Criticism 33.2 (1991): 268-271.
Poster, Mark. The Mode of Information. Poststructuralism and Social Context. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990. Pp. 179.
[Reprinted with editorial permission of Criticism]
The excitement and difficulties that Mark Poster's latest stud
generates arise from his bold attempt to define "a theory
able to decode the linguistic dimension of the new forms of social
interaction" occasioned by electronic communication, i.e.
the "mode of information" (5), at the core of which
he sees the representative capabilities of language, transformed
by diverse realms of communication (the media, data bases, state
and corporate surveillance, scientific discourses). Organizing
his study around the transformative impact of and on language
within these four regions, Poster follows what he calls the "double
imperative" (18) of shuttling between, on one hand, particular
poststructuralist positions that reveal "the self-referential
linguistic mechanisms" at work in the four aforementioned
"sectors of electronically mediated communication" and,
on the other, these sectors themselves and their subversion of
the "authority effects of the poststructuralist position"
(18). By linking "sectors" to theoretical positions
-- TV ads to Baudrillard (chapter 2), databases to Foucault (chapter
3), electronic writing to Derrida
(chapter 4), scientific discourse to Lyotard (chapter 5) --, Poster hopes to call attention to the new features of "the contemporary social space," to modes of analyzing it, and to the disruptive potential of the theoretical concepts that his study foregrounds.
A powerful statement mid-way through the book both articulates Poster's understanding of the unique phenomena that the "mode of information" initiates for all language forms, and points to the central inconsistency of his study: by undermining "the time/space coordinates that have been employed to fix language in various contexts," the "mode of information" "opens up an understanding of language and society that has no reference in the grid of Renaissance perspective or the mimetic realism of Enlightenment reason." While both speech and writing "are available to logics of representation," "electronic language, on the contrary, does not lend itself to being so framed. It is everywhere and nowhere, always and never. It is truly material/immaterial" (85). This statement, and others like it, are at once stimulating and disturbing since a project like Poster's, grounding itself in chapter 1 in a strong critique of the misprision of the "totalizing forms of discourse" (notably, Frankfurt School neoMarxism, Daniel Bell, and Habermas) on which postindustrial theories of society rely, would seemingly be adequately self-reflexive to avoid moves toward totalizing its own critical approach. However, just as I appreciate enormously the theoretical breakthrough that Poster attempts, it is often difficult to see how the "mode of information" constitutes any more than another totalizing analytical framework, plugged into the most recent critical discourse, to be sure, but for that all the more unconvincing.
Indeed, it is not clear in some instances how the "mode of information" provides a fundamentally useful vantage point for the critical perspectives that it seeks to open. For example, after detailing in chapter 2 the limitations of various approaches to the study of the "mode of information"'s most unique form, the TV ad, Poster points to Baudrillard's critique of the political economy of the sign and to his later exploration of the destabilizing and simulating effects of communication (the "hyperreal") as contributing to the "mode of information"'s delineation. Yet, to counter what Poster maintains is the "hyperreal"'s totalizing position that "forecloses the possibility of new movements" (66), the "mode of information" would ostensibly provide a crucial understanding of the receiver's dual self-constituting role and decentered position as "subject/object of the message" (67). While Poster's analysis certainly opens up the relationship of viewer to the viewed, particularly to TV ads, in ways unexplored by previous critical approaches, what advantage this insight might yield for further analysis is left undecided, even undecidable. For the destabilized, active/passive viewer role points to simultaneous and conflicting possibilities in "the media region of the mode of information," on one hand, of extending "the domain of unfreedom by the linguistic constitution of consumer subjects," on the other, of opening "discourse to a new level of freedom by deconstructing all forms of centered subjects" (68).
Moreover, in contrast to the instability of the subject/object
of electronically mediated communications is the oddly unitary
form of subjectivity exploited by databases and surveillence regimes
that emerges in chapter 3. Calling upon Foucault's work on prisons
in order better to emphasize the emergent capabilities of the
data-based "Superpanopticon" in which we are currently
immersed, "a means of controlling masses in the postmodern,
postindustrial mode of information" (97), Poster's "uncomfortable
discovery" through discourse analysis "that the population
participates in its own self-constitution as subjects of the normalizing
gaze of the Superpanopticon" (97) is all the more uncomfortable
since the destabilized, fractured subject/object of the televisual
exchange is nonetheless controlled -en masse-, in totality, by
the effective manipulation of the "mode of information"
itself. And again, what is gained by Poster's skillful rapprochement
between Foucault's analysis and the databased technology if the
only "oppositional strategy" proposed to counter the
threat of "Superpanoptic" control
is Lyotard's plea, "'give the public free access to the memory and data banks'" (98), that Poster finally dismisses as not advancing "very far in the direction of postmodern justice" (154)?
However, in the shuttle diplomacy in chapter 4, between the sector of electronic writing and Derrida's conceptions of writing and context, Poster provides one of the most important readings to date of deconstruction, "extracting it from the context of philosophical and literary texts and reinserting it in the social context of computer writing" so as better to contribute to critical social theory's "reconstructive task of analyzing later twentieth-century society" (110). Unsurprisingly, given the theoretical position under scrutiny, undecidability rears its pixeled head in the form of the decentering effects of computer writing on individual subjectivity, dispersed across bulletin boards and destabilized by new protocols of conferencing networks. Poster concludes that Derrida's concept of "writing" and the anti-logocentric principle that it contains are placed entirely into question by the evanescent marks or traces of computer writing that instantiates "the play deconstruction raises only as a corrective, albeit a fundamental one, against the hubris of logocentrism" (128). Furthermore, Poster extends this insightful analysis in chapter 5 by exploring the question of how to theorize the political in the "mode of information" in relation to scientific discourse. After situating the poststructuralist thinkers in the context of May '68 and its aftermath in order to trace the political directions of the poststructuralist mediation on language, Poster unfortunately provides entirely too little evidence of what he deems suspicious in Deleuze and Guattari's "hermeneutic of desire," and thereby diminishes important insights that A Thousand Plateaus might provide for the study of cybernetics. Still, Poster emphasizes more fully the role that language plays in Lyotard's works (particularly, The Postmodern Condition and The Differend) and in Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's project, and interrogates the role that science can have when its project has been delegitimized by the critique of "grand narratives" and "when electronic means of generating and disseminating science become available and are practiced" (144). Having located Lyotard's ambivalence towards and cursory treatment of the computerization of science, Poster then undertakes a fascinating, if somewhat brief, reflection on the discursive role of cybernetics in science.
The importance of Poster's book is unmistakable for he skillfully negotiates between and juxtaposes two wide theoretical domains -- electronically mediated communications and poststructuralist theory -- about which much has been written, but hardly with the acumen that he brings to bear in a long-awaited critical rapprochement. In my remarks, I have meant to engage his work on its own terrain, but there is no doubt that this opening sally into the no longer speculative field of the "mode of information," whatever the contradictions that Poster raises without fully resolving, establishes a fertile ground for further research on the relation of electronically mediated communication to social theory.
Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University