Philosophy of this Page
Alan Liu

The Lyotard Auto-Differend Page is a technical experiment and a theoretical allegory.

Technically, the page is an attempt to improvise a grammar of client-pull constructs or universes.

Normally, the Web is a dimension in which time is "noise." Time is what interferes with the reception of a long page or large image. One gets up and takes the dog out, looks up at the night sky, gets lost in the immensity of distance, comes back in with dew on one's hair--and all this time that large .gif image is STILL coming in.

But in a client-pull universe, time is a player in the game. Time demands that the grammar of the normal Web page be rethought according to these axioms:

  1. Pages must be one screen long (approximately).
  2. Graphics must be small (pure background colors or small images tiled in the background are quickest and thus interfere less with timing).
  3. Because of its velocity, text is more than normally competitive in the otherwise graphics-intensive culture of Web "cool." (Client-pull thus motivates a reinvention of text presentation. As in the old form of "flash cards," text acquires a heightened graphical presence signifying that multimedia--which is not expunged but reorganized--here obeys the compulsion of the logos. Indeed, so strong is textuality in client-pull universes that even such normally low-content items as the HTML title of a page can carry substantive discourse (as in the title of the "Differend" pages, which Netscape displays at the top of the screen).
  4. At every point, the dynamic tension of a "good" page is constituted not by the dialectic of text vs. graphics (as in the normal cool page) but by a purely temporal dialectic of momentum vs. rest, forward-reading vs. reflection, "go" vs. "stop."
  5. Hypertext means linking not static pages but whole text tracks that can fork, reduplicate, and interweave.
  6. Every client-pull universe thus desires as its imago an "other" client-pull universe with which it can cross-link dynamically. Outbound links to static pages on the net (the raison d'être of many normal Web pages) are a poor second choice.

Theoretically, this page is an allegory that tenses the client-pull form against Lyotard's philosophy, thus testing each against the other.

Lyotard (to paraphrase baldly) argues against the notion of a unified, total, and thus "terroristic" field of cultural discourse in which all language--and its utterers--are trapped by a single standard of the language of truth. He argues for the unexpected coup, the strange move, the inventive renovation of idioms that would allow the victims of truth to signal their "feeling" for other truths. This would be "justice," though the justice is empty of ultimate authority or transcendence (there is no Logos behind the inventive multiplicity of logoi, no Word behind the words).

In my allegory, a client-pull universe (which privileges textuality) utters the essential word of the Web, the textuality at the core of hypertextuality. It is the allegory of the Internet as Lyotardian "language."

So howcome client-pull universes feel so totalizing? The tyranny of the text tracks--each coming at us like a train down a track--makes available for inspection the tyranny of the Web as a whole. All those minutes one spends clicking the links on a static Web page just because they're there, all those minutes one spends staring dumbly at the screen while the connection is made and an image is retrieved--this is freedom?

The Lyotard Auto-Differend Page is an attempt either to build surprise (invention, unpredictability) into the terror of the most hyper form of hypertext or to know why such surprise cannot be created. If the latter eventuality proves to be the case, then the allegory suggests the following question for Lyotard (and postmodern philosophy generally): is not the Western--and in this case specifically French--compulsion to invent freedom contra reigns of "terror" itself terroristic, totalizing, unifying, consensual? Indeed, instead of a dualism of totalism and freedom, justice and injustice, could there in fact be many shades of "inventive totalisms" or "totalistic inventions"--some more livable than others? Perhaps the Lyotard Auto-Differend Page is an "inventive totalism"/"totalistic invention" like all our institutions great and small (family, school, government). In which case, as my friend Victoria Vesna suggested to me, the page can best be made livable by being played in the background like music or wallpaper while one is busy doing something else. (But what is "livable"? And is it the same as "just"? Is "livable" the ultimate pragmatist version of justice?)

The question whether it is possible to build surprise into a client-pull universe, which here symbolizes the discourse of postmodern culture, is still open. Perhaps a few more "surprise" links will do the trick.

(Or perhaps the real surprise is unlinkable and untaggable because it is hidden in the contingency of time itself. Unlike server-push, client-pull works by breaking and opening the connection between client computer and remote server for each successive page. This means that there is a randomness or aleatory quality built into the timing of client-pull universes that bespeaks the intervention of the Internet itself. All Internet transmissions, of course, are aleatory in their timing and route; but client-pull makes this fact more than normally visible. Client-pull makes it possible to reflect on the fact that each of our communications is paced by simultaneous demands made on the network by other communications--by the time-sensitive collectivity that constitutes historicity. Beyond the individually totalizing conventions of my communication or your communication, in other words, lies a surprise that emerges from the inventiveness of the interaction of our communications. [So it turns out that I am still writing about the "sense of history .")

The issues allegorized on this page could also be expressed in Deleuze and Guattari's terms (deterritorialization and reterritorialization and so forth) (see Jason Brown's client-pull universe: Deleuze and Guattari Rhiz-O-Mat).