One of the central paradoxes of present day life is the centrality of Wikipedia in our lives. In an era of falling certainties, split identities, weakening home walls (compared to the sturdy walls of homes constructed 30 years back, with the idea of ‘forever’, as opposed to the flats today), and relativist paradoxes of knowledge, Wikipedia, through an apparent collaborative effort, seems to cognitively map the world and tries to grasp it as a whole. In fact, anybody with a faint knowledge of Internet would have inevitably been ‘wikified’: throw a nominal search word like cough or flood (though not sex) into Google, and you inevitably end up with a wiki definition on top of the search results. Since Google is the principle search engine of the world, one almost ends up his day controlled by a Google-Wikipedia nexus. It would not be a mistake to characterise this Google-Wikipedia nexus as the “big other” which controls our existence. What exactly do I mean when I call Wikipedia the big other?
We all, maybe except for the ‘psychotics’ and the ‘sociopaths’, get controlled and, therefore, go by the norms set by a certain symbolic order of the world. This means that our day-to-day existence is mediated by gestures which do not make sense to a rational-material understanding of the world. Zizek in an interesting lecture talks about this symbolic understanding of the world: when we talk to a person, in reality we may know that he farts, smells badly, has hair under his armpits and shits and urinates everyday. But our ‘normal’ perception of the person does not take into account these material realities, but is mediated by an idealised symbolic order. The person can be our lover, in which case, he maybe idealised and sublimated into a virtuous prince; the person can be our father or mother or child, in which case each of the material ‘reality’ of the person is mediated by a subjective idealised hue of that person making him or her specific to us. Thus a mother is precisely a mother because she is not a woman towards whom we can have carnal desires. The subjective idealised hue with which the woman who has given birth to us has been transformed into our mother also transforms our relationship with her. Our relationship with our mother is based on a behavioral code which makes each of us party to a contract with a strict code of conduct. The contract obligates the mother to ‘behave’ in a way the norm of motherhood requires of her and we are required to fulfill the duties required of normative sons or daughters. The irony of the contract is such that, although we think our relationship to our mother is based on ‘our’ love towards her, much of it is pre-determined by this contract of the symbolic realm which has given the woman the status of motherhood. Any deviation of the protocol, for example, a grand father’s molestation or a sexual liaison with the grand child is met with strict censure or a social boycott of the grand father precisely because of this reason. In short our day-to-day life is characterised by such symbolic idealisations whose ideological ramifications are pre-determined and beyond our rational control, although at the same time we also have subjective engagement with these idealisations. Thus when we call our lover, my baby, we not only sublimate the lover, which is the function of an imaginary idealisation outside our control, but also makes the lover our own, giving a sense a control over him.
This brings us to an important characteristic of the symbolic space: the symbolic space is the space of the law. It should be clear what it means to be party to the law. The law is the law of gestural sanctity, the deference to the norms, where by we do not grab our mothers or molest our grand children or have sex with our sons or daughters. In a less crude fashion the law is that protocol by which we arrange our day-to-day life according to the symbolic: a simple ‘hi’ to our friends or a handshake to a colleague encompasses a bid to integrate ourselves to this symbolic space firmly. One of the characteristics of a sociopath or a psychopath is his inability to understand the ‘meaning’ of this symbolic realm or gesture. In this sense a sociopath or a psychopath is a strict materialist.
That said, the symbolic space overwhelms our experiential realm more often than we think and any thought of escaping this realm to experience reality as such is mere wishful thinking. As the popular Marxist critique goes, we go to Starbucks or McDonald’s not merely to drink coffee, but also to be part of a social matrix which determines our status as middle-class citizens. Similarly, as good daughters or sons we go to church not because we believe in god, but because we do not want to upset our believing parents. As good parents, our parents get upset when we do not go to church not because they really believe that we should go to church, but because they think we will get upset, if they do not get upset at we skipping church. As Zizek says, this cyclical game goes on, through the symbolic matrix of life. In a sense, Marxism’s attempt, in terms of the commodity, is to get rid of this symbolic matrix, which Marxism characterises as commodity fetishism. Once we get rid of this fetish, we will only be confronted by a commodity’s use value: a music player would only be a music player and not an iPod (notice the symbolism in the way iPod is written).
