by Pat Holt

book Tuesday, January 18, 2000:




"I fear the plug could be pulled at any time," says University of Maryland professor Linda Kauffman, "on any effort of enlightenment - even something as 'revolutionary' as the Internet."

Good heavens, who is this unenlightened person? Kauffman, the acclaimed author of several books on literary criticism ("Discourses of Desire," "Special Delivery: Epistolary Modes in Modern Fiction"), is one of many critics warning people like me from celebrating the Internet as a boon to humankind.

"A danger exists," she says, "in turning any new technology into a false utopia."

Hmmph. Well, we'll have to prove her wrong, of course, but meanwhile it's great to meet this imaginative and original thinker, whose latest book about the body and technology in radical art, "Bad Girls and Sick Boys" (University of California Press; 328 pages; $18.95 paperback; order online at ), has come to mind many times in recent months.

I thought of Linda a few days ago when reading about government agents "approving" TV scripts (see below), and, some months before, about New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani teminating funds to the Brooklyn Museum of Art because he thought its "Sensation" exhibit was offensive.

Hearing that film director David Cronenberg (whom Kauffman interviews in the book) will direct the movie version (coming in April) of Bret Easton Ellis's controversial novel, "American Psycho," I again thought of Kauffman, whose lucid analysis of that despicable piece of nothing fiction will bring both calm and enlightenment to the emotional debate that's certain to resume about Ellis's depiction of female sexual mutilation.

Then there's this: One of the joys of the (truly utopian) Internet is the chance to rediscover books that have been smoldering in the backlist for a few years. Instead of feeling "dated" because they address issues of the past, books like Kauffman's "Bad Girls and Sick Boys," published in hardcover way back in 1998, have new things to say to the present and future.

For example, an important theme in Kaufmann's book is the way any form of communication, especially one that newly promotes a free exchange of ideas, can be overtaken by means of "power, control and surveillance" from invading forces.

The printing press, radio, TV and movies were all heralded at their inception for their capacity to disseminate information widely and freely and without judgment across the globe. But all of these media channels, Kauffman points out, have been co-opted to one extent or another by commercial interests - when not purchased outright by conglomerates.

So now comes the Internet, which I and others have characterized as the first fully interactive medium in history, one that's capable of correcting itself when forces of "power, control and surveillance" invade it.

Kauffman says she'd love to agree: "The potential of the Internet seems hopeful in terms of creating a new approach to democracy. But I think what J.G. Ballad [whom also she interviews in the book] says is accurate - that all our technological inventions will renew AND destroy us.

"It behooves us to walk that tightrope and not view anything or anyone - no politician, no artist, certainly no technology - as a source of salvation OR apocalyptic doom," she adds. "Nothing substitutes for a critical consciousness."

This last is the concept that Kauffman puts to the test when she writes about cutting-edge performance artists whose exhibition is often seen as too shocking or perverse for mainstream society.

She describes Orlan, a French art history professor who transforms her own face through plastic surgery as a comment on "icons of feminine beauty" (Kauffman's words); and Bob Flanagan, the late cystic fibrosis patient who re-created his many hospital rooms as museum pieces devoted to the "sadomedicine" to which he was subjected from childhood.

These two artists (and many more in the book) trigger the kind of slap-in-the-face awareness that is sometimes needed, Kauffman suggests, to wake up modern society to new points of view about contemporary culture.

However bizarre Flanagan seemed - especially when he publically pierced or hung weights from his genitals - his message reflects the "bizarre experiments" that are already a commonplace fact of scientific research, "moving ever closer to that junction," as Ballard says in the book, "where science and pornography will eventually meet and fuse."

Science and pornography! I tell you, A CLOUD OF DOOM is coming our way when that hideous "American Psycho" is translated to the screen, but pardon me, that's another story. What makes Kauffman's book so appealing is her respect for the role of art, however we envision it, in our time - how artists must exist as translators of modern life and of our inarticulated feelings about "the things we view with horror or unease," says Kauffman.

