postmodernism and virtual communities

Jennifer Grace (amazin@ACPUB.DUKE.EDU)
Sat, 11 Dec 1993 13:42:33 -0500

I have never posted to this list, though I have been subscribing to it
for nearly a year. I hope this gets through.

I have been following the posts about pomo and the posts about virtual
communities with great interest because both these topics interest me

I think what has been undefined through all these posts is the
difference between theories of postmodernity and postmodern method.
Theorists like David Harvey, Fredrick Jameson, Ardun Appadurai, and
Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, for instance, (as I pull these off the
top of my head) forward theories of postmodernity and the postmodern
condition. Theorists like Sandra Harding, Kathleen Claire Stewart (to
name two--can't think of others right now) employ postmodern methods.
These are not all anthropologists, but as we know, the concept of
"culture" is not specifically within the domain of anthropologists. I
find that the theories of postmodernity that I have read are incredibly
compelling and make a lot of sense. David Harvey's book, _The Condition
of Postmodernism_ is one of the most well-written and "scholarly" books
I have read (whatever scholarly means). He is, by the way, a

I think what it comes down to is that we can not deny the changes in
this world. We *are* living in an age of postmodernity (or
post-industrialism or global economy or what have you). This
necessarily forces us to ask questions about what culture is or what
(aha! I get around to it) community is. We can no longer positively
position culture as that which is defined by clearly marked borders,
economies, languages, etc. And this *is* a world phenomenon. The wars
in Somalia and Croatia have forced me to reexamine what culture is (who
*is* a Bosnian, for example--what *is* "Bosnia"?). I cling to the
Marxist-y theories of Harvey and Jameson which point to a
post-industrialist, global change in economy, exchange, and discourse.

Let me say that I am the first one to complain about flaky scholarship
with poor evidence and loose definitions. I sat through a talk by a
reknowned "culture studies" scholar and listened to the word "culture"
slung around as if it had meaning. (And inevitably, her talk turned to
Madonna, which is to me clear indication of gross trendiness.) On the
other hand, there are valuable and powerful studies being done under the
loose rubric of postmodernity. I think bringing Taussig up as the sole
representative of this work is sorely missing a whole chunk of good
work. Even the culture studies community (whatever THAT is) is turning
to criticize itself. Take for example, Lawrence Grossberg's recent
article "Culture Studies and/in New Worlds." He specifically criticizes
culture studies' "modern" conception of power. He argues that power
does not only happen within forms of discourse (which is a specifically
Foucauldian connotation) but that it also happens in practice. He
asks theorists to "change our conception of culture from the field in
which power is symbolized to a set of practices which apply power" (4).

As for our discussion about what "community" is, I think we can write
our own essay within James Clifford's _The Predicament of Culture_. I
have taken it upon myself to study virtual communities as my
dissertation topic (and boy, oh, boy, some of you are going to think i
am *never* going to get a job!). I have used IRC for about three years
and I know many of the people who operate it, code it, and make
decisions about the direction it is going to take. The history of IRC
is terribly interesting to me, as I have seen revolutions and wars
happen before my eyes. It is a specifically postmodern (if we are
talking about theories of postmodernity) culture. The participants come
from all over the world (US, Australia, most Western European countries,
some South American countries, eastern Asian countries, some Eastern
European countries, etc.). The original code was, in fact, written by a
Finnish man. There is no denying that there is culture there, but as I
see it scroll past my screen, I have often asked myself, what makes me
know this is culture? What are the essentials? I still am not certain.

I have turned my focus to MUDs (multi-user dungeons) and more
specifically MOOs (MUD object-oriented). These are conceptual, imagined
spaces that can be accessed through telnet. They are even more tangible
than IRC because they employ described spaces, objects, and characters
(a couple steps beyond dungeons and dragons role-playing games) to make
culture and live culture in a way that is not physical (what we call
virtual), but which is no less viable than the way we live culture in
our everyday lives. And you thought email was fun!

While this has not been wholly coherent or unified (I lack editing
capabilities--each line, once it was written, had to stay because I am
too lazy to learn how to use my email text editor), at least I finally
got to jump into the fray. I highly recommend everyone reexamine that
scholarship which is called "pomo" because there is something there.

Jennifer Grace
Graduate Student
Department of Cultural Anthropology
Duke University

P.S. Oh! And I like to call this new thingy popomo (rhymes with
Kokomo), though Cornell West has suggested the name "post-Criticism."