Proud to be Flesh

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In late 1994, back in the days of dial-up modems and Netscape Navigator 1.0, Mute magazine announced its timely arrival. Dedicated to an analysis of culture and politics 'after the net', Mute has consistently challenged the grandiose claims of the communications revolution, debunking its utopian rhetoric and offering more critical perspectives.

Fifteen years on, Mute Publishing and Autonomedia are delighted to announce the publication of Proud to be Flesh: A Mute Magazine Anthology of Cultural Politics after the Net. The anthology selects representative articles from the magazine's hugely diverse content to reprise some of its recurring themes. This expansive collection charts the perilous journey from Web 1.0 to 2.0, contesting the democratisation this transition implied and laying bare our incorporeal expectations; it exposes the ways in which the logic of technology intersects with that of art and music and, in turn and inevitably, with the logic of business; it heralds the rise of neoliberalism and condemns the human cost; it amplifies the murmurs of dissent and revels in the first signs of collapse. The result situates key – but often little understood – concepts associated with the digital (e.g. the knowledge commons, immaterial labour and open source) in their proper context, producing an impressive overview of contemporary, networked culture in its broadest sense.

Proud to be Flesh features a bold mix of essays, interviews, satirical fiction, email polemics and reportage from an array of international contributors working in art, philosophy, technology, politics, cultural theory, radical geography and more. Accessible introductions, a chronological arrangement of chapters and three full-colour image sections grant special insight into the evolution of key themes over time.

In its refusal of specialisation, Proud to be Flesh is unique in its field. It offers a compelling view onto the messy but exciting moment that was the turn of the millennium as well as being an incomparable sourcebook for those seeking to push forward analysis of the global crisis that has since ensued.

ISBN Hardback: 978-1-906496-27-2

ISBN Softback: 978-1-906496-28-9

Date of Publication: 4/11/2009

624 page

Content placement: 

Introduction - Proud To Be Flesh

Proud to be Flesh Cover

Introduction to Proud to be Flesh



Pauline van Mourik Broekman and Simon Worthington


The distillation of 15 years of Mute magazine content into one book has been a mammoth task, requiring what sometimes felt like a lifetime’s worth of re-reading, re-evaluating and searching for consensus, as we pulled apart our print and web archives and put them together again in a variety of constellations. When this process started, in 2002, we were working towards a very different anthology – provisionally titled White Cube, Blue Sky – which covered the relationship between net art and conceptual art (a subject receiving scant analysis back then and, we felt, pregnant with potential vis à vis the dearth of critically historicised readings of digital art and culture on offer). That particular compilation sadly fell victim to the resource-hogging juggernaut that is day-to-day magazine production, but its legacy is woven deep into this volume and remains most evident in the chapter entitled ‘From Net Art to Conceptual Art and Back’. This present incarnation of the anthology is indebted to Michael Corris who, acting as co-editor to Simon Ford, Josephine Berry Slater and Pauline on that earlier project, lent both historical insight and the all-important spur for us to re-orientate the book into a reflection of the magazine itself.

Proud to be Flesh is not a ‘Best of Mute’. Rather, it treats the entire back catalogue of Mute as its critical arena, exploring how the voices and ideas to which the magazine has played host crystallised into a set of distinct themes through which ‘culture and politics after the net’ (the magazine’s strapline since 2002) might be understood. Crudely put, this rounded on the utopian claims made for digital technologies in general and the internet in particular, subjecting them to a deepening critique, which ever more explicitly considered the socio-economic context created by capitalism. A typical example is the promise of democratic empowerment, via engagement with new media, which reverberated across a continuum from art to politics (discussed here in the chapters ‘Democracy and its Demons’ and ‘The Open Work’). Similarly, the emancipatory figures of the cyborg and, later, the immaterial labourer were said to augur a break in historical time with far-reaching consequences or gender, creativity and work – claims which are dealt with in ‘I, Cyborg’ and ‘Reality Check: Class and Immaterial Labour’. Concepts which emerged when internet discourse had ‘matured’, but which nonetheless accrued near sacred status as instances of a kind of public good – such as the information commons and, extending into the realm of social movements, horizontal organisation and openness – are tackled in the chapters ‘Of Commoners and Criminals’ and ‘Organising Horizontally’.

All of these themes will be more or less familiar from broader discourses on digital culture. Less immediately obvious are those topics that might be attributed to Mute’s location in London, the global heart of the financial services sector and the ‘creative economy’, a frontier space for the aggressive pioneering of neoliberal policies, from the nation state’s management of the arts to urban development and social cohesion. This necessitated an analysis of the civic assault suffered under the aegis of ‘regeneration’ and the antinomies of multiculturalism, and of artists’ insinuation into business agendas (detailed in ‘Under the Net: The City and the Camp’ and ‘Assuming the Position: Art and/Against Business’ respectively).

By arranging the content of each chapter chronologically, we hope to convey the sense of an evolving conversation and the structural effect certain texts and authors had on the magazine’s editorial (which explains some multiple appearances). And, while chapters tend to possess a germ, or concentration point, in particular periods, they also span our publication history, demonstrating the lasting import of their core questions and generating interesting parallels between ‘early’ and ‘late’ Mute, not all of which were conscious.

Looking back at some of the moments that defined production – at the back-end, as it were – the magazine’s history can quite easily be made to fit a certain clichéd image of a ’90s creative project. From the negotiations we conducted with the pre-print department at Pearson media group – to use the Financial Times’ purpose-built plant in Docklands on a test run – to the graft we put into cleaning an old, urine-soaked telephone exchange for the magazine’s launch party and the manner in which we subsidised our publishing activities with a mixture of commercial work and government aid, Mute looks every inch the do-it-yourself entrepreneurial venture valorised in creative economy doctrine.

And, in many respects, it has been; aside from running as an actual business (rather than a volunteer collective, for example), the magazine’s foundational connection to the subjects of art and technology situated our work at the same nexus the British state sought to occupy as it amorously embraced the model of an ‘immaterial’ economy driven by creativity, knowledge and networks. Gradually moving eastwards from Shoreditch to Brick Lane and then Whitechapel (all of which saw local communities outpriced and displaced by a rapidly expanding ‘new’ economy hungry for office, retail and leisure space), even the Mute office resided at the juncture between the digital economy’s public façade and its underside – now dramatically visible as the global economy succumbs under the weight of its own contradictions.

Acknowledgements? It is hard to know where to begin… Mute has taken many forms, often in the name of professionalisation, but we have spectacularly failed to terminate the intimate connection between life and work. Loves have been found and lost, passions ignited, children born, and partners and parents have stepped into the breach. To attain even the smallest degree of veracity for this story, the definitive influence of the people involved must be foregrounded. From early editors, like Suhail Malik, James Flint and Jamie King (or even before them, Tina Spear, Daniel Jackson and Paul Miller), to what must be the longest-running editorial team of the magazine’s life (Hari Kunzru – with us pretty much since the beginning – plus Matthew Hyland, Demetra Kotouza, Benedict Seymour, Anthony Iles and Josephine Berry Slater, the latter three responsible for unstinting efforts in arguing the toss over the inclusions and exclusions of this book), to long-time designers Damian Jaques and Laura Oldenbourg, sales manager Lois Olmstead, and the countless individuals who either pitched to us or responded positively to pitches from us; it is these people’s ideas and collective modus operandi that have functioned as the engine of development.

Mute has run treatises on the plight of student interns in its pages, but we are not above accepting their generosity and Proud to be Flesh has enjoyed significant contributions from Hilary Crowe, Stefano di Cecco, Lars Dittmer, Paul Graham, Kate Guarente, Caroline Heron, Charlotte Levins, Hannah Marshall, Olga Panades, Joanne Roberts and Erin Welke in everything from archive mining to proofing.

To say this book has had a chequered history is an understatement: it has travelled from pillar to post, falling foul of mergers and acquisitions, new editorial directions and mysterious silences. Support was shown by Arts Council England and the British Academy, both of whom subsidised the anthology early on and who have proven among the most patient of funders. The last two years of gestation have seen Autonomedia show equal perserverance, and faith, in helping us keep the end in sight.

On the home straight, with Mute’s editorial contingent intensely pre-occupied (Pauline giving birth to baby Violet and Josie working flat out on the magazine), Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt granted this book the final bout of intensive care, attention to detail and good judgement it needed, aided and abetted by Kyle McCallum. Long-time contributor, John Barker, also offered us the unanticipated luxury of an index. We’re eternally grateful for their last-minute agreements to participate. To have designers as perspicacious and text-obsessed as Sarah Newitt and Fraser Muggeridge to translate all this work into one coherent package has been the icing on the cake.

Finally, thanks to the ‘constructively’ critical but always serious family members who have followed – and supported – Mute’s winding path: Ernest, Kiddy, Ciska, Ritzo, Pam, Howard W., Raquel, Howard S. and Anthony. We know where you live.

Disgruntled Addicts – Mute Magazine and its History

Josephine Berry Slater


Mute magazine was born, somewhere between art school anomie and the thrill of the World Wide Web’s appearance, in 1994. Looking back at the magazine’s history on its 15th birthday, its most constant feature seems to be its wilful eclecticism and ceaseless criticality – something which, over the years, has got it into all kinds of trouble commercially, politically and with its varied readership. This concerted battle against the dominant logic of specialisation or static identity is perhaps the trace element of its founders’ art school backgrounds at the Slade and Central Saint Martins.

Simon Worthington and Pauline van Mourik Broekman knew practically nothing about publishing or journalism when they set out to make Mute. But, as artists working in the post-conceptual era in which the requirement to master a medium was lessening, they were primed and ready for practically anything. Inspired by the broader cultural experimentation at play (from DIY culture, to nomadic ‘briefcase art’, to the techno-aesthetics of magazines as varied as Mediamatic, Underground and Mondo 2000), they were looking for ways to break out of the conformist pseudo-activity of gallery and institutional art. Nevertheless, the desire to explore and analyse contemporary life in all its complexity – which could involve maintaining several conflicting ideas about something simultaneously, often resulting in a position of both criticism and support – could be seen as an overwhelmingly artistic approach that remains with Mute to this day. This refusal to unconditionally embrace a genre, discipline or political position is not only at odds with the niched requirements of the market, but also often with political and artistic tribes.

Mute’s stance of engaged criticality also seems to have characterised Pauline’s attitude to art in the early-’90s. As she tells it, she was a ‘disgruntled addict’ of art, sickened by the UK art world’s Thatcherite values in an era in the thrall of artists like Damien Hirst, but avidly following it nonetheless, scouring the scene for signs of activity at odds with the circus. Perhaps less preoccupied with the art world’s schizophrenic attempts to retain critical legitimacy in its phase of high commercialism, Simon was drawn to the greener pastures of the datasphere. Soon, both began to see the web as offering the possibility to do things otherwise, to elude the stultifying structures of official culture while at the same time acting on a global stage. This techno-social revolution in the individual’s ability to publish and access unfiltered information – to communicate globally without the mediating presence of elite gatekeepers – seemed to be having little impact on an art world obsessed with itself, its new found mass media appeal and Tracey Emin’s dirty laundry. Accordingly, Pauline and Simon identified a new editorial genre: ‘Digital Art Critique’.

From a small flat in West London, the by now paradigmatic ‘home office’ they shared, a marvellously hybrid bird of publishing paradise emerged. The first eight issues of Mute appeared somewhat quarterly, in broadsheet format and on salmon pink paper. Printed on the Financial Times’ own press, they spliced the austere conventions of 18th century newsprint typography with vector-based computer graphics, wacky fonts and articles on digital art and post-humanism. This retro-futurist gesture of covering the ‘information superhighway’ and its cultures on now historical newsprint was an unexpectedly popular bit of hype deflation. Mute’s ‘Proud to be Flesh’ slogan fired another salvo at the Cartesian/Gibsonian fantasy of ‘jacking into’ cyberspace and leaving the ‘meat’ behind. The spectres of pink paper and flesh were wielded against the rising crescendo of cybermania which would climax in the dotcom bubble of the late-’90s.

Beneath the playfulness, Mute was advancing trenchant critiques of what these dreams of disembodiment and immateriality belied. Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron’s text, ‘The Californian Ideology’, made an important contribution to this endeavour, exposing the neoliberalism and neo-Darwinism which lay behind Wired magazine-style celebrations of cyberspace and ‘bottom up’ phenomena. The image by CORP on Vol 1 #5’s cover proclaimed the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ over a graphic of glass and steel office blocks and three flying computer keys – a reference to the expansion of work into daily life that digital technologies enable. Many years later, our ‘Underneath the Knowledge Commons’ issue, which carried a picture of a merry-go-round driven by flesh-and-blood work horses buried underneath it, would riff on a related theme – while elites experience the fruits of networked communication, the majority encounter an intensification of labour as managerial controls tighten and the ease of capital flight forces threatened workers to graft harder for less.

Focusing on the unsung, exploitative effects of new technologies, Mute has also consistently examined the unintended fallout from capitalism’s constant development of the forces of production – and by this I mean something more than the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. The internet, of course, is a tremendous case in point. Information piracy, peer-to-peer file sharing, ‘plunderphonics’ and plagiarism are all ways in which capitalism’s ability to create scarcity and control the commodity has been damaged by the net – that great, universal copying machine. Mute’s focus was increasingly the cultural practitioners and political activists – net artists and ‘hacktivists’ – who ‘misused’ the online environment to thwart attempts to own and control information and, hence, social knowledge and experience.

In 1997, some of Mute’s expanded editorial board – which by then included Hari Kunzru, Suhail Malik, James Flint, Jamie King and myself – took part in a presentation and workshop series at Documenta X called HybridWorkspace. This workspace, together with a net art installation elsewhere in the exhibition, were the first ever online and net art inclusions in a blue-chip, blockbuster art event. However, after the show was over, the organisers closed the Documenta site and saved the data onto discs which they then attempted to sell. But, participating net artist Vuk C´osic´ć had foreseen this and taken the precaution of saving the entire site to another address [], making it publicly available as soon as the official site had closed. The ability of this new generation of web users to outwit the lumbering and proprietorial procedures of institutions and companies using digital tools created a window of opportunity and hope. The feeling that capitalism was a step behind its own state of the art technology created a rush of enthusiasm for alternative and anti-capitalist agendas.

To some degree, Mute attempted to manoeuvre itself within the commercial landscape of magazine publishing with comparable pragmatism and tactics. In 1997, we took the decision to come out as a quarterly glossy magazine, to situate ourselves on the news shelf (categorised, for want of any more suitable section, as ‘men’s lifestyle’), and to punt for some big advertising. From today’s perspective, it seems astonishing that we should have ever persuaded Silk Cut to pay for a double page, full colour ad in Vol 1 #8, our first glossy. It also seems astonishing that, at that tender age, we had faith in the prospect that Mute could garner enough popular appeal to become part of a mainstream media diet. Surrounded by a deluge of new lifestyle titles (Dazed & Confused, Adbusters, Wired UK), it felt like Mute might ride in their slipstream, buoyed by the growing enthusiasm for digital culture and our savvy, sassy approach. This strategy would also prevent us from becoming a service journal to the new media art scene, and open the door to taking a broader view on how technology affects all of life, not just certain discrete areas.

However, this desire to hack the commercial stratum of publishing did nothing to quell the disgruntlement and intellectual ambition of the magazine. Pauline’s editorial in Vol 1 #8 marked us out from the dotcom cheerleaders, by commenting on the ‘epitaphs’ already being laid at the ‘grave of the digital revolution’. The same issue also carried a meaty section on the maturing discourse of cyberfeminism, included a rave-inspired fashion shoot, my article on outsider art, bearing the title ‘How a Logic Logiced the System’, and Matthew Fuller’s piece on agent technology with sub-headings like ‘Backzoom: From Self-absorbed to Self-dissolved’. Hardly mainstream fare then.

By the eve of the millennium, our predictions and dreams of two years earlier were proven to have been misplaced in both cases. The Silk Cut ads had tailed off sharply; but, on the other hand, the ‘digital revolution’ was converging with street activism to dramatic effect. While, for many, the November 1999 demonstration against the WTO in Seattle marks the consolidation of the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement, the Carnival Against Capitalism in the City of London the previous June marked its spectacular beginning, at least for Mute’s editors. At that time, our office was located in Shoreditch, a few minutes’ walk from the demo’s meeting point in Liverpool St. Station and I think it’s fair to say that the infamous ‘starburst’ of activists from multiple station exits, heading for the financial district beyond, is a force that propelled our editorial in a new direction, and one that increasingly came to dominate the focus of the magazine.

J18, N30, Genoa, 9/11; the arc of events is part of contemporary folklore. The ‘movement of movements’ shared many of the same organisational forms and techniques as the companies being restructured to suit the needs of capital and post-Fordist, managerial thinking. Flat networks, hollow organisations, alliances – capitalism and anti-capitalism were mirroring each other, as solid companies and once-unified political parties dematerialised into flexible, virtual and dynamic structures. ‘We are everywhere’ became a popular slogan for anti-capitalist groups and the title of a book dedicated to the rise of the movement edited by the Notes from Nowhere collective. Suddenly, thanks to computer networks, people could be effectively summoned from everywhere and nowhere to protest against equally diffuse elites who were dictating the terms of globalisation. Dumping the hierarchies, ideological clarity and arduous organisational means of traditional activism, large numbers of people were energised into taking part in politics on a global stage. Networks and mobility were the means, and direct action the result. But 9/11 changed all that. The declaration ‘we are everywhere’ was inverted into ‘you (terrorists) are everywhere’ and used to justify an open-ended War on Terror and on political activists.

As Jamie King asked, in his 2002 article ‘Terror is the Network – and the Network is You’ (Vol 1 #23), ‘what happens when the “network of terror” meets the “network society”?’ One answer is that this collision of networks intensifies states’ control and surveillance of their populations, counteracting many of the progressive applications of those same technologies in the name of security. The superficial parallels between Al-Qa’ida and anti-globalisation activists’ organisational means, not to mention their opposition to capitalism, played all too well into the hands of conservative and repressive state agendas. Jamie reports a headline from the New York Daily News, during the build up to scheduled protests against the World Economic Forum in the Big Apple, which declared: ‘New Yorkers will not be terrorised. We already know what that’s like. Chant your slogans. Carry your banners. Wear your gas masks. Just don’t test our patience. Because we no longer have any.’

Although the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq gradually dispelled this American mood of ‘righteous’ indignation, the mainstream’s post-9/11 sidelining of, and intolerance towards, summit activism seemed to deflate the confidence of the movement. The internal breakdown of its own fragile alliances, as many of its organising groups were accused of merely ‘summit hopping’, also contributed to the loss of momentum. Despite attempts to counter accusations of following the agendas of neoliberal elites by organising a series of alternative World and European Social Forums, once the focus had shifted away from the consensual target of free trade agreements and ‘damaging globalisation’ the alliances began to break down. Mute’s coverage of the 2004 World Social Forum in Mumbai and the European Social Forum in London was largely taken up with reports of infighting, exclusions and political censorship. Counter-counter summits began to proliferate and the Peoples’ Global Action network was besieged by accusations of Eurocentrism, racism and sexism. Were these anti-globos nothing more than First World ‘struggle tourists’ holidaying in other people’s misery?

At the same time as our writers were considering the social composition of the anti-globalisation movement, its structures and methodologies had also started to come under scrutiny. Activists’ constant foregrounding of the technical and organisational forms of collaboration seemed, after a certain point, to hide an absence of political debate and the emergence of crypto-hierarchies and geographical centres. Mute ran several pieces – by Jamie King, Anthony Davies and Eileen Condon – exposing the fallibility of this formalist tendency amongst alliance-political groups and reminding readers that we’d been here before in the 1960s and ’70s. Jamie referenced Jo Freeman’s 1970 text, ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’, which had pointed to the tendency for cliques to emerge within the same radical feminist groups that had overtly rejected the patriarchal structures of leadership and hierarchy, whilst covertly or unconsciously repeating their inequalities.

Since the sacred cows had started toppling, why stop there when so many others could do with a good prodding? The Creative Commons, locative media, social networking or Web 2.0 – the default piety that surrounded these apparently social initiatives beggared belief. What they all ostensibly had in common was literally the common, and a way of organising its production, or protection, using new technologies. What was suspicious was the level of commercial and governmental support they received; ‘movements’ that were notionally about devolving power away from states and capital were getting hooked back into them while claiming ideological purity. The Creative Commons licence, wrote Gregor Claude in his 2002 article ‘Goatherds in Pinstripes’, was not an anti-property initiative but a market-orientated attempt to distribute intellectual property rights amongst small scale producers; an anti-monopolist move aimed at developing a more dynamic and inventive marketplace. In the media art world and funders’ rush to embrace locative media, Armin Medosch and Saul Albert both detected a market-driven agenda, as hand-held devices and wireless networking became the cutting edge of the technological commodities market. Social networking sites or Web 2.0, argued Dmytri Kleiner, may have encouraged more people onto the net, but they drastically centralised the ‘means of sharing’. Web 2.0 effectively commercialised the developments of the free software movement and peer-to-peer file sharing, imposing a homogenised format on social communication and monetising its ‘long tail’.

Mute’s writers and editors were certainly alert to the infinitely cunning ways in which people’s communicative capacities and desires were subsumed into capitalist relations thanks, in part, to ICT. The politics of this subsumption had come to the fore with the publication of Hardt and Negri’s Empire in 2000 – a book which argued that ‘immaterial’ workers comprised a new revolutionary class as a result of capital’s dependence on their affective and intellectual labour. In this respect, immaterial producers could be said to ‘own’ the means of production, giving them a new autonomy. While critiquing the politics developing around immaterial production and the precarious conditions of its workers, Mute nevertheless shifted its publishing activities increasingly towards the immaterial realm. Having moved through a sequence of print formats and frequencies of publication we were, between 2002 and 2004, producing a thick, biannual coffee table edition. At this pinnacle of print luxuriousness, the high cost and labour involved in making the magazine were starting to take their toll. It was time to ‘jack’ our meat, and content, further into the web. We decided to go fully hybrid.

With Pauline and me going on uncannily parallel maternity leaves for the first half of 2005, this seemed as good a time as any to have a publishing holiday and completely overhaul the website. Simon and Raquel Perez de Eulate set to work designing and building a new site in Drupal – a free software, the bugginess of which has since earned it the reputation of a badly behaved household pet. Benedict Seymour and Anthony Iles had joined Mute as editors in 2004, and staffed the ghost ship Mute during this time, researching a cheap new form of printing called ‘print on demand’ (POD). This method – essentially a glorified laser print-out, prettified by the addition of full colour, perfect bound covers – allows one to print as few or as many copies as desired; you only have to pay for the number you need. This could not be more different from the newsprint process we had originally used, in which the minimum number of copies you could print was 10,000. With the show back on the road by mid 2005, our new model was to prioritise the website, publish weekly articles, solicit people to self-publish in the News and Analysis and Public Library sections, make our entire back catalogue freely available, and republish the best of each quarter’s crop of articles in POD form for an affordable £5.

In commercial terms, this was a risky approach since it removed any clear incentive for people to buy the print version by giving it all up for free on the web. As an Arts Council-funded magazine, however, part of our costs was covered and the wish to participate in international debates and free intellectual exchange outweighed any commercial advantage to creating a pay-per-view website. The readership results were dramatic, with averaging around 25,000 page views per day – although admittedly sales of the print version did nosedive for a while.

It is tempting to try and draw some analogy between our very noughties publishing model and the increased importance of the ‘virtual’ financial services sector to global capitalism, in the throes of its meltdown at the time of writing. The difference, of course, is that, with the shift from material commodities to the trade in intangibles orchestrated by the proliferation of new ‘financial instruments’, the city temporarily managed to make loads of money from producing nothing. Mute, on the other hand, belongs to the legions producing largely unremunerated content for the web. This condition some understand as ‘digital commoning’ – a way of collectively maintaining the resources which help the precarious intellectual worker to subsist within neoliberal globalisation as living conditions, wages and job security degenerate. This notion of free production, however, belongs to the phantasm of the ‘weightless economy’ in which money supposedly begets money and the cognitariat produce intellectual goods for nothing – a concept that came under fierce attack in Steve Wright’s article ‘Reality Check: Are We Living in an Immaterial World?’ (Vol 2 #1). Quoting Ursula Huws, he writes:

Huws draws our attention back not only to the massive infrastructure that underpins ‘the knowledge economy’, but also to ‘the fact that real people with real bodies have contributed real time to the development of these “weightless” commodities.’ As for determining the contribution of human labour within the production of immaterial products, Huws argues, that, while this might ‘be difficult to model’, that ‘does not render the task impossible’.

These ‘real people’, Wright concludes, are largely the ‘soil tilling’ majority of the Earth. The real commoner, it turns out, is capitalism whose non-reproduction of the natural resources and unpaid labour it loots is creating a tragedy of mounting proportions. As for those ‘digital commoners’, they are far from having transcended exchange value and returned to a pure reliance upon use values. Those commodities they continue to consume, and which sustain them in their immaterial production, are mostly produced by one hyper-exploited half of the Earth’s population. It goes without saying that Mute’s editors and writers belong to the lucky other half.

As the analyses of immaterial production, financialisation and ‘fictitious capital’ intensified after 2005 – due in no small part to the editorial input of Ben and contributing editor, Matthew Hyland – the focus on digital culture and art dilated somewhat. Perhaps, with the hindsight of a ‘once in a century’ financial crisis, it is hardly surprising that ‘fictitious capital’ developed such a hypnotic hold on our attention. In September 2007, we brought out possibly the best timed issue of Mute’s entire career. The ‘Living in a Bubble: Credit, Debt and Crisis’ issue, which we’d been preparing over the Summer, intersected ‘perfectly’ with the US sub-prime crash’s escalation into a full-blown credit crunch and the nationalisation of Northern Rock, the first in a long line of public bailouts it would later transpire.

But, despite the shift in focus, the parallels between the relational developments of art and virtual economic activity remain stark. Paul Helliwell contributed several lengthy articles on this subject, casting avant-garde art and, more latterly, ‘relational aesthetics’ as the vanguard of cultural commodification in its immaterial phase. Due to the commodity’s demise at the hands of digital abundance, he argues, the music industry in particular, and capitalism in general, are coming increasingly to resemble relational art. For several generations, artists have critiqued and abandoned the object; after the institutional critique of the 1960s–80s, droves of artists began to abandon the ‘white cube’ for the real world beyond, looking to ‘heal’ wounded social relations by operating on them directly. Thus was born ‘relational aesthetics’ as Nicholas Bourriaud termed it. Whether feeding the gallery visitor noodles or creating archives of collectively produced histories in the midst of regeneration zones, the artist became ever less the detached observer and producer of objects, and ever more the provider of social and cultural services.

Mute’s coverage of this cultural turn focused on how this once self-critical tendency became complicit with the forces of regeneration and social engineering. The London Particular’s image/text analysis, ‘Fear Death by Water’, and Anthony Davies’ article, ‘Take Me I’m Yours’, were key to this exploration. Both revealed a toxic mix of cuts in public spending and welfare, privatisation of the public sphere and the strategic deployment of culture to neutralise any resistance. This marriage of convenience between cultural producers and the neoliberal state results, they argue, in the consultative nature of community arts projects which do nothing to prevent already-decided-upon regeneration schemes, or the politically progressive programmes of institutions which nevertheless underpay their unskilled staff. This instrumentalised culture – which appears to be isomorphic with market deregulation and privatisation – is often the sad result of art’s critical dematerialisation. As with the ‘weightless economy’, art’s dematerialisation into a network of communication and relationality coincides with increased material hardship at the other end of the productive chain.

It seems that we’ve arrived back where we began, at the switch point between the liberating and repressive tendencies of dematerialisation. It is partly due to the overlapping concerns of these lines of enquiry that it took us over five years to assemble this book. Untangling the separate themes which now organise such a fat manual to the past 15 years of cultural politics took some doing. Art historian and Mute contributor, Michael Corris, gave us a great deal of help with this, moving our thinking on from the initial plan to make a book about the relationship between conceptualism and network-based art practice to a multi-themed anthology of some of our best articles. Reading over the book in its final form, I find it striking that a magazine which has continually contended with the question ‘but what’s it about?’ has, in fact, produced such a sustained and persistent analysis. The technologically driven dematerialisation of culture, economics, social activity and control must always contend with the material world of needs, production, embodiment and desires which sustain and are sustained by these processes. We are now, as ever, and for infinitely varied reasons, Proud to be Flesh!

Proud to be Flesh

Chapter 1: Introduction - Direct Democracy and its Demons: Web 1.0 to Web 2.0

Proud to be Flesh Cover

Introduction to Chapter 1 of Proud to be Flesh - Direct Democracy and its Demons: Web 1.0 to Web 2.0

This chapter interrogates the web’s dual promise – to increase the direct democratic potential of many-to-many communication while, at the same time, perfecting the conditions for further expansion of capitalist social relations and the ‘free market’. Its timeframe spans the period between the pre-dotcom ’90s to the late Web 2.0-obsessed ’00s – a trajectory leading from the days of the internet’s initial and faltering marketisation to its mature, well-established form. As the net was popularised through Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web and the first commercial browsers, the ‘commons’ of the internet – originally developed, owned and maintained by the state – was laid open to popular usage and vulnerable to a corporate land grab. Mute was keen to rupture the market-orientated hype of the ‘digerati’ prospectors, to expose their economic bottom line, and to insist upon the continuity of social relations across real and virtual space – in this sense, we understood ourselves as the European anti-Wired.

Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron’s article, ‘The Californian Ideology’, written in 1995, describes the stakes of this struggle between commercial and radical democratic forces, and importantly exposes the economic and political underside of the seemingly hip West Coast digerati gathered around Wired magazine. Politically conservative neoliberalism and techno-determinism were being repackaged as the daring embrace of the new network culture, as Newt Gingrich shaded into William Gibson. The workaholism of ex-hippies developing internet start-ups in garages and their ‘spare time’ was revealed as anything but the slacker culture it pretended to be. As with its classical antecedents, the virtual class, performing its intellectual labour in the electronic agora, relied upon an underclass of black and immigrant workers, excluded from the networks, to perform its reproductive labour for it.

Were the digerati concerned by these exclusions and did they think the technology could help society address such inequities? In his interview with legendary techno-booster and Wired editor Kevin Kelly, Jamie King reveals, with comic aplomb, the self-referential nature of the Californian Ideology. Kelly – who famously argued in Out of Control that, like life itself, technology is a vital force that should be subject neither to ethical judgements nor to developmental interventions – is at a loss to address the question of the ‘digital divide’ that is developing as a result of the networks he so passionately embraces. Throughout the interview, while claiming that ‘technology solves the ills of society’, he continually defends its unbridled commercial development on the grounds of its naturalness. Like most neoliberals, Kelly hides his rampant free market thinking behind a barrage of unsubstantiated clichés about the natural order of things.

Pit Shultz, co-founder of the nettime mailing list (one of the hubs of ‘European’ media critique), is equally concerned with the growth of virtual life forms, but from a very different political standpoint. In his interview with Mute’s Pauline van Mourik Broekman, he rejects claims that there has been a ‘digital revolution’ while still holding out hope for new media’s ability to create channels which ‘redirect the flow of power’. Without the freight of advertising, the channel produced by the mailing list itself is described as not only free but also ‘silent’, and, curiously, as a space that attempted to ‘avoid dialogues’. Early nettime was conceived as a ‘collaborative filtering’ project, not the space of rhetorical theatrics it so often became.

Anustup Basu, in his piece ‘Bombs and Bytes’, written in the aftermath of the second invasion of Iraq, laments the role of the media in driving the shift from democratic discourses, based on knowledge and persuasion, to the mass ‘psychomechanical’ programming of thought made possible by informatics. Providing an example of (corporate and state media’s) fascistic collaborative filtering, Basu cites the combination of the events of 9/11 with the name Saddam Hussein as a lethal instance of information’s malleability. In this ‘inhuman plane of massified thought’, it is possible to combine two ideas which have no organic or narrative connection.

The final piece in this chapter, by Dmytri Kleiner and Brian Wyrick, brings the discussion full circle. Web 2.0, they argue, the tools and platforms which finally made ‘mass participation’ in the web a reality, in practice amounts to little more than ‘Info-Enclosure 2.0’. Where the first round of the net’s enclosure was centred on its infrastructure (its backbones, ISPs, browsers and means of governance), the second has focused on the capture of community-created content and a homogenisation of the means of sharing.

What Barbrook and Cameron dubbed the Californian Ideology has, over time, revealed itself to be none other than the informatic dimension of post-Fordism itself. As with flexibilisation in the work place, what might at first have seemed to present small gains for the working class quickly establishes itself as a more individualised, finely grained and decentralised form of control. With Web 2.0 sucking the majority of web content production into a pre-formatted and narcissistic micro-casting, the big bucks are now determining not only the shape of social reality in its massified form, but also what Deleuze calls the ‘imperial-linguistic takeover of a whole social body of expressive potentialities’.

Proud to be Flesh

The Californian Ideology - An Insider's View (Re: Californian Ideology)

Re: Californian Ideology

I first read a draft of "The Californian Ideology" given to me by Andy Cameron during his visit to Los Angeles last summer for the SIGGRAPH 95 Convention. At that time, Andy was showing Anti-Rom at SIGGRAPH on my invitation as part of an exhibition of alternative new media called the lounge@siggraph which I organized for the conference. Andy was staying near my house at a beachside motel in Santa Monica and wore sandals for the entire period of his stay. We ate cheap Mexican food for lunch every day across the street from the Convention Center. We had lively discussions on a variety of topics. With the exception of a few technical problems during the show, he seemed to have a lovely visit with us here in California. If I am not very much mistaken, he left Southern California with a bit of a tan.

What, Precisely, Is California?

"American and England are two nations divided by a common language." so quote George Bernard Shaw some sixty years ago. But there's more to it than mere linguistics. Especially when you are talking about California.

It is typical of Americans to be myopically ignorant of their own history-not to mention everyone else's-which is how the Republican Party is able to repeatedly succeed at the polls. But a glimpse into our history, and particularly the history of California, is useful in understanding the basis for the Californian Ideology.

California is and has always been characterized by pioneers and golddiggers. From the gold rush, to the movie industry, to the computer revolution, the Californian Ideology has always been one of spirited individualism and entrepreneurialism. A less utopian way to look at it is that California is a breeding ground for greed and self-interest. Both interpretations are correct. By way of example, take a look at this list of just a few of the things California has brought the world:

LevisMoviesCharles MansonThe Grateful DeadRonald Reagan and Richard NixonSilicon GraphicsMicrosoft and AppleIndustrial Light & MagicLos Angeles and San FranciscoScientologyDisneyland

A Member of the Virtual Class

Bearing all that in mind, I'd like to analyze some of Cameron and Barbrook's points from the perspective of someone who must live-and survive-the Californian Ideology on a daily basis. By way of qualifying that statement, let me confess at once and without shame that I am a member of the "virtual class" described in the article. The description of this individual-the independent contractor, free to come and go as they wish, well-paid, but at the same time, suffering from acute workaholism-fits me to a tee. All except the well-paid part. And that is a myth. It is true that many of us are well paid by the hour. However, it is also true that many of us spend between fifty and seventy-five percent of our time trying to secure that hour of work. Furthermore, prospective clients often expect us to do work on spec or for very low rates, often with no assurance that work will not be used without our participation. Those of us to are pushing the envelope the hardest, and particularly, those who are trying to make product with social and cultural merits, must fight every step of the way. The people who are at the forefront of the digital revolution, the true vanguards, are blazing their trail at tremendous personal risk.

The condition of the virtual class cannot be blamed on the individuals within it, but must be looked at in a larger context. In America, artists receive very little support from the government or, for that matter, the society at-large. Since the 1930's and the New Deal, when WPA funding was created to support a variety of arts and cultural projects, America has systematically eroded away its art and cultural support, much as a desperate animal gnaws its own foot off to release itself from a trap. In our anti-intellectual culture, artists are considered subversive and unnecessary. In America, anything that does not generate revenue is viewed as gratuitous.

And herein lies the key to understanding the Californian ideology. The most important thing in America is making money. Period. If we begin our discussion starting from that axiom, we can start to make a little more sense of what the Californian Ideology is all about.

"Bigger is Better"

In many arenas, America prides itself on matters of size. "Bigger is better" is the general belief. But one of the primary reasons for the average American's sense of political impotency is that America is quite simply too big to manage. The European Community will ultimately be a better model for managing governments than the United States of America. If you look at any large country with a large physical area and a large population, you will recognize that it is almost impossible to run a large country with any measure of freedom to its members. If you are autocratic and highly centralized, as was the Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China, you can have some measure of control. However, once you start letting people have any say in what's going on, things start to degenerate, as we are now seeing with former Soviet republics.

To compensate for this flaw in large-scale decentralized management, we have developed, in the form of corporations and companies, our own form of a tribal culture. Big companies like Disney, IBM, McDonald's or Coca-Cola, are small nations unto themselves with their own culture, ethics, even their own language. These tribes cluster themselves into "industries"-software, entertainment, automobile, and so on. It is within these corporate tribes that most Americans find the unity and security one might expect to be provided by government in a place where the "common good" is seen as a priority.

Capitalist Cyberhippies

Why is Silicon valley overrun with capitalist hippies? It is easy to label these individuals are revolutionaries who "sold out" to the capitalist ethic. But when you live within that ethic, you can also look at it another way. We learned in the 1960's, after our President, his brother, and our two most influential civil rights leaders were murdered, that politics was a dangerous path to take in building a revolution. The Nixon regime further drove home the point that politics was no place for a respectable individual to devote their time and energy. Furthermore, it doesn't take a genius to see that in reality, there is no politics in America, only economics. So to say that Americans are apolitical is absolutely correct. And that is because our country is about economics, not politics. In Europe, there are countries. In America, there are corporations. It is the corporations who take care of the people, not the government. Those things which are typically government supported in social democracies, like medical insurance, education, and even the arts, are provided by corporations. We have created a modern-day feudal society. And the only way to secure any real power in America is to either make-or control-large sums of money.

In the 1960's, the generation that seemed destined to revolutionize America was utterly derailed by the events described above from a political path to change. They did, in fact, change America, but not in the ways we thought they would. Those who would have excelled in politics turned instead to industry. In another time and place, it might have been Bill Gates in the White House rather than Bill Clinton. But their generation learned the hard way that politics is as treacherous in America as it is pointless. The mere comparison of the two Bills should attest to that.

Siliwood & the Military Entertainment Complex

From Silicon Valley, you can follow the California fault to the other nexus of activity in California-Hollywood. Hollywood is the home of the entertainment industry, Silicon Valley of the computer industry. And in the past three years, these two powerful forces have "gotten in bed together" (as we say in showbiz) and given birth to a new phenomenon aptly known as "Siliwood."

But beneath the self-congratulatory glitter of this marriage, both regions are tied together by a much stronger bond, a bond much less glamorous, but no less profitable. That bond is the military. As "The Californian Ideology" very astutely points out, virtually every aspect of the computer industry has its roots in government-funded military technology, and California has always been a leader in military contracts. This all but explodes (pun intended) the myth of the autonomous pioneer. For every Apple in California, there is a Lockheed. Considering Silicon Valley is the domain of the cyberhippie-turned-capitalist culture, there is a deep irony in the fact that people who were once anti-war demonstrators have built an entire industry on the shoulders of the military. The brushing over of this fact is yet another example of historical myopia.

But one can scarcely explore the ironies of this without acknowledging Siliwood's companion movement, the "Military Entertainment Complex." In the wake of military downsizing, many military contractors, scratching their heads and wondering "Who, but the military, can afford us?" turned to their liberal neighbors in Hollywood. The result is a whole series of hybrid technologies, some of which I have had the pleasure of participating in the development of. I rather enjoy the concept of forging weapons into ploughshares, especially since both of the military-cum-entertainment projects I have worked on consisted of nonviolent content. In spite of my staunchly pacifistic position, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the fact that none of this would be possible without the military. In a way, the military could be looked at as the front end of the technological adoption curve.

Adoption Curve

"The Californian Ideology" spends a good deal of time on the topic of technological determinism and elitism. In America, we call this the "adoption curve." Here's how it works: Technology is developed at tremendous capital expense. It is released on the market at exorbitant prices, prices that the "average" person cannot begin to afford. It is targeted to a certain demographic-affluent, young, educated, eager to impress themselves and each other. These are the people who "lead" the market. They run out and buy "the latest" thing, drop it in the trunk of their BMW's, and take it home to their house in Marin County while listening to the CD player in their trunk, perhaps having a phonecall in the car on the way. If and when enough of these " early adopters" invest in the technology, one of two things will happen. More often than not, the technology falls on its face for whatever reason and becomes obsolete, rendering the expensive device virtually useless. However, if the right combination of factors are present, and a certain saturation level is reached, then presto! The price begins to plunge, and the subsequent tiers of adoption trailers follow, and eventually, the technology becomes available and affordable on a mass level. This process can sometimes take years, and there is fairly consistent demographic sequence to this pattern. This is the general means by which technology achieves mass market penetration in the U.S. and these are the actual terms that are used to describe this.

On the one hand, this can be viewed as an elitist system. And in many respects it is. But the fact is that if the technology is really worthwhile, eventually, the cost will keep being pushed down until it becomes affordable on a mass level. And the people at the head of the adoption curve are the Social Capitalism & Autodidactic Communalism.

Celia Pearce <>

Proud to be Flesh

The Californian Ideology

'Not to lie about the future is impossible and one can lie about it at will' - Naum Gabo

There is an emerging global orthodoxy concerning the relation between society, technology and politics. We have called this orthodoxy `the Californian Ideology' in honour of the state where it originated. By naturalising and giving a technological proof to a libertarian political philosophy, and therefore foreclosing on alternative futures, the Californian Ideologues are able to assert that social and political debates about the future have now become meaningless. 

The California Ideology is a mix of cybernetics, free market economics, and counter-culture libertarianism and is promulgated by magazines such as WIRED and MONDO 2000 and preached in the books of Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly and others. The new faith P has been embraced by computer nerds, slacker students, 30-something capitalists, hip academics, futurist bureaucrats and even the President of the USA himself. As usual, Europeans have not been slow to copy the latest fashion from America. While a recent EU report recommended adopting the Californian free enterprise model to build the 'infobahn', cutting-edge artists and academics have been championing the 'post-human' philosophy developed by the West Coast's Extropian cult. With no obvious opponents, the global dominance of the Californian ideology appears to be complete.

Californian Ideology

On superficial reading, the writings of the Californian ideologists are an amusing cocktail of Bay Area cultural wackiness and in-depth analysis of the latest developments in the hi-tech arts, entertainment and media industries. Their politics appear to be impeccably libertarian - they want information technologies to be used to create a new `Jeffersonian democracy' in cyberspace in its certainties, the Californian ideology offers a fatalistic vision of the natural and inevitable triumph of the hi-tech free market.

Saint McLuhan

Back in the 60s, Marshall McLuhan preached that the power of big business and big government would be overthrown by the intrinsically empowering effects of new technology on individuals. The convergence of media, computing and telecommunications would inevitably result in an electronic direct democracy - the electronic agora - in which everyone would be able to express their opinions without fear of censorship. 

Encouraged by McLuhan's predictions, West Coast radicals pioneered the use of new information technologies for the alternative press, community radio stations, home-brew computer clubs and video collectives.

Californian Ideology

During the '70s and '80s, many of the fundamental advances in personal computing and networking were made by people influenced by the technological optimism of the new left and the counter-culture. By the '90s, some of these ex-hippies had even become owners and managers of high-tech corporations in their own right and the pioneering work of the community media activists has been largely recuperated by hi-tech commerce. 

The Rise of the Virtual Class

Although companies in these sectors can mechanise and sub-contract much of their labour needs, they remain dependent on key people who can research and create original products, from software programs and computer chips to books and tv programmes. These skilled workers and entrepreneurs form the so-called 'virtual class': '...the techno-intelligentsia of cognitive scientists, engineers, computer scientists, video-game developers, and all the other communications specialists...' (Kroker and Weinstein). Unable to subject them to the discipline of the assembly-line or replace them by machines, managers have organised such intellectual workers through fixed-term contracts. Like the 'labour aristocracy' of the last century, core personnel in the media, computing and telecoms industries experience the rewards and insecurities of the marketplace. On the one hand, these hi-tech artisans not only tend to be well-paid, but also have considerable autonomy over their pace of work and place of employment. As a result, the cultural divide between the hippie and the organisation man has now become rather fuzzy. Yet, on the other hand, these workers are tied by the terms of have no guarantee continued employment. Lacking the free time of the hippies, work itself ho become the main route to self-fulfilment for much of the,virtual class'.

Because these core workers are both a privileged part of the labour force and heirs of the radical ideas of the community media activists, the Californian Ideology simultaneously reflects the disciplines of market economics and the freedoms of hippie artisanship. This bizarre hybrid is only made possible through a nearly universal belief in technological determinism. Ever since the '60s, liberals -in the social sense of the word - have hoped that the new information technologies would realise their ideals. Responding to the challenge of the New Left, the New Right has resurrected an older form of liberalism: economic liberalism. In place of the collective freedom sought by the hippie radicals, they have championed the liberty of individuals within the marketplace. From the `70s onwards, Muffler, de Sola Pool and other gurus attempted to prove that the advent of hypermedia would paradoxically involve a return to the economic liberalism of the past. This 'retro-utopia echoed the predictions of Asimov, Heinlein and other macho sci-fi novelists whose future worlds were always filled with space traders, superslick salesmen, genius scientists, pirate captains and other rugged individualists. The path of technological progress leads back to the America of the Founding Fathers.

Californian Ideology

Agora or Exchange - Direct Democracy or Free Trade?

With McLuhan as its patron saint, the Californian ideology has emerged from this unexpected collision of right-wing neo-liberalism, counter- culture radicalism and technological determinism - a hybrid ideology with all its ambiguities and contradictions intact. These contradictions are most pronounced in the opposing visions of the future which it holds simultaneously.

On the one side, the anti-corporate purity of the New Left has been preserved by the advocates of the 'virtual community'. According to their guru, Howard Rheingold, the values of the counter-culture baby boomers will continue to shape the development of new information technologies.

Community activists will increasingly use hypermedia to replace corporate capitalism and big government with a hi-tech 'gift economy' in which information is freely exchanged between participants. In Rheingold's view, the 'virtual class' is still in the forefront of the struggle for social liberation. Despite the frenzied commercial and political involvement in building the 'information superhighway', direct democracy within the electronic agora will inevitably triumph over its corporate and bureaucratic enemies.

On the other hand, other West Coast ideologues have embraced the laissez faire ideology of their erstwhile conservative enemy. For example, Wired - the monthly bible of the 'virtual class' - has uncritically reproduced the views of Newt Gingrich , the extreme-right Republican leader of the House of Representatives, and the Tofflers, who are his close advisors. Ignoring their policies for welfare cutbacks, the magazine is instead mesmerised by their enthusiasm for the libertarian possibilities offered by new information technologies. Gingrich and the Tofflers claim that the convergence of media, computing and telecommunications will not create an electronic agora, but will instead lead to the apotheosis of the market, an electronic exchange within which everybody can become a free trader.

In this version of the Californian Ideology, each member of the 'virtual class' is promised the opportunity to become a successful hi-tech entrepreneur. Information technologies, so the argument goes, empower the individual, enhance personal freedom, and radically reduce the power of the nation-state. Existing social, political and legal power structures will wither away to be replaced by unfettered interactions between autonomous individuals and their software. These restyled McLuhanites vigorously argue that big government should stay off the backs of resourceful entrepreneurs who are the only people cool and courageous enough to take risks. Indeed, attempts to interfere with the emergent properties of technological and economic forces, particularly by the government, merely rebound on those who are foolish enough to defy the primary laws of nature. The free market is the sole mechanism capable of building the future and ensuring a full flowering of individual liberty within the electronic circuits of Jeffersonian cyberspace. As in Heinlein's and Asimov's sci-fi novels, the path forwards to the future seems to lead backwards to the past.

The Myth of the Free Market

Almost every major technological advance of the last two hundred years has taken place with the aid of large amounts of public money and under a good deal of government influence. The technologies of the computer and the Net were invented with the aid of massive state subsidies. For example, the first Difference Engine project received a British Government grant of £517,470 - a small fortune in 1834. From Colossus to EDVAC, from flight simulators to virtual reality, the development of- computing has depended at key moments on public research handouts or fat contracts with public agencies. The IBM corporation built the first programmable digital computer only after it was requested to do so by the US Defense Department during the Korean War. The result of a lack of state intervention meant that Nazi Germany lost the opportunity to build the first electronic computer in the late '30s when the Wehrmacht refused to fund Konrad Zuze, who had pioneered the use of binary code, stored programs and electronic logic gates.

