architect. Meanwhile, its repeated references to the "New Global Neighborhood" are a direct echo of the "global village" enthusiasms of Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan's famous comments to Playboy in 1969 that computer networks would create "a technologically engendered state of universal understanding and unity" (72), would not have sounded out of place had they been read by Jeremy Irons at the conclusion of the ride. But both Fuller and McLuhan would likely have found a snake in this garden. For, as the ride repeatedly emphasizes, the alpha and omega of this new global order is the corporation that makes it so. Fired off in a time machine from the dawn of civilization to the dawn of tomorrow, we find that we have been led everywhere and nowhere, our dreams still produced by the system that is their endpoint. Like Warhol's Amiga image, we travel through a closed cycle. And we exit Spaceship Earth, tellingly, only steps away from the point at which we entered.

The simplest and most illuminating definition for cyberspace exists, appropriately enough, in cyberspace, in the Microsoft-owned dictionary Encarta. The definition reads:

  1. imagined place where electronic data goes: the notional realm in which electronic information exists or is exchanged; an e-mail message lost in cyberspace
  2. virtual reality: the imagined world of virtual reality

Encarta, then, offers two basic definitions of the term. The first, which we may call "networked cyberspace," is the environment of electronic communication, represented in the Disney ride by images of wired computers, video-phones, remote holograms, and fiber-optic cables. It is this aspect of cyberspace that William Gibson (the word's originator) has particularly stressed.[1] The second, which we may call "VR cyberspace," is that of a virtual space generated by a computer system. This space typically relies on multimedia techniques to produce an immersive, simulacral experience that attempts to produce an organically unified world. This form of cyberspace is particularly exemplified by the "Ride the AT&T Network" exhibit, which attempts to fully absorb the spectator in a computergenerated "experience."

Capturing cyberspace, either in its VR or network form, is like painting the light at dawn; we apply the brush, and already the scene has shifted. One thing that emerges clearly, however, is that a number of works in cyberspace, and perhaps even cyberspace itself, bear significant relations to the Gesamtkunstuuerk. This chapter will explore these relations by looking at two art installations (Char Davies' installation Osmose and Roy Ascott's installation Aspects of Gaia), two worlds of "total entertainment" (Bill Gates' mansion and Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft), and, lastly, a VR installation entitled Beyond Manzanar. The first four of these works suggest ways that Wagnerian aspirations continue to shape the worlds of cyberspace, and ways in which cyberspace, conversely, may realize Wagnerian aspirations. The last work provides something quite different: a Brechtian critique of the digital Gesamtkunstwerk.

Cyber-arts and the Gesamtkunstwerk: Aspects of Gaia and Osmose

Char Davies and Roy Ascott are two artists who have been at the forefront of the development of cyber-arts. Previously director of visual research at Softimage (which animated the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, among other projects), Davies became an artistic director for Microsoft when Softimage was acquired by the Gates behemoth. In 1998, she founded her own firm, Immersence, which principally develops and publicizes her VR installations.[2] She has also worked with Roy Ascott at the Center for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts (CAiiA) at the University of Wales College, Newport. Her work reflects many of the same desires as Ascott's, desires that have been central to the history of the Gesamtkunstwerk as a whole.

For Davies, as for the Wagner of the Zurich period, humanity's alienation from nature is principally a historical phenomenon. The culture of the modern West, with its "privileging of mind over matter," its "devaluation of the body," its "plundering of non-human beings and their habitats as objects for human use," has severed primal relations between humanity and nature, humanity and itself. " [T]he increasing loss of access to Nature — as a source of our human spirituality — may prove to be at the root of our collective psyche's deepest wounds," Davies concludes ("OSMOSE: Notes" 72). Following Henri Lefebvre and other critical theorists, Davies connects the rise of technology to a

Cartesian philosophic tradition, a tradition whose dualistic privileging of mind over body, male over female, and human over "nature", has arguably contributed to an historic devaluation and objectification of the body, women, and animals, and to the ongoing plunder of the natural environment as a resource for profit and human consumption.

("Rethinking VR")

The problem, as Davies sees it, is much more serious than a mere misuse of technology: techne itself is held up to suspicion, and "King Logos" made the demiurge of a fallen Western world.

