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Cyberspace Battle...

The Cyberspace Battle Against Place

The ideas of place and space have always existed in a type of sub-textual twilight zone of civilization. Particular conceptions of them have provided the underpinnings for philosophical systems and cultural worldviews. While they have been important influences to the zeitgeist of their times, they have also possessed that invisibility of a surrounding medium when most cultural attention focuses on messages within the medium.

The rise and fall them as a philosophical wallpapering of culture has largely been cyclic and therefore influenced by the dynamics of symbolism. Space is related to a feminine unconsciousness. Place related to a masculine consciousness. Just as consciousness grows from unconsciousness, so too the conception of place grows out of the original sense of space. Space dominates the youth of cultures and the individual life of man while place dominates cultural adulthood.

The ideas of place and space also find strong symbolic connection between the ideas of life and death. Life represents freedom of growth into place. Death represents equality of implosion back into the original mother space.

In Will Therapy Otto Rank suggested that the individual is caught throughout life in a never ending pull between these two great paradoxical forces.

"The fear in birth, which we have designated as fear of life, seems to me actually the fear of having to live as an isolated individual, and not the reverse, the fear of loss of individuality (death fear). That would mean, however, that primary fear corresponds to a fear of separation from the whole, therefore a fear of individuation, on account of which I would like to call it fear of life, although it may appear later as fear of the loss of this dearly bought individuality as fear of death, of being dissolved again into the whole. Between these two fear possibilities, these poles of fear, the individual is thrown back and forth all his life…"

In effect, one can say that not only does an individual move between the fear of death and the fear of life but also between the fear of space and the fear of place.

One might argue that man desires freedom over equality, place over space. One needs to ask about the age of the person making this statement. It is true at times but not true at all times. For example, the great totalitarian movements of the 20th century suggest otherwise as Eric Fromm persuasively argues in his famous Escape From Freedom.

In a general sense the ideas of place and space have also found a continuing symbolism in Western and Eastern civilizations. The original youthful space of civilization is represented by Eastern civilization. The growth into adulthood with its sense of place is represented by Western civilization.

In the important but little known book The Myth of the West, Netherlands professor Jan Nordholt discusses the movement of Western civilization into place and the mythology of this movement called the heliotropic myth. This is the centuries-old belief that all history is a succession of great civilizations developing, like the movement of the sun, from East to West. Within the heliotropic myth, America is the vision of the last empire, the fulfillment of the myth.

This is why the founding of America represented a unique event in the history of place and space. America may represent the fulfillment of this myth but it also stood at the intersection of the Western and Eastern myths of place and space.

For the first time in history, a nation was founded at the intersection of these two profound yet paradoxical ideas. For America, the ideas were equality and liberty. At the same time, one could say that America was also founded at the intersection of the space (equality) and place (freedom).

The dual ideas came to be embodied in the ideologies of America’s two leading political parties. Republicans came to symbolize the freedom of place. Democrats came to symbolize the equality of space.

In a nation expanding westward into the wilderness of an undiscovered world, it is not difficult to understand how place dominated the American collective unconscious during these early years. The famous frontier thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner is really a subtextual exposition about the dominance of place in early American history.

Yet, towards the end of the 19th century, there was an important yet little heralded occurrence. With the arrival of the American pioneers on the West coast of California and Oregon the world had become a discovered one and there was little more place to push into. The grand heliotropic movement of Western civilization toward the Western direction was abruptly stopped at the Pacific Ocean. The Western idea of progress into a western direction was forced to find another substitute place.

This substitute was found by realignment of the idea of progress from place to space. It is much more than coincidental that the final settlement of the American frontier at the end of the 19th century (and really an end to frontier and wilderness on a world scale) brought an end to the dominance of place and began the gradual accent (and ubiquitous surroundment) of space in the 20th century.

One of the early symbols of the ascendance of space over place was the psychoanalytic movement born during the death of the American wilderness. In a sense, the western idea of progress through expansion into new place needed, and found, a substitute with the expansion into psychological space. The freedom of outward expansion into the frontier of new places became replaced with the equality of inward implosion.

The new inner spatial equality of psychology found outward cultural expression in such major 20th century phenomena as the political movement of totalitarianism, the economics of mass culture (with its offshoots of mass media, mass communication, production and mass consumption) and the dominance of the cyberspace technology of electricity over the place technology of mechanics.

In America, space and equality dominated the first two thirds of the 20th century. The domination was evidenced in such key events as the growth of mass culture, the Great Depression and the New Deal. The final decade of the space dominance over that of place was the 60s. NASA and the Space Program might be seen as a final attempt to align the symbolism of space with progress. This time, it was that unexplored outer space rather than inner space.

The break-up of mass culture into segmented culture during the final third of the 20th century (1970 – 2000) indicates a return to concerns of place (along with its attendant freedom over equality) in culture. The renewed interest in local place over cyberspace is part of this new concern.

Yet the emerging freedom of product and choice over the equality of mass products is partly an illusion, a myth propagated by controlling economic forces to maintain the power of equality as the broad cycles of symbolism perhaps swing towards place. There might be more and more products to chose but they increasingly look more and more alike. News content is syndicated throughout the nation. One suburb looks just like another one. Movies little more than continuing applications of successful formulas we’ve all seen before.

As it has been throughout history, place and space will form some new synthesis for their times. But neither will disappear as driving opposite symbols for mankind.

In many ways, the Internet finds itself at the intersection of the modern battle between space and place and perhaps the final arbitrator of a new synthesis. Largely the confrontation can be viewed as one between the place islands of Web site content and the context of a ubiquitous electric sea of cyberspace. It is a confrontation of that visual, linear masculine place technology of the alphabet against the auditory, non-linear feminine technology of instantaneous image and electricity.

One will rise to the dominance of archetype while the other falls into shadow. But the day of archetype dominance will slowly dim as the archetype sets and the shadows grow long until they are finally ubiquitous again.

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