One of the weirdest things about the Californian Ideology is that the West Coast itself is a product of massive state intervention. Government dollars were used to build the irrigation systems, high-ways, schools, universities and other infrastructural projects which make the good life possible. On top of these public subsidies, the West Coast hi-tech industrial complex has been feasting off the fattest pork barrel in history for decades. The US government has poured billions of tax dollars into buying planes, missiles, electronics and nuclear bombs from Californian companies. Americans have always had state planning, but they prefer to call it the defence budget.

All of this public funding has had an enormously beneficial - albeit unacknowledged and uncosted - effect on the subsequent development of Silicon Valley and other hi-tech industries. Entrepreneurs often have an inflated sense of their own 'creative act of will' in developing new ideas and give little recognition to the contributions made by either the state or their own labour force. However, all technological progress is cumulative - it depends on the results of a collective historical process and must be counted, at least in part, as a collective achievement. Hence, as in every other industrialised country, American entrepreneurs have in fact relied on public money and state intervention to nurture and develop their industries. When Japanese companies threatened to take over the American microchip market, the libertarian computer capitalists of California had no ideological qualms about joining a state-sponsored cartel organised by the state to fight off the invaders from the East! 

Masters and Slaves

Despite the central role played by public intervention in developing hypermedia, the Californian Ideology is a profoundly anti-statist dogma. The ascendancy of this dogma is a result of the failure of renewal in the USA during the late '60s and early '70s. Although the ideologues of California celebrate the libertarian individualism of the hippies, they never discuss the political or social demands of the counter-culture. Individual freedom is no longer to be achieved by rebelling against the system, but through submission to the natural laws of technological progress and the free market. In many cyberpunk novels and films, this asocial libertarianism is expressed by the central character of the lone individual fighting for survival within a virtual world of information.

In American folklore, the nation was built out of a wilderness by free-booting individuals - the trappers, cowboys, preachers, and settlers of the frontier. Yet this primary myth of the American republic ignores the contradiction at the heart of the American dream: that some individuals can prosper only through the suffering of others. The life of Thomas Jefferson - the man behind the ideal of `Jeffersonian democracy' - clearly demonstrates the double nature of liberal individualism. The man who wrote the inspiring call for democracy and liberty in the American declaration of independence was at the same time one of the largest slave-owners in the country.

Californian Ideology

Despite emancipation and the civil rights movement, racial segregation still lies at the centre of American politics - especially in California. Behind the rhetoric of individual freedom lies the master's fear of the rebellious slave. In the recent elections for governor in California, the Republican candidate won through a vicious anti-immigrant campaign. Nationally, the triumph of Gingrich's neoliberals in the legislative elections was based on the mobilizations of "angry white males" against the supposed threat from black welfare scroungers, immigrants from Mexico and other uppity minorities.

The hi-tech industries are an integral part of this racist Republican coalition. However, the exclusively private and corporate construction of cyberspace can only promote the fragmentation of American society into antagonistic, racially-determined classes. Already 'redlined' by profit-hungry telcos, the inhabitants of poor inner city areas can be shut out of the new on-line services through lack of money. In contrast, yuppies and their children can play at being cyberpunks in a virtual world without having to meet any of their impoverished neighbours. Working for hi-tech and new media corporations, many members of the 'virtual class' would like to believe that new technology will somehow solve America's social, racial and economic problems without any sacrifices on their part. Alongside the ever-widening social divisions, another apartheid between the 'information-rich' and the 'information-poor' is being created. Yet calls for the telcos to be forced to provide universal access to the information superstructure for all citizens are denounced in Wired magazine as being inimical to progress. Whose progress?

The Dumb Waiter

As Hegel pointed out, the tragedy of the masters is that they cannot escape from dependence on their slaves. Rich white Californians need their darker-skinned fellow humans to work in their factories, pick their crops, look after their children and tend their gardens. Unable to surrender wealth and power, the white people of California can instead find spiritual solace in their worship of technology. If human slaves are ultimately unreliable, then mechanical ones will have to be invented. The search for the holy grail of Artificial Intelligence reveals this desire for the Golem - a strong and loyal slave whose skin is the colour of the earth and whose innards are made of sand. Techno-utopians imagine that it is possible to obtain slave-like labour from inanimate machines. Yet, although technology can store or amplify labour, it can never remove the necessity for humans to invent, build and maintain the machines in the first place. Slave labour cannot be obtained without somebody being enslaved. At his estate at Monticello, Jefferson invented many ingenious gadgets - including a 'dumb waiter' to mediate contact with his slaves. In the late twentieth century, it is not surprising that this liberal slave-owner is the hero of those who proclaim freedom while denying their brown-skinned fellow citizens those democratic rights said to be inalienable.

Foreclosing the Future

The prophets of the Californian Ideology argue that only the cybernetic flows and chaotic eddies of free markets and global communications will determine the future. Political debate therefore, is a waste of breath. As libertarians, they assert that the will of the people, mediated by democratic government, is a dangerous heresy which interferes with the natural and efficient freedom to accumulate property. As technological determinists, they believe that human social and emotional ties obstruct the efficient evolution of the machine. Abandoning democracy and social solidarity, the Californian Ideology dreams of a digital nirvana inhabited solely by liberal psychopaths.

There are Alternatives

Despite its claims to universality, the Californian ideology was developed by a group of people living within one specific country following a particular choice of socio-economic and technological development. Their eclectic blend of conservative economics and hippie libertarianism reflects the history of the West Coast - and not the inevitable future of the rest of the world. The hi-tech ideologues proclaim that there is only one road forward. Yet, in reality, debate has never been more possible or more necessary. The Californian model is only one among many.

Within the European Union, the recent history of France provides practical proof that it is possible to use state intervention alongside market competition to nurture new technologies and to ensure their benefits are diffused among the population as a whole. 

Following the victory of the Jacobins over their liberal opponents in 1792, the democratic republic in France became the embodiment of the 'general will'. As such, the state attempted to represent the interests of all citizens, rather than just protect the rights of individual property-owners. The French revolution went beyond liberalism to democracy. Emboldened by this popular legitimacy, the government was able to influence industrial development.

For instance, the MINITEL network built up its critical mass of users through the nationalised telco giving away free terminals. Once the market had been created, commercial and community providers were then able to find enough customers to thrive. Learning from the French experience, it would seem obvious that European and national bodies should exercise more precisely targeted regulatory control, investment, and state direction over the development of hypermedia, rather than less.

The lesson of MINITEL is that hypermedia within Europe should be developed as a hybrid of state intervention, capitalist entrepreneurship and d.i.y. culture. No doubt the 'infobahn' will create a mass market for private companies to sell existing information commodities - films, tv programmes, music and books, across the Net. Once people can distribute as well as receive hypermedia, a flourishing of community media, niche markets and special interest groups will emerge. However, for all this to happen the state must play an active part. In order to realise the interests of all citizens, the 'general will' must be realised, at least partially, through public institutions.

The Californian Ideology rejects notions of community and of social progress and seeks to chain humanity to the rocks of economic and technological fatalism. Once upon a time, west coast hippies played a key role in creating our contemporary vision of social liberation. As a consequence, feminism, drug culture, gay liberation and ethnic identity have, since the 1960s, ceased to be marginal issues. Ironically, it is now California which has become the centre of the ideology which denies the relevance of these new social subjects.

It is now necessary for us to assert our own future - if not in circumstances of our own choosing. After twenty years, we need to reject once and forever the loss of nerve expressed by post-modernism. We can do more than 'play with the pieces' created by avant-gardes of the past.

We need to debate what kind of hypermedia suit our vision of society - how we create the interactive products and on-line services we want to use, the kind of computers we like and the software we find most useful. We need to find ways to think socially and politically about the machines we develop. While learning from the can-do attitude of the Californian individualists, we also must recognise that the potentiality of hypermedia can never solely be realised through market forces. We need an economy which can unleash the creative powers of hi-tech artisans. Only then can we fully grasp the Promethean opportunities of hypermedia as humanity moves into the next stage of modernity.

Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron are members of the Hypermedia Research Centre, University of Westminster

Proud to be Flesh

Proliferating Futures (Re: Californian Ideology)

Re: Californian Ideology

1: Proliferating Futures What about the Becoming of the Net? We cannot describe the Net as one single process of Becoming, but as proliferation of different coexisting processes. Therefore we can't make a statement about the future of the Net. Many different futures will coalesce within it.

Different intentions can enter the Net, different processes of semiotization can coevolute. The Net is not a territory, but a multiplanary Sphere. Infinite plateaux are rotating inside this Sphere. What is forbidden on one level can be done on another.

The Net cannot be conceptualized within the Hegelian concept of Totality. In Hegel, the Truth is the Whole. The Hegelian Whole is Aufhebung - the annihilation of every difference. In the Net, every connection between points of enunciation creates its own level of truth. Truth is only found in singularity.

In the Net, the world cannot be considered as the objective reference point of a process of enunciation. The world is the projection of enunciation itself.

Networking is the method of a new social paradigm - one that goes beyond the social oppositions and conceptual contradictions inherited from the modern world. Because capitalism is still in power, acting as the general semiotic code, the old social oppositions and conceptual contradictions are not vanishing yet. This is the reason why we are still concerned with the old problem of the State versus the Market. Notwithstanding the emergence of the Net, the State and the Market still exist.

2: High Tech Deregulation

The discourse about the Net (cyberculture) is still dominated by ideologies which are the legacy of the past twentieth century. Cyberculture is still dominated by the conceptual and political alternatives coming from the industrial society. A sort of high tech neo-liberalism is emerging from the American scene. In the theoretical core of this philosophical movement, I see a misunderstanding: the identification of technology with economics within the paradigm shift. Thinkers like Alvin Toffler, Kevin Kelly and Esther Dyson support the neo-liberal agenda of Newt Gingrich because, they argue, the free market is the best method for expanding free communications - and free communications are the key to the future world.

Sounds good, but what does the 'free market' mean? In the social framework of capitalism, free market means power to the strongest economic groups - and the absorption or elimination of society's intellectual energies.

Kevin Kelly, in 'Out of Control', says that, thanks to the digital technologies and computer networks, mankind is evolving into a superorganism, a new biological system. The biologisation of culture and society which is described by Kelly is nothing but the disappearance of any alternative from the social field, the absorption of intelligence itself within the framework of capitalist semiotization. The possibility of choice is denied, eradicated.

This is the main effect of the integration of technological development, scientific work and economic power. Michel Foucault describes the formation of modern society in terms of the imposition of discipline on the individual body and on social behaviour. What we are now witnessing is the making of what Gilles Deleuze defines as a society of control: the code of behaviour is being imprinted directly onto the mind through models of cognition, of psychic interaction. Discipline is no longer imposed on the body through the formal action of the law - it is printed in the collective brain through the dissemination of techno-linguistic interfaces inducing a cognitive mutation.

3: Old Alternatives are Misleading

In their article 'The Californian Ideology', Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron criticize the mystification of this high tech neo-liberalism. But what do they oppose it with? They talk of a European way - the way of the welfare state, public intervention within the economy, public control over technological innovation. Can we believe in this solution? I don't.

Barbrook and Cameron say that MINITEL in France has shown the possibility of a European way to build the Net. But this is pointless. This example shows exactly that public intervention cannot achieve this goal. MINITEL is a rigid and centralized system, unable to face the challenges of virtualization. And in Italy, the experience of Olivetti shows that it is impossible to develop innovation on the basis of state investment and controls. From this point of view, the American model of development is working better. It opens the way to creative innovations. It captures these innovations through techno-social interfaces.

Barbrook and Cameron say that Europe must oppose the process of globalization which is led by the U.S. But this idea is naive and dangerous. Stopping globalization, preserving identities: these are the ideas which are generating nationalism and fundamentalism. These are what are called retrofascism by Kroker and Weinstein in their book 'Data Trash'.

The war between neo-liberalism and the old fashioned welfare state is not over - as shown by the strikes of the French railwaymen. The struggles of Fordist workers will probably go on for a long time, but they are doomed to defeat. The strategic defeat of industrial labour has already happened - FIAT 1980, Peugeot, the Miners Union, Detroit were the stages of this defeat during the '80s. The marginalisation of industrial labour began in that period.

The new composition of social labour is marked by the emergence of the cognitariat - what Kroker and Weinstein call the 'virtual class'. The social labour of the collective intelligence, or general intellect as Marx calls it in 'The Grundrisse', remains dominated by capitalist social relations in spite of its formal independence. Marx distinguishes two different kinds of domination of capital over human activity: formal domination and real domination.

Formal domination is the legal imposition of discipline, the legal subordination of human time to the capitalist exploitation. Real domination is the technological and material dependence of social activity on the capitalist form of social relations. We are probably entering today a new phase of capitalist domination, beyond formal and real: mental domination, realized through the pervasiveness of the semiotic code of capital within the collective brain, within language, within the mind, and within the cognitional activity. The capitalist paradigm is imprinted on the collective intelligence, inside the techno-social interfaces, in the semiotic framework of social communications.

The alternative between policies of deregulation and policies of state intervention is a false alternative. There is no way of regulating capital. Capital is a proliferating process of semiotization, informing techno-social interfaces and producing neural pathways and frames of social interaction. Since capital is pervading all social relationships, it is the regulator, not the regulated. The problem is not the legal regulation of capitalism, the problem is capitalism itself.

The industrial world is fading, the industrial composition of labour is dissolving, and a new composition of social activity is emerging. But the capitalist code is still pervading it. And in its current virtual (dis)incarnation, capitalism seems to be a system without any alternative. The alternative cannot be found in the past.

Franco Beradi (Bifo)id the author of author of Neuromagma

Proud to be Flesh

To: Mutoids (Re: The Californian Ideology)

Louis Rossetto's reply to The Californian Ideology

A seeming understanding of the Digital Revolution's crucial left-right fusion of free minds and free markets, followed by a totally out-to-lunch excursion into discussions of the role of the government, racism, and the ecology in California, ending with a startling admission of the need to marry "some of the entrepreneurial zeal and can-do attitude" of California to a uniquely European (but not even vaguely defined) mixed economy solution - all of it betraying an atavistic attachment to statism, and an utterly dismal failure to comprehend the possibilities of a future radically different than the one we currently inhabit, one that is actually democratic, meritocratic, decentralized, libertarian. * Far from building the Digital Revolution, the US Defense Department sucked up 6 to 7 percent of US GNP for 40 years and utilized up to 40 percent of all engineering talent, channelling these resources not into technological growth, but into tanks, bombs, and military adverturism. In point of fact, it was the cutback in American defense spending following the Vietnam War and the subsequent firing of thousands of California engineers which resulted in the creation of Silicon Valley and the personal computer revolution. * A descent into the kind of completely stupid comments on race in America that only smug Europeans can even attempt. (Any country which prohibits its own passport holders from residing within its borders, or any people who are currently allowing genocidal war to be waged in their own back yard after the stupefying genocide of WWII, shouldn't be lecturing Americans about anything having to do with race, much less events which occurred 200 years ago.) The charge of technological apartheid is just plain stupid: "Already 'red-lined' by profit-hungry telcos [isn't every company, by definition, "profit hungry?", although that description in this context is also stupid since telcos are regulated monopolies with government enforced rates of return], the inhabitants of poor inner city areas are prevented from accessing the new on-line services through lack of money." Oh really? Redlined? Universal telephone access is mandated in the US. And anyone with a telephone has access to online service. Lack of money? Online is cheaper than cable television, and you can get a new computer for less than $1000, a used one less than $500.* The utterly laughable Marxist/Fabian kneejerk that there is such a thing as the info-haves and have-nots - this is equivalent to a 1948 Mute whining that there were TV-haves and have-nots because television penetration had yet to become universal, the logical conclusion being that, of course, the state had to step in and create television entitlements. This whole line of thinking displays a profound ignorance of how technology actually diffuses through society. Namely, there has to be a leading edge, people who take a risk on new, unproven products - usually upper tenish types, who pay through the nose for the privilege of being beta testers, getting inferior technology at inflated prices with the very real possibility that they have invested in technological dead ends like eight track or betamax or Atari. Yet they are the ones who pay back development costs and pave the way for the mass market, which, let me assure you, is every technology company's wet dream (the biggest market today for the fastest personal computers is not business, but the home). Not haves and have-nots - have-laters. * This anal retentive attachment to failed 19th century social and economic analysis and bromides is what allows you to claim that the laughable French Minitel system is a success, when in fact it is a huge impediment to France developing a real networked economy since the dirigisme which mandated an instantly obsolete closed technology for deployment into every home in France - and then conspired to stifle any alternative - has insured that France remain resolutely outside the mainstream of the Internet. * A profound ignorance of economics. The engine of development of the Digital Revolution was not state planning, whether you call that an industrial policy or a defense policy. It was free capital markets and venture funds which channelled savings to thousands upon thousands of companies, enabling them to start, and the successful to thrive. Contrast this with the sorry history of European technology development, where huge plutocratic organizations like Siemens and Philips conspired with bungling bureaucracies to hoover up taxes collected by local and Euro-wide state institutions and shovel them into mammoth technology projects which have proven to be, almost without exception, disasters. The true measure of the failure of European (in other words, statist) direction of technology can be measured by the fact that in ten years, during the biggest technology boom the planet has ever witnessed, Europe has gone from a net exporter of technology, to a net importer.* Let's get real here: High European taxes which have restricted spending on technology and hence retarded its development; state telco monopolies which have kept prices high and service bad, again impeding networking in business and the home; state-directed technology investment, which has resulted in the monopolization of risk capital, uniformly bad technology policy, and the squandering of resources and opportunities; social welfare policies which reward parasitical living rather than risk-taking; a truly atavistic, sick attachment to the compulsion and non-meritocratic elitism of statism as a way of life; and a kneejerk disdain for truly radical social and political thought which falls outside Euro PC dogma (read failed Marxist/Fabian) - have all retarded and will continue to retard Europeans; if the US and Asian countries had conspired to insure Europe continued to cede export markets, they could not have come up with a better strategy that the one you advocate: continued statist meddling ). * Meanwhile, it's Europeans who are discussing "California ideology," not Californians who are discussing "European ideology." And not because some clatch of bureaucrats in Strasbourg or Luxembourg have issued yet another directive. Because Europeans are recognizing that 19th century nostrums are not solutions to 21st century problems - on the contrary, they are the problem - and it's time to encourage competition, risk taking, democracy and meritocracy, and dare I say it, dreaming about a different, better future. Ask me again, and I'll really tell you what I think.

Louis Rossetto, Editor & Publisher, Wired

Proud to be Flesh

Mute in Conversation with Nettime (Pit Schultz) (Digital Publishing Feature)

Pauline van Mourik Broekman Could you tell me something about how nettime was started, and how it has developed since then?

Pit Schultz: nettime started as a 3-day-meeting in a small theatre in Venice during the Biennale 95. A meeting of Media-activists, theoreticians, artists, journalists from different European countries. (Heath Bunting, Geert Lovink, Diana McCarty, Vuk Cosic, David Garcia, Nils Roeller, Tomasso Tozzi, Paul Garrin, and many more.) We developed the main lines of a Net-critique along the topics of virtual urbanism, globalisation/tribalisation, the life metaphor. Also, it became obvious that it was necessary to define a different cultural (net)politics than the one Wired Magazine represented in Europe. It was a private and intensive event, and in a way, it defined the 'style' that we critique and discuss issues on nettime. Nettime is somehow modelled on the table of the meeting, it was covered with texts, magazines, books, whatever we had to offer the group. It was the start of our 'gift economy' with exchanges of information. Today the list has nearly 300 subscribers, it's growing constantly with around 10 subscribers a week. We do no PR and the list is semiclosed, which means new subscriptions must be approved.

PvMB: Were you intensely involved with computers?

PS: My first computer was an Atari2600 TV-game, then a ZX81, C64, Amiga1000, I switched to Mac when I began with DTP in the Botschaft group after '90, used Dos/Linux for Internet, and ended up with a DX66 under Win95, mainly to run Eudora, in an Intranet. So these machines document certain phases in my life, but they don't determine them. I also studied computer science for a couple of years, but it was not what I expected, which was a more conceptual approach that reflected the development of software on a much broader, maybe cultural, level.

PvMB: ...and net culture

PS: I was involved with The Thing bbs network from 92-94, the high time of ascii and text based internet like MUDs and MOOs, before the Web. At the same time I was working with the group Botschaft. There were also some exhibitions of low media art, a communication performance in the TV tower in Berlin, meetings, long term projects in the public sphere like an installation with Daniel Pflumm in a subway tunnel, a collaboration with the group 'handshake' which later became Internationale Stadt, or Chaos Computer Club which Botschaft shared office space with. After a Bilwet event we organised, I started to work with Geert Lovink, which was a truly new phase of work.

PvMB: an artist

PS: Yes and no. I got a stipendium and did exhibitions, but always had problems accepting art as a 'closed system', and I have to emphasise here that nettime is a group project, it is not a 'piece of individual art,' but a medium formed by a collective subjectivity, a sum of individuals. I'm moderating it and it has its aesthetic aspects. But you don't have to call me an artist for this.

PvMB: ...before you started the list and how do you think that has affected how nettime was set up?

PS: Well, you can call it a continuation of my art practise. But, it functions without naming it art. In '94 I tried to begin with projects on the Web, especially the Orgasmotron Project (a database of recorded brain waves of human Orgasms) which reflected the early euphoric times of 'first contact.' With Botschaft e.V. in 93-'4, we did the Museum fuer Zukunft, a group project and database of future scenarios, ideas, and views, but during these projects it became clear that I needed a deeper understanding of the collaborative, theoretical, and discursive aspects of cyberspace to continue. During this time I also gave up doing installations in defined art spaces. Generally, after a euphoric entry phase I got extremely bored and disappointed with what was and is happening in the art field. My main interest remains what Andreas Broeckman calls 'machinic aesthetics', a field between the social, political, and cultural economy of the so called 'new media'. So I was happy to meet Geert, and through Venice and a list of other meetings, a group of people with shared interests that we're trying to bring together on the nettime list.

PvMB: It seems that nettime has gravitated more towards net-political and -philosophical discussion than that directly to do with 'art'. What role do you (and Geert Lovink?), as (a) moderator(s), have with regard to that?

PS: Art today, especially media art, is a problematic field. When I listen to music, it may happen that I don't like it, but it comes through the radio. That's how art appears to me. You can switch it off, but there is still a lot of music around. So much about art. With the moderation: it is also a contradictory role. The less the moderator appears the better the channel flows. It is, of course, this power-through-absence thing, but we hope that we handle it carefully and in a responsible way, with the continuous group process in mind. Power flows through networks, and you cannot switch it off. From different sides, Geert and I have an interest in working with the dynamic of the aesthetic contra the political field. There are many fault lines and frontiers. One of them seems to become the art system which still has some kind of Alleinherrschaftsanspruch in the symbolic cultural field. This changes through new media and even if new media will not make the term 'Art' obsolete, there is something about the paradox between media and art or media art that I find deeply problematic. Both have components of totalatarian systems of representation. There is the chance that new media creates channels to redirect the flow of power. That's what nettime is made for. An experimental place for (re)mixes, something I missed for a very long time. Never perfect and always 'in becoming,' but not explicit, not descriptive but performative, and pragmatic.

Both Geert and I have our own reasons to distance ourselves from today's 'art discourse'. You can name nettime a political project in terms of the real effects we try to trigger, in terms of conflicting debates reflecting and criticising economic and social implications of the 'digital revolution'. It is a philosophical channel in terms of describing a certain 'condition', while accessing and applying the traditional knowledge including the 'postmodern' stuff. It is an aesthetic process in many aspects, while developing a collaborative writing space, experimenting with modes and styles of 'computer mediated communication'. Finally, we have the luxury of silence and don't advertise, so we don't need big investments into labels and surface, it gets spread by word of mouth, and the footer 'cultural politics of the nets' can mean many things. It's about clouds. There is this 'field of virtuality or potentiality,' multiple contexts and personas, interests and intensities which, like the social aspect, the time aspect, the knowledge and news aspect, make nettime something which modulates a flow of heterogeneous subjective objects, something with an existential aesthetic of living with nettime, (including the group, events, projects which grow here) a collective and singular info-environment which exists without the need to be named art.

PvMB: At the discussion at DEAF96, I think you described nettime as a 'dirty' ascii channel; how 'dirty' or unmoderated is it?

PS: Dirtyness is a concept here, especially for the digital realm, which produces its own clean dirtyness, take the sound of digital distortion of a CD compared to analogue distortion of Vinyl. Take all kinds of digital effects imitating the analogue dirtyness, which means in the end, a higher resolution, a recursive, deeper, infinite structure. I used the concept because of its many aspects. It means here to affirm the noise aspect, but only to generate a more complex pattern out of it. It does not mean 'anything goes', or a self-sufficient ethic of productivity. It is slackerish in a way, slows down, speeds up, doesn't care at certain places, just to come back to the ones which are tactically more effective.... there is a whole empirical science behind it, how to bring the nettime ship through dark waters... how to compress and expand, how to follow the lines of noise/pattern instead of absence/presence...

(In fact I pushed the big red button of the moderator mode only once, after a period of technical errors and a following unfocused dialogue.) The phenomenon is, and I think this is not such a rare thing, that a group of people, in a repetitive, communicative environment, begin to filter a field of possible 'communication acts' in a certain way, quasi machinic. You don't have to be professional or especially skilled in the beginning. The production of 'information' along the borderline of noise means to constantly refine a social context, maybe an artificial one, what some call immanent, I mean with rules which are self-evident, and are interdependent in a dynamic way. The list-software sends a kind of basic netiquette to the new users but this affects only some formal factors. One is that we decided to avoid dialogues, without forbidding them. Nettime is not a list of dialogues of quote and requote, but more of a discursive flow of text, of different types, differentialising, contextualising each other. On the net it is called 'collaborative filtering' or earlier, it was 'social filtering'.

Dirtyness means here many things, first of all the absence of purity, you always have mixtures, 'agencements' ... but this becomes too trivially 'postmodern'. The constant commentary, forming a socially defined body of knowledge, and of course, a field where power is generated out of undifferentiated forces, which includes the position of the moderators, or other very active participants, for defining where the scope of the flow tends to go. But actually, anyone can post whatever she likes. This risk, which often leads to a situation of overflow and re-orientation, is also the productive freedom of nettime. Another is the limited set of signs, like the Euro-English or net-pigeon, using English as a non-native speaker or the reduced character set of ascii, or the minimal features of the perl-scripts which run the mailinglist. Finally, for the authors, there is always a multiple aspect of why to write, and for the readers, why to read nettime. You definitely have to filter, I guess nobody, including me, reads every mail from start to finish. The sender has the chance to actively select texts she finds on the net and forward them. The author can pre- or republish texts, send pre-versions, test certain ideas, or sample others. On the material side, there are the Printouts of ZKP, readers which come out in small numbers during conferences. The process of inscription combined with a filtering process functions a bit like a news-ticker, if you want to find a comparison in the publishing world.

PvMB: Two other pertinent issues that came up at the DEAF discussion were those to do with size and finance. If online journals or lists are akin to creators of community, for example, where discussion can be catalytic due to the small size of the group and many of the contributors also knowing each other 'in real life', does their effectivity decrease beyond a certain size (I think Geert mentioned a couple of hundred). Although nettime is still a 'closed' mailing list, its subscriber base has grown; have you adapted your methodology?

As you can see, nettime is still going well. It seems there is a self-regulation process on the side of the contributors. There is the growth, which is around 10 new subscribers per week, mostly on a word of mouth basis, which leads to a certain social consistency. Then, in the way texts get selected/produced and find their way to the list. The 'group' is circumscribing a network of real life relationships, a network of shared interests, and a network of contextualising documents. This happens in relation to the 'outside', to the 'wideness' of the net, and to the 'deepness' of the local places where people work and live. Every document represents a vector through time in a social context, a discursive environment with many levels of reference, but a relatively concrete and simple surface: ascii-text. The complexity and aesthetics which come out of the simple practical rules of a mailinglist are complex and dynamic enough to not feel the urge to experiment with multithread, hypertextual, multimedia environments, even if we think about certain extensions you find in common with infranet or groupware solutions in the corporate world. It says: never touch a running system. I think the next level will evolve through a certain economic pressure, certain cases where texts reappear somewhere without permission, or other cases where the unwritten norms are subverted by other 'content machines' running on other principles, but sharing similar fields of issues. There is a need to use the chance and experiment with new horizontal networks of producers, to respect the collaborative editorial work of a user community and most of all, to think about financial models in terms of a sustainable quality of discussion, which includes the 'currency' of trust and credibility.

PvMB: And then regarding finance. This obviously has enormous effects on how things can run. Nettime is a 'no budget' operation; what are the advantages and disadvantages of this and how do you manage to keep going?

PS: First I have to say that your question already has certain implications. It may seem natural to put anything you do into an economic model and ask, what do I get for it? what do I pay for it? But it cannot even be said that such an exchange economy runs effectively with money. There is clearly a drive to profit from new media, and, of course, money must be there, for a basic funding, but the goal of nettime is not financial profit. One easily comes to this point with a defensive position, or a dogmatic one, fighting against the all too present, not to say, totalitarian system of a world wide integrated capitalism. Even after Marx, there are social fights, and especially within the new media, you have to face, like in the art world, certain problems, which often mean, make money fast, but bad work; work, but don't get good money. There is a certain kind of luxury today, which is somehow overcoded by 'slackerdom' which is contrary to the work ethic of the yuppie or the political activist. It is a pragmatic level, we do not have to talk about just economics, but we have to develop a working model, a constant fight with risks of exploitation, burn-out, sell-out.

Finally we would have to change nettime from its microeconomical, very basic structure if we would force its commercialisation. To make it clear, especially for mailinglists, but also many other sites with hi content, that it is not at all clear how to finance them for the long term. The time of the hype might be over soon, and then you have to face a shake out of centralisation that we already know from the history of radio and TV. On the other hand, I do not believe in the concept of autonomy. It leads to a sad double life, it might be that you live by state grants, or that you have to do a stupid job during the day. Between, there are many shades of grey, and among them is the possibility of alternative online economies which may once reintroduce less-alienated semiotics into the circulation of capitalism.

PvMB: You've talked about the importance of editors being sensitive to the exchange economies of the nets; these many economies intertwine, they are not separate are they? Highly commercial and competitive ones share technologies, content and 'participants' (for want of a better word) with ones that are more clearly like the potlach economy you refer to. In practice, what has your experience been of keeping nettime independent within this situation?

PS: These economies intertwine, but not without friction. From the view of the poor, there is the need to disrespect certain economic barriers, for example, licenses and copyright. That's what is happening in many Eastern countries. The new markets are not functioning like they promised to, at least not for all. There are still many chances to use new technology as a tool to reach more independence, but it also gets used in the other way, for a huge 'Darwinist' shakeout. And as one can see with Microsoft, it is not at all the best who survive. So I strongly resist any logic of preaffirming the situation. Potlatch is only a circumscription of a kind of exchange economy which is pretty common, as soon as you have the privilege to do so. I am sure that we will face models which are based on a certain local exclusion of money economy. Any family, community, or friendship is based on such models. Finally, you need the friction, the potential of mixed economies, for a vivid and creative market, at least from what I understand about markets.

PvMB: This links with one of the ongoing discussions on nettime, the one to do with libertarianism or neoliberalism and social justice. It has, over time, involved posting extensive 'dialogues' on the role of Wired, the demonisation of the State and been presented as an attempt to start generating a productive, European contribution to the development of ideas on techno-cultural political organisation for the future. Is this right and how do you feel it is going?

PS: You can describe it like that. But I don't like to make predictions here. One thing nettime does is critique, this means it reflects and constructs the present. Of course there are strategies, and part of a strategy is that one should not talk too much about it. The important task is not to give up against the homogenising, centralising, and alienating networks of a global integrated capitalism, to use these very ethical-political techniques as 'cultural' ones. To push against what is forced on us as 'economic factors' in favour of a necessary quality.

contact: <>, <>reading: news://alt.nettime or news://

Pauline van Mourik Broekman <pauline AT>

Proud to be Flesh

Tea with Kevin Kelly

JJKing interviews Kevin Kelly

"Imagine that we live on a steel planet, and there's a whole bus-load of things that arrive from outer space and they have these big bags of seeds - life - and they're like, 'Do you want it?' and we're like, 'File an EPA report,' - we'd reject it. It's too risky, it's out of control, it's full of diseases. We would reject life if it was given to us right now. And that's exactly what we're doing with technology. Technology has all the same kind of qualities, and we're saying 'we can't deal with it.'"

This anecdote, related to me in a recent interview with Kevin Kelly, speaks volumes about the attitude towards technology and culture promulgated by Kelly, John Perry Barlow, Nicholas Negroponte et al, whose self-promotional chutzpah has established them as the 'digerati'. The unchecked substitution of 'life' for 'technology' is a semantic sleight-of-hand that gives way, here, to the assertion that the same sceptics who want to refuse technology today would be the kind to have wanted to refuse life at its dawn (the implication of the gag, its utter fatuity notwithstanding, being that since only a dumbass would want to refuse life, only a dumbass could want to refuse technology); elsewhere it's a 'switcheroo' (Kelly's word, not mine) that will lend technology the working status of a vital force that, like 'nature', operates outside the reach of social imperatives.

That, of course, leaves a nasty taste in the mouth for those comfy with a 'Tomorrow's World' technology that is 'put to work' for us, achieving palpable results which can be lauded, applauded and then comfortably consumed. Connectionism, with all its zany, bottom-up, out-of-control-ness is anathema to the prevailing picture of technology as humankind's servant. And the digerati, bless 'em, are just bursting to relieve you of such a paradigm.Fair enough, you might think.

There is a whiff, though, of something rather more pernicious here. For many of us, the invocation of the old bogie 'Mother Nature' as a legitimation for any discourse raises hackles, largely because she's been made bedfellow to some particularly unscrupulous types in her time, lending dumb support to (amongst other things) radical racism and gender discrimination. But it's worse than that, for the connectionists, because they're not merely attempting to substantiate an ideology upon nature, but to use nature as that ideology: in the free-market ecology of Kelly, Negroponte and Barlow, nature, with all its savage vicissitudes, becomes the law - a naturally occurring phenomenon beyond the dictat of culture. The middle term is expelled. No longer: 'x is right because it's natural'; just 'x is natural - so talking about its rightness is pointless'.

Should the network, I ask Kelly, really be viewed as irreproachable? What happens when its emergent phenomena are violent, acrimonious, undesirable?

"I do think," he confirms, "of technology as a form of life. And in general, I think, the more life we have the better. Are there specific powers or disruptions that are caused by specific forms of life? Yes. What does that mean? Well, that means we have to kind of deal with it. But does it mean that we should try to stop life altogether, stop technology altogether? No."

Well, no-one was actually offering that as a serious option. We could ask, in its stead, for simple concessions: is there, for instance, room for a social conscience in such a paradigm? A social support network? An anaemic one, at best. "I don't think technology solves the ills of society," Kevin says bluntly. "Those are socio-political problems, not technological problems. Technology's not going to change those things."

Convenient how it's possible to pull apart economics and technology after spending 600-odd pages putting them together in his somewhat infamous book. But how cool is it, I wonder, to study and promote the growth of distributed, out of control technologies when those technologies are not being put to work to help people? After all, wasn't technology, at least nominally, supposed to try to help? Vehicles to move people. Agricultural machinery to feed people. Medicine and medical technologies to save people's lives. But this network - because it's part of nature - doesn't need to help anybody.

Somehow it feels wrongheaded, or perhaps just deeply unfashionable, to pop the question. "So what about the people who fall through the network," I ask nonetheless, "the homeless people, the starving, the mentally disturbed? How does the network try to extend its help to them?" Kevin doesn't falter for a moment. "The people you're talking about have very little to do with technology and much more to do with politics and social skills. I know of no technology that is going to help the people you've just mentioned." Well. At least we know where we stand. Nature doesn't help anybody, and why should technology?

Except that the digerati don't go this far. They don't want to be accused of cruelty, and they've developed a little fantasy that helps them to feel they're helping you. It goes like this: there's no have-nots, just 'have lates'. Everybody will get the Network in the end, even those who don't even have food right now; everybody will benefit wonderfully from it, and "in about ten years this question [of have-nots] is going to be perceived with great amusement. The problem is not going to be all those people who are not connected, 'cause they're just have lates. Everybody's going to have the stuff sooner than they think, and then we're all going to be worrying about what happens when they're connected."

But this connectionist riff about 'haves and have-lates' is another wholly unacceptable bit of semantic manoeuvring that, looked at from ground level, seems flimsy, insubstantial, and more than a little crass. The question of access to knowledge is critical, especially as such access is becoming increasingly an issue of economics, and attempting to close it with so flippant a soundbyte is unforgivable. The world outside the virtual class has big problems that preclude large sections of the population from access, or even thinking about access. "We're in an era," Kevin Kelly said to me, "where we have tremendous stuff to gain by looking at the bottom." Unfortunately he wasn't talking about the rock-bottom, and the very limited gains the people who reside there have to make from the connectionist project.

How many of us are going to be 'having' this pan-capitalist global Network, anyway? Is the process towards one really that clear, that inexorable? In Europe, despite isolated moves towards non-government organisations and quangos, the general political swing is manifestly towards a centralised system - which seems utterly polarised to the digerati's connnectionist pronouncements about the world. How does Kelly reconcile this with his picture of a global shift to decentralisation, deregulation, and bottom-up governance? By ignoring it, as far as I can tell. "Despite backsliding in various parts of the globe, there's a very clear trend towards the decentralisation of governments. Very few would dispute that there's a general trend in that direction," he asserts in response to my questions. I'm sorry? Backsliding? Various parts of the globe? Aren't we talking about the whole of Europe here, Kevin? He leaps over the continent in one gigantic visionary stride, hardly even taking in the point. This is typical of the quite deliberate and obstinate myopia that characterises the Californian ideology of the digerati, the same myopia that has led Negroponte to make wild assertions about the redundancy of issues of race and gender in a recent letter to Wired US.

I suppose I've given the game away: there's something about connectionism that I can't quite connect with. Its ideology, for reasons I hope I've pointed at, is fundamentally unsound. "But the ideological part of it is irrelevant," Kelly protests. "The pervasive, ubiquitous spread of this technology will continue because it's practical." Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm not even convinced that any of it is going to happen, but were it to I'd be deeply suspicious of any process funded on a purely 'natural' and 'practical' rationale, the trajectory of which sweeps straight over a whole gaggle of nasty, sticky little objections.

What happens, for instance, to privacy in a world where every dumb little thing is talking to every other dumb little thing? Isn't it all queasily resonant of some disgustingly bloated global Neighbourhood Watch scheme? "Well, in America, the idea of privacy is a very loaded word that is actually not very clear and which means a lot of different things. A person who had true privacy was the Unabomber." My worst fears confirmed: a network this ubiquitous, this voracious, would never tolerate absence: every silence, every unknown, would be regarded as the stirring of dissent. Mad bombers in huts in the forest; pinkos, revolutionaries, and freaks hiding behind encryption codes and firewalls. It all adds up to a situation in which silence will need to be justified. "But who wants to have no relationships?" Kevin demands incredulously. "Who wants to have no-one know anything about you? That's inhuman, that's sick." Who are you calling sick? I'm not saying that I necessarily want to be cut off from society, just that I'd like it to be a possibility. "Well, if you make it easy to rebel, then there's no value in doing it," says Kevin blithely. Great to know he has our best interests at heart.

Privacy, that's one issue. Another: protection. Have the digerati failed to notice the violent and unpalatable emergent phenomena at football matches and mob rallies? Have they ever considered that from 'natural' flux, society has doggedly organised itself into top-down and often totalitarian systems? That if you strengthen the ability of humans to communicate ideas without tempering them, you invite the spontaneous emergence of systems which may not reflect your own political intentions? A distributed system, I point out to Kevin, need not stay in motion, but can reach a resting point in any one of a plethora of constellations.

For a while we skirt around each other, me arguing that his Network will speed the process of tyranny and revolution into a kind of continuous repression and revolt, him arguing that it will make such tyranny "more difficult. I'm not saying it can't be done, just that it becomes more difficult." We manage to agree that the Network, already generating conspiracy theories like Billy-o through its younger sibling, the internet, might in future give them an environment in which they can proliferate with even greater efficacy.

But what's the difference between conspiracy theory and religious and political movements, I ask? Kevin cuts through the question with a prophetic assertion: "We're not going to see tyrannies, but things that are like conspiracies to the extreme." He then comes over a bit vague and seer-ish, in an Ides of March kind of way. "Very, very toxic, conspiratorial and rumour based things. We haven't, probably, seen that kind of thing yet." I decide to leave it at that, and we move on swiftly to the subject of mob rule.

Suddenly we hit pay-dirt. "I think it's impossible to have any kind of sophisticated civilisation that's run entirely from the bottom. Sure, that's a mob, and you get mob rule. So you absolutely need to have top-down control." In a flash, I get it: even Kelly doesn't really believe any of this gab about distributed rule. "That," he admits, "is just one part of the equation. You need points of control within the system. Leverage points, I'd call them."

This, of course, is the crux of what many sceptics are trying to get across to the digerati: that the architecture of a system defines the movements of those who traverse it, and that those who design and influence that architecture should therefore pay close attention to their motivations and mind-sets. Whilst the claim was for a system that had an entirely open architecture, similar somehow to those found in 'nature', we merely wanted to point out that that didn't sound like the way 'nature' worked - or that open systems, in human society, have often led to abusive, coercive movements. Now our position, as critics of this emergent Californian Ideology, changes, for here is a far more dangerous admission: that the digerati, or at least some of them, are fully aware that 'leverage points' have to be hardwired into their network, and that those points will define control within that network. Now we want to know - and we have to ask - what ideology informs the placement of those points of control, what strategies govern their operation?

"Yeah," muses Kelly, "can we agree on a set of moral heuristics that we want to wire in?"

Oh, oh. And then,

"How do we engineer consensus?"

This has all started to sound very, very worrying indeed, and I find myself considering the opinion of a couple of notable Nettime writers - to whit, that the digerati are the new Mussolinis and Hitlers of our time - in a new light. Could Kelly really be an embryonic InfofŸhrer, exhorting the virtual class to sneak leverage points and fulcrums of control into the systems they are helping to fashion? Somehow it doesn't ring true. I have to add a new criticism to the list of those he is already surrounded by: that Kelly is an intellectual naif. By his own admission, he relies on other people to provide ideologies. "I am very eager," he says to me, "to hear someone else map something out that make sense to me."

You really get the feeling, talking to him, that he honestly doesn't feel equipped to talk about certain issues. He's a bright guy, but I start to realise that he just isn't comfortable discussing the implications of his work when that discussion starts to touch on philosophical and socio-political theoretics. It may be that Kelly feels on safe ground in his book, therefore, with nature on his side. It's hard to go wrong with nature. It doesn't answer back, and if you describe it convincingly enough, most of your readers won't either.

Sceptics would of course point out to me that I bought into his disingenuity, and that I'm the naive one; they'd probably be right. But, before I finish, let me point out that this charge of naivetŽ should not be taken as an attempt to mitigate Kelly's, or the digerati's, astonishing intellectual irresponsibility. "What are your ideas?" Kelly asks me as the interview is closing. "I'm an editor at Wired, I have many times asked people to prepare something that I can believe in. Give me something that makes sense in terms of what I know, and I'll try to disseminate it." Not good enough, I'm afraid: the way to respond to the fact of your own misguided, malnourished and half-assed ideology is not to ask me, or anyone else, to come up with one, it's to start doing some thinking yourself.

"Well," Kevin says meekly, "I'm not much of a preacher. I'm a devout Christian, I have my own faith, my own beliefs, that very few people share and very few people are actually interested in hearing about. I'm not a preacher." Now that, I think, is interesting. But I'm going to resist giving a Christian reading of the notions of Gaia and hive mind - and I'm going to resist setting Christianity alongside the 'natural law' argument and saying "Look!"; both of those actions would be somewhat below the belt. I will also resist going into any detail about the incompatibility of Jesus' teachings with a system that promotes pan-Capitalism and which is all but blind to those at the bottom. All this is part of a different article.

What I will say is that I, for one, would be very interested in hearing a technological discourse based not on nature, but on the Bible. Kevin Kelly, if you're truly committed to pointedly unfunny speculations about the future, you might as well jettison all this prosaic, 'natural' claptrap, put your money where your mouth is and head for the heavens. "I am the Common Gateway Interface, the truth, and the light". Cor, now wouldn't that be something?

Jamie King <jamie AT> is currently researching the impact of information technology on contemporary culture and editing a collection of Net criticism, Thinking Online.

Proud to be Flesh

Bombs and Bytes

Can the intense economy of information short-circuit knowledge? Anustup Basu follows Gilles Deleuze in analysing fascism as a hijacking of linguistic potential. Facsism, he argues, realises itself through a technology of habituation parasitic on our willingness to be informed – a biopolitical sovereignty that percolates individuals and communities at the micro-level. No longer is world-order decreed by the word of the sovereign, but by an inhuman sovereign will constituted on the plane of informationINTRODUCTION

During the publicity drive towards building up domestic and international support for the 2003 war on Iraq, no functionary of the United States government actually made a public statement to the effect that Saddam Hussein had an active part to play in the devastation of September 11, 2001. Nevertheless, it was subsequently noted in the opinion polls that an alarming number of American people believed that the Iraqi despot was involved in the conspiracy and its execution. Hence the two propositions – Saddam the evil one, and 9/11, the horrible crime – seem to be associated in a demographic intelligence without having any narrative obligation to each other; that is, without being part of the same ‘story’. The outcome, it seems, was achieved by a mathematical chain of chance, by which two disparate postulates, in being publicised with adequate proximity, frequency, and density, gravitate towards each other in an inhuman plane of massified thought. They, in other words, are bits and bytes of newspeak which have come to share what I will call an ‘informatic’ affinity with each other, without being organically conjoined by constitutive knowledge. The formation of the latter entity is of course something we are prone to consider a primary task of the philosophical human subject, who is also the modern citizen with rights and responsibilities. Attaining knowledge by reading the world is how we are supposed to self-consciously exercise reason, form views, and partake in an enlightened project of democratic consensus and legislation. Hence, insofar as these much hallowed protocols of liberal democracy are concerned, this 9/11 opinion poll poses some disconcerting questions:

1. How does one account for the fact that what is, at face value, the most sophisticated technological assemblage for worldly communication and dissemination of ‘truth’, should sublimate what, in Kantian terms, must be called an unscientific belief or dogma?

2. To be mediatised literally means to lose one’s rights. Hence, what happens to the idea of government by the people and for the people if the ‘false’ is produced as a third relation which is not the synthetic union of two ideas in the conscious mind of the citizen or the general intellect of the organic community, but is a statistical coming together of variables?


3. If the ‘false’ is merely a moment in an overall control and management of an information environment and its electronic herd, that is, if it is simply a matter of manipulated distribution and saturation of facts in order to get a desired feedback in terms of public perception, what consequences does that have in terms of human politics? How is the cynical intelligence of power that calls this into being to be configured?

4. Lastly, this distillation of the false as ‘informatic’ perception requires money. In other words, it requires a tremendous amount of wealth in order to not only bring the variables Saddam Hussein and 9/11 into a state of associative frequency, but also to minimise and regulate the appearance of other variables from appearing in the scenario. For instance, in this case, to reduce, for the time being, the frequency of the proper name Osama. Hence, the obvious question – what is the role of money in the purportedly post-modern, increasingly technologised, sphere of communicative action?

These are not new questions. They are a continuation of what a long line of western thinkers, from Antonio Gramsci to Giorgio Agamben, have been asking from various philosophical standpoints: how was it that modern technologies of reproduction of the art work and electrification of the public sphere should produce European fascism as one of its first, grotesque spectacles? In a way, this anxious query seems to resonate, in a particular context, the old Pascalian question posed at the very gestative period of a godless modern world: how does one protect the interests of abstract justice from the real, material interests of power in the world?


