Chapter 22

InteLnet: Web Projects in the Humanities

Mikhail Epstein
 

From the book Transcultural Experiments: Russian and American Models of Creative Communication. New York: St. Martin's Press (Scholarly and Reference Division),  1999, pp. 276-289 (Chapter 22)
 
 

http://comm.cudenver.edu/~inteLnet/
 (newly designed)

http://www.emory.edu/INTELNET/
(archival site)


 


On the Web since July 1, 1995

The Social Innovations Award 1995 from the Institute for Social Inventions (London) as one of "the most imaginative, feasible and potentially transformative schemes."

The "InteLnet" stands for "Intellectual Network," an interactive site and virtual community devoted to the discussion and promotion of interdisciplinary ideas in the humanities.

What makes the InteLnet special among many intellectual sites on the Internet is its attempt to generate new ideas through electronic communication, to realize new interactive possibilities of thinking opened with the Internet as a whole. Not only does the word "InteLnet" sounds like "Internet," but the former is an intellectual replica of the latter. The InteLnet is an intellectual connection among those cyberspaces that can be connected electronically.

For me, the Internet is analogous to the human mind, with its infinite conceptual links and associations. Now, retrospectively, I can interpret our attempts at collective improvisations in Moscow (1982-89) as a search for cyberspace within the more traditional space of a room and a roundtable. The idea of the InteLnet, an electronic community of creative minds, though in essence as old as the world, or at least as old as Plato's Academia, comes from my experience in that late-Soviet intellectual milieu. Together we tried to create integrated, "polyphonic" descriptions of certain cultural phenomena and to work out patterns of "translation" for different professional languages. Our improvisational community was a sort of pre-electronic InteLnet, which can now develop in a technologically more mature, global form.

The Internet can digitally link everything to everything else: ideas, disciplines, civilizations. Our capacity to understand and interpret these potentially infinite links is, however, limited by the traditional division of intellectual labor. For the time being the Internet, as a creation of a technical mind, by far exceeds the conceptual capacities of a humanistic mind. The InteLnet is an attempt to bring the humanistic "message" of the Internet in line with its electronic "media," to elaborate the methodology of thinking adequate to the multidimensionality and interconnectedness of computer networks. The InteLnet is one response of the human intellect to the Internet's challenge, a response of the creative mind to the challenge of the expanding universe of electronic communications. To use a Hegelian expression, the InteLnet evolves through the Internet as its self-awareness, as the conscious manifestation of its own Idea.

The InteLnet sets five goals and accordingly supports five branches:

  1. to advance new ideas that reconfigure the paradigms of humanistic knowledge and transcend the borders of existing disciplines ("Bank of new ideas");
  2. to investigate meaningful connections of concepts and ideas among the diversity of disciplines ("Thinklinks");
  3. to elaborate the methodology of a new humanistic metadiscipline responsive to the demands and possibilities of an electronic environment ("InteLnetics");
  4. to designate specific electronic sites for the crystallization of new humanistic disciplines and areas of research ("InteLnet journals"); and
  5. to create interactive textual bodies that might grow in time and involve the collaboration of many minds ("Interactive Anthology of Alternative Ideas").1
Branch 1. Bank of New Ideas

InteLnet can take on a role that neither a scholarly press nor an academic institution is able to fulfill­as a channel for connecting society with the work of its most powerful intellects. Any obstacles in this channel can lead to both the intellectual impoverishment of society and the deterioration of the social function of the intellect.

The traditional genre of the scholarly article or review, as it is established in professional journals, does not satisfy contemporary needs in intellectual communication. Articles frequently contain no new ideas whatsoever, or else their ideas are dissolved in the flow of background information that obscures the degree of actual novelty. The result is a kind of scientific folklore, involving a migration of motifs without any creative productivity: The means of synonymous expression in any language are unlimited. Many ideas lack definite authors, and many authors lack definite ideas. It is necessary to create a more flexible system of preservation and dissemination of ideas, one that could reflect the uninterrupted process of producing new knowledge, the continuity of cognitive activity itself.

