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Meanland: Shocking encounters with the (virtual) Real

Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool – by Andy MiahIt would be safe to say that, thanks to the acknowledged horrors of cyberspace (see ‘Internet child pornography a growing problem’ or ‘Terrorists Take Recruitment Efforts Online’, for starters), our view of the wonders of the brave new world of the internet is becoming increasingly less sanguine. As the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek observed in an interview seven years ago, the digital world has ‘a radically ambiguous status’:

Cyberspace is both a way of escape from traumas and a way to formulate traumas […] On the one hand there is the danger of being caught in a kind of imaginary internal circular movement, but, on the other, cyberspace opens up a space for encountering the Real.

Žižek’s central concept of the Real – developed after Jacques Lacan’s le réel, with a generous helping of Hegel and a dash of Kant – denotes ‘the traumatic dimension which we foreclose in our reality’. In Žižek’s more mainstream writings, this dangerous dimension of an entity (be it in the mind or in a social body) is most clearly exemplified in psychopaths and monsters of horror movies. And although, according to Žižek, cyberspace has at times been viewed rather naively as a place for escape from the shortcomings of daily life – ‘a limitless horizon of free-flowing digitalization, indeterminacy, choices and so on’ – it has also been the place where one can come face to face with rather unsettling, even traumatic things.

In this post, I’d like to look at the instances in which I’ve had to deal with such upsetting encounters as a writer. The common wisdom apropos of writing and the internet has often emphasised the undeniable artistic, publishing and networking opportunities offered by the digital world; but my experience as a writer in the age of cyberspace has entailed a few harrowing, or at least unpleasant, meetings with dark apparitions on murky websites. Although, as with my other blogs for the Meanland project, I should hope the argument of this piece is not too conclusive, nevertheless the aim is that what follows will raise some awareness of the dangers of writers wandering carelessly into the shady labyrinths of the internet.

Negative reviews can be very hurtful, particularly for new and emerging writers. And while a negative review in a print publication can vanish into the periodical archives of the very few university libraries that adequately archive literary journals – or get scanned and entombed in electronic databases that are only accessed by researchers and disinterested students – a negative online review can hang around and haunt one’s consciousness like an angry, implacable ghost. When my first, laboriously self-published book eliXir: a story in poetry (2002) received its first, online review, the reviewer, after admitting that ‘[i]t is difficult, as a critic, to tear apart a poem or series of poems’, went on to describe my precious labour of love as ‘bad poetry’, ‘bad writing’, ‘headache provoking’, ‘a shame’ and, finally, ‘the random and completely unedited musings of a drugged person’. Although the online journal where this wondrous review first appeared seems to have all but disappeared, the review itself was available online until last year, and tormented me every time I succumbed to the temptations of vanity and typed my name into a search engine. (And it can still be purchased online via Amazon.)

Then there were the comments posted on YouTube following a short clip of me reading two poems for the electronic video-only poetry journal The Continental Review. One anonymous commenter claimed that I had ‘plagerised [sic.] an entire paragraph of [theirs] that [the commenter] helped [me] write after [I] promised to give credit for it but for which [I] never did’. Baffling as the logic of this use of the concept of plagiarism is – how could I have plagiarised something that I myself had written, with or without another’s putative help? – the fact remains that the word ‘plagiarism’ can have serious, even devastating consequences, and I found it frustrating that such an accusation could be made without any accountability – or any respect for correct spelling and syntax – by an obviously vindictive, albeit nameless, individual. Needless to say, such a thing could only occur in cyberspace where anonymity, resentment and contempt (for, among other things, proofreading) reign supreme.

My most worrying online encounter with something that I had successfully barred from my reality took place when a poem of mine was copied from the e-journal where it had originally appeared and was posted on an Australian Islamic website by yet another of the shadowy spectres that seem to bedevil the internet.

I am, and have always been, an atheist – and I was thrilled to escape from the Islamic Republic of Iran partly for this very reason – and I therefore have grave misgivings about being portrayed as a Muslim. What bothered me far more than my feelings regarding this inaccurate depiction – and the appropriation of my work, without my consent, by a religious group – was the possible legal implication of such a misrepresentation. At the time of my becoming aware of this incident, I was living and working in the United Arab Emirates, a country that – despite or perhaps precisely because of its wholehearted adherence to free market capitalism, hyper-consumerism, brutal exploitation of migrant workers, and so on – is in many ways a culturally conservative, outwardly religious country which practices Sharia law.

According to Sharia law, the so-called religious crime of apostasy is punishable, in some places (such as the Emirates’ neighbour, Saudi Arabia), by public beheading. When applying for a mandatory local Emirati ID card, I had informed the country’s officials that I did not have a religion. After becoming aware of the Australian Islamic website’s unrequited appropriation of me as one of their own, I realised that I could now appear as someone who had once been a Muslim and had then left the faith: an apostate. The thought of being outed as an enemy of Islam by someone with a grudge against me – eg one of the students I had failed due to actual plagiarism – was enough to augment my insomnia on many nights. And as is the case with such paranoiac delusions, I was gripped with enough fear to stop myself from asking the Australian Islamic website to remove my name and work, lest this result in my being seen as an enemy of the religion. Upon returning to Australia, one of the first things I did was contacting the website and asking them, in no uncertain terms, to remove me from their propaganda, something that, to their credit, they were rather quick to do.

These examples of fear and loathing on the internet may appear insignificant, but claims made by online detractors can seriously impact on an author’s career and standing, as was (almost) the case with the claims made, in 2005, on an American literary blog about the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare. While I have not as yet been subjected to anything of this magnitude – perhaps because I am nowhere near as famous and/or talented as Kadare – the above experiences have made me somewhat wary of narcissistically browsing the internet for views and comments about my work. In our age of digital information and/or misinformation, ignorance may well be bliss.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Ali Alizadeh’s latest book, Transactions, has been longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. His previous books have been shortlisted for the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award and NSW Premier’s Literary Award. He lectures at Monash University.

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  1. It does all seem to boil down to “cyberspace opens up a space for encountering the Real.”

    This is surprising given how unreal cyberspace is when it comes to human interaction. In cyberspace, users have fewer inhibitions, there’s no need for shyness, there’s no capacity (usually) for reading human emotions that are reserved for body language and tone, you have all the time you need to respond to others… Come to think of it, it’s a little like being drunk.

    But all this stuff means, for me at least, that because of the ‘buffer’ I never expect to experience real emotional responses to otherwise almost clinical, cold cyber interactions. And so I’m always surprised at myself and at the situation when I inevitably do! And I shouldn’t be because I know how powerful words can be.

    Given all the wonderful access people finally have to our work, there’s bound to be more instances of the misuse and misinterpretation of it. And I can totally relate to being worried about how you might be inaccurately perceived and persecuted by certain communities because of somebody’s misreading (and stealing, really) of your work. I think that ‘paranoia’ seed is implanted in all of us who’s families left Iran. I’m sorry you had to experience that awkward situation and I hope that stuff never stops you from writing what’s in your heart.

    • Many thanks, Tara. I also find my responses surprising, but perhaps it’s precisely because, as you say, we expect the internet to be a cold, clinical, and therefore innocuous environment that we’re caught off guard by the violence of this sort of thing.

      I think we should see the internet not as a postmodern imaginary dimension of free and fluid communication but instead as a scene where quite real, tangible encounters can take place, for better or for worse. (And I’m also sure the memory of growing up in Iran doesn’t help with one’s levels of paranoia either …)

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