The paradox, qua modern publicity and communication, as it is expressed in Walter Benjamin’s ‘Work of Art’ essay, can be outlined as follows: from the perspective of the enlightenment humanist one could say that mechanised mass culture in the 20th century was supposed to ‘de-auratise’ the work of art and make it more democratically available; but what Benjamin notices in his time is a disturbing incursion of aesthetics into politics, rather than the politicisation of art that could have been possible. This, for him, constitutes a ‘violation’ of the technologies of mass culture, by which the ‘F¸hrer cult’ produces its ritual values of aestheticising war and destruction. Benjamin formulates the problem as belonging to a society not yet ‘mature’ enough to ‘incorporate technology as its organ’. In Benjamin’s essay, ‘The Storyteller’, we can see this problem being articulated as a situation in which forms of storytelling (which are at once educative and exemplary to the citizen for his cosmopolitan education, and also amenable to his freedom of critical interpretation and judgement) are replaced by a new form of communication which he calls information. The first characteristic of information is its erasure of distance – its near-at-hand-ness grants information the ‘readiest hearing’ and makes it appear ‘understandable in itself’. The dissemination and reception of information is thus predicated on the production of the event as ‘local’, as ‘already being shot through with explanation.’’ For the conscious subject, this also entails the disappearance of a temporal interval required for movement within the faculties, from cognition to understanding and then finally to knowledge. Information is that which is accompanied by the entropic violence brought about by a supercession of the commonplace, and a reduction of language into clichÈs. It is in the ruins of a constitutive or legislative language that the instantaneous circuit of the commonsensical comes into being. In this case therefore, the establishment of Saddam’s crimes does not remain a matter of old jurisprudence, following normative rules of argumentation, proof, and deduction; it becomes an absolute movement of the commonsensical as the ‘already explained’.


Fascism is the common name we accord to totalitarian power. However, we often do it irresponsibly or ahistorically, categorically identifying the concept with limited, sociologistic understandings of the German or Italian scenarios around the great wars, or confining it to grotesque figurations of human agency, like that of Mussolini or Hitler. If the concept is to have any critical valence whatsoever in our global, neoliberal occasion, it needs to be unpacked and re-articulated before we begin to transpose it here and there. Gilles Deleuze has re-articulated Benjamin’s argument by transposing it from its organicist parabasis into a sub-human, molecular-pragmatic one. According to Deleuze, the discourses of fascism, as dominant myths in our time, establish themselves by an imperial-linguistic takeover of a whole social body of expressive potentialities. There are different forms of life and expressive energies in any situation of the historical which are capable of generating multiple instances of thought, imaginative actions, and wills to art. Fascism destroys such pre-signifying and pre-linguistic energies of the world, extinguishes pluralities, and replaces them with a monologue of power that saturates space with, and only with, the immanent will of the dictator. This is the moment in which the language system sponsored by the sovereign is at its most violent; it seeks to efface historical memory by denying its constitutive or legislative relation with non-linguistic social energies; it casts itself and its unilateral doctrine as absolute and natural. For Deleuze, this is a psychomechanical production of social reality more than an organicity of community torn asunder by human alienation and the incursion of reactionary ideologies, false consciousnesses, and agents. Not that the latter do not exist, or are unimportant components in this matter, but that this technology of power cannot be simply seen as a neutral arrangement of tools misused by evil ones. The figure of the dictator is therefore not that of the aberrant individual madman, but a psychological automaton that becomes insidiously present in all, in the technology of massification itself. The images and objects that mass hallucination, somnambulism, and trance produce are attributes of this immanent will to power.[1] The hypnotic, fascinating drive of fascism is thus seen to paradoxically operate below the radar of a moral and voluntaristic consciousness of the human subject; fascism becomes a political reality when knowledge based exchanges between entities of intelligence give way to a technologism of informatics.

Thinking, knowledge, or communicability (which is different from this or that technologism of communication) becomes foreclosed in such an order of power because one cannot really say anything that the social habit does not designate as something already thought of and pre-judged by the dictator. The publicity of fascism is one where friend and foe alike are seen to be engaged in tauto-talk, repeating what the dictator has already said or warned about. Benjamin calls this an eclipse of the order of cosmological mystery and secular miracles that the European humanist sciences of self and nature, and an enlightened novelisation of the arts sought to delineate and solve. There can be neither secrecies in fascism, nor anything unknown. Conspiracies in that sense can only be manifestations of what is already foretold and waiting to be confessed. The SS can of course procure and store ‘classified information’, but it can never say anything that the F¸hrer does not know better. Information therefore becomes an incessant and emphatic localisation of the global will of the dictator; in its seriality and movement, it can only keep repeating, illustrating, and reporting the self-evident truth of the dictatorial monologue.[2] For Deleuze, it is in this immanence of dictatorial will that Hitler becomes information itself. Also, it is precisely because of this that one cannot wage a battle against Hitlerism by embarking on a battle of truth and falsehood without questioning, and taking for granted, the very parabasis of information and its social relations of production. ‘No information, whatever it might be, is sufficient to defeat Hitler’.

Hence, like any other individual, Adolf the Aryan anti-semite does not exhaust the figure of Hitler. Informatics has not ceased after the death of Adolf and his propaganda machine, or the passing away of the particular discourse of the Adolphic oracle and its immediate historical context. As a figural diagram, as a special shorthand for a particular technology of power, Hitler subsequently must have only become stronger, that is, if indeed we are to still account for him as an immanent will to information that invests modern societies. But how can one conceptualise him without the formalist baggage, in other words, without the grotesque, arborescent institutions of repression, like the secret police or the concentration camps, which constitute a historicist definition of fascism? If one were to put the question differently, that is, occasion it in terms of a present global order of neo-liberalism, marked by American style individualism, consumer choices, democracy, and free markets that supposedly come to us after the agonistic struggles of liberation in the modern era are already settled, how can one enfigure the dead and buried tyrant in our midst in such an ‘untimely’ manner? How is Hitler possible in a liberal constitution? The question is a complicated one, because if we go back to the example we began our essay with, we will see that it actually satisfies the conditions of democratic accountability in terms of the human lie (the President never said this). Besides, it is also not the result of the state, as collective capitalist, monopolising the public sphere for propaganda purposes.

Perhaps one has to begin by not trying to enfigure Hitler in the contours of the human, as the irrational apex of the suicidal state, or the pathological Goebbelsian liar who perverted the tools of human communication into mass propaganda machines. Hitler in that sense, would not simply be the mediocre and grotesque madman who uses or abuses technology. He would still be a proper name for technologism itself, but in his latest neoliberal incarnation, he would not be one who simply imprisons the human in enclosed spaces like the death camp or exercises a Faustian domination over him through arborescent structures like the Nazi war/propaganda machine. The ‘postmodern’ technology of information that we are talking about qua Hitler is neither external nor internal to the human; it is one that is a part of the latter’s self-making as well as that of the bio-anthropological environment he lives in. Hitler enters us through a socialisation of life itself, through a technology of habituation that involves our willingness to be informed. It is a diffuse modality of power that perpetually communicates between the inside and the outside, erasing distance between the home and the world. It is in this context that Deleuze’s statement, that there is a Hitler inside us, modern abjects of capital, becomes particularly significant. Hitler, as per this formulation, becomes an immanent form of sovereignty that is biopolitically present, percolating individuals and communities in an osmotic manner. Hitler as information, as socially immanent micro-fascisms, is not the addresser who speaks to us while we listen. It was only Adolf who did that in the old days, as the anachronistic caricature of the sovereign who had not yet had his head cut off, but had simply ‘lost it’. Information on the other hand, is a metropolitan habit of instant signification; it is an administered social automaton that does not presume a contract between the speaker and the hearer. Since it has no point of origin other than the person informed, the instance of information is thus always one where the self listens to the commonsensical within the self itself, to the point where the two become indistinguishable. Hence, it is neither a lying President who says that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11, nor was such a sublimation the result of unilateral state propaganda in the style of old Adolf or old Stalin. Information in this sense, is indeed a commodified effect – a compact of words and images that is called into being by a non-linear and inhuman intelligence that, amongst other things, produces the human caricature or the icon of the Dictator himself. Informatisation therefore, evades the legal question altogether, by creating a situation where the commonsensical relation between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaida is established not by the word of the sovereign (which can always be produced as evidence and contested in tribunals of justice) but by a manifest immanence of an inhuman sovereign will.

It is only when we understand the cult of information as a social mode of production that we can understand that the problem of mediatisation that we have been talking about does not concern the agency of the individual human at all. To put it blandly, this is not about a conspiracy of a cabal of capitalists and money mongers who manufacture truth in a determined manner. That is, Hitler in an anthropomorphic form who arbitrates what should be said and what should not. We are also not simply talking about representational intentions (what Karl Rove really wanted us to believe) or prejudices about representational capabilities (Americans, as a people, need to mature in order to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff). The effort, on the other hand, is to understand a situation where screen time is money time, where one has to have money, or be sponsored by corporate interests of money, in order to be able to exercise one’s right to ‘self representation’. The fact that we are mediatised, hence bereft of rights, thus applies only differentially – all of us are Hitlers who command attention, or nigger-infants (the Greek etymology of the word infant, as in in-fans, refers to the being without language) who listen without speaking, but only in differential degrees of hierarchised mediation. Without old Adolf’s old dividing walls, everyone can speak, blessed with the freedom of speech. Nominally, everyone can play the game of representations, since everyone has money. It is a different matter altogether, one that has not much to do with the language games of neo-liberal economics and ideology, that some have a lot more of it than others.


A new form of political thinking has to begin by taking into account vast amounts of energies in the world that are antagonistic to capital. This has to be done in terms other than those pertaining to the figure of the human citizen and his charter of rights. It is part of the transcendental stupidity of the cult of information to impart such energies with a catalogue of profiles: the criminal, the delinquent, the madman, the negro, the woman, the child, the African AIDS victim, the poor, the unemployed, the illegal immigrant, or the terrorist. Informatics is about the reporting of the state’s pharmacopic action on these bodies, as objects of charity, aid, medication, schooling, or military action. This is why the unspeakable antagonism of living labour in the world is never ‘visible’ on CNN, Fox or any other corporate geo-televisual schema of metropolitan representation. The latter can discern only the ontology of money and its coalitionary interests – that which perpetually makes screen time money time. Humans, who are merely refugees great and small, can only climb into one or many of the designated profiles of massification. The centralising, perspectivist drive of CNN ­­– as commentary of the world, as a repetitive human psychodrama of development (birth pangs of modernity in the frontier, subjugated and freed consumer desires) – overlooks the energy from the margins of the frame in trying to fit entire crowds into the telegenic face. This is why populations can be categorically divided into simple binaries like ‘with us’ or ‘against us’. Labour and its multiple wills to antagonism (of which various narratives of resistance are only partial but undeniably important molar expressions) are thus un-representable precisely because they lack a ‘human’ face, or rather the face of the future American consumer. Global antagonisms to capital are at once utopic (as in ‘non-place’ since the logic of globalisation cannot posit an ‘outside’) and pantopic; they are, in multiple forms, and in different degrees of sublimation, nowhere and everywhere. It is a complex, political understanding of such matters – like linking insurrectionary violence in different corners of the world to unfair and imbalanced trade practices like agricultural subsidiaries, dumping, and tariff walls by first world countries – that spectacular informatisation removes or minimises from the public sphere. Politics therefore is replaced by symbiotic exchanges between peace and terror, and fear and security; communication likewise, is overwritten by a great monologue of global managerial-elite interests, in which power speaks to itself.

A judgement of the panorama of expressions of this global antagonistic will on the lines of good and bad can take place only as an afterthought; political thinking in our occasion can begin only with the acknowledgement of these energies as eventful, and not subject to essential categories of a state language that has become global. In other words, thinking has to proceed acutely, from an awareness of that very point of danger, where the state fails to ‘translate’ such affective hostilities into repetitive instances of its own already explained story. It must be remembered that informatics, as a form of social production of consent, is able to attain a normative power precisely because it is accompanied by an epistemic presumption of the end of the historical process altogether.[3] Stories therefore cannot be seen to be teaching us anything new in terms of constitutive politics because in the new world order of a globally rampant neoliberalism, there can be nothing new to narrate at all, in terms of alternative destinies and potentials of the world. They can only be local instances of crisis and management, in a grand chronicle of financialisation of the globe that is already foretold. It is this dire poverty of political language that the neo-liberal state tries to cover up with violence dictated in a situation of ‘emergency’ that is legitimised by an emotionalist, folksy rhetoric of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Here I must strongly clarify that I am not registering support for either the undeniably tyrannical Saddam Hussein, or a statist ideology of violence like that of Al Qaida. These two totalitarian entities, like some of their western counterparts, merely capture and mobilise some of these antagonistic energies. As far as the latter is concerned, it is not difficult to see how informatics peddles the worst clichÈs of neo-liberalism in trying to enframe antagonism through a host of good and evil profile doublets according to which a population is invented and managed, or policed and fed – the model minority contra the inner city delinquent, the healthy contra the mad, the peaceful Arab contra the Islamic bigot. In terms of spectacle and violence, it thus falls perfectly within the logic of war/information to have the yellow cluster bomb be interspersed with the yellow food packet during the recent war in Afghanistan. The global state of surveillance and security today violently tries to foreclose the political by informatising complex insurrectionary potentialities in terms of a simplistic, self-evident, and bipolar logic of peace and terror. The latter thus becomes a generic term to reductively describe a multiplicity of forces – from Latin American guerilla movements, to African tribal formations, to Islamic militancy in the Middle-East to Maoist rebellion in Nepal. The freedom of choice offered by the globally rampant North Atlantic machine of war and informatics is no longer between dwelling as a poet or as an assassin, but between a statistic or a terrorist.

[1] See Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 263-69[2] In this context see Hannah Arendt’s useful elaborations in The Origins of Totalitarianism [3] I am of course alluding to Francis Fukuyama’s KojËvian-Hegelian thesis in The End of History and the Last Man

Works Cited:Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York: Harvest, 1973 || Benjamin, Walter ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ in Illuminations, Hannah Arendt ed., Trans. Harry Zohn, London: Fontana, 1973, pp. 83-107 || Benjamin, Walter ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Illuminations, pp. 211-244 || Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema 2: The Time Image, Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1989 || Fukuyama, Francis, The End of History and the Last Man, New York: Avon Books, 1992

Anustup Basu <> is Cultural Studies Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of English

Proud to be Flesh

InfoEnclosure 2.0

The hype surrounding Web 2.0’s ability to democratise content production obscures its centralisation of ownership and the means of sharing. Dmytri Kleiner & Brian Wyrick expose Web 2.0 as a venture capitalist’s paradise where investors pocket the value produced by unpaid users,  ride on the technical innovations of the free software movement and kill off the decentralising potential of peer-to-peer production

Wikipedia says that ‘Web 2.0, a phrase coined by O’Reilly Media in 2004, refers to a supposed second generation of internet-based services – such as social networking sites, wikis, communication tools, and folksonomies – that emphasise online collaboration and sharing among users.’

The use of the word ‘supposed’ is noteworthy. As probably the largest collaboratively authored work in history, and one of the current darlings of the internet community, Wikipedia ought to know. Unlike most of the members of the Web 2.0 generation, Wikipedia is controlled by a non-profit foundation, earns income only by donation and releases its content under the copyleft GNU Free Documentation License. It is telling that Wikipedia goes on to say ‘[Web 2.0] has become a popular (though ill-defined and often criticised) buzzword among certain technical and marketing communities.’

The free software community has tended to be suspicious, if not outright dismissive, of the Web 2.0 moniker. Tim Berners-Lee dismissed the term saying ‘Web 2.0 is of course a piece of jargon, nobody even knows what it means.’ He goes on to note that ‘it means using the standards which have been produced by all these people working on Web 1.0.’

In reality there is neither a Web 1.0 nor a Web 2.0, there is an ongoing development of online applications that cannot be cleanly divided.

In trying to define what Web 2.0 is, it is safe to say that most of the important developments have been aimed at enabling the community to create, modify, and share content in a way that was previously only available to centralised organisations which bought expensive software packages, paid staff to handle the technical aspects of the site, and paid staff to create content which generally was published only on that organisation’s site.

A Web 2.0 company fundamentally changes the mode of production of internet content. Web applications and services have become cheaper and easier to implement, and by allowing the end users access to these applications, a company can effectively outsource the creation and the organisation of their content to the end users themselves. Instead of the traditional model of a content provider publishing their own content and the end user consuming it, the new model allows the company’s site to act as the centralised portal between the users who are both creators and consumers.

For the user, access to these applications empowers them to create and publish content that previously would have required them to purchase desktop software and possess a greater technological skill set. For example, two of the primary means of text-based content production in Web 2.0 are blogs and wikis which allow the user to create and publish content directly from their browser without any real need for knowledge of markup language, file transfer or syndication protocols, and all without the need to purchase any software.

The use of the web application to replace desktop software is even more significant for the user when it comes to content that is not merely textual. Not only can web pages be created and edited in the browser without puchasing html editing software, photographs can be uploaded and manipulated online through the browser without the need for expensive desktop image manipulation applications. A video shot on a consumer camcorder can be submitted to a video hosting site, uploaded, encoded, embedded into an HTML page, published, tagged, and syndicated across the web all through the user’s browser.

In Paul Graham’s article on Web 2.0 he breaks down the different roles of the community/user into more specific roles, those being the Professional, the Amateur, and the User (more specifically, the end user). The roles of the Professional and the User were, according to Graham, well understood in Web 1.0, but the Amateur didn’t have a very well defined place. As Graham describes it in ‘What Business Can Learn From Open Source’, the Amateur just loves to work, with no concern for compensation or ownership of that work; in development, the Amateur contributes to open source software whereas the Professional gets paid for their proprietary work.

Graham’s characterisation of the ‘Amateur’ reminds one of If I Ran The Circus by Dr. Suess, where young Morris McGurk says of the staff of his imaginary Circus McGurkus:

My workers love work. They say, ‘Work us! Please work us!We’ll work and we’ll work up so many surprisesYou’d never see half if you had forty eyses!’

And while ‘Web 2.0’ may mean nothing to Tim Berners-Lee, who sees recent innovations as no more than the continued development of the web, to venture capitalists, who like Morris McGurk daydream of tireless workers producing endless content and not demanding a pay cheque for it, it sounds stupendous. And indeed, from YouTube to Flickr to Wikipedia, you’d truly never see half if you had forty eyses.

Tim Berners-Lee is correct. There is nothing from a technical or user point of view in Web 2.0 which does not have its roots in, and is not a natural development from, Web 1.0. The technology associated with the Web 2.0 banner was possible and in some cases readily available before, but the hype surrounding this usage has certainly affected the growth of Web 2.0 internet sites.

The internet (which is more than the web, actually) has always been about sharing between users. In fact, Usenet, a distributed messaging system, has been operating since 1979! Since long before even Web 1.0, Usenet has been hosting discussions, ‘amateur’ journalism, and enabling photo and file sharing. Like the internet, it is a distributed system not owned or controlled by anyone. It is this quality, a lack of central ownership and control, that differentiate services such as Usenet from Web 2.0.

If Web 2.0 means anything at all, its meaning lies in the rationale of venture capital. Web 2.0 represents the return of investment in internet startups. After the dotcom bust (the real end of Web 1.0) those wooing investment dollars needed a new rationale for investing in online ventures. ‘Build it and they will come’, the dominant attitude of the ’90s dotcom boom, along with the delusional ‘new economy’, was no longer attractive after so many online ventures failed. Building infrastructure and financing real capitalisation was no longer what investors were looking for. Capturing value created by others, however, proved to be a more attractive proposition.

Web 2.0 is Internet Investment Boom 2.0. Web 2.0 is a business model, it means private capture of community-created value. No one denies that the techology of sites like YouTube, for instance, is trivial. This is more than evidenced by the large number of identical services such as DailyMotion. The real value of YouTube is not created by the developers of the site, but rather it is created by the people who upload videos to the site. Yet, when YouTube was bought for over a billion dollars worth of Google stock, how much of this stock was acquired by those that made all these videos? Zero. Zilch. Nada. Great deal if you are an owner of a Web 2.0 company.

 The value produced by users of Web 2.0 services such as YouTube is captured by capitalist investors. In some cases, the actual content they contribute winds up the property of site owners. Private appropriation of community created value is a betrayal of the promise of sharing technology and free cooperation.

Unlike Web 1.0, where investors often financed expensive capital acquisition, software development and content creation, a Web 2.0 investor mainly needs to finance hype-generation, marketing and buzz. The infrastructure is widely available for cheap, the content is free and cost of the software, at least that much of it that is not also free, is negligible. Basically, by providing some bandwidth and disk space, you are able to become a successful internet site if you can market yourself effectively.

The principal success of a Web 2.0 company comes from its relationship to the community, more specifically, the ability of the company to ‘harness collective intelligence’, as O’Reilly puts it. Web 1.0 companies were too monolithic and unilateral in their approach to content. Success stories of the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 were based on the ability for a company to remain monolithic in its brand of content, or better yet, its outright ownership of that content, while opening up the method of that content’s creation to the community. Yahoo! Created a portal to community content while it remained the centralised location to find that content. EBay allows the community to sell its goods while owning the marketplace for those goods. Amazon, selling the same products as many other sites, succeeded by allowing the community to participate in the ‘flow’ around their products.

Because the capitalists who invest in Web 2.0 startups do not often fund early capitalisation, their behaviour is markedly more parasitic as well. They often arrive late in the game when value creation already has good momentum, swoop in to take ownership and use their financial power to promote the service, often within the context of a hegemonic network of major, well financed partners. This means that companies that are not acquired by venture capital end up cash starved and squeezed out of the club.

In all these cases, the value of the internet site is created not by the paid staff of the company that runs it, but by the users who use it. With all of the emphasis on community created content and sharing, it’s easy to overlook the other side of the Web 2.0 experience: ownership of all this content and ability to monetise its value. To the user, this doesn’t come up that often, it’s only part of the fine print in their MySpace Terms of Service agreement, or it’s the in the url of their photos. It doesn’t usually seem like an issue to the community, it’s a small price to pay for the use of these wonderful applications and for the impressive effect on search engine results when one queries one’s own name. Since most users do not have access to alternative means to produce and publish their own content, they are attracted to sites like MySpace and Flickr.

Meanwhile, the corporate world was pushing a whole different idea of the Information Superhighway, producing monolithic, centralised ‘online services’ like CompuServe, Prodigy and AOL. What separated these from the internet is that these were centralised systems that all users connect directly to, while the internet is a peer-to-peer network, every device with a public internet address can communicate directly to any other device. This is what makes peer-to-peer technology possible, this is also what makes independent internet service providers possible.

It should be added that many open source projects can be cited as the key innovations in the development of Web 2.0: free software like Linux, Apache, PHP, MySQL, Python, etc. are the backbone of Web 2.0, and the web itself. But there is a fundamental flaw with all of these projects in terms of what O’Reilly refers to as the Core Competencies of Web 2.0 Companies, namely control over unique, hard-to-recreate data sources that get richer as more people use them – the harnessing of the collective intelligence they attract. Allowing the community to contribute openly and to utilise that contribution within the context of a proprietary system where the proprietor owns the content is a characteristic of a successful Web 2.0 company. Allowing the community to own what it creates, though, is not. Thus, to be successful and create profits for investors, a Web 2.0 company needs to create mechanisms for sharing and collaboration that are centrally controlled. The lack of central control possessed by Usenet and other peer controlled technologies is the fundamental flaw. They only benefit their users, they do not benefit absentee investors, as they are not ‘owned’.

Thus, because Web 2.0 is funded by Capitalism 2006, Usenet is mostly forgotten. While everybody uses Digg and Flickr, and YouTube is worth a billion dollars, PeerCast, an innovative peer-to-peer live video streaming network that has been in existence for several years longer than YouTube, is virtually unknown.

From a technological stand point, distributed and peer-to-peer (P2P) technologies are far more efficient than Web 2.0 systems. Making better use of network resources by using the computers and network connections of users, P2P avoids creating bottlenecks created by centralised systems and allows content to be published with less infrastructure, often no more than a computer and a consumer internet connection. P2P systems do not require the massive data centres of sites such as YouTube. The lack of central infrastructure also comes with a lack of central control, meaning that censorship, often a problem with privately-owned ‘communities’ that frequently bend to private and public pressure groups and enforce limitations on the the kinds of content they allow. Also, the lack of large central cross-referencing databases of user information has a strong advantage in terms of privacy.

From this perspective, it can be said that Web 2.0 is capitalism’s preemptive attack against P2P systems. Despite their many disadvantages in comparison to these, Web 2.0 is more attractive to investors, and thus has more money to fund and promote centralised solutions. The end result of this is that capitalist investment flowed into centralised solutions making them easy and cheap or free for non-technical information producers to adopt. Thus, this ease of access compared to the more technically challenging and expensive undertaking of owning your own means of information production created a ‘landless’ information proletariat ready to provide alienated content-creating labour for the the new info-landlords of Web 2.0.

It is often said that the internet took the corporate world by surprise, coming as it did out of publicly funded university and military research. It was promoted by way of a cottage industry of small independent internet service providers who were able to squeeze a buck out of providing access to the state-built and financed network.

The internet seemed anathema to the capitalist imagination. Web 1.0, the original dotcom boom, was characterised by a rush to own the infrastructure, to consolidate the independent internet service providers. While money was thrown around quite randomly as investors struggled to understand what this medium would actually be used for, the overall mission was largely successful. If you had an internet account in 1996 it was likely provided by some small local company. Ten years later, while some of the smaller companies have survived most people get their internet access from gigantic telecommunications corporations. The mission of Internet Investment Boom 1.0 was to destroy the independent service provider and put large, well financed, corporations back in the driving seat.

The mission of Web 2.0 is to destroy the P2P aspect of the internet. To make you, your computer, and your internet connection dependent on connecting to a centralised service that controls your ability to communicate. Web 2.0 is the ruin of free, peer-to-peer systems and the return of monolithic ‘online services’. A telling detail here is that most home or office internet connections in the ’90s, modem and ISDN connections, were synchronous – equal in their ability to send and receive data. By design, your connection enabled you to be equally a producer and a consumer of information. On the other hand, modern DSL and cable-modem connections are asynchronous, allowing you to download information quickly, but upload slowly. Not to mention the fact that many user agreements for internet service forbid you to run servers on your consumer circuit, and may cut off your service if you do.

Capitalism, rooted in the idea of earning income by way of idle share ownership, requires centralised control, without which peer producers have no reason to share their income with outside shareholders. Capitalism, therefore, is incompatible with free P2P networks, and thus, so long as the financing of internet development comes from private shareholders looking to capture value by owning internet resources, the network will only become more restricted and centralised.

It should be noted that even in the case of commons-based peer production, so long as the commons and membership in the peer group is limited, and inputs such as food for the producers and the computers that they use are acquired from outside the commons-based peer group, then the peer producers themselves may be complicit in the exploitative capturing of this labour value. Thus in order to really address the unjust capture of alienated labour value, access to the commons and membership in the peer group must be extended as far as possible toward the inclusion of a total system of goods and services. Only when all productive goods are available from commons-based producers can all producers retain the value of the product of their labour.

And while the information commons may have the possibility of playing a role in moving society toward more inclusive modes of production, any real hope for a genuine, community enriching, next generation of internet-based services is not rooted in creating privately owned, centralised resources, but rather in creating cooperative, P2P and commons-based systems, owned by everybody and nobody. Although small and obscure by today’s standards, with it’s focus on peer-to-peer applications such as Usenet and email, the early internet was very much a common, shared resource. Along with the commercialisation of the internet and the emergence of capitalist financing comes the enclosure of this information commons, translating public wealth into private profit. Thus Web 2.0 is not to be thought of as a second-generation of either the technical or social development of the internet, but rather as the second wave of capitalist enclosure of the Information Commons.

Virtually all of the most used internet resources could be replaced by P2P alternatives. Google could be replaced by a P2P search system, where every browser and every webserver were active nodes in the search process; Flickr and YouTube could also be replaced by PeerCast and eDonkey type applications, which allow users to use their own computers and internet connections to collaboratively share their pictures and videos. However, developing internet resources requires the application of wealth, and so long as the source of this wealth is finance capital, the great peer-to-peer potential of the internet will remain unrealised.

Dmytri Kleiner <dk AT> is an anarchist hacker and a co-founder of Telekommunisten, a worker-owned technology company specialising in telephone systems. Dmytri is a USSR-born Canadian, currently living in Berlin with his wife Franziska and his daughter Henriette

Brian Wyrick <brian AT> is an artist, film maker and web developer working in Berlin and Chicago. He also co-founded Group 312 Films, a Chicago-based film group, and posts updates regarding his projects and adventures at

Proud to be Flesh

Chapter 2: Introduction - From Net Art to Conceptual Art and Back

Proud to be Flesh Cover

Introduction to Chapter 2 of Proud to be Flesh - From Net Art to Conceptual Art and Back

For those introduced to new media art in the 1990s, the discovery of an earlier history of conceptual, computer art was often quite a startling revelation. Although the stand-alone, hard-drive based new media art of the late-’80s and early-’90s was often put into the same lineage as art made in the commercial computer labs of the past, there was a whole streak of more autonomous and socially critical technology-orientated work that was being sidelined by the new media art circuit. It was to these artists that Mute’s coverage increasingly turned, as their historically and politically grounded approach provided tools with which to critique some of the worst excesses of new media art naïveté. As the heady euphoria surrounding the www ‘revolution’ subsided, and its promise of delivering communicative equality and social autonomy revealed itself to be a cyber-fantasy, the desire to bring the force of avant-garde critique to bear on the market-complicit gadgetry of so much new media art became an almost compulsive desire for the Mute editors.

The chronological arrangement of this chapter charts the intensification of such looping-back into the themes of earlier, technologically-orientated conceptual art, which departs from the contemporary altogether. Rather than intending to suggest any dying off of contemporary art coverage in the magazine per se, this trajectory is dictated by the decision to remain faithful to the chapter’s main theme. This could loosely be defined as art’s engagement with the potentials of techno-scientific development in the wake of modernity’s failed narrative of (science- and technology-driven) progress.

In the temporal span of the chapter, it is interesting to see how certain concerns regarding the relationship between art and technology persist. Far from celebrating the ICA’s 1968 show, Cybernetic Serendipity, as the first exhibition in the UK dedicated to ‘the computer and the arts’, Gustav Metzger, dismissed it for obscuring computing’s principal deployment in modern warfare and social control, claiming that, ‘whilst more and more scientists are investigating the threats that science and technology pose for society, artists are being led into a technological kindergarten.’

Writing some 30 years later, about another ICA show – Imaginaria, dedicated to art and digital technology – Ewan Morrison claims, ‘The inherent technological utopianism of Digital Art is irresponsible, naïve and dangerous.’ He goes on to argue that technology always serves the interests of power, and that so-called digital artists fall prey to an agenda not their own. A similar concern is expressed by ’90s net artist, Vuk C´osic´, as he discusses artists who are ‘following high-tech and trying to be posh’, when actually ‘they are only selling equipment’. ‘As an artist’, he concludes, ‘you’re only falling within the boundaries of the imagination of an engineer if you’re working with an off-the-shelf product.’

But, while there is a perennial return of certain themes, there is also a total amnesia regarding others – according to Morrison at least. Crucial to his argument against digital art is the apparent failure of these artists to deal with the postmodern crisis of human progress. Technology hasn’t been used as a tool for social emancipation but for mass annihilation, and the associated modernist projects of communism and humanism have similarly failed. Intimately related to this is a loss of faith in art – therefore, says Morrison, any idea that the computer is giving rise to a new art form fails not only to recognise this epistemological crisis but to adequately respond to it. Art’s only respectable path, he asserts, is to revisit the conditions of its impossibility and those of society.

Although such critiques of techno-utopian art are well grounded, they don’t recognise the attempt by certain artists to find, in the very techniques and logic of the military-industrial complex, a way of mirroring, and thereby exposing/ subverting, this system of power. As Matthew Fuller puts it: ‘We live in an era in which the dominant mode of politics is systems analysis. Power has been handed over to a series of badly animated, white-shirted technicians who deliver fault reports and problem-fixes that can only be answered with an ‘Okay’ […] In this context, it is essential for artists and others to synthesise an un-format-able world.’

Josephine Bosma in her piece, ‘Is It a Commercial? Nooo… Is It Spam?… Nooo – It’s Net Art!’ – one of the earliest published overviews of the emerging genre of net art – takes another tack. In essence she argues, albeit in 1998, that the speed with which artists have taken to the web has succeeded in outstripping the art world’s ability to keep pace. Accordingly, commodification of the artwork was proving difficult, abetted by the rate of browser development, which meant that artworks designed to run on older browser softwares quickly became obsolete. The ephemerality of the medium was actively embraced by artists, many of whom also refused to ‘sign’ their works or to locate them in a permanent place. Rather than promoting a utopian view of the technology, then, these artists could be said to have exploited the faults in a specific technical system to advance a materialist critique of art’s own system.

However, Bosma also discusses the attempt by an early ‘experimental net-based company’ called ada’web to develop new ways of funding art by offering net art as a form of ‘creative research’ to the corporate sector, rather than asking for ‘“charity” money’. Founder, Benjamin Weil, is quoted as explaining that this ‘could make them understand better the medium they were investing in, and draw attention to their corporation as being innovative’. Not only does this strike one as a classic piece of knowledge economy rationale, it also reminds us of how commercially intoxicating the relationship between high-tech and art continues to be. One quickly sees the risks faced by artists working with technology in an avowedly experimental way – making medium-specific work which both critiques and advances those means – rather than deploying familiar technologies to draw attention to existing modes of life.

Michael Corris’ piece, ‘Systems Upgrade’, gives a crucial overview of the ‘white hot’ technological and scientific environment of the 1960s, and artists’ responses to it. In the wake of the accelerated technological development of war-time production – and the advancements in the productive base this had achieved – scientific and technological R&D were seen as central to the economy, and funded as never before. The significance of systems theory, cybernetics and information theory at this time – which artist, Stephen Willats, affirms in the interview Mute undertook with him in 2000 – took hold of the ‘1960s imagination’, expressed in a general enthusiasm for logic, order and systems. Corris discusses how these technocratic theories, hatched from ‘the objectives of military or corporate management’, were integrated into art both optimistically and critically. Impacting on conceptual art’s generalised bureaucratic and informatic aesthetic, the likes of Roy Ascott took matters further, seeking to transform art through the adoption of ‘homeostatic, self-regulating, self-assessing systems’. At the other end of the scale, argues Corris, systems theory provoked artists like Hans Haacke to deconstruct the entire social system in which the artwork participates. In other words, and in contradistinction to Morrison’s argument, the neo-avant-garde was able to rehearse the dystopian aftermath of modernity using its own techno-scientific tools. However, a distinction needs to be made between using a systems-based analysis to demystify the apparently neutral context of art, and using digital technology’s tendency to become obsolete – its glitches and failures – within the postmodern context of art’s endgame.

Any residual positivism in Haacke’s method had well and truly vanished from the net art of the ’90s – as it has from the general culture. And, as the Cold War – which provided the backdrop to artistic engagements with technology in the ’60s and ’70s – threatens to reignite itself (with Russia’s invasion of Georgia and the construction of a US missile shield at the former superpower’s borders), technology’s destructive power once again comes to the fore. With the social acculturation to computer technology virtually complete – thanks, in part, to the user-friendliness of Web 2.0 – the return of its repressed military uses in the form of Cold War II will no doubt challenge the hegemony of touchy-feely, ‘socially engaged’ varieties of media art. Conversely, however, the aura of warfare in the age of embedded reporting and incessant blogging has waned. The extent to which the civil application of computing will come to haunt its military matrix, or to which its military origins will crack the upbeat veneer lent to it by social networking, remains to be seen. Artists’ engagements with bleeding-edge tech will always have the potential to critique its destructive civil and military applications, as well as the potential to be co-opted by them – as propaganda or R&D – as the rise of the so-called knowledge economy has amply demonstrated. This chapter hopefully conveys how delicate the equilibrium between art and technology remains.

Proud to be Flesh

The Thing


A Sysop Describes his Art Bulletin Board and the Network it is Part of.


THE THING is an independent computer network, initiated in 1992 in New York by artists, art critics and curators. The following European cities are now connected: London (since 1994), Cologne, Berlin, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Munich, Vienna, Basel and Copenhagen. Future points of connection will be in Paris and Amsterdam.

Since the early nineties art discourse and the discussion of its social context have begun to have the equivalent standing to the actual realizations of art works. This can be seen in the plethora of workshops, lectures and discussion events that more often than not follow institutional and curatorial frameworks, but hardly ever actively reflect the form of the discourse itself. Rather than following the classical mode of disseminating information i.e. lecturer (the transmitter) and the audience (the receiver) THE THING was conceived as a tool for artists, art critics and curators to allow a multi-relationary communication and intervention and not as an end in itself. This choice of format is influenced by the dematerialization of art parameters starting in the sixties (Lucy Lippard: The Dematerialisation of Art). The distribution of information in the art context takes certain discreet forms (discreet knowledge = capital). The ability to be anonymous as a network user allows similar strategies. This fact makes one sceptical if in the end the hidden sub­text is more significant to the art discourse than the "open" discourse which is coded by other interests.

Up to now the public presentation of THE THING has been primarily indicated by the presence of a work-station in public galleries (Kunstverein Munich: Dagegen­Dabei; Kunstverein Hamburg: Interface). This signifies the activity but doesn't encourage audience participation. Therefore the importance is placed on the evidence that such an activity is currently taking place, rather than what is taking place. If you consider in the paradigms of the nineties that lots of artistic positions are contextual or also intervening, then as a result every form of cultural activism can use electronic communication as a vital tool. This would mean that THE THING functions at the line between real artistic presence (exhibitions, workshops, discussions) and the `invisible' forms of discourse, which have initiated the former or have been derived from them. This creates, owing to the regularity and speed of the contact, a social texture which printed media can not develop as fast. It is important to recognise that there can't be editorial control of THE THING. Passive use is discouraged, since each user is reader and also writer. The result could be seen as a secret agent network which represent! a small bit of the contemporary art scene The joining with the Internet in April 1995 is implicit in the structure and aims of THE THING. Assuming that we will see a further contextualisation of post conceptual art, then we need to ask ourselves if non-art areas will profit from the impulses from art or the other way round. In relation to THE THING this could mean that if we continue discussing art exclusively, the discussion could ultimately refer only to itself and go round and round in circles. The discourse between contextual art positions with positions of external disciplines such as Genetechnology, mediasciences, biology ecology etc. will create a perspective that is indispensable for the art of the nineties The merit of THE THING has been to locate technological communication possibilities within contemporary art. The border character of THE THING can provide the possibilities to create such a constructively mixed culture.

Andreas Rüdthi/Kate Davis.


Modem Only: THE THING LONDON 0181 292 7306


Proud to be Flesh

Is It a Commercial? Nooo… Is It Spam?… Nooo – It’s Net Art!




Vol 1 #10, Summer 1998

The most annoying discussion surrounding net art is the one that asks whether or not net art is truly a new art form. While some critics continue to deny the existence of this new art form within the communication networks, net art should be given some definition and positioned in relation to offline culture.

Place, History, Time
The term ‘’ was first used in 1996 when Vuk C´osic´ć organised the small gathering, per se, in Trieste. The dot in it made the term a sexy and humorous one. The people who got involved with were mostly connected through ‘nettime’ – the mailing list for net.criticism []. Nettime also saw the first criticism of the term, which soon provoked a broader discussion about art on the net. From the outset, this discussion was complex and it had many layers. The discourse around and its many relatives (net art/netart/web art/art on the net) is confusing in the extreme.
In essence, this complexity is caused by net art’s embeddedness within networks, a characteristic that also makes it so hard to describe. Building theory around art on the net, and, more specifically, doing this in constant discourse with others on the net, exposes one very directly to a mass of conflicting opinions, levels of perception and layers of communication. Add to this the unavoidable connection to the offline world and you have an explosive mixture of interests, cultures, schools and markets.
While the art world (a complex of the art market, academies, theorists and journalists) tries to get its expansionist grip on the development of new media art, the old electronic arts scene keeps to itself, sceptical of this newfound interest in electronic media. With the development of new media art, the art market is, quite literally, losing sight of the matter, and, with it, the self-evident creation of a product to sell. Whereas the electronic art scene (I am thinking of the circuit including Ars Electronica, V2, ZKM and ISEA) has based seminars and thematic exhibitions around online arts for years, the art world has suddenly been forced to deal with a shift away from commerce and postmodern capitalism by a medium with which it is hardly familiar. The art world is now desperately trying to find ways to encapsulate the electronic arts, and professionals are repositioning themselves on all fronts in this process. The development of electronic media has redistributed the tools of production and shifted the understanding of the value of art: What will become of the artist and the artwork? How will art be funded, and for what will artists be rewarded?

The recent discussion around ada’web [] – an art site which recently lost its corporate funding and had to close down – is only one example of how delicate the new forms of collaboration are within communication networks. Ada’web was an experimental net-based company, and its story shows why the strategies of ‘net.experiments’ require constant re-examination. What seem like good tactics during one period can become obsolete, or down right dangerous, during another. Benjamin Weil of ada’web explained on nettime:
Part of ada’web’s founding mission was to explore possible alternatives as far as funding for art online was concerned […] It was my belief that the development of the web would be an extraordinary opportunity for art to desegregate itself, and (re)gain a central position in ambient cultural discourse and practice […] Rather than knocking at the corporate door asking for ‘charity’ money, we thought we could convince them that art could be a valuable asset, […] it could be understood as a form of creative research which could make them understand better the medium they were investing in, and draw attention to their corporation as being innovative.
Ada’web tried to sell creativity and innovation, as a necessary commodity, to companies. It is questionable whether this is art’s main strength, though, and, arguably a subtle misjudgement was made on the part of ada’web in positing art’s ‘functionality’ in this way. Perhaps ada’web would have been more credible in the eyes of both the corporations and the net artists if it had tried to convince its benefactors of art’s intrinsic value before entering the ‘art as innovative inspirer’ chapter. On the other hand, ada’web made many important steps, one of which was to present artworks by their names and not those of the artists. In this way, value was assigned more to the work than to its provenance. Detaching work from its ‘brand’ could be a dominant strategy in the near future, and the experience of ada’web urges caution. For one thing, we will need to pay attention to the inability of small enterprises and individuals to protect authorship of their work, as big corporations are as protectionist as ever.

What is Net Art?
Art on the internet is more than just a continuation of 20th century art, and the notion that art is just another step in art history is, however, presently used derisively. The experiments being carried out on the internet are, in a certain sense, without precedent. Furthermore, art on the net is catalysing a resumption of discourses centred more on art’s intrinsic value than on the mechanisms of the art market.
Very early net art could mostly be defined as performative – it was temporary and left almost no trace within the networks. What distinguishes net art from earlier electronic art is its expanded connection to the internet (or the net’s predecessors). One could say that the more complex these connections become, the more we are able to talk about net art. This complexity is not necessarily found in literal hardware connections. Some more recent works achieve complexity through their poetic use of the whole network space. Artists have become so much more at home in the communications networks that an emotive but subtle use of those features is now possible.
Early net art mostly worked with data transmissions that were reassembled at creative will, on all ends of the ‘line’, and comprised sound, text and perform ance, simultaneously taking place in cyberspace, the mass media (mostly radio) and in physical spaces. An example would be The World in Twenty Four Hours by Robert Adrian, presented at Ars Electronica in 1982.1

In the recent work of ‘young’ art groups like Fakeshop or Re-lab (Xchange), one can find complexity in various forms. The poetic complexity I referred to earlier is found in, for instance, ‘subtle’ uses of the locality of servers, like in the Refresh project initiated by Alexei Shulgin, Vuk C´osic´ć and Andreas Broeckmann. It can also be found in Olia Lialina’s work, Agatha Appears, in which a ghost-like female figure appears in the same position on the pages of different servers. Lialina has published part of her diary on the net, in which she shows her subjective experiences of a ‘culty’ secret meeting. She has also published her will online, which contains only her online works, to be inherited almost exclusively by people with a similar obsession for To Lialina, the network environment is almost sacred, and she wants to pronounce its features strongly in a sensitive, sometimes romantic, way.
An example that stands out because of its unique style is Jodi (the collective name of artists Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans). Jodi’s work is both deeply poetic and complex, although they rarely work within decentralised art projects, preferring to concentrate on their site, dates back to the grey Browser Netscape 1.0. Yet, Yahoo! refused to list it under any category. Now the Jodi site is, without doubt, the most interesting and most discussed art website.
So, is it relevant to make a distinction between net art and other art? On the whole, the question is irrelevant. Names for new art forms are just tools; they should be helpful in understanding what we are dealing with on a very basic, prac tical level. In essence, there is nothing wrong with the categorisation of different art forms. Equally, artists who do not describe their work as art can avoid limiting discussions about the relevance and value of their work within an art market.

Temporal Theory
To place net art in the right perspective, art history must be partly rewritten. Too much emphasis has been placed on the commodity status of artworks during this century. Inevitably, this tendency has excluded certain art and artists who do not satisfy related criteria. Perhaps net art offers us the opportunity to rethink the criteria by which art is valued. For instance, one can already distinguish between those artists using, or making work about, technology and electronic media who indulge in utopian fantasies (like the Futurists with their fascist tendencies) – and those whose experiments demystified the media (for example, in the ’60s and ’70s), and the playful approach of present-day artists who handle media with great ease and humour and with less reverence.
Of course, net art is not an easily perceivable object. A lot of art on the net appears very scattered due to its transience and use of multiple media. In order to experience it, one has to be an avid follower of net.culture. Nowadays, there is already a tendency amongst net artists to make their work more lasting, which is possibly a consequence of the increased interest in net art. Artists act and react within an environment. Some net artworks are more or less lost today, like early Jodi works that need to be viewed on older, virtually extinct browsers.2 Some net artists try to be invisible and dissolve into fake identities and ephemeral works.3

Not recognising its uniqueness is obstructing the development of discourse around art on the net, and good opportunities for deeper understanding are missed because the theoretical framework around net art does not keep pace with the artworks. Perhaps art only profits from this obscurity.


Related URLs:
Vuk C´osic´, per se:
nettime archive for ‘funding for the arts’ discussion:
The homework project:
Mr. Net.Art:
Robert Adrian:
Norman White:
Olia Lialina, Agatha Appears: diary:
Recycling The Future:
Strange but good site full of net art links (on a Peruvian server):



1 Tilman Baumgaertel, journalist for both off- and on-line publications, wrote a long article on Telepolis, which is a brave attempt to put the entire history of net art into sequence. The article is available, in German only, at

2 Digital Rain is an example of an early Jodi work that has suffered from the new generation of web browsers

3 For example, Rachel Baker or 'Trina Mould'.


Proud to be Flesh

In the Name of Art (Ewan Morrison and Matthew Fuller on imaginaria and digital art)

Endless Love/hate? On the Occasion of Imaginaria, the UK's first digital arts prize, Ewan Morrison and Matthew Fuller list ten reasons why the art world still sends out mixed signals abou its - digital - other half

in the name of art!In the cultural arena, there's nothing quite like a prize to get people's backs up. From the Booker to the Turner, and now Cap Gemini's Imaginaria Digital Arts prize, prizes never fail to set a well rehearsed communal tirade in motion - against weighted selection procedures, against notions of better and best, against the normalisation of unnamed, unacknowledged and distinctly un-objective criteria for 'quality', and so on. Now that the prizes' function as (cheap) vehicles for marketing and corporate identity is becoming ever more clear, things are getting even noisier, and justly so. Oddly enough, though, in the case of Imaginaria the decibels are rising only partly due to the problems inherent in awarding prizes, or even to a critique of the motivates of the donor organisation, Cap Gemini. The other increasingly dominant note can be accounted for by a welcome return of the 'high' and 'low' arts argument, which seems to have undergone only very slight modification...

Is Digital Art really Art? Can digital artists slug it out with the big boys? As little more than genre artists or craftspersons, do they even deserve an arts prize? Ironically, Imaginaria could prove to be more useful as a catalyst for the exposure of a long-simmering antipathy between two worlds - that of 'digital art' and that of 'contemporary art' or 'art' - and their accompanying discourses than as a catalyst for elevating the status of the dubious category of digital art to a 'serious' cultural practice. We should thank Cap Gemini for this, if nothing else.

With a deep curtsey in the direction of all the platitudes, terminological contradictions, historical omissions, generalisations and false homogenisations that are part of such a venture, we asked Ewan Morrison and Matthew Fuller to hypothesise why it is exactly that the art world both hates and loves digital art.