Given the sharpness of her critique of Cartesian reason and Western technology, it may seem odd that Davies ever became a cyber-artist. And not just any cyberartist, either: Davies is a particular champion of the sort of "strong VR" that relies upon expensive, cutting-edge equipment such as head-mounted displays and motion-sensitive bodysuits, which she uses in order to produce her profoundly immersive virtual worlds. What makes this conflict even more extreme is that Davies sees VR as both an extension and an exacerbation of the very ills she finds in modern culture. "The origins of 3-D digital technology lie deep within the Cartesian philosophic tradition," she writes, adding that "[a]s progeny of the western-military-industrial paradigm, the technology associated with so-called virtual reality is anything but neutral" ("Rethinking VR"). Quoting from Ziauddin Sardar's Cyberspace and the Darker Side of the West, Davies writes that VR is "'the product of the collective consciousness of Western culture' issuing from a techno-Utopian ideology ripe with subconscious perceptions and prejudices" ("Rethinking VR"). With its lines of code and its Cartesian grids, its emphasis on constant focused vision, and its recurring motifs of warfare, domination, and joysticks, VR is the epitome of the modern alienation that Davies laments. VR "not only reaffirms our separateness but also our stance as Master of all we survey"; it is a "literal enactment of Cartesian ontology" ("Rethinking VR").

Why, then, Davies' embrace of VR? At this point in our study, it should come as no surprise that Davies' rationale draws from the familiar motif of technology as poison and cure. Thus Davies, like Wagner, raises "the challenge of using the technology alternatively, as an antidote, in terms of reaffirming our embodied participation within the natural world rather than our instrumentally objectifying conquest of it" ("Rethinking VR"). What Davies proposes is that VR be turned against itself, and against the larger cultural matrix from which it springs. "My research is founded on the premise that VR technology and the medium of immersive virtual space can, if its conventions are effectively subverted, serve as a means of facilitating a renewed, refreshed, perception of our place in the world" ("Rethinking VR"). Instead of VR environments being hypostatic versions of Cartesian consciousness, they might be immersive experiences of a return to nature, experiences that would be "unlike the space of our usual perceptions," and which therefore might have "transformative potential" ("Rethinking VR"). The challenge is "to rethink the technology, not as a means of escape but of return" ("Rethinking VR"). [3]

Davies' VR project Osmose puts much of this theory into practice. The equipment for Osmose is a stereoscopic 3-D head-mounted display and a motion-sensitive bodysuit with a breathing and balance sensor, all of which is worn by the "immersant." When the installation is displayed publicly, the larger audience is placed in a public room facing two screens. On one of the screens is projected the shadow of the immersant, while the other screen shows a two-dimensional rendering of the immersant's journey through the world of Osmose. The sounds the immersant hears in the virtual world are also broadcast for the larger audience. For the immersant herself, however, the experience is solitary and all-consuming: once the head-mounted display and the bodysuit are on, the immersant has very little sensory access to the exterior world. She is free to experience, almost as though without mediation, the "archetypal aspects of Nature" ("OSMOSE: Notes" 67).

Upon first entering Osmose, the immersant discovers a three-dimensional grid extending into black space. According to Davies, the grid is at once "an orientation site" and "a reference to the Cartesian xyz coordinate system." This initial "orientation" is therefore double-edged. On one hand, the simplicity and order of the Cartesian grid allows the immersant to become familiar with "the breath and balance interface" which she will use to navigate their virtual journey; but, on the other hand, the grid suggests the modern world of Western techne which Osmose is designed to unravel. The immersant begins, in other words, in exile from the Garden. But she soon discovers, after some trial and error, that she is not so much standing on the Cartesian grid as floating above it, like a ghost perhaps, or an angel, or a fetus.

Tree Pond, from Osmose (1995)
Figure 8.1 Char Davies, Osmose, "Tree Pond," digital frame captured through head-mounted display during live performance, 1995.

