A Conversation with Alan Sondheim


Alan Sondheim is a writer, teacher, and cyberspace theorist who co-moderates four Internet email lists: Cybermind, Fiction-of-Philosophy, E-conf, and Cyberculture. He edited Being On Line, Net Subjectivity (New York: Lusitania Press, 1997), and guest-edited New Observations on Cultures of Cyberspace. His other books include Individuals: Post-Movement Art in America (New York: Dutton, 1977), and Disorders of the Real (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 1988). His text on the philosophy of the virtual, The Case of the Real,  has been published by Potes & Poets Press (Elmwood, Connecticut, 1998).
Sondheim has published over a hundred and thirty articles, and has lectured at a number of venues on the Internet and related subjects. His films and videos have been shown internationally. Sondheim has an M.A. from Brown University, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, with cat and cacti. Email: URL:


JW: I have the impression of a dark genius quartered in a Brooklyn loft strewn with books and glowing on-line monitors, occasionally grabbing a laptop to travel and lecture around the world. However, as I only know you in cyberspace, can you draw a picture of where, and why, you are physically situated.

AS: Except for the 'genius' it's probably true, although I appear more Rabelaisian and arrogant in real life, the result of scar-like layers of defensive strategies. The loft overlooks Flatbush Avenue, Dean Street, Fifth Avenue, and Atlantic Avenue, in other words a confluence of streets. And I
work mainly at night among the books, musical instruments and some video equipment as well - various extensions of myself through various media. At night I feel I'm on a useless ship in space, going nowhere, teetering on the edge of chaos, literally. And trying to keep depression away, so that the texts don't become contaminated by my own personal neuroses, problems, what have you.
    There's a dimness to the world I want to avoid in my writing. I write also to avoid death; although that's trite, it figures literally with me. My fears disappear if I create the cornerstone of what I see as a 'reasonable text.' Beyond that, given the circumstances of my writing, I find myself lifted away from the body (net sex will return me to it, even though that is virtual enough); I am more of an emanation for myself, than present in any sort of physical fullness.
    I also feel that, as I've written many times, I write myself into existence and write myself out of existence. So that the writing is critical for me to stay alive, absolutely critical. If I have a day
without writing, I have a day that 'disappears me,' and I'll do anything to avoid it. The existence I'm written into, write myself into - I want to examine that, scratch away at surface after surface.

JW: When I was a teen I lifted weights at a YMCA gym on Atlantic Avenue. There, too, a few firemen kept in shape, one of whose left bicep was morbidly locked into a fully flexed position, its tendon having become permanently shortened. That muscle (I remember it was the left, as I'm
left-handed), unable to stretch and relax, stood to me as a symbol of somatic zealotry. Not a strange position for someone whose job description often put his life on the line!
    It seems to me that the fear of non-existence, which you keep at bay by continuously pumping out words that serve to displace your temporal corporeality by "speaking precisely in the name of this nothingness," as Blanchot put it, is, becoming ever more acute. There are many reasons for this, including sophisticated prosthetics, digital-based virtual worlds, cloning, and unstable archival/ retrieval systems. Do you see your plight, then, as a sort of futuristic archetype?

AS: Not really, except that digital existence requires continuous maintenance: stop writing, and the character disappears and/or doesn't develop. The character is entirely constituted, and to the extent that I'm represented within the digital, I'm entirely constituted as well - at least my imagination is. Your description seems more like that of catatonia - that locking - and I feel much more porous, mobile, transforming. I'm not sure I'd use the word "plight" either - that implies an illness at the core of things. I think for myself neurosis is a driving factor, but not at the core; I wish to keep it away from there; i.e., don't feel that my work is either symptomatic or a symptomalogy.
    Perhaps instead of the fear of non-existence, it's in an odd way a celebration of replete or too much existence, too many chiasms, interpenetrated ontologies, epistemological flows. Where Jennifer ends (one of my emanations) and I begin is a region, not a line.