The art world hates Digital Art. The ICA's show Imaginaria, which sets out to show the best of Digital Art 1997-1998, has helped clarify the reasons why Digital Art is shunned by the art world, and why it will never be accepted into the canon of high art. The following is a list of reasons why 'Digital Art' will not be accepted as fine art.

1. A new art form - give it up! Art is dead. There is nothing more futile than aspiring to the condition of art at a time when giving up art is the only legitimate art form.

Since Baudrillard claimed that art is dead, and continues to exist only as a simulation of its former self, the only way to make art has been to endlessly replay the death of art - to take 'the authentic' and show that it is a simulation. Digital Art seems to start from a misreading of Baudrillard: it attempts to make art out of simulacra and then claim authenticity for its own products.

Within Imaginaria, there is one work which seems to stand as a metaphor for the status of Digital Art within the art world. Anabiosis by Simon Tegala monitors the heart rate of the artist through a screen display. 'Anabiosis' is the medical term for 'revival after apparent death'. Could it be that Digital Art sees itself as a new lease of life within an art world obsessed with death, obsolescence and redundancy? Perhaps suicide could be suggested as a way for this artist to be accepted into the canon of contemporary art.

2. 'Digital Art' does not exist. In proclaiming itself as a new medium, Digital Art has failed to recognise that art is no longer medium specific. Artists now operate across disciplines - text, image, moving image, event, and use whatever tools are at their disposal.

Digital artists are mistaken in thinking that a medium can have inherent properties the realisation of which can be called art. As such it shares a common history with photography. Photography struggled throughout the century to become realised as an art form in its own right. It experienced a period of fine art credibility in the mid-eighties with Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman and Sherry Levine, all of whom were 'artists who used photography' but none of whom could call themselves 'photographers'. The recent retreat of photography into 'specialist' galleries is a testament to its failure to become an artform 'in itself'.

Digital technology exists. Art exists. Art which uses technology exists. Digital Art does not exist 'in its own right'.

3. Deconstruction. Ever since Jacques Derrida pronounced that the frame (and possibly even the wall) were part of the artwork, art has been emptied of content and been transformed into a self conscious deconstruction of the history and context of art.

Artists no longer make statements, instead they 'critique the medium of representation itself'. To actually communicate without deconstructing the mode of communication that one uses shows a failure to understand the importance of the deconstructive method in contemporary art.

So-called digital artists are just too damned excited by the infinite possibilities of the medium's potential for new representation to engage with any meaningful discourse on the subject of its own limits. Digital Art does not start from the premise that language has to be taken apart; instead it is at the relatively unsophisticated stage of 'inventing' its own language. Digital Art has got to reach the limits of its own potential, roll over and die, before the post-mortem can begin.

4. Anti-teleology. The future is not a better place, as Hegel, Marx and Darwin claimed. There is a strong anti-Hegelian thrust in post-modern art which manifests itself as a distrust of the idea of 'progress' and the belief that 'the new' has positive value in itself. The notion that the future is leading us somewhere, and that technology is the tool for the emancipation of society, has been abandoned due to the failure of the modernist technological utopia and its inversion in the Holocaust, to colonialism and to the failure of teleological projects such as communism, humanism and feminism. This is why digital artists are often accused of 'techno-fascism' by their critics. The inherent technological utopianism of Digital Art is irresponsible, naive and dangerous. Contemporary art, in contrast, is going nowhere - and proud of it. It is, after all, safer to mull over the shadows of the past than to be blinded by the brightness of a new future.

5. Foucault's critique of technology. The myth that technology is a 'tool'. Technology always serves the interests of power. Artists get used by technology. Not the other way around.

The horror of the artist/reviewer meeting Imaginaria is that it is technology and science that sets the agenda. Thus, artists fall prey to an agenda which is not theirs, to a set of concerns that they cannot control or limit, and to a set of outcomes (since many works are set up as 'experiments') which are predetermined and not as 'open ended' as the artists would like to think.

6. Heidegger's opposition between art and technology. The debate on art and technology is always prefaced by some reference to Heidegger. For Heidegger, technology keeps humanity from recognising 'being': we deny ourselves when we see the world 'technologically' - that is, as a tool for our own use. Against the evils of technology Heidegger set the virtues of art, through which 'being' expresses itself to us. Heidegger's views on art were dominant in the 50s and have had a lasting impact.

Although very few contemporary artists would support Heidegger's philosophy and its endorsement of the notion of the autonomous individual, the ethically existing subject and the expression of inner truth, the art world continues to distrust technology.

The postmodern rejection of Heidegger should have seen an abandonment of the old opposition between art and technology and paved the way for a reconciliation of the old opposites. However, the result has not been a new belief in the compatibility of art and technology, but the belief instead that both art and technology are equally lacking in an ultimate justification. In this way Heidegger's split is reconciled - through mutual failure.

Imaginaria, a first in the UK for the digital arts, recently started its life in London's Institute of Contemporary Art where the prize was awarded to Alexa Wright for her series "After Image" and the work of runners up Simon Tegala, Simon Robertshaw, Sera Furneaux, Jane Prophet and Cornford and Cross was exhibited alongside hers. Imaginaria TM was conceived by Cap Gemini's Life Sciences Group which financed and organised the project and exhibition together with its partners on the project, the Arts Council of England, FACT and the ICA. Work submitted for the prize had to relate to the theme of the life sciences and have been completed in the past year.

7. Post Duchampian hatred of technique. Since the revival of Duchamp and the death of painting, art which requires any form of technical skill has been devalued to the lowly status of mere craft. The ready-made has taken the place of the well designed or expressive object. Anything can be a ready-made - a feature film by someone else or an ashtray teaming with cigarette butts. The intention behind the ready-made is not just to reject technical skills but to insult the notion of committed endeavour, purposeful action or virtuosity.

Thus a work like Technosphere V2 by Jane Prophet, in which a graphically designed world is undoubtedly the product of immense technical mastery and several years of committed hard graft, can, to a follower of Duchamp, seem like a complete waste of time.

8. The cult of failure. Once the future has been abandoned and belief in the expressive function of art has been rejected, once artists have come to hate the market which supports them, there is one last petty act of rebellion which can keep the artist going: making art which is deliberately banal.

Thus we have seen over the last ten years, the growth of the cult of contemporary artist as heroic failure. Technical inadequacy has been elevated to a virtue. This is not technical naiveté, but deliberate and self-conscious faux naiveté.

The justification for this is clear and has a history dating back through performance art to Dada. Against the mantle of artist as genius, the heroically failing artist says quite simply: "No I will not stand up as a spokesman for humanity - I will instead be deliberately pathetic and banal."

The complexity of these spiralling circles of self-loathing nihilism seems lost on digital artists, who somehow want to aspire to technical virtuosity, style and belief in their own work.

9. Gimmickry. Nothing offends the sensibilities of those who have been raised on a diet of conceptualism and minimalism more than gimmicks and theatricality. There is a good reason for this. Gimmickry always hides something, usually a lack of content, or an inability on the behalf of the artist to deal with the meaning of their work. Digital Art seems to present the artist with an infinite variety of technical gimmicks. As such it should be viewed with suspicion.

Take, for example, Simon Robertshaw's The Order of Things. Eliminate the reference to Foucault, the spooky theatrical lighting, and the trip switch, which activates the video signal when you get close to the viewing surface, and look what you are left with: archive footage of a patient receiving ECT. In its original context the footage was viewed for medical reasons. In a gallery, we are being asked to deal with it in terms of visual pleasure, the thrill of the peep show. Such treatment of this type of material is in poor taste and is an example of an artist becoming seduced by technical gimmicks and being inevitably unaware of the other meanings they are putting out.

10. Distance. Interactive art destroys the objective distance that, since Kant, has been the basic premise for the contemplation of aesthetic experience. In more contemporary terms, Jean Baudrillard has again and again discussed the diminishing of objective distance through digital technology and described the horror that this presents to the Western philosophical tradition - the terrible immediacy, the obscene reciprocity of the virtual experience, the closing down of the gap between observer and object. This, he claims in Kantian style, is the death of aesthetics.

Without objective distance, there is no contemplation; without contemplation, there is no metaphysics. Virtuality and interactivity are the death not just of art but also of culture itself. Interactivity is a vacuum, a self-perpetuating, self-referring, closed circle that coils in on itself. We do not need 'digital interactivity' to see this - it is well enough displayed in 'live TV'. The messages of 'interactive art' and live TV are the same: each is itself. In Imaginaria, Sera Ferneaux's work Kissing is an example of the vacuousness of instantaneous interactive experience.

Ironically, such a work claims to be social - and sociable - but only further opens up the vacuum that exists in social experience. This is the perverse state that Baudrillard predicted: when we are no longer alienated by technology, but share our alienation as a form of pleasure. As Baudrillard pointed out, the 'horror vacui' of this death of the social is invariably presented to us in the guise of a smiling face. In this instance the face is not smiling but kissing, and it is your own face staring back at you. The artwork is no more than an image of the viewer. You are being invited to participate in the collapse of your own culture. Ewan MorrisonXutilityfilms AT btinternet.comX


1. We live in an era in which the dominant mode of politics is systems analysis. Power has been handed over to a series of badly animated white shirt technicians who deliver fault reports and problem fixes that can be answered only with an 'Okay'. All the control and trustworthiness of Norton Utilities is delegated a bunch of frightened useless pilots gibbering out of control at the keyboard of a system they no longer understand. In this context it is essential for artists and others to synthesise an unformattable world.

2. The art world loves digital art because there is a large submerged part of the latter - as of the former - that is invisible to the viewing public and only ever read by interpretative machines. Digital art is an autonomous field with its own opportunities, norms and institutions. It understands that the distinction between the fields is necessary in order to maintain the integrity and thoroughness of both fields. For all artists it is imperative that they maintain the field in which they work as an autonomous sphere. The strength of a specific field can be measured precisely by the degree to which participants recognise the contributions of their peers and therefore develop each other's richness in specific capital. The collapse of a discipline can be measured precisely by the degree to which heterogeneous elements are able to exert force within or upon it.

3. Jeff Koons recently described the patterns produced in the interrelations of basic, repeated units, motifs, forms, colours, in his sculptures constructed of variegated patterns of boxed basketballs as a basic form of artificial intelligence. Mainstream art has already begun to incorporate the terminology and methodologies of digital cultures as a way of talking about itself and finding sympathetic refrains within a wider culture.

4. The art world loves digital art because it reminds the art world of the limits of its knowledge and the wisdom to be found in the open, non-prejudicial contemplation of the unknown. Likewise, it is always useful to have a relatively large amount of the unknown to call upon in the event of a vague legitimation crisis. In the past it has been proven good insurance to have a few unknown things knocking about in the rear. Graffiti, macrame, female artists and other minor genres have all played their part in the past.

5. Large prestigious art museums with marble foyers love web-based art because it implicitly solves some of the problems of distribution for non-gallery-oriented work that were faced comparably by video art. Because the web guarantees at least some kind of circulation, this frees them from the embarrassment of undergoing the rituals which they are forced to undergo on behalf of artists thoughtless enough to produce painting, sculpture or installation.

Given the medium's self-sufficiency, widely promoted, attentively curated exhibitions with all their background manoeuvring, public attention, critical discussion, historicisation machinery, high artists fees, and other negative influences on the pure essence of artistic creation can all be avoided, leaving the work to be safely ignored.

6. For similar reasons, those who are interested in reading Marx without illusions believe that the "Fragment On Machines" in the Grundrisse has important implications for technology and art. Here, Marx suggests that what he terms 'general intelligence' - the general social knowledge or collective intelligence of a society in a given historical period, particularly that embodied in 'intelligent' machines - reaches a decisive point of contradiction when actual value is created more on the basis of the knowledge and procedures embedded into these machines than in simple human labour: thus freeing digital artists from having to exist. Or at least, freeing them from being any less cheap and infinitely reproducible than their work or equipment.

7. The art world loves digital art because someone other than the Royal Society of Portrait Painters has to take the conventions of pictorial representation into the future. Whilst virtual worlds might still be to the mid-nineties what Roger Dean album covers were to the mid-seventies, the onward march of technology will one day surely permit an upgrade-obedient artist to produce a final form of perfection: an utter conformity to perceptual mechanisms whose perspectival instructions permit viewing only by the most perfected of subjects. At this sublime moment being empties in entirety onto a computer and thus perhaps allows isolation on a hard drive to be stored or destroyed.

8. The artist waits in ambush for the unique moments when an unrecognisable world reveals itself to them. They pounce on these little grains of nothingness like beasts of prey. It is the moment of full awakening, of union and of absorption and it can never be forced. The artist never formulates a plan. Instead they balance and weigh opposing forces, flexions, marks, events, distribute them in a sort of heavenly lay-out, always with plenty of space between, always alternating between the heat of integration and the coolness of critical distance, always with the certitude that there is no end, only worlds within worlds ad infinitum, and that wherever one left off, one had created a world.

The sublimation of technique to the advantage of a separate category known as creation is consistent between all sections of art. Programmers, technicians and other people are glad to work hard to make the realisation of the vision of the artist possible. Providing such freedom for the artist is essential because in this way providence always takes victory over ego.

9. Because art that is not solely about content, but that is multiply reflexive, concerned with materials, that is about the lustres and qualities of light, about the tonality of certain gestures, about modes and theatres of enunciation refuses to make a strict separation between creation and technique. Concept and execution fold in and out of each other, blurring the categorical imperatives of rule by the head or by the dead. The most powerful art, digital art, art which is despite itself digital is, regardless of the context which codes it and from which it escapes, derived in this way precisely from hooking into an expanded compositional synthesis.

A multitude of currents of heterogeneity destabilise digital art's status as an autonomous field. Most prosaically this occurs in the production of art that takes the needs of sponsors so to heart that it is indissociable from them. Heterogeneity can also disrupt the autonomy of a field, and thus its internal self-evolving richness, when it comes in the form of interpretation: in lazy journalistic work whose primary concern is the humorous gratification of what it presumes are its audiences' prejudices; in works that are diagrammatically pre-formatted by pre-existing critical criteria; or - most importantly - in works whose relationship with certain flows of words amplifies both.

10. Both fields, art and digital art, attempt to control what art and artists, should do and what they should be called. This is simply as a necessity for their maintenance and development. At the same time, even their own historical emergence is or was dependent on the eventual impossibility of such control. Those moments at which that impossibility is made concrete are what produce artists worthy of the name, as well as those to whom the word means nothing. Paradoxically, this very impossibility is what art and digital art claim as grounding their ability to speak, to be paid attention. It is only when they lividly and completely fail to betray that claim that art becomes worthy of anything but indifference.

Matthew FullerXmatt AT

Proud to be Flesh

Art Is Useless

Vuk Cosic: member of the elite clan of net art’s ‘heroic period’; ascii impresario; lover of lo-technicity; habitué of the European electronic arts conference circuit; staff member at the Soros-funded Ljubljana Digital Media Lab; senior lecturer at the Institute for Paradoxology, Internet, and the Human Emancipation/Enslavement Conundrum; antiquarian dealer in the New; world traveller; multi-linguist and chronic verbalist. Josephine Berry met with him in London this February


Vuk Cosic believes in essences: the originality of the avant garde, the possibility of narrative, the lessons of history, what comprises art’s jurisdiction, the right way to make a coffee or prepare a California roll. In one of his best known net art works, The History of Art for Airports, Cosic compresses thousands of years of art history, from the caves of Lascaux to the net art of Jodi, into a few images of recombinant toilet people interacting with cocktail glasses and other airport fare (eat your heart out Ernst Gombrich!). But if representing thousands of years of art history using airport signs seems like a consummately postmodern gesture you only have to consider, and notwithstanding their irony, how much substance these minimal icons endow their referents with. Stripped of its aura, art history is clad in the uniform of utility, its canonical works whittled down to one-line gags.


Unlike postmodernism’s typically dehistoricising language of pastiche, this account of aesthetics roots each developmental moment within a life world. The life world is primarily constructed through an elaboration of art’s functionality: art in the service of religion, art in the service of the state, art attempting to elude power. These spare images provide dense ideological and temporal diagrams in the manner of a user’s manual of art history. However, this is the kind of manual that shows you how to take something apart and put it back together again without telling you what the thing is intended for in the first place. Cosic paradoxically combines a positivist modernism of means with a postmodern ambivalence of ends – a strategy which finds its natural home in the economically and ideologically contested space of the Internet.

Given the conventional framing of net art in terms of political resistance – an account which almost naturalises its radicalism by associating its virtuality with the resistance to commodification, and its existence within the global specular and financial network with a default media activism – it is interesting to piece together Cosic’s art histories and his attitude to the politics of art: “I like to believe that art is useless. It liberates me from all these worries”. The conjunction of The History of Art for Airports and this comment beg the question: can art be understood as both utilitarian and useless?

But let’s start at the beginning, and in Cosic’s own words:

“I was born in ’66 so that makes me 32 now...I studied archaeology, graduated, used to teach methodology a bit in Belgrade and then I left the country in ’91. At that time I was already writing and editing magazines, and doing political satire and also regular literature...I was doing various art stuff too: texts, collages, land art, some shows. I started working creatively with HTML in ’95 and making in ’96 because that’s when we invented the term.” Cosic draws a direct line between his archaeological training and his acute historical consciousness: “For me it was always important to be fully conscious of the era you live in, it was very important – like in archaeology – to be able to date things, be aware of when and in what kind of context objects were made, or used.” And despite what is said about the loss of historical consciousness being the hallmark of postmodernity, the coincidence of the Internet’s advent and the break-up of the former Yugoslavia must have provided two quite awesome historical developments for someone of Cosic’s archaeological persuasion.

The Yugoslavian experience of passing from dictatorship to civil war may not be an explicit concern in Cosic’s art, but should certainly be borne in mind when considering his stance on the relationship between aesthetics and politics. Talking about a radio play he wrote at the age of nineteen which was pulled on air by a ‘telephone intervention’ from the party headquarters, it is possible to see how an early belief in political art has turned into a purer form of aesthetics.

“And as a young person, of course you went for the toughest points, but I like to compare it to today’s situation because everyone who was active in the political process claimed, even today, that it was a necessary step because it was impossible to live before. But if you look at the reality today, ten years after, there’s not a single place, except for Slovenia maybe, where life is in any way comparable. So that’s weird, and I like to insist on that. It’s terrible, it’s just a redistribution of money and power. Look at Serbia and Croatia – that’s the best example – and Bosnia no comment, Macedonia doesn’t exist really, and so on. But hey, come on, this is politics.”

Growing up in Yugoslavia and feeling that he was at the periphery of cultural production also cultivated Cosic’s strong sense of authentic and derivative artistic styles: “I was always pissed off when they were selling new books and translating literature which was actually written thirty years earlier. Somehow, in our country, there was always this massive delay, and it was reflected in the actual local cultural production...I was never interested in the best Albanian pop art, I was interested in the best pop art...Isn’t it better, I thought as a kid, to actually be at the source and possibly influence the birth or the way that work in this new area is going on.” In discussing this point I could’t help but contrast Cosic’s unequivocal belief in the continued originality of art with Fredric Jameson’s sentencing of art production to the imitation of dead styles lifted from the ‘imaginary museum’ of global culture. Turning the mike back on Cosic: “Maybe aesthetic appropriation does give some kind of a valid output, and I’m not arguing that this should be banned. I’m simply noticing that, according to my temperament, the juiciest work happens the first time around”.

Enter the Internet – a medium within which art had no history, the meta-medium, the vehicle of accelerated cultural and informational cross-pollination, the embodiment of contemporaneity par excellence. Art practice on the Net is ipso facto ‘juicy’, and it is happening within what has well nigh become a signifier of not only the new but the future too. Given the historicity of ‘the new’ however, it is small wonder that Cosic’s work is concerned with looking back at cultural history and carving out its own position within it. Having no desire to go vitrine shopping in the ‘imaginary museum’ of culture, Cosic processes history through computer specific languages and codes such as ASCII, HTML and Java, thereby creating history and style as a referent within the contemporary symbolics of the computer medium. History and future collapse into each other within the computer’s symbolic matrix. Having said that, it is important to note the degree to which ASCII has already accrued a retro appeal and science fiction has become a language of nostalgia. Postmodernism’s refusal of ‘the new’ is what riles Cosic most about this account of cultural logic:

“It’s too complicated to in any way criticise or analyse postmodernism because it’s totally unclear what it is. Are we talking about a practice or a group of people or what? But here we are, I’m looking at the positive effects of the introduction of this ideology. What it did was it levelled the unsustainable pluralism of before, unsustainable for the lazy...I think that absolute freedom of expression or appropriation got institutionalised and canonised and all possible meanderings, all possible developments in a linear history of development, somehow got sanctioned and a priori incorporated into the postmodern point of view. But because of course this point of view says ‘anything goes’ – and I’m not trying to make a caricature out of it – and by saying that anything that will ever be invented falls into the category of ‘everything’, then of course you’ve appropriated all future creativity. Just at the level of rhetoric, I think, you have sort of made a bad friend of posterity. I think the term ‘net art’ is one of those problems where postmodernism already includes it a priori. Before me or Alexei [Shulgin] moved a single tag in HTML we were already part of that movement, or group or era. Just because it’s so loosely defined, and it says ‘everything’.”


Here we stumble upon the enigma of Cosic’s relationship to the Internet. The Internet is at once a perfect reification of the velocity, specularity and virtuality of postmodernity and at the same time the place where something ‘happens for the first time’. It offers an opportunity for originality within the site of optimum reproducibility, and the site of resurgent history in the flattened space of historical amnesia. But if Cosic is undeterred by what has come to be seen as the historical constructedness of the concept of originality, his historical sense of how to market originality is acute:

“I think it is very logical that the old guys who were doing early video art insisted that they were video artists, and not just artists who were interested in a new toy. They insisted really seriously, and because of that there was a whole eco-system around them and their work. And maybe in a similar way, we are slowly developing an eco-system around net art. People are writing their PhDs about net art, and we have net art critics – an eco-system.”

And, in almost complete contradiction to the early utopian accounts of net art in which it was claimed – perhaps more by the critics than the artists themselves – to transcend the commodifying and etiolating processes of the market, Cosic states:

“I think simply that it’s not the massive desire of museums to maintain prestige that’s going to draw net art into the collections successfully. It’s more the conformism on the side of the artists, who are going to create technically commodifiable pieces or a model for the accommodation of net art within the museum situation. So it is interesting to observe net artists’ ambitions as the driving force behind this process of commodification. Simply, some of us have no problem with this. What can we do? I myself look at this as the only thing that I do, and interestingly enough my mother’s capital knows limits.”

“There is some type of illusion of virginity that used to exist earlier on in what I call the ‘heroic period’ – a term that Olia [Lialina] is using also – that was a time when what we did was known almost only to us, and that was a time when whoever you encountered that had anything to do with net art usually was also a practitioner because nobody else was interested. So those were the good old days, two years ago, who remembers when? But in the process, all these very nice offers you can’t refuse started popping up and it’s not easy, but it’s not a world premier either – it’s biblical. There’s a school of thought – and the nettime mailing list is one of the places in this world where you can often encounter people who believe in it – that money shouldn’t exist, that all human labour should be done for free and exchanged for services; err I do your website and you give me a bucket of beer. But somehow it’s a problem that it’s impossible to imagine a human being or a net artist who doesn’t interface with any of the networks and infrastructures that surround you, like economy, streets, public space, private space. Every instance of interaction with those systems is a loss of this same virginity that is being defended with the claims like ‘net art should not be sold’, which of course makes it very ugly. But how do you think you got your first Sex Pistols record? Because they didn’t want to sell it to you? Still it worked, most of the aesthetics and qualities remained – I repeat most, because of course something does happen. Unfortunately it’s a necessity, but what can I do?”

Does Cosic regard the potential of the Internet for artists to take distribution and sales into their own hands as an attractive option?

“What I like to think is that it’s simply helping artists by giving them a much better negotiation position than, say, video artists. This again is a pragmatic, strategic viewpoint that should perhaps never be uttered. A video artist could blackmail his gallerist maybe by saying that he has full control over the production, but the gallerist could also tell him to fuck off because the gallerist still owned the means of distribution. Nowadays, if you are an online artist, you control all of it and in a way put the guy in a tight corner, because really he’s not empowering you or in any way giving your work exposure that it doesn’t already have...And yes, I would like to have a show at Stedelijk because when Stedelijk moves their machine of promotion it will do miracles to distribution, and that shows on the log of my server.”

At last we arrive at the crunch question: “So what is politically radical about net art?”

“Some artists use up the medium very well.” says Cosic, “I consider my copy of the Documenta website a very political act, but of course within the art system. This is a relatively clear example of a political gesture, but nevertheless I still haven’t seen a really political-political net artwork.”

Cosic’s definition of a political art effectively turns it into an oxymoron: “Political art is art about politics, it’s not politics”, and further states that net art is in no way “changing reality”. Cosic is also unromantic about the power structure of the Internet: “It is easy to identify US involvement with the Internet simply as an imperialistic gesture and as a prelude to Internet 2.0 which will all be about commerce and somehow the US already is the hub of all communication. What’s it called? The Theory of Information, you know Roman Jakobson and all those old guys. It’s folk lore basically; whoever owns the channel owns the content, period. It was applied to some earlier communication systems because the anecdote is from the 30s, and it is applicable now because the Internet is working on broadcast principles, especially with this shift which everyone is predicting to cable systems which are broadcast systems. And the many-to-many model even now isn’t really working because you are connected or your server is connected to only one upstream server, not to many many points. This upstream system makes you very vulnerable because that nuclear bomb from the old story about how the Internet was made kills you very well.”

As with the condensation of art history into terse airport signs, Cosic is also able to reduce the elaborate relations between the Internet, power and net artist into a comically potent image: “To put it simply, I think that Bill Gates has a button under his pillow on which it says ‘Internet on/ Internet off’. That’s where my work has anything to do with that power.”

For Cosic then, the Internet would seem to provide the opportunity for art to extend its internal discourse on the basis of its formal and technical qualities. In this space of media, economic, political and artistic convergence, art remains as it ever was – a developmental process whose moments of originality are intimately linked to and yet independent from the wheel of social change. Politics and society are the block upon which the form of art is hammered out, but the two remain unalloyed.

I ask whether he believes that art’s autonomy is essential to the maintenance of its ‘artness’.

“It’s a beautiful thing to try. For instance, that would be nice. I prefer to do that than to change society. You can see me doing that in my use of, say, lo-tech which I can misuse properly, and that for me is a sign of ‘artness’ because something is being used in a way that the engineer didn’t intend it to be used. Whereas you have all these artists following hi-tech and trying to be posh but actually it’s only selling equipment. As an artist you’re only falling within the boundaries of the imagination of an engineer if you’re working with an off-the-shelf product. So this is where I’m looking at ‘artness’ as freedom.”


Josephine Berry: xjosie AT metamute.comx

Vuk Cosic: []

Proud to be Flesh

King of Code

Interactivity. Social engagement. Cybernetics. Dialogue. Galleries-as-clubs. Sixties tower blocks. Smart clothing. Bandwidth Reality. Art on the Graphic User Interface… You could be forgiven for thinking these terms were stripped from yet another mailing list on art and technology hatched in the last five minutes. In fact, they all describe the work of artist Stephen Willats which has recently returned to prominence with a flurry of exhibits at Laure Genillard, the Whitechapel and Royal College of Art galleries. An interview by Josephine Berry & Pauline van Mourik Broekman.

Since the early 1960s, Willats has repurposed system-based theories in the social context - initiating multi-media art and design projects everywhere from suburban tennis clubs and public galleries to inner city housing estates. Fusing cybernetic models, an authorial death-wish and an enduring commitment to participatory politics, his work is poles apart from the media-friendly individualism of the yBa era. But, tempting as it is to attribute the renewed interest in his work to the rise of socially responsible product on the modern art taste-index, its context and implications are far wider: in a world in which horizontal communication structures are being hardwired on global proportions and social problems tend increasingly to beget technological solutions, his experiments with self-organising systems are instructive.

The scientific inspiration, apparent rationalism and political contradictions of Willat's work make its investigations in terms of classic net debates irresistible. So surrounded by the steady ticking of his studio's many clocks, the conversation between Willats and Mute opened up some of the following questions: To what extent can models lifted from the 'hard' sciences work their magic in the social sphere? Can socio-structural open-endedness be engineered? Are there forces controlling so-called 'open systems' and, if so, is resistance futile? Betraying a long love-hate relationship with art, his answeres turned on the mutable question of the cultural model and what it - in contrast to its scientific and technological equivalents - might achieve.

PB: Can we begin by talking about the Drian Gallery, where you worked in the late 50s? You have described this as a formative experience in terms of wanting to generate a different model of how art could work.

Well, it was a strange situation because I came to work in this art gallery from the world outside and it was an unimaginable leap of reality really. I found myself working in what was at that time a very avant-garde gallery environment and hadn’t come with any kind of lumber or been to art school or anything like that.

It quickly became apparent to me that no one ever went to the gallery except those who were already involved. It was a kind of capsule, really. This enabled me to have plenty of time to dream about different speculative models of how things could be. We have these moments of insight, and in my case I remember we were showing this artist called Agam — an Israeli constructivist whose work incorporated slats of colour that, as you moved across them, changed. They stimulated me to imagine that there could be quite another relationship of an artist to a work of art, because implicit in the work was the audience.

This led me on to set up a lot of diagrammatic models in ’58/’59 which postulated that instead of the audience coming along and finding objects of certainty — icons of emulation — in a sort of passive, almost awe inspired way, they came into what I described at the time as a ‘random variable’. It was task orientated; they were part of the creation of the work, of the meaning of the experience. The word I think I used at the time was ‘relativity’ — the relativity of perception and meaning. Another artist, Kosice, a Marxist Argentinian constructivist who made constructions with water which you could move and turn around, stimulated in me the idea of task orientation and tactile involvement.

JB: What about other kinds of post-studio art? Anything from Andy Warhol’s factory to Robert Smithson’s land art which tried, with very different means, to create something that exceeds that oppressive model of the artist, and which often used industrial technology to transform the mode of production to break with this older regime of meaning?

SW: London in the late 50s was quite provincial, and I remember quite clearly the first exhibition of American big painting at the American Embassy — these were devastating injections of culture from remote places and had a completely fundamental effect on many artists. Casting off the shackles of the ’50s was a rebellious experience and, indeed, there was this term, ‘Angry Young Man’, which seemed to sum up that general feeling. By the ’60s another kind of feeling had come about which was much more optimistic and which could see the possibility of another social realm altogether, another sort of ideological-political existence. An important aspect was the idea that nothing was the preserve of any one person. The idea that some scientist was involved in a discipline that he could keep hegemony over was anachronistic. People felt that they were in a free flow of information, and this was very fertile. Other people felt that they could be artists as well. The models we are talking about didn’t really become influential — in my opinion — until about ’63.

PB: Did you feel an affinity with these models when you encountered them?

SW: I found, and continue to find, myself at odds with most American political thought. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the vast resources available to American practice, and the kinds of cultural domination that it seemed to want and, in fact, got. I saw most of these models which were being represented in a highly verified and supported manner for what they were — a kind of determinism. They wanted emulation, what I was talking about was contextualism. I certainly fell out with artists — especially American ones — who thought that great art was universal. It was complete bullshit — all art is contextually dependent on social relations and agreement.

JB: So if there were any artists that you looked to at that time, who were they?

SW: Although people knew about my practice, it was seen as quite marginal. I found people like Gordon Pask and the people around Systems Research as well as Roy Ascott and his Ground Course really stimulating. In ’65 I stopped calling myself an artist and called myself a ‘conceptual designer’ with the specific purpose of terminating what I saw as the history of art and moving on. My idea was to infiltrate the infrastructure of society and deal with accepted behaviours and norms, and transform them. So I thought that what I could do with clothing, for instance, was to develop the idea of self-organising clothing — you could alter your relationship to other people in a process of exchange.

JB: So why did you go back to calling yourself an artist?

SW: Because nobody understood what I was talking about, basically (laughs). It was quite lonely.

JB: But, why work with art at all? Were you harnessing art as an agent of transformation — something that operates interstitially — between disciplines, for example — and non-instrumentally?

SW: Well, we wanted to take the fundamentals of what we felt an artist might be and relate this to what we thought was relevant to the social landscape. In ’65, for example, I was working at Ipswich with Roy Ascott on his course, and had a group of 20 students for a whole year for whom I had to develop my own program. The students came from Ipswich and Suffolk and hadn’t been, shall we say, conditioned in the history of art — the same way I hadn’t. We had the idea that we would develop collaborative practice, that the artist as sole author would not exist, and that all art would be social expression. The students operated as a collective and we decided we’d look at what would happen if we started from zero as artists: how would we develop a practice in relationship to the social situation? We had to look at basic ideas about audience, context, language, meaning, procedures of intervention, things like that. The group divided itself into four and each group developed a different strategy for a different audience group. The idea was that theory had to precede practice.

We took a housing estate on the outskirts of Ipswich and attempted to start from fundamentals — what language we were going to use. We’d have to start with their language, and we thought that the context should be their context. Instead of trying to vary their behaviour so that they came to the art gallery, why not place the work within their existing behaviours?

The students set up a means of retrieving this information from the audience group through a doorstep questionnaire looking at restricted language codes, restricted visual codes, speech and so on. Another group was looking at priorities and behaviours. Out of this they formulated a strategy that turned out to be a set of signposts for the neighbourhood telling people where things were.

PB: How was this project related to the cybernetic systems of feedback that you were interested in at the time? And notions like consensus, collaboration and competition that figured in computer-based research, for instance in war games?

SW: Well, it wasn’t just cybernetic models. It was a whole host of different disciplines which seemed to be parallel — information theory, communication theory, learning theory. They were interesting to me because they provided models which were conceptual but which also stimulated practice. I didn’t see that they were slavishly to be copied or that their goals were necessarily my goals, but they could be appropriated.

JB: Do you think that the methods you use to create this kind of communication and interaction are neutral? You often use that word in association with the idea that you want to create a ‘neutral interface’ or something which doesn’t overdetermine the process that then unfolds. But do you think that neutrality can be achieved in any method? You’re using, as you mentioned, information theory, cybernetics and so on, and those are coming out of a scientific practice which has been critiqued, at least latterly, as existing within the Enlightenment project, not a relativist project, as something that deals in empirical truths.

SW: No, I think that, certainly in the case of Ipswich, the outcome was sort of unknown at the beginning — it was open-ended. The construction of response is so dependent on experience. When I say that the thing is or isn’t neutral it really depends on intention. You could say that everything is neutral and nothing is neutral, depending on the position you wish to take. In a way, one means the same as the other philosophically; you can find yourself in a sort of circuit. But the intention was that it was an open frame, so in that sense it was neutral. When I say a system or a work is ‘neutral’ I actually mean that the outcome is not determined — that it doesn’t have a preferred view. But of course, the work itself is not neutral because it actually is its own message. When you engage with the work, it brings you into a kind of model of social relationships which are built around exchange and self-organisation — this is what I meant by being neutral. It isn’t meant in any kind of scientific manner — you’re getting confused between the way I’m operating as an artist, and the foundation of science and cybernetics.

PB: Can we go back to the agreement and consensus issue? When manifest on a larger scale, consensus is often associated with conservative or oppressive social paradigms. Are there glass ceilings for consensus acting productively, and how can we differentiate consensus from agreement here?

SW: I think you have to be careful about the way that you perceive these models operating. The notion of agreement implies within it a recognition of the complexity of the other person, whereas consensus doesn’t necessarily do that.

PB: Maybe we should look at this through an example of your work, say the project you initiated in Holland during 1993 Democratic Model where people tried to picture an ideal space?

SW: Well, this particular work was actually about the formation of society. I saw that the basic element, a sort of building block, within society was the small group. If you look at the dynamics within the small group you can infer larger structures — there is a tendency towards agreement; within a small group there’s the psychological possibility of the recognition of complexity within others — and a process of exchange.

We invited 32 people who had never met each other before and represented different roles in Dutch society to come together to this community room in Den Haag on Saturday morning. I didn’t know the people in advance — my friends assembled them. They were given a task, which was to externalise an implicit representation of themselves within an ideal space. By answering a question you externalise what is implicit. You encode it. I see the act of ordering something on a sheet of paper as reinforcing the process of externalisation to then feed it back to the self. It is a fundamental element of the creative process, which is why I’ve used the question so often in my work.

People spent half an hour or so drawing. At the end of it I blew a whistle and we threw a dice which paired people together. It seemed that two people were the basis of a cooperative structure. They were then given a larger piece of paper on which they had to try to make a joint space. They could do this in various ways, but it meant that they entered into a period of negotiation. At this point everything was fine. I threw a dice again and we had four people — two groups of two coming together.

If we look at conformity and compliance, there’s a tendency to want to reduce the complexity of your own role by compliance. But within a group of four people they were all really willing to open themselves up to a group, because that group was based on a sort of agreement, not consensus per se. This principle seemed OK to eight, but when it got to sixteen it became impossible. At that point, all kinds of complex situations came to the forefront. Some people sought to try to exert influence, which they hadn’t done before; some tried to organise the group; some people tried to break away from the group; different things started to happen. But the basic thing was that the group became unstable and upset with itself. And the reason they became upset with themselves was because they’d lost the feeling of society that they had before.

JB: But don’t you think that most radical social transformation does need to entail friction? I’m thinking about historical revolutions, and the moments in which transformation is most dramatically figured or realised — albeit only temporarily, I would also argue.

SW: Well, no I don’t agree. I’d say that you were involved in very radical transformations of the infrastructure of society and of cognition of the self, but that this has happened in a totally implicit way — evolution. It is interesting to note that in the late ’50s and early ’60s we had a situation in which the development of philosophical models had got beyond the technology. It led to a point in the late ’60s where science and art became so engaged with each other that science became political. People started to want to take responsibility for the ramifications of their own actions. So, by the 1980s we have a revolution taking place in the infrastructure without anybody knowing. The implications of what was being thought about in the late ’50s is really beginning to effect the world we live in now. But it’s not a revolution based on conflict — it’s come about through evolution in the infrastructure. And when we talk about technology it’s just a vehicle, a medium of exchange. It embodies different possibilities which you can open yourself up to.

JB: But the technological capacity of a society has huge ramifications in its culture and politics wouldn’t you say? McLuhan, for example, talks about how the book was indispensable to colonialism because it meant that an identical message could be duplicated infinitely, and could propagate national culture within a colonial setting.

PB: And if we take the technology of the Net, its multi-nodal, ‘interactive’ architecture is viewed as having a democratising potential. Has its development played out in as empowering or democratising a way as you’d once hoped, or do you see the flipside?

SW: Well, I think you mustn’t get confused between agreement and democracy. I mean, democratic processes aren’t necessarily based on agreement, they’re based on acquiescence. We go along with the majority verdict. Agreement is not that; agreement is about agreement.

PB: But, in the same way that you saw engineering culture build something evolutionarily, do you see a process of empowerment going on, now that that something is reaching a serious level of massification?

SW: Of the individual? No, I don’t think it’s got anywhere near that point. If you’re talking about the relationship of the person to the terminal and the representation of reality on the screen, it’s so encoded as to represent within itself a realm of meaning. I think the point is that the person is psychologically detached in referring that realm of meaning to the reality surrounding them. This means that people can make decisions on the interface that they can distance themselves from in reality, and that’s an extremely interesting effect. In my work in the 1970s I developed a thing called a Symbolic World. The idea here was to encode reality and create a psychological distance so the viewer could engage more freely in a kind of remodelling. It’s not dissimilar to the representation of reality through the screen.

PB: Could tell us a bit about your recent show at the Laure Genillard Gallery, ‘Macro to Micro’?

SW: Macro to Micro came out of a similar desire as the work in Ipswich from 1965. It seems necessary at the moment to set up models of practice that can be discussed. When I say discussed I mean in a way that is useful to the development of the way we think about art practice. I wanted to represent something about the complexity of the language of the contemporary world, and show that we construct order from what we almost randomly experience. This also comes into the idea of exchange and that of the work of art not being the product of any one person — whether we like it or not.

To start, I invited a group of actors who sort of specialised in disturbing normality. I told them my thinking turned around constructing four events, with one leading on to the other in time. Touring around West London, I had come across a shopping parade in Hayes with a very wide pavement which formed a natural kind of stage. The actors went along there and I left them to it really, saying I didn’t really want to know what they were going to do, but that they would be recorded. With the documentary group, we set up the idea of a concept frame — a purely artificial device to break down this multi-channelled picture of reality — and made various boxes, of which each person elected one to document. We used Super 8 cameras primarily, because they’re informal devices and provide an interesting way of recording reality.

The event itself was quite interesting: at 12.15 on a Saturday morning the documentary group crossed the road in Hayes and started filming all kinds of people, but they soon found out who the actors were and they followed them along these four events. Then there was a series of workshops over three months where the whole group edited the material collectively. The selected frames were then made into one still and printed up on a laser printer.

The ‘macro to micro’ in this sense is that there’s no ending and no beginning to it. It’s presented in the gallery space as a sort of multi-frame piece of information from which the viewer constructs their own order. So, it was meant to illustrate certain kinds of ideas about divestment, which I think is a very important model for the future of culture, and in a way is very ideological because it goes completely against the idea of the sole authorship and the elevation of the individual in terms of culture.

JB: Why did you decide to start using your name again in 1973? Was it just a practical means of survival?

SW: Yes, just practical. I felt that the idea had to dominate over the culture of the personality. And in that respect, I always felt that I was at completely opposite end of the practice from someone like Daniel Buren, whose name you’d hear and then each work was like a variation on the same thing. There were works developed by large numbers of people; it was just the idea of the work. So you had the Social Resource Project for Tennis Clubs, and that was it. Even with Metafilter, it’s only ‘Metafilter’. But when I started to try to intervene in the institutional process it wasn’t possible to maintain that. I always retained the name of the idea above the name of the artist. So instead of the name of the artist being big, it’s the idea that’s big — there’s no particular fetish about the authorship of the work.

JB: But it’s remembered as a Stephen Willats, or goes down in archives under Stephen Willats.

SW: So it might do, but that’s not the point. The point is the practical way in which it operated as a tool to work with, rather than as an emulative icon. So this is the difference in the paradigm of the work itself. These works were initiated by myself and that’s their actuality. They wouldn’t exist otherwise; you’re in a tautology there.

JB: From the way I observe your work I can’t see a totalistic political critique — say Marxist. Your work is definitely very left-wing, but it doesn’t employ a pre-existing political language. I’m interested in knowing whether your work advances something like a Grand Unifying Theory or whether it’s opposed to that idea

SW: Well, I don’t think it’s either. You can’t approach it that way. I think that the work is ideological in the way that it has an idea of the future. It proclaims a notion of what the future could be. And if you think of the future implied in the works from the early ’60s, for instance, we can say that the ramifications of these works have been taken up by what’s happening around us at the moment. The problem I had with a lot of the artists from the ’70s was that they became deterministic in their political outlook and this actually constrained them.

The reality of the situation we’re in is that it’s fluid, but that doesn’t mean to say that you lose track of your ideological position. I’m thinking with my work about the notion of transformation, the transformation of reality into self-organising structures which actually empower the notion of the individual. Now this is not a sort of dogma, but in my practice it’s a way of externalising my view into the reality of the culture around me. But I don’t want to take on the harness of any particular political dogma. Going back to your interest in engineering and cybernetics, one thing that was interesting about that period is the notion of being able to set up radical models of society without political dogma. I think that that was the interesting outcome of those debates. So I’ve always maintained a position of being independent of any particular dogma.

JB: Would you say that in comparison to other kinds of subcultural groups artists aspire to a greater reception, to making transformations far and beyond their own context. Unlike perhaps subcultural groups looking to exclude or operating on the basis of an exclusion from ‘normal society’.

SW: What I mean by ‘normal society’ is how society is projected by itself. So, there’s a sort of bandwidth of behaviour that is perceived as being normal. But we all know that there’s no such thing as normality. I want to address a bigger audience than just the primary people I work with. My motive for inviting the art world is to open up the nature of art practice. I think it’s very important that artists get beyond the idea of sole authorship.

JB: So in a way that’s your subcultural group — other artists.

SW: I’m in the business of trying to influence the cultural direction and transforming the future of culture. And certainly moving towards the idea of more complex and interactive structures within relationships which are ultimately self-organising. These are ideas which I think are very relevant to the current moment.

Josephine Berry & Pauline van Mourik Broekman <josie AT><pauline AT>

Proud to be Flesh

Systems Upgrade (Conceptual Art and the Recoding of Information, Knowledge and Technology)

As work begins on a new theory of value within an economic landscape shaped by ‘immaterial production’ and ‘immaterial goods’, new theories of art’s role are also emerging. This shift can be tracked from the more narrowly systems-based transformation of industrial production – via information technologies, cybernetics, communication and information theory – in the 1960s, to the integration of less quantifiable ‘assets’ such as knowledge, creativity and imagination. Likewise, culture plays an ever more functional role within postmodern production. Within this newly acculturated and informatic economy, it is necessary to ask whether an autonomous art practice is still possible. Mediated by business practice and principles, the membrane between the state, culture and other sectors of the economy has also started to look rather porous. As the first in a new series of articles addressing the historical background and contemporary role of art in the knowledge economy, Mute is proud to publish the introduction to the third part of Michael Corris’ forthcoming book Invisible College: the social dimensions of Anglo-American conceptual art. Here, Corris gives an account of artists’ engagement with systems theory, information theory, cybernetics, and electronic technology. During the heyday of government sponsored research into these areas, artists began to adopt and adapt them with very different intentions in mind. But, true to the cybernetic principle of ‘feedback’, these adaptations can also be said to have helped popularise the new technoscientific thinking – for better and for worse.

This article examines how some Conceptual art recoded the scientistic theories that helped drive the technological revolution of the 1960s as an aesthetic ideology. At the outset, we should note the intense interaction during the 1950s and 1960s between technology and all forms of culture and visual art. The emergence during the 1960s of Conceptual art coincided with a tremendous surge in economic activity in north America and western Europe that ‘seemed powered by technological revolution.’<1> John F. Kennedy’s ‘new frontier’ and Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ were both images meant to denote and exploit the appeal of technological innovation in the mind of the electorate.<2>

Writing on the period of post-war prosperity that originated in 1945 and reached its peak around 1970, historian Eric Hobsbawm offers three observations on the distinctive social and economic effects of this technological leap: firstly, the utter transformation of everyday life in the industrialised nations and, to a lesser extent, in the developing world; secondly, the new centrality of ‘Research and Development’ (R&D) to the economic growth of the industrialised nations; and thirdly, the structural effect on the labour market of the new, capital-intensive technologies. It is this latter feature that prompted the period’s technocrats to dream of ‘production, or even service, without humans’ and to speculate on the prospect of human beings as ‘essential to such an economy only in one respect: as buyers of goods and services.’<3> Even though the ‘restructuring of capitalism and the advance in economic internationalisation’ are probably more central to our understanding of this broad period of economic expansion, the image and promise of technology undoubtedly captured the intellectual, popular, and artistic imagination of the West, as well as guaranteeing its continued economic superiority. In the United States, the development of technology and the dissemination of the technocratic dream was fuelled, on the one hand, by the growing power and influence of corporations and, on the other, by the ‘military-industrial complex.’ The marriage of Cold War policy and private sector enterprise sustained America’s military advantage and guaranteed a steady flow of resources to support appropriate technological developments. Alongside the many programs initiated to develop weaponry and communications systems, there arose a parallel stream of research funding that was made available to disciplines such as linguistic theory and pure mathematics. These fields of theoretical research were the targets of strategic State funding, which aimed to steer the production of knowledge into avenues that might yield results applicable to the future development and production of high-speed electronic computing machines, electronic communications systems, exotic new weapons, powerful information processing programs, and encryption devices. Many of the innovators in the field of game theory, information retrieval, modal logic, and transformational grammar pursued initial research under the aegis of this rich stream of State and NATO-sponsored funding.

