1991, The Web: Network Fictions
The Short Twentieth Century ended in problems, for which nobody had, or even claimed to
have, solutions. As the citizens of the fin de siècle tapped their way through the global fog that
surrounded them, into the third millennium, all they knew for certain was that an era of
history had ended. They knew very little else.
(Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, 1994: 558–9)
Our age is recombinant. Not retrospective, in the way that Ralph Waldo Emerson thought of nineteenth-century culture: nobody is looking back to the classics and few look even to literature of the recent past as standards for measuring new creativity. What our age does, rather, is splice, graft and recombine the materials left lying around after the disintegration of the old orders. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, liberal democracy, no longer an embattled ideal or a provincial experiment, has become an international norm, for better or worse. The failure of socialism run by a centralised command economy, followed in Russia by the still more catastrophic failure of a purely market-driven economy, had intellectual, political and aesthetic consequences. A set of clear ideological oppositions would soon yield to a proliferation of subject positions; racial and material identities were becoming more important than national identities for both political activity and literary expression. For many commentators after the Cold War, it was not just an era of history that had ended; rather it was the ‘end of history’ itself (as Francis Fukuyama argued in a Foreign Affairs essay of 1991). Instead of a clear transition from one dominant nation or empire to another, the world found itself entering a time of generalised sovereignty, under ‘a regime with no temporal boundaries and in this sense outside of history or at the end of history’ (Hardt and Negri 2000: xv).
The loss of competing ideologies left many novelists and poets to explore not meanings but material constructions, down to the very ‘shape of the signifier’ (Michaels 2004), the lettering, the arrangements of words on a page. The page itself was also quickly becoming not an object but a process, produced electronically and capable of being linked hypertextually via computer systems to other pages, other processes, different organisations of global flows and exchanges. What was being linked, in this new media ecology, was not some ‘imagined community’ of consensual minds, tuned to a familiar set of texts, capable (at least in principle) of arguing in depth. In the absence of national and temporal boundaries, there was no need to dig in, take a stand: those with a difference of opinion could simply move elsewhere (conceptually, if not geographically); it was always possible to find other affiliations, establish new links. ‘Instead of roots, we now have aerials’, said McKenzie Wark, regarding such ‘weird media events’ as the Iraq hostage crisis (1990), the Tiananmen Square massacre (1989), and the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989). Instead of ‘origins’, we