"To us, these artists seem very strange, perverse and bizarre in the same way that Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire and Flaubert, whose books were banned as an outrage to public morals, were once viewed," she explains. "Modern artists are poised at a particular moment of time in the same way as Matthew Arnold was when he wrote 'Culture and Anarchy.' One day we will look back on them as prophets of great dramatic revolutionary change."

Aha. It's Kaufmann's view that ART is revolutionary, not the MEDIUM through which it is presented to us, that suddenly catches my ear. In the "war on art" that has been going on for centuries, everyone (in our time) from former attorney general Edwin Meese to Giuliani trying to "pull the plug" on the longheld perception of "the point of America," as Kauffman puts it - that is, "to allow what you hate to exist."

We all remember that Meese tried to ban girlie magazines (and got at least one cowardly bookstore chain to go along, remember?), and more recently that Giuliani tried to stop funding the Brooklyn Museum of Art. But what are the forces that can possibly "pull the plug" on the Internet?

After all, the Internet is too global! No government can really interfere with it. It's too big! Millions use it regularly. And it's too open! People offer opinions as a way to CONTRIBUTE to, not denigrate, the betterment of all.

It's not that Kauffman physically snorts at such talk, but she does expel air rather quickly and noisily before explaining two points to consider.

First, "remember that the Internet can be just as easily used for good" [my example: the Interenet helped galvanize millions to stop the FTC from approving Barnes & Noble's purchase of Ingram Book Co.] "as for evil" [her example: the Internet helped motivate right-wing assassins to murder doctors performing abortions].

Second, and most important, says Kauffman:

"What has the Internet changed, say, in terms of 40,000 homeless in the streets of the city? What real, tangible issue of systemic ills in American society can you point to that has disappeared or even been slightly modified by the Internet? I would say nothing.

"What you're getting instead from the Internet is exactly what fascists want: 'Let people express themselves: It's not going to change what we're doing in terms of, say, nuclear weapons going to Poland.' Meanwhile, Nike is still out there, multinational corporations are still merging, conglomerates making brands you pay $100 for in the United States in turn pay maybe 18 cents an hour to 14-year-olds in Indonesia."

But look, at the same time, how much the Internet is getting from us: "The very fact that companies on the Internet can call up information as to how many CDs a man bought in the last 6 months, or how many boxer shorts he wears, is unbelievably frightening," she says. "Yet the biggest threat to me today is the complacency about consumer desire, with everyone saying isn't this 'electronic revolution' great. But as soon as you log on, all you see are commercials, all this junk.

"What concerns me is how increasingly difficult it becomes to imagine anything different - what we might have done with this medium, or what we're NOT getting to read or see, or what stories never make the news. I see this every day with my students -- it's very hard for them to imagine anything other than what they' ve been fed.

"So express yourself in email and listservs and message boards all you want," says Linda Kauffman. "My grudge against the Internet is that all opinions are not created equal."

By heaven, that's true. And to top it all off, many of its users, apparently, are the last to know.



I think what surprises me most about those government agents who've been "approving" TV scripts is the baffled who-me? statements they made after getting caught with their fingers in that great American cookie jar called the First Amendment.

"I guess we plead guilty to using every lawful means of saving America's children," said one White House official. Oh, my stars and garters, you can't get any more mushy-faced than that.

The problem began when some dim bulbs in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy got the idea that they could "help" spread the word against drugs by reviewing scripts of TV shows such as "ER" and "Beverly Hills 90210."

Not only has the NDCP office encouraged the use of anti-drug messages in the scripts, they've made suggestions for changes in the scripts and routinely offered, as "payment" for such messages, credit to the networks that reduced the number of expensive public service announcements (PSA) the law requires stations to broadcast.

Thank heaven for Salon, the Internet magazine that uncovered the practice, which it calls "prime-time propaganda."

Well, said the NDCP officials, drug use among young Americans has dropped by 15 percent in the last year, so what's the harm? "We don't interfere in the creative process," one spokesperson told the New York Times. "We don't say they [the TV shows] can't run anything. We don't tell them what to say or not to say."

