Toxic Knowledge and the Digital Pharmakon – Narratives of Dissemination, Leaks, and Disruption in the Digital Age

Investigator: Prof. Dr. Regina Schober

In this project I want to explore how conceptions, discourses, and narratives about the digital age have co-evolved with semantics of toxicity from the early days of the internet until today. As forms of ‘toxic knowledge’, so my working hypothesis, digital media have always been framed within narratives of dissemination, leaks, and disruption. As the internet has evolved, so has the metaphor of the toxic. There has been a shift in conceptualizing the digital as toxic, from regarding it as ‘pharmakon’ with its potential as a remedy to more reduced descriptions of digital media as hazardous risks. My goal is to examine this thesis by looking at different descriptions of the internet, ranging from the late 1960s and early 1970s up until today. These include newspaper articles, literature, audiovisual material, as well as online discourses itself. In my project I will build on Lawrence Buell’s concept of “toxic discourse” and its implications for considering the agency of both toxicity and its surrounding cultural discourse. Both toxicity and toxic discourse, one may argue, can be empowering and destructive, constituting both ‘a knowledge of failure’ and a ‘failure of knowledge’. A central concept for this project is that of “pharmakon,” as described by Jacques Derrida in his analysis of Socrates’s description of Plato’s Phaedrus (1983). Toxicity, in this context, is regarded both as a remedy and a poison – intricately connected with technologies of writing. This ambiguity has recently been discussed in relation to gender relations (e.g. Sara Crosby, “The Poisonous Muse,” 2016) as well as in relation to digital media (Bernard Stiegler, “digital pharmakon,” 2012). The internet and digital media have initially been associated with such ambiguous semantics of toxicity (see for example John Perry Barlow, “The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” 1996), while more recent discussions of the internet as toxic reduce it to its harmful effects of, for example, online hate speech and media addiction. Paradoxically, perhaps, the success of toxicity as a cultural concept and its discursive proliferation has produced the failure of its depth as a category of knowledge.