I recall a science fiction story in which an astronaut freezes to death in his malfunctioning spacesuit during an expedition to sample the blazing surface of the Sun. That particular prefabricated irony is fictional. Another paradoxical misfortune, claustrophobia in the middle of a mostly deserted agora, is apparently all too real. I suffer it whenever I visit the comment’s sections of various blogs and find the participants in desperate rhetorical combat like maniacs with fire axes locked in a closet. Or maybe the better analogy would be an arm wrestling tournament in view of the limited number of strategic options available to the contestants. Granted the enormous number of points of view that can reasonably be taken about almost any public issue, it ought to be amazing that strangers have no trouble getting close enough to disagree. It ought to be amazing, but of course it isn’t. The meeting of minds, the butting of heads, is not a miracle. It’s an illusion. Which is also why the sands of the electronic arena are not soaked with even metaphorical blood, except by the rarest of accidents, because each combatant aims his blows not at the ideas of another person but at his idea of those ideas.
Looking up at the night sky, we often see a star near the moon; but we don’t brace for the shock of their imminent collision because we know that the objects never actually approach one another since the moon is next door to us while the star is hundreds of light years away. By the same token, we eventually learn that the protozoans or organelles that appear to be adjacent on the slide may not be in the same plane: the microscope’s shallowness of field squashes everything together. In these instances, a three-dimensional array is projected onto two dimensions. Discourse is like that. What’s called the public sphere is really a flat screen, a surface that distorts the proportions of the represented objects and creates shadow constellations on the walls of the cave.