King Solomon's Net
King Solomon´s Net Post Centre for Contemporary Photography, 1995
It must be admitted before starting that this subterreanean journey runs counter to the popular perception of the web as a network that is to be read only as a surface. Verbs like `surfing', `cruising', or `browsing' are most often used to describe how this space is negotiated. This internet is a two-dimensional fabric of sites floating in space. No one has coined phrases like `burrowing into the net', or `excavating the web'.
Despite this surface orientation, the agencies which assist movement through the net are associated with life underground. One of the earliest sites of utopian activity on the Net was the WELL , set around the San Fransisco area and concerned with ecological issues. Most commonly known to those on the net is the most basic form of navigation: the gopher. This creature celebrates the capacity of Internet to transport the user to a site on the other side of the world without the experience of covering terrain. Buried somewhere in the Internet is a site called `gopher jewels' which contains a treasure of useful links to information resources. A companion creature on the World Wide Web is another underground organism, the Worm. In a sense, these subterranean creatures reflect the very physical structure of the net as a series of telephone cables, soon fibre optic cables, that carry informations flows underground, like an electronic sewerage system.
In taking this downward course, we are not merely travelling contrary to the lateral tendencies of the net, we are also, of course, moving against the vertical narratives of modernist technology. The space race of the 1960s was characterised by a desire to travel up beyond the planet into the outer reaches of the universe. Certainly in the history of the net, one of the largest congregations has been around the sites providing images from the Hubble telecope. From Space Odyssey to Alien, a recurring danger in the narrative of space travel is the prospect of being cut off from the possibility of return home, left in the dark void of outer space. This doom is most clearly visualised in the phenomenon of the black hole, the imploding space from which nothing returns, not even light.
Through the NASA site , an image captured in May this year of a black hole is visible from the Wide Field and Planetary Camera II on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. It's from galaxy M87, some 50 million light-years away in the constellation Virgo. The bright disk at the centre of the inset is the `black hole', estimated to weigh as much as three billion suns, occupying the space of a solar system. It seems an irony of our `light ages' that the ultimate darkness is made to appear as a glowing orb.
Journey to the inside
In popular culture, well after space race contestants had reached the finishing line, the popular imagination turned back away from the future. After the Star Wars trilogy, mass cinema returned to themes from the other side of Western history. Raiders of the Lost Ark drew on the mysteries of ancient Judaic civilisationsa trend given added impetus recently with returns to prehistoric past in Jurrasic Park and the Flinstones .
During the 1980s, the popular imagination was gripped by the story of sewer-dwelling turtles and their human followers, the cave clan. Outer limits are replaced by inner limits. In a different class, stressed professionals learnt to unwind in flotation tanks. It's at these inner limits that the Web contains suprisingly strong information growths. But where to start? Since we've been looking at the black hole, what equivalent might we find at the other end? For a centripedal location in the far reaches, let's substitue a centrifugal funnel from which the inner substance of the earth is emitted. Click volcanoes.]
There's half a dozen volcanology home pages on the web (NASA , Washington University , US Geological Survey , Cascades Observatory and The Michegan Technological University ). One of these offers sights of the Santa Maria, Fuego, Tacana, Mt Pinatoba, and closest to home, the eruption at Rabaul Cadera in New Guinea. The satellite images and videos available for this volcano put a great distance between ourselves and the active mountain. Most, naturally, would prefer this situation.
NASA's way of getting closer to the heart of volcanoes is termed `virtual teleprescencing'. Enter Dante II , a tethered walking robot used to explore the Alaskan volcano, Mt Spurr. Cameras on the robot are designed to make visible what would otherwise be impossible to see with hand-held instruments: the high-temperature fumarole gases from the crater floor. In 1993, eight volcanologists died in lurking on the rim of craters looking for a better view. On the net, images updated hourly were available from any of several different locations on the robot (its right or left leg, zoom, etc.).