Soon thereafter, the immersant finds herself in a forest clearing dominated by an oak tree near a pond (Figure 8.1). Lights flicker around her like fireflies, and faint, fairy-like sounds play. Though often mistaken for instrumental music, these sounds are actually two voices, digitally altered, uttering phonetics. (It is perhaps no stretch to hear in this intermingling of primary sounds the opening of Rheingold, with the mechanically operated Rhinemaidens singing phonemes to one another — technology, in both cases, aiding the recovery of an ur-tongue.) In the fashion of the iconic Gesamtkunstwerk, no traces of the underlying mechanics can be seen. Night descends on the space and dawn emerges; subtle changes in light and color mark the passage of time and the cycles of days. The great oak itself suggests an ur-tree, a vision of Yggdrasil rooted in a primeval marsh. Davies calls this zone the "Lifeworld" ("Osmose: Towards"), and here, as at Montsalvat, time becomes space. The journey from the orientation grid to the Lifeworld is much more than a mere transformation of perspective: it is a trip backwards through Western history, from the modern to ancient. According to Davies, the immersant "will realize she has entered a non-Cartesian place" when she passes from the grid to the Lifeworld ("Osmose: Towards"), thus sweeping back into bygone, pre-Enlightenment days. Like the spectators at Bayreuth, the immersant reunifies herself with a premodern age of myth and symbol. Like both Bayreuth and Disneyland, Osmose is a project of retrocartography, of returning the spectator to an earlier (and supposedly superior) form of mapping the land.

The map of Osmose is vertical more than horizontal, and navigation is primarily controlled by the immersant's breath. By breathing sharply in, the immersant can rise up to the branches of the tree and above, into the sky, where she finds excerpts from writings that inspired the project (including passages of Rilke, Merleau-Ponty, and Gaston Bachelard). Breathing more softly allows the immersant to float gently, fetus-like, in place.[4] Osmose marks a return not only to nature but to the womb — a return, in short, to Mother Earth. Exhaling sharply, the immersant can descend through the marshy earth, down through semi-transparent roots and rocks and rivulets of light. If she continues this descent, she will eventually break through the earth itself into a sort of cavern. In this subterranean Niebelheim, great luminescent columns stream forth lines of code, the actual 20,000 lines that programmer John Harrison used to construct the site. "The code realm," writes Davies, "was intended to function as the conceptual substrate of Osmose, drawing attention to the computer-generated artificiality of the experience" ("Osmose: Towards"). Here the mechanical substructure that underlies the simulacrum is exposed, apparently in contradiction to the organic aspirations of the total work of art. And yet, in the fashion of the crystalline Gesamtkunstwerk, the mechanical is exposed here only in order to be reincorporated into the larger organic whole. The lines of code are themselves simulacra of the natural, glowing with light and flowing very much like the stream that feeds the pond of the Lifeworld. And the immersant interacts with these lines of code, floating between them in very much the same way that she floated among the branches of the ur-tree above. The exposure of the underlying code of Osmose creates not so much estrangement as greater unity, a unity that incorporates a rhetoric of the mechanical, much like the so-called "mechanical organisms" of the Bauhaus theatre. Without any dialectical tension between the base "code" and the superstructural "Lifeworld" it produces, the code appears merely another aspect of the larger totality, and it is Moholy-Nagy, more than Brecht, who comes to mind.

As at the Bauhaus — as, indeed, at Bayreuth — highly mechanized performance stems from and heightens a yearning for the "organic." Paradoxically, what Matthew Causey calls the "postorganic performance" of virtual space (185) simultaneously evolves from, exacerbates, and aims to resolve such neo-Romantic longings. "The desire to reaffirm our essential physical and spiritual inter-connectedness, to heal the estrangement between ourselves and Nature, between ourselves and 'being,' is a germinal force behind Osmose," writes Davies ("OSMOSE" 73). The strategy recalls that of the Festspielhaus, with its darkened house-lights, its "mystic gulf," its unified music and spectacle, and its elaborate system of blinders: all to the end of recapturing a lost, "natural" state. And yet the sense of community is gone. The return offered by Osmose is an individual rather than a collective return, as though utopian hopes can only survive when reduced to the size of the self. Moreover, while strong boundaries are established between the alternate world of the VR experience and the "real world" of workaday experience, boundaries within the alternate world are dismantled. The result is "an osmotic intermingling of spatialities — interior and exterior, mental, physical and social," a synthesis of all contraries in original unity. Predictably, audience response is similar to that often found at Bayreuth, with immersants describing "contemplative, meditative peace," "aweinspiring depth," "transcendence of time and space," "feelings of undifferentiated unity or merging," "ineffability or verbal indescribability," "a profound sense of joy or euphoria," "an almost religious experience," and "a reconciliation with nature through technology" (Grau 199; Davies, "Changing Space" 296-7).