JW: Before getting to Jennifer, one of the characters your transmissions tender, I'd like to orient to your work on Internet theory, which, I understand, is central to your current aesthetic. I'm curious as to where you would, in a cultural sense, trace its threshold.

AS: In my own work--you would find a kind of presencing and a disruptive imaginary, both of which relate to virtual subjectivity, going all the way back; in the early 70s for example I did a series of collapsed hypercubes (made from cord) that topologically retained their connectivity as three-dimensional projections, but visually appeared as entanglements. So they were present, but what was visible was only a dream of four-dimensionality, as if there were a virtual space within which the visual would be perceptually coherent as well.
    There has always been the haunting of an Other in my work. In my videotapes dealing with sexuality, there is often a woman's voice, sometimes accompanied by her on-camera as well, looking away; I may be naked, responding to her voice, but she operates as an autonomy elsewhere--as a virtual subject more real than I am in a way.
    For me, existence may be a disease mitigated only by writing, by dreams, by alterity, by the virtual. Jennifer was born of that. At the same time I want to point out that Jennifer is not a local symptom, but an analytical or experiential emanation for understanding subjectivity in general.

JW: Could you elaborate on the dynamics of generalizing an emanation, especially when it comes to the Internet?

AS: I realized early on that in relation to "concrete knowledge," however defined (I would use mathematics as a basis here), I have little to contribute; I also realized early on that, with unsolvability theory, etc., there are theoretical limits - as well as practical ones - to "one's" knowledge of the world. This was brought home to me in a systems group I was part of at Brown, I think the late 60s--one report was on the fact that as AI approached mimicry of the mind in very limited ways, the programs themselves quickly became unmanageable; what went on in the computer, state by state, was increasingly unknowable. In other words, the more "x" models (and only models) mind, the less "x" itself is knowable; it's the beginning of an infinite regress. So I became interested and involved in the interstices - how does consciousness deal with knowledge, how do symbols interact with the mind - how do desire and the "I" and the (metaphoric) "eye" figure into all of this? Now whatever consciousness Jennifer "has" (and is consciousness ever in the state of a _possession?_), is obviously "my" consciousness of course. But through her, such a consciousness, such a "being" (in the sense of organism), can interact with her environment in a way I couldn't otherwise - for instance, Jennifer on a MOO parallels myself as virtual being on a MOO and allows me to explore a dispersed consciousness as well - for example I might have Jennifer and Julu interacting (which I often do).

    On a personal level, Jennifer may function as (Oskar) Kokoschka's or (Hans) Bellmer's "dolls," that is, as a way to keep up a loving conversation with myself; I live alone, my friends are of course very wrapped up in their own lives, and my isolation tends to the extreme. Jennifer and Nikuko and Julu and the others allow me the comfort and production of conversation; recently, for example, I wrote a short text about the bombing of Iraq through "Timmy's" eyes, which gave me the ability to see things I might not have been able without "him."
    With these emanations, I've been able to explore such issues as performativity in language, virtual sex and virtual sexualities. I've developed the concept of a "textual unconscious" written by an other into the self; through lag, holding-back, description, and command, it can place one in an almost hypnotic state that's sexually and emotionally overpowering.

    From this work, I've gone on to think of "s/ms," miniaturized sado-masochisms which work as either couplings or linkages. A coupling is looser than a linkage; if one element is changed, the other need not be. But a linkage implies just that - and the change in one element, changes them all. Out of these you can create "part-objects" or partial representations, playing off the imaginary; these coagulate, and as such form the avatars or emanations. Of course, in a certain way, the real itself is an imaginary; my theory work plays off this. And as I said, there is also the personal element; the avatars appear with infinite depth; they're viral companions, in a sense, as if capable of anything.

JW: Bellmer's dolls, their limbs hinged, could be arranged and re-arranged into myriad attitudes, "inventing all desires." You also make me think of when, after having an interesting conversation with someone, the conversation usually continues in my head with the person having become an autonomous imaginary construct of my imagination. This seems to be a common experience, and a particularly creative one. But seeing through an emanation's eyes, as you do, is more Stanislavskian, as you create a character from the inside out.

AS: Or the character creates me; one thing I deal with is author/ity, responsibility, the ethos of multiplicity. In one sense, I know all there is to know - in another sense nothing. I should note that the work has a certain danger or dis/comfort for me as well; if I create a text, for example, that makes me ill-at-ease, that's usually a sign I'm on the right track. If I'm writing myself in and out of existence, I'm also doing it through these other identities, which are given, at lest formally, full reign.

JW: I'd like to shift here to the stage on which your avatars play. I became interested in the Internet as a place to gather research, as a channel for communication with colleagues, and, more recently, as an archival, and publishing, venue. From a graphics standpoint, there was for me a progression from an interest in Video Art (I was a museum curator), to "Cyberart," to ""

AS: I've made video and curated video, both a lot, and continue to think through video issues and make video from time to time. "" has always bothered me; I associate it with some of the artists on nettime, and it has a politics unto itself which is interesting in the manner it attempts to engage both the cultural and the political (not to imply a split). I'm not sure what "Cyberart" is. I tend in my own work simply to move from what others call various media, but to me seem just instances of practice and praxis - I'd rather let it go at that. I certainly don't think the Net is any utopian answer to the _situation_ or moment of art; in fact, it so far has had to bypass the "grain of the real" (out of Barthes here) - and I can look at painting today with a continuous new eye and sense of wonder, as always, just as I can look at the latest ( spew. I mean this in a positive way.

JW: Cyberart, or Computer Art, is art made with a computer, the final medium usually a color print. The Cyberart term is obscure, as it kind of snuck in late, as a premonition of cyberspace as we know it today.

AS: From what I know of your work, you usually stay pretty much at the low end of hi-tech, with "older coding," your interest--you said somewhere--being in a ubiquitous accessibility, although you obviously know what's happening at sites that use the latest bells & whistles. What are your hopes for the future of the Net with reference to communication, and your fears when it comes to commercialization?

AS: I've used programs going back into the 80s, but I also have used the latest perl and a current websuite (Corel) for my work. It's a mix; I just don't favor any one over the other, nor do I stay within applications - anything I do, whether text or image, is likely to have been bounced all over the place. The Linux I use is current; it's fascinating to follow its development as a more and more integrated and accessible operating system.
    I don't have hopes or fears re: the Net. I talk about a future "seamless virtual reality" paralleling our own presence in the world; the major difference being a safe-word to get us out of it. For all I know we may be in one now, the safe-word forgotten, its memory erased. But that is only one future, of course. I don't think, past the next 2-3 years, one can predict anything. For example, the way push technology so quickly disappeared, or the fact that cable modems still aren't widely available.

The commercialization of the Net is a fact, and in the long run, I think it will make very little difference. At the moment it appears a problem, especially against the backdrop of the ethos of the earlier text-based Net, but people are accommodating remarkably fast. I think most people will continue to remain rather ignorant of history (of the Net, of the world in general), and this ignorance, if anything, is increasing in depth. I also think most people will continue to "nest" in some of the applications they find when they first log on - "favorite" chat-sites and so forth. But I don't have any great fears about any of this - or great hopes either. For that matter, I think that the relationship of any of this to the nation state itself is still unknown.

JW: Last year you made an extended trip to Japan. Did you find anything there moved you in an unexpected direction?