During the 1960s such theories dominated the intellectual landscape and quickly became the object of social and political controversy. Systems theory in particular maintained a strong hold on the 1960s imagination. Typically associated with the aims and objectives of the military or corporate management, systems theory was first promoted in a generalised form ‘capable of addressing patterns of human life’ by the mathematician and inventor of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener. Cybernetics – conceived by Wiener during the 1940s in the context of military research on improved radar systems – is essentially a theory of control based on the concept of the feedback loop, whereby a system is in a state of dynamic monitoring and adjustment of its performance with respect to a specified goal. The biological analogue to cybernetics is homeostasis, the processes through which an organism is able to maintain itself in a state of dynamic equilibrium with its environment. According to Wiener, ‘the physical functioning of the living individual and the operation of some of the newer communication machines are precisely parallel in their analogous attempts to control entropy through feedback.’<4>

The concept of a ‘system’, which became part of the lingua franca of the 1960s, was not destined to remain the exclusive property of a technologically-minded elite of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians. In the hands of intellectuals, artists, and political activists it would become a key ideological component of the ‘cultural revolution’. It is generally agreed, for example, that Robert Smithson’s obsession with inorganic molecular structures (crystals), geological processes, time, and entropy – the latter being a concept derived from classical thermodynamics but also performing a central role in communication theory – represented a strong cultural challenge to technology’s progressive self-image. The British art critic Lawrence Alloway likened the production, distribution, and consumption of art to a non-hierachical network, ‘a shifting multiple goal coalition’, and supported his claim by citing the work of industrial psychologists and sociologists.<5> Systems theory also figured prominently in the student revolt of the 1960s, prompting historian Howard Brick to declare that ‘by the late 1960s students in American universities and colleges easily grasped the concept of a ‘system.’<6> In the volatile atmosphere of confrontation with the Establishment, the term itself – which simply denotes the ‘orderly processes at work in any complex array of multiple, interacting variables, be it a living organism, an environmental milieu, or a computing machine’ – was to be demonised. The meaning of the term ‘system’ was highly politically inflected and its application to the flux of human affairs or the natural environment was strongly contested. Despite its origins in the field of weapons research, social activists, environmentalists, student radicals, and artists appropriated the term and used it effectively to polarise social discourse. Oppositional or counter-cultural uses of system theory typically emphasised a consciousness of ‘connections’ among diverse social problems’ indicating that ‘the flaws in society were fundamental, endemic – not incidental.’<7>

What was art’s response to a set of technocratic theories, ideologies, and new structures of intellectual production (such as the ‘think tank’) that seemed to be committed collectively to the transformation of people into objects of ‘technical and administrative measures’? <8> Not all artists believed that such knowledge and technology was indelibly tainted. In the visual arts, some practitioners were more inclined to celebrate technology and to read the growing influence of the social sciences as a sign of society’s rapid modernisation, a future imagined as ‘a technologically utopian structure of feeling, positivistic and ‘scientistic.’<9> These artists sought to emphasise how the enlightened application of these new social and scientific theories – particularly semiotic theory, whose dream ‘had been the quest for inter-disciplinary forms, which would cross different types of human forms of expressions’<10> – could achieve socially progressive ends. Roy Ascott established his innovative ‘Ground Course’ at Ealing College in 1961 in the hope that a reorientation of art education informed by cybernetics, semiotics, and other theories of communication could form the basis for a new visual sensibility. The enthusiasm displayed by Ascott for graphic notations as diagrams of a ‘new space’ had its counterpart in the American field of Conceptual art, which Robert C. Hobbs characterises as the aestheticisation of knowledge and the fetishisation of ‘quasi-scientific’ (objective) modes of display. <11> In 1967, the British artist Stephen Willats argued that intellectual resources drawn from ‘modern information areas’ such as psychology and communication theory would enable the artist to ‘look at such important issues as audience composition’, and the relation between the concerns of art and those of its audience. Willats envisaged a practice of art that ‘structured function as an integral part of the environment.’ <12> In 1971, he wrote that ‘the development of homeostatic, self-regulating, self-assessing systems has been one of the most important conceptual developments in respect of behavioural structures, for it is in the nature of these systems that they are capable of determining their own structural relationship between input and output.’ <13> A more radical example of the adoption by artists of strategies and intellectual resources usually found in the cultural space of corporations and government policy institutes is the reconfiguration of the ‘think tank’ and the modern corporate figure of the management consultant by British artists John Latham and Barbara Stevini, co-founders in 1966 of the Artists Placement Group. <14>

>> Vito Acconi, Following Piece, Activity, 23 days, varying durations. New York City ("Street Works IV," Architectural League of New York), John Gibson Commissions, Inc. 1969.Choosing a person at random, in the street, any location, each day. Following him, wherever he goes, however long or far he travels. (The activity ends when he enters a private place - his home, office, etc.)

Others took a more benign approach to the concept of a system, using it to denote a set of parameters or rules that can impart the image of structure and motive to artistic practices that are invariably performative and contingent. Such work was constituted through moments of social encounter and interaction, rather than through the disposition of materials. The concept of a template or schema – already familiar to Conceptual art, as the work of Dan Graham, Sol LeWitt, Hanne Darboven, Douglas Huebler, and On Kawara attests – provided an armature on which to organise a variety of social scenarios, as in Lee Lozano’s Dialogue Piece initiated in 1969, or some of the early projects of Vito Acconci. Acconci, not ordinarily associated with systems theory as such, was interested in the late-1960s in organising performances that would place himself into a pre-existing situation or social circuit, ‘something that already existed.’ <15> Acconci’s contribution to the Museum of Modern Art’s 1970 exhibition ‘Information’ was a structured performance, which the artist described as a ‘mail system-museum-exhibition-system.’ Other works by Acconci, such as his solitary physical self-improvement performances, display an absurdist caste which links him with those artists who were far more interested in undermining the social authority of systems theory through parody, by pushing the application of a system to the point of absurdity. Systems theory, cybernetics, and game theory were misrepresented and diminished by a strategy of over-generalisation whereby the most banal situations of everyday life would be subjected to isolation, rationalisation, and analysis in a travesty of corporate efficiency or military control. One example is the early work of David Askevold – Three Spot Game (1968), Shoot Don’t Shoot (A Sum Zero Game Matrix) (1970), and Taming Expansion (1971) – which is consciously modelled after a simple game theory decision matrix.

The holistic insight that all systems regardless of size or complexity are interconnected lurks at the heart of systems theory and was mercilessly exaggerated to the point of paranoia in the novels of Thomas Pynchon, such as The Crying of Lot 49 and V. Earlier, Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File – the 1962 literary debut of an ex-Royal College of Art student turned novelist – anticipated ‘the synthesised environment of technological fantasy only so far as the severely bureaucratic, hierarchical and class aspects of British culture would permit.’<16> Even the influential work in America of George Brecht and John Cage – which Robert Morris characterised in the late-1960s as the ‘final secularisation’ of art and systems of chance <17> – may be read as an indictment of technocratic and bureaucratic modalities of control. It was a defiant statement of the poverty of such a world-view, a warning about the hubris of all attempts to overcome indeterminacy, and an encouraging sign that led to the innovation by some Conceptual artists of more explicitly ‘democratically’ structured artworks and situations.

>> Hans Haake. Visitors’ Profile. 10 demographic, 10 opinion questions on current socio-political issues posed to museum visitors. Answers tabulated, correlated, and posted regularly throughout exhibition. Milwaukee Art Center version. 1969-70.

The engagement of Conceptual artists with systems theory, information theory, cybernetics, and electronic technology had a real basis in ideological and social conflict, though at times it seemed to be the result of contingency. Jack Burnham argues that Hans Haacke ‘wanted to reveal the way the world functions on its most essential levels.’<18> Haacke took as his subject matter the totality of all systems, regardless of their nature as physical, biological, or social, although his work before around 1968 concentrated on the first two categories. Haacke’s central artistic strategy has been defined as the ‘production of systems, the interference with and the exposure of existing systems.’<19> He is concerned with the ‘operational structure of organisations, in which transfer of information, energy, and/or material occurs.’<20> Fredric Jameson has likened Haacke’s methodology to that of homeopathy. Jameson writes that ‘Haacke poses the political dilemma of a new cultural politics: how to struggle within the world of the simulacrum by using the arms and weapons specific to that world which are themselves very precisely simulacra.’ <21> Provoked by the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 and referring to the utility of so-called ‘political art’, Haacke expressed the belief that ‘the production and the talk about sculpture has nothing to do with the urgent problems of our society . . . we must face the fact that art is unsuited as a political tool.’ <22> The artist stressed that ‘any work done with and in a given social situation cannot remain detached from its cultural and ideological context.’ <23>

The challenge launched by Haacke against the ethical constraints imposed on art by a particularly narrow sense of professionalism is enabled, in large measure, by the artist’s embrace of systems theory and systems ‘thinking’. In particular, it is the notion of an ecosystem that is most relevant to Haacke’s projects of the early 1970s, imparting a sense of structure and coherence on works such as 10 Turtles Set Free (1970) and Goat Feeding in Woods, Thus Changing It (1970). Beach Pollution (1970) – a pile of driftwood and other rubbish that had been collected on a Spanish seafront – not only signals Haacke’s concern with environmental issues, but also initiates a dialogue with the anti-formalism of the late-1960s. Visually, Beach Pollution is a work that seems to invite an experience of ‘unmediated physical encounter with matter, an encounter unfettered by language and a priori assumptions’<24> similar to that intended by Robert Morris in his work Threadwaste (1968). Yet, what distinguishes Haacke’s work is not its physical composition as a pile of scavenged rubbish; rather, its conceptual relationship to the exogenous cultural space of the emerging environmental movement. That such a difference is not available to visual inspection, but is constituted through language, marks a significant shift away from the phenomenological claims of Minimalism.

One of the lessons to be drawn from a study of the art of the 1960s and 1970s is that systems analysis, information theory and the like cannot be applied unproblematically to the practice of art. In fact, the contemporary application of systems theory to art, in one instance at least, yields a dramatically different conclusion. I am referring to the work of the sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who describes the domain of art as an operationally closed and self-referential communicative system.* According to Luhmann, art’s purpose, like that of other social-symbolic systems, is communication. But where Luhmann and the 1960s enthusiasts for systems theory in art part company is their respective understanding of the nature of communication in and through art. The artists and critics of the 1960s and 1970s used systems theory pragmatically to facilitate the integration of art and the world; in doing so they risked the disintegration of art. Luhmann uses systems theory analytically to stress the difference between art and the world; a move that risks being mistaken for an attempt to rehabilitate the modernist practice of resistance through negation.

* Thanks to Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden for bringing Luhmann’s ‘Art as a Social System’ to my attention.

FOOTNOTES:<1> Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1994), p. 264.<2> Arthur Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c. 1958-c.1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 248.<3> Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes, pp. 265-66, 267.<4> Norbert Wiener, The Human Uses of Human Beings (New York: Avon Books, 1954), p. 38.<5> Lawrence Alloway, “Network: The Art World Described as a System,” Artforum XI, 1 (September 1972): 29.<6> Howard Brick, Age of Contradiction: American Thought and Culture in the 1960s (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000), p. 124.<7> Ibid., pp. 124-125.<8> Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (London: Verso Press, 1985), p. 56.<9> David Mellor, The Sixties Art Scene in London, exh cat. Barbican Art Gallery, 11 March - 13 June 1993 (London: Phaidon Press, 1993), p.107.<10> Ibid., p. 112.<11> Robert C. Hobbs, “Affluence, Taste, and the Brokering of Knowledge: Notes on the Social Context of Early Conceptual art,” in Michael Corris, ed., Invisible College: The Social Dimensions of Anglo-American Conceptual Art (forthcoming Cambridge University Press).<12> Stephen Willats, “Statement,” 1967, reprinted in Clive Phillpot and Andrea Tarsia, Live in Your Head: Concept and Experiment in Britain 1965-75 (London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 2000), p. 161.<13> Stephen Willats,“Behavioural Nets and Life Structures,” The Paper, no. 1, (1971).<14> Michael Corris, “From Black Holes to Boardrooms: John Latham, Barbara Steveni and the Order of Undivided Wholeness,” Art+Text 49 (September 1994)<15> Martin Kunz, “Interview with Vito Acconci About the Development of his Work Since 1966,” in Marianne Eigenheer, ed., Vito Acconci (Luzern: Kunstmuseum Luzern, 7 May - 11 June 1978), unpaginated.<16> Mellor, The Sixties Art Scene in London, p. 110.<17> Robert Morris, “Some Notes on the Phenomenology of Making,” Artforum VIII, 8 (April, 1970).<18> Jack Burnham, “Hans Haacke’s Cancelled Show at the Guggenheim,” Artforum IX, 10 (June 1971).<19> Ibid.<20> Ibid.<21> Fredric Jameson, “Hans Haacke and the Cultural Logic of Postmodernism,” in Hans Haacke: Unfinished Business (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1986), pp. 42-43. Jameson notes that “such a strategy — even conceived provisionally — has little of the vigorous self-confidence and affirmation of older political and even proto-political aesthetics, which aimed at opening and developing some radically new and distinct revolutionary cultural space within the fallen space of capitalism. Yet as modest and as frustrating as it may sometimes seem, a homeopathic cultural politics seems to be all we can currently think or imagine” (p. 43).<22> Hans Haacke to Jack Burnham, correspondence 10 April 1968.<23> Ibid.<24> James Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 267.

Michael Corris <InvCollege AT> is a senior research fellow in the History of Art and Design at Kingston University.

Proud to be Flesh

Technological Kindergarten

Simon Ford appraises the destructive art of Gustav Metzger, focusing on the often overlooked early use of computer science in his work. Unrealised pieces such as Five Screens with Computer may have been part of the ‘false avantgarde’ of computer art, but did they prefigure some of the concerns of today’s digital art practice?


On 21 January 2003 a crowd of onlookers watched as the 77 year-old artist Gustav Metzger scurried through 100,000 newspapers piled up in the dark basement of T1&2 Artspace, a squatted building in Spitalfields, London. With the newspapers filled with reports on the coming war in Iraq, Metzger’s actions appeared especially charged. Here was a man who, in his own words, had dedicated his life ‘to the task of eliminating war and other social injustices.’[1]

Metzger was born on 10 April 1926 in Nuremberg. His Polish Jewish parents had immigrated to Germany just eight years before. In January 1939 they sent the 12-year-old Gustav, along with a brother, to England as part of the Refugee Children movement. It was just in time. Those members of his family that remained in Germany were subsequently murdered in the Nazi concentration camps. After a brief period living in a commune in Bristol, Metzger decided to become an artist. His studies took him to Cambridge, London, Antwerp, and then back to London where he studied at Borough Polytechnic School under David Bomberg. By this time his experience of fascism in Germany and the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had already provided the foundations for his life-long political commitment: ‘The atomic bomb is really the starting point of my own work. This is the point when I was an art student and I was very conscious that from now on everything was different, including art. From that point, I started to probe the limits of art, of what one could do and what one had to do in relation to society, in relation to helping society so that this couldn’t happen again.’[2]

Metzger’s commitment to the anti-nuclear movement soon became the most obvious manifestation of his opposition to Cold War nuclear proliferation, but it also informed his development of auto-destructive art. Announcing a new form of ‘public art for industrial societies’, Metzger’s first auto-destructive art manifesto appeared in November 1959.[3] His second manifesto, ‘Manifesto Auto-Destructive Art’, appeared in 1960. In it he described ‘man in Regent Street’ and ‘rockets’ and ‘nuclear weapons’ as auto-destructive, along with materials and processes such as acid, ballistics, cybernetics, electricity, explosives, feed-back, human energy, mass-production, nuclear energy, and radiation. Auto-destructive art transformed technology into public art and mirrored ‘the compulsive perfectionism of arms manufacture – polishing to destruction point.’[4]

Fittingly, Pat Arrowsmith, Field Secretary for the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War, wrote one of the earliest reviews of Metzger’s work for Peace News: ‘I myself walked into London beside him at the end of last year’s Aldermaston March … [He also] stood up on a soap box to address the stall-holders of Watton market.’[5] Metzger’s activism led him to become a founder member of the Committee of 100, a group dedicated to non-violent civil disobedience. In September 1961 at Bow Street Magistrates Court, Metzger, along with other members of the Committee, refused to be bound over to keep the peace for a year. For this Metzger was imprisoned for a month along with other Committee members including Alex Comfort, Bertrand Russell, Arnold Wesker and Christopher Logue. At his trial he read out a prepared statement: ‘I came to this country from Germany when 12 years old, my parents being Polish Jews, and I am grateful for the Government for bringing me over. My parents disappeared in 1943 and I would have shared their fate. But the situation is now far more barbarous than Buchenwald, for there can be absolute obliteration at any moment. I have no other choice than to assert my right to live, and we have chosen, in this committee, a method of fighting which is the exact opposite of war – the principle of total non-violence.’[6]

In July 1961, just before his trial, Metzger organised a key auto-destructive event, an open-air demonstration at the South Bank in London. Armed with a spray gun filled with acid and dressed in combat clothing and a gasmask, he attacked three large sheets of nylon attached to a metal frame. The accompanying manifesto contained Metzger’s first mention of computers as a possible ingredient of auto-destructive art: ‘Auto-destructive art and auto-creative art aim at the integration of art with the advances of science and technology. The immediate objective is the creation, with the aid of computers, of works of art whose movements are programmed and include “self-regulation”. The spectator, by means of electronic devices can have a direct bearing on the action of these works. Auto-destructive art is an attack on capitalist values and the drive to nuclear annihilation.’[7]

It took another four years before Metzger provided a more detailed proposal to create an artwork that included a computer as an integral element.[8] Five Screens with Computer, he wrote, would consist of five walls or screens made of stainless steel, each 30 feet high, 40 feet long and two feet deep. They would be arranged about 25 feet apart in a central area between three high-rise tower blocks. Each wall would be composed of 10,000 uniform elements made of stainless steel, glass or plastic and be square, rectangular or hexagonal in shape. Each element would be individually ejected from the screen over a period of ten years until the screens literally fell to pieces.

Metzger still had to work out how the elements would be ejected but at this point he proposed the use of magnets and compressed air. The computer’s job was to control – according to a program devised by the artist – the sequence of these ejections. This program would take into account the quality of light and shade, the revolution of the earth, the various seasons, the weather and spectator participation via photo-electronic switches. Metzger claimed that the computer would link art, technology and society and only through its use could the artist ‘achieve forms and rhythms that correspond[ed] to his aims.’ Through the work Metzger aimed to re-channel the destructive potential of the computer: ‘Today, death is fed into, processed and administered by the computers.’ Unlike his acid on nylon paintings, the computer also provided an escape from connotations of expressionism and the fetishisation of the mark left by the artist’s hand. This huge sculpture, in such a prominent public space, would make a spectacle of destruction and in the process, Metzger hoped, would ‘initiate a series of controversies that can become a kind of mass-therapy as well as educational programme.’[9] Equally you could imagine some viewers, especially those living in the nearby tower blocks, reading the random ejections of the units as analogous to the lack of autonomy and control in their own lives. And, of course, the irony now is that it is the tower blocks themselves that are regularly demolished in celebratory and public spectacles of destruction and regeneration.

Metzger’s interest in computer art in 1965 coincided with a number of key events in its early history, most significantly the first computer art exhibitions at the Technische Hochschule in Stuttgart and the Howard Wise Gallery in New York. A year later IBM recruited its first artist-in-residence, John Whitney Sr., and the Museum of Modern Art purchased Charles Csuri’s computer-generated image Hummingbird.[10]

Metzger spent much of 1966 organising the Destruction In Art Symposium (DIAS) and much of 1967 dealing with its consequences[11], but he returned to the problematic of working with computers in 1968 for the exhibition ‘Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts.’[12] Curated by Jasia Reichardt, it was the first exhibition in Britain to demonstrate the creative potential of computers. Metzger’s participation, however, did not prevent him severely criticising the exhibition. His focus remained on issues of social responsibility for both the artists and scientists involved in the new technology and he countered those who advocated the utopian possibilities of the coming computer age with sobering details of its origins in military research. ‘Cybernetic Serendipity’, he complained, provided ‘a perfectly adequate demonstration of the reactionary potential of art and technology. No end of information on computers composing haiku – no hint that computers dominate modern war; that they are becoming the most totalitarian tools ever used on society. We are faced by this prospect – whilst more and more scientists are investigating the threats that science and technology pose for society, artists are being led into a technological kindergarten.’[13] Metzger’s contribution to the exhibition took the form of a description of his latest version of Five Screens with Computer. Slight modifications included increasing the distance between the screens from 25 feet to 30 feet and also the introduction of a festive element when suggesting that the ‘frequency of ejections on holidays may reach 600 a day.’[14]

The work’s most developed description came a year later during ‘Event One’ at the Royal College of Art (29-30 March 1969). The most significant modification saw the number of elements in each screen reduced from 10,000 down to 1200. Metzger also provided more details on how the individual elements would operate: ‘These elements can be moved forwards or backwards within a frame at controlled speeds, and will finally be ejected at various controlled speeds, reaching a maximum distance of 30ft.’ Metzger utilised the computer in three key areas: design, operation and recording:


Since all the decisions on the activity of the screens will be made before production begins it is necessary to have the most complete understanding of the work’s potential at the design stage. A computer allied to graphic output will be used to plot the numerous possibilities for moving and ejecting elements, and for visualizing the possible shapes of the screens in transformation. 55% of the elements will be ejected on a pre-determined programme. The rest (including one entire screen) will be ejected in a random manner. These random ejections will be sparked off by intense sun or electric light, or by the assembly of people above a certain number in the vicinity of a screen. Random ejections are subject to a variety of controls such as structural considerations, and will be co-ordinated with the overall programme.


A computer will be in general control of the electro/mechanical activity of the sculpture – continuous adjustments (on-line) will be necessary. The computer will also direct peripheral activity such as the raising of the glass wall surrounding the site before ejections can take place.


The computer will be used to print out and draw the day-by-day development of the screens. This will be necessary to check on operational, structural, and safety factors, and will be an aid to maintenance activities. This graphic output, along with photographs and films, will be preserved as part of the documentation on the work.[15]

In another text from this period Metzger stated that when not being employed by the ejections the computer could be used by the inhabitants of the flats: ‘By means of telephone lines it can serve as a local convenient library for the inhabitants.’[16]

Metzger’s description of the project offered little explanation of how the artwork’s immediate audience might be consulted or invited to interact with the sculpture. As Metzger clearly stated in the ‘Event One’ text ‘all the decisions on the activity of the screens would be made before production begins.’ This point is significant because, if realised, such a sculpture would almost certainly have attracted great resentment from its local audience. Not only would there have been extensive and expensive construction and maintenance work, there would also have been considerable noise from the explosive ejection of the units, which in themselves would have posed a serious health risk (only belatedly allayed by Metzger’s suggestion that a retractable glass wall should surround the site, protecting both the public from the sculpture and the sculpture from the public).

It was probably these and many other pragmatic concerns that stopped Metzger from taking his proposals any further. After ‘Event One’ his engagement with computers and art became increasingly bound up with a new organisation, the Computer Arts Society (CAS), set up ‘to encourage the creative use of computers in the arts and allow the exchange of information in this area.’ The idea for the Society was first mooted on the afternoon of 7 August 1968 at an informal session on Computers and Music at the IFIP Congress in Edinburgh.[17] Alan Sutcliffe, then Head of ICL’s Programme Research Unit, became its Chairman, R.J. Lansdown, Architectural Partner of Ian Fraser & Associates, became its Secretary, and Metzger volunteered to be the founding editor of its newsletter, PAGE: Bulletin of the Computer Arts Society. The Society initially held its meetings in rooms donated by the British Computer Society at 29 Portland Place, London, but by June 1971 it had moved into its own permanent space, two rooms on the second floor of The Dairy in Camden, a large complex of artists’ studios run by SPACE.

In 1971 the membership of CAS consisted of 500 enthusiasts worldwide. At this time access to computers was severely limited, with most being owned by scientific and military institutions. Artistic projects formed only a small and often informal element of their operation, so as part of the Society’s brief to publicise and lobby for artistic projects, it hosted events such as the Computer Art session at Computer Graphics 70.[18] Advertised as ‘More than a symposium – more than an exhibition – an international meeting of minds’ the conference boasted key representatives from the industrial-military complex: General Motors, Lockheed Georgia, Mobil Oil Corporation, Royal Navy, Ford Motor Company, Space Flight Center, Boeing, Sperry Rand and Unilever.’ At the conference Metzger presented a paper on ‘New Ideas in Plotter Design Construction and Output’ and two months later, on 24 June, he gave another paper, this time at the British Computer Society, entitled ‘Computers and Sculpture’.

Such activities formed part of Metzger’s plan to ‘seek an alliance with the most advanced research in natural and artificial intelligence.’[19] It also complemented his active membership of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science,[20] and culminated in a two-page essay for PAGE, where he listed every article that had appeared in the main professional journals of the day (Computers and Automation and Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery) that exposed links between computers and weapons of mass destruction. For Metzger these references and selected quotations also provided ample proof that the development of computers and armaments were both closely integrated with the capitalist economy.[21]

Metzger’s involvement with PAGE ended with issue 26 in November 1972, when the bulletin announced he was ‘too busy’ with other projects to continue.[22] These projects included his participation in 3 Life Situations at Gallery House, his assistance in founding the Artists’ Union and his preparations for the Art Strike, 1977-1980.[23] He published no further plans for Five Screens with Computer and for most of the 1980s kept an extremely low profile, only returning to public life in the 1990s with proposals for artworks that focused increasingly on environmental issues. More recently curators have included his work in important historical group shows, such as Life/Live, Out of Actions and Live in Your Head[24] and a major retrospective of his work took place in 1998 at Oxford’s Museum of Modern Art.[25] To date, though, most attention has continued to focus on Metzger’s spectacular acts of destruction with little attention being paid to his brief engagement with computer science.

In retrospect Five Screens with Computer appeared at the height of what became the first false dawn of computer arts. It would take at least another two decades, the development of personal computers and the growth of the internet, before digital art once again achieved even nominal artworld status. Thirty-odd years on, however, Metzger’s critique of the dubious techno-utopianism of some computer artists and his inconvenient pointing at the origin of much computer technology in the military and state security sectors, still holds true. Also sadly prescient is his non-ironic assertion in 1971 that in terms of computer art, at least, ‘the real avant-garde was the army’.[26]

[1] Gustav Metzger, ‘The Artist in the Face of Social Collapse’ in Melanie Keen (ed.) Frequencies: Investigations into Culture, History and Technology. London: inIVA, 1998, p. 82[2] Metzger in Kristine Stiles, The Destruction In Art Symposium (DIAS): The Radical Cultural Project of Event-Structured Live Art. Unpublished PhD Thesis. Berkeley: University of California, 1987, p. 74[3] Gustav Metzger, ‘Auto-Destructive Art’, London, 4 November 1959. The manifesto accompanied an exhibition, at 14 Monmouth Street, of discarded cardboard packaging that Metzger discovered on Fulham Road[4] Gustav Metzger, ‘Manifesto of Auto-Destructive Art’, London, 10 March 1960[5] Pat Arrowsmith, ‘Auto-Destructive Art’, Peace News, 22 July 1960, p. 11. The review was of a demonstration that took place at the Temple Gallery, London, on 22 June 1960[6] Gustav Metzger in ‘Quotes from Bow Street’, Peace News, 15 September 1961, p. 7[7] Gustav Metzger, ‘Auto-Destructive Art, Machine Art, Auto-Creative Art’, London, 23 June 1961[8] Gustav Metzger, Auto-destructive Art: A Talk at the Architectural Association. London: Destruction / Creation, 1965. In the text Metzger acknowledged the assistance of Beverly Rowe, then Chief applications programmer at the University of London Computer Centre. She later became a founding member of the Computer Arts Society[9] Ibid, p. [10] See Charlie Gere, Digital Culture, London: Reaktion Books, 2002, p. 100. Metzger was also well aware of the work of Roy Ascott and shared his interest in cybernetics. In December 1962 Ascott invited Metzger to give a lecture on auto-destructive art at Ealing College of Art. In the audience was Pete Townshend who later took some of Metzger’s ideas into the realm of rock music with his spectacular auto-destructive performances with The Who[11] DIAS ran from 31 August – 30 September 1966. After the performance by Hermann Nitsch at St Brides Institute on Fleet Street, on 15 September 1966, Metzger and his fellow organiser John Sharkey were charged with ‘having unlawfully caused to be shown a lewd and indecent exhibition.’ On [19] July 1967 the court found Metzger guilty and he accepted a £100 fine rather than spend four months in jail[12] The exhibition was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 2 August – 20 October 1968. See also: Jasia Reichardt, (ed.). Cybernetics, Art and Ideas. London: Studio Vista, 197113 Gustav Metzger, ‘Automata in History: Part 1’, Studio International, March 1969, pp. 107-109[14] Gustav Metzger, ‘Five Screens with Computer’ in Jasia Reichardt (ed.) Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and The Arts. London: Studio International, 1968, p. 31[15] Gustav Metzger, ‘Five Screens with Computer (1963-69)’: in Event One, London: Computer Art Society, 1969, unpaginated. Metzger accompanied the text with a scematic drawing of ‘the development of one screen (no. 3) in the first three years of its activity.’ The drawing is credited to Mr. D.E. Evans, of the Computer Unit, Imperial College, London and was produced on an ‘IBM 7094 11 (32K memory) with CALCOMP plotter.’[16] Gustav Metzger, speech at the conference Computers and Visual Research, Zagreb, 1969, transcript in Bit International, no. 7, 1971. As a further sign of Metzger’s commitment to computer art at this time he was also working on the translation into English of Herbert Werner Franke’s seminal work Computer Graphics, Computer Art published by Phaidon in 1971[17] Mission statement and information from PAGE, no. 3, June 196918 Hosted by Brunel University, Uxbridge, Middlesex, 14-16 April 1970. Information from conference programme: Computer Graphics 70, Uxbridge, 1970[19] Gordon Hyde, Jonathan Benthall, and Gustav Metzger. ‘Zagreb Manifesto’, Studio International, June 1969, p. 259[20] Formed in April 1969[21] Gustav Metzger, ‘Social Responsibility and the Computer Professional, Part 1’, PAGE, no. 11, October 1970. There was no part 2[22] Anon, PAGE, no. 26, November 1972[23] Metzger’s announcement can be found in Art into Society – Society into Art. London: ICA, 1974, p. 74[24] Life/Live, MusÈe d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 5 October – 5 January 1997; Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949-1979, The Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 8 February – 10 May 1998 and travelling; and Live in Your Head: Concept and Experiment in Britain, 1965-75, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 4 February – 2 April 2000[25] See the catalogue: Gustav Metzger, Kerry Brougher, and Astrid Bowron, (eds). Oxford: Museum of Modern Art Oxford, 1998[26] Citing as evidence the success – in the first computer art competition organised by Computers and Automation in 1963 – of the US Army Ballistic Missile Research Laboratory. See Metzger, op cit, Bit International, no. 7, 1971. According to Charlie Gere the US Army also won second place. See Gere, op cit, 2002, p. 100

Simon Ford <fordmobile AT> is the author of Hip Priest: the Story of Mark E. Smith and the Fall (Quartet, 2003)

Proud to be Flesh

Chapter 3: Introduction – I, Cyborg: Reinventing the Human

Proud to be Flesh Cover

Introduction to Chapter 3 of Proud to be Flesh - I, Cyborg: Reinventing the Human

Donna Haraway’s unforgettable ‘Cyborg Manifesto’, written in 1986, provides the catalyst for the ‘post-human’ politics discussed in this chapter. This might be where the resemblance ends, however, since you will soon notice that the politics of post-humanism turn out to be extremely varied. When Mute launched in 1994, the Manifesto had recently been published in Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991). In the same way that digital networks were breathing new life into neoliberal economics at one pole, they were also reinvigorating a feminism mired in ‘identity politics’ at the other.

Inspired by French writers such as Luce Irigaray and Monique Wittig, Haraway was interested in building a politics based on the non-essence of identity, on affinities built between partial and contingent identities – ‘affinity politics’ rather than ‘identity politics’. Part of her challenge to the patriarchy which coded women as nature and men as culture was to create a feminist figure that lived in the breach between all categories of identity (nature/culture, machine/animal, animate/inanimate). But Haraway’s cyborg probably excited feminists as much for her embrace of information technology as for her love of the alien. As biotechnology, computing, life sciences and military hardware, transformed by IT, grew increasingly to resemble one another, code and networks were grasped by Haraway as primary agents of social transformation within late capitalism.

For Suhail Malik, in an article appearing on the front page of the pilot issue of Mute, Michael Jackson served as the mass-cultural embodiment of Haraway’s cyborg. Neither black nor white, adult nor child, fact nor fiction, human nor animal – this medially enhanced pop chimera was also a tragic victim. After his child abuse scandal, writes Malik, Jackson lost his already-fictional innocence. By wanting to live outside the law, ‘by becoming child (woman, animal, satellite, white, whatever)’, his very elusiveness precipitated his re-inscription in the law. If Michael Jackson serves as a failed image of identity mutation, one that was both propelled and ultimately destroyed by the delusional sovereignty of mega-stardom, what would be a positive one?

Caroline Bassett’s critique of the cyberfeminist politics popularised by Sadie Plant was Mute’s next serious attempt to deal with the question. In what, at the time, felt like a refreshingly sober assessment of cyberfeminism’s rabid computer love, Bassett argued that Plant effectively replaces one form of essence with another: woman-as-nature becomes new-technology-as-woman. Far from throwing off the constraints of identity à la Irigaray – for whom ‘any theory of the subject will always have been appropriated by the masculine’ – Plant places her hope for female emancipation in self-organising technologies and computer networks. Unlike Haraway, who is deliberately using ‘her master’s tools’ to revolutionary ends, Plant sees in computers and code the quintessence of the female condition (simulation, connectivity, patchworking). For Bassett, therefore, Plant’s is less a politics than an eschatology, the (mere) hope for future things.

When, in 2001, we returned to the question of the ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ and the politics it had spawned, ten years after its initial publication, it was in the form of a ‘head-to-head’ debate. María Fernández’s response echoes some of Bassett’s earlier criticisms – where Haraway pursues boundary transgression as a feminist, socialist and anti-racist strategy, cyberfeminists eschew all definitions, including political goals, and even fail to build alliances across identities. Suhail Malik’s return to the cyborg theory that had been his defining contribution as an early member of Mute’s editorial board, yielded surprising results. Arguing that the universal celebration of boundary transgression is simplistic and inattentive to the precise difficulties involved, he concludes that Haraway’s engagement with techno-rationality is undialectical and superficial since it leaves intact a left-liberal, ‘proto-hippy’ critique of technology.

The debate on post-humanism gains a profoundly materialist orientation in two of the closing articles of this chapter. Andrew Goffey and Luciana Parisi both highlight unorthodox biological research to critique the anthropocentric and (bio-)political orientation of the life sciences. Goffey is interested in how classical immunology has reinforced the metaphysical split between self and other by focusing on the ‘defensive’ activity of antibodies apparently able to differentiate between ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’. Instead, he draws attention to alternative theories of the immune system, which focus on its ‘non-negligible’ activity in the absence of germs, as well as its continuous attempt to assimilate, not reject, foreign bodies, attacking only what it can’t assimilate. Consequently, the self is understood as a constantly mutating historical construct, not a pre-existing one fighting to defend its boundaries.

A similarly non-anthropocentric view of evolution is taken by Parisi in her article, ‘Abstract Sex’. Rejecting the Darwinian paradigm of evolution – based on copulatory sex and nucleic DNA transmission – she uses the case of non-nucleic DNA transmission in mitochondrial (parasite) bacteria – which participate in the ‘host’ bacteria’s DNA transfer – to argue for a radically arbitrary account of nature’s organisation. With myriad channels existing for information transmission beyond copulation, she argues that transgenesis and, indeed, ‘biotech [were, in fact] invented 3,900 million years ago by bacteria’. Add digital technology into the mix and the opportunities for non-linear DNA transmission ramify. ‘Abstract Sex’, then, ‘opens up the bio-physical and bio-cultural organisation of sex to radical destratification’ and, with it, jettisons all human teleologies, whether Darwinian, neoliberal or, interestingly, post-autonomous.

Parisi’s argument for bio-cultural turbulence mounts a stinging attack on the pseudo-embrace of non-linearity, whether in the form of the market’s ‘invisible hand’ or the post-autonomous concept of the multitude’s innate creativity. For her, these models posit repetition without difference and fear mutations. But Parisi’s thinking also opens the door to the total indifference of life’s organisation. If this borderline nihilism represents one pole of post-humanist discourse, Haraway’s – with its overt politics and stowed-away humanism – represents the other. One thing is for certain, the post-human leviathan will not, in the words of cyberfeminist Sandy Stone, ‘stand up’, even if we say please.

Proud to be Flesh

The Immateriality of the Signifier - The Flesh and the Innocence Of Michael Jackson

(Preliminary note: the following piece was read on several occasions, perhaps most publicly at the 'Virtual Futures' Conference held at the University of Warwick in May 1994. It has not been modified here and it therefore still bears the marks imposed by that genre of presentation (in the use of the pronomial, for example).

This article abandons at least one of the questions that this issue of Mute tries to address, namely whether art can survive the Twentieth Century, in favour of another question which is perhaps less secure, perhaps not so quickly available to a polemic whose positions could be distributed according to what 'art', or the 'Twentieth Century', or even 'survival' are said to be and what sense any of these terms are said to have here, today; a question which perhaps attempts only to invoke whatever instability may be possible in just these terms (and some others, not least 'technique' and 'world' and 'today') thereby remaining useless to any position in the dispute over art's 'survival', a question, namely, as to whether the Twentieth Century - whatever that is -can survive (the) art(s)

Such survival - of (a) time - matters 'today', matters now, precisely because the notion of a continuation or a change or even an end to art 'today', indicating an art or arts or an anti-art out of or beyond the Twentieth Century, seems inextricably tied to a technology -of the image and of sound - that is itself 'new'. But this is Itself nothing new: in just this way it could be asked if the Nineteenth Century could survive the inventions of photography and sound recording on the one hand and Cezanne and jazz on the other (and is any one invention less a matter of 'technique' than an other?): and - to short-circuit an enormous argument - that the word that the Ancient Greeks had for art (where the 'West' is sometimes said to have been born) was only just techn. Which century, which time, then, is art, are the arts, and the anti-arts (there are no non-arts), in today? And where? Especially if 'today'. 'now', that where and when can not be removed from the time of technique, 'our' time, the end of the Twentieth Century (at least). Does that mean an exacerbating materialisation or immaterialistion of fabrication and of figure, of silences and of blanks? Which is why - )

I want to talk to you about Michael Jackson. Because Michael Jackson is innocent.

I'm not making any claims here about Michael Jackson's legal status (though, since the allegations you'll all be familiar with have yet - if ever - to be heard in court, he remains innocent as far as that's concerned). And I'm not making any claims about what Michael Jackson may or may not have done or continues to do, whether or not he caressed, fondled or 'orally copulated' and masturbated Jordan Chandler (Independent 15/09/94, 14), the 13-year old around whom the allegations centred. What I hope to talk about is what's up for grabs in all of these allegations, defences and anxieties around Michael Jackson: namely, innocence. Michael Jackson is innocent - because what Michael Jackson wants and wanted, and had, more than anything else, even, now, in the company of children (boys, but what does this matter?), is innocence itself. And, just that far, Michael Jackson is more innocent than ever before, more innocent than any child.

In her essay A Cyborg Manifesto [cited here from Body/Politics, ed. Mary Jacobus, Routledge, 1990], Donna Haraway introduces and lays out many of the themes that have come to dominate the central concerns of, and discussion around, what is now known as 'Cyberpunk'. I'm going to adopt Haraway's quasi- definition of what's at stake here: 'A cyborg', she says,

is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction.

(149, emph.add.)


I'll carry on with the rest of this paragraph, but with a greater hesitance: some of what Haraway goes on to say here I'll be taking issue with implicitly. She continues:

the international women's movements have constructed 'women's experience', as well as uncovered or discovered this crucial collective object.


- That is without doubt. -

This experience is a fiction and fact of the most crucial, political kind. Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness .... The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women's experience in the late twentiethcentury. This is a struggle over life and death, but the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.

(ibid., emph.add.)


I'll quickly outline Haraway's argument about the 'processes' of 'social reality' in the 'informatics of domination' that is the 'integrated circuit' of society today, 'coded', she says, 'by C31 command-control-communication-intelligence' - the planning strategy center of the US military. The model of domination and control Haraway is talking about above is one aspect of the 'technological apparatus'. Let's move on and pick out a second strand from Haraway's essay which will allow a return to this apparautus and its dispersion (if, that is, that apparatus isn't just that dispersion, and Michael Jackson, namely the 'three crucial boundary breakdowns' that are, for her, the logic of the cyborg. If it is a logic.

What are these three 'boundary breakdowns'? Firstly, 'the boundary between the human and the animal is thoroughly breached'; the second 'leaky distinction' is 'between animal-human (organism) and machine'; thirdly, the 'boundary between physical and non-physical is very imprecise for us' (150-153). Everything here is to do with borders, boundaries and their establishment. And this, as Donna Haraway recognises very well, is because the cyborg is just a border that is not yet properly in place and what happens there: you, me, politics.

Let me pass quickly over these border skirmishes.

Of the border between the animal and the human she says:

Biology and evolutionary theory over the last two centuries have simultaneously produced modern organisms as objects of knowledge re-etched in ideological struggle or professional disputes between life and social

science.... Biological-determinist ideology is only one position opened up in the scientific culture for arguing the meanings of human animality. (152)


What does this mean? Simply that the person - man - is studied in the life sciences, at least, alongside every other animal and in much the same way. (This has usually meant the cutting to bits, incarceration or close-up study of both - either microscopically or environmentally - a recurrent theme in the work of Sterling and Gibson.) But the "much the same way" is important here. There are still marked and important distinctions between the study and use of animals and persons (not least when it comes to consumption, eating and what, on humans, would pass for torture).

But there's also another side of this argument which Haraway points to when she argues that

many people no longer feel the need for [the] separation[between human and animal]; indeed, many branches of feminist culture affirm the pleasure of connection of human and other living creatures. Movements for animal rights are not irrational denials of human uniqueness; they are a clear sighted recognition of connection across the discredited breach of nature and culture.... There is much room for radical political people to contest the meanings of the breached boundary. The cyborg appears in myth

precisely where the boundary between human and animal is transgressed. (152)


(Haraway goes on to comment that [b]lestiality has a new status in this cycle of marriage exchange'.)

Who, then, in our public culture, in our mediatised and cultural currency, who could or would be a more 'radical person' than Michael Jackson in his most intimate relation or connection with Bubbles, his chimp and good friend? And it is not just one animal that Michael Jackson spends his time with; the stories and reports of his menagerie - true or not - are well known enough to confirm the point. I'll cite a report from about ten days after the Michael Jackson child-molestation story first broke, when Jackson could no longer afford to be seen as he always had been with an accompanying child, just after he had been brain scanned following his cancelled concerts in Singapore:

Two adult and four young orang-utans were brought to Michael Jackson's Singapore hotel room yesterday where the singer entertained them at the poolside.


(Independent 03/09/93, 13 (let edn.) )


Who, then, in this new and breached relation between human and animal, could be more .transgress lively' cyborg in turning his back on the company and companionship of his fellow humans for the animals? Grizzly Adams, perhaps, and all the other 'Return to Nature' brigade (you'd want to include here the anti-culturist 'CrustT, together with the dominant primitivistic liberatory aspects of Rave -rather than clubbing -codes). But these are precisely the most naive and inept responses to the boundary as boundary (they simply confirm that boundary, simply or merely changing sides - and consequently always failing to work it at all). And these responses (or Donna Haraway) can not even begin to touch the actual transformation of Michael Jackson into animal form (panther) at the end of one of his videos. Things are more complicated with Michael Jackson.

Not least because he occupies and breaches the other two 'leaky boundaries' as well (and not only them), defying all stabilisation, defying, that is, all desire (for it). Recall that the second unstable and disordered boundary was that between organism and machine. Haraway states that

the certainty of what counts as nature - a source of insight and promise of innocence - is undermined, probably fatally.

(152-53, emph.add.)


Let's extend the boundary to that between the organic and the non-organic and intersect it with the border between the natural and the non-natural: as does, for example, Michael Jackson in the multiple transmorgifications during many of his videos; transmorgifications that are again the actualisation of the breaching of this border - but that this is possible and, in some sense at least, acceptable is what is of interest here (be it taken as deranged).

And even if Michael Jackson is the most public and contemporary manifestation of this troubled border, he is not alone. On the one hand, the entire Cyberpunk genre from Bladerunner on has written, filmed and discussed little else: from Gibson's fetishistic Mona Lisa to Arnie as half-humanoidhalf-machine (but which half?), the constant stress has been on the compatability and encroachment of the prosthetic device on the body, on the brain, on memory and so on.

They are the anxieties in the face of a cyborg future, Michael Jackson.

The massive transfiguring of Michael Jackson is not merely restricted to these two borders, it also steps around Haraway's third 'imprecision', that of the material and the immaterial. A leaching of visibility and tactility that is most explicitly shown in the video for Do You Remember from the Dangerous album where Michael Jackson constantly appears and disappears in several different guises, but also appears and disappears tout court.

Again, I want to suggest that there is also another level at which Michael Jackson's materiality/immateriality allows for the phenomenon that he has become and will continue to be. This level of immateriality is that which in fact allows Michael Jackson to be quite the star he is - because, as Haraway points out in effect, he is cyborg.

Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of spectrum, and these machines are eminently portable, mobile - a matter of immense human pain in Detroit and Singapore


- with Michael Jackson, no less a matter of some pleasure. -

People are nowhere so fluid, being both material and opaque.

Cyborgs are ether. quintessence.

It's this last point I want to stick with and which, I think, presents the greatest difficulty in talking about Michael Jackson, because it allows us to ask this question: what is the consistency of Michael Jackson? That is, if Michael Jackson is not simply a person because he is also the infraction of the border between the human and the animal, betwen the organic and the non-organic (which is also to say between the living and the dead - see the Thriller video) between the material and the purely communicative ethereal manifestation that takes place in no one place as such and, because of this, takes place everywhere; if, that is, Michael Jackson is neither merely animal nor human, merely living nor merely dead, merely material nor merely signal and both animal and human, living and dead, material and signal; if Michael Jackson is a configuration of a stew which is, or wanted so badly to be, also neither merely male nor female, man nor woman and both male and female, and similarly for the separations between black/white, child/adult, victim/ aggressor, innocent/ profane, public/private, real/fictional, human/nonhuman (whatever it may be to be human) and so on; what then does Michael Jackson consist of, what consistency and manifestation can he have (or not have, in so far as he makes sense)? It seems that it isn't a matter here of a clearly demarcated cyborg manifesto, but a much messier and depthless cyborg manifest-stew.

Michael Jackson's own articulation of this business (if it matters) is straightforward: he wants to be like a child. Which is why he resorts to the company of animals ('they're just like children' he says to Oprah), why his sexuality has yet to be, and it (still) has to be, fathomed out, his gender had to be determined (his speaking voice indeterminable), his race unimportant (and it's certain that he's the last person to whom it matters if you're black or white). He becomes the person that straddles all these divisions and categories that the world and its politics are made up of, that lead to wars and conflict, laws and legislation, violence and states, desire and disorder.

In short, Michael Jackson is the humanist end-point, the freeest of all restrictions specified by the markings of the political body (in both senses) and he achieves this by the most advanced technological apparatus available. And this basic human freedom is, for him and for what are called 'our times', supposed to be childhood, the dispersion of a body that, to be the body it tries to be, can not be held together as such, that takes place everywhere and nowhere. (Which is why there is not even one Michael Jackson). A humanist end-point, that is, that seems to be the complete evacuation of the human (into the machinic, the animalistic, the immaterial). This is why the police examination of Michael Jackson's genitals and lower body parts, a search made to confirm Jordan Chandler's description of Michael Jackson's penis (which could be taken, publically, as a police examination to see if Michael Jackson has a penis), why this examination - that he has a body to be examined - was said by Michael Jackson himself to be 'dehumanising' (Independent 23/12/93,1).

Nothing can touch Michael Jackson, it's certain. For he does not exist for real. If he exists (for himself, above all) and if his global, political and ideological success, the anxiety and fascination that surrounds him, can be indicated, it might be through what he offers (to us, for himself): an escape to an innocence in childhood that has been lost, a childhood that, as he tells Oprah,'he never had'.

And, now, has no more. For what was lost in the Michael Jackson 'affair' was Michael Jackson's already fictional innocence. The child he befriended, innocently, corrupted him bymistaking his affection sexually. The child, if a13 year is a child, corrupted Michael Jackson. The child was sexualised and sexualised Michael Jackson (he has a penis: the police have, the polis has, seen it, confirmed it for us). The child, in all innocence, in therapy, was more adult than Michael Jackson. The innocence Michael Jackson wanted (and not only in his bed, 'like a slumber party' (Independent 28/08/93. 1), kissing, the boys report (Independent 27/08/93, 1), "'like you kiss your mother"'), that innocence corrupted Michael Jackson, deprived Michael Jackson of his innocence. Innocence depriving itself of its fiction. And that is the law, its fiction. Michael Jackson, in short, was and remains guilty of his innocence, guilty - innocent - of his fiction (Independent 27/08/93, 27 (Leader)).