But the multi-sensory, multimedia effects of Osmose are not simply a return to Wagner. The effects of Osmose are, in a manner unimaginable before digital technology, a direct reflection of the technology itself. Digital media are fundamentally different from both live performance and analogue recording in that digital media involve the translation of all data into digits, or "bits," which are universally exchangeable with other bits. All digital media are therefore identical in structure; like Campbell's soup cans, a bit is a bit is a bit. Where Wagner had sought to restore the "sister arts" to their original unity, where Schlemmer and Moholy-Nagy had dreamt of a grand synthesis of clashing media, where Disney had aspired to a "grand combination of all the arts" at his theme parks, Char Davies is able to go much further: she is able to work in an essentially multimedia medium. This almost paradoxical essence of digital technology represents the Liebestod of the "sister arts," at once its death-knell and its realization. The paradox emerges because digital technology exchanges the old discourse of distinct yet intertwined arts for the new discourse of exchangeable bits, a discourse that obliterates inherited aesthetic distinctions. The exchangeability of digital data has a function, in other words, roughly analogous to that of currency after the collapse of Bretton Woods, and carries with it a range of effects almost as radical. Within the digital landscape of virtual reality, the old sisters become new clones: parentless, replicable, universally exchangeable, free-floating.

While Davies has pioneered the use of immereive digital technologies for installation art, Ascott's contributions have centered around the aesthetics of networked cyberspace.


Ascott is even more of a technopian than Davies, and brings to his work a decidedly millennial enthusiasm. He laments the "decline of the modern world, with its relentless fixation upon materialism," but feels that there is "a renewed interest in the spirit" among dissatisfied moderns ("Technoetic" 31). Like many of the artists examined in this book, Ascott argues that modernity, carried to its furthest extreme, can restore the organic community of premodern times. We are at "one of those points in the evolutionary path where a quantum leap can be detected, where the singular, isolated and often alienated human brain becomes part of a hypercortex, sharing in the collective intelligence of a world mind" ("Technoetic" 30). The marriage of technology, art, and ritual that characterizes Aspects of Gaia heralds a great recovery of tribal unity in the modern age. If the "holistic potentiality of telematic art" suggests a latter-day Gesamtkunstwerk — this time for the "harmonization and creative development of the whole planet" — then the Ars Electronica Centre, where Aspects of Gaia was first shown, is Ascott's Bayreuth ("Is" 247). For Ascott, Ars Electronica at once exhibits and helps to forge the new tribalism that lies just beyond the horizon of the modern age.

To understand the significance of the Ars Electronica Centre in the new world of interactive art and intelligent systems, it is instructive to hyperlink to the old world; to tune into the Creation Chant of the Navajo in the South West United States which sings of "the emergence place in blue water", and then to zap right back to this new place of emergence beside the Blue Danube. There is a kinship here also with the Hopi who have, in the ground of each of their kivas, a ritual hole called the sipapuni, which represents the place of emergence from the previous world into this fourth world ...
The Ars Electronica Centre is a sipapuni for art of the 21 st century, designed to bring us into the fifth world, the post-biological future.
("Technoetic" 30)

Substitute Greeks for Native Americans, and the debt to Schiller's Letters as well as Wagner's Artwork of the Future becomes unmistakable.

Significantly (and again recalling Wagner), the restored modern communalism may actually surpass the original state. For Wagner, the union of Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Germanic myth will not only recover but exceed the tragedies of Athens (in part, at least in "Art and Revolution," due to the replacement of slave by mechanical labor). Similarly, Ascott suggests that contemporary telematic art surpasses the ritual art of Native American tribes. While the sipapuni of the ancient Hopi was an entrance into a "fourth world," Ascott writes that the sipapuni of the modern age brings us into a "fifth world," which heralds not a mere return to the past but an entrance into a "post-biological future." In a remarkably Hegelian fantasy, Ascott imagines the whole world becoming an apotheosis of mind, with "the spread of intelligence to every part of the built environment coupled with recognition of the intelligence that lies within every part of the living planet" ("Beyond" 2). Thus the post-millennial Kingdom not only restores but perfects paradise lost.

