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Cultural Recognition and the Internet

Erik Chia-Yi LEE <>
National Taiwan University


Ever since the advent of Internet, the issue of cultural recognition is already part of the cultural struggle for visibility on the global network. When English is taken as the net Latin by many netizens and predominates most of net communications, it is also time for people who take the Internet seriously to reconsider the potential as well as the limitation it possesses in realizing the recognition of different cultures. This paper will thus focus on the possibility of implementing cultural recognition on and by the Internet.

On the theoretical plane, the issues addressed will include the meaning of recognition regarding identity, the symbiosis of the global and the local, as well as the Internet's contribution to cultural productions for recognition. It is the present writer's purpose to argue for the Internet's potential in empowering the previously silenced, or the so-called "marginal," cultures with certain accessibility and visibility. The "band-width" of the Internet, so to speak, has to be wide enough to form a global network and, at the same time, to embrace the local without necessarily or inevitably totaling the many into the (only) one. In this respect, the Internet by means of its technological apparatus may be able to realize, though quite basically, the cultural ideal of difference-in-identity.

On the empirical part, the paper will use Chinese literary productions on the Internet to exemplify the issues addressed theoretically. The example is significant because it can be taken as a discursive locus into which converge issues like the global-local confrontations, the cultural contrast between the West and the non-West, as well as the Internet's influence on the cultural productions embodied in a language other than English. And the present writer would like to argue in this part for a more active role for the Internet in helping the local to achieve preliminary cultural recognition.

By integrating the theoretical with the empirical, I hope, the paper could make sense of the Internet as much more than a mere technological advancement, but rather as a positive force for better cultural recognition. From the very beginning, the Internet was never reality only; it was also man's dream, a dream for a better (or different) life and culture in the future. And this paper is an effort only to start to reflect on how real this dream could be and how near this future may be.


Globalization and the Internet

The cultural issue on the Internet is always bound up with the struggle for recognition of the local in and by the global network. The basic premise of the Internet, which also encourages certain of its promises, is the opening of a (cyber)space in which the conventional mapping grids that differentiate the local from the global can be set loose. By the electronic "mediaization"1 of all human signifying patterns, the Internet is supposed to be an open ground on which expressions and even representations of different cultures can be acted out in diversity. However, this promised diversity on the global network is set back and held in suspicion, for many, by the cultural imperialism represented by the West in general and U.S. culture in particular. Rather than empowering local and the marginal cultures to speak out for themselves, globalization appears to be synonymous with standardization and normalization of one privileged, globalized local culture over others. The fear of globalization, from a local perspective, is quite understandable: It is a fear of being totalized at the expense of the local culture's particularities and uniqueness. While the cultural representation of the local is tied up with the sense of identity, any form of globalized totality that would endanger this identity would be held in ruthless check and never be welcomed. Although there is never lack of high claims from the Internet for fluid identities and denationalization, identity is not to fade out so easily and completely through electronic mediation without any remainder. The identity in terms of cultural politics is like a locus, a pattern of signification, with which subjects identify themselves to stabilize the meaning and significance of their existence. Without such an identity based in symbolic forms, subjects would be cast out into an abyss of nonsense, a (meaningless) being-in-the-(meaningless) world. Partly because of this basic human need for an existential identity, the promised globalization on the Internet would inversely set off the struggle of the local to destandardize itself in the global arena in order to secure its identity as a basis for its subjects' cultural and political signification.

The local's cultural struggle on the Net is further exacerbated by the unequal technological advancement among different parts of the globe. According to one survey, the United States and Europe overwhelmingly predominate the electronic sphere by holding around 87 percent of the world's total hosts. And about 75 percent of all hosts now on earth are speaking English or assume English as the standard language in both Net communications and Web-based contents.2 Under this privileged condition of one (local) language on the Net, to disseminate cultural codification in languages other than English, though not impossible, is more or less discouraged and, in turn, lays bare some negative implications of the electronic globalization. In this regard, the Internet plays a paradoxical role: While it opens a global space to ensure the freedom of different cultural expressions, it also proves that this freedom has to be earned, to be fought for, or the privileged may freely totalize and negate the underprivileged without any cost. Even in the global cyberspace, nothing is free. Different cultures have to strive and fight to be recognized in and by the global network and, correspondingly, for global dissemination without being passively globalized. One way to address this cultural issue on the Net is to return to a basic question: Why recognition? Why must the local depend on the global to be recognized as such?

