On the boards, philologists! A metaphorical behavioral theory about moving in information floods

Bickenbach, Matthias; Maye, Harun: Metaphor Internet. Literary Education and Surfing. Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2009.

The monograph by literary and media scholars Matthias Bickenbach and Harun Maye has a twofold aim: on the one hand, the study aims to show how the understanding and handling of the medium of the Internet is essentially determined by the metaphor of surfing. The authors trace their media metaphorical observations back to a long literary tradition of nautical metaphors that had always stood for a bold use of knowledge. On the other hand, the authors thus make an educational claim by declaring surfing to be the appropriate media style of the Internet age. Ignoring more current Internet metaphors, the plea for a playful approach to information thus leads to a universalization of the nautical metaphoric.

"To the ships, you philosophers!", Nietzsche called in his Merry Science (IV. book, no. 289), to challenge 'rational' thinking oriented to the metaphors of solid ground. With this very exclamation, the authors of the present volume quote Nietzsche as a guarantor of the risky navigation in the boundless space of the World Wide Web, which has always been presented in metaphors: as a "net, as "cyberspace, as the "data highway", as a "sea of data (cf. S. 60). In debates about the Internet, a conspicuous metaphorization of the medium was noticed early on, the two literary and media scholars concede, "but for the most part, contributions on this topic move within the metaphors they use without treating them as metaphors" (S. 25).
German media theory, in particular, has often tended to ignore the imagery of its own speech by referring to the technical. On the other hand, a reflected, metaphorologically trained perspective on the medium is necessary, according to the authors' insight, which is welcome in all quarters, and they thus advocate the thesis – which is not new, but important – that the acceptance and implementation of new media depends on "guiding images depends on: "Without metaphors there is no communication via media" (S. 27). The metaphors in which the media are described are therefore of decisive importance.

Surfing as an absolute metaphor

Matthias Bickenbach and Harun Maye now claim that the Internet is essentially determined by nautical metaphors, which already have a long literary and also science poetic tradition (cf. S. 11). Especially "surfing as a metaphor and operation of dealing with large amounts of data" (S. 20) stands for an "operational media style" (ibid.), which qualifies the metaphor as a cultural model in the information society: navigating in the "sea of data" and the "liquid dealing with data (cf. S. 17). On this basis, the authors now want to examine the cultural-historical and heuristic significance of nautical metaphor in order to justify its plausibility and appropriateness for an adequate handling of the medium Internet.
In addition, they undertake some very readable excursions in literary and media studies to Herder, Goethe, Poe, London, McLuhan, and the cyberpunk authors – as the pre- and post-digital metaphors. surfers of the information society.
The claim of the excursions, however, is connected with a series of problems that the reader of this book, which is as instructive as it is entertaining, is confronted with. For, despite many surprising observations and stimulating thoughts about surfing as a style of locomotion in "liquid media At the end, it is not plausible why, of all things, "navigation or. the "surfing" an "absolute metaphor" (S. 39) of the Internet should be; respectively – why still.

Universalistic Anachronism

The nautical metaphor was dominant especially in the Internet of the 1990s as it extended into the naming of the software. But the Internet has developed further and with it its metaphors – in which also a changed role of the user is manifested. Thus, a universalization of the nautical metaphor seems strangely anachronistic for a reader in 2010: Who still says today that he "surfs"?, When reading 'newsfeeds,' 'blogging,' 'gambling,' 'posting,' 'streaming,' or 'tweeting'? The concentration on a historical media formation and its specific metaphor would be completely unproblematic if the plausibility of the entire argumentation – which, significantly, is mainly based on the science fiction and Internet literature of the past century – did not depend on the thesis of the universality of the surf metaphor. By completely ignoring the current development of the Internet and its metaphors in their promising book on the metaphor Internet, the authors lose sight of the historicity of the medium.

Naturalization of the medium

At the same time, they use the metaphor to perpetuate their naturalized view of the Internet: They address it as something naturally given: the "sea of data" (S. 26), in which the user can move as an 'explorer' of new digital territory, as a 'fisherman' of data, or even as a 'surfer' who surrenders to the thrill of the medium alone. However, only programmers or hackers have influence on the number and size of the streams that fill the sea.
Today, the user is no longer in this situation: the so-called Web 2.0 basically allows every Internet user to become a source, a channel, or even a sewage treatment plant of any number of information streams. Corresponding to this is an altered metaphoric. The new metaphors of social networks and swarm intelligence tend to address users as customers, collaborators, social beings or capital: as subscribers, peers, friends or crowds. Significantly, in the notion of blogger, the nautical metaphoric that still underlies it is barely discernible: The weblog, which arose from the intersection of the World Wide Web and the logbook, has been shortened to the blog. Bloggers also see themselves as journalists or entertainers rather than sailors or surfers.
While the metaphors of Web 2.0 obviously refer to the interactions between users, they cannot be grasped by the metaphor of surfing at all, or at least not any more. The surfer is always alone on his board.

