Privacy vs. Inwardness:

Finding shelter from the storm of information-as-violence by de-commodifying the Web

Let's imagine, as unlikely as it may seem, a strategy for holding off the forces of AT&T and IBM and the FCC and Microsoft and Congress and especially this Congress, and now the UN through its arm, World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), in their collective desire to protect the interests of media and software commerce by essentially privatizing the Internet. The first step in this assault has been to define the very essence of the Internet, the stuff that makes it up, the expression of individual and group ideas in digital form, as property with cash value (for example, see this chart of the estimated costs of "intellectual property piracy" in real dollars). And so the first step in any guerrilla resistance or ©iontra actio should be to inoculate ourselves against the deep-rooted desire to copyright our own properties.

How do we succeed in preserving the Internet in its more natural form, as Talmud rather than publishing/media commodity/venue? What do we do with our other, equally valid feelings of selfhood, and privacy? Doesn't the estate of Salingway, or Salingway herself, were she alive, have a right to some preserve that she calls her own, whether hereditary or original? Don't private citizens have a right to document their thoughts and experiences for private circulation only? The flip side of my warm and fuzzy image of an all-embracing circuit of talmudic information might be a nightmare of perpetual exposure, forced intimacy, and invasion of privacy. If everyone knows everything then where do we hide to be ourselves? Our instincts tell us that the case before us -- the suit brought by Salingway's husband and her former lover against Harper's for exploiting Job Jobim's pirating of private materials -- has merit. How do we balance the need to feed the open circuit of talmudical-cyborg literacy with the desire to protect ourselves from intrusion?

In his 1973 essay on reading the Talmudical opinions about "Damages Due to Fire," Emmanuel Levinas talks about the need for safe harbor from the storm. In this essay, the storm he is talking about is the violence of the twentieth century, and in particular, the violence of Nazism which underscored, in his Zionist vision, the need for "a home" a shelter from the storm. He quotes Isaiah 26:20:

"Go my people, enter your chambers, and lock your doors behind you. Hide but a little moment, until the storm passes."
"Assuming that one has a home," writes Levinas, answering the prophet. He goes on to say
"You will see the entire problem of present-day Israel appear, with all the difficulties of the return. One must withdraw into one's home. 'Go home until the storm passes'. There is no salvation except in the reentry into oneself. One must have an interiority where one can seek refuge, in which one is able to stop participating in the world. And even if 'at home' -- in the refuge or the interiority -- there is 'terror,' it is better to have a country, a house, or an 'inwardness' with terror than to be outside. If the Americans call this 'splendid isolation', they are lucky. It can be quite splendid for them, for it is without terror within!

"...Violence is no longer a political phenomenon of war and peace, beyond all morality. It is the twentieth century. One must go back inside, even if there is terror inside. Is the fact of Israel unique? Does it not have its full meaning because it applies to all humanity? All men are on the verge of being in the situation of the State of Israel. The State of Israel is a category....

"The no-exit of Israel is probably the human no-exit. All men are of Israel. In my way, I would say, 'We are all Israeli Jews.' We that, is, all human beings." [11]

By the end of his essay, Levinas tells us that the Israeli Jew is the type of universal man, the avatar of the twentieth, and we should probably say, the twenty-first, centuries. Why? Because the Israeli Jew knows what it means to try to find shelter from the storm in a homeland, only to find terror waiting for him at home.

Levinas' theme is violence, against which he re-invents and sanctifies the notion of privacy. You must develop a sense not only of home but of inwardness. It is one of the few protections against the storm of the twentieth century. We could extend his lesson, to the re-invention and sanctification of the idea of privacy as harbor against the storm of information, too. Against the public life that forces us to experience Against the public life that forces us to experience exposure to the exposure of public figure's innermost privacies. It would be hysterical to say this is terror at home, but the television and the Internet certainly break down the barriers. And furthermore, as Burroughs warned us in Naked Lunch, information is terror; it is violence The debate is not yet over whether the perpetual violence on the screen inuring us to death itself doesn't foster violence in our hearts. In extending Levinas' lesson, we all become Jews, if we embrace his image, I daresay his idealized, his philosophical image, of the Israeli as a universal person, seeking a home and an inwardness from the violence of media.