One could justly point out that the evaluation of new ideas already takes place within the academic forums, such as the dissertation defense, but these activities can go on for years: the idea accrues "accountable" supporting material, in which its original message and innovative impulse are likely to drown. In addition, the most innovative ideas are usually found on the borders between various fields, so that they have difficulty "passing muster" with specialized scientific councils and committees and are subsequently lost to that larger science for which they were intended. A truly new idea seldom fits into ready-made spheres of knowledge; rather, it wrenches itself away from the established set of dissertation topics to create its own sphere.

The task of the InteLnet is to present new ideas in the most direct and condensed form and to provide a public forum for their discussion. This is the "interest" that authors gain from their deposits in the Bank of New Ideas. It is not like a conference or a newsgroup where discussion is led by small and usually inconsistent impulses of opinions, remarks, rejoinders and objections. It is not like a professional journal treating some particular problems in a highly specialized language. What is crucial to the InteLnet is a specific genre of "a new idea," so pertinent to the receptiveness and responsiveness of the electronic network.

Criteria

The humanities, as compared with natural and social sciences, remain in a difficult situation as the very criteria for identifying and evaluating new ideas are unclear, yet virtually never discussed. For these reasons I will share the experience of the Bank of New Ideas, which was founded under the auspices of the Image and Thought intedisciplinary association in Moscow in 1986.2

The goal of this pre-electronic bank was to preserve and foster the ideas that showed a significant degree of innovation and potential for a productive impact on society. Discussion and registration of ideas was conducted by experts of the Interdisciplinary Council, representing several professions. A system of parameters was worked out for the evaluation of ideas, including the following:

  1. Unexpectedness­the capacity to amaze, to disrupt theoretical paradigms and established patterns of thought.
  2. Originality­innovativeness, the extent to which the idea differs from others previously put forth in its field.
  3. Verifiability­the extent to which the idea is convincing in the light of available facts as well as its logical development from the foundations it proposes.
  4. Expressiveness and aesthetic properties of the idea­the inner harmony of its components and levels of argumentation, the proportionality of deductive and inductive elements, its plasticity and clarity, accessibility to intellectual contemplation.
  5. Breadth and scope­the volume of material embraced and interpreted by the idea, the range of its repercussions and theoretical generalizations.
  6. Productivity­the heuristic potential of the idea to influence intellectual development in areas beyond its own basic material and disciplinary boundaries.
  7. Realizability­the practical measure of the idea, as applied to its specific contents and contexts; the possibility of its actualization on various levels of social life.
Such are the principles employed by the Bank for the assessment of new ideas. With further refinement they could serve as a basis for a more extensive storehouse of interdisciplinary ideas and concepts.

Nothing unites one mind with another better than the flash of a new idea. The effectiveness of the InteLnet should consist in rapid dissemination of new ideas in the domain of public consciousness, without any introductions, conclusions, equivocations­just the concentrated essence of innovation. Some of the ideas may well prove fallacious, but the same rule should apply in the sphere of cognition that applies in ethics. It is better to acquit ten guilty people than to convict one innocent. It is better to voice ten fallacious ideas than to silence a single true one. It is likely that there are no fallacious ideas, just more and less productive ones.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What makes the InteLnet different from other Internet sites in the humanities?

A. Its interdisciplinary orientation, which does not imply dilettantism or disregard of intellectual rigor and responsibility, but accentuates new ideas rather than professional erudition.

Q. How will the novelty of my idea be recognized?

A. Unlike the technical disciplines, there are no patents for new ideas in the humanities. The Bank of New Ideas provides authors with the best possible certificate: The date of your submission is automatically registered and indicates your priority.