Recognition between self and other

Recognition, on its basic level, implies a dialectic relation between self and other. For both self and other, recognition is mediation by and on which the identity of both terms can be settled. Without this relational mediation qua recognition, self and other will lose the meaning they can refer to, and close in onto a solipsistic loop where both terms mean nothing. "Other" has to be understood here as another self, and recognition is in fact a relation between selves, between self and (an-other) self. Thus, self is and can be such (as gaining its identity) only if another self appears before it as an other, so the self can be consequently aware of its own difference. Only by such differentiation can both self-ness and other-ness be signified meaningfully and obtain their respective, yet interdependent, identities. This interdependence between self and other for the two terms to have their "passively" signified meanings reveals both terms' incompleteness in their respective being. While one cannot be the same as the other, one cannot, at the same time, exist as such without an other. This relation as "to be different from and to depend on each other at once" (hence a dialectic relation) introduces certain tension into the encounter between the two terms. The tension is high because it is not enough for self to be merely conscious of its difference; the self has to struggle for its difference to be recognized as such. And the recognition of their difference from each other, once settled, would turn to relational mediation through which both self and (its) other can secure their meaningful identities. But this sense of security is constantly threatened and destabilized by the underlying interdependence of the two terms for their incomplete autonomy. Given this dialectic relation between self and other, the identity of both terms is more like an ongoing process, a result of the endless struggle to be recognized as different. And this struggle for recognition never lacks for tension, sometimes even violence, because the question "Who is going to recognize whom?" is never purely metaphysical but involves a certain physical base. The struggle between self and other is always a power struggle.3

Technology, cultural recognition, and language on the Internet

The interdependence between self and other, in fact, already implies an extension of the two terms beyond mere single subjects and toward social units of subjects. Only by this social extension of the dialectic relation between self and other can the issue of cultural recognition on the Internet be brought back to its physical base. It may not be too farfetched to say that the relation between the local and global cultures as mediaized via the Internet is similarly based on the dialectic between self and (that which is other than) self. This relation weaves itself into a pattern of symbiotic identities, both parties of which have to rely on each other to be recognized as such. Even so, attention must be paid to the unequal physical base for (cultural) recognition itself. On a purely metaphysical level, to obtain mutual and equal recognition between self and other (or between local and global as in our context) is not only rational and possible, but can also be real. On the (electronically) material base, however, this hope is quite idealistic, to say the least, and may never be realized in many skeptics' eyes. If the "educated guess" of one survey of the online population is not too far removed from reality, the netizens in Canada and the United States overwhelmingly outnumber the sum total of those in all other regions in the world: the proportion is about 70 to 37 million people.4 Given America's leading role in its advanced information technology and Net-capitalization, the figure is not surprising. Taking advantage of this technological edge, the English language in both its utility and visibility on the Internet is, not surprisingly, more competitive in dissemination. A previous "local" culture is thus codified in a technologically privileged language to travel across geographical and political boundaries, spreading (or invading) into the terrain of different cultures.5 It is easy to understand from this global movement of the language-culture bloc how the so-called global culture is constructed.6 If English is a privileged language on the Net and best represented by American culture in its visibility, this is a result mostly of a solid techno-material base and of a dialectic encounter with alien cultures that ultimately find themselves electronically dominated. To be global is never a natural thing. As other is at first only another self, the global culture, at least on the Net nowadays, is no less local in the first place. Without one local culture's encounter with other local ones, it will never be conscious of its significance as being different. In the context of the Internet, this encounter is brought forth more immediately than ever by the advancement of information technology, which also helps to distribute unequally the (cultural) power over the world. One privileged local culture is thus easily taken as the global culture because of its overall recognition from and predominance over other cultures on the Net. Even though the local and the global cultures theoretically exist in an interdependent relationship, the recognition that mediates their respective identity is far from being mutual and equal.