We have found that commodification of information, of capitalizing and productizing the fruits of intellectual labor, is no proof against this invasion. If anything, it encourages it, it is the viral idea that spreads its pathology. Public trials of murderers or the merely licentious are good double-edged swords, compromising their protagonists even as they compromise us, even as we watched privately, alone, remote control in one hand. How much more is this true of the Web, with its fast cookie spies uploading information about you even as you download information from them. The very mechanism we hope will protect our privacy in fact demolishes it. The only proof against such invasion is to de-materialize and de-commodify information. To make information into a not-thing, nothing at all.

The Ark of Words

There is a curious word in the Hebrew Bible, tevah. It occurs only twice: the first time it is the word commonly translated as "ark" describing the rudderless boat that Noah launches to survive the Flood. The second time it is used to mean the wicker basket, which also cannot be steered, into which Moses' mother places him in order to float him down the Nile to save him from Pharoah's decree to kill all first-born Hebrew sons. But the word tevah, as the Baal Shem Tov noted in his writings, also means"word."

As Marc-Alain Quaknin, director of the Centre de recherche Aleph in Paris notes in a recent essay,

"The Baal Shem Tov takes up this sense of tevah to produce a completely new reading of the Flood. To leave behind the violence mentioned in Genesis 6:18, [describing the antediluvian chaos exemplified in the story of the Tower ofBabel] one does not need to embark on a ship, but to penetrate the word and discover all its dimensions and depths. Violence, he says, results from the perversion of language such that it loses its inherently plural nature....The Baal Shem Tov illuminates the architecture of the Ark. It means, he says, that the 'word' has a volume, an inner space which one must penetrate. There resides a primordial proposition of Hebraic thought: meaning relates to an experience more closely related to poetry than philosophy, an experience that consists of penetrating to the heart of words."

(Quaknin, "Set Sail on Words," The Jerusalem Report (Oct 30, 1997):30).
We can extend the Baal Shem Tov's analysis, via Quaknin, to the story of Moses, too. For Moses redeems the Hebrews from slavery and shows them redemption not so much by bringing plagues down on Egypt and leading the Hebrews into the desert as by delivering into their hands a new instrument for making language multiple and abstract through the technology of a curiously inefficient alphabet. In doing so, the Hebrews challenge the literalness of Egyptian pictography, its inherent idolatry, and create in words a heart that can be penetrated, an abstract dimension, a volume of multiple meanings arising both from abstraction and ambiguity. I suggest that embracing a Talmudic model of knowledge inherent in Hebrew practices of interpretation creates that sought-after inwardness Levinas speaks of, that preserve of contemplation where holding private knowledge and sharing it with the community are both forms of sanctification. A talmudical vision acknowledges the inviolate inward preserve of those who create and publish their expressions, precisely by refusing to affix a public material value to them that would be otherwise legislated and protected by impersonal law. In this resistance, this refusal, this embrace of alternatives, there is thus created in us a similar territory, a silent, precious homeland, ending a two hundred year diaspora in a sea of alien properties that taunt us to "copy right!" even as they threaten us with punishment for doing so.

Understanding knowledge in its higher value as multiplying meaning and therefore enlarging the domain of the human rather than its commercial and mundane sense as mere information and therefore restriction or data salvages for postmodern men and women a truer idea of privacy, of owning ourselves and our ideas, a powerful inoculation more sure than the erection of any tollgates by strict copyright controls over our spaces of public discourse.

Capitulating to the idea of knowledge entailed in copyright laws - knowledge as raw information that can be bought and sold - diminishes us and our culture. In the end, the value and capital reaped by viewing knowledge as collective, anonymous, shared, open, and as a holy route to wisdom about the ultimate unknowability of the universe - as talmudical - is far greater and more rewarding.
©ontra Invention of/and Copyrights Internet, Samiszdat and Hypocrisy The Talmud as a model for hypertext discourse Information, Violence, and Shelter from the Storm  Notes  Resources 

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