In the maelstrom of metaphor

The hypostasis of the surfing metaphor thus acts like a whirlpool that pulls the various metaphor stories into a common center, like a plunge into the maelstrom – which is also the subject of one of the most important chapters of the book (cf. S. 119 ff.). In it, the authors interpret Poe's short story of the same name as a media-theoretical paradigm. After an all-out attack on his previous interpreters, who in their interpretation "almost obsessively perpetuate the history of the rhetorical figure (S. 123) because they only ever asked what the malstrom was and not how to escape it, the authors explain with McLuhan: "Poe's hero is a surfer (S. 126). In this way, however, they also offer only another interpretation of what the malstrom is: the flood of information from the media. Against the background of this original interpretation, one wonders whether Bickenbach and Maye succumbed to the pull of the metaphor. For contrary to their initial intention to "treat the metaphors" as metaphors (S. 25), they now seem to take surfing entirely for the 'actual' expression of the thing itself.

Media Metaphorical Essentialism

When the authors claim at the beginning: "The new medium Internet takes up this [nautical] metaphor and uses it for its self-description (S. 11), the book's basic style of argumentation, which could be called media metaphorical essentialism, already emerges: It suspends the question of the 'subject' of metaphor choice and its reasons in favor of a universalization of metaphor. With an obituary on the already antiquarian metaphor of the "data highway the authors attest the surfing metaphor a historical victory over the restrictive alternative to the liberal "sea of data". In doing so, they en passant not only fade out all other metaphors of a socialized internet. They also lose sight of the different actors and functions of metaphors in their concrete historical contexts.

Metaphor stories without origins

Although the political function of the fossil metaphor "information superhighway" (S but not its presumed originator Al Gore and his rhetorical strategy; its infrastructural context of origin is omitted, as is the experiential origin of the surfing metaphor. Only in a footnote on page 157 does the reader receive a hint as to when and by whom it was presumably first applied to the Internet. Although it is obviously known to the authors, they unfortunately do not tell the story about it. Remarkably, the footnote is in the context of a quote in which 'actual' surfers contest the metaphor because they consider the comparison of risky sport with clicking around on web pages to be strained. Bickenbach and Maye, on the other hand, defend the metaphor by referring to the inescapable facticity of the nautical trope, which "always has been" (S. 158) to "intellectual and poetological realms," the authors (S. 160) had been transferred.

Metaphorology as Catachresis

The book's claim to "treat the metaphors of the Internet" as metaphors (S. 25), promises – especially with the recourse to Hans Blumenberg, whose metaphorology supports the thesis of the "absolute metaphor" (p. 25) philosophically – a methodologically as well as theoretically well-founded investigation. The type of metaphor that communication via new media necessarily demands in the absence of suitable terms is described by Bickenbach and Maye either, with reference to ancient rhetoric, as a "catachresis" (S. 27) or, with reference to Blumenberg, as an "absolute metaphor" (S) (S. 39). A reflection on the relationship between the two terms, which are by no means identical, would have been very desirable and helpful, since they are associated with different presuppositions. Blumenberg's philosophical departure from the Aristotelian theory of metaphor is not discussed by the authors, nor is his thesis that "absolute metaphors" are not "metaphors" are historical and exhaust themselves at some point. Unlike Blumenberg in his study Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer (Shipwreck with Spectators) (Frankfurt am Main 1979), which is occasionally cited by the authors, they rather suggest an unbroken continuity and validity of nautical metaphorics. Thus they try to bring together the various metaphors and their transformations into a coherent image. This indeed turns out to be a catachresis – in the sense of an image break: for instance in the shape of a 'fishing surfer'.


With their monograph on the metaphor Internet, Matthias Bickenbach and Harun Maye have, despite all the difficulties and irritations discussed here, made an original contribution to relevant research. Anyone researching the metaphoricity of media and the poetics of surfing will not be able to avoid this publication on literary education and surfing, which is as rich in material as it is in thought. As a metaphorical behavioral lesson about moving in information floods, the study argues for a sporting approach to information. Those who heed this recommendation while reading this scintillating book will be able to hold their own on their surfing waves.

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