In the face of such utopian dreams, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that most of the world's population today lacks access even to telephones, not to mention the Internet.[8] Media analyst Frank Beacham (at first a strong Internet enthusiast) was already aware of the complexities of Internet corporatization in 1996, when he lamented that the Internet was moving "from being a participatory medium that serves the interests of the public to being a broadcast medium where corporations deliver consumer-oriented information. Interactivity would be reduced to little more than sales transactions and email" (16). Beacham's concern is shared by a number of media analysts,[9] who worry that crucial laws such as the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (which eliminated most of the restrictions prohibiting one kind of bandwidth company from buying or merging with another) could, over time, consign the Internet to the fate of radio and television before it — that is, to transformation into an essentially broadcast medium and control by a small handful of corporations. Lawrence Lessing, for instance, argues that corporations could layer software applications on top of Internet protocols, allowing them to identify private information. If this layering were to occur, it would be but a small step for corporations or governments to subject networked users to a wide range of controls and surveillance techniques. By such means the connective potential of cyberspace might well flip into the "bad coherence" of total "absorption into the Machine" that Wagner saw as the dystopia of modern culture (1:81/3:54; 1:85/5:58). The worst, though by no means necessary, outcome is precisely the vision that first inspired Gibson's Neuromancer — the book that first popularized the word "cyberspace" — where the flow of information is transformed into an "electronic consensus-hallucination," a xanadu ruled by corporate kahns (170).

Ascott's technopianism is questionable for another reason as well: networked cyberspace tends not toward totality (as his un-ironic use of the term Gesamtdatenwerk would imply) but toward universality. Pierre Lévy in particular relishes the irony that "[a]s cyberspace grows it becomes more 'universal' and the world of information less totalizable" (74).[10] Cyberspace, which Lévy defines as "the new medium of communications that arose through the global interconnections of computers," tends toward universality in a manner unprecedented in the history of technology (xvi).[11] There are two reasons for this. The first is that cyberspace "serves as the communications infrastructure and basis of coordination for other large technological systems," while at the same time "mak[ing] possible the evolution toward universalization and the functional, organizational, and operational consistency of other systems" (93). The second is that "the ultimate signification of the network, the value embodied in cyberculture, is precisely its universality." Networked cyberspace — and its subsets the Internet and the World Wide Web — tends toward universality because the "medium tends toward the generalized interconnection of people, machines, and information" in a way that previous mass media could not (94).[12]

Cyberspace is thus fundamentally different from earlier media such as radio, film, and television, and the audience/participants of networked cyberspace are fundamentally different from the mass "public" that was the target of the predigital culture industry (97).[13] It is in networked cyberspace, then, that Brecht's dream of an active mass subject might seem to be achievable. And yet the radically localized, dispersed, and fluid subjects (not to mention the more highly centralized corporations) that shape cyberspace are almost as far from a revolutionary proletariat as they are from Wagner's conception of a Volk. The participants and co-creaters of networked cyberspace are not, in fact, essentially anything. "The universality of cyberspace lacks any center or guidelines," remarks Lévy. "It is empty, without any particular content" (91). Unless and until corporate control of cyberspace becomes stronger than is currendy the case, Lévy's observations remain largely correct.[14] If networked cyberspace is the realization of the neo-Romantic dream of a massively communal artwork, then the dream's realization is profoundly ironic, for the realization occurs within and by means of a center-less space devoid of essential content.

What cyberspace offers is no Desert of the Real, and no Third Kingdom either. What it offers, instead, is an ironic realization of many aspects of the history of the Gesamtkunstwerk. There are at least three ways in which this ironic realization occurs. Briefly stated, they are as follows.

  1. As an entirely digital landscape, cyberspace ironically realizes Wagner's dream of the ultimate unification of all the arts. Here all the arts — indeed, all things — are rendered equivalent and interchangeable compounds of digital information, made up of bits that can be blended together as easily as two handfuls of sand. The "sister-arts" become infinitely replicable clones.

  2. As an increasingly immersive artificial world, cyberspace ironically realizes Wagner's dream of an organic totality produced by cutting-edge technology. On one hand, cyberspace allows for unprecedented technologies of audience immersion. On the other hand, where Wagner had hoped to return his audiences, via immersion, to cultural and racial roots, cyberspace immerses the spectator in a landscape without essential content, with no predetermined location or end, and within which "real" race and gender are indeterminate.

