From Utopianism to Weak Messianism: Electronic Culture’s Spectral Moment

From Utopianism to Weak Messianism: Electronic Culture’s Spectral Moment

2003-10-03

Stephanie Tripp addresses Spectres of Marx, the text featuring some of Derrida?s most detailed encounters with both historical materialism and information technology.

The computerized writing classrooms at the University of Florida, like many networked classrooms in universities around the country, allow students and teachers to communicate in ways other than the traditional lecture and question-and-answer formats. Networked communications - from electronic mailing lists to “real time” chat environments - have prompted countless discussions about computer technology’s potential to empower students and de-center classroom authority. Lester Faigley exemplified an exuberance typical of early commentary on computer-assisted learning when, after experimenting with online chat software in his writing classes, he declared in 1992 that networked classrooms enabled a “utopian vision of class discussion” (185). Certainly the new computerized classrooms occasioned a good deal of pedagogical enthusiasm, speculation, and experimentation among instructors in UF’s Networked Writing Environment, and I believe some of those experiments did help empower students. Yet despite computer technology’s often remarkable leveling effect on classroom communications, we cannot ignore its role in enforcing institutional power. A case in point: no matter how many conduits UF’s networked classrooms provide students for transmitting their writing from one computer terminal to another, generally the screen of only one terminal - the one used by the instructor - can be projected onto the big screen in the front of the room.

I do not wish to present the example of the computer projectors as a product of sober reflection served up to temper earlier, “more naive” assessments of educational technology. To do so would be to ignore the very complex relationships among students, teachers, technology, and the larger framework of the university. Far too frequently, conversations about the oft-contradictory ways that computer technology functions in universities resort to progress narratives that seek to measure current test scores, student productivity, instructor efficiency, or even “classroom democracy” against past expectations or future predictions. Humanities scholars are as susceptible to these narratives as the most instrumentalist bureaucrats; the only differences are the perceived goals and criteria for measurement. Instead of mulling whether wiring the university is a step forward or backward, I want to consider what it means to occupy simultaneously the diverse and often conflicting positions of an online academic: scholar, student, teacher, writer, reader, worker, manager, private citizen, public intellectual, subversive agent, authority figure. This essay explores the plight of scholars and teachers as they attempt to negotiate the treacherous borderlands between the traditional college campus and dot-edu. For those committed to socially conscious, critically reflective pedagogies and scholarly practices, working in an increasingly digitized university requires a new understanding of time, one that addresses not only troubled classifications such as “work time” and “leisure time,” but the very idea of time as a succession of present moments that unfold toward a recognizable end. With this in mind, I would like to oppose to the euphoric emancipation narratives so prevalent in the earliest days of the World Wide Web the notion of the “spectral moment.”

Jacques Derrida describes the spectral moment as “a moment that no longer belongs to time,…that is not docile to time, at least to what we call time” (xx). He makes this statement in the opening exordium to Specters of Marx, his most sustained engagement with philosophies of history. Specters addresses not only Marxist theories of history but also triumphal capitalist narratives typified by Francis Fukuyama’s ebullient declaration of the “end of history.” The spectral moment occurs as a temporal disjunction that belies any assertion of an historical continuum that occurs through a sequence of identical units of time. In this way, it takes up Walter Benjamin’s call that any critique of the concept of historical progress must begin by challenging the notion that events unfold “through a homogeneous, empty time” (261). In Specters, Derrida choreographs a pattern of connection between temporal disjunction and inheritance; spectrality; Hegelian “Spirit”; dialectical materialism; and the work of Heidegger, Kojève, and others through a complex reading of Hamlet’s lament that “the time is out of joint.” The prominence of these words from Shakespeare in Derrida’s text signals two things worth noting here. First, the assertion that time is “out of joint” participates in a critique of positivist historicism that resonates not only with Benjamin’s essay on the philosophy of history but also with a French intellectual tradition that includes the work of Gaston Bachelard and Louis Althusser. Althusser, for instance, opposes a theory of “structural differentiation” to both Hegelian and empiricist theories of history in his essay “The Errors of Classical Economics: An Outline for a Concept of Historical Time” in Reading Capital (91-118). For an overview of Althusser’s debt to the work of Bachelard, see Robert Young’s “The Scientific Critique of Historicism” in White Mythologies: Writing History and the West (48-68). Second, the figure of the melancholy Dane who utters these words invokes a problem familiar to academics working in a rapidly changing institutional and technological milieu: the problem of how (and why) to act.