The last report from the end of July still has the robot a few hundred metres from the fumerole region. Dante is standing at the edge of a 5-foot diameter vent opening which is encrusted with a variety of deposited materials (based on observations by the Alaska Volcano Observatory, the material is likely to be calcium sulfate or iron sulfate) and which is emitting gases which are curling around the robot. The robot will spend the night at this location, prepared for additional walking to the central regions of the crater floor in the morning.
Here we have a geological equivalent of the surgical endoscope, offering an optical extension into the nethermost reaches of space. It goes beyond the theatre of experts though, offering inner secrets of the earth to a global audience.
All the volcanic links on the Web are sponsored by large institutions and therefore are focused on scientific information. Those pages devoted to caves offer a greater variety of hosts: not merely academic departments, but also tourist centres and individual home pages, such as the Cave Man Page which includes links to Frank Zappa, Grateful Dead and Rush. The major site for caving is the Speleological Server at Yale University where there are links to underground sites around the world.
Within the cave web there is reference to a network called `karstspace'. Karst is a word coined by Slovenians for a `desolate, waterless countryside in the vicinity of Trieste', ` where the sun burns in the summer and the karst gales howl in the winter'. Below this landscape is limestone and water: a combination which produces an abundance of underground caves. In Slovenia there are about ten thousand cavesincluding six thousand explored corridors, halls, ravines, stalagmites and disappearing rivers.
Beyond Slovenia, there are links to caves in Darwin , Lancaster , Norway, South Africa, Sweden and Indonesia. On the French site, there is a listing of the most extensive caves in the world: top of that list is a cave in Lamprechtsofen, Salzburg which is 1.4k deep and 14k long. But information per se is not the main action on the cave web.
In the USA, cavers meet together in what they term `grottoes' where they often exchange photos as trophies of arduous caving. Many of these photos find their way onto the net. Within the linear circumference of a computer screen, there is almost something obscene about the mucous innerscape depicted in these photos. These glistening formations provide a stunning vision of the earth's bowels. In examining one striking example, `Pillars of Fire' , we can discover how these images are used on the net.
`Pillars of Fire' depicts a flowstone stalagmite standing under a ring of crystals in a dome about 10 metre across. It was taken by Tom Moss, a Alabama caver who found this formation in Tumbling Rock Cave, Jackson Count. Moss calls this photograph a `reward' after a long and challenging climb of an internal structure, Mount Olympus, a steep rock slope over 50 meters high. Reflecting on the impact of the net for cavers, Moss emailed to me:
Despite the extensive flow of information between cavers, it is considered netiquette not to reveal the location of new caves. Those like us limited to the Web, however, have the pleasure of creaming the treasures from their exploits on the small screen. At the click of a mouse there is a world of stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, anthodites, gypsum flowers, needles, angels hair, soda straws, draperies, bacon, cave pearls, popcorn, rimstone dams, columns, palettes, and flowstone.
All that we have to endure is the wait for images to be downloaded. The result is something like a `hypercave', where new underground spectacles emerge behind certain links. As with laproscopic surgery, our journey is minimally invasive and harmless to the delicate ecology of fauna and rockscape within the cave.
One of the surprises in following the karstspace links is finding down the line an article by the deconstructionist Greg Ulmer. He provides a means for us to engage conceptually with this baroque geology. Metaphoric Rocks: A Psychogeography of Tourism and Monumentality can be found on the site of the electronic journal Postmodern Culture. In Metaphoric Rocks, Ulmer glamourises tourism as an institutionalised nomadism centred around monumental sites. The monument which he proposes is a postmodern version of the Mount Rushmore walls of fame, originally inspired by the Black Hills of South Dakota. Rather than the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt, Ulmer's monument will consist of a composite head sculpture of popular figures, projected holographically onto the landscape. The exact outcome of the portrait will be determined by visitor responses to a questionnaire about important figures in their life. For example, the heads on Ulmer's own personal Rushmore would be Walter Ulmer (his father), George Armstrong Custer, Gary Cooper, and Jacques Derrida.
Ulmer's chosen site is an inverted distortion of the phallic edifice of Mount Rushmore. `The Devil's Millhopper' is a sinkhole two miles northwest of Gainsville, Florida,. The sinkhole is a common feature of karstspace: land collapses as water gradually dissolves the limestone ceilings of caverns below. Ulmer associates this collapse with the myths of disappearing cities, such as Atlantis and Ubar.
The devastation to life on the surface caused by this untamed traffic below has a kind of radical potential for Ulmer which allies it with the rhizomic values championed by Deleuze and Guatari in A Thousand Plateaus.
Rhizomes, of course, are defined against aborescent structures: they are without a centralising trunk and consist instead of a collection of nodes. But to call the Web a `rhizomic space' seems to lack adventure. The `rhizome' takes its power in opposition to the dominant hierarchical structures. It is a guerilla concept, like schizoanalysis. Yet here we have a rhizomic formation which is celebrated by the centres of power. It's too easy to be rhizomic, it's become kitsch.
There is, however, a chink in the construction of the rhizome concept which we might exploit to some end. As Robert Nelson has pointed out recently in an essay on faciality, the romanticism of Deleuze and Guattari renders them insensitive to the aborescent structures that are necessary to commit the act of communication with another: two multiplicities must find a common ground in order to speak. We could go further though, and stress the critical role of structure to the very identity of multiplicity itself.
This multiplicity promises freedom of movement through connections that exist; it offers proliferation rather than order, it is a positivity without negation, almost. Delueze and Guattari's formula for the rhizome is n-1. The one that is absent in the rhizome is the singularity of aborescent structures represented by the trunk of a tree. It is a consequence of the n-1 formula, however, that the old centralist order persists in the rhizomic as a negative forceas a shadow of the new multiplicitous order.
So, while the geographical formation celebrated by Deleuze and Guattari is naturally the plateau, defined as `any multiplicity connected to other multiplicities by superficial underground stems in such a way as to form or extend a rhizome', the aborescent equivalent would naturally be the mountain, soaring above human affairs as we saw in Ansel Adams' photographs. The negative of this singularity is the cave. Here the openness of the mountain peak is exchanged for an enclosed underground cavity: you get nothing for something.
It is the path of negativity, following in the footsteps of our psychoanalytic ancestors, on which we travel tonight. There are a host of underground trails beyond caves: archeological grave sites , museums of paleontology , galleries designed as tombs , maps of Pompei , labyrinth of medieval databases, human flesh , guides to the London , Milan or other undergrounds. These represent a lower depth to the web which serves an anal desire to redeem dark corners in the clean light of the screen. Being mostly images, none of them reflect on this desire. The `worm', forunately, found an extended text which provides a narrative frame for understanding our journey into the dark space below.
King Solomon's Mines
Among the hundreds of novels now stored on the net is the classic narrative of karstspace written by H.Ryder Haggard in 1885. King Solomon's Mines is a standard colonial adventure of a brave Englishman who boldly journeys into the heart of darkness. As with most colonial narratives, there is legend of a lost city: in this case, it is city from which King Solomon built his maginificent fortune: the city of Ophir somewhere in Zimbabwe . Alan Quartermaine travels to this most inaccessible part of Africa to retrieve a comrade's brother who had gone in search of the legend and not returned. After many ordeals in desert and snow, Quartermaine and his gang find a lost tribe who speak a Shakespearean kind of Swahili.
One of the tribe, the ageless witch of the savage king, leads them to King Solomon's Mine.The first room they come across contains a table around which sit the bodies of the tribe's deceased kings. The dripping ceiling has petrified their bodies and assimilated them into the cave itself; they are transformed into stalictites` preserved forever by the silicious fluid'. Shaken by this macarbre gathering, the white men are lured into the treasure room where they find chests filled with precious jewels and gold coins. While distracted by these riches, the witch departs letting a five foot thick stone slab close behind her.
Here is a precedent for the `lost in space' narrative: the hero is trapped within a dark space, cut off from the rest of the world and left to die with no opportunity of saying goodbye. For the author, this entrapment is an opportunity to embroider a particularly idyllic scene. After all the action above ground, the adventurers are now `buried in the bowels of a huge, snow-clad peak.' Their existence is virtual: they are still alive, but beyond reach of the conversations on the surface.
