What Could the Internet Have Been?: Announcing the New Arcades Project

Writing about the internet is a singularly overwhelming task, one that provides fresh new sources of consideration. I constantly run into the problem of the endless multiplicity; an overview of the scope of the dream of what the internet was to become, a project I’ve been working on to eventually introduce to the site, a project far from completion, calls for an entirely new sort of academic protocol. The incidental blindnesses of earlier academic activity, the idea that ideas could exist outside themselves, an analog to the anxious wish we could perfect ourselves if we could only look at ourselves from the outside, can’t be leaned on. It’s often said that it’s very hard to be objective; this is of course a load of horseshit-it’s impossible to be entirely objective. It’s even harder to be subjective competently. The phenomena to be analyzed grow larger and larger; the most such a project can hope for is to poetically suggest new means of looking at what’s going on and moving too quickly for any of us to feel any confidence in comprehension.

The time of projects built around notions of comprehension and the comprehensive is at both its apex and falling action. An…ahem…a friend tells me there’s a nearly complete set of every comic book published by Marvel, DC, and Charlton comics run chronologically available through some blackmarket file distro-hub thing; things that were meant to be seen piecemeal and related to in their disposable ephemerality are now available freely and easily as complete epic texts; I can browse every issue of The Weekly World News on Google books. At the same time, we’re dialecticians aren’t we? So we recognize that the response to the availability of such things will be more dissolute and speculative than ever; in the face of their present totality the fact of this presence is what will and must be engaged.

Some of our readers are surely familiar with Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, one of the great unfinished composite texts that prefigured the current form of the internet. In a conversation about the Frankfurt School Dylan Pasture helpfully summed it up in the following formulation: “Minima Moralia was Adorno’s blog, The Arcades Project was Benjamin’s tumblr.”

For those unfamiliar, The Arcades Project is a massive unfinished book compiling ephemeral fragments on late 19th century Paris. It’s named for the arcades that would lead between the buildings. It’s possibly the greatest bathroom reader ever compiled. Benjamin hadn’t completed it by the time he killed himself in 1940 and the version we have now wasn’t assembled and printed until 1980. It’s structured like an encyclopedia, but as an encyclopedia ordered by related words and themes into which fragments of documents and other books and occasional speculative musings by Benjamin are compiled. Reading through it one gets the sense that the only proper way Benjamin could complete the text was by leaving it unfinished.

Its focus on the specific time period as a lens through which to grasp the larger shifts in culture and technology that were occurring and soon accelerated marked the most complete integration of what Benjamin took from Marxist and Kabbalistic schools of thought and theory and merged them with a tendency, noted by biographers, to obsess over extremely small objects. He was a single man trying to curate the mundane into a thing that could evoke the emanated ghost/geist of the present through recourse to the forgotten bits of the past.

Major turning points of historical upheaval have been following each other in rapid succession at an unprecedented fashion for a good deal longer than I’ve been alive; what traits define an initial perusal of The Arcades Project have shifted. Initially an encyclopedia noteworthy for its sheer breadth and depth, in a world awash in well populated wikis, to return to the pages of The Arcades Project now is to notice its elliptical qualities. It’s an encyclopedia that becomes art for all the right pages having been torn out.

And so I announce now a project I’ve been squirreling away bits and pieces of things for and conceptualizing in my head for a couple months now. I hope to have the bare bones wiki up tomorrow so I can start populating it with fragments I’ve been collecting for a while now and set up a first version of the abstract organizing categories. I call this The (New)/(Video) Arcades Project.

This project will be the realization of the schizophrenic reading principles and notion of the hyper cut-up I announced in my earlier manifesto.

It will have the following rules initially, though these will be subject to revision as they prove to be more or less useful over time.

The content will consist of:

  1. Textual and visual fragments from documents produced before 1995 speculating on what the internet or hypertext might become. The reach of what this could be can be wide, but it will carefully be curated. This could potentially include descriptions of activities and events before 1995 from histories written after 1995.
  2. Schizophrenic reading screenshots of the internet present. Again, curated for effect.

This content will be organized by:

  1. Words evoking repeated themes.
  2. The year the piece of text was produced. A fragment of text that cites another text from a different year in itself will be indexed under both years.

The content expressly will not be organized or interlinked by:

  1. Author (though fragments will be attributed, you can’t click the author’s name to find other fragments they wrote.)
  2. Source (though sources will be included.)

It will not have a search function and if possible, search by Google will be blocked on it so that it has to be perused like a maze. It will be curated to be evocatively elliptical in a way something like Wikipedia can’t be.

Anyone willing to comb through a big pile of documents with me for snippets is welcome to suggest themselves as a contributor in the comments.

I hope to roll the beginnings of this out in the morning.

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