Q. Are there any restrictions on the number of submissions?

A. No. You are invited to deposit as many ideas as you can produce and want to share.

Q. Are there any restrictions on the disciplinary range of ideas?

A. Yes, there are.

Not accepted: ideas in technology, mathematics, natural sciences, empirical social sciences; purely critical or polemical ideas.

Examples of unacceptable ideas: (a) "Writer X borrowed this motif from writer Y, . . . " (b) "The results of this social poll show that . . . "; (c). "The following mistakes can be found in the monograph of Z . . . "

The most desirable ideas are constructive rather than critical and cross-disciplinary rather than monodisciplinary.

Q. Can I deposit an idea that was already published in another form (book, article, conference paper)?

A. Yes, you can, if this idea is presented in a capsule form and meets the demands of originality and transdisciplinarity. However, it is recommended that you use this unique space for ideas that have had no opportunity to be publicized in a more traditional manner.

Q. Is there a copyright for the ideas submitted to the Bank?

A. The authors of new ideas retain the copyright for their submissions (texts) and can use them as they find appropriate.

Q. Can I cite in my work passages from the materials collected in the InteLnet?

A. Yes, you can. References to the source, its author and the InteLnet are obligatory.

Guidelines for the Submission of New Ideas

You are invited to submit to the Bank your original ideas that cross the boundaries of existing disciplines, or lay the foundation for a new discipline, introduce a new paradigm into an existing discipline. Although there are no legal forms for the patenting of nontechnological ideas, the bank suggests the approximation of this procedure by recording the date of submission. The submissions should be limited to two to four pages, with possible links to more detailed sources. What is expected are unexpected ideas capable of creating their own field of knowledge and becoming foundations for new theories and/or practices. Such thinking can be called "paradigmatic" since it does not add a new element to existing paradigms but instead creates the paradigm itself.

Several suggested areas:

  1. New cognitive concepts and research methods in the humanities
  2. New disciplines and fields of scholarship
  3. New artistic and literary movements
  4. New models of social and professional behavior
  5. New spiritual practices and movements
  6. New methodological principles and metaphysical systems
  7. Theory of everyday life
  8. Alternative civilizations
  9. Possible worlds
Immediately after the submission of your idea it is placed in the Bank and becomes available for every Web user. See the Repository of new ideas at: http://www.emory.edu/INTELNET/bank_response.html

Branch 2: Thinklinks

This branch of the InteLnet is designed to establish intellectual links among the distant and seemingly unrelated spheres of knowledge. Thinklinks is a virtual metaspace where other cyberspaces (subjects, areas, disciplines) can interact and penetrate each other.

For many centuries, human knowledge developed through increasing specialization. This is, in particular, reflected in the hierarchical trees and subject directories on the Web, such as Yahoo. The same Web, however, creates a unique opportunity for remote fields to be instantly connected. Within the existing patterns of specialization, a new tendency is at work: to build interconnected, interlaced hierarchies of knowledge more reminiscent of a forest than of separate trees.

A thinklink is a basic unit of interdisciplinary thought, an attempt to connect within coherent logical discourse the concepts of various professional domains. A thinklink is similar to a metaphor in that it unites two heterogeneous images; a thinklink, however, is not a metaphor since it establishes the internal, logical connection of two concepts or phenomena rather their imaginative or associative resemblance.

Eventually, all these thinklinks could be incorporated into those subject areas they mutually connect. The resources and directories on linguistics, for example, will contain links to geology and gastronomy, astronautics and silentology, not only specific languages, grammars, and dictionaries. Thinklinks will constitute another dimension of the Web, making it intellectually what it already is electronically­a web rather than rigid conceptual grid. In this sense, InteLnet is Contra-Yahoo as it interweaves "rhizomatically" distant categories and rubrics of knowledge rather than separating them.

Guidelines for the Submission of Thinklinks

You are invited to insert thinklinks­analytical connections among various subject areas on the Web. Thinklinks are not just an intellectual game or an exercise in creativity, but a new dimension of the Web, a metaspace where other spaces (areas, disciplines) come into interaction.

