"New World" Citizenship in the Cyberspatial Frontier

By Gouge, Catherine | Bucknell Review, June 2002 | Go to article overview

"New World" Citizenship in the Cyberspatial Frontier


Gouge, Catherine, Bucknell Review


To the frontier the American intellect owes striking characteristics. That coarseness of strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance that comes from freedom--these are the traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.

--Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History

AS Frederick Jackson Turner argued in 1893, the concept of the frontier has been integral to the formation of an American national identity, a national identity that is predicated on intellectual as well as material control over the natural world. Turner's rhetoric, in fact, emphasizes a virtual frontier "of mind," a conceptual frontier that is dependent upon its ability to call forth an energy which enables a "masterful grasp of material things." The idealized "masterful grasp" of which Turner writes--implicitly aligned with an objective, "scientific" intellect, "lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends"--veils the colonial desire inherent in frontier exploration. Such a representation of the promise of the frontier serves, furthermore, to mystify the seamless imbrication of colonial desire and frontier "freedom" in the production of the "practical, inventive ... dominant individualism" which Turner claims is "called out" by the American frontier.

Throughout Turner's discussion of the agricultural promise of the early American West, he implies that the concept of the frontier--as an open, "free," and formless space--defines Americans by calling forth specific "intellectual" characteristics which are unique to our attempts to explore and develop frontier space. In so doing, Turner suggests that the idea of the frontier calls out symbolic, virtual traits which are not merely "traits of the frontier" in the early American West; they are, more generally, as he also writes, "traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier" (1) as an imaginary--and, thus, immaterial--space. If in its constitutive potential the concept of the frontier begs our participation and, thus, functions to define us through our desire for and attempts to secure the "masterful grasp" of which Turner writes, we ought to consider the ways in which our subjectivities are mediated by our participation in frontier ventures. To this end, we might question the ways in which our subjectivities are "remediated" (2) by our activities in the cyberspatial frontier and the ways in which agency in representations of cyberspace is contested and completely reinscribed to fit a paradigmatic--imaginary--notion of self as corporate manager.

Invoking Turner's rhetoric to argue for the budding sovereignty of what he calls the Digital Nation, Jon Katz wrote in 1996 that "the Internet is still a wild frontier" and compared "digital" users to those who colonized North America and the Communications Decency Act of 1996 to the Stamp Act of 1765:

   Like the colonists, the online community saw the law as an arrogant
   act by an alien entity seeking to force its will on a new world that
   it had lost any moral right to control ... If the Stamp Act marked a
   turning point in the colonies' relationship with England, the CDA
   did the same for the digital world, giving credence to the notion of
   the birth of a Digital Nation. The CDA's passage and the Digital
   Nation's reaction to it showed that the digital world was creating
   not a radically new value system, but that it was now the champion
   for a venerable old one: the notion of individual liberty. (3)

Katz's appropriation of Turner's rhetoric underscores the current trend in contemporary popular culture to invest cyberspace with the rhetoric and putative value of the frontier, while repressing the historical experience of the frontier that propels such rhetoric. …

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