Interspace: Our Commonly Valued Unknowing

by Michael Joyce, Vassar College

Panel remarks for the “Information, Silence, and Sanctuary Conference” at the University of Washington, May 2004.

At the author’s request, we include this link to the conference site where many of the talks, including this one, are streamed:

Some years ago, at the height of the previous bubble, I was invited to take a turn about the filmy reflective surface of one particularly glossy hemisphere of gas on an afternoon in New York City at Razorfish, the then self-styled “global digital solutions provider,” whose tradestyle has in the last two years been sold in a fire sale, its core business having dissolved into the sea of tears which followed the bubble’s bursting.  Razorfish had, in its heady early days, taken to inviting in intellectuals as sort of an afternoon’s entertainment in the way of the Medici’s sponsorship of portraitists, philosophers, and itinerant plasterers and colorists. Like the Medicis (one supposes) the assembled courtiers munched pizzas while the philosopher/plasterer entertained and orated. Coming from a long line of hod-carrying Irishmen myself, I wanted to slap it on thick for the goat-cheese-and-arugula-feeding boys and girls.

I suggested to them that relative space has economic value. First-class airline seats are the obvious instance but so too is the white space of professional design or even the transparency of well-designed interfaces or icons which leave space for more important thought by lowering cognitive overhead.

To this room full of the best and the brightest web designers, flash freaks and director doyennes I suggested a notion of interspace, as an economically viable, i.e., sellable, commodity wherein networked media would increasingly offer users an identity buffer from intrusive and ubiquitous linked information sources.

Room to choose will become a valuable product, I claimed to the yawning Medici kids as in dismay and increasing hunger I watched them grab and gobble up the last scraps of smoked-salmon-and-crimini pizza and gaze off happily into not inter but actual space, doubtlessly tallying the then-burgeoning value of their stock options.

“Software agents and other filtering devices seek to provide at least the perception of buffered choice-points for the busy user,” my jeremiad went on while my stomach grumbled. “What they do not provide, however, is the confirming experience of relative space within which we form our own sense of ourselves as controlling and independent beings.”

That is, I saw interspace as something of a negative interface within which the consumer, participant, audience member, or citizen acts as herself, and where both self and action are confirmed.  While it might be tempting to think of negative interface as the interactive equivalent of ambient environment sounds  or — better still — noise-canceling earphones, for me interspace has less in common with new age environments or sky-mall gadgets than it does with our normal experience of consciousness. Instead of ambient audio or cloaking earphone, a more apt image might be the silent space between stations on a car radio in search mode. Our normal consciousness seems to alternate between periods of calm and action.

We experience the calm as smooth space wherein the world of our senses and our brain activities slide interchangeably in and out of each other.  In most of our lives, however, periodic bursts of externally motivated action have no clear source in the smooth spaces of consciousness and yet clearly seem a part of it and us.

Interspace is a word which has an old history in English; the OED lists a first usage dating to a translation of Palladius’ tract On Husbandrie in 1420. The word continues to be used as both noun and verb meaning to add space, time or other interval between events.  Yet the use closest to my own (although one I was not familiar with at the time I prophesied to the sated young programmers and designers idly pecking crumbs from empty pizza cartons) comes from an essay by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

In “Shakespeare as poet” Coleridge describes what we might recognize as cognitive overload in the Greek theatre, in which because “there were no formal divisions into scenes and acts; there were no means, therefore, of allowing for the necessary lapse of time between one part of the dialogue and another.”  Where the modern stage accounted for time by “dropping a curtain,” Coleridge suggests the Greek genius was to supply the audience with “music and measured motion, and with the lyric ode filled up the vacuity.” These odes Coleridge says “fill up the interspace” so that the audience “stretched minutes into hours.”

In the onslaught of event, the lack of a necessary lapse, we, too, feel a vacuity. White iPod earbuds testify how many of us indeed do try to fill the emptiness with our own music and motion; and yet more and more it is the rare moment which stretches into hours.

I am not trying to sell old pizza pie in the sky or to download a new music of the spheres, but I more than ever believe that there is an increasingly compelling value in distance, silence, uncertainty, and deliberation. The shared care of the commonly-valued unknowing — the interspace which constitutes the agenda of an art form, an academic discipline, a spiritual practice, or democratic citizenship — offers not just commodity but comity. The latter, old-fashioned word for an atmosphere of social harmony has in its legal and policy meanings a sense of making space for the decisions and actions of another jurisdiction or nation. In a mediatized and multidisciplinary world, a space of comity, the constant readjustments, accommodations, and affordances, the measured motion among several interests, is invaluable.

We live in a time when a strong feeling that what can be known should be known too easily elides into a blind faith that what can be known not only is known but furthermore is known by those best able to make use of what they know.