Please connect two or more subject areas in a single logical discourse or analytical essay. Size is limited to between 1 and 4 pages, or 300 and 1,200 words, with approximately 2 to 8 thinklinks interwoven in the text. Areas must be connected essentially and analytically, not just through personal preferences or idiosyncratic associations. (For example, statements like "I like to read Nietzsche when flying in an airplane," or "Two things I hate most of all are porridge and philosophy" do not constitute a thinklink between aviation, philosophy, and gastronomy). See an example of a "linguistics gastronomy" thinklink: http://www.emory.edu/INTELNET/tl_lingvo_gastro.html

Branch 3. InteLnetics: Perspectives on Integrative Knowledge

Verbal Epigraphs

In everything there is a part of everything.

­Anaxagoras

Everything exists only because of the argument between those who agree

with each other and the love between those who argue.

­Giordano Bruno

Individuality contains infinity.

­Gottfried Leibniz

About each truth one can say something completely opposite to it and it will be

equally true . . . Everything that is thought by a mind and said in words is

one-sided. . . . But the world itself, everything existing around us and within us,

never is one-sided.

­Hermann Hesse

Every thing can be described by means of any other thing.

­André Breton

Visual Epigraph

[An enormous pyramid built of smaller pyramids, which are built from smaller pyramids, ad infinitum.]

This is not a whimsical artistic fantasy, but a fractal picture produced by a computer on the basis of mathematical formulas discovered by an American mathematician of Polish origin, Benoit Mandelbrot. A fractal is a fragmented geometric shape that can be subdivided into parts, each of which is a reduced copy of the whole. Fractals describe many real-world objects, such as clouds, mountains, turbulence, and coastlines, that do not correspond to simple geometric shapes.

Ideal objects, such as concepts, ideas, and minds, can also be described as "fractals," in the sense that every idea potentially contains in itself many other ideas. Philosophers of various epochs, in their attempt to achieve universal knowledge, selected one, "primordial" aspect of the world and deduced from it all existing phenomena. "Water," "fire," "idea," "spirit," "matter," "will," "life," "existence," and other principles served more or less successfully to explain the totality of the world.

According to our epigraphs (both verbal and visual), the "world" as a whole consists not of abstract principles, but of smaller "worlds." Each world contains the previously mentioned principles, and all other possible principles as well. InteLnetics attempts to explain the totality of the world not from abstract particulars, but from their interaction within concrete totalities. The pyramid consists of pyramids, not of lines and points. Lines and points, as abstract units, or "principles," have their role in the construction of cubes, rhombi, parallelepipeds, and other forms, but they cannot explain what makes the pyramid the pyramid. The basic property of the world is "worldness," the capacity to encompass and connect the four basic elements and a number of other substances and properties in one whole.

InteLnetics, as any project of "universal science," could be easily challenged as still another utopian project, a kind of "perpetuum mobile." It is the birth of cyberspace, the all-embracing electronic network, that turns this abstract project into a feasible humanistic one.

A remarkable "coincidence": Cybernetics (now more routinely called "computer science") and what I propose to call "inteLnetics," a humanistic metadiscipline, have one spiritual father, the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), who elaborated the project of a universal science capable of characterizing not only quantities but qualities. This project of characteristica universalis historically split into "technical" and "humanistic" parts, with the first part implemented in the World Wide Web. Now it is time for the two aspects of the "universal characteristic" to come together in a neo-Leibnizean synthesis. Cybernetics is here; it is now the time for inteLnetics . . .

Branch 4. InteLnet Journals in the Humanities

http://old.russ.ru/antolog/INTELNET/zhur_gum.html

These electronic journals take a middle course between the highly specialized professional journals that employ only academic discourse and intellectual journals that are designed for a general educated audience and do not have any thematic specialization or focus. InteLnet journals can be defined as one-profile and multigenre publications that combine the characteristics of academic and popular intellectual journals. They attempt to cover those realms of thinking and inquiry that have not yet crystallized into special disciplines and therefore need multiple levels of discourse starting with unprofessional observations and documentation, private diaries, and correspondence, and ending with genres of articles, critical reviews, and other scholarly discourses. Several of these journals are devoted to ordinary life and to the very concept of ordinariness. Below are statements of purpose for the three journals.

