Culture and Anarchy, from Matthew Arnold to the Internet

Curator's Note

In "Networks before the Internet," my contribution to the InFocus section addressed by this week's In Media Res, I sketched a number of historical precedents that continue to shape our contemporary "network imaginary." By this, I'm referring to a set of concepts that imagines reality as "networked," as (following the language of graph theory) made up of nodes, connected together by edges, and--most significantly, and diverging from the claims of graph theory--mainteined by the circulation of some flowing substance that moves between the nodes and edges of the network. Today, this substance is usually information or data, but not always. This imaginary predates anything directly associated with the internet, but is itself derived from a number of material forms, inclding manufactured netting, blood circulation, and the telegraph.

One of the most striking representations of this imaginary in recent years is from Edgar Wright's 2013 film The World's End, which also suggests a possible exhaustion of this network imaginary. What I want to suggest here is that, nearly 50 years after the birth of ARPANET, the set of beliefs that tend to characterize how the internet is imagined are gradually becoming "residual" (to use a term of Raymond Williams). Part of this has to do with how the network imaginary has, perhaps suprisingly, been linked with an historical opposition between "culture" and "anarchy," that old imperial dichotmy from Matthew Arnold that has long characterized a particular understanding of the humanities. The World's End is significant because it makes this seemingly suprising link overt.

The final film of Wright's Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (which includes Sean of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), The World's End is a genre pastiche. It takes a realtively standard sci-fi alien invasion plot and makes it into a relationship comedy. These questions about social relations (and espcially masculine social relations and friendships) are the unifying link between all three Cornetto films. In Wright's words, all three are "Trojan horses" that use pastiche to disguise the real interest of the trilogy: are three are about "the individuals in a collective, they’re all about growing up and they’re all about the dangers of perpetual adolescence."

The clip I've included here, which is from near the end of the film, makes these themes somewhat explicit. The characters played by Cornetto standards Simon Pegg and Nick Frost drunkedly discover that the alien invation they've been witness to has been orchestrated by "The Network." Voiced by Bill Nighy, The Network promises to replace humans with perfected, idealized versions of themselves. Humans, it tells us, "are children" who "require guidance. There is no room for imperfection." The growth and cultivation of network technology, it implies, will lead human beings to a more refined, perfected, and connected state.

This scene strikes me as a strange, contemporary rewrite of Arnold. An influential British poet, essayist, and school inspector, the arguments collected in his 1869 Culture and Anarchy still seem to describe how certain individuals understand the point of a humanities education--reading and knowing "great books," art, poetry, and so on, makes one a pacified, upstanding citizen (rather than unwashed rabble). Arnold was central for the development of a worldview that saw "culture," meaning a wide range of things but, centrally, the "best that has been thought and said" (or, in other words, the Western cultural tradition). To be "cultured" was to seek perfection through the study and knowledge of "culture," which Arnold contrasted with the "anarchy" of drunken individualism.

In his essential analysis of Arnold, Raymond Williams notes how "Arnold was an excellent analyst of the deficiencies of the gospel of 'doing what one likes,'" and instead saw "the State as the agent of general perfection." But this is why I find The World's End so fascinating, and so perplexing. What it seems to represent (and satirize) is a version of Arnold that replaces the State with the Network. Instead of cultivation by education and pastoral governance, cultivation is now enacted through the maintenance of mediated social relations, of flows of information, of the technological "governance" of proper behavior.

This is a rather strange reinvention of Arnold's claims. Rather than the humanities as a means to "cultivate" and govern, we now have Facebook. Given this historial reinvention, The World's End implies, in a sense, that the role of the state and education has been replaced by social media and the internet. But, as the end of the film indicates--Pegg and Frost refuse the will and promise of The Network and trigger the apocalypse--this "cultivation," much like other historial definitions of "civilization," generates its own discontents. 

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