In other words, Michael Jackson's escape from the world, from the bind of the law and its poisoning corruption is always and only a fiction, an idea of a childhood and innocence that he wishes for and which has yet to come. And now more than ever. How will he ever 'Heal the World' now?

It looks, then, like Michael Jackson's cyborg manifest-stew wants to escape politics and violence, be outside of the law, by becoming child (woman, animal, satellite, white, whatever) a return to a childhood that has never happened (but, recreated, is now) and which will leave him inarticulate, apart from the shouts of sheer pleasure and delight of his music, the pleasure and satisfaction of desire that he gets and gives; in -fans. I'll finish then with two quotes: a long citation from the recent essay 'Prescriptions' by Lyotard (about Kafka's In the Penal Colony), drawing together the threads of materiality, infancy and why Michael Jackson in fact - as with every attempt to escape law, binding and politics - only ever rein-scribes that which it attempts to escape; in Michael Jackson's case, a total and totalitarian reinscription of the law as an aesthetics; his corruption (why his body had to fall apart once the allegations were made; his dehydration, his painkiller addiction confession, related to his hair catching fire, his corporeality catching up with him in his dehumanisation); and a second citation from the four minute confession (on 22/12/93, on global tv) in which Jackson admitted all of this. Lyotard:

to be aesthetically is to be-there, here and now, exposed in space-time and to the space-time of something that touches before any concept and even any representation. This before is not known, obviously, because it is there before we are. It is something like birth and infancy (Latin in-fans) -there before we are. The there in question is called the body.It is not I who am born,who is given birth to. I will be born afterwards, with language, preciselyin leaving infancy[,] ... this infancy, this body, this unconscious, remaining there my entire life.whenthe law comes, with my self and language, it is too late. Things will have already taken a turn, this first touch. Aesthetics has to do with this first touch, which touched me when I was not there .... This touch is necessarily a fault as concerns the law. [...] If the law must not only announce itself, but also make itself obeyed, it must vanquish the resistance of this fault or this offending potentiality constituted at birth - by which I mean: deriving from the fact that one is born before being born to the law. For the law, the body is in excess.... But the law must be concerned with this excess of the body. If the law is to execute (itself), it will have to inscribe itself on the body, also like a touch. Jackson proclaims, just as well, 'that if he was guilty of anything, it was of giving all he had to children' (Independent 23/12/93,1) and, quoting directly,


of believing what God said about children: 'Suffer little children to come unto me and forbid them not for such is the Kingdom of Heaven'. It is not

- Jackson continues, well aware of his media -

that I think I am God, but I try to be God-like in my heart.

Proud to be Flesh

Whatever Happened to the Cyborg Manifesto?

In 1985, Donna Haraway unveiled ‘The Cyborg Manifesto’, thrilling cultural studies bods, new agers, feminists, and cyberpunks alike with its mix of military, political, laboratory and hippy flavours. Consigning the boundaries between the born and the built to the rubbish dump of history, Haraway’s politics of the information age made waves. But ten years on, has the radical promise of her manifesto been borne out by history? Maria Fernandez and Suhail Malik think not – for completely opposing reasons.


In an era when nearly everything, from small seeds to large computer networks, entails practical or metaphorical organic and machinic fusions, the ‘cyborg’, that product of early Cold War cybernetic theory, and detourned by Haraway a generation later, has lost its political clout. Haraway’s cyborg, “not of woman born”, the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, was modeled upon the ‘meztisaje’ (racial mixing) of Mexican Americans. Acknowledging that she wrote the piece at a particular historical moment and primarily for women, Haraway’s cyborg was an inconstant figure able to incorporate spiral dancers, electronic factory workers, poets, and engineers; a figure that allied diverse oppositional strategies, from writing to biotechnology. Given this radical theoretical openness, what did the Cyborg Manifesto (CM) really manage to achieve?

1> CM was an early recognition of the fundamental and irreversible changes brought about by digital technologies. Pre-dating Dolly, the Visible Man, the Visible Woman, and the (purported) completion of the Genome Project, Haraway discerned society’s transformation into a “polymorphous information system” and “the translation of the world into a problem of coding,” both phenomena with specific effects for women worldwide. In the 1980s, Haraway was one of a handful of cultural critics to write about the double-edged possibilities of biotechnology, a major focus of cultural work today. Her prediction that control strategies applied to women to give birth to new human beings would be developed using the language “of goal achievement for individual decision-makers” had, by the 1990s, has been all too fully borne out.

2> CM urged feminists to embrace new technologies as tools for feminist ends. This was a pressing antidote to the pernicious notion, popular at the time, that women belonged exclusively to ‘nature’. The manifesto proposed that feminists definitely could and should use the master’s tools to destroy (or at least disrupt) the master’s house.

3> CM contributed to the growth of a pan-global labour consciousness, acknowledging the key role of women as workers in the global economy. It also inspired the development of ‘cyberfeminism’ in various parts of the world. But in contrast to Haraway’s feminist, socialist and antiracist politics, cyberfeminism eschewed definitions, political affiliations (including feminism) and even goals.<*> The political effectiveness of so undirected a movement is still to be determined. Issues of race and racism, primary in Haraway’s formulation of the cyborg, have been avoided in cyberfeminism. This silence could prove as destructive here as it was to second wave US feminism. One can only hope that cyberfeminism is still open to transformations.

4> CM proposed feminist associations based on affinities, not identity. Haraway wrote the manifesto in response to endless fragmentation of the US Second Wave feminist movement along the lines of ethnic, racial and sexual identity. The manifesto called for the crossing of boundaries and for a re-organisation of women on the basis of affinities of political kinship. Cyberfeminists followed Haraway’s lead to associate on the basis of affinities, but at present, with some exceptions, these affinities tend to be career-oriented rather than political.

5> CM reinforced and popularised earlier Utopian feminist imaginings of a world rendered gender free by technology. Effectively, what this really meant was that those who could afford medical services and technology would be able to ‘re-generate’ themselves at will. For a small segment of the world’s population this has indeed been liberating and empowering. Previously ‘monstrous’ prostheses became beautiful.

If the original radicality of Haraway’s cyborg lay in its illegitimacy, the ubiquity of digital, ex-military, and genetic technologies suggest that the cyborg is now a recognised legal citizen, much more a creature of social reality than of fiction. The utilisation of the cyborg as an image of edgy radicalism was, and still is, the territory of electronics and the fashion industry. As cyberfeminism emphasises the cyber and backpedals the feminism, the most radical politics of the manifesto have been largely ignored.

Maria Fernandez


We know what a cyborg is: the hybrid transfiguration of the human and the machine into one continuous, prosthetically extended, techno-organically enhanced whole. The hope of this integration is for a transorganic or transhuman future, something like an entirely new evolutionary stage of life which will surpass the organic limitations of brain and body in favour of new, unlimited potentialities. A new sort of future that un dermines the divisions and boundaries between the human and its others; a cross-disciplinary movement that, as Donna Haraway asserts in her foundational text, ‘The Cyborg Manifesto’, has characterised liberal societies in postmodernity.

The cyborg is yet another manifestation of the collapse of the traditional bounded stability of the human and its anthropocentric beliefs. But this notion of the cyborg is a lazy reconfiguration of already well-established political and moral sensibilities – why?

1> It duplicitously welcomes the technoscientific hybridisation of the organic and the technical while maintaining and perpetuating the critique of technological rationality which has characterised left-liberal activism and humanities. Neither aspect is transformed by what is in fact a confrontation but comes to exist side-by-side in a typically vague optimism in which all transgressions of boundaries are welcomed, without adequate consideration of content or the difficulties involved. In this way, the theory of the cyborg perpetuates the standard assumptions of leftist (and proto-hippy) critique.

2> This hypocritical determination only serves to reinforce equally naive notions of an extended freedom and responsibility which, rather, the cyborg is in the service of. There is something disgustingly, liberally ‘communitarian’ about the cyborg in its current appreciation, which could be readily taken as a covert if naively assumed parochialism or, better, Americanism. No surprise that this should come from those on the nice left where ‘contestation’ always involves ‘respect’ and ‘creativity’ rather than war and destruction (see Hardt and Negri’s approbation of Haraway in Empire).

3> Cyborg theory is mostly a self-serving sexying-up of critical liberalism through great gadgetry and concept-busting movements in the technoscientific organisation of living material and extended systems. Tie-dye T-shirts are swapped for leather deathpants and ethnic beads for prosthetic hardware in a desperate bid for contemporaneity.

4> But the errors and dogmatism of the now common notion of the cyborg also extend to the understanding of what is actually happening in the technosciences. The cyborg is a theoretical fiction, since how the machinic and the organic in fact materially interact and combine is not and cannot be accounted for by a theory ultimately based on abstractions.

5> This tendentious, primarily phantasmatic appropriation of technoscientific development as ‘cyborgian’ precludes a technically precise and fully inventive understanding of organico-machinic integration in favour of asserting what has been going on in well-meaning left-liberal circles for some time anyway. It is a complacent reduction of the actuality of the organico-machinic nexus, dulling it into politically comprehensible and polite terms.

Suhail Malik

Maria Fernandez <xochipilli AT> is an art historian (Ph.D. Columbia University, 1993) whose interests centre on post-colonial studies, electronic media theory, Latin American art and the intersections of these fields.

Suhail Malik <s.malik AT>is a writer and course leader Post-graduate Critical Studies (Visual Arts) at Goldsmiths College, London. His ‘The Immateriality of the Signifier: The Flesh and the Innocence of Michael Jackson’ appeared in Mute’s pilot issue, 1994.

<*> See ‘100 anti-theses’ [] and Faith Wilding, ‘Where is the feminism in Cyberfeminism' [] originally published in nparadoxa 33, London, 1998.

Proud to be Flesh

CYBERFEMINISM SPCL - With a little help from our (new) friends?

Sadie Plant's writings have been instrumental in defining many of cyberfeminism's foundational concepts. Here, Caroline Bassett takes one of her recent essays, On the Matrix: Cyberfeminist Simulations, as the point of departure for a critical look at feminism's most recent progeny while Josephine Berry reports from the conference Wired Women where some of cyberfeminism's more popular figurations were placed under the microscope.

What is cyberfeminism? Sadie Plant claims it is an absolutely post-human insurrection - the revolt of an emergent system which includes women and computers, against the world view and material reality of a patriarchy which still seeks to subdue them. This is an alliance of 'the goods' against their masters, an alliance of woman and machines. It is a revolt of the chattels.

It also claims to be a revolt on a certain - rather grand - scale. At the opening to On the Matrix:Cyberfeminist Simulations, Plant says that cyberfeminism - and/or the complex systems and virtual worlds upon which it is based - have the capacity to undermine the "world view and material reality of two thousand years of patriarchal control." Later in the same article she suggests this is already happening. "Tomorrow came" - we are, she says, already downloaded.

Cutting across the absolute certainty of this rhetoric of transformation though, is a surprising admission of uncertainty. Plant freely admits that she is talking about an "irresponsible feminism", more than that, she wonders if what she is talking of "is a feminism at all."

This uncertainty opens up certain questions about cyberfeminism. Crucially this one; does it amount to a politics, or a technology? Is Plant talking about a possible feminist response to computerisation? Or is she rather documenting/predicting a technologically-determined alteration in the condition of woman. An alteration which woman should embrace because it is a change in their favour, but which they can do very little about.

Two themes in particular emerge as keys to unraveling the claims of cyberfeminism. First, it is useful to consider how Plant locates cyberfeminism within debates around the subject. And, second, the arguments Plant makes around the nature of self-organising machines.


Cyberfeminism is only a new twist in a long love/hate affair between modern feminisms and technologies. From Mary Shelley's Franken-stein onwards, feminism has found in technology an edge point. It is regarded as desirable, treacherous, despised, but always as revealing of the condition of women, and as implicated in it.

In this sense cyberfeminism is part of the feminist tradition. But it also repudiates it. Plant's cyberfeminism emerges, in fact, out of what she understands as the failures of earlier feminism - more broadly out of the failure of the Enlightenment. She doesn't want a re-enchantment of the world.

Cyberfeminism, then, begins at the point when humanism is abandoned. Plant's analysis focuses on the French philosopher Luce Irigaray's contention that for women a sense of identity is impossible to achieve since women cannot escape the 'specular economy' of the male. An economy in which, through the controlling phallus and eye (the member and the gaze) woman is always comprehended as 'deficient'. Woman is always "the sex which is not one", the sex which always lacks the equipment to have one.

Given this analysis, the goals of earlier feminisms, those which have demanded for woman her place as the also-subject of history, her share of human domination over nature, are the wrong goals. Pursuing the "masculine dream of self control, self-identification, self-knowledge, and self-determination" as Plant puts it, will always be futile, since "any theory of the subject will always have been appropriated by the masculine"(Irigaray).

The only possible politics for the sex which is not one, and can never be one, is a politics which takes as its starting point the destruction of the subject.

The question then is how this work of destruction might be carried out. Irigaray's answers have always been tentative. Plant is not so diffident. She has an answer. And it is, of course, self-organising technology; the femaleness of the new species. Which is not a species but an emergence. And one dangerous to men.

Plant's contention is that self-organising technology; "a dispersed and distributed emergence composed of links between women, between women and computers, computers and communications links, connections and connectionist nets" can perform Irigaray's work of destruction (which is the grounds of possibility for new works of assembly), because it provides space for woman to assemble herself - with a little help from her (new) friends. Cut loose from patriarchy, woman is now "turned on with the machines".(Do we want this?)

Man meanwhile, despite his Cartesian disdain for being 'earthed' is also enmeshed in cybernetic space, becoming simply a 'cyborg component of a self organizing process beyond his perception or control'. From where Plant begins - with the necessity for destruction, infiltration, and corruption - there is some joy to be had in finding Man caught in the nets he spread precisely to consolidate his own position. (Perhaps we do want this.)


This turn of events depends, of course, not only on a particular analysis of the position of woman. It also requires a particular understanding of technology. And here, I think cyberfeminism falters.While Eco-feminism holds technology as hostile to woman precisely because it understands that technological 'advances' represent a further encroachment by 'man' upon 'nature' and 'woman', cyberfeminism, by contrast, asserts that complex systems and virtuality work the opposite way around.

How so? For cyberfeminism, the new nature of new machines might be encapsulated in the notion of self-organisation; As Plant puts it "tools mutate into complex machines which begin to think and act for themselves". These machines, being emergent, do not have origins to be faithful to. They twist beyond the specular economy. And the particular twist they take is towards the 'female'. Computers do not represent an encroachment of logic, but its confusion. Crucially then, the valence of technology has changed.


Three claims Plant makes for technology 'as female' are these:

One. Like woman, computers are simulators, having no fixed identity, but rather performing as. Both are therefore, using Irigaray's formulation, 'not one' but always multiple, being both nothing (zero) and everything/everywhere at once. The nature of the computer and the nature of women converge.

Two. A second way in which the female is invoked is via a return - to weaving, understood in On the Matrix, as an authentic 'feminine craft' (certified female by Freud). Weaving, undeniably processual, comes to symbolise elements of technology which cannot be explained in terms of domination and control (i.e. of man putting nature on the carpet). Plant suggests this technology, always technically demanding, has sewn its cross-stitches into the new:

"[f]emale programmers were to find connections between knitting, patchwork, and software engineering and find weaving secreted into the pixellated windows which open on to cyberspace."Weaving is invoked as a celebration of that which is/always has been female about a certain kind of technology. Plant's alliance between 'the goods' - females and female technologies, suddenly looks remarkably similar to the old 'cobwebs against bombs' tactics of the weaving women of Greenham Common.

Three. Finally, Plant claims that only those at 'odds' with the masculine can access the plane of the new machines. If new technology is not masculine, it is because some of its inventors were not either. She invokes Alan Turing, the inventor of the Turing machine, the forerunner to the modern computer, who was forced to take oestrogen as 'therapy' after being convicted of homosexuality by the British courts. Turing's brain she says, "newly engineered and feminised", produced the Turing machine.

As a matter of fact, it didn't. Turing invented his machine before he was prosecuted and certainly before his 'therapy' took hold (at least according to Alan Hodges' biography). But the factual error is less significant perhaps, than the rather brutal essentialism evident here (Is a hormone really all it takes to 'be' a woman?)

Cyberfeminism claims to ride the new edge of technology, but it also rides a very old edge of feminism. Plant is essentially essentialist; there is little in her account which suggests ways in which the category of the female might itself be subject to mutation.


In another way too, cyberfeminism's conception of emergent/self organising technology is to be questioned. Technology changed, says Plant, but can this be said to be equally true of computers, neural networks, telecoms networks, nano-technology (the latter of which could very easily read as an attempt at absolute, molecule by molecule control of nature), biotechnologies, AI?

On the Matrix glances across an array of technologies, each one produced as 'proof' of "the change", each one never precisely described. As a rhetorical strategy, blinding with science (or in this case technology) has surely been (over)done. In addition, there is always a tension between contention and tense; "tomorrow came", says Plant, but she admits that many of these technologies are still under development.

There is a problem then with cyberfeminism's understanding of technology. Plant's assertions about the long list of technologies she invokes are, often, simply assertions.

More than that, they might be understood to reduce technology in so far as they characterise it as 'female'. Surely it will never be enough to understand emergent technology 'as feminine', just as other technologies can never be understood purely and simply 'as masculine'? This, paradoxically, is to deny the complexity of technology.

This conflict, between gender essentialism and technological transformation, is a faultine that runs through cyberfeminism. It means that although cyberfeminism understands that everything has changed, in the end, it also suggests very little has changed. Despite the rhetoric, cyberfeminism is not ambitious enough.


To return, finally, to the question of a feminism. Following the threads of Plant's arguments through On the Matrix, it becomes clear, I think, that Plant never provides a definitive answer to the question: "technology or politics?" There is always, in her work, a slippage - from what might be effected through a politics practised by women, to what will be effected by virtue of virtual (and complex) systems.

This slippage is the point for Plant who courts and develops ambiguity in her writing, consistently con-fusing and re-fusing distinctions between woman - who is "turned on by the machines", and self-organising machines themselves.

Woman and machines, gathered under the same unvarying sign (the sign of the female - the always multiple zero set against the One - a non binary opposition) are, as Plant sees it, elements of the same networks. In this proliferating confusion, distinctions about who or what is doing what to whom - distinctions that is, about what might amount to 'doing politics' and what might amount to celebrating a technology, might seem difficult to draw. More than that; they might even seem irrelevant. "As technology changes, woman changes", says Plant. Shouldn't that be enough for us?

I don't think it is. Because it lets cyberfeminism off the hook. It makes certain claims to being an active, radical form of politics; one adapted to post-humanism. But it also comes close to suggesting that the position of woman is simply intrinsic to a certain form of technology.

In the moments, in which cyberfeminism relies not on humans (women) but on the emerging force of machines, which she presumes are 'female', Plant seems to me to deliver us less to a politics than an eschatology; a hope and desire for future things. In this way, despite the sound and fury, of cyberfeminism's (effective) rhetoric, and despite the power and precision of its destructive moment (the destruction of the desire for a re-tooled Enlightenment), it often comes close to a politics of quietism.

Sadie Plant, On the Matrix: Cyberfeminist Simulations In Cultures of Internet, (ed) Rob Shields (Sage, 1996)

Caroline Bassett <caroline AT> is a freelance technology journalist, columnist for MacUser, and a doctoral student researching hypermedia at Sussex University.

Proud to be Flesh

The Future is Female

Cyberfeminists tried to reinvent feminism for the information age. But, as fundamental issues of difference and exclusion come to the fore, the quest for a specific cyberfeminist theoretical identity seems to be moribund. A bit of self-doubt and a new constituency might be the answer, says Irina Aristarkhova

The ‘Very Cyberfeminist International’ conference in Hamburg was the culmination of several cybferminist events organised by the Old Boys Network (OBN) – a network of feminist artists, activists and theorists whose members include Verena Kuni, Helene von Oldenburg, Claudia Reiche, and Cornelia Sollfrank. Having previously organised two ‘Cyberfeminist International’ conferences – the ‘First Cyberfeminist International’ (Kassel, Documenta IX, 1996), and the ‘Next Cyberfeminist International’ (Rotterdam, 1999) – participants were eagerly anticipating what kind of cross-national and cross-cultural networks had been built over the past five years. And of course it was interesting to speculate over what the word ‘very’ implied – was the event planned to be ‘Very Cyberfeminist’, ‘Very International’, or ‘Very’ something else?

By the time the event finally came around, apparently due to disagreements and personal conflict within OBN, the conference deserved the title of ‘Very Emotional’. Instead of treating it simply as a symptom of OBN development (or the end / transformation of the group?) it might be more productive to review this emotional uproar in the light of the issues, listed in the programme, which were never adequately discussed at the conference: ‘Resumption of New Border Concepts’, ‘Media and War Techniques’, and especially the network and networking in general.

The conference started with a presentation of posters. The posters were big, bright and numerous, dealing, rather predictably, with themes such as: ‘network’, ‘machine’, ‘sexuality’, ‘cyborgs’ and ‘bio-technology’. The most exciting, in my opinion, was a presentation by SubRosa from the US who made a multi-functional poster that you can wear, recycle, use as a kitchen towel, curtains, etc. – a complete departure from the ordinary 2-D still images presented by others.

On several occasions I heard that this – the third – Cyberfeminist International conference, would distinguish itself from others by welcoming diversity among feminists engaging with new media. Sadly, even if some of the white women participants share the illusion of diversity, women of colour at the conference all expressed their dissatisfaction with the lack of discussion and concrete engagements with the topics of race, ethnicity and cultural difference in relation to new media. According to Maria Fernandez: ‘As with other OBN events, the Very Cyberfeminist International was successful in bringing white women together, especially those from Europe and the United States. As with previous OBN events, the Very Cyberfeminist ‘International’ did little to foster communication between white women and the rest of the world. Rather than helping to bridge differences, it exacerbated them. Racial difference seemed to be extremely divisive as points raised by women of colour were met with antagonism. When the same points were raised by white women, the speaker was invariably met with encouragement or at least respectfulness. Even superficial familiarity with post-colonial theory might have helped to prevent the common stereotypes into which the few women of color at the conference were pushed: oppressed, ignorant of technology, bound by the body, political, not intellectual etc.’

Apparently the issue of racial and ethnic difference remains the hardest to address at any new media event – whether academic or activist. Just like at last year’s Third International Cultural Studies conference in Birmingham (where I organised two sessions on ‘Cyberfeminist Strategies’), the majority of discussions on cyberfeminist theory, gender, new communication and bio-technologies were nearly all ‘totally white’. These discussions dealt with post-human and post-modern conditions, woman-machine hybrids, entailed a critical revaluation of disembodied cybertheory, and touched on differences among women whilst at the same time silencing and repressing many of them. It feels like we have to start all over again – first Western feminism was blind to difference, then we started paying more attention to differences among women. Now, after being swept by uncritical, universalising cybertheory and practice for the past decade, we have to learn again that race has not disappeared in the age of the Internet and human-machine interactions, never mind its potential for gender bending and ‘identity tourism’ (as Lisa Nakamura termed such ‘race swapping’). At the same time, I feel that a careful outline should be made of the earlier use of terms such as ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ in postcolonial and feminist theory, to stop us from bypassing the ethical and political complexities of such notions and their use altogether.

The discomfort shared by most over the concept of ‘post-humanity’ also met with an inadequate response from those who cautioned that, once again, we are being lured by the illusion of oneness – which sounded like old wine in new cyber-tech bottles. Such tensions were accompanied by a constant chorus of questions raised by OBN members : ‘How do YOU do this or that?’; ‘What can we do?’; ‘How can we welcome other women?’; ‘We had very good intentions and an open-door policy – why does it seem to have failed?’ Of course, nothing has failed – I think that this crisis within OBN represents the impossibility of ‘discussing difference’, but the strong desire and will to actually start practicing it.

Apparently, it seems, the main European players of cyberfeminism are still struggling to find ways to create more heterogeneous communities, especially with the ‘other’ women in their own countries, who are conspicuously absent from conferences like this (which was especially apparent during the poster session). Let us not naively fool ourselves that ‘there have been no great black women cyberfeminists’, or that ‘the door is open, but they are not coming to our meetings’.

The question remains: what, if not feminism, could survive its own deconstruction and flourish? Feminism has always been hyper-critical and attentive to every gesture it makes, every action it takes, every statement it formulates on difference among women – why should cyberfeminism, which claims to be so sophisticated and complex, be running scared? Many of the presentations gave us hope. They pointed to a different kind of work going on in the critical and political circles of Europe and the US: in France (Isabelle Massu, Nathalie Magnan); in Belgium (Laurence Rassel); and the US (SubRosa). That was the strength of this conference and of OBN too – despite the internal disagreements between the organisers, they managed to bring a group of interesting and diverse women together.

We did witness a RAWA (Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan) presentation at the end of the conference that seemed like it had practically nothing to do with the ‘cyberfeminist agenda’ as such, but was an informative fund raising event (I was told that this presentation had traveled through the US and Europe in almost identical form). Of course, it leads us to the question of ‘framing’ such presentations, as if an organisation like RAWA should be included like a trophy (and token) for any and every feminist event wishing to claim diversity and ‘cutting-edge political credentials’. Apparently a great deal of effort and resources were spent on bringing them to the conference. Their presentation was an important event in itself, but one was left wondering how the RAWA presentation, a one-off show, could save us from the necessity of engaging in day-to-day interactions with racial / ethnic others, on-line and off-line (‘corps-a-corps avec l’Autre’, to paraphrase Irigaray).

So what about cyberfeminism: its network, tactics, theory, art, and politics? All of that was part of conference life too, though these subjects might not have been discussed by the conference speakers during the main sessions. What seems to have changed in cyberfeminism is the fact that it is no longer desperately seeking to distinguish or distance itself from feminism or anything else (‘What is it? Where is it? Are you a Cyberfeminist or a Feminist? Please identify yourself…’). This points to its maturity and proliferation, to its increasing depth. When a movement evolves without guarding its borders and membership too closely, as was the case in Hamburg, we might start to anticipate a future ‘Any Cyberfeminist International’, that would focus on the issues of everyday Cyberfeminist theory and practice. That is what I consider the main success of the conference, and of course, of its organisers. Old Girls Network?

Irina Aristarkhova <uspia AT> writes and teaches in art & technology, cyberculture, feminist theory and ethics. She lives in Singapore and Moscow

Proud to be Flesh

Mens sana in corpore sano (or keep taking the tablets)

The West’s war on fat, free radicals, toxins and bacteria knows no such thing as a bridge too far: health and the perfect body enjoy absolute loyalty from their human footsoldiers. In the fight to keep our biological enemies at bay, the immune system is represented as the ultimate back-up system. But what is it really? And what are the politics of immunology, its parent science? Andrew Goffey makes a visit to the clinic

A recent report in a broadsheet newspaper that a favourite holiday destination in Thailand promises eager tourists a week of colonic irrigation offers a potent image for the fate of the ethics of self-governance under global multinational capitalism. The caput mortuum of decades spent as an avid consumer in the West is sluiced into a South-East Asian bucket, leaving you and your intestines free to jet back West to accumulate another year of crap. Beneficiaries of this process report – after a feeling of faintness – a sense of enormous well being. Which is hardly surprising, given that the fat which can clog the intestine from decades of consumption sometimes gets so thick that the weight of one’s bowels has been known to shoot up to around 40lbs.

I mention this vignette not to shock or to condemn – although there is something a little perverse about the geopolitics of it all – but to make a point about the almost neurotic medicalisation current techniques for the care of the self testify to. It is not so much the curiously solid links between the anally retentive dynamics of capital accumulation and the bourgeois concern with the clean and proper which needs emphasis. A technique of the self which involves washing out your insides the way that you might wash a car on a Sunday morning (if you had one) or unblock a sink, although not an entirely surprising development, shows us a strangely empty concept of the body. Other examples suggest that this is not an isolated phenomenon: the pill popping antics of vitamin munchers anxious to boost ‘their’ immune system; Michael Jackson, or Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons, both of them with Howard Hughes-type phobias about germs; the National Socialist regime in 1930s - ‘40s Germany and their obsession with the health of its people…All point towards the pervasive medicalisation of identity. The British media and political elite’s recent willingness to focus public energies onto the state of the National Health Service only confirms the issue. In fact, technologies of government here might suggest that being ascribed a medically informed identity (being ‘normal’ is a reputedly positive clinical condition), and being constantly enjoined to manage your own health, are functional weapons in capitalist crisis management.

I would not of course claim to be the first to have noticed this phenomenon, or wish to be interpreted as saying that the odd bit of internal hygiene or reform of the NHS is necessarily a bad thing. For starters, Michel Foucault’s identification of bio-power as the primary form in which power exercises itself in contemporary society has already led a generation of researchers in the human sciences down the path which I have been trying here to signpost. And that certain social actions can have unintended consequences or occur within a framework unknown to the actors themselves will surprise few social scientists – this is the main lesson of Max Weber’s work on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. More pointedly, the spread of AIDS and the consequent highlighting of a supposed norm of health of which it would be an apparently monstrous contravention shows quite clearly what an ‘epidemic of signification’ we have been subjected to, and has itself almost certainly had some role to play in the current intensification of medical policing. Not so much has been said, though, about the sciences that play such a key role in defining the substrate of the clean and healthy body, and determine the operations that can be performed on it. Foucault himself – his early work The Birth of The Clinic, The Order of Things and his identification of bios as a focal point for the exercise of power notwithstanding – had little to say about the life sciences, and preferred to confine his attention to the human sciences.

However, in an exemplary work, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has explored some of the ramifications of the development of modern biopower, and given us food for thought when it comes to assessing the state of play in the life sciences. Agamben’s argument is that ‘We are not only animals in whose politics our life as living beings is at stake, according to Foucault’s expression, but also, inversely, citizens in whose natural body our very political being is at stake.’ It is, he further contends impossible to undo the strict interlacing of the naked biological life (or zoe) and the cultural form of life (or bios), for once and for all times. Instead, he says, we would do better to ‘make of the biopolitical body, bare life itself, the place where a form of life which is entirely transposed into bare life, is constituted, where a bios which is nothing but its zoe is instituted’ (Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life). Agamben believes that in so doing, a new field of research will open up, one beyond the limitations to be found at work in the disciplines which have hitherto attempted to think something like a bare life. It is an open question as to how this new field of research will eventually look. However, the convergence of the biological and the political in modern immunology might give us some suggestions about an answer.

The links between the self and the political is not an affair of simple ‘discursive articulation’, as some people would profess to believe, any more than it is a particularly new one. Whilst the self is certainly something defined in language, it is also something produced physiologically. In the 19th century, Nietzsche, for one, was not only disinclined to think of the self as peaceful coexistence – witness the prevalence of the themes of war and combat in his writings. He was also very much inclined to emphasise the physiological dimensions of European culture’s morbid disorders. Freud, as is well known, took a keen interest in the defensive approach of the ego to forces beyond its control. In his 1895 Project for a Scientific Psychology, Freud’s approach is based on the quantification of energy flows, and not the interminable hermeneutic question of ‘what it all means’. Immunology has a background curiously congruous to Nietzsche’s physiological accounts of strength and weakness. Although the discovery by Edward Jennings in 1798 of the smallpox vaccine had been suggestive of the mechanics of the immune system, it was not until the 19th century, with the growth of public health reforms, that modern immunology really came into being. The astonishing efficacy of the practice of vaccination was strong evidence for the existence of a remarkable ‘system’ for protecting organisms from infection. The immune system seemed somehow to ‘know’ what was not good for the organism and thence to destroy it. Quickly, a paradigm for research developed, around the work of Paul Ehrlich, which adopted a ‘humoral’ (read: chemical) explanation for how the system functioned. Later, in the 20th century, research drawing on the findings of biologists into genetics, conferred on immunology the privilege of being the ‘science of self-nonself distinction.’

The remarkable successes of immunology should not obscure what is effectively its less palatable inscription within the modern apparatus of biopower. This makes it a prima facie candidate for critical analysis. It is not simply because of its background in the very public health reforms of the late 19th century which Foucault has flagged as evidence of the paradigmatic shift in the exercise of power. Nor is it the fact that its innocently scientific status – bolstered by its phenomenal success in treating the most publicly worrying of illnesses – has contributed to a sense of its benevolent neutrality as science (and hence also, in the Foucauldian optic, to its efficacity for power). We cannot ignore the fact that, like many other subfields of the life sciences, immunology benefited enormously from advances in genetics in the late 1950s (although it wasn’t until the 1980s that some of the fundamental genetic mechanisms of immunological functioning were experimentally confirmed). An innocent enough fact perhaps, but of great importance for the economy of the science’s explanations, explanations which demonstrate a remarkable congruence with ‘scientific’ developments elsewhere.

According to Giorgio Agamben, one of the noteworthy facts about National Socialism is that its politics developed through a decisive mobilisation of science in a synthesis of biology and economy. One Otto von Verschuer, Professor of Genetics and Anthropology at Frankfurt University, argued, in a semi-official publication called State and Health, that doctors should see ‘in the state of health of the population, the condition for economic profit’ and that the ‘oscillations of biological substance and those of material equilibrium generally go hand in hand.’ Arguing against the view that the biopolitics of the Third Reich should be seen uniquely under the epithet of ‘racism’, Agamben suggests that the extermination of the Jews must be seen in a perspective whereby the ‘protection of health and [the] struggle against the enemy have become absolutely indiscernible.’

If Agamben is correct, it is somewhat disquieting to find a parallel convergence between immunology, politics, and metaphysics. In its routine arguments about the fundamental function of the immune system, immunology uses a language which is loaded with political and metaphysical connotations. The immune system is primarily a system of defence against attack, immunology seeks to explain how it is that the self can differentiate between friend and enemy, or between molecular compounds which are non-lethal and those foreign pathogens which are lethal. Of course, no one is saying that this isn’t what the immune system does. But it is curious to see how the immune system is immediately inscribed within the political and the metaphysical. Since there is no intrinsic property to mark out biochemical elements as belonging to this organism rather than another, to talk of a self at a chemical level is clearly a wishful metaphysical fiction. And to make sense of what is going on at the molecular level, by using the language of the political – friend and enemy, the foreign body – raises questions about what it is, exactly, that immunology is doing.

Pointing out these parallels is not to claim that immunology is a racist discourse. But we shouldn’t see in its language the innocent play of metaphor. The political aspects of a science are to be sought in terms of its dominant structures of explanation. In combination with the excess of meaning supplied by the language of defence and attack, foreign bodies and so on, these structures produce a set of resonances between immunology and explicitly political discourses which makes their affinity more than a matter of mere chance – to think otherwise is to ignore the disturbing evidence Agamben has collated about National Socialism.

The dominant modality of immunological discourse was effectively fixed by the Nobel prize winning research of the British immunologist Sir Macfarlane Burnet. Whilst antibodies were discovered in Germany in the 1890s, it was Burnet who came up with the idea that the immune system ‘discriminates’ between self and nonself, and in so doing, he perpetuated the already well-established notion that the immune system defended the pre-existing identity of an organism. Immunology was, in his view, founded on an ‘intolerance of living matter for foreign matter,’ and ‘clonal selection theory’ was his solution to the problem of explaining how it is that lymphocytes and the antibodies they produce, being capable of recognising and destroying any molecular compound, don’t routinely destroy the elements which compose the organism in which they reside. In its typical reactive operation, when the immune system detects a pathogen, it responds by the mass production of clones of an antibody which can bind with and hence neutralise the invader. The efficiency of this process is improved firstly by an extensive process of the somatic mutation of the DNA which codes for antibody production. Rearrangements of the inherited (germ-line) genes which account for the production of antibodies enables an organism to generate an enormous variety of different antibodies (a sort of selection mechanism within the organism itself). It is also improved ‘second time around’, i.e. if the system has been exposed to a pathogen once previously it effectively maintains a memory trace of that pathogen and so can respond more quickly. This was a fact understood from the inception of immunology, and it contributes to the popularity of those strands of research which consist in isolating the response of the system to specific, precisely defined pathogens.

Burnet’s clonal selection theory argued that clones produced by the immune system which would recognise, and so attack the self were simply eliminated during the organism’s development by a learning process. Subsequent to his claim, all sorts of peculiar experiments were devised as a way of confirming this theory – because the system learned to discriminate between self and nonself, you could, in theory, fool it. More importantly, the theory seemed to drive a wedge between a self, understood as pre-existing the immune system and defined on a presumably genetic basis, and the nonself. Because the role of the immune system was that of defending a pre-given identity, through a process of learning, the identity of the self somehow fell outside of history and became a tabula rasa, an immunological bare life protected by a set of unconnected ‘individual’ defence responses.

Burnet’s theory in effect prescribed, or rather sanctioned the dominant trend in immunological research, which is that of the investigation of an unconnected set of discretely causal mechanisms. Just as some take metaphysical comfort in locating the gene for genius, or for aging, or for schizophrenia, or for homosexuality (the implication – oh praise eugenics – being that you might then simply turn it on or off), so too research which promises to locate the cell or cells responsible for combating a particular illness imparts ontological security. Your identity is safe with us, say the pharmaceutical companies, thoroughly caught up in this process of reification.

It is not difficult to see why this conception of the immune system has been so successful. Recall that immunology really took off as a result of public health reforms, and that it was bolstered by the practice of vaccination. Vaccination exemplifies the ‘discrete’ logic of explanation, and provides a miraculously dramatic confirmation of the powers of the system. Some historians have suggested, though, that prior to vaccination programmes, the immune system showed itself to be far less effective a defence mechanism – without the artificial stimulation of antibody production by vaccines, the immune system was relatively powerless against the kinds of epidemics which have ravaged the world throughout the centuries. In the late twentieth century, the example of AIDS has shown that it is infections with a low degree of ‘pathogenicity’ which can be most lethal. In any case, it is difficult to maintain an unequivocal role for the immune system – it has been known since the early 1970s, for example, that whilst the immune system can destroy tumours, it can also, under certain circumstances, promote their growth.

Perhaps immunology has been asking the wrong kinds of questions – the absence of any cure for AIDS, for example, suggests that the dominant framework is ill-adapted to the kinds of immune problems accompanying HIV. Over recent decades, there has been a growing realisation amongst a minority of immunologists that the inconsistencies of clonal selection theory vis-a-vis the available evidence, coupled with a tendency to do the wrong kind of research, might indeed be leading immunology in the wrong direction.

In the first instance, there is evidence to suggest that the existence of autoantibodies (ones which will react to self) are not quite as exceptional as had been thought previously. Such autoantibodies can be found in both the maternal immune repertoire, which is inherited from the child organism’s mother, and in its ‘induced’ repertoire, which develops in ontogeny. The existence of these autoantibodies has often been downplayed – we can now see why: they are inconsistent with the predominant explanation of how the immune system works and what it is for.

Secondly, if the immune self is a uniquely genetic inheritance, how is one to explain that a neonatal immune system can recognise as ‘foreign’ antigens derived from its parents? And how is one to explain the existence of non-negligible levels of immune activity in organisms isolated in a germ-free environment?

Since approximately the middle of the 1970s, there has been an alternative view of the immune system, one which explores its role in a very different way. In 1974, Niels Jerne published a paper which proposed a theory of ‘idiotypic networks’ as a way of explaining the anomalies. Idiotypic network theory suggested, in direct opposition to clonal selection theory, that not only does the immune system interact with itself, but that this is its primary activity. Whilst the defensive struggle against the enemy displays the remarkable power of the immune system (presumably delegated by the sovereign self) it misunderstands the peculiar organisation of the immune system’s capacities.

Idiotypic network theory can be glossed as follows: some cell type is recognised by a specific variety of lymphocyte, or clone-producing antibody (a B-cell, in the jargon. Call it A). This stimulates the production of more clones to attack the initial cell type. These clones themselves are then recognised by another B-cell (call it B), which produces its own clones. The clones of B down-regulate the activity of the clones of A, but themselves stimulate the production of C clones by yet another B-cell. This chain, or ‘cascade’ of events eventually closes on itself (when the clones of A recognise and down-regulate clones produced by lymphocyte Z, say). In this scenario, the immune system does not primarily defend a pre-existing self, but actually constitutes that self as the ongoing product of a series of interactions in a complex molecular environment, an idiotypic network, in other words. Further, the defensive efficacy of the system becomes easier to explain: the system doesn’t need to be able to specifically recognise nonself in order to launch an attack. Because the network primarily recognises itself it only attacks what it cannot assimilate. To put it another way, the defensive function is a consequence of the system’s weakness, and not its strength.

The differences between these two positions may seem slight, but Jerne’s theory forces us to acknowledge the processes by which the immune self is constituted. Available evidence suggests that the gap between the genetically hardwired and the learned is not as clear or as large as clonal selection theory had suggested, and that autoantibodies can function both as part of an idiotypic network as well as against non-network elements. The ‘self’ is, in this view, an historical product, and not some essence which might delegate its powers to the immune system. More interestingly, the immune system is no longer seen as being essentially bound up with the ‘fight against the enemy’. Whilst it still, clearly, has a role to play combating infection and so on, this is not its primary role, and we should understand it on the basis of a different logic. But then what is the immune system for? If it didn’t arise in evolution to fight bacteria and to protect the preconstituted individual, what did it evolve for?

Controversial research based on a speculative reconstruction of the evolutionary steps leading from organisms without an immune system (invertebrates) to those with, has suggested that the immune system might have had a role in actually constituting the individual as a unit of biological selection. In this respect, it served to unify a set of different cell types into a coherent unit. This theory is controversial, and it is true to say has not gained the assent of the immunological community at large, and yet it does provide an interesting explanation for a fundamental problem in evolutionary theory – that of explaining how the individual organism actually came to be. And, if the individual vertebrate organism came to be, it can of course come not to be.

Contemporary language of the care of the self undoubtedly has many sources, and the self as such has components from all over. But it is difficult not to notice how often the language of private property appears. Your sexuality, your politics, your immune system (which of course you regulate by regular boosting, don’t you ?). Poor proles that we all are nowadays, poor subjects of a biopolitical constitution, being commanded to exercise proprietorial control over an immune system (or a sexuality, set of political options and so on) which in fact defines us is not just a grammatical error. If the parallels I have suggested between the dominant understanding of the immune system and Agamben’s theorisation of bare life are accurate, there is much more than a linguistic sop to a lack of power at stake. To forget that ‘you’ are a complex chemical ecology in which what can’t kill you can only make you stronger, might give you a limited stake in a restricted biological-economic exchange, but it won’t make you immune from the fascist life. Think about that the next time you are in the chemists.

Andrew Goffey <a.goffey AT> is a lecturer in Media, Culture and Communications at Middlesex University. He writes about philosophy, science, and culture, and is currently researching for a book on Gilles Deleuze

Proud to be Flesh

Abstract Sex

Luciana Parisi shows how a parallel process of DNA transmission confounds Darwinian and neo-Darwinian conceptions of development. Can a new politics emerge from bacterial sex? Illustrations by Richard Starzecki


[...] we have seen [...] that it is most closely-allied forms, – varieties of the same species, and species of the same genus or of related genera, – which, from having nearly the same structure, constitution, and habits, generally come into the severest competition with each other; consequently each new variety or species, during the progress of its formation, will generally press hardest on its nearest kindred, and tend to exterminate them. We see the same process of extermination amongst our domesticated productions, through the selection of improved forms by man. Many curious instances could be given showing how quickly new breeds of cattle, sheep, and other animals, and varieties of flowers, take the place of older and inferior kinds. Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

Whether it be in the development of the Earth, in the development of Life, upon its surface, the development of Society, of Government, of Manufactures, of Commerce, of Language, Literature, Science, Art, this same evolution of the simple into the complex, through a process of continuous differentiation, holds throughout. From the earliest traceable cosmical changes down to the latest results of civilisation, we shall find that the transformation of the homogeneous into the heterogeneous, is that in which Progress essentially consists...Herbert Spencer, ‘Progress: Its Law and Cause’




In 1981, Lynn Margulis’ research into bacterial mitochondrial transmission called into question the foundations of Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism. Margulis argued that mitochondria, organelles residing in the body of nucleated animal and plant cells, are in fact descendents of free-living bacteria. Enclosed in their mitochondrial membranes, these ancient bacteria have an independent genetic apparatus of their own, but were at some stage – possibly the moment in which oxygen entered the atmosphere 200 million years ago – captured within the cell body, though outside the nucleus.


Like all bacteria, these mitochondria reproduce, but their genetic transfer is non-linear and takes place only by way of the mother. However it got into the cell body originally, the presence of mitochondrial messenger material outside the nucleus constitutes a parallel process of transmission long unknown to science and unaccounted for within the Darwinian paradigm. It would seem that nucleic transmission is not the exclusive determinate of the evolution of the organism after all; indeed nucleic DNA itself is altered by the mitochondrial material that surrounds it. In other words, there are not one but two parallel and mutually infecting channels of genetic communication that determine the organism’s development. Indeed, within the same species, the nucleic germline and the bacterial somaline exhibit differential rates of mutation.


From these findings, Margulis has revolutionised the classical evolutionary understanding of the development of life, drawing on the work of Russian scholar-biologist Konstantin S. Mereschovsky who, in the first quarter of the 20th century, had already rejected the Darwinian theory of natural selection and invented the term ‘symbiogenesis’ to describe the prolonged symbiotic, parasitic associations that precede the appearance of a new organism. (Sapp, 1994; Sagan 1992, pp.362-85; Margulis, 1981, pp.1-14) A ‘guest’ bacteria, entering the cell, takes part in a transfer of DNA information with those ‘host’ bacteria already present. Bacteria move across phylums without regard, altering the genetic material of each lineage as they go.


Dismissed for a long time, symbiogenesis is acquiring a constitutive scientific importance, supported by molecular biology and biochemistry’s questioning of the classical division between plant and animal kingdom and the classifications based on this division. Symbiotic processes now in fact seem to explain the emergence of the cellular and genetic modifications of sex and reproduction, disrupting the the ‘zoocentrism’ of the theory of evolution (the priority of Homo Sapiens) in demonstrating that ‘each animal cell is, in fact, an uncanny assembly, the evolutionary merger of distinct bacterial metabolisms.’ (Sagan, 1992, p.363)




In this sense, genetic engineering and cloning are not only not new, but not even particularly innovative complexifications of life. They strongly resemble the trading of genes invented by bacteria 3,900 million years ago: non-nucleated cells transmitting information without copulation. Perhaps all that is marked by ‘biotech’, the human recombination of genetic material between independent cellular bodies, is the re-emergence of the most ancient sex: bacterial sex.


But biotechnologies such as transgenics and cloning, insofar as they entail the horizontal transfer of genetic material, the re-engineering of cells across species barriers, do expose new levels of symbiotic mixture. For bacteria and endosymbiotic parasitism, they mark a new threshold, a new channel for a bacterial trading that will not constrict itself within the intentions of the scientists who opened it. Transgenesis accelerates differential mutations in patterns of evolution so that biotechnologies used, for example, to improve organs and cell transplants, make insulin, or produce new cells and tissues for ‘cell therapies’, are in fact promoting parallel, unknowable, non-filial recombinations of genetic sequences and cellular compounds that favour the emergence and re-emergence of new viruses – alongside new generations of mutant vegetables, insects, fishes, reptiles, sheep and humans. No longer species or individuals, forms or functions, transgenesis highlights evolution’s underlying pattern: packs of relations between bodies that engineer new bodies. It is simply not accurate to say that genetic engineering is technology’s colonisation of the biological: at the same time, the biological is abducting the transmission layer that biotech produces.


What is produced in this cross-colonisation of the biological and the technological layers of organisation, is a bio-digital assemblage, a symbiotic modification of matter that is not part of any natural ‘design’. The bio-digital assemblage of bodies – mouse and a micro-chip, a virus and a human organism – propagate the tendencies of symbiotic matter and accelerate the turbulent and unexpected swerves of non-linear DNA transmission. Micro-mutations within and across species are enabled and accelerated. The tendencies of the bio-digital assemblage of matter are non-linear; and the transactions between various chronological moments – the biological, the technological, the biotechnological – take place via the nexus of symbiotic contagion. At this nexus, bio-digital sex catalyses the emergence and re-emergence of unprecedented life forms.