In any useless occupation, one has to attempt to be divine. Or not to engage in it.

­Paul Valery

Quiet Life

There are many journals devoted to the active forms of leisure: travel, sport, gardening, cooking, etc. This journal is devoted to the purposeless, useless, passive modes of spending leisure time. What do we do when we do nothing? What are the minimal forms of human activity? And how do they reflect personality and humanness? To stare out the window or loiter about the street­is it possible to be a master and expert in these useless activities; to develop the metaphysics of trifles, whims, pranks, tiny occupations, or no occupations at all? This journal deals with the concept of the ordinary because it has thus far attracted no attention from humanistic theory. In the meantime, it is the ordinary and not the political, aesthetic, technical, or mathematical that constitutes the larger part of human life. But is there a theory of the ordinary­Triviology or Ordinarics­that could compare in its weight and significance with mathematics, aesthetics, political science? Epicurus taught us to live imperceptibly or inconspicuously. But this does not mean that what is imperceptible to others should remain imperceptible to ourselves. Each individual is the best theoretician of his or her life. Nobody can replace him or her in the exploration of such a precious and unique material, neither Plato nor Hegel nor Marx nor any teacher of the humanities. This journal invites everyone to become a theoretician of one's own life and of those singularities with which we intimately surround ourselves. One person cannot live without soccer, another without a pipe, the third without his collections of stamps. And no one can live without the experience of breathing, walking, touching a cold windowpane or the rough bark of the tree. What is the significance of these ordinary experiences, and what do they add to our understanding of the nature of humanness?

Quiet life is the resource of our most tenacious unconscious memory, which awakens under the impact of hypnosis, brain trauma, or the threat of imminent death. In his book Epilepsy and the Functional Anatomy of the Human Brain (1985), Wilder Penfield demonstrates that such spontaneous flashes of memory, which happen on the threshold of death, invoke only the most mundane images, such as peeling vegetables, washing dishes, or watering the flowers in the evening. None of the patients he discusses remembered anything connected with strong emotions, generalizations, complicated professional tasks, or responsible decisions. What is remembered is the uneventful background that surrounds our ordinary life without provoking any noticeable response, that part of existence that escapes the consciousness and, as Proust remarked, due to forgetfulness is preserved in its untouched freshness.

It is true that the task of this journal is to introduce the quiet life into the field of consciousness and therefore to remove at least a tiny part of it from this storehouse of unconscious memories. But the imperceptible life extends into infinity, and it is possible to recover only one drop of it to lay the foundation for the micrology of the ordinary, for the investigation of its smallest forms, noneventful facts, microbes, and viruses of daily existence.

Genius

Practice random geniality!

In the context of this journal, genius is not a permanent quality of special individuals but a certain state­mostly short-lived and transitory­that is familiar to many people. In Roman mythology genius is a deity of the momentary, the ephemeral. The journal publishes materials devoted to flashes of genius in diverse spheres of science and art, in everyday life, personal relationships, in love, in friendship, in leisure, in madness . . . The journal's motto presupposes that geniality (like kindness) can overstep all established boundaries (professional fields, ethical norms) and become a spontaneous, improvisational way of living. One can be a genius of silence, a genius of idleness; there may be geniuses of parenthood and housecleaning. In a mediocre text there may be glimpses of genius. The journal explores the nature of extreme capacities in the most ordinary conditions of their manifestation.

