The Paradigm Shift Rate
Ted Nelson

Labyrinths and Internet

Fascinating, and frustrating, posting at things magazine: I'm not sure why the advent of 'global communications technology' is seen as leading to the demise of reliquaries, and I certainly don't date the going of the 'divine on the defensive' to about a 100 years ago — that's being going on since at least the sixteenth century. As Cornelius Ernst (see here, paras 6 & 7; Tim's address), my favourite twentieth century theologian, puts it: 'I cannot think of a single clerical philosopher of real distinction since the Middle Ages (and whether it is appropriate to speak of any medieval thinker as a 'philosopher' is of course problematic)'.

But I was interested by this (thanks to Matt Webb for drawing my attention to it):

The internet feels like a giant reliquary at times. … The web is also like being stuck in a giant uncatalogued library, with every dusty shelf offering up hidden treasures; you just have to hunt for them. Our mental picture is a combination of the Gormenghastian, before the great fire, and the octagonal library in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. The latter was apparently inspired by the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, a brutalist construction by Mathers and Haldenby, in collaboration with Warner Burns Toan & Lunde. The library does have a medieval aspect , a fortress of knowledge (according to the Wikipedia, one of its nicknames is 'Fort Book'. It's also the subject of the widespread 'sinking library' urban legend).

Eco's fictional medieval library was strongly influenced by
Jorge Luis Borges, in particular the Argentinian's Library of Babel, an unfolding, labyrinthine, almost infinite space, that apparently contained all knowledge:

'When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope.'

… Perhaps the internet is also best understood as a dual system (and not just the DOS vs Mac hierarchy that Eco playfully compared to religion back in 1994). We suggest that rather than just a cabinet of curiosities (the traditional wunderkammer remains a popular web metaphor), the internet is in fact a combination of reliquary and labyrinth, both a maze of one's own making and a receptacle for wonder, a place where getting lost is a self-conscious act, portals act as balls of twine, to be unwound or ignored at your peril.

The internet as 'a receptacle for wonder': I linked last year to something Matt Jones posted about awe and wonder and the net. The image of the net as labyrinthine library containing all knowledge makes me think of Dante's great image in the Paradiso (Canto XXXIII; Borges' fantastical library of course recalls this, in deliberately distorted form), when he looks into the heart of the eternal light and 'Within its depths I saw ingathered, bound by love in one volume, the scattered leaves of all the universe' ('Nel suo profondo vidi che s' interna, / legato con amore in un volume, / ciò che per l'universo si squaderna', Temple Classics translation).

'Reliquary' I am less sure about. I think it more useful at this point to do more work on the net-as-memory (individual +) and on what light might be (unexpectedly) shed upon this by studies such as Penelope Reed Doob's The Idea of the Labyrinth — which dedicates some pages to the relationship between labyrinth imagery and medieval understanding of memory and memory practices (on which, I recall, there's Mary Carruthers' book, The Book of Memory, amongst much else). Gabriel Josipovici years ago drew attention to the labyrinth as 'the favourite image of modern literature', 'the mazes of Kafka, Proust, Beckett, Borges and Robbe-Grillet' (The World and the Book). It takes me further than I meant to go in this post, but I can't resist quoting this from Gabriel's book:

In place of Dante's ordered journey we find ourselves involved with heroes who wander without map or compass along paths which are endless for the simple reason that we would not recognise the end even if we came to it. … there is no emergence for the heroes of modern fiction from the labyrinths of reflecting mirrors and demonic analogy. At the end they are no nearer the exit than they were at the beginning. All they have done is move through all the arteries of the labyrinth. Yet this, if they but knew it, is both the exit and the answer. … the writing was the travelling.
Unlike Dante, we have no vantage point from which to 'look back, standing on solid ground, over the winding uphill way, with its little figures of men and women dotted about at various stages of their own ascent' (The World and the Book). The internet, without end, is our own faithfully reflecting mirror, or demonic analogy.