Indeed, the question of action is central to Specters of Marx, yet its imbrication in some of the fiercest philosophical debates of the twentieth century assures that it remains a vexed one. Those familiar with Derrida’s role in those debates (and with his discursive strategies) would expect no prescriptions in Specters, and he characteristically offers none. Although the text catalogs a range of ills associated with the unchecked advances of global capitalism-from increasing intrusions on individual privacy to the heavy burden of debt on Third World countries-it does not delineate a specific course of intervention but instead gestures toward a more general responsibility of “committing oneself in a performative fashion” (50). Nevertheless, Derrida clearly affirms the importance of taking action when he avers his allegiance to the promise of justice invoked by the Communist Manifesto. He writes:

And a promise must promise to be kept, that is, not to remain “spiritual” or “abstract,” but to produce events, new effective forms of action, practice, organization, and so forth. To break with the “party form” or with some form of the State or the International does not mean to give up every form of practical or effective organization. Derrida cites a slightly longer version of this passage in response to criticism from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and others that Specters of Marx attempts to depoliticize (or, as Spivak suggests, refuses to “repoliticize”) Marx (“Marx & Sons” 263, n14). Spivak made her comments in “Ghostwriting,” which appeared in Diacritics 25:2 (65-84). (89)

Because he makes no recourse to an established theoretical or political program, however, some critics argue that his call to “re-politicize” Marx is no more than empty rhetoric. Aijaz Ahmad, for instance, describes Derrida’s project as “an extreme form of anti-politics” (104). Terry Eagleton suggests that Derrida’s reading of Marx precludes the very program of Marxism itself: “Derrida’s indifference to almost all of the actual historical or theoretical manifestations of Marxism is a kind of empty transcendence - a typically deconstructive trumping of some alternative position which leaves one’s own case invulnerable only in proportion to its contentlessness” (87).

Evaluating Specters of Marx within a broad theoretical or political context falls outside the scope of this article, and many capable scholars already have taken up the matter elsewhere. Instead, I wish to concentrate on how Derrida’s treatment of spectrality and temporality in Specters pertains to the relationship between contemporary information technologies and the modern university. Today’s university has been transformed by what Manuel Castells describes as the rise of the Network Society, a convergence of economic, social, and technological factors that began to take shape in the United States in the 1970s. Castells distinguishes the Network Society’s “informational mode of development” from other modes, such as industrialism, by its “action of knowledge upon knowledge itself as the main source of productivity” (17). As knowledge itself has entered the cycle of economic production, the boundaries between commercial and academic interests have grown more porous. By the time the Internet became widely used on college campuses, Dan Schiller notes, universities already were being “reoriented toward familiar corporate practices that were foreign to the bulk of earlier educational endeavor: growing utilization of casualized labor, productivity enhancement measures, and product development based on profit and loss potentials” (Digital Capitalism 144). Western universities have become more commercialized as their role in preserving and perpetuating national cultures has diminished. The premises under which the modern research universities were founded during the past two centuries are giving way to new social and economic considerations, and, according to Bill Readings, the “University of Culture” is being remade as a corporate bureaucracy whose watchword is “excellence” (21). The “University of Excellence,” Readings writes, no longer serves as “the ideological arm of the nation-state” but trades in the creation and circulation of information for its own sake (40).

Because “excellence” is almost meaningless in itself - the term can be applied to everything from potato chips to surgical procedures - it can serve as an organizing ideal for various academic programs and disciplines regardless of subject, method, or mission. As Readings points out, its value-neutral, all-inclusive character fits well with a globally networked corporate bureaucracy:

“Excellence” is like the cash-nexus in that it has no content; it is hence neither true nor false, neither ignorant nor self-conscious. It may be unjust, but we cannot seek its injustice in terms of a regime of truth or of self-knowledge. Its rule does not carry with it an automatic political or cultural orientation for it is not determined in relation to any identifiable instance of political power. This is one of the reasons why the success of left-wing criticism (with which I am personally in sympathy) is turning out to fit so well with institutional protocols, be it in the classroom or in the career profile. (13)

When the university’s mission was tied to that of the nation state, it was relatively easy to position oneself in support or in opposition to that mission and its attendant policies (even though the costs - censure, loss of employment, or even physical violence - may have been high). Under the new rubric, however, the most blistering criticism of government (or even of the university itself) may perversely lead to institutional rewards if that criticism is deemed to be “excellent.” Clearly, the terms of engagement have shifted. The new university cannot be analyzed effectively under binaries such as real-virtual or content-form; to do so would ignore, for example, how the “virtual” can render “real” effects or how “form” can function as “content.” These processes that seem to operate between the “here” and the “not here,” between the “now” and the “not now,” instead lend themselves to what Derrida calls “spectral logic.”

Old ghosts, new haunts

The logic of the specter is the logic of that which is neither present nor absent, neither material nor spiritual; its paradoxical effects are elusive, yet they cannot be relegated to the realm of the purely imaginary. Its operations may appear most obvious in what we call “new media” - the Internet, wireless communications, multimedia applications-yet they are there as well in “old media.” In the case of the university, spectral logic suggests that what gets taught - “knowledge,” if you will - is inseparable from its mediation, be it through Web sites, videotapes, traditional lectures, or even pedagogical theories. Castells, whose approach differs greatly from Derrida’s, invokes the spectral in a very telling passage on the mediation of knowledge: “Because informationalism is based on the technology of knowledge and information, there is an especially close linkage between culture and productive forces, between spirit and matter, in the informational mode of development” (18; emphasis added). Communications technologies mediate power as well as information. As Derrida notes, dominant political, economic, cultural, and intellectual institutions rely on “techno-mediatic power” to reach ever-increasing numbers of individuals at ever-greater distances. Significantly, he considers the current deployment of such power unprecedented, and he links it to a recent “acceleration of technical advances” (53).

The relationship between the “technical advances” that have been so abundant in the last two decades and Derrida’s recent allusions to spectrality requires careful elaboration. Situating the spectral moment merely as a product of late-twentieth or early-twenty-first century telecommunications practices would not only succumb to a fallacy of technological determinism, but it would pay little heed to Derrida’s nuanced handling of “media.” His use of the term encompasses much more than news-gathering organizations or electronic communications technologies. It also draws on nineteenth-century Spiritualism, which applied the name “medium” to a person believed to communicate with the dead. Interestingly, as John Durham Peters notes, “media” became associated with telecommunications by analogy with the practices of the Spiritualist medium (100). Derrida exploits these otherworldly connotations of “media” in his attempts to demonstrate the inescapably spectral nature of mediation. The shades of meaning resonate with one another as he addresses the political in terms of the shifting boundaries between public and private space:

And if this important frontier is being displaced, it is because the medium in which it is instituted, namely, the medium of the media themselves (news, the press, tele-communications, techno-tele-discursivity, techno-tele-iconicity, that which in general assures and determines the spacing of public space, the very possibility of the res publica and the phenomenality of the political), this element itself is neither living nor dead, present nor absent: it spectralizes. (50-51)

Another level of mediation emerges beyond the “media themselves,” and this medium - language itself - “spectralizes.” From nineteenth-century discussions of “dead letters” to late-twentieth-century literary theory, the ghostliness of language is a familiar topic to specialists in the modern languages. Outside the realm of specialized knowledge, however, such notions are viewed with polite skepticism, if not absolute disdain.