According to the central belief of evolutionary dynamics and embryology, nucleic DNA – the germline – is the true organiser of life, that which decides the destiny of parts. Cloning, on the contrary, suggests that somatic substances themselves have specific abilities and potentials of individuation unknown to nucleic DNA and that it is not nucleic DNA that determines variation. Via the movement of bacterial DNA in and through physical space, through the membranes of phylum and species, through time, folded into layers of sedimentation, or re-emerging into the atmosphere in one of earth’s eruptions, DNA’s linear transmission, and progressive evolution, are in fact thoroughly and constantly disrupted through intensive bacterial trades.


For neo-Darwinism, sexual reproduction has been directly selected to accelerate the evolution of the most varied traits across generations by driving sexed organisms to adapt faster to changing conditions. But the parallel transmissions of endosymbiosis, bacterial sex, and parthenogenesis (the reproduction of an unfertilised egg into offspring), present as many genetic variations as two-parent sex. The assumed function of sexual reproduction in increasing complexity is, then, undermined. Indeed, sexual reproduction itself can be expected to have arisen from previous symbiotic associations, of parasitisms and transgenic trades between distinct bacteria under certain pressures. Bacterial symbiosis is thoroughly folded in to the process of nucleic transmission.


This leads to a conception of life as a ‘dissipative dynamics’, a non-teleological account of nature’s organisation. Margulis’ work on microbial sex suggests that unprecedented reorganisations of life occur through symbiotic trade, a non-cumulative mixing giving rise to new compositions that do not resemble the parts from which they were generated. In endosymbiosis, novelty does not imply the enrichment of matter. The rule of symbiotic life is chance encounter, unforeseeable responses to unknowable conditions.





Your people will change. Your young will be more like us and ours more like you. Your hierarchical tendencies will be modified and if we learn to regenerate limbs and reshape our bodies, we’ll share that ability with you. That’s part of the trade. We’re overdue for it. Octavia E. Butler, 1987, p.40


The distance between the macro and the micro no longer applies to this world of bacterial trade, proliferating through symbiotic contagion rather than nucleic filiation. There are as many sexes as there are terms in symbiosis, generating an ecosystem of micro-mutations which intersect at different speeds. This symbiosis, catalysed by chance encounters between molecular bodies, maps a dynamics of evolution that resonates with the metaphysics of Deleuze and Guattari and Spinoza.


For them, nature is machinic, an engineering process of paths never becoming a whole. Life forms do not result from a forced or spontaneous cooperation between individuated bodies struggling to reach a shared goal or to survive in a hostile environment. They are defined neither by a harmonious nor a conflictual state of nature driven by group collaboration or by individual competition. Altruism and egoism are both rooted in a humanisation of evolution that is undermined by symbiotic trade.


Instead, symbiotic assemblages make use of chance encounters that include reverse abductions, viral transmission, nuclearisation and multiparasitism. These processes of becoming are machinic involutions on a nature-culture continuum. Unknowable mutations are entailed in all of the parts caught up in their composition. I call these mutations abstract sex.


Abstract sex designates the potentials of intensive mutant matter: potentials that require no teleological aim towards novelty. Abstract sex names neither a progressive nor a regressive state of materiality. Rather, it is a conception of nature defined by continuous mutations across all layers and stratifications. It is a non-deterministic process, a phylum of immanent relations traversing traditional strata in a parallel, anti-genealogical dynamic. Abstract sex opens up bio-physical and bio-cultural organisation of nucleic sex to radical destratification.




It is the singular moment of Darwinism and Social Darwinism, initially triggered by the combination of social urbanisation and technological industrialisation, that must today give way to abstract sex. Together with this pairing goes the entire theory of evolution that has become central at the biological, social and economic layers— dominating, for example psychology, sociology, anthropology and political theory. The function of adaptation, the ‘survival of the fittest’, can finally be disentangled from the social field, and the conspiracy of culture to ‘make’ nature is ended.


In the Darwinian logic the blind force of natural selection regulates variations by ensuring common descent. This explains the driving force of capitalist development: capitalism is the invisible hand of order that selects the most successful mode of reproduction originating from the individual struggle for survival. In neo-Darwinist Kevin Kelly’s famous analogy, the self-organisation of natural systems mirrors the increasing development of the free market: self-organisation takes the place of natural selection, regulating and channelling the world’s randomness into a working whole. This is ‘control without control’ – and operation of selection that, for Kelly, does not involve a hierarchical chain of command. Rather, the ‘invisible hand of selection’ controls without authority the networked architecture of natural and economic systems. Biological networks match a democratic model of the market, defying the transcendence of centralised control.


The determinism of evolutionary complexity, in which self-organising networks add simple units to constitute complex systems, maintains a finality for nature. Capitalism as Darwinian evolution requires repetition without mutation, the passage from actuals to actuals, the preservation of the same variation, the selection of an always-already individuated difference. This logic of ‘control without control’ only recentralises humanism in nature, a dynamic process of teleological evolution that dismisses the vaster, aimless processes that in fact constitute them.


Of course, the continuous folding-in of indeterminate populations and mutant bodies must ultimately confound the supposed primacy of ‘self-organisation.’ Not only does abstract sex call radically into question the biological determinism that takes determinate forms and functions as examples for all organisations, but the fact of continuous symbiotic trade destroys Kelly’s naturalist logic of economic systems and the unitary logic it imposes on the population of genetic material. In abstract sex, potential mutations accompany the most diverse stages of organisations on a nature-culture continuum, refuting the use of biology as a model for laissez-faire liberal economics.


The aimlessness of abstract sex also calls into question the ‘creative power of the multitude’, theorised by Negri and Hardt in the book Empire (2000). For Negri and Hardt, the multitude constitutes ‘the networked real productive force of our social world, whereas Empire is a mere apparatus of capture that lives off the vitality of the multitude.’ (p.62) The multitude is defined by creative, communicative, networked relations of virtualised production (i.e. immaterial labour), based on decentralised, innovative and ‘abstract cooperation’ of bodies that constitutes global capitalism. By considering Empire a parasitical web of bodies living off the creative vitality of a multitude characterised by the networked intelligence of humans and machines, Negri and Hardt still presume a formal distinction between the self-enclosing or self-organising structure of capitalism on the one hand, and the cooperative, creative forces of the multitude on the other. And although they argue for the primary potentials of the multitude over apparatuses of capture – state capitalism – their model recentralises human agency in the material dynamics of evolution, with creativity as the organic force that will always resist parasitic capture.


Rather than engaging with molecular mutations, Negri and Hardt characterise capitalism through the negative qualities of parasitism as opposed to the striving, living qualities of the multitude. This reinstates vitalist creativity and re-installs the human at the centre of matter’s dynamics. Empire misses the dynamics of transmission visible in the endosymbiotic coexistence of bacterial and nucleic, informational trading through markets and antimarkets. Abstract sex demands a radically ambivalent picture of the relation between the host and the guest, the abductor and the abductee, the parasite and that which it is parasitic upon. If each symbiotic assemblage involves the modification of all parts participating in its composition, unleashing the emergence of unpredictable mutations, then apparatuses of capture can never be external to the multitude. On the contrary: there is a constant, interdependent relationship between these distinct modes of organisation. Hence not only can the most rigid monopoly feed on the sparsest grass-roots, but counter-power can also hijack and grow through power’s channels.


This open-ended trading entails no aim, interest or finality. It is a non-given micropolitics of destratification and mutation, a pragmatics under construction on the nature-culture plane. It concerns bodies defined by relations and potentials rather than the macropolitical determination of differences in position by kind and degree. This micropolitics of bodies resonates with the ethics (or ethology) of Spinoza, subtracting the body’s field of action from the humanist logic of self-interest, whereby political activity requires the identification of groups occupying visible social categories (e.g. class, race and gender).


Abstract sex instead offers a pragmatics of encounters, abductions and contagions between bodies, laying out a dynamics of sociability that emerges in situ rather then being determined by social positions. It entails a bodily participation in pulling out potential threads of mutation from actual conditions and distributing turbulent variations. Sex becomes an indeterminate quantum of thought and extension, proliferating through the contagious trading of matter; affecting – acting upon – the socio-cultural determination of identity positions.


This practice of intensifying bodily potentials to act and become is an affirmation of desire without lack which signals the nonclimactic, aimless circulation of bodies in a symbiotic assemblage. This desire is not to be equated with something natural or given, spontaneous or induced. It is not primarily intentional. It has no final peak. It exists in symbiotic compositions giving rise to novel mutations. As a micropolitics, this continuous construction of nonclimactic assemblages entails indeterminate fields of action in which each local activity modulates a global state. Very small interventions resonate unknowably across the plane. These assemblages of bodies are as biological and cultural as they are collective and political. It is the body that bears the potentials of action and mutation, and abstract sex mobilises them, spinning off new symbionts across the evolutionary logic of nature, economics, and desire.


Luciana Parisi teaches Cybernetic Culture at the University of East London. Her book Abstract Sex: Philosophy, Bio-technology and the Mutations of Desire is forthcoming with Continuum Press (Dec 2004)





Bear, Greg, Darwin’s Radio, London: HarperCollins, 1999Bergson, Henri, Creative Evolution, trans. A. Mitchell, Lanham: University Press of America, 1983Butler, E. Octavia, Dawn, New York: Warner Books, 1987Cohen, Philip, ‘We Ask. They Answer. The Clone Zone: A Special Report’, New Scientist, 9 May 1998, pp.26-30Darwin, Charles, The Origin of Species, By Means of Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, New York: The Modern Library, 1993Dawkins, Richard, The Selfish Gene, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989DeLanda, Manuel, A Thousand Years of NonLinear History, New York: Zone Books, 1997Deleuze, Gilles, Bergsonism, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, New York: Zone Books, 1988a— Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988b— ‘Desire and Pleasure’, trans. D.W. Smith, in A. I. Davidson (ed.), Foucault and his Interlocutors, Chicago: University of Chicago press, 1997, pp. 183-95Deleuze, Gilles and FÈlix, Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, preface by Michel Foucault, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane, London: The Athlone Press, 1983A Thousand Plateaus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, London: The Athlone Press, 1987 Freud, Sigmund, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmud Freud, Vol. VIII, London: Hogarth Press, 1920-22Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio, Empire, Massachusettes: Harvard University Press, 2000Irigaray, Luce, This Sex which is not One, trans. Catherine Porter, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985bJacob, FranÁois, The Logic of Life, trans. Betty E. Spillman, New York: Pantheon, 1973Kauffman, Stuart A., The Origins of Order: Self-organization and Selection in Evolution, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993Kelly, Kevin, Out of Control: the New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World, Addison Wesley, 1994Lazzarato, Maurizio, Videofilosofia. La Percezione del Tempo nel Post-fordismo, Roma: Il Manifestolibri, 1996Margulis, Lynn, Symbiosis in Cell Evolution, San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1981Margulis, Lynn and Dorion, Sagan, Origins of Sex, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986What is Life? Simon and Shuster (ed.), New York: Nevromont, 1994Massumi, Brian, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Durham: Duke Press, 2002Prigogine, Ilya and Isabel, Stengers, Order Out Of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature, foreword Alvin Toffler, USA: Bantam Books, 1984Sagan, Dorion, ‘Metametazoa: Biology and Multiplicity’, in Incorporation, J. Grary & S. Kwinter (ed.), New York: Zone Books, 1992, pp. 362-385Sapp, Jan, Evolution by Association: A History of Symbiosis, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994Simondon, Gilbert, ‘The Genesis of the Individual’, Incorporation, J. Crazy & S. Kwinter (ed.), New York: Zone Books, 1992, pp. 296-319Spinoza, Baruch, Ethics, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect and Selected Letters, trans. S. Shirley, S. Feldman (ed.), Cambridge, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992Weismann, August, Studies in the Theory of Descent, trans. R. Medola, prefatory note by Charles Darwin, London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1882


`In The Companion Species Manifesto, Donna Haraway has substituted dogs for cyborgs, but who or what is wagging the tail of the new post-humanism? Review by Tim Savage

Donna Haraway’s 100-page pamphlet: The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness deserves a central place at the table of a newly emerging conversation exploring ‘the question of the animal’. Yet since what we know as ‘the human’ has always been defined against a seemingly endless taxonomy of putative others – be they ‘dehumanised peoples’, ‘plants’, inanimate ‘objects’, or ‘animals’ – what 'humanity' is conceptualised as finds itself fundamentally at stake with this question too. Recent contributions to this topic include Giorgio Agamben’s new book The Open: Man and Animal (2004), two recent anthologies entitled Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal and Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Post-humanist Theory, as well as a number of Jacques Derrida’s recent musings. Deleuze and Guattari’s earlier work about ‘becoming-animal’ also finds pride of place at this human/animal/table interface too.

Haraway opens the first pages of this new manifesto in characteristic fashion by immediately historicising her earlier work:

I appropriated cyborgs to do feminist work in Reagan’s Star War Times of the mid-1980s. By the end of the millennium, cyborgs could no longer do the work of a proper herding dog to gather up the threads needed for critical inquiry. So I go happily to the dogs to explore the birth of the kennel to help craft tools for science studies and feminist inquiry in the present time, when secondary Bushes threaten to replace the old growth of more liveable naturecultures in the carbon budget policies of all water-based life on earth.

She then proffers the ‘Companion Species’ as a heuristic figure to replace her earlier 'cyborg' and for the political tasks which lie so urgently at hand. 'Companion Species' are the hybrid beings co-constituted by humans and any other species that have symbiogenetically given birth to and co-evolved each other. Symbiogenesis, albeit reductively, refers to how various beings (i.e.: bacteria, genes, larger organisms, etc.) can in fact only come into living existence through utter co-dependence on other quite different beings. Haraway asserts that particular populations of humans and dogs have in fact co-evolved each other throughout most of humanity’s history and that there can be no way in which humans can accurately understand not only what 'canines' are, but what 'humans' are, without accounting historiographically for this complex mongrel fact.

Thus 'human' and 'canine' species are not ontologically distinct identities and any narration of history that pretends that humans are the central historiographical agents is not only historically incorrect but also politically reactionary. In line with Theodor Adorno’s proviso against all identity thinking after Auschwitz, Haraway asserts that ‘relation’ is the minimal unit of analysis and being. Here then the bourgeois borders of all 'individual identities' are smashed open and even biology’s conventional species taxonomies are no longer held to be sacrosanct.

This 'question of the animal' then also poses a huge problem for conventional humanist forms of historiography – or, how we tell historical stories. For Haraway both the historical content and historical form known as 'Modernity' can be mockingly characterised as 'The Greatest Story Ever Told'. Nietzsche long ago observed that with 'Modernity' God is declared dead and humans jettison themselves into his mythic historiographical position – that of magically possessing almost exclusive world-making powers and historiographical agency. Here humans become ‘subjects’ and pretty much everything else is relegated to the role of ‘objects’ for instrumentalisation. Haraway's work is certainly far from unique in revealing the violent power relationships inherent to this humanist historiographical picture and yet she is peculiar in the way in which she attempts to engender, decolonialise, queer, and animalise it. This, she believes will result in a telling of historical tales that are not only more historically accurate, but that will also constitute a better resource for our collective future.

The Companion Species explores the human-canine hybrid and symbiogenetic being in a non-systematic variety of different ways. Rigorously materialistic, Haraway opens the manifesto with a queasy admission that her dog's tongue has upon occasion caressed the back of her own throat. She speculates that viral vectors and non-filial genetic exchanges have actually made the two species up, in the flesh. The manifesto concludes with a scene of sexual voyeurism, which due to the anticipated sensitivities of Mute readers, I will not attempt to describe here.

In between, Haraway explores dog-human relationships. She critiques the dangerous fiction of unconditionally loving dogs and relationships whereby humans treat dogs as furry surrogates for children. Haraway would prefer to have dogs to children, and if she did ever give birth she would prefer it most of all to be to an alien. The human-pet relationship too is challenged as too difficult a feat for most animals to perform. Occasionally, a working relationship may grant specific canines a greater chance of surviving in this far from perfect world. Haraway also narrates her own dog-training experiences and glosses some of the theories surrounding appropriate human-canine relationships.

What the reader will not find in these pages however is any celebration of animal rights or any abstracted notion of equality alleged to exist between dogs and people. And lest the reader expect a love story with soppy romantic undertones; Haraway reminds us of dogs' historical role in the genocide of Native Americans, in the maintenance of African-American slavery, and in assisting US soldiers in carrying out war crimes in Vietnam. Companion Species was written sometime before Abu-Ghraib.

The manifesto also rewrites the history of two registered breeds of dogs – the Great Pyrenees and the Australian Shepherd. Yet Haraway knows the importance of the undocumented be they human or canine and so she also turns to the Satos (Puerto Rican Street Dogs whose presence in cyberspace facilitates their adoption into Northern US homes with all the attendant colonialist baggage such adoption practices customarily portend). Haraway's historicising resolutely shows that biological notions of 'pure breeds' are as fictitious as their racist counterparts in the human world. Everywhere though the question of who these various and quite different populations of non-human others are, what they might need, and how we can enter into a more mutually beneficial relationship with them is foregrounded.

A few comments remain. I wonder what this new attempt at historiography would have turned into if the symbiogenetic figures chosen had been other than humans and dogs. A wide universe of complex relationship is figured but the story is partially skewed towards these two initial, however complexly constituted non-identitarian historiographical agents. Yet in fairness, no one can escape partial, selective, and biased accounts of history. Haraway always admits this, which is what her earlier essay Situated Knowledges is all about. However, perhaps with the inappropriate quibbling of the vegetarian, after reading her declare that she fed her dog liver biscuits and that she ate hamburgers at Burger King, I found myself asking what this story would have looked like if it had been written from the vantage points of those deadened meaty beings? Is there not a truly subaltern form of historiography potentially creatable here? Specific dogs are creatures Haraway loves. I'm not sure that this in itself is a sufficient recipe for constructing the type of historiography that we so desperately need.

It may also be that conflictual relationships are overly sidelined, although being far from absent here. Haraway is rightly loathe to provide grist for the mill of the neoliberal social Darwinists who overpopulate this planet, but real history consists of huge amounts of conflict that are absolutely central to what we have all become. Telling new (her)stories wields the potential power to produce better worlds but I am unconvinced that her text inhabits the historical violence that generates it well enough.

What if the existence of something akin to class difference not just between humans, but between humans and dogs and between different animals themselves were figured into the story? Absurd to some perhaps, but as I write this review in a Manhattan where there are restaurants for pampered dogs, maybe they are not. It is not only to issues of co-constitutive loving but to these issues of complex insurgency that I hope this emergent conversation about the ‘question of the animal’ will begin to consider in the times ahead.

The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, And Significant Otherness, Donna Haraway, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003, £7.00

Tim Savage <adorno666 AT> is an ex-Montrealer who abandoned academia and now works teaching refugees English in London


Proud to be Flesh

Chapter 4: Introduction – Of Commoners and Criminals

Proud to be Flesh Cover

Introduction to Chapter 4 of Proud to be Flesh – Of Commoners and Criminals

What do the themes of this chapter – the Great Enclosures of the 18th century, free/libre open source software, climate change, slavery and development – have to do with each other? You may well ask! The answer entails the ongoing battle to defend people’s right to access the means of survival (the commons) from capitalism’s ongoing looting of natural and human resources. This chapter draws a zigzag line between various historical eruptions of this battle, while tracing Mute’s shifting interest in the stakes of the commons as they are presently conceived and struggled for.

Mute’s interest in the commons was initially piqued by the movement to preserve a ‘public domain’ during an era of aggressive intellectual property (IP) enforcement, provoked by the increased ease of digital copying. With the hardwiring of IP protection into the international trading system in 1994, by way of a piece of WTO-orchestrated legislation called Trade Related Aspects of International Property (TRIPS), the difficulty of enforcing IP rights across borders was substantially resolved. Dreams of a free culture, underpinned by the internet, in which information could be freely circulated and shared across borders and beyond the reach of the law, was seriously imperilled.

In Summer 2001, we first addressed this area in an issue entitled ‘The Digital Commons’, which contained an interview with Duke University law professor, James Boyle, who had recently helped to initiate a campaign to protect the public domain called Creative Commons (CC). Following the example of the GNU General Public Licence (written by Richard Stallman in 1989, and adopted by Linus Torvalds to protect the Linux operating system as a free resource in ’92), Boyle, together with law professor and author Lawrence Lessig and other liberal lawyers, had developed a series of CC licences to protect creative production in general from the threat of enclosure. Copyleft turns copyright law inside out, inverting its power to enforce restrictions on use to defend the work against the misuse of restriction. Creative Commons licences, however, adulterate this pure concept of copyleft by reserving certain rights and adding caveats.

Ted Byfield’s interview with James Boyle in Mute was one of the earliest pieces to expose CC’s underlying free market politics. Boyle explains quite matter-of-factly how the intention of CC is to counteract IP’s ability to ‘mess […] up processes of beneficial competition.’ The commons, here, is understood as a necessary adjunct to the market, not as a proto-communist phase of development. However, Boyle’s willingness to entertain the idea that the Great Enclosures saved lives and helped to build contemporary democracy, by freeing people from feudal ties and vastly increasing the productivity of the land, is not entirely divorced from Marx’s own position. For Marx, the dissolution of the commons was an important step in the transition to capitalism (hence, ultimately, to communism, for which it serves as the precondition), by freeing people from subsistence production and allowing them to produce socially, i.e. as part of a totality of producers. But, Boyle’s admission does put clear blue water between CC and the autonomist politics of another notorious commons enthusiast, Peter Linebaugh, who is also included in this chapter.

Paying no heed to the digerati’s latter-day romance with the commons, social historian Linebaugh is interested here in the crisis of the enclosures of the 1720s, and their contravention of Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest – medieval laws which had prevailed since the 13th century. These charters formed the basis of English law, not only by setting out the principles of justice, but also by defining ‘subsistence commoning’ – the use rights of the commons; rights that would be overturned as the medieval means of subsistence were swept away in the storm of finance capital known as the South Sea Bubble. As Linebaugh relates, new forms of financial liquidity in this period made possible the distributed investment of surplus value which had arisen largely from slaving. The ‘capitalist commoning’ of the slave trade was partly responsible for the increased pressure on other freely abundant resources; commoners were thrown off the land to enable the felling of trees for ship building and the supply of labour to the colonies. In the process, commoners were criminalised and racialised, described as ‘Arabs’ and ‘banditti’; and so, argues Linebaugh, was born a common global and multi-racial struggle.

The notion that contemporary digital commoners are really indulging a ‘post-materialist luxury limited to those on the sunny side of the digital divide’ while having nothing in common with their historical namesakes, is addressed by Soenke Zehle in his article on free software and Africa. The availability of a free software resource is more than a lifestyle choice for the creative workers of the developed world. While acknowledging the strong arguments for the adoption of pirated proprietary software over Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS), he also emphasises the barrier to development presented by IP for countries in Africa. Where the Asian Tigers in the Cold War period were able to ‘disembed the technology from its capital base’, by simply copying other people’s ideas or reverse engineering, TRIPS has now kicked away this particular ladder to development. FLOSS, however, does offer some possibility for African countries to gain the IT base required to compete in the global economy. So, as Zehle is keen to point out, FLOSS should not necessarily be understood as an anti-capitalist philosophy, but as anti-monopolistic practice equally attractive to capitalists and states.

In this chapter’s concluding article, on climate change, Will Barnes argues that, by confronting the Earth’s natural resources as raw material, capitalism is destroying the very basis of life on which it so obviously depends. The ‘tragedy of the commons’ – the scenario in which freely given resources are destroyed by those who selfishly profit from them – appears, then, to be a better description of capitalism’s appropriation of free inputs than ancient commoning, whose use rights are clearly defined and whose culture is one of life’s sustenance. The danger with contemporary, digital varieties of commoning (especially those reliant on the logic of property) is that they end up sustaining the life of capitalists, often providing them with free inputs. Equally, it is impossible to envisage an anti-capitalist culture that can flourish in the absence of free and shared resources, resources that are needed to fight the continual erection of new enclosures.


Proud to be Flesh


James Boyle, professor of law at Duke Law School, has provided footsoldiers in the war on escalating intellectual property (IP) rights with some explosive weapons. His crucial comparison of IP to that other precious commons – the environment – has spread with viral speed. But if an ‘intellectual commons’ was to find formal recognition, would it then be best left running out of control? Here, Nettime co-moderator and net critic Ted Byfield talks Boyle into nailing his political and philosophical colours to the mast.



Ted Byfield: I have two general lines of enquiry. The first has to do with your ideas about ecology and the environment as an analogy for informatic politics; the second with your practice within the framework of US law, a field that many people view as itself a hegemonic threat. Does it offer the best overarching forms of analysis for what’s going on?

James Boyle: Well, no claim there – it’s not the best. Important battles are being fought through there, but sadly, much of what we’re doing is slowing down train wrecks. Still, the US legal framework has more resources than people give it credit for: it’s a complicated, multifaceted, philosophical-political tradition with lots of abandoned pathways to be explored. But the best? That would be silly.

TB: Is that why you adopt, in some cases, an explicitly Marxist or Marxian analytical framework? It does come as a bit of a shock to see a US legal theorist doing that.

JB: Certainly, there are a lot of ideas from Marxist, neo-Marxist, or post-structuralist work that are incredibly useful. How could anyone who thinks about social theory and property systems, or the relationship of ideology to social structure, not be influenced by these ideas? They’re some of the richest traditions we have in social theory. And a lot of mainstream work is simply a version of Marxist or neo-Marxist ideas with normative indicators turned from plus to minus – or from minus to neutral!

TB: Well, I agree, as would lots of others. But isn’t the role these sorts of ideas play within the practice of US law limited at best?

JB: Well, if I was working on an amicus brief <1> , I certainly wouldn’t be citing the Grundrisse or An Analysis of Alienated Labour, so, yes, there are limitations on what kinds of political theory you can overtly bring into work directed towards a court. But American legal academia is surprisingly broad and open to a variety of viewpoints; if it has a problem, it’s not one of simple exclusion but of omnivorousness – everything is grist for its mill.

As to American legal practice, there’s the legal system in the sense that people outside of law think of it: rules, courts, expectations about how officials behave, and so forth. But even there, there are very explicit arguments which appeal to different visions of the ways that societies can malfunction: “We need to worry about majorities tyrannising minorities,” or “No, we need to worry about powerful elites pursuing factional ideals,” and so forth. These ideas form a large portion of American law, which tends to be much more explicitly policy-oriented and politically regarding than other common law systems. And people do fairly quickly appeal to them.

But I won’t romanticise it: there are lots of ideas that don’t get discussed, and overall it does t end to focus on the dangers of rampant populist majorities more than on the dangers of disenfranchised, alienated, and passive majorities. It’s not a completely open field.

TB: How has that field changed, in your experience?

JB: During the 1980s and 1990s there was a revival of a republican – with a small ‘r’ – tradition, which no longer spoke of a constitutional tradition devoted to a liberal image of a State envisioned simply as a neutral and transparent framework in which atomistic individuals pursue their own individual value preferences without any possible rational assessment. Rather, this other tradition holds that the goal is to build a well-functioning republic, which depends on democratically active citizens; and that, in turn, implies many other things – for example, state intervention to shape the media and responsibilities to fund education.

Now, that’s a different rhetorical tradition than the Democratic Socialist tradition in Europe, although it shares themes with it: the belief that well-functioning citizens are not completely cut off from their economic circumstances, that the republic does not function very well with massive wealth disparities, that there are certain material requirements for things to work, and that the State sometimes needs to intervene to produce something which is affirmatively seen as good – in this case a democracy-enhancing, participation-enhancing politics.

That’s a theme or a strand in American law: you can see cases here, lines of thought there. When you make an argument, both academically and to a court, which plucks on those themes, it’s not alien: you won’t hear, “What on earth are you talking about?!” It may not win the day, but it’s not seen as completely beyond the pale. So my own view of law is that there’s a lot of room for making arguments like that, even narrowly, to decision-makers, that is, to courts or legislatures – although always acknowledging the massive constraints there!

More broadly, though, legal ideas have so permeated political space in the United States. Often this is not a good thing. For example, the idea of viewing politics as ‘rights’– there are real problems with this. But one works from where one is; and in a political sphere which has been ‘legalised’, so to speak, legal arguments can have influence far beyond their actual domain of applicability.

As an example of that, you’ll often hear people complain, “That company can’t tell me what to say when I work there because I have a First Amendment right!” Well, of course you have no First Amendment right against a private actor. Nevertheless, the idea has floated free of its narrow legal incarnation and become a more general notion that speech ought not to be regulated by powerful entities – which is far from the actual legal rule.

TB: OK, so legal practice is very heterogeneous: legislatures that craft laws, various courts in different kinds of jurisdictions, and all manner of relations within a broadly based legal community. But isn’t theoretical work influential only at the highest levels? How does one go about presenting a provocative idea, for example, ‘ecology’ or ‘environmentalism’ as an analogue or homologue for the digitalisation of culture? Where does the rubber meet the road?

JB: At every level. It would be a huge mistake to concentrate one’s energies merely on making clever arguments to Appeals Court judges or to court clerks. One of American liberalism’s dead ends has been the notion that if we just come up with a really great rights theory, all we have to do is convince five out of nine people in a building in Washington, D.C., and we win automatically, we win ‘everywhere’. <2>


This is why I think the environmental movement is a good analogy. If you look at the kinds of ideas produced by the environmental movement, you’ll find people arguing at quite high levels of discourse: discussing the extent to which ecology, or our understandings of ecology, shows how limited is our ability to map changes to a physical system which rapidly become quite chaotic – and how this prevents us from predicting consequences very far down the road.

Say you start by clearing out a harbour, and it turns out to cause a parasite population to explode, which in turn destroys shellfish, which in turn undermines otters...fairly quickly, the whole thing spins out of control. Now, these are arguments made at one level, a very ‘fancy’ level, to people in the [US] Environmental Protection Agency. But the argument also functions on a very common-sense level. People who are considering whether, for example, a new power plant should be constructed may say, “Well, they claim such-and-such, but they don’t really know, do they?” That’s hardly an elitist argument.

One of the many things to learn from the environmental movement – not just the environment but the environmental movement – and one of the reasons I picked it as an analogy is that it didn’t locate itself at any one level. But nor did it fantasise some set of powerful policymakers and make highly idealised arguments to them in the belief that one day someone would read an article and translate it into State policy. Both of those approaches strike me as dead ends.

And, after all, there’s a lot of stuff between those extremes: mid-level policy analysis, or purely technocratic economic arguments, to mention only two examples. I’m making the latter kind of argument for a reason, namely, that the economic discourse doesn’t capture it all; you can point out that even on its own terms this makes no sense.

TB: What’s a good example of an environmental idea that’s undergone such a development?

JB: Take Pigouvian externalities – the notion that unless you’re forced to internalise the cost of your actions then you won’t make optimal use of resources, and frequently will exploit them in ways that will despoil your environment. Sixty or seventy years later, we hear this on talk shows: somebody will say, “Well, shouldn’t gun manufacturers, or tobacco manufacturers, or producers of acid rain be forced to pay for the related costs? If they don’t, they’ll just get away with doing it for free!” Well, that’s the Pigouvian idea brought to a level where it makes sense to many people. If you’d said in 1920 or 1930 that this idea, then being presented in a highly abstract economic argument, would one day be a sort of a commonplace in popular culture, people would have said that was ridiculous.

However, it’s not just a question of producing accessible versions of fancy ideas; there’s movement both ways. Popular fights over Love Canal, over burning rivers and so forth, produce the policy discourse needed to articulate these ideas.


TB: You’ve written about the commons, on the one hand, and environmentalism, on the other. Historically, these two ideas are quite distinct: they arose in different regions with dramatically different social and political conditions. Do you see any contradictions between the notion of an ecology and a commons?

JB: Contradictions? Well, one of the most exciting things about these analogies are the multiple parallels.

Take the Enclosure Movement and viewing our current circumstances as a kind of second enclosure movement. In both cases, private groups appeal to the State, saying, “Help us to fence this off, and change the property rules to allow us to do it – only thus can we move to higher, more efficient form of production.” So many dimensions of the Enclosure Movement have been written about: what it did in terms of social structure, of future politics, of concentrations of wealth, how it disrupted our relationship to the land, with attendant changes in meaning and semiotics. All these dimensions seem to be applicable to our current condition: questions about our relationship to our own genes, to cultural changes as culture becomes commodified...

Some contemporary economic historians have argued – and it’s a very important point – that the Enclosure Movement saved lives and helped to build contemporary democracy by producing groups no longer tied in a feudal way to the land. And it did, by vastly improving the productive power of inefficiently run land systems. Now, this is the kind of claim being made by big pharma: private property saves lives. It’s extremely important to take that argument seriously; what’s more, it may actually be right in some cases. If one could grant a monopoly right to someone for twenty years on a drug which cures a disease affecting millions, there are worse things than having to pay through the nose for it –if, after twenty years, it will be available for pennies. It doesn’t quite work that way, of course: we end up with more stuff for obesity and male pattern baldness than we do for sleeping sickness or malaria – and then the drugs get evergreened. But, still, we must at least take claims of this kind seriously.

We tend to think about the commons mainly in terms of the tragedy of the commons – the claim that it fosters inefficient resource use. That notion has driven a lot of remarkable environmental scholarship: there’s a counterweight of scholarship arguing that commons can run quite well. For example, Carol Rose at Yale has written a great article called ‘The Comedy of the Commons’ <3> arguing that, in some cases, a commons may in fact be more efficient. However, that speaks only of efficiency terms; it leaves aside many other values. Another example is Elinor Ostrum, who has written about management of the commons, examining whether it’s true that we must move to a neoliberal model in which everything is commodified. n=4 Neoliberals say that the problem is there aren’t enough property rights, that we’ve gone only halfway – and that once we go all the way the market will clear. Ostrum and others like her have argued that it’s not true that all commons are tragedies: they develop interesting, complicated mechanisms, both informal and formal, for governing themselves – and sometimes they work better than formalised, top-down control systems marked by a single controller of the resource in question.

Now, Ostrum isn’t writing about the free software movement; she’s writing about the management of traditional water systems, air rights, and so forth. But it’s a very interesting notion that, in the free software movement, we effectively have a management of a kind of commons. Clearly, it has lots of rules: some are legal – the GPL – some purely contractual, some are customary, like prestige or shame-based economies.

So, to return your question, if there is a line between the Enclosure Movement and the commons and the fights of the fourteenth century through the nineteenth century, on the one hand, and the environmental movement, on the other, it’s not a straight line.

The story of the Enclosure Movement is retold by economists as the story of the tragedy of the commons; and the tragedy of the commons, in turn, is at the heart of many environmental problems that have produced all kinds of possible solutions.

TB: So it sounds as though ‘importing’ ideas – the commons – into American law as ‘alien objects’ is a fairly powerful way of generalising US law. At the same time, though, that kind of generalisation is happening anyway for other reasons: say, absurd situations in which the proverbial Inner Mongolia are concerned about the ‘First Amendment rights’ because ideas like that have become so predominant on the Net.

JB: Oh, and in other ways, too. There’s been some remarkable historical research that breaks these ideas down inside the United States as well. For example, Betty Mensch at the State University of New York at Buffalo has written about colonial property regimes in New York. As it turns out, the colonists assumed that we all own the land, and they divided it into private parcels; but contrary to what we may have thought, when new arrivals came, it was re-subdivided to account for the new arrivals, lest they be excluded. So, as is always true when you step up the power of the microscope, apparently homogeneous things aren’t so homogeneous.

Another example – with a very different normative valence – is the open range, and the fights between the ranchers and the farmers. There are a few different notions at work here: one holds that the land is infinite, so it doesn’t matter how big a claim someone stakes, the other is that it’s not owned by anyone. Each reflects a different kind of romanticism. And these romanticisms aren’t the same as that associated with the lovely commons, where we all play around the maypole – though it does have similar features. So it’s certainly good to import ideas in order to shake things up a bit; but you also need to look closely at indigenous traditions.


TB: These constellations of issues are largely drawn (or forced) together by ‘technology’, or at least by theories of technological determinism, which are very hard to evaluate. Several years ago there was a spate of books about how things are ‘out of control’ – Kevin Kelly, Manuel De Landa, and so on – which presented the condition as an extremely fruitful and creative; but now we seem to be more retrospective, or at least willing to consider whether it’s instead a dangerous condition. In part, these evaluations are defined by how we periodise our circumstances. When and how does one ‘stop’ a system in order to assess its dominant dynamics? And don’t those initial choices determine the outcome of one’s analysis?

JB: Well, funny enough, at least half of the libertarian-anarchist types I’m aware of – Kevin Kelly, the Cato Institute, the Progress and Freedom Foundation, and so forth – totally agree with my work. In their view, a wonderfully chaotic, spontaneous, decentralised system was forming until the State came along and mucked things up by imposing regulations like copyright, patent, etc. These, in their view, were just the same old things the State’s been doing badly – massive rents being handed over to moneyed interests – messing up processes of beneficial competition. Yet we gave these expansive property rights, along with many others – for example, to polluters – without forcing them to pay for the costs of their pollution. This could be seen as the result of control rather than the result of lack of control. It’s up for grabs whether things like copyright and intellectual property are seen as sacred property, as the foundation for a spontaneously operating decentralised market, or, rather whether the danger is that the absence of any regulation tends to push things out of control.

TB: So perhaps the question of periodisation as such has become a battleground and we’ve ended up in a systemic situation where there’s no consensus about ‘when’ we are.

JB: If so, I see that as a good thing. A lot of the bad things going on now rely on triumphalist neoliberalism, with its beliefs that we’re at the end of history, that market democracy has won, and so forth. It irritates me immensely that not only do a lot of people accept this story blindly, but that they haven’t even looked back to the extremely good arguments made about market triumphalism the first time it appeared: the response to the Gilded Age, the contributions of welfare economics, and so forth. These responses still make a lot of sense; it's amazing how they’ve dropped out of popular consciousness. Part of my work, then, is simply a rediscovery of the work of people like the Legal Realists and the institutional economists of the 1930s.

It’s easy to see doom and gloom in intellectual property and the march of commodification; there are certainly lots of negative things going on. And yet there’s also an amazing openness in these debates. People are actually asking if it’s better to have property or not. And seventeen-year-olds are saying, “No, you probably end up with better stuff in the absence of property rights” – and not because they’ve been reading Kropotkin. They’ve been reading Richard Stallman or Linus Torvalds. That’s important, and not because free software is important, although it is; rather, it suggests that there is not any inexorable historical logic to this particular moment – and that our particular ideas about property are very much up for grabs. The Internet, the Ensemble Project <4>, the Human Genome Project may represent a story in which we end up better off with less centralised control, one in which strong property rights might actually be bad.

TB: These shifts sound as though they’ll present some serious predicaments for the Left, or political liberals, or progressives, or whatever one wants to call them.

JB: Well, it’s pushing the Left if not exactly toward a libertarian position then towards a position which is more sceptical of these technologies of control, whether imposed by governments or by private parties. How often do you find yourself agreeing with libertarian ideas? I find myself agreeing with libertarians more often in terms of the Net much than in terms of other communications media. And why is that? It could be that I’ve been completely taken over by the power of the discourse – in fact, that probably is part of it. But another reason is that arguments about regulation often take the form of a normative, conceptually driven slippery-slope argument: “If we start by doing this, then that will inevitably lead to doing other things.” Technology doesn’t change everything in the way the techno-fantasists believe it does; but Larry Lessig’s <6> work is absolutely right with regard to the Net and the universalising power of code. With the Internet, the slippery slope isn’t so much a normative slippery slope anymore: A is conceptually like B, so if you do it to A you must do it to B. Rather, it’s a technical slippery slope. The technology that would give us the power to enforce, for example, municipal ordinances related to what some regard as ‘pornography’ would also allow the Taliban to filter extremely effectively for women’s education. And that tends to make you wonder if the game’s worth the candle.

However, we also need to ask what this does to traditional libertarianism. Libertarians argue, “Well, we’ll hand over to you an absolute property right, and whatever you want to do within that property right is your thing and we can’t interfere.” But intellectual property rights are the problem case for that view, because they make it very clear that these rights are not ‘natural’, and that they have powerful impacts on what others can do – in all kinds of contentious ways. And there are no clear lines demarcating harm.

TB: How else is this affecting the political landscape?

JB: Well, for example, through most of the 1980s and 1990s, I agreed that the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should be able to exercise some pathetic little fragment of control over broadcasting in the United States – to impose, for example, requirements that some kind of non-commercial children’s television should be available. Their justification, both practical and constitutional, was that broadcast was based on scarcity: spectra are scarce, and they have to be allocated on the basis of scarcity. But with new techniques like frequency-hopping, that argument becomes problematic: what scarcity are we talking about?

Yochai Benkler <7> has pointed out that now liberals and conservatives are both lining up to support privatising and propertising – selling, not just issuing temporary licenses for – the airwaves: liberals because they like the prospect of the government getting the money, conservatives because they like the idea of everything being turned into private property. The FCC agrees that they can sell it off, but they still maintain their belief in scarcity and insist on acting as the boundary police. Well, should we support that, or should we instead acknowledge all the new possibilities f or building something like the Internet in the wireless spectrum? Such a system would probably include smart terminals acting as senders and receivers, using packet switching and allocating spectrum dynamically. In effect, we’d all have our own little radio station: no one entity would have 93.5 on the radio dial.

Now, that’s going to lead to a lot of Rush Limbaughs. But is this a vision which might lead us to say we need less control? Or should we maintain the last pathetic gasp of a role for the interventionist State in seeking to regulate this allegedly scarce resource? Now suddenly, we’re sounding rather libertarian, which is not the position that the Left has always taken. It’s not that the State has no role; the State has a very important role – but it’s a different role than it had in the static, finite-spectrum, one-to-many communications. These questions pose challenges to the ideologies of both Left and Right. I have no easy answer; but we cannot just go on finding arguments to support the positions we took last year.

Ted Byfield <tbyfield AT> [] co-moderates Nettime, teaches at the Parsons School of Design and wrote ‘Exporting the Apocalypse’ on Lawrence Lessig’s work in Mute16. His new ‘boy scout pledge’ is Mute’s objective – as diagrammised in ‘ceci ne’st pas un magazine’ (Mute19).

James Boyle []

>> Photography by Daniel Jackson

Proud to be Flesh

Goatherds in Pinstripes

Free marketeers who argue against private property rights on the internet, intellectual property lawyers trying to emulate the environmental movement – what could possibly account for such peculiar behaviour? Gregor Claude digs up the digital commons

Digitopia seems to have died. A couple of years ago received wisdom had it that the internet was a new realm of freedom, unbound by the regulations and restrictions that controlled life offline. The internet seemed to exist in the absence of law, outside of any particular state’s jurisdiction. It was as if law had been transcended through information technology. But more recently we have seen a string of copyright-related lawsuits, legal intimidation and legislation. Napster was shut down by a judge and then bought by one of the plaintiffs; Princeton computer science academic Edward Felten was threatened with legal action by the Recording Industry Association of America if he published his research into encryption; Russian programmer Dmitri Sklyarov was arrested under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act because he wrote software allowing people to read Adobe Software’s encrypted version of Alice in Wonderland, a text already in the public domain and legally available for free. These events have made it abundantly clear that the law had been there all along.

The latest project to come out of Washington, that legislative workshop of the world, is the Security Systems Standards and Certification Act (SSSCA), a proposed bill that would mandate built-in hardware copy-control protection in all new PCs and consumer digital media devices, from your walkman to your computer. According to Wired, who have obtained a draft of the SSSCA, the law would create new federal felonies, punishable by five years in prison and fines of up to $500,000, for ‘anyone who distributes copyrighted material with “security measures” disabled or has a network-attached server configured to disable copy protection.’ It would be illegal to create, sell or distribute any device capable of ‘storing, retrieving, processing, performing, transmitting, receiving or copying information in digital form’ unless they contained certified copy protection technology. Hang on to your old computer because it just might be more functional than next year’s model.

The law was drafted in close consultation with none other than global culture industry giant, the Walt Disney Corporation. Disney’s executive vice president Preston Padden claimed the law was an ‘exceedingly moderate and reasonable approach.’ Padden’s idea of reasonable and moderate is chilling; at an event in December 2001 he dismissed criticism of the SSSCA, saying ‘There is no right to fair use. Fair use is a defence against infringement.’ In copyright law, fair use means the right to use copyright material, regardless of the wishes or intentions of the copyright owner. This means that when you buy a book, you can quote it elsewhere, criticise it or cut it into bits and make a work of art if you are that way inclined. For Disney’s Padden, the fair use provisions of copyright law amount to an unfair tax on the copyright holder, as if public access to copyrighted knowledge or culture is some kind of pinko perversion. It’s as if montage was a criminal act. Next time you feel that cut and paste urge coming on, make sure you look over your shoulder and check if Big Mickey is watching you.

When this is what passes for reasonable in Washington and beyond, it comes as no surprise that the nucleus of an attempt to counter this copy protectionism is emerging. Increasingly, arguments against stronger intellectual property rights deploy the concept of the ‘digital commons’ (see Mute 20). November 2001 saw two key moments in this emergence. The first was the release of Lawrence Lessig’s The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. Following on from his 1999 book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lessig’s new book reads like a manifesto. It doesn’t pretend to hide its goal of doing for the digital commons what Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring did for the natural environment in the 1960s. The second key moment, the Conference on the Public Domain held at Duke University, was co-organised by the Center for the Public Domain and Duke’s James Boyle. The conference brought together the leading figures of the digital commons debate, focussing on Boyle’s keynote paper, ‘The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain.’

These two events bring into sharp focus the critique of intellectual property and defence of the public domain or commons, and could come to be seen as the founding moment of an important new campaign. Whatever their future, they have set the tone, established the language and introduced the concepts of a challenge to the privatisation of culture online. Yet both Lessig’s and Boyle’s approaches have significant weaknesses. But before discussing where they’re coming from… what are they talking about?

THE COMMONS: FROM GOATHERDS TO SERVER FARMSSo what is the digital commons? First, an important clarification: we are not talking about commons as in the Parliamentary House of Commons, but commons as in the village commons, a resource held in common. Even without peculiarly British confusions, Boyle acknowledges that the commons can be a ‘distressingly messy’ concept, subject to many different interpretations. Here is Lessig’s description:

It is commonplace to think about the Internet as a kind of commons. It is less commonplace to actually have an idea what a commons is. By a commons I mean a resource that is free. Not necessarily zero cost, but if there is a cost, it is a neutrally imposed, or equally imposed cost… No permission is necessary; no authorisation may be required. These are commons because they are within the reach of members of the relevant community without the permission of anyone else… The point is not that no control is present; but rather that the kind of control is different from the control we grant to property.Lessig goes on to give examples of commons: Central Park, public streets, Fermat’s last theorem, Linux source code. These resources exist outside the normal rules of property. It’s not that commons are the opposite of property, but they lack property’s key feature: the exclusive right to use or access the object owned.

In a world based on the production, circulation and exchange of privately owned commodities, the commons have always proven a bit of a headache for mainstream economists. Today’s discussion of the commons is informed by an influential paper published in Science in 1968 by Garrett Hardin, called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’. In it, Hardin argues that resources held in common are doomed to inefficient misuse. ‘Picture a pasture open to all,’ begins Hardin. As the story goes, each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Adding one more animal to his herd imposes a shared cost (goats gotta eat) on all the herdsmen, but the gain of the one extra animal belongs exclusively to its owner. Alas, all the herdsmen come to the same conclusion. As Hardin continues with the literary flair of a modern Ezekiel, ‘Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.’

Now you might think this is a misanthropic and ahistorical Malthusian argument for restraint whose assumption that ancient goatherds can stand in for the modern, rational individual acting as a self-maximising subject could be dispelled by a look at some elementary anthropology, but never mind that now because the essay has been hugely influential in both the environmental movement and in economics. It is important here because it sheds light on why the digital commons is different.

Lessig spends the first hundred pages of his book detailing the ‘building blocks’ of the digital commons – he is providing an exhaustive account of why and how the internet functions as a commons. If you don’t know how the internet works and want to find out, start here. This is a fascinating tour of what makes the net a unique medium that will in places leave you awestruck at the untapped potential of this technology, and even more awestruck at the genius of the scientists and engineers who put it together. If you know this already, prepare to skim read. But for Lessig, the main point of going through this technological detail is to demonstrate how the physical network of the internet, as well as the open source software it runs on, is a common resource that all can access without discrimination.

