Internet Spaces

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

-Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

Starting off a reflection about social media with a quote from Byron about the solitude of nature seems counter intuitive. A “society, where none intrudes” clashes with the usual rhetoric surrounding the networked culture of social media and the digital, and the “lonely shore” and “pathless woods” probably lacks WiFi–or broadband.

But bringing in Byron highlights the paradox of place that the Internet and digital technology brings. We are networked selves, accessing the Internet in multiple ways from multiple places or portals, as our physical self continues to take up space and air “irl.” And much like the narrative locales of Romantic poetry, many digital spaces are constructed and emergent. They may have a url pinning them down, just as Byron’s saga traces the physical geography of Southern Europe, but Byron’s textual place–his “pathless woods” and roaring sea–arrive at us in ephemeral language. They are authored locales.

While I want to get into more concrete considerations of method, I want to pause initially and consider what “space” or “community” constitutes the subject of Internet inquiry.  More specifically, I think that the quality of born-digital space forces us to look at space as an ephemeral, emergent gathering, and this should affect our methods. As Richard Rogers argues in Digital Methods, our methods should “follow the medium.” For now, I want to reflect on what that medium is.

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Embodied Borders

“Not only does Roman society depend upon moral codes being as stable as Latin morphology, but it also demands that those codes emerge in visible, easily detectable signs. By using notions of the body simultaneously to create and reinforce social distinctions, the elite in Rome could check the power of marginalized groups such as women and ambitious politicians from outside Rome.”

-Anthony Corbeill, Nature Embodied

The distinction that the Romans had regarding “nature” v. training seems to represent a tangled area. Discussing delivery, for example, Quintillian writes,  “without the least reluctance, I allow that the chief power rests with nature,” although nature can be “assisted by art” (Institutes of Oratory, III.12). In other words, one must have a certain set of skills initially in order to build upon–like a good memory, a strong voice, etc. While one can certainly improve upon these qualities, both Cicero and Quintilian seem to stress the importance of a latent sound body and mind.

Complicating this, however, both Cicero and Quintillian describe ornate hand gestures, ways of planting the feet, modes of walking, etc., that lead to a “natural” delivery.  While some of these might sound inherently natural, like pointing, others are less intuitive, with specific placement of fingers in unnatural patterns.  Taking command of these gestures and setting the semiotic bridges of signifier and signified, training could construct these seemingly “natural” gestures.  Such codification creates stability and comprehension, but such stability, just like any monolingual intervention, often leads to exclusion.

As Anthony Corbeill writes, “tacit understanding between speaker and audience ultimately works to distinguish between bodies that accurately convey a speaker’s mind by moving in accordance with nature and those that can be marked as unnatural and therefore in some way deviant.” Constructing signs that constitute the norm, the “natural” within proper rhetorical discourse, instruction can be a powerful tool for exclusion.

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