Although the spectrality of language may be as old as language itself, it has often been ignored by popular perceptions of communication. For centuries, print-centered Western culture has considered language to be tangible, fixed, and quantifiable, as evidenced by the phrase: “It’s right there in black and white.” During the past twenty years or so, however, state-of-the-art electronic telecommunications technologies have provided examples of everyday communications that are evanescent, mutable, and overdetermined. Allusions to the ephemerality of communication or ambiguity of the message are much less likely to offend the culture’s commonsense ideas of what it means to communicate than they were even a decade ago. The dizzying speed of contemporary telecommunications makes once easily dismissed assertions about the untimeliness of communication suddenly seem plausible. Even the most routine statements, when echoed back electronically at an unexpected moment or in an unanticipated context, can evoke feelings of estrangement. Language may have been haunted for millennia, but popular awareness of certain “spectral effects” seems fairly recent.

In the University, uncanny encounters with the digitized word disrupt the rhythms of ordinary academic life and demand that we consider the multiple processes of mediation that we participate in each day. Techno-mediatic power is always at work in our teaching, our scholarship, our daily interaction with colleagues, and our administrative duties, no matter how high- or low-tech our workplace may be. Computers and contemporary telecommunications equipment leverage this power to new degrees. Such power cannot be summarily embraced or condemned; Derrida, for instance, states that it both ” conditions and endangers any democracy” (54).

States of an online academy

Those who have looked to the electronic classroom as a barometer of social progress in higher education cannot be anything but sorely disappointed with the present state of affairs. Rather than a utopia of de-centered pedagogy, progressive online communities, and digital democracy, the wired university has proven a mixed bag for academics in the Humanities. Access to information and resources has increased, but so has a tendency toward rationalization and “efficiency models” of education. On the one hand, Web-based distance education initiatives promise to expand the educational opportunities for those who live far away from universities, who cannot afford a traditional degree, or whose work schedules prohibit them from attending traditional classes. On the other, they threaten to curtail drastically the interaction between instructors and individual students and to subordinate an instructor’s specialized knowledge to mass-produced course templates. Computer networks have given knowledge workers opportunities to share information, build solidarity, and organize, but they also have made it easier for administrators to engage low-wage contract workers who may live and work hundreds of miles from their full-time colleagues. Dan Schiller devotes a chapter of Digital Capitalism to analyzing the effects of new information technologies on higher education, including the broad-ranging efforts among education officials and university administrators over the past two decades to render U.S. higher education less “labor intensive.”

Those who are committed to a narrative of technological emancipation may characterize the ascent of efficiency models and the intrusions of market interests into the classroom as unfortunate setbacks in a clearly demarcated course of improvement. Others may argue that claims of increased access to information obscure the presence of escalating state control and corporate exploitation. A report by the American Federation of Teachers describes the often Manichaean flavor of the discourse in this statement about distance education: “There is a tendency toward the apocalyptic when discussing distance education, both in the minds of those who see DE as saving education and those who see it as the downfall of our once great system” (Kriger 6). It would be an understatement to suggest that the issue of educational technology has proved divisive to college faculty in the U.S. over the past decade, particularly in the Humanities. Critical or theoretical positions held by academics often are informed by - but occasionally are in conflict with - positions occupied by those individuals within the institution itself. In many cases, a division presents itself between classroom instructors and administrators. In Managed Professionals, Gary Rhoades notes that the use of new technologies is an issue of growing importance in contract negotiations between faculty and administrators, even though most contracts have yet to address it in any significant way (175). Among the faculty themselves, clear divisions exist between those who incorporate new technologies into their teaching and those who do not. Very frequently, the use of computers is associated with college writing programs, which often are already marginalized within their respective departments and colleges. These inter-departmental divisions may emerge in discussions over budgets, curriculum, and the process of tenure and promotion. The issue of institutional legitimation of faculty in the field of computers and writing has spawned a good deal of literature in professional journals, including a special issue of Computers and Composition devoted to obstacles that self-styled “technorhetoricians” encounter in the tenure process. (Computers and Composition 17 (2000)). In addition, the Modern Language Association and the Conference on College Composition and Communication have been popular forums on the matter; both organizations have developed informal guidelines on evaluating work that involves new technology. Faculty who embrace new technologies may feel torn between emerging demands for their computer skills and the traditional demands of research and publication. Those who do not risk future marginalization by the institution.