This unequal recognition, however, does not mean the global (in fact, the privileged local) must be dubbed culturally evil, especially in the context of the Internet. Though constructed on a powerful technological base, the Internet is and can still be a space open to all possible cultural differences. The global culture, even with its technological privilege, can in no way (and probably with no intention of) exclude other local cultures or deny their access to the Net. The unequal cultural recognition on the Internet comes mainly from the disproportionate advancement in information technology between, say, North America and other parts in the world. On a basic level, this pattern of recognition is closely related to the technologically enhanced visibility of different cultures on the Net. While the technological base will massively influence the way cultures are (re)presented and distributed, culture, far from affecting technology in any direct sense, has to appropriate and take advantage of the technological development to be (re)presented more revolutionarily or disseminated more efficiently.7 This strategy becomes quite urgent for other (underprivileged) local cultures in confronting the one privileged (thus globalized) local culture. With all its fear of and anxiety about losing its identity on the Net, the local's fight for cultural recognition is, no doubt, much more painful and depressing than that of the already globally recognized one. For the fight is basically twofold: on the one hand, it has to struggle hard for a better information infrastructure, which may require a long time and arduous efforts to build and which is totally beyond any single-handed capability to control the schedule; on the other, even after it achieves a certain amount of visibility, it has to struggle even harder for its culture's local-ness being acknowledged--what is going to be presented, how that is to be represented, and how it can be written anew confronting the mediation of technology. If the Internet holds sway over the global infrastructure for economy, politics, and culture in the near future, the struggle of any local culture for its being, at least, visibly recognized needs to start also with the same global network. Viewing the local culture's struggle from this perspective is to redirect critical attention from the negative implications of electronic globalization, from the danger of technology, to its possible saving powers: even though not without certain agony, the same technology may contribute to the survival and revival of the local culture. In its encounter with the global culture, the local is like a self facing an alien other. While it cannot outweigh this other in technology and cultural visibility, and its expected recognition may still be far off, the local would be goaded into throbbing consciousness of its own difference and identity, thus getting the chance and stimulus to appropriate the same technology not only to write itself down, but to write itself anew. And if the basic structure of the Internet remains globally accessible and decentralized, there is no reason to believe that this technology is an apparatus only for instrumental homogenization, leaving other local cultures no space to occupy and no tongue to speak. In the local-global relationship, what remains highly dialectic is both terms' strained symbiotic existence in difference. Totally homogenizing or eliminating one term leaves the other in a purely psychotic state: in the over-brimming solipsistic excess, it will lose all its meaning and signification in reality. However, the technology's saving power for local culture's recognition needs to be scrutinized more empirically.

Chinese cultural productions on the Internet

The production of Chinese literary content on the Net is one example of this struggle for cultural recognition by appropriating the edge of information technology. On a material basis, not only the access to the Internet in those areas with large Chinese population becomes more ready and convenient,8 but the computing environment also helps Chinese literary productions proliferate electronically.9 In this respect, two aspects are worth being singled out to further and concretize the Internet's contribution to the local's cultural struggle, and to make clear what the local and its recognition would mean in different contexts.10 The first aspect is more or less caused by the confrontation with the cultural globalization on the Net, under whose pressure and as a response to whose stimulus the cultural productions in Chinese begin to take advantage of information technology to preserve and disseminate the ancient (literary) texts electronically. This way of production, however, has more to do with cultural reproductions in new media, rather than with producing new contents. Most efforts devoted to these electronic reproductions come from academic institutions (with many more resources at hand than could be expected), and some others come from ordinary netizens who, out of personal interests or passions, create individual archives for public access.11 The mission-like intention to reproduce Chinese classics in a new medium is somewhat encouraged and inspired, though not without certain anxiety, by the globalized culture in English. Two such efforts, for example, manifestly direct and compare their work to Project Gutenberg as the master signifier to justify their grafting the built-in cultural meaning onto the local milieu.12 While it has no reason to argue for any coercive or totalizing intention on the part of Project Gutenberg, from a local perspective the Project, as produced in a language widely visible and highly recognized through efficient technological distributions, would nevertheless give enough impetus to the local's consciousness of its absence and, in turn, to its struggle for a primary presence in the global network. And this struggle by utilizing the same technology and even the similar infrastructure (from the West) is not without certain help in disseminating the culture under consideration to the (local) public and even to the world so as to achieve a basic recognition. The "local" and the "global" in their cultural symbiosis on the Internet, to emphasize again, are highly relative in meaning, which results primarily from unequal technological advancement. This inequality, however, does not implicate any cultural inferiority of the so-called "local." Although information technology helps accelerate the cultural globalization of a privileged language, the "local" one (as exemplified by Chinese) could still ride on the same technology to attain presence.