The Englishmen stand aghast in their living cemetary, eventually to become one with the rocks around them. Being English, this is not a time for gnashing hysteria, it is an oppotunity for stoic contemplation on matters of life, death and material substanc e:
The author offers his hero a curious consolation. He counters the impending loss with a faith in the material persistence of life beyond death. This optimism, though, is undermined within the narrative itself by the ghastly spectacle of dead kings calcified next doormaterial persistence may be possible, but where is the life that animates it? Having offered this weak consolation, the author frees his protagonists to find their way out, via to a channel of water which flushes them out of the mountain.
Like the hero, we are taken back to where we began. King Solomon's Mines evokes a strong mythic resonance with the Hebraic high tradition beginning with King Solomon of the holy of holiesthe inaccessible enclosure that contains the ultimate object of power. We know from Stephen Speilberg that the original ark containing the tablets of Moses disappeared with the invasion of Jerusalem. Today, this this information is available on the site known as Jerusalem Mosaic which is designed to open up the city to all visitors.
It would be fanciful to imagine the Microsoft leader, Bill Gates , as today's King Solomon, busy constructing the information superhighway as a first temple in which the spirit of connectivity will pervade the world. It would be even more fanciful to imagine that harboured within this temple of the new millenium is a black box, defined by its absence of links, which provides the divine power necessary for the whole monolithic structure to function.
We've found our way to this grotesque scenario through the action of a negative dialectic with the web. What we've come up against is the cyber-myth of liberation from the material world: `the cybernaut leaves the prison of the body and emerges in a world of digital sensation'. As sleuths of the net, our concern has been precisely with what has been left behind: the bodily prison, the geographical isolation, the mephitic fumaroles, the underground trap and the toxic darkroom.
Narrowly escaping from these dungeons, we alight into the glittering flow of electronic networks, where the world is everpresent.There is a seed of doubt though, that might cause us to cast a glance back to the underworld from whence we came. What draws us back to this enclosed space? Could it possibly be, that the net is in fact one huge darkroomthe largest darkroom ever conceived?
The sociologist of science Bruno Latour, recent author of We Have Never Been Modern, offers a subterranean image that might help flesh out this inversion:
If you compare the telephone system to the network of roads, you find a much thinner but far more extensive operation. The cost of this, of course, is that whereas anyone can step onto a road, and you can even watch a road from a distance, the telephone system is completely useless without a telephone. According to Marshall McLuhan's maxim: `the more there are, the less there are.' Thus while logging into the net might provide sights and sounds from around the universe at the tip of your fingers, you are effectively trapped in front of the computer screen. The greater your mobility, the lesser your freedom to move.
There is a sanctum in the new temple, but rather than inner, it surrounds the net. It blocks the extension of the net into action in the world. It is the interdiction which prevents cavers revealing the whereabouts of their photographic treasures. All the libraries of the world are available at the click of a mouse, but where do you get the books? We might think of this, of course, as the necessary economy that enables the net to spread without endangering the institutions that exist within it.
I'd like to conclude by returning to Michel Serres. It was his text on Rome that started us on the underground journey. It was he who set in motion the spatial dimensions of thought: from volcanoes to plateaus, caves and sinkholes. A space in which we might begin to think now can be found in his marvellous volume titled Detachment . Serres wanders the agrarian landscape of China in order to understand the essence of western land. What is apparent to the western eye in China is the absence of empty space.
It is this lack of margin that cuts China off from the rest of the world. It is the margin that remains as the sign of life in the western landscape. As Serres reflects on his own homeland:
The journey of inner darkness finds nothing but a bright spectacle within the new digital world. What this journey served to hide was the darkness that lay not within, but outside the net. This world is a new China , a continent without shadows that is itself one enormous shadow to the rest of the world.
For this reason, it seems imperative to reserve some space to the side of the rich fields of the net. A fallow space, empty, deserted, where the air is for breathing not speaking. A darkroom tucked away under the stairs. Out of sight but not forgotten.
Copyright held by author Kevin Murray