foreign body

Peter Krapp


Being online, e-zines never are fixed entities. So how are we to review any one of them? Where does one start? Some e-zines give you a "start," as it were, in your heads. There is an endless snake of them worming through our world-wide computer webs. At the same time, such writing is forever held back, deferred, not simply presentable. The artificial, prosthetic body of electronic writing is parasited by the speed with which links are erased, written over, forgotten. The net radicalizes the process of reading. How will we deal with this many-headed monster that metamorphoses daily, that transmogrifies every hour and spans the globe?

Chances are that even the casual internet surfer will soon realize that this is not merely about computers, but that there are certain implications behind these technological innovations: everyone has now the opportunity to evolve from a passive consumer of information into an active provider. In this respect, the technology of computer mediated communication is truly a cultural phenomenon. Everybody is equal on the net. Many voices are raised simultaneously. You encounter heads on the net you would never meet in real life. To communicate with the many at once is precisely what the internet is best suited for. Was there ever a world before the internet? It seems as if today, there is no outside the new media. Can there be a detached vantage point of the observer? What would the extramediate be, if there is such a thing? At stake here is the very distinction of observer and observed: the "other" of interiority is not simply its opposite--it works the interior, from the interior, and yet is not itself the interior. We are all in this together: there is a foreign body irritating any supposedly closed system from within. Suddenly, interpretive processes take place within a much altered field of reference.

We might think here of Derrida's retrospective science-fiction of the psychoanalytical "anarchive" upset by electronic mail. What if such technologies had been available to Freud? Derrida's speculation produces a science fiction which of course extends also to the future that will no longer be what Freud and so many psychoanalysts have anticipated now that e-mail, for example, has become possible. As a postal system, Derrida argues, e-mail deserves particular attention due to the major role played in the psychoanalytic archive by a handwritten correspondence which we have not yet finished processing. E-mail is important, not so much because of its speed, but because even more than portable tape recorders, computer disks, or the fax, electronic mail is transforming the production, conservation, and destruction of archives. Any archive of electronic writing is inevitably concerned with the juridical and political transformations which affect the institutions of publication and teaching. However, given the exponentially increasing complexity of the net, it is no longer evident what is proper and what is not, what is clean and what is contaminated. If our grasp of this net that we find ourselves in must remain preliminary, exploratory, provisional, then we will need archives that rise to the needs of such a dynamic process.

So how does this particular archive warrant your attention? Foreign Body, our German e-zine mirrored in Florida, is perhaps best described as a deconstructive fanzine. It arises out of several universities, where it has taken the form of graduate seminars, conferences, or posters and flyers, and a selection of essays written for such events is available on the World Wide Web or from an e-mail address in Germany (foreign.body@deconstruction.rhein.de). "The basic idea," we read in the first essay of the collection, "is that of a group or, precisely, a body of sorts, that will involve readings and discussions which have to do in one way or another with notions of foreign body. [I]nsofar as this concept might appear productive for the analysis of a range of phenomena, including literature, history, philosophy, film and media, psychoanalysis, politics . . . discussion and analysis would aim at the articulation of a logic of the foreign body: of how particular media, texts, discourses and disciplines are inhabited, haunted, even constituted by what they must but cannot admit, by what is alien, external, inappropriate to themselves." (Preliminary remarks by Nick Royle)

The foreign body which finds itself in the strange place of the included excluded third will not be sublimated, locked away, or placated. In the net, such distancing efforts will only create a more direct link. Distance is of course a precondition of communication, but it is inevitable that the foreign body will have already entered, traversed, and constituted the immunological reactions. And the internet is a body not only of many members, but of many heads. There is no one head. Contributors to foreign body come from several European countries as well the USA and the twelve essays filed at our site cover subjects as diverse as materialism and alchemy ("What's the Matter?" by Valerie Allen), Freud's teleanalysis of Little Hans ("Hearing the Case" by David Punter), Bram Stoker's Dracula ("Pest Control" by Scott Brewster), Apocalypse and the Abject ("St. John Eats His Book" by Terrence Holt), and Laughter ("Laughing Stock" by Asko Kauppinen). "Alien4" by Valerie Allen deserves special mention for its powerful critique of the pedagogical institution. Two of the contributions are in German: in "Heidegger und das Tier" ("Heidegger and the Animal"), Michael Schumann offers a reading of the role of animality in Heidegger's Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), and "Dekonstruktion ist nicht was Du denkst" ("Deconstruction is not what you think") is the translation of a mock-Wittgensteinian piece by Geoffrey Bennington on what deconstruction may or may not have to offer to art historians. Finally, for the intrepid and those who have some bandwidth at their disposition, there is a foreign body cartoon in 17 frames by Philip Smith, which is commendable for its witty execution of some morbid ideas.

If death, as radical absence, constitutes the condition of media, but is not represented by them, it will sneak back in as catastrophic spectrality. What, however, happens to media which are diagnosed as dead? They, too, will return. The internet is a text-based environment, and hypertext is the ironic return of the metamedium of writing which had already been declared obsolete for the Icon-based global village. Since the inauguration of the W3 in 1992, virtuality has reconstituted the contract of language. Images for some, text for all should now be the inverted formula. Reading on the net, and, even more so, writing for it, need not remain an activity for a select few; surely, that would be no way to go after Derrida. Instead, foreign body puts deconstructions on the net. Nevertheless, although the concept is innovative, it has nothing in common with notions of a technological or intellectual avant garde in the usual sense, if we consider avant garde that kind of writing which sports privileged textual positions into which one can then plug one's privileged critical positions. Its military sense has a different resonance, however: the call for swift and efficient avant garde forces prepared to enter the enemy lines and irritate their phalanx from within without hesitation. And "if foreign body were to be described as an interrogation centre," Nicholas Royle ventures, "it would be so precisely as interrogation of the centre, an interrogation of every centrism."

Are you beginning to get the idea? Yes, what's the ID? Identify your last entry, space wanderer.

foreign body multiplies; the division into members is its strength. Needless to say, there is a chapter in Royle's new book (After Derrida, Manchester University Press, 1995) entitled "foreign body: the deconstructlon of a pedagogical institution and all that it implies," and, as has been said before, "foreign body would have no simple place, no simple way of being accommodated, appropriated, or assimilated. foreign body is outside, it is that which by its very existence simultaneously founds the body within which it occurs as itself foreign and, as part of this effect of alienating or estranging the body from itself, it is that which turns the very categories of inside and outside inside-out. foreign body maintains a certain identity of its own--that of being a foreign body--while at the same time compromising, contaminating, dislocating the identity of the body in which it occurs."

There is no archive without an outside, but this outside is implicated in the textual body that is the archive. The internet needs foreign bodies, and it needs them to spread.

Peter Krapp edits foreign bodyas well as a Jacques Derrida homepage. He is based at Konstanz (Germany) University's program in the theory of literature and communication (hydra@lake.de).


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