Fearing complicity in decisions that will further corporatize or rationalize the university, many faculty insist on keeping their distance from classroom computer technology. Rhoades’s analysis of dozens of contracts between universities and faculty unions concludes that “[t]here is little evidence of faculty negotiating active control over decisions surrounding the choice, purchase, and use of instructional technology” (208). Certainly, collective bargaining is not the sole source of faculty input on the matter of technology. Nevertheless, Rhoades’s research provides insight into how a number of faculty are approaching the issue. For many institutions, the stakes are considerable: In the absence of a faculty voice, administrators and software companies decide what technologies are adopted and how they are used, and they present their choices as a fait accompli. National labor organizations are increasingly stressing to their members the importance of their participation in technology initiatives. A report released in May 2001 by the American Federation of Teachers reflects this sentiment, as indicated by the following: “[I]t is proper, even necessary, for higher education faculty to make distance education work, but that may often mean contradicting current DE practice to affirm academic values. Faculty must mobilize behind the principle that democratic governance rather than top-down management produces better, more credible education” (Kriger 22).

If debates over classroom technologies have created new divisions among the faculty or exacerbated old ones, it is because they cut across more fundamental issues facing the academy today. Courses delivered through the use of computer technology, sometimes with teachers and students communicating at distances of hundreds of miles, call into question the place of the University and its relation to its students and the greater community. As class e-mail lists, electronic chat room discussions, and student hypertext projects join the lecture and the research paper, we must reconsider the limits of classroom space, class time, and student work. Is work performed in the virtual classroom equivalent to that performed in a traditional classroom? Does it merit the same credit and compensation? What about distance education courses developed from study modules, syllabi, and lecture outlines prepared by faculty who will not “teach” the course in any traditional understanding of the term, and who may no longer even be affiliated with the institutions offering the course? The appearance of the “virtual professor” not only raises fascinating questions concerning employment contracts and rights to intellectual property; it forces us to consider the virtuality of any academic labor.

To speak of labor as “virtual” does not render it less demanding, less productive, less worthy of compensation, or less “real” than it has ever been. Although administrative cost-cutters have seized on some aspects of virtual labor - the relative difficulty in documenting when and where it takes place, for example - to gain unfair advantages over employees, there is nothing inherently unjust in the classification itself. In a recent lecture on the state of the Humanities, Derrida touched on the complex manifestations of work-material, theoretical, and the many spaces in between. The lecture, titled “The Future of the Profession: Or, The Unconditional University (Thanks to the `Humanities,’ What Could Take Place Tomorrow),” explored the semantic field suggested by the term “profession”: the university professor, professionalization, and the act of professing, or committing oneself performatively to a duty. Traditionally, one becomes a professor by professing, or promising, to devote one’s life to studying and teaching a particular subject. Derrida noted that the production of a work, or oeuvre, is a relatively recent requirement of the job, even though the quality and extent of such work is perhaps the most important factor in obtaining permanent professional status in the form of tenure. Because the book can be recognized easily as a material commodity, the professor’s job can be defined as a producer of books and, by extension, of the knowledge contained in those books. Although the book remains well entrenched as the emblem of professional accomplishment in the academy, the rise of electronic modes of inscription challenges its status as the sole criteria of accomplishment. Moreover, the subject of tenure in the wired university is not limited to whether an electronic “work” can stand in for a printed one, but whether the job of the professor will continue to be defined by the production of “works” at all. In connecting the “future of the profession” to the question of work, Derrida calls attention to the virtuality of academic labor itself. Virtuality, as Derrida points out, precedes its contemporary notions of computer-mediated experience: “As long as there is the trace there is virtualization.” But he adds, “What is new quantitatively is the acceleration of the rhythm” (“The Future of the Profession”).