My goodness, did this WHITE HOUSE POLICYMAKER ever take a civics course? Any monitoring or tinkering with art and entertainment on the part of government agencies - even and especially the most commercial level - let alone making suggestions for alterations, and even worse offering "payment" in the form of PSA credits, violates just about every protection of the First Amendment we have.

Then, too, the problem with NDCP is its choice of programs. "ER" and "Beverly Hills 90210," like shows on the Warner Brothers channel called "Smart Guy" and "The Wayans Brothers" (which DID change scripts according to government suggestions), simply don't reach enough people.

Far better prospects emerge in a runaway hit like "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" where multiple choice questions might be altered to make them more - well, instructive:

Q: Complete this important national slogan: "Just Say No To ---- "
a) the Internet; b) AOL/Time Warner; c) Grant's Tomb; d) government intervention

Or how about the government rewriting scripts for "The Sopranos?"

Capo: Some dim bulb in the White House tipped us off to a truckload of new Beanie Babies.
Soldier: Hey, those guys were free-basing Pez before we hooked 'em on dime bags of M&Ms.

So bravo, White House warriors! Continue pretending bafflement, and who knows? You might get an agent and push for escalator clauses once the shows on which you've "collaborated" become hits.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

In light of your comments on Andersen Consulting's rather shoddy analysis of Internet book buying, you might want to take a look at a poll that the Gallup organization did late last year. It's mostly about American reading habits (which is fascinating in itself) but near the bottom of the page you'll find a rather revealing section on how readers choose the books they buy.

Granted, this doesn't track WHERE they buy books, but it does point out that about 25% responded "browsing a bookstore or library" and another 25% "a recommendation from someone they know" (that would include hand-selling). The percent of those surveyed who said they mainly made their book choices by browsing the Internet? A measly 1%.

Here's the site:

Andrew Engelson
Seattle WA


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re your story on the America Online/Time Warner merger.

Best comment heard the other day: This merger signals the end of the mom-and-pop conglomerate.

Carl Lennertz


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I am a writer, squirreled away in Southern Louisiana and happy to be working at what I love.

With you, I mull, and marvel in mirth at the machinations and maneuvers in Manhattan. However, I don't agree with you on one point, writers get screwed on their own, they don't need any help from these multinational mavens.

Good writing, not even great writing, is in short supply. Until writers believe that, they'll cower before these conglomerates, cap in hand, capitulating before they collect.

No less than Robert McKee, Les Standiford, and John Dufresne repeat, seminar after seminar, stay at your craft until you are done; then, approach the market knowing that it is hungry for what you have to offer and will pay well for it. Unfortunately, too many authors quit before they are finished, and then they're done for. It cheapens the product in the marketplace, makes people like Case and Levin believe that content is a commodity, and so the spiral spins, downward.

They can amalgamate, congregate, and cooperate all they want to, good writing is not a commodity and good writers can only choose to be left out in the cold by anything business does to wring a profit from their work . . .

Stephen A. Doiron
Hammond, LA


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re: "The Victorian Internet : The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers" by Tom Standage.

For interskeptics (I like that better than the obvious "cyberskeptics" since I have grown to loathe the prefixes cyber-, and e-), I heartily recommend also "Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy" by Robert McChesney, which details how many of the same myths were recycled with radio, which, in its infancy, showed great promise for advancing democracy and allowing many voices to be heard ... before it taken from its cradle and strangled by commercial broadcasters and their minions in Washington (the desk that became the FCC, which is an abbreviation for "Furthering Corporate Control").

McChesney's newest "Rich Media, Poor Democracy" should be on the reading list of anyone who thinks that maybe, just maybe, too much centralization of media ownership might be cause for an instant's pause.

And heck, we don't even have to go back to the last century. I even remember how *TV* was going to revolutionize everything too, bringing peace, prosperity, and universal education to the global village ...

John Gear