The Web as Symbolic Form

Matt Webb has just posted a long, complex, discourse comparing the symbolic forms of archaic art with the connective tissues of the web. Its fascinating to see how he links a vast range of theories about the nature of cause and meaning, from linguistic concepts like parataxis to the social effects of walking down a street. At the end, he poses a very pertinent question:

It’s possible there’s some trend in our virtual worlds: from the creation of a new medium as a paratactic aggregate, how long does it take for it to become part of the real world again, complete with the implicit nothing-is-wasted qualities of the universe? Is this period decreasing? How long did art take, how long did other media take, and by extrapolating this line, can we tell how long before cyberspace becomes a fair place to live?

An interesting question, but phrased this way, it carries the assumption of a historical progression – that a virtual environment is an abstract ‘place’, access to which is restricted by technological, social or cultural factors that are normalised over time. Matt uses the example of archaic art as another virtual world with a different set of barriers to entry – this time due to the cultural signifiers embedded in the spatial arrangement of forms. The stylised figures in Egyptian pot decoration represented the worldview of that culture in a way that has to be investigated by contemporary audiences. We need to interpret the differences between this mode of representation and ours, divided by the fracture point that was the adoption of perspective during the Renaissance.

But to imagine that we have no reference points *at all* to this mode of representation is too simplistic. The belief that theories of representation progressed in a historical line from cave painting to analytical perspective is in itself a cultural formulation, starting with the formalist ‘Strukturanalyse’ of the Vienna School of Art History in the 1930s, and leading to the aesthetic theories of high modernism used by Clement Greenberg to position US Post-War abstract painting as the apothesis of a analytical representation.

Many of the theories Matt refers to are explicit attacks on this cultural construct of a logical historical development, so it seems odd that he relocates his question about the symbolic form of the web within a historically progressive context. The fact is, many different modes of cultural representation exist simultaneously, on both macro and micro-cultural levels, and this was as true in the time of archaic art as it is now. Erwin Panofsky’s ‘Perspective as Symbolic Form’ is a good starting point to appreciate the interplay between theories of representation and their wider cultural influences. Since Panofsky, the logically progressive model that sees representation move from a ‘naive’ archaic language to an ‘analytical’ refinement of perspective has been under attack, and representational models that echo earlier historical forms (such as the links between baroque, rococco and art deco) have been re-evaluated.

So what does this mean for the web? Well, if we’re looking to understand the web as Symbolic Form, we need to appreciate that it has never *really* occupied a hermetic ‘virtual’ space, but that even in its earliest forms, it has contained echoes and reflections of pre-existing modes of representation. Even more importantly, these modes of representation are continually being mutated, built upon and erased by its users – sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. Alongside this constant process of accrual and modulation, the web occupies a number of positions in relation to other contemporary modes of representation, and is both cause and effect in these relationships. For example, the web has sometimes tried to look like cinema or TV, but equally, these forms have adopted some of the representational modes of the web (eg the mix of visual and textual data on 24hr news channels).

We don’t need to identify a point in time in which the web becomes part of an imagined historical progression of increasingly sophisticated modes of representation. Unlike other technological media of the 20th century, the web has retained a huge amount of flexibility – indeed, mutation and adaption are intrinsic qualities. This means it has retained a myriad of representational forms, from the aping of mass media to the ‘folk art’ of homepages. If we want to understand how the symbolic form of the web illuminates its value as a cause and affect – how it accrues meaning – we need to ask a different question. Instead of asking when cyberspace will become a fair place to live, we need to ask how it is being lived – how it is being folded and adapted into the myriad other representational forms that we use to illustrate our lives.

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