Saturday, January 1, 2011

Derrida's Predictions

New Year’s Day seems like the right day to write about resolutions and other predictions.  However, rather than dwelling on the promises that we make to ourselves, knowing full well that we shall break them sooner or later in the course of the year, I would rather review a forward-looking text from the past whose chickens are now coming home to roost.  My source is, again, Jacques Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy,” which was originally published in 1968 in Tel Quel.  This was a year when the technology of databases was on the rise, while any sort of interaction with a computer was confined to a handful of timesharing systems and electronic mail was simply a means for people on the same system to pass notes among themselves.

In 1968 few people would have expected technology to advance in a way that would add dimensions of contemporary relevance to the following sentence:

Books, the dead and rigid knowledge shut up in biblia, piles of histories, nomenclatures, recipes and formulas learned by heart, all this is a foreign to living knowledge and dialectics as the pharmakon is to medical science.

Who would have thought in 1968 that the digital computer would become the primary enabler of “dead and rigid knowledge” through technologies such as Google and institutions such as the Internet Archive?  Yet that is what has happened, leaving us transfixed by the pursuit of “dead and rigid” fragments while our capacities for “living knowledge” atrophy at a chilling rate.  Indeed, the Internet has even added a dimension to that pharmacy in Derrida’s title.  In “Phaedrus” Socrates derides the pharmakon, calling it a place for “coming across some common drug or other, without any real knowledge of medicine.”  In other words it is the realization of the vision through which, with the proper search tools and discussion sites, we can seek (and probably purchase) remedies for our ailments without ever having a serious personal engagement with an individual with “real knowledge of medicine.”  Worse yet, this has become a favorite vision of those who see it as a “remedy” for the health care crisis, yet another dimension to the Internet as pharmakon!  Our Internet culture has become the “shallows” (as Nicholas Carr as put it) that have mired our very desire for the active behavior of knowing, simply by bogging down that our efforts to act in an overwhelming mass of “dead and rigid knowledge.”

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