Mimesis makes a solitary animal behave differently in the company of his fellows. But the collective context of animal ritual–for example, sexual combat in the mating season–never reaches the point of creating a public scene. The human is born in such a scene, which creates/reflects a structural difference between the hitherto non-critical “private” lives of the members of the group and their nascent communal life-in-crisis. In the scene itself, the members play both the public role of actor and the private one of spectator. In hierarchical society, these roles are separated; social functions are defined by their distance from the sacred center as locus of both power and sacrifice.
The tension between private and public informs the culture of market society. The novel is a story of private lives whose desires are not directly oriented to the unique center of public attention. At first, mediation between the characters’ private world and the public world of meaning is a function of their role in the production process. The evolving market system generates a secondary system of meanings that allow consumers to express their social being as publicly accessible “messages.” But the proliferation of individual messages that extends market society toward the horizon of omnicentricity proceeds in tandem with the increased centralization of media-mediated centers of attention. The technological facilitation of communication creates ever more broadly-based competition for these centers–a feature of the winner take all society–at the same time as the messages generated by individual life-choices are increasingly diversified. The result is to exacerbate the public-private tension beyond the point where it can be mediated, as in the nineteenth-century novel, by the revelation of exemplary “private” characters to the reading public. The private citizen’s resentment can no longer be purged by the esthetic according to the formula of the classical high culture. All that remains are the de-individualizing pleasures of mass culture.
But as old forms of mediation decline, others emerge. What I would like to examine here is a new kind of mediation between private and public exemplified by these very Chronicles that you are reading.
Are these columns public or private? Measured by their accessibility, WWW pages are the most public documents of all. Millions of computer users all over the world can download them at the click of a mouse, at most by typing in a URL. No best-seller could be this accessible; unlimited free access is incompatible with market value.
Yet with respect to scenic presence, the role of even the most popular Internet sites is very modest. In the winner-take-all society, small-scale initiatives have little chance in the competition for public attention. The technology that permits me to operate this site with no demands on UCLA’s generosity beyond a computer and server space also allows everyone over the age of ten to have his personal home page bearing his photograph and a listing of his favorite rock CDs. The proliferation of Internet information reestablishes the indifferentiation of crisis, where the only criteria for decision are the most critical: sex and violence. In contrast, the capital and labor costs of even a modest journal of opinion, greater by several degrees of magnitude, provide a preliminary guarantee of professionalism. Someone looking for quality intellectual fare has a far better chance to find it by subscribing to The New Republic than by clicking on an Internet newsletter.
But winner-take-all pressures distort the criteria of the intellectual marketplace. Theory is supposed to be minimally charismatic; it creates models of desire by arousing the least desire possible. Yet as public attention becomes increasingly precious, increasingly less deferral is available for this procedure. Intelligence is invested in short-term rather than long-term goals, in seeking solutions with les moyens du bord rather than engaging in a process of radical reformulation. Academic publishing has always been separate from that of the mainstream, but only in order to preserve the needs of specialized branches of knowledge from the requirements of the mass market. Because the purview of originary thinking, on the contrary, is the human as a whole, it lacks a built-in clientele; its books are as ill-suited to being reviewed in learned periodicals as in the commercial press.
Minimal thinking cannot be popular thinking. The less it need offer a concrete object of desire, the more deeply it can understand the deferral of desire. Experience and reflection have led me to the conclusion that this enterprise is best nurtured and brought to maturity in the semi-public domain of the Internet. GA can prepare its paradigm shift protected by a non-charismatic medium whose full public accessibility keeps always open the pathway of integration into the public dialogue.
Our generation appears to have reached the limits of the strategy that seeks to abolish sacrificial centrality by espousing the cause of the victim only to reverse the roles of victim and sacrificer. As a result, Western society, together with the less successful ones of the third world, increasingly turns back to sacrificial forms of religion as indispensable means for understanding humanity-in-crisis. In contrast, the originary hypothesis reformulates the common horizon of human thought, religious and secular, as the deferral of the potential violence of human mimesis; its one-word message is decentralization. But in order to further the human aim it enunciates, this new content must be enunciated in a new form. Charisma cannot be denounced from a charismatic center. Or more precisely, the degree to which the center can be denounced depends on the degree to which its denunciation can avoid reestablishing a new center.
There is no fully decentered place of enunciation. But I think the Internet offers a new and unpredicted level of non-authoritarian reciprocity. Recently a subscriber to the GAlist suggested that we all abandon our personal email identities and just exchange our ideas through anonymous texts. Whether or not such an idea can or should be implemented, its very suggestion is in the non-charismatic spirit of both GA and the Internet, where our email addresses, even when they contain our “real” names, are no more than monikers. Viewed from cyberspace, the hierarchy of public and private, with its heroes and hero-worshipers, fascinating stars and mesmerized fans, belongs to a primitive stage of culture.