Because the local and the global are relative terms, their symbiotic relation could even be applied to a more specific local context to see how the two terms may signify differently and what role the Internet could play in helping manifest this signification. In terms of the Chinese cultural re-productions on the Net, the local-global binary would turn to be that of the local's global in face of the local's local (or, marginal). If, on a general level, the global culture on the Net is represented by English language in confronting with those other than English, in a particular Chinese context, it is the omnipresence of the official Chinese language that represents the (local's) global culture (especially in terms of its usage in preserving and disseminating the canonized Chinese classics) with relation to other "marginal" signifying patterns. The "marginal" here implicates a strong sense of culture politics that is expressed by the struggle for visibility and recognition of nonmainstream cultural identities. This struggle of the marginal, undoubtedly, never hesitates to empower itself with the competitive edge of information technology. In this regard, the cultural productions are generally of two kinds: one is the production of signifying systems that are differently mixed with the official language; the other is the production of new signification in the same official language. The former has more to do with the increasing consciousness among people of their (relative) regional dialects which, though having no written systems before, effectively tighten and strengthen their identities, either cultural or political, by appropriating and utilizing the information network. Their struggle could thus have better chance to visualize, to publicize, and to make recognized certain identity that might have had meager social and technological resources to rely on before.13 As for producing new signification in the official language, the struggle is aimed at new channels to voice and fortify those identities that were previously marginalized in the cultural system. Those who were socially underprivileged (like labors and natives), politically oppressed, and sexually de-normalized for their unconventional desire mechanisms (like gays and lesbians) could now, by the aid of the Internet, be more widely recognized for their distinctive identities.14 This is an overt struggle for cultural power, fighting for the presence of what was mostly silenced by or excluded from the traditional social channels. While the global network brings information technology to the cultural field of Chinese language so as to accelerate the (local) globalization of mainstream culture in the official language, the marginal cultural forms are also better equipped (socio-technologically) to speak out for themselves and to their other(s) via the open structure of the Internet. There is no specific way to estimate how profound this voicing of the marginal on the Net could influence and even change the social space in reality. But, similarly, there is no reason to underestimate the Net's social influence as such. Especially when the Internet's structure as basically anti-totalizing is taken into account, it may become more clear that the cyberspace is where the (local's) "marginal" could retain its difference without being thoroughly suppressed by the (local's) global. A dialectical relation between the two could thus be maintained to achieve and understand their symbiotic identities in mutual fertilization. In this struggle of the marginal for its cultural recognition, the Internet may play a role that is far more active and positive than is expected.


The globalization that follows the Internet's materialization need not be viewed only as having negative effects. The relation of global and local, much like that of self and other as individual subjects, is highly relative and dialectical, for both terms lack complete and self-reliant autonomy to signify itself meaningfully. As a result, the globalization will naturally, or inversely, intensify the struggle for localization to maintain and even to dialecticize the difference of each term. Without this mediation to differentiate one from its other, the meaning of identity would collapse through lack of any referent. While culture in its diverse forms represents and signifies such a frame of reference on which identity depends for its meaning and which is first and foremost embodied in language use, the Internet makes most keenly felt in its global structure this cultural clash between different languages. The apparent inequality in technological advancement also helps further the global visibility and recognition of the culture of one (initially local) language. Rather than a naturally born, this cultural globalization on the Internet is mostly a technological construct. And precisely because of the global culture's nature as "construct-ness" on a basis of an open, decentralized, and anti-totalizing worldwide infrastructure, the cultural struggle of the local and of the local's marginal should not deny them the possibility of gaining recognition by appropriating this technological structure. In this regard, the Internet may be said to have enough "bandwidth" to incorporate cultural differences under an identical global infrastructure. Technology always implicates a double bind: you cannot achieve certain goals without it, but you may never do so simply because of it. Information technology is no exception. Regarding the issue of cultural recognition on the Net, the danger of hegemonic globalization always comes along with the promise to help arouse and intensify the local (or the local's marginal) consciousness to struggle to be recognized, and vice versa. To understand this dialectic intrinsic to the Internet's technological basis may give such cultural struggles, now or in the future, more impetus as well as cautions to take full advantage of the Net without too much unrealistic depression and aversion.


1 The term is borrowed from Mark C. Taylor and Esa Saarnen's co-authored book Imagologies: Media Philosophy (Routledge: London, 1994). Since the book is formatted quite unconventionally, section subtitles rather than pagination are given. The term appears in the section entitled "Shifting Subjects" where the authors argue for "the mediaization of the subject" as one feature of being postmodern, a status encouraged also by, besides others, the emergence of Internet.

2 This survey is informed in Tim Jordan's contribution to (a discussion list devoted to Net art practices and theorization) on Feb. 5, 1998. The survey itself could be found at with details on the methodology applied.

3 This dialectic of self and other with regard to the issue of recognition is closely related to the primary situation of man's existence as propounded in Jacques Lacan's theory of the mirror stage (see "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience" in Ecrits: A Selection, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan and published by Norton in 1977). According to Lacan, the human infant between the age of six to eighteen months will assume the image of its mirror reflection, either of itself or of a human other, as of its own to realize a complete and autonomous identity for itself. This process of identification is activated mainly because the human infant is prematurely born (4) without any capacity to have adequate control over its body. So for the infant to form an I with complete autonomy (in terms, at least, of bodily motility), it has to identify with the mirror image to be recognized (largely by itself) as such. Lacan calls this an "Ideal-I" (2) and the recognition, "misrecognition" (6), because this basic sense of self as ego is purely imaginary in its identification. The mirror stage reveals to Lacan that the alienation of self appears far before any "social determination" could set in since the first "I" thus formed already incorporates in itself an other (than the real self) by imaginary identification. The partial autonomy of this Ideal-I and its primary dependence on its other will haunt the human subject from now on, even long after he takes (and is taken too by) social symbolic forms. The primary alienation of self also leads to aggressiveness in manifold psychical or bodily forms. For the self will always feel insecure about its (imagined) autonomous and self-reliant being when meeting its other(s); violence would often capture its desire to conquer or bring down its other(s) to consolidate and maintain its (imaginary) completeness. If Lacan is right on the mirror stage, the social bloc that consists of many single subjects may still bear this mark of original alienation that would inevitably lead to unending pursuit of a recognized complete identity. While this pursuit will never stop due to the completeness as always already impossible to be realized, the identity for man is nevertheless quite important for and essential to his basic existence as witnessed by the very formation of the "first" I in human infants. Without this "Ideal-I" resulting from an imaginary identification, "I" would be meaningless. For most people (especially those who are never soberly signified by the privileged center) to remain in a state of existential meaninglessness is never welcomed. That is why the struggle for recognition is also a fight for identity and meaning and always high in tension.

4 According to the statistics of the survey (see note 2) done in January 1998.

5 Some may argue here for the statement's arbitrarily collapsing different and even conflicting layers of American culture into a homogenous one. The reply to this doubt, which is totally understandable and legitimate, is twofold: on the one hand, as a non-American I am in no position to elaborate on those delicacies of American culture; on the other, the expression here is more of a general representation of American culture for non-Westerns, at least. The scale and intensity of this representation are similar to that of Orientalism projected in and by the Westerns (or Americans alike).

6 To take language as the main signifier for culture and identity, though not without certain limitations, could still be a viable working hypothesis especially in the context of the Internet. One recent example that attests to this entanglement of culture, language, and identity on the Net comes from the lawsuit brought up by two French organizations against Georgia Institute of Technology's European campus in Lorraine because its Web site displays only English without any French. One spokesman from the organization whose goal is to preserve French states that "We are demanding that the site be in French out of respect of the citizens and laws of France." Similar protection of French from English is also taken in French-speaking Quebec by its Charter of the French Language, which is set mainly against the ruthless spreading of English even at the risk of losing Quebec's economic appeal. The following words of the spokesman from Quebec's Office de la Langue Francaise denote best how close the relation between language's visibility on the Net and the cultural recognition regarding identity could be:

Quebec wants to be a player in the global market, but there's a real chance it will erode our sense of language, of identity. It's the same thing with the Internet: We feel threatened by it. It gives us the possibility of communicating with French speakers in France, Belgium, Switzerland, and North Africa, but English is the lingua franca of the Web. If we don't enforce this law, that'll only be more true in the future.

Obviously, the culture as represented by English is felt to be threateningly global not only by the non-Westerns, but also by the non-English-speaking Westerns. And people's anxiety about the English language on the Net reveals their concern with safeguarding specific cultural identities.

The sources are from Tom Ladner's "Quelle Langue pour le Net?" and Ashley Craddock's "Web Anglais? Non, S'il Vous Plaît".

7 Despite culture's role as comprising also the constant critique of technology, it depends, more often than not, on how profoundly culture may engage in technology to im-plode, rather than to ex-plode, the latter. In the days of print technology, for example, it is hard to imagine any such critique could have had any social effect if it were "merely" handwritten and distributed from hand to hand.

8 According to the same survey, up to August 1997, the online population in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China is, respectively, 1.26 million (compared to 700,000 only half a year ago), 500,000, and 150,000 (recently updated to 500,000 in January 1998). Although the figure is hardly complete and subject to constant change, it nevertheless tells the growth of Chinese netizens who, more or less, would constitute quite a unit of potential readers and writers of specific Chinese Web contents from which electronic literary writings are, to be sure, scarcely absent. This unit is to be believed even larger if those Chinese who may either log onto the Net or produce Chinese Web contents in other areas, like the US, are taken into account.

9 Besides the recent betterment of information infrastructure in those areas, this favorable computing environment also includes the supports in writing, reading, displaying, and editing Chinese characters from different OS in personal computing (like Windows and Apple systems), as well as those supports from major browsers and their embedded HTML editors (like Netscape and Microsoft IE). Even though these supports have strong commercial bearings, when nicely appropriated, they may still prove helpful for reproducing Chinese culture electronically.

10 Although "Chinese" may sound quite dubious here, for it has now two systems of written characters (generally called the traditional and the simplified Chinese), the emphasis is nevertheless put on the former. Aside from geopolitical considerations, this emphasis can be viably defended especially in terms of the electronic reproductions of Chinese classics that were originally written in traditional characters.

11 The Academia Sinica in Taiwan, for example, has now built the full-text searchable database on many Chinese classics, including the 25 Books of History and other philosophical and literary texts, that can be found at and The University of Virginia Library East Asian Section and Electronic Text Center has also launched the project, the Chinese Text Initiative, "to make texts of Chinese literature available on the World Wide Web," beginning with the electronic bilingual edition (in English and traditional Chinese) of "300 Tang Poems." As for individual archives, one example can be found at which, though quite small in its scale, is neatly built. While the database at Academia Sinica is huge but only partially open to the public, the project of Chinese Text Initiative (as still in its initial state) and other individual archives (though not very well organized) are free to public access.

12 The CELL project that intends to build an electronic Chinese library and one academic program that focuses on educating, archiving, and discussing Chinese literature manifestly acknowledges its inspiration from and its (partial) modeling on the Project Gutenberg.

13 Two such examples can be found at (the workshop of Taiwanese literature research) and at (the full-text searchable and image database of Taiwan's literary history). While the latter represents a "local" consciousness of its cultural identity (compared to the pan-Chinese culture), the former is more active in promoting the Taiwanese from a spoken dialect to a language with its own written system. For those Chinese who do not speak Taiwanese, browsing its home page is much like travelling to French or Arabic Web sites with strong cultural estrangement. For some Chinese in Taiwan, the language obviously plays an important part in securing their cultural and political identities. The Internet, in this regard, is favorably appropriated to announce their specific identity for recognition.

14The YAM in Taiwan, for example, aside from its main function as a Chinese searching engine, is quite active in providing a cyberspace for those groups of people to (re)present their identities electronically. And searching YAM, for example, with Chinese characters for "homophile" would end up with more than 40 Chinese Web sites, either in Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Singapore, that homestead miscellaneous writings to announce their unique identities.

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