Scientiae Desiderata (Desirable and Imaginable Sciences)

This journal is devoted to nonexistent disciplines that have a certain epistemological potential and value, in particular, as bridges between science, desire, and imagination. Many sciences, like aesthetics or genetics, had individual creators and were first imagined on the basis of some preliminary experience, experiment, or intuitive knowledge before they were elaborated into separate disciplines. Though the nomenclature of institutionalized research includes already thousands of established disciplines, the process of their proliferation is unlimited and requires new investments of desire and imagination.

In his famous classification of sciences, Francis Bacon placed under the heading "Scientiae Desiderata" such disciplines as the theory of machines, the history of arts and sciences, and others that developed centuries later and now are firmly established. Almost all blank spots in Bacon's table of sciences came to be filled in the course of time, like empty rubrics in Mendeleev's periodic table of chemical elements did.

Scientific knowledge does not suppress human desires; on the contrary, it is moved by the force of desires and in its advancement realizes them more fully. In this sense Bacon's Scientiae Desiderata is probably the first conscious synthesis of science and desire, the expression of such deep and socially meaningful desires that determined the future of science.

On the eve of the twenty-first century, as the power of the imagination more and more insistently intervenes into the structure of scientific knowledge,3 it is appropriate to concentrate our attention on the methodology of imaginable sciences. It is advisable that the essays on imaginable sciences (and also intellectual occupations and vocations) offered to this journal include at least some of the following components: (1) methodological introduction, rationale for the creation of a certain discipline, and perspectives of its practical application; (2) position of this discipline in the networks of knowledge and its relationship to other existing and imaginable sciences; (3) elaboration of the conceptual system of the given discipline and definition of its principal terms in their interconnection, including the possible interpretations of these terms on behalf of various scientific schools and trends within the discipline; (4) short illustrations of the definitions, excerpts from the major works and papers­the texts can be as imaginative as the discipline itself but they must demonstrate its categories and ideas in action; (5) the general situation in this discipline­its main contradictions, complexities, problems, challenges, perspectives, tendencies, debates, and confrontations; and a (6) bibliography, including short annotations and evaluations of the most fundamental and noticeable studies that can prepare the rise of this discipline and make it practicable in the future.

The role of the imagination in sciences is not limited to the task of their popularization but belongs to the very core of cognitive activity. In addition to popular science (such as popular physics or biology) and science fiction, which applies artistic fantasy to scientific subjects, there is a place for what can be called imaginative science, which elaborates those metaphoric and poetic potentials that are inherent in conceptual thinking as such. Along with the classification of sciences there is a need for an experimental branch of the philosophy of science that would deal with the construction of sciences. In fact, it was the father of modern experimental science, Francis Bacon, who initiated also the constructive methodology of sciences. Accordingly, Bacon's famous aphorism, "Knowledge is power," can be rephrased: "Imagination is the power of knowledge." Albert Einstein, however, expressed this epochal shift even more resolutely: "Imagination is more powerful than knowledge."

Other InteLnet Journals Include:

New Movements and Sects

The Theory of Voids (empty forms in nature and culture: holes, cavities, grids, webs . . . )

Russian Spleen: The Journal of Melancholy and Consolation

Northern Web: The Virtual Worlds of Russian Culture (WWW and Traditions of Communal and Apocalyptic Spirituality)

Hyperauthorship: The Journal of Virtual and Trans-Biological Authorship

The fifth branch of the InteLnet is the most voluminous and will be described in the next chapter.



Notes

1. There is also the sixth branch, "Collective Improvisations: Experiments in the Communicative Generation of New Ideas." It was described in the previous chapters. See the electronic site devoted to collective improvisations: http://www.emory.edu/INTELNET/impro_home.html
Branches one through three and six currently exist only in English, branches four and five only in Russian.
2. On the history of this association and the pre-electronic forms of the Bank of New Ideas, see the chapter "Collective Improvisations and Transcultural Consciousness," the "History" part of this book, pp. 70-74.
3. The ground-breaking works in cognitive science by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, such as Metaphors We Live By: The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason; Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind, and others, helped enormously to substantiate the connection between rationality and imagination.