  3. As a "universality without totality," networked cyberspace ironically realizes Wagner's dream of the communal nature of the Gesamtkunstwerk. The dream of an artwork that arises from, reflects, and at the same time transforms the modern masses is attained to an unprecedented degree, but its shape is not totality but ever-increasing universality, not unity but decentered and unpredictable growth.

The fact that these features (universal exchangeability of component parts, unprecedented technologies of immersion within a space without essential content, collective creation leading to universality) are essential to cyberspace does not mean that they determine the form of specific digital creations. Indeed — and here another irony emerges — specific digital works may attempt to compensate for such fundamental placelessness and lack of totality by repeatedly performing precisely those things cyberspace militates against. As we shall see throughout this chapter, narratives of return to Mother Nature and community, the deep longing for belonging, the attempts to create an axis mundi of the virtual world — these are the compensatory reactions of the digital age, as indeed they were of the industrial. In this sense at least, the transition from factory floor to cyberspace is no revolution at all.


The digital dawn

While Aspects of Gaia, Osmose, the Gates house, and World of Warcraft are quite different projects — ranging from VR to networked cyberspace, art installation to mass entertainment — they all participate in a broadly Wagnerian genealogy. They offer themselves as total works of art that seek to recapture a lost harmony with the natural world through the medium of virtual simulacra. All of these four projects stress the unification of media, reliant on mechanics, in order to attain a single, all-encompassing theatre that at once reflects, and helps to achieve, a more perfect social order. All four at times echo the iconic strategies of such artists as Wagner, Riefenstahl, and Disney by hiding the mechanics of their own "organic" spectacle, and at times echo the crystalline strategies of Schlemmer and Moholy-Nagy by attempting to synthesize mechanical and organic elements in a unified "mechanical organism." All four projects, therefore, encourage critical reflection on the medium of their own creation only in order to assuage such reflection, and reincorporate the audience's moments of estrangement (should they occur at all) into the "organic" totality of the whole. The continuation of such iconic and crystalline strategies, both of which hinge on the occultation of labor, suggests that networked digital media alone do not undo ideology. There is nothing about cyberspace, in other words, that necessitates a break with bourgeois aesthetics.

While such visions of restoration as those offered by Gates, Davies, Ascott, and Blizzard Entertainment may hold some promise for the artworks and social constructions of the future, their narratives of estrangement and return sidestep the economic and social realities of the medium. In this light, it is encouraging that some digital artists have begun to reflect critically on the tradition of the Gesamtkunstwerk, to introduce estrangement devices that are not ultimately reincorporated back into the totality of the work. Such a Brechtian response to the total work of art is most clearly in evidence in Beyond Manzanar. Here, confinement rather than freedom is the subject, and a journey through the historical legacy of ethnic internment in America becomes also a meditation on the promise and danger of the total work of art. Beyond Manzanar gives us virtual gardens, but these gardens have weeds: we are given both hope and oppression, rootedness and dislocation. The gardens comfort, but not for long. They provide refuge, but only as stations on a journey that remains as resistant to totality as cyberspace itself.



1. The word "cyberspace" originates in a 1982 story entitled "Burning Chrome," which Gibson wrote for Omni magazine 72.2. It was popularized, however, by its use in Gibson's cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (1984). In a 1994 interview with Dan Josefsson, Gibson emphasized the idea of cyberspace as a realm of electronic communication, including telephone calls, Internet use, and "electronic communication between the world's stock-exchanges" (Gibson, "I Don't"). In Neuromancer, cyberspace is both a fully immersive and a massively networked universe.
back to document text

2. Further information on these installations can be found at:
back to document text

3. Davies's immersant is thus almost the opposite of Donna Haraway's "cyborg." While the immersant in Davies' amniotic cyberspace fits Haraway's conception in certain respects — becoming what Haraway calls "a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism" (149) — the immersant is the very antithesis of Haraway's conception of the cyborg as a creature that "has no truck with ... seductions to organic wholeness" (150). Haraway's cyborg is a hybrid rather than a synthesis, whose mode is irony rather than organic unity. In this sense, Haraway's "cyborg" is the enemy (though perhaps also the bastard child) of the Gesamtkunstwerk.
back to document text

4. The centrality of breath in Osmose brings Wagner's aesthetics once more to mind. As Friedrich Kittler has pointed out, breath is one of Wagner's primary elements, not only a recurring symbol in his libretti but a basic model for his music. Examples of this "respiratory eroticism" include Sieglinde and Siegmund's opening and closing scenes in Die Walküre, Kurwenal listening to Tristan's breath in Tristan and Isolde, and Isolde's final aria to the "wafting breath" of the world. Indeed, Kittler argues that "[Wagnerian] music-drama as a whole ... could be analyzed as the curve of a single, large breath" (262). The revolution of Wagner's music-dramas, according to Kittler, is that they highlighted the physiological source of song in human breath. Wagnerian music-dramas thus exhibit "sound" rather than verbal meaning, and anticipate the techniques of modern mass media.
back to document text

5. The Internet first came into being in 1969 as ARPANET (an acronym for the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon agency that funded it). In its early years, its use was strictly limited to scientific and military communications.
back to document text

6. "Telematics," as Ascott defines it, "is a term used to designate computer-mediated communications networking involving telephone, cable, and satellite links between geographically dispersed individuals and institutions that are interfaced to data- processing systems, remote sensing devices, and capacious data-storage banks" ("Is" 241). The "Infomedia Notepad System" was developed by French astrophysicist Jacques Vallee. For more on Ascott, see Shanken.
back to document text

7. Such techno-maternal fantasies, in both their positive and negative forms, saturate contemporary culture, with cyberspace regularly imagined as good and bad mother, the all-embracing spider at the heart of the Web, the Mamma behind the motherboard. This maternal conception of cyberspace is possibly linked to the modernist gendering of mass culture as "Woman." See Huyssen, After 44—62; Ronellpassim.
back to document text

8. The so-called "digital divide" between digital haves and have-nots has geographic, class-based, and ethnic-based components. Matthew Zook has authored three studies of the geographic divide, and maintains a website on his ongoing research. See also Wheeler et al.
back to document text

9. E.g. Herman and McChesney; McChesney; Barney; Lessing, Code; Hardt and Negri 298-300.
back to document text

10. According to Lévy's definition of "cyberspace,", the World Wide Web (a marriage of hypertext technology with the Internet, made widely available to the public in 1993) is a subset of the larger phenomenon of cyberspace. It is, however, a collaborative creation that exhibits many of the traits of cyberspace particularly well. In David Weinberger's understanding, the Web is a "self-organizing, self-stimulated growth of contents and links on a scale the world has literally never before experienced ... The result is a loose federation of documents — many small pieces loosely joined" (ix). This description of the Web also bears a number of similarities to Lévy's description of cyberspace.
back to document text

11. Note that what Lévy calls "cyberspace" is roughly synonymous with what I call "networked cyberspace."
back to document text

12. On the fundamental difference between networked cyberspace and previous media such as the telephone, radio, and television, Mark Poster is largely in agreement with Lévy. See Poster, "Digital" 101.
back to document text

13. Lévy's insistence, which I share, on the crucial differences between cyberspace and television is not the same as an insistence on a difference between cyberspace and "the televisual." The televisual, understood as a cultural formation in which television is an "intrinsic and determining element" (Auslander 2), may well be broad enough a category to include both VR and networked cyberspace. Auslander seems to incline toward the view that the televisual includes digitality (and thus, presumably, cyberspace), while Causey explicitly argues for this view. See Auslander 38; Causey 183.
back to document text

14. Lévy's views are not uncontroversial, however. For a cogent argument contra Lévy, see esp. Cochran. Cochran argues that Lévy's "universality" smuggles "totality" back in through the backdoor, and thus that Lévy's "universality without totality" is at best mistaken and at worst deceptive. I do not agree that Lévy's "universality" is ultimately another form of totalizing discourse, but a full defense of Lévy's theories of cyberspace lies beyond the scope of this chapter.
back to document text

This article may include minor changes from the original publication in order to improve legibility and layout consistency within the Immersence Website. † Significant changes from the original text have been indicated in red square brackets.

Put online: Nov 2017. Last verified: 19 Nov 2017.