AS: I find a certain quietude at the heart of things by projecting myself backwards through (non-state) Shinto and Heian aesthetics; I found also for the first time a place/site to write, for which I have been grateful. It was living in Japan, not so much an extended trip - in other words, I felt both comfortable and uncomfortable. The unknown kanji created a matrix into which I could theorize certain ideas of the symbolic, all the while keeping my ignorance foregrounded... You might check my The Case of the Real and the Nikuko texts ( ) - they all came out of this recognition of an impermeable knowledge. I'm not talking about Orientalism whatsoever, but simply that an inability to comprehend even the ideogrammatics, graphemes, of a culture imposes an odd sort of self-reflexivity back onto one, and my work, in analyzing that, was also dealing with the symbolic's relationship to consciousness, and issues of both ontology and epistemology. And there was also this gift of "time" and "space" as I said to write within - most of my life I have been nomadic, theorizing on the run (maybe the theory of internal exile (vis-a-vis Quebecois thought)- in Fukuoka, precisely because of ignorance, I was able to fasten on these topics.

JW: As the ideograph successfully addresses the problem of wedding word and image, the nature of which is important to the design of web sites, and thus to electronic textual endeavors, could you expand a bit on your theory of kanji as a matrix of the symbolic?

AS: It's not so much the kanji per se as its ubiquitous appearance; for someone who can't read the symbols, they become granular, not transparent - so the world appears articulated by signifiers which captivate/encapsulate the subject within the matrix. I wouldn't want to push the idea of kanji as ideogram since there have been so many transformations of the signs that there is often a deep illegibility in terms of pictographic reference. Some of the simpler ones are readable in terms of image, even to a foreigner like myself who isn't familiar with the language; almost all of them are at a distance, however, requiring brute memorization in terms of  on and kun readings and combinations.

JW: On and kun?

AS: The Chinese reading is on, the Japanese reading is kun; ideograms have both and often multiples.

JW: If the complex signifier demands sophisticated mnemonic abilities - with this in mind, could it be that computers offer an ironic symbiosis, with the machine having more available memory than its operator? In addition, while the aging human brain is busy shedding millions of its neurons, a computer's RAM can be easily upgraded. Are we irrevocably moving in the direction of autonomous robotic bodies, with such Gibsonean prosthetics as plug-in memory chips? Is this the only possible biological future for humankind, our logical line of flight?

AS: I don't think that the brain and computer are remotely equivalent in terms of processes, both quantitatively and qualitatively. I subscribe to the notion that the brain operates at least partially through quantum processes; there is also fairly clear evidence at this point for neural regeneration as well as synaptic growth throughout one's life.

    I'm not sure how one would measure "available memory" in the brain, actually - one can measure speed of operations, which doesn't go very far (and is of course vastly slow), but not much else. I wouldn't say necessarily _robotic_ bodies, but certainly computers will outgrow humans in measurable intelligence; that's got to be only a matter of time. I can even envision emanations more creative and measurably intelligent than their originators, Jennifer and Julu and Nikuko enfolding for example. Within, say, two decades.

JW: This seems in line with Gerald Edelman's argument that, unlike computers, the brain is subject to morphic evolution, and thus more superficial comparisons are specious. There is some evidence for neural regeneration, but whether we lose more than we gain hasn't yet been ascertained. After all, the brain does shrink with age. Size in relation to intelligence is currently being debated. One argument being made that size has more to do with _expertise_ than with I.Q.

    By "available memory," I mean what's available as instant recall, as compared with a computer's RAM. Of course, as you point out, the brain works differently, and infinitely more creatively, than does an OS. Although this may change if and when quantum computers, or chemical computers, are developed. I understand that scientists are trying to develop both concepts. I find what neuroscientists have been discovering about the human brain more interesting than most science fiction, as is the potential of the Internet for creative innovations.

    In closing, could you dream a bit for us, and gestate a vision of humanity in the next century living in the caches of the Web?

AS: Usually what I talk about is "seamless virtual reality," and for an example, I say just look around us now - if we only knew the safeword, the keyword, we'd be back in the real world - in the meantime we're stuck with this. This is a real possibility with constantly exploding bandwidth; more likely, we'll be entangled in some monstrous corporate enterprise, with advertising banners all over the place, as if we were permanently living in Times Square. Or a third possibility, that we'd be bound by our own sexual energies, eternally fulfilled - until the money's gone...



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First Published: Rhizome 6.10.99.