One would think we would know better, one would think we could know better, but what one should think we increasingly cannot tell.

The question of “what one would think” is fairly close to the dictionary definition of discipline, i.e., “Training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement,” as the American Heritage Dictionary has it.

I would suggest that our disciplines as humanists, scientists, social scientists, librarians, artists, engineers, and technologists consistently call us to draw upon memory and mortality in order to affirm the fragility of our lives and the importance of the moment of human presence in an increasingly mediated world. I do not mean to suggest a back-to-the-future hegira to a mythical golden age of wise and benevolent institutions, canonical disciplines, and noble professions but rather a reinvigoration of our disciplines, institutions, and professions around what we do not know about how we should think.

To be sure it has always been the business of academic disciplines to husband doubt. That we have something to offer beyond mere knowledge is why we invite new students, engage other disciplines, sponsor research, publish our thinking and data, and continually challenge our own perceptions and convictions. Likewise artists offer visions of heretofore unimaginable worlds within the one we inhabit, visions which cause us to doubt our own eyes and ears, confronting us with both our unknowing and the world’s unknown dimensions and sensations. Even commerce and industry have for centuries claimed to be driven by progress, a present-tense doubt, a recognition of what we do not know of the future.

However,  now I think the arts and sciences and commerce alike face an urgency to make space for ordinary uncertainty in the face of the bright successive assurances continually spawned by the mediocracy (to borrow Dominique Lecourt’s term, if perhaps not his argument) of networked and global commodity capitalism drugged by nextness. Our husbanding of doubt offers us hope for our unknowing in the face of increasingly suffocating knowingness.

Despite the ironies of my Razorfish stories, my woulds, shoulds, and coulds, I do not mean an anti-media screed here. We live in a time when even the hermit hears the distant murmur of the highway, when the pilgrim’s journey is tracked by surveillance cameras and satellites, and when even themystic’s dark night is rimmed with the glow of distant cities. It is impossible, even undesirable, to run away from our experience of mediation. Instead, in the interspace of our shared unknowing we are lead to question how we should think from the inadequate perspective of what we would think.

Like Coleridge I believe this question, while not solely one of media, is nonetheless one which media can address or which we at least should address ourselves to, in and through our media.

This, however, requires a dynamic definition of media, one that takes into account constant change, inherent doubt, and transitory outcomes. Media theorist N. Katherine Hayles suggests exactly such a definition, proposing that we consider media “as collective intelligences that explore their conditions of possibility by trying to discover what they are good for.” Hayles sees this process as recursive if not explicitly animist and evolutionary in a radical sense, saying that “these attempts in turn feed back into technological innovation to transform their conditions of possibility.”

To shift our understanding toward this kind of continual transforming of conditions of possibility we need to consider how much we do not, and perhaps cannot, know about each other and about our views of the world and its possibilities.  It seems to me today that this, too, is a goal for our study of media. To survey our own unknowing, to know the impenetrable otherness of others, is a critical function of media.

That said, I know that many of us await and for some time have embraced the promise of changes in our own beings, our disciplines, institutions, and professions as well as changes in our sense and understanding of others’ beings, disciplines, institutions and professions which new media and technologies may bring. I know further that these are promises and hopes which are as yet unmet and which gatherings like this not only renew our longing for, but also strengthen our determination to achieve. Such brightly lit and pulsing hopes, such a multiplicity of visions and voices, perspectives and possibilities, cannot fail to attract our attention, lift our aspirations, and broaden our horizons.

Yet recent history and an uneasiness about too-brightly-lit hopes conspire to raise fears within us of a coming darkness.  It is likely that there might come a time, perhaps it is now, when for a while we will have run rampant, in shock and awe, spreading light all over the darkening plain and trooping thoughtlessly and unconstrained across blurred boundaries. Exhausted by the pulsing lights of promised futures we may no longer recognize the present selves we see reflected in the bright surfaces around us. Then, like weary warriors in a sort of twilight, we might perhaps return home awhile to our paths and huts, the glimmering horizon ambiguous, dawn or dusk or some new presence. We will know finally that it is time then to live awhile in this transformed world and, as we enter within the dark of the room and the night alike, we will take refuge in the dim light offered by its interspace and the care we share for our commonly valued unknowing.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. (2001) [originally published 1893] “Shakspere as a Poet generally” in Lectures and Notes on Shakspere and Other English Poets. Now First Collected by T. Ashe. Elibron Classics, Boston: Adamant Media, pp 218-222.

Hayles, N. Katherine, (2003)  “Deeper into the Machine: The Future of Electronic Literature,” Culture Machine 5, the e-Issue Accessed 8 May 2005.

Lecourt, Dominique (2001) Gregory Elliott (Translator) The Mediocracy: French Philosophy since the Mid-1970s, New York: Verso Books.