However, the critique and escape from the symbolic realm is not only difficult, as one might think, it is literally impossible. For example, the fact of my malehood, my gender and its characterisations, is determined by this symbolic space, which includes my name, the way I use my urinal and the way I look at people daily. My gender and its normative characterisations are, therefore, a symbolic mediation through which my subjectivity as a male and the way I interact with the world around is determined. Any disruption of the symbolic space cannot happen without simultaneously rewriting my subjective existence or the social space in which I inhabit. The impossibility is, therefore, an impossibility of ours and our social space’s existence in the present form. Derrida would characterise such an impasse as aporia, a deadlock, from which we can hope to escape only by rewriting existing protocols and norms that is the law itself.
Now that we have a context through which to understand the symbolic, I want to repose the original question. Is Wikipedia, fast occupying the space of the big other and is it determining our symbolic day-to-day existence? I will provide some leads through which one can even begin to analyse this phenomenon. For example, I want you to look at a Wikipedia article, in this case an entry on the caste Nair. The article starts with the assertion that-
“Nair (Malayalam: നായര്, pronounced [naːjar]), is the name of a Hindu forward caste from the southern Indian state of Kerala. They are a Kshatriya caste of Kerala belonging to the Nagavanshi order.”
The article clearly and unambiguously suggests that “Nair” is a forward caste belonging to the Kshatriya community, a mythical warrior community in India. But numerous sociologists have stated and proved that “Nairs”, along with other upper castes in India like Reddys and Kayasths are in fact “shudras”, a hierarchically lower order compared to the “kshatriya” status claimed in the wiki article, and their rise in caste hierarchy (not varna hierarchy) is the result of their proximity to the coloniser, the British, in India. To add to this ambiguity, the discussion page of the same article has suggested unequivocally that “Nairs” are in fact shudras and has made a proposal to change the same in the article. In spite of these assertions in the “unconscious” (discussion page as the reservoir of the truth which is suppressed) of the article itself, the public space, the article itself, demonstrates a compliance to the obverse norms of the symbolic space: an anxiety to keep up with appearances. Any attempt to “correct” the article, and change the status of “Nairs” to “shudras”, would immediately be thwarted. The article would have seemingly changed back to the “kshatriya” status in minutes. This makes Wikipedia qualify itself for one of the primary characteristics of the big other: its status as the symbolic space which determines our reality and its illusory promise of a subjective space in it. It redetermines the subjective status of “Nairs” across the world, by redefining and creating their history as “khshatriyas”, when at the same time providing an illusory editorial freedom for any one reading the article.
This is one of the articles I am familiar with, and there are several contentious articles whose neutrality can be questioned in the same fashion: articles on Jews, holocaust, various other castes, science etc. can be interrogated to find out the myth of the neutrality that Wikipedia touts as its fundamental quality. Wikipedia’s stated policy of maintaining neutrality and providing a NPOV (neutral point of view), is in fact an attempt to comply with the symbolic realm, which is the realm of the law. One of the most popular cases which illustrate Wikipedia’s status as the big other is, of course, the Wikipedia article on Jimmy Wales himself. The entry according to an article in the LRB by David Runciman (yes it is still possible to site a non-Wikipedia source), details
“the claims of a…girlfriend, the Canadian conservative columnist Rachel Marsden, that she only discovered he (Jimmy Wales) was ending his relationship with her by reading about it on Wikipedia.”
This incident points towards how even an intersubjective relationship is mediated by the presence of the symbolic big other: break up, like love has to be mediated in the symbolic order. Only this time, the symbolic order was Wikipedia. Since our day-to-day knowledge horizon is almost always determined by Wikipedia, the question I want to ask is how much of our subjective and objective world of the law, the symbolic order, is Wikified? What are the ideological effects of this Wiki effect on us and the social space in which we inhabit? How much is it important to resist the Google-Wikipedia nexus which has the power to determine our day-to-day existence?
Wikipedia is not without its critics. Some of the contentious arguments around Wikipedia can be found in Antipedia, an article by Anil Dash. Similarly, attempts to formulate resistance strategies against Wikipedia can be found at http://www.wikipedia-watch.org. A whole entry on Jason Scott’s issues with the Wikipedia article on swastika can be found here and a more technical analysis here.
These strategies illustrate how politically contentious our symbolic sphere is after all, and the seeming stability of our symbolic sphere, a closure of sorts, is actually a wound ready to be split open any moment. The symbolic sphere can, therefore, at any moment be severely intruded by the invasion of the “real”, which constantly shows us the periliousness of our existence, the seeming fruitlessness of our very living, which is characterised by depression of various sorts in our life. In effect, a plea for long-live Wikipedia is in fact our fragile plea to hang on to our life in all its illusory beauty. People love to get wikified.