Derrida is not alone in suggesting that the problem of “virtual labor” is far from new. Dan Schiller, for instance, has traced the vexed status of intellectual labor - the uneasy relationship between “head” and “hand” - as it dovetails with the history of telecommunications. Schiller’s Theorizing Communication: A History (New York: Oxford, 1996) argues that the inability to reconcile intellectual labor within the general social category of “work” is responsible for some of the most troubling contradictions in communications theory. Schiller observes that information technology and the labor and reform movements share a long history, going back in this country at least as far as the anti-monopoly reform movements over control of the telegraph system, the press, and the powerful combination of the two - the news wire services such as the Associated Press (xii). A central figure in Schiller’s narrative is philosopher John Dewey, who is credited as a founder of both communications theory and of the American Association of University Professors, the first faculty union in the U.S. According to Schiller, Dewey’s efforts to ameliorate the social division between physical and mental labor led to his characterization of collective intellectual work not as “labor” but as “organized intelligence” (xii). The reluctance of many intellectuals in the academy to consider themselves workers persists today, even though employees of public higher education institutions comprise a significant component of organized labor in the United States.

Yet the voice of these workers has perhaps never been more critical than today. This group, as one of the largest and most highly educated segments of the work force, is uniquely suited to challenge the rhetoric of technological determinism that passes off choices based on expediency as inevitable consequences of the new economy. Although computer networks and high-speed telecommunications technology have made it easier for decision makers to restructure how labor is defined, deployed, and compensated at the turn of the millennium, as Manuel Castells points out, “technology per se is not the cause of the work arrangements to be found in the workplace” (256). Different results would occur, Castells argues, if information technologies are used to improve the quality of work and sustain productivity rather than to reduce payroll costs and boost earnings reports. “This model,” he writes, “is not the inevitable consequence of the informational paradigm but the result of an economic and political choice made by governments and companies selecting the `low road’ in the process of transition to the new, informational economy, mainly using productivity increases for short-term profitability” (255). While Castells’s focus is on the work force at large, his observations are more than relevant to the economics of higher education given the interest that state governments and university administrations have expressed in distance education as a relatively low-cost, money-making venture. One report suggests that in 2002, 85 percent of colleges and universities in the U.S. will offer some form of distance education courses, and administrators often cite financial reasons - budget cuts or a lack of classroom space - for their decisions. International Data Corporation, “Online Distance Learning in Higher Education, 1998-2002,” cited in Kriger (5). Those who have worked with online teaching technologies know that alternative models of distance education - those with low student-instructor ratios, high degrees of interaction among class members, and creative uses of technology - are practiced every day. At issue is how to advocate the practice of these alternative models.

The Utopian and the Messianic

As the mediation of power, knowledge, desire, and productive energy operates at ever-greater frequencies in the online university, our attempts to intervene, predict, reflect, or resist seem increasingly out of sync with any given situation. Narratives of technological emancipation do not hold up under rigorous critique, yet critique itself is ill-equipped to handle the paradoxical manifestations of the virtual. How, then, can we negotiate the myriad contradictions permeating dot.edu without succumbing to ethical paralysis or cynical resignation? The approach would come from within the virtual itself, from the spectral moment that exists between an inscription and its uncanny double, and the promise that in that moment anything could happen.

Derrida offers as the defining instance of this promise the opening lines of The Communist Manifesto, and, in particular, the announcement by Marx and Engels that Europe is haunted by the “specter of communism.” What gives these words their remarkable force is not so much their claim on the past, but their radical futurity: They were not summoning communism from the grave, but conjuring it into being (Specters 37-38). This openness to the future, which Derrida describes as “a certain emancipatory and messianic affirmation” (89), would serve as the basis of any practice informed by the spectral moment. Derrida’s invocation of futurity might be taken in some sense as a flavor of Utopian optimism. Fredric Jameson, for instance, argues that motifs that have emerged in Specters of Marx and other examples of Derrida’s more recent work could be described as Utopian (59). Derrida himself, however, remains reluctant to apply the term to his work:

Although there is a critical potential in utopia which one should no doubt never completely renounce, above all when one can turn it into a motif of resistance against all alibis and all “realist” and “pragmatist” resignations, I still mistrust the word. In certain contexts, utopia, the word in any case, is all too easily associated with the dream, with demobilisation, with an impossibility that urges renouncement instead of action. The “impossible” of which I often speak is not the utopian, on the contrary it lends its own motion to desire, to action and to decision, it is the very figure of the real. It has duration, proximity, urgency. (Derrida and Assheuer 27)

Derrida’s “messianic affirmation” is not a gesture toward an optimistic certainty of redemption, but a belief that what appears impossible might somehow become possible. He uses the term “messianic” or “messianicity” rather than “messianism” in order “to designate a structure of experience rather than a religion” (167). That experience is a paradoxical “waiting without horizon of expectation” (168).

Critical to any examination of Derrida’s treatment of the messianic is an understanding of its relationship to the work of Walter Benjamin. Two essays provide invaluable insights into Derrida’s debt to Benjamin in Specters of Marx: Werner Hamacher’s “Lingua Amissa: The Messianism of Commodity-Language and Derrida’s Specters of Marx” (Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx. Ed. Michael Sprinker. London: Verso-NLB, 1999. 168-212) and Fredric Jameson’s “Marx’s Purloined Letter” (New Left Review 209 (1995): 75-110; reprinted in Sprinker, 26-67). In the “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin states that each generation carries a debt to those of the past and, thus, is endowed with “a weak Messianic power” (254). Although Benjamin’s discussion of the messianic mentions a sense of redemption, his words do not carry the sense of optimism that one might associate with this idea; indeed, his essay is imbued with sadness. Françoise Meltzer has an essay on Benjamin’s melancholic tendencies in relation to work, literary originality, and acedia, the sin of sloth, in Hot Property: The Stakes and Claims of Literary Originality (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994). Benjamin, writes Fredric Jameson, “offers the supreme example of the intellectual committed to revolutionary values in a world in which revolution cannot be expected to happen” (62). For Benjamin, the messianic and its attendant possibility of redemption provided a tempered hopefulness and an ethical imperative at one of the bleakest moments in European history.

Derrida, like Benjamin, situates the messianic in a moment of hesitation. For Benjamin, that moment is one of “danger”; the past flashes up before disappearing forever. For Derrida, it is a moment of haunting; the spectral other makes its visitation in the disjunction between presence and absence, life and death, matter and spirit, that conditions representation. Although the messianic “trembles on the edge” of this event, we cannot anticipate its arrival. Because the arrival is never contingent upon any specific occurrence, the messianic hesitation “does not paralyze any decision, any affirmation, any responsibility. On the contrary, it grants them their elementary condition” (Specters 169). The moment of hesitation - the spectral moment - enables us to act as though the impossible might be possible, however limited the opportunities for radical change may appear to be in our everyday experiences. The global communications networks, although often invasive and dangerously reductive, also serve as privileged sites of messianic possibility precisely because of their accelerated virtualization. The deployment of such technology, Derrida writes,

[…] obliges us more than ever to think the virtualization of space and time, the possibility of virtual events whose movement and speed prohibit us more than ever […] from opposing presence to its representation, “real time” to “deferred time,” effectivity to its simulacrum, […] It obliges us to think, from there, another space for democracy. For democracy-to-come and thus for justice. (169)

From this perspective, new education technologies are neither utopian agents of emancipation nor guarantors of enslavement. They are sites of possibility that are suffused with risk and that demand responsibility. Therefore, as teachers and intellectuals we should neither limit our engagement with new media to a programmatic critique nor an unreflective embrace but should exploit the ways these media call into question commonsense assumptions about “history,” “progress,” and “knowledge” itself. Analyzing the spectral effects of mediation helps us trace the diffuse and subtle workings of desire, coercion, and productive energy as they are projected onto the screens of our personal computers, our classrooms, and our collective imagination.

Works Cited

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—. “Marx & Sons.” Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx. Ed. Michael Sprinker. London: Verso-NLB, 1999. 213-69.

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