This is not to say that everything on the net is free and uncontrolled. Servers and cables and so on are always owned by some entity; access to many files is restricted. Of course there are private roads, Lessig would argue, but the road network is still a common resource. Or take another example: the routers that send data packets across the internet don’t discriminate based on the content of the data packet, they treat all packets equally. This is a ‘dumb’ or ‘end to end’ network: all data processing takes place at the network nodes rather than in the network. It would be conceivable to run a more centralised network, where for example different data types would be routed according to different priorities. But with the internet today, all the network does is transmit data: it is a neutral network. So while the routers are not your property, you use them as a common resource when you connect to the network.

So the internet is a commons, but how can it escape the fate of Hardin’s greedy goatherds? The internet is what economists call a ‘nonrivalrous resource’. You can have your cake, eat it, and distribute a round for all your friends at the same time; a nonrivalrous resource is undepletable. Digital media on the internet is in a permanent glut; this is an economy not of scarcity but superfluity. Bottlenecks might occur in bandwidth or storage space, but not in content.

There is one final aspect to the digital commons, and one that provides the strongest argument in favour of maintaining the internet as a commons. As Lessig puts it, ‘all the stuff protected by copyright law… depends fundamentally upon a rich and diverse public domain. Free content, in other words, is crucial to building and supporting new content.’ The case can be made even more strongly: the raw material of culture is culture. Creativity always appropriates the results of past creativity. New culture continually re-purposes already existing culture, making it into something new. Digital media, in addition to allowing more perfect control, also allows more perfect appropriation.

This capacity for appropriation opens up new possibilities for culture. It also points to the internet as more than just a nonrivalrous common resource, but as a resource that actually increases in both quality and quantity the more it is used. The ability to exploit, repurpose, consume and appropriate digital content as a commons creates a virtuous cycle, acting as a cultural accelerator.

THE CHICAGO SCHOOL AND THE CASE FORMAXIMUM IP CONTROLDisney’s Padden and the SSSCA also use the language of innovation. But instead of seeing the locus of innovation at the level of a dispersed network, drawing on and contributing to a common digital resource, they see large culture corporations as the incubators of creativity. For them, tight copy protection is necessary to allow these creative corporations to flourish.

This view is informed by ‘Chicago School’ economics, the tradition of free market economics associated with Milton Friedman and others that emerged in the 1960s, shaped the Reagan-Thatcher years, and is still influential today. For the Chicago School, resources are always more efficiently used when distributed by the market. The legal wing of the Chicago School, initiated by judge and scholar Richard Posner, is known as the ‘law and economics’ approach and is today the most widely accepted doctrine among the US Judiciary. For law and economics, law is not seen as an instrument of justice or of social order, but above all as a tool to help markets run smoothly and to promote social wealth. Accordingly, all social phenomena could be understood as the result of rational choices based on costs and benefits, and law was no different. Ascendant in the 1970s and effectively institutionalised under Reagan in the 1980s, law and economics transformed the application of anti-trust law. What was once a populist measure to check the power of big business became a means of smoothing the path for US corporations.

Preston Padden really does think that his approach and that of the SSSCA is ‘exceedingly moderate and reasonable.’ From their point of view, the internet is an enormous risk. For ‘content companies’ like Disney, it is imperative to maintain exclusive control over their copyright material. They look at the internet and see an unstable and uncertain market they cannot trust. They cannot guarantee the integrity of their goods. The cost of this uncertainty, and of any potential losses, must be taken into account, and the consequence (threatens Disney) is that they will not be able to support the same levels of investment in developing new content.

From this perspective, the internet has created an imbalance in the market, and legislation is needed to restore market equilibrium. If the cost of copying has plummeted, then the strength of copy control should be increased in equal and opposite measure. The justification for this control is the free market assumptions of law and economics (though Judge Posner, infamous as a contrarian, has argued against such a conclusion). The logic of control today is not alien to the market, but rather emerges from it.

LESSING, THE FREE MARKET, AND THE INTERNET ANOMALYIt seems peculiar at first that there are so many similarities between this argument and Lessig’s. Indeed, as it turns out, he is something of a Chicago School prodigal son: Lessig was Posner’s clerk from 1989 to 1990. Though they evidently have plenty of disagreements, Lessig has conceded Posner’s influence: ‘We are all law-and-economists now.’

Lessig’s free market proclivities periodically pop up through his book like awkward spotty teenagers. ‘Though most distinguish innovation from creativity,’ he writes, ‘or creativity from commerce, I do not’. And there I was thinking that always casting culture and experimentation in terms of commerce was part of the problem. In a later example of failing to distinguish markets and innovation, he writes, ‘coders learn what free markets have taught since Smith called them free: that innovation is best when ideas flow freely’.

So how does Lessig square his passion for the market with the digital commons? In one of his important differences with the traditional Chicago School, he is strongly anti-monopoly. Lessig echoes the concerns articulated by free market theory of the late 1980s and early ‘90s. At that time, fashionable economic theory sought to re-emphasise the role of the entrepreneur in contrast to the situation J K Galbraith had described in the ‘The New Industrial State’. Galbraith’s analysis of the post-war ‘industrial system’ sketched a bureaucratic system in which businesses, governments and unions had all ceded control to a quasi-autonomous technostructure resistant to nearly all attempts to alter it. After the first wave of the Chicago School sought to deregulate corporations and cut them loose from this technostructure, later Chicagoans became frustrated with the notion that businessmen were paralysed by structure, and fell on the idea of celebrating the innovation of the entrepreneur. Lessig echoes this repeatedly in discussions of the role of the digital commons in ‘lowering the barriers to entry’ into a market. It is as if he aspires to an internet agora where intellectual and cultural producers are not held down at the neck by giant copyright corporations, but are rather cultural entrepreneurs or knowledge entrepreneurs who enter the marketplace of ideas or the marketplace of culture, whose barriers to entry are minimised by state regulation.

But most importantly for Lessig, the internet is the great exception to the market rule. He writes, ‘to the extent a resource is physical – to the extent it is rivalrous – then organising that resource within a system of control makes good sense. This is the nature of real-space economics; it explains our deep intuition that shifting more to the market always makes sense. And following this practice for real-space resources has produced the extraordinary progress that modern economic society has realised... But perfect control is not necessary in the world of ideas. Nor is it wise.’ He continues, ‘The digital world is closer to the world of ideas than to the world of things.’ In the end, then, the digital commons is a technical issue: it is only because digital media frees information from the ‘real-world’ printed page that it becomes inefficient to organise ideas as tightly controlled property like books.

Of course, it’s not that this diminishes Lessig’s campaign particularly, but it certainly gives us a better idea of what it is about. It is striking that underneath it all, Lessig’s digital commons is nothing more than a well functioning market. If the right laws are passed and the right code implemented, a harmonious free market will deliver innovation. At a time of severe ‘market creep’, when market relations persistently encroach on life, the case for campaigning for its extension through cyberspace is less than convincing.

BOYLE'S RHETHORICAL LOBBYJames Boyle is less hung up on the market; he is more likely to talk about market failure than about market efficiency. He comes from the ‘critical legal theory’ tradition, drawing on postmodernists like Michel Foucault and Stanley Fish to understand law as a ‘discourse of power’. But for all Boyle’s postmodernist references, his approach is much more like the traditional single-issue lobby that Washington knows how to work with.

His reference point and role model is the environmental movement. As he describes it, it is a loose coalition of groups and interests. Their aims, strategies and tactics diverge, but they share a unifying concept of ‘the environment’. It is a concept that is in many ways a fiction, notes Boyle, but it is a rhetorical strategy that alone can bring a large group of varied interests under one umbrella. Accordingly, the campaign for the digital commons for Boyle begins with its rhetorical invention: ‘the language of the public domain will be used to counter the language of sacred property’.

But the problem with the linguistic approach of the postmodernists that Boyle adopts is particularly stark when applied to the idea of a public domain. Can a public domain or common resource really be built on nothing more than a structure of belief and a rhetorical strategy? Conspicuously absent in this proposal is… the public. Public spaces, whether real or digital, are so easily enclosed or privatised because the public claim to them is so weak. The privatisation of public life began as a political process long before the internet hit the shelves, and it is no surprise this privatisation is reflected online. A linguistic postmodernism that reads all the world as text enables a rewriting around the problem of a diminished public and political sphere rather than addressing the problem and attempting to resolve it. For Lessig, the digital commons can exist because it is a technological anomaly not subject to market organisation. This allows him to ignore the thorny issue of the public. The danger is that Boyle’s linguistic first step may in the end be just as empty as Lessig’s technological one.

The environmental impulse could too easily echo the problem by creating a coalition to provide an interface between government and a minority lobby, perhaps with a broad base of passive public moral and financial support. The politics of the environment is too often that of self-appointed guardians of a resource that the general public and big business combine in ignorance and avarice to despoil and pollute. Again, this is a model dangerously conducive to building on public passivity rather than challenging it.

Boyle’s use of environmentalism reflects the limits of political possibility that exist today. Recognising the need for an information politics, he takes a prefabricated contemporary political form and wants to pour information politics into it. But to have real substance, the public domain can’t do without the public.

INFORMATION POLITICS - INFORMATION FOR WHAT?The digital commons debate opens up a field of possibilities, my criticism notwithstanding. Boyle and Lessig are two of the great pioneers of that opening. Many others have now begun to think about how these issues can be used politically. Most ambitiously perhaps, Michael Hardt of Empire notoriety has recently been working on intellectual property and other forms of what he calls ‘immaterial property’, arguing that they present the opportunity for making a new communist case against private property as a whole.

Whether or not any of this work leads anywhere, there is still an important unanswered question that the issue of information control runs up against: information for what? Why should anyone care who controls knowledge if there is no perception of a particular need for it? Programmers need the software source codes that the free software movement is fighting to make freely available because they are the tools of their trade. People get upset about the file-sharing issue, exemplified by the Naptser case, because the lawsuits and legislation pushed by industry lobbies are a barrier to the steady, cheap flow of their cultural consumption. The concern for control over biotech patents is rooted in either a precautionary fear of the possibilities of science, or from a different angle, a concern with the supply of medicine to, and the exploitation of, ‘underdeveloped’ countries. These are issues of concern, but nevertheless are a narrow focus. The missing question is, ‘knowledge for what?’

Gregor Claude <gregor AT> is at the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths and is writing a PhD on digital media, copyright and the culture industries

Conference papers from the Conference for the Public Domain []

Drawing made in Mexico by Quim Gil, inspired in the rural life of states like Chiapas, in which traditional common resources and common activities are being pushed away agressively by the corporations' tentacles and the ‘public’ institutions (ignoring the public interests). He is travelling through Latin America in the context of an online journalism project: From América, With Love ( He is also participating in the design and development of collaborative projects compatible with the concept of 'digital commons' such as and (an open-sourced political party).

Follow-up on

Proud to be Flesh

Commercial Commons

Creative Commons advertise their licenses as the best-of-both-worlds between copyright and the public domain. But is the word 'commons' then a misnomer, and can such licensing be subjected to the same abuse as copyright? Saul Albert raises the question and a discussion within the University of Openess Wiki follows

The Creative Commons licenses have become a kind of default orthodoxy in non-commercial licensing. Every unpunctuated half-sentence spilled into a weblog, every petulant rant published by 'Free Culture' pundits, every square millimetre of Lawrence Lessig's abundant intellectual property is immediately and righteously staked out as part of the great wealth of man's 'Creative Commons'.

First off, this proposal still holds the basic assumption that everything I make and say is property which in most areas of 'creative' work is both ridiculous and reactionary, as well as generally objectionable. The logic that more politically aware CC. pundits use; that you can't ignore the reality of the market and you have to use copyright to fight copyright is fine in theory, but makes the assumption that every maker and sayer has equal recourse to legal process. Putting aside, for a moment, this little problem of economic and legal inequality, I am still suspicious of anything advocated strongly by clever, sleek, young lawyers. Are they really 'streamlining' the legal process? Cutting out the armies of jabbering middlemen in their patronising promotional movie? Or, are they waxing lyrical about a supposed 'commons' while making the convoluted mess of intellectual property ownership even more complex and impossible for lay people to negotiate? Imagine the process of making a new work with copyleft material:

'Hmm... let me see, I can reproduce this part of that lyric, but I have to credit it, and this bassline allows me to sell the piece, but means my tune has to have the same share-alike-non-commercial license on the whole track, and using this guitar riff means I have to make sure anyone who uses my tune abides by the Geneva Convention on Human Rights.'

Yes, some of these 'pick and choose' licenses even have such moralistic overtones. The 'Common Good' public license insists that the use of anything licensed by it must not be used in a way that contravenes the Geneva Convention. Everyone is in favour of the Geneva Convention, but this is so unimplementable as to be purely symbolic. Although the prospect of AC/DC suing the US military for blasting 'insurgents' in Fallujah with 'Hell's Bells' is appealing, there are many far more effective ways, both symbolic and material, to contribute to Human Rights causes. If I want other people to use my work and have already made the conceptual leap to contributing to a public domain, why would I want to impose arbitrary, untested restrictions on them? I certainly don't want their arbitrary restrictions imposed on me.

The public domain is about non-ownership, not more accurate descriptions and granularity of ownership. Licensing structures like the Creative Commons help copyright owners and their lawyer lackeys catch up with today's faster moving, smaller-scale and more intricate network of information exchange between 'prosumers', not by 'freeing' it, but by describing it as intellectual property more efficiently.

> Original Cartoon concept and design for above illustration by Neeru Paharia, original illustration by Ryan Junell, photos by Matt Haughey, licensed under a creative commons license

The clue to whose interest is served by that efficiency is in the cringe-makingly patronising spiel about 'human readable', 'lawyer readable' and 'machine readable' licenses. The solution to incomprehensible legalese is not to say 'oh, you poor little human, you shouldn't have to take responsibility for your own labour, let us take care of that'. The solution is to reform arcane legal language and customs so that everyone can understand them. If half the Creative-Commons-license-using bloggers donated half the money and time they spend on trendy haircuts to initiatives such as the Plain English Campaign, the 'lawyer readable' section could be obsolete within a year.

And the machine readable part? I can already see the software these shysters are going to build. You'll no longer need to call your lawyer when someone plagiarises you (or weaponises your music). There will be automated systems that will discover licensing inconsistencies, call the appropriate lawyers who, (as part of the Creative Commons service) will simply bill your credit card for their micro-legal-fee, and credit your account with an out-of-court micro-settlement. You might find out about the whole ordeal when checking your credit card bills at the end of the month, wondering why you're getting poorer and poorer while the solicitor next door has just installed a jacuzzi in his back garden.

There are some fights worth fighting - like the fight for someone to be able to make something that does not become intellectual property by default, the fight for an accessible and fair legal system, and the fight for someone's right to make a living from their work without having to sue anyone. That is what copyright is for. It works. It has been tried and tested in the courts for hundreds of years. The enemies in this fight are the greedy, powerful people and corporations have bullied copyright law into an absurdity, and will continue to abuse any other system that anyone comes up with until we make them stop existing.

Discussion among University of Openess Wiki users

To a point interesting but I think you have a fundamental misunderstanding of copyright law and the aim of Creative Commons licences (I am one of those lawyers).

CC aims to make explicit what pre-existing rights the author (well OK... not just authors, but it's a shortcut word) has chosen to waive, in a way which is easily accessible and understandable. The 'machine readable' part is simply trying to make those waivers explicit to search engines in order to increase the accessibility of work under the CC license. It's more about making life easier for people who might want to use Anita's work (cartoon above, which of course you wouldn't have been able to use without the waiving of rights) than about making life easy for Anita. There are of course people who take issue with copyright law, but that's not a reason to generalise the complaint to a licensing system designed to address some of the problems that result from the law.

Some thoughts:

- CC is not about tying up creative work in legal jargon. It doesn't introduce arbitrary restrictions - it can only introduce conditions to the relaxing of rights which already exist. - You are more free to use a CC licensed work than if no such licence was used. - The author does not have to use a CC licence but they have every right to choose to. - You do not have to use CC licensed work but you are bound by copyright law. - The average author may not have the knowledge to structure their own licence from scratch and might well not want to waste their time doing so. Like it or not, 'lawyer readable licences' are what courts look at. - Even if authors did have the knowledge and inclination, the likely result would be a mess of different licences each with its own separate conditions. That would be less accessible to you than the CC standardised forms.

I'm very surprised to see a rant against CC here [on the Wiki of the University of Openess]. I'd actually been thinking of pointing out the related Science Commons project as something Uo might be interested in looking into.


Some responses:

> I'm very surprised to see a rant against CC here.

I would just like to point to the UoClaimer [] here. I'm sure many in the uo are very interested in pursuing Creative Commons and Science commons approaches.

I fully understand the rhetoric surrounding the Creative Commons; what it says it does on the tin. Having heard the arguments, I am not convinced. Like many liberal reformist movements, the 'good' intentions of the Creative Commons are easily hijacked by the people who are currently exploiting existing copyright law and the original 'good' intentions for that. As soon as the dinosaur copyright holders and collecting organisations wise up to the world of micro-payments and infinitesimally divisible rights and waivers, the bureaucracy and compensation situation of compound-licensed works will become far more Byzantine than it is already.

> It doesn't introduce arbitrary restrictions - it can only introduce conditions to the relaxing of rights which already exist.

That may be true of the Creative Commons, but other attempts to map very successful Free Software licenses onto non-technical fields have often decided to impose arbitrary and sometimes absurd restrictions. Actually, I think you may be wrong about this anyway. Surely the 'share-alike' insistence that derivative works be licensed under the same agreement can be seen as an arbitrary restriction.

> You are more free to use a CC licensed work than if no such license was used.

But less free than if the work is in the public domain. If you want to play, contribute to the public domain. If you want to reserve your rights, do. Also, If I buy the right to use your work using existing copyright law, I can use it for anything I want and adopt whatever license I like for my derivative work. In this sense, freedom as in 'libre' for my derivative work is more attainable under default copyright law than if you impose a perpetual Creative Commons license, it just costs me some money. If you use a Creative Commons license, I can't use your 'non-commercial-share-alike' component for my commercial venture at all, ever, even if I want to buy that right.

> Like it or not, 'lawyer readable licenses' are what courts look at.

Then concentrate efforts on cleaning out the legal language, reform the application of copyright law and the legal processes in general - which most people are currently too scared of to get involved with unless under duress.

Lazy orthodoxy and co-opted reform is what's under attack here, and you haven't answered the meat of the questions raised. The implicit proposal of this attack on the CC is:

- Concentrate efforts on reforming abuse of existing tested systems. - Concentrate on making existing processes and infrastructures accessible to everyone. - Concentrate on expanding the public domain through education and campaign against default copyright.

In my opinion the CC hype is just a distraction from these older, harder and more important battles.


> In my opinion the CC hype is just a distraction from these older, harder and more important battles.

I think you both make good points, but would the logic of the above argument mean that Stallman should not have bothered with the GPL. Also I thought the CC approach was in part a response to the IP gold rush rather than its cause.


> Also I thought the CC approach was in part a response to the IP gold rush rather than its cause.

I'm certainly not arguing that CC is the cause, but that it's motivations and parameters do not depart from the market logic that results in abuse of IP law.

> would the logic of the above argument mean that Stallman should not have bothered with the GPL.

There is a distinction to be made between the GPL and the CC. The GPL was just good engineering methodology for years before Eric Raymond and others evangelised Free Software into venture-capital friendly 'Open Source'. The CC and the GPL are nothing more than efficient methods of regulating property and labour in an information economy. There's nothing wrong with that, but using the word 'commons', and associating this engineering / labour methodology with a pre-enclosure J.S. Mill-esque political 'freedom' is misleading. The GPL may have been evangelised, but at least it is honest about what it is: 'a licence'. The whole 'commons' crowd - Bollier, Lessig etc. scare me because they do not wear their colours as clearly as the Free Software people, whose radical libertarian politics are very openly progressive one minute, and openly disturbing (see Eric S. Raymond's Gun Nut page) the next.


Eric S. Raymond is not among the Free Software-people. He's an Open Source guy.


CopyCan and CopyCant

The first point about unequal recourse to litigation makes the rest of this discussion a moot point. The legal mediation of intellectual property as a mass market service product is a horrifying prospect. In the case of the Creative Commons, the rhetoric simply ignores the material reality that most people can not afford and would probably never want to engage in litigation of any sort, certainly not against powerful, rich companies with armies of lawyers.

At the same time, given current distribution media and formats, copyright is practically unenforcible. Punitive enforcement of copyright law in a few highly publicised 'example' cases in which individuals are persecuted for downloading copyright material is deeply irresponsible on the part of the rights holders. Irresponsible because they must bear some responsibility for the ease with which their material is duplicated and distributed; which is an intentional strategy on their part.

Take the example of commercial software. It is in the interests of the software company for their software to be easily pirated. Many specialist software titles are hard to 'crack', but in many cases 'industry standard' applications are easily pirated. If, for example, it were impossible to pirate Adobe Photoshop, this software would not occupy the position of market leader for photo manipulation. Students, learners, tiny companies that currently find it easy to download and use pirate versions of these warez, grow up to found established companies and businesses that are no longer 'under the radar' of the copyright holders, and so buy licences. If it were impossible to do so, they would use something else, and buy licences for that product if and when it became necessary and profitable for them to do so. Knowing this, Adobe maintains a relatively relaxed copyright enforcement and security implementation. They do not seem to prosecute individuals, although presumably they have the right to do so.

The same logic applies on another level to music distribution. Music becomes popular in some markets because it is easily distributable. If the only way for Bulgarians to listen to Britney was for them to spend 10-12 Leva (5-6 Euros) on a CD, they would not listen to Britney. Piracy created this market and many others.

There is a harsh duplicity in the way large multinational IP owners use copyability as a publicity strategy on one hand, and then on the other bully the public into paying extortionate prices for dead media by singling out individuals and persecuting them as examples for taking the bait of copying the 'property' they have made intentionally copyable.

If, as is constantly threatened, Digital Rights Management becomes a reality and it is then impossible to buy hardware, software and media that allow the reproduction and distribution of copyrighted information, punitive enforcement of redundant copyright law on individuals will no longer be necessary, because it will simply be impossible for them to copy and redistribute this property.

Thinking again about how to articulate copyright and copyleft, there seems to be a need for a functional articulation of the reality of how this law is applied rather than the legalistic, utopian fantasy of an IP 'commons'. For this purpose I suggest the principles of 'CopyCan and CopyCant'. Simply, it is possible to copy 'CopyCan' material, and impossible to copy 'CopyCant'. No lawyers necessary. It become the responsibility of the producer to prevent the copying of their material. If this entails the implementation of DRM, fine. If it requires cyborgs to register a serial number keyed to an iris print and a cochlear implant for every piece of commercial music that they buy that prevents others from hearing the uniquely signed secure transmission of this audio unless they also buy it, fine. See how many people buy Britney's albums on these terms.

Also see: 'Goatherds in Pinstripes' by Gregor Claude, in Mute 23, June 2002 (in the Metamute 'archive' section)

Links (with thanks to Rob Myers for these)

Broader critiques of FreeSoftware

Project Oekonux mailing listArticle and discussion on FOSS, IP Laws, and Expanding Legal Choices

Others of interest

Adina Levin, Commons-based peer production is not communism, 2004Johan Söderberg, Reluctant revolutionaries – the false modesty of reformist critics of copyright, 2004


Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture, Penguin, 2004Greg London, Drafting the Gift Domain, 2004Joshua Gay (ed), Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman, GNU Press , 2002

Mailing lists

Creative-friends - For a truly free and accessible BBC Creative ArchiveCc-bizcom - A discussion of hybrid open source and proprietary licensing modelsCc-licenses - Discussion on the Creative Commons license draftsCommons-law -- A discussion list on law, culture and technologyOther links and references

'Content Flatrate' and the Social Democracy of the Digital CommonsDigital Rights Management


Proud to be Flesh

Charters of Liberty in Black Face and White Face: Race, Slavery and the Commons

The Magna Carta is renowned as the 'Charter of Liberty' which inspired modern constitutional safeguards against the power of the State. But its smaller companion, the Charter of the Forest, enshrining the customary rights of the commoners to land and resources, has been overlooked. Cutting between the political struggles of the early 1970s and the 1720s, Peter Linebaugh shows how the struggle against enclosures in the woods of England is inextricably linked with the struggle against slavery in the Atlantic

I am thinking about revolution and constitution, where the former means the overthrow of capitalism and the latter means the ways we re-constitute our governance. Capitalism is the accumulation of commodities, and the production of surplus value by means of unpaid labour. Government concerns the rule of the Many by the Few, a task solved by divide et impere and named the Constitution.

The legal cliché is that the American is a written constitution, while the English is unwritten. Yet strictly speaking this is untrue inasmuch as both have stemmed from the Magna Carta of 1215, 790 years ago.

The Norman and Angevin kings afforested as much as a quarter of England, making game reserves, monopolising hydrocarbon energy resources, in zones where the only law was the king’s pleasure. They were crusaders, in world competition with Jews and Arabs for the commerce of the Mediterranean, and to launch such crusades they forced marriages among the barony and took children hostage, pulled teeth of Jewish money lenders, as well as squeezing the serfs and villeins dry. Civil war was the result but cease-fire was obtained with Magna Carta. It revealed the contradictions: between state and church, between monarchs and barons, between them and merchants, between all those three and the commoners who were dependent on forest resources.

Magna Carta has 63 chapters. It is accompanied by a smaller charter, the Charter of the Forest with seventeen chapters. They belong together. They are the two documents printed first in the book of English law for over five centuries. The most esteemed commentators, Edward Coke who influenced the 17th century English Revolution and William Blackstone who influenced the 18th century American Revolution, always treated the two charters as one; the English charters of liberty. We can follow their precedent.


Image > Anja Kirschner

A word about each. The Magna Carta used to be well known and what was most well known in it was chapter 39, because four principles of justice are sometimes derived from it, viz., habeas corpus, trial by jury, prohibition of torture, and due process of law. All of these have been curtailed by the USA Patriot Act. The Charter of the Forest assumes a notion of the ‘commons’ or a practice of subsistence commoning in the hydrocarbon energy resources of the time. This important presupposition is indicated by technical terms, viz., herbage, assarts, pannage, chiminage, and estovers. Herbage means grazing for cattle; assarts means clearing trees and grubbing stumps for gardening or growing grains; pannage means letting pigs into the woods for mast and nuts; chiminage means no tolls on the roads and paths; estovers means getting wood for fuel, for housing, and for tools and implements.

Now, to express these theoretically we might say that they refer to use-rights rather than to exchange value and thus they refer to particular, concrete labours rather than abstract labour with its universal equivalent in money. From this formulation we might then say they refer to a pre-capitalist mode of production, or we might say they refer to those classes of people whose goal in economic life is the consumption of uses rather than the accumulation of money. In short, they refer to the Many not the Few.

Considering the two charters, some of their provisions concern subsistence and some concern government. Some are negative; they prevent or prohibit arbitrary behavior by armed forces of the king, such as bailiffs, sheriffs, knights and so forth. Others are positive; they provide fuel, travel, food, milk, clothing for commoners. So, like two baskets of law, panniers on the back of a mule, they have trudged down the centuries, sometimes hidden from view or apparently stuck in a slough, at others times requiring a goad to get going again.

There is a third point, the mule can turn around and go the other way. Both charters were committed to disafforestation, or the removal of the king’s sole law and the return to conditions prior to the afforestation of the Norman Conquest. Energy resources were to be returned or restored and reparations made for harm done. The King took what did not belong to him; two centuries later he was made to return it. Thus, they reversed two hundred years of history making it, so to speak, go backwards. So much for the self-serving bourgeois doctrine of progress!

The important difference between English and American constitutional development is not that one is unwritten and the other is written. The difference is Africa. American constitutional and revolutionary history depended, first, on taking Indian lands, and, second, on maintenance and expansion of unwaged labour on the plantation where slaves produced surplus value. This is an 18th century problem, as references to the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution make clear, and as the references of the U.S.A. constitution of 1787 as amended subsequently also makes clear.

In England the protracted struggle to maintain subsistence by access to the commons, or (to express this dynamically) by making commons, or commoning, had the unintended consequence of closing England through the repressive response of the Parliamentary Enclosure Acts passed between 1760 and 1830. What was the relationship between, on the one hand, the expropriation from Africans by the slave trade and the resistance to enclosures and, on the other hand, the formation of the working class? This was the problem some of us of ‘the Warwick School’ set ourselves in the early 1970s. We saw it, at first, as a problem of ‘crime’. Then we saw it as a problem of ‘custom’. We did not see it as a problem of ‘colour’, nor did we treat it as a problem of ‘capitalism’. Certainly, we failed to see it constitutionally.

To see it as crime was easy enough. George Rudé taught us that revolutionary crowds were criminalised by counter-revolutionaries and their historians. E.J. Hobsbawn taught us that the romanticised criminal, Robin Hood, appears in the transition into capitalism but not during the transition out of capitalism. Plus were not the great revolutionaries imprisoned, and did not the prisons – Siberia, Kilmainham, Devil’s Island, Soledad, Robbin’s Island – become seminaries of truth?

We were conscious of colour, because unpaid labour in America depended on it. In 1963 James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, an essay whose wrath anticipated the municipal rebellions of the future but with a title alluding to the rainbow sign.1 In 1963 the English translation appeared of Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth which expressed the hurricane-like energy of the Third World in general and north Africa in particular. It warned against black capitalism. That was also the year of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class whose version of the working class saved it from Cold War dismissals and whose call to human agency seemed to revive the nerve of change, as it showed the autonomous self-activity of workers in the past in strike, riot, mutiny, and commotion. These American, African, and English voices were anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist.

Between 1963 and 1968 occurred the great municipal rebellions in American ghettoes under the slogan of ‘Black power’. How was a revolutionary class analysis to be made? Though we understood Black, we were not yet aware of white. We did not yet understand the DuBois principle of ‘the wages of whiteness’.2

In 1968 after ‘the summer of love’ I drove across the country from Columbia University anti-war sit-ins to the Berkeley commune and the bulldozing of People’s Park. We stopped in Bloomington, Indiana, in whose rare books library I found a scholarly key to the contradictions besetting the world. It was yet another book by ‘anonymous’ who in my naiveté I thought was the most frequently mentioned ‘author’ in the library card catalogue. ‘Anonymous’ seems to have understood the problem and here was the answer called The History of the Blacks of Waltham in Hampshire (1723). I had it photocopied and then protected by some cardboard covers I made and hinged with band-aid tape, which I took with me to England where ‘criminality’, Black history, and the English working class were going to join, I thought, in a grand revolutionary project. Edward Thompson soon had us formed into a research collective and I gave Edward my treasured copy of The History of the Blacks which surely would introduce to England the ‘black power’ discussions which were rocking the USA. Some years later he returned it, with his marginalia, after it had helped him get started with Whigs and Hunters (1975) which was published with Albion’s Fatal Tree (1975).

He wrote a brilliant book about law and the ruling class, but it was not the book I had dreamed of. It did not lay the axe to the root. I wanted a book about Africans and commoners. I would put forward the fact that the poachers defended commoning, not just by disguising themselves but by disguising themselves as Negroes, and they did so at Farnham, near the heart of what became the quintessence of England as Jane Austen so gently wrote about it, or Gilbert White, the ornithologist, so carefully observed it, or William Cobbett, the radical journalist, so persistently fulminated about it.

Round about Farnham timber was wanted for the construction of men-of-war and East Indiamen which stopped in Portsmouth for repairs, or were built there from scratch for the purpose of the globalisation of commodity trade characteristic of the time. Here’s how a flashpoint in the episodes of the Waltham Blacks began: ‘Mr. Wingfield who has a fine Parcel of growing Timber on his Estate near Farnham fell’d Part of it: The poor People were admitted (as is customary) to pick up the small Wood; but some abusing the Liberty given, carry’d off what was not allow’d, which that Gentleman resented; and, as an Example to others, made several pay for it. Upon which, the Blacks summon’d the Myrmidons, stripp’d the Bark off several of the standing Trees, and notch’d the Bodies of others, thereby to prevent their Growth; and left a Note on one of the maim’d Trees, to inform the Gentleman, that this was their first Visit; and that if he did not return the Money receiv’d for Damage, he must expect a second from … the Blacks.’ This is not exactly tree-hugging or Indian chipko, though it did have warrant among local antiquarians in the nineteenth century who searched for a charter of such commoning. The leader of the Blacks and ‘15 of his Sooty Tribe appear’d, some in Coats made of Deer-Skins, others with Fur Caps, &c. all well armed and mounted: There were likewise at least 300 People assembled to see the Black Chief and his Sham Negroes….’

Charles Withers, Surveyor-General of Woods, observed in 1729 ‘that the country people everywhere think they have a sort of right to the wood & timber in the forests, and whether the notion may have been delivered down to them by tradition, from the times these forests were declared to be such by the Crown, when there were great struggles and contests about them, he is not able to determine.’ The Waltham Blacks, they said, ‘had no other design but to do justice, and to see that the Rich did not insult or oppress the poor.’ They were assured that the chase was ‘originally design’d to feed Cattle, and not to fatten deer for the clergy, &c.’ The central common right was pasture, ‘common of herbage’ as the Forest Charter says. Keeping a cow was possible on two acres, and less in a forest or fen. Half the villagers of England were entitled to common grazing. As late as the 18th century ‘all or most householders in forest, fen, and some heathland parishes enjoyed the right to pasture cows or sheep.’3 So, the Waltham Blacks were class conscious. There was also an awareness at the time that the keeping of a cow, essential to the material constitution of the country, was backed up by charter. Timothy Nourse denounced commoners at the beginning of the century. They were ‘rough and savage in their Dispositions.’ They held ‘leveling Principles.’ They were ‘insolent and tumultuous’ and ‘refractory to Government.’4 In September 1723 Richard Norton, the Warden of the Forest of Bere, wished to ‘put an end to these arabs and banditti.’ The commoner belonged to a ‘sordid race.’ The commoner was compared to the Indian, to the savage, to the buccaneer, and to the Arab.

The ‘Blacks’ defended the customs of the commoners; the commoners were both criminalised and racialised in the discourse of the enclosers, the privatisers, and the big wigs. There was even the suggestion that attacking them was a sort of crusade. The Waltham Black Act of 1722 thus became, among other things, a means of drawing a colour line and criminalising common right.5

We can put forward as evidence what was neglected in Thompson, the fact of the African slave trade. Blacking, wrote the anonymous historian in that treasured pamphlet history, commenced ‘about the times of general confusion, when the late pernicious schemes of the South Sea Company boure all things down before them, and laid waste what the industry and good husbandry of families had gather’d together.’6 The South Sea Company was a slave trading company, formed a few years earlier, to take advantage of the asiento or licence to trade to Spanish America. On September 11, 1713, Royal African Company congratulated itself on obtaining ‘such advantageous terms, as never were before granted to the people who undertook the furnishing of negroes to the Spanish West Indies.’ The crisis of the commons began as a financial crisis which itself arose from slaving.

The South Sea Bubble was the wreck of a kind of capitalist commoning. Thirty years earlier, this new form of commoning had been produced through developments within English constitutional governance. During the 1690s sovereign legal authority (King-in-Parliament) united with the financial form of value resulting in the Bank of England, Lloyd’s Insurance Company, the Coinage Act, &c. Money and other financial instruments liquefied the clumsy, cumbersome form of wealth as private property which was presented as use values in warehouses, docks, ships, shops, etc., and moreover placed it directly under fiscal state command. The creation of monetary liquidity permitted the distribution of surplus value as investment in various commercial and industrial enterprises according to the needs of capital as a whole without regard to rates of exploitation in individual enterprises. Investment and speculation appeared insubstantial, disembodied, atmospheric or gaseous. The South Sea ‘bubble’ popped owing to cupidity which seemed infinite and to anonymous Atlantic obstacles, namely, resistance, recalcitrance, and revolt.

The decade between 1716 and 1726 was the golden age of piracy, Marcus Rediker informs us.7 The significance of piracy during these years was twofold – it was multiracial and it was against the slave trade. They blockaded ports, disrupted the sea lanes. The pirate ship ‘might be considered a multiracial maroon community.’ Hundreds were African. Sixty of Blackbeard’s crew of a hundred were black. Rediker quotes the Negro of Deptford who in 1721 led ‘a Mutiny that we had too many Officers, and that work was too hard, and what not.’ They also prevented the slave trade from growing. This was the complaint of Humphrey Morice, MP, Governor of the Bank of England, owner of a small fleet of slavers, who led the petitioning to Parliament and who suffered severe losses in 1719, the year that serious blacking commenced. A naval squadron was sent to west Africa. Four hundred and eighteen pirates were hanged. The conjuncture of apparently very distant forces, struggle for common rights and the Atlantic slave trade, in fact met in intimate proximity.

Daniel Defoe, the most prolific prose writer in the English language, was preoccupied with the issues of Atlantic labour power. Coincidently, his writing transpired during the privatisation of the printed word by means of Queen Anne’s Copyright Act. He precisely combined the intimate conjunction of opposites with a trans-Atlantic background. Robinson Crusoe, Mariner was published in 1719. The book dramatises the labour theory of value, glories in the intricacies of the division of labour, and puts the European foot (Crusoe) on the African neck (Friday). Alexander Selkirk, the actual person who was the prototype of Robinson Crusoe, died in February 1721 as a sailor in a naval squadron that was sent to west Africa to extirpate the piracy interrupting the slave trade. The Adventures and Misadventures of Moll Flanders, published in 1722 treats the issues of criminalisation of the commons and large scale cooperative labour. Upward social mobility was not accomplished by ’affirmative action’ but negative criminality, as Moll Flanders hooked up with highwaymen on the first step of the ladder of success and whose final rung she at last attained – a Virginia tobacco plantation – so she too could put the boot to the African enslaved.

These are the classic fictional disquisitions on subsistence, survival, and surplus in that era of off-shore and homeland plunder; they also present heroic prototypes of the ‘white’ worker. Indeed, these novels coincided almost to the year with ‘the invention of the white race,’ to give the title of Ted Allen’s compelling thesis.8

A buffer stratum was to be created by offering material advantages to white proletarians to the lasting detriment of black proletarians. When and how did the ‘wages of whiteness’ originate? The first date DuBois gives in the protracted process is 1723 when laws were passed in Virginia making Africans and Anglo-Africans slaves forever. The bonded people objected in 1723 to the Bishop of London and the King ‘and the rest of the Rullers.’ ‘Releese us out of this Cruell Bondegg’ they cried. In the same year Richard West, the Attorney General, objected to the same law, ‘I cannot see why one freeman should be used worse than another, merely upon account of his complexion….’ But the Governor of Virginia understood the necessity of ‘a perpetual Brand’ – skin colour, or the phenotype, which marked the person as surely as the burnt flesh caused by the golden brands used by the South Sea Company. In this way, Ted Allen tells us, a ‘monstrous social mutation’ occurred, namely, that stratum within the American class structure which derives its hopes, security, and welfare from white skin privilege. It has been essential to the constitution of American class relations ever since.

This was not known to Thompson. The experience within England (though not Ireland) was different, where the policing of the wage relationship, or the exploitation of the Many by the Few, did not depend upon the colour line, and where therefore it was unnecessary to constitute that structure of white supremacy. Thompson wrote the famous ‘rule of law’ coda to Whigs and Hunters. ‘As the last imperial illusions of the twentieth century fade, so preoccupation with the history and culture of a small island off the coast of Europe becomes open to the charge of narcissism. The culture of constitutionalism which flowered here, under favoured conditions, is an episode too exceptional to carry any universal significance.’ Yet, even smaller than England was the island where Robinson Crusoe met Friday and that story spread world-wide.  

The colonists of the north American mainland, even at the time of Robinson Crusoe (1719), the Waltham Black Act (1722), and the South Sea Bubble (1722), had begun to graft some of that English constitutionalism to their own purposes. For example, The New-England Courant in its summer issue of 1722 sought to be rectify the stupidity of the colonists by quoting chapter 39 of Magna Carta and commented, ‘No Freeman shall be taken, &c. These words deserve to be written in letters of gold, and I have often wondred that they are not inscribed in Capitals in all our Courts of Judicature, Town-halls, and most publick edifices; they being essential to our English Freedom and Liberties…’ ‘No man ought to be put from his Livelyhood without answer’ rings hollow to the unemployed, or to the Indians who were proclaimed rebels in the same newspaper for attacking fifteen commercial vessels intruding on their fishing grounds and whose women and children were taken in captivity to Dunstable. ‘No man can be exiled or banished out of his native country’ is hypocrisy to the men and women and children from the west coast of Africa enslaved in America. The New England Courant’s sole advertisement reads ‘A likely Negro Woman to be sold by Mr. Thomas Selby at the Crown Coffee-House, the lower end of Kingstreet.’

Thompson, however, did not accept a ‘South Sea’ or Atlantic perspective, much less a planetary one in his references to constitutionalism. He reversed himself, moving from a mood of postcolonial narcissism to one of praise for the English ruling class as a whole: ‘… the inhibitions upon power imposed by laws seem to me a legacy as substantial as any handed down from the struggles of the seventeenth century to the eighteenth, and a true and important cultural achievement of the agrarian and mercantile bourgeoisie, and of their supporting yeomen and artisans.’ And when Thompson writes of the culture of constitutionalism, why does he exclude the charters of liberty?

Dorothy Thompson, many years later, attributed this coda to heated arguments that she had with her husband and co-worker, Edward, arguing that ‘he was leaning too far in the direction taken by some of the contributors to Albion’s Fatal Tree in dismissing the law simply as an instrument of class power.’9 The context of the discussions about these books took place in 1970 and 1971; when for instance Howard Zinn in November 1970 said ‘The Problem is Civil Disobedience’, and he ran down the law, how the bill of rights is publicised but not enforced, how the property laws are enforced but not publicised. He showed how decorum and propriety fool us and cause us to revere the law. He reminded us that often we have to go outside the legal framework – the Civil War, the Union drives, the American Revolution. He said ‘people in all countries need the spirit of disobedience to the state….’ The American and the English experiences were different. The Attica revolt was in September 1971, and the trial of the Mangrove Nine was finished in 1971. Internment without trial was introduced in 1971, and ‘Bloody Sunday’ was in January 1972. These events of state terrorism were not yet answered by similar violence of those taking an anti-imperialist stand. Furthermore, they still seemed part of an ancient constitution in which ‘race’ played trumps.

Our books were not published until 1975. During the interval the world changed direction. The PLO assassinated Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. The IRA brought the war to England. The Guildford pub bombing of October 1974 left five dead, a month later the Birmingham pub bombing killed twenty-one. While the political climate became more violent, the intellectual climate became more academic, more legalistic, more obscure. Critical Legal Studies (formed in 1977) stuck to the high theory of Frankfurt School and French post-structuralism, obtusely reluctant to engage English social history, or to raise the constitutional issues of race or the commons.

There is a vast amount of English social history since 1975 (and before) recording the importance of customary rights to common forest resources. Moreover, that story is now clearly understood to have happened all over the world. J.M. Neeson produced a great book about the commons from earlier discussions concerning custom. Called Commoners, it showed that subsistence use-rights remained a material basis of many English agrarian workers. Meanwhile, others of us adduced the evidence that the wage relation arose from the process of criminalisation and the process of criminalisation arose from custom. The irrationality of the wage concealed the unpaid labour. But could these aperçus attain constitutional importance or were they destined to dismissal as un-theorised ditty?

The law locks up the man or woman Who steals the goose from off the common But lets the greater villain loose Who steals the common from the goose

The violence and the terror, ‘the military option’ as the Italian Red Brigades put it, made it harder to see the Charters, or the commons, as anything other than a wild goose chase. Looking back now we can see that the issue was not the rule of law against terrorism: the issue was the preservation of commoning against new enclosures.

We could use some theory of the kind that transformed Magna Carta for the Levellers, of the kind that transformed Magna Carta for the abolitionists. In 1774 the former African-American slave, Olaudah Equiano, put on white face in London in order to obtain a warrant of habeas corpus. This is among the first actions by which Magna Carta was appropriated for the trans-Atlantic movement to abolish slavery. In the same year Granville Sharp wrote ‘The wisdom of ages has made [Magna Carta] venerable, and stamped it with an authority equal to the Constitution itself, of which it is, in reality, a most essential and fundamental part; so that any attempt to repeal it would be treason to the State! This glorious Charter must, therefore, ever continue unrepealed: and even the articles which seem at present useless, must ever remain in force.’10 Granville Sharpe used the charters against slavery, racial and otherwise, but, despite an obsession with the gothic frankpledge, he did not take his stand with the commons, unlike Thomas Spence or Gracchus Babeuf. Similarly with Frederick Douglass who said in 1854, ‘Let the engine of the Magna Carta beat against the Jericho walls of Slavery, and no seven days blowing of ram’s horns would be necessary,’ a reference to the jubilee which, while emancipating slaves, also restored the commons.


Film still > from  Polly II, Anja Kirschner Photograph: Alessandra Chila

Edward Thompson failed to mention Magna Carta and more strategically he omitted the Charter of the Forest. There was an opportunity to link the constitution to the commons at that point in time, Walpole 1720-1723, when some English and African commoners could be found together on the seven seas and in the wild wood. The moment passed: privatisation and slavery advanced together. We hear Blackstone crow as he defined private property as ‘that sole and despotic common which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.’ (He admitted in his Commentaries that there are elements such as light, air, and water which ‘must still unavoidably remain in common.’)

Today, the commons comes back to us from the South! Subcommandante Marcos provided the voice of the Zapatistas and the indigenous people of Chiapas calling for the return of Article 27 and the ejidos, or common land, while reminding us of the Magna Carta. As the Many demand water, energy, and wherewithal against the surplus value hogged by the Few, we must reprise those moments when the act of constitution showed not racist divide et impere but that old, old friend of all, the commons. This enterprise calls for our contemporary appropriations of both of the Charters of Liberty.


1 The title alludes to a slave song:  ‘God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time’. Editor’s note.

2 David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (Verso: New York, 1991). In the preparation of this essay I thank David Roediger and his colleagues at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana

3 J.M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure, and Social Change in England, 1700-1820 (Cambridge, 1993), p. 317

4 Timothy Nourse, Campania Foelix, Or a Discourse of the Benefits and Improvements of Husbandry (1700), pp. 15-16

5 ‘The Black Act was instituted in 1723... in response to the Waltham deer poachers. It made it a felony (that is, a hanging offence) to appear armed in a park or warren, or to hunt or steal deer, with the face blackened or disguised...’,

6 The History of the Blacks of Waltham in Hampshire, Anonymous, (1723)

7 Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Beacon Press: Boston, 2004)

8 Ted Allen, The Invention of the White Race, volume two, The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America (Verso, 1997)

9 Daniel H. Cole, ‘“An Unqualified Human Good”: E.P. Thompson and the Rule of Law’

10 A Declaration of the People’s Natural Right to a Share in the Legislature (1774), pp. 202-3

Peter Linebaugh <> teaches history at the University of Toledo in Ohio where he is also writing a book on the Charters of Liberty

Proud to be Flesh

Copy That Floppy!

The Pirate Bay, a tracker website based in Sweden, has become the most popular BitTorrent site in the world and now receives more daily hits than CNN. The Pirat Byran (Pirate Association) is its sister organisation, and promotes information piracy and its culture through discussions, media advocacy and legal advice. Mute talked to Palle Torsson of Pirat Byran about filesharing culture in Sweden and the 'grey commons'


Image > Pirates and filesharers demonstrating in Stockholm on Sunday May 1st, 2005, Piratbyran

Mute: The Pirate Bay is one of the most popular BitTorrent trackers, could you tell us about how The Pirate Bay and Pirat Byran came about?

PT: Pirat Byran was born in 2003 from an integrated internet radio broadcast community and IRC channel populated by the Swedish hacker community and Demo scene. PB was initiated to support the free copying of culture and launched the BitTorrent tracker and website: The Pirate Bay. When TPB expanded to become the biggest BitTorrent tracker in the world it was natural for them to split up into two different entities. PB has evolved into a community and an information site in Swedish with news, forums, articles, resources and a shop and has to date over 50,000 members. PB organises events, appears in debates, writes and answers questions about IP and filesharing. TPB had recently gone through a major internationalisation and can now be browsed in many languages, from Mandarin to Icelandic.

Mute: I read some time ago a report on Interactivist about filesharing protests in Sweden. I understand you spoke at the demo?

PT: Yes, but the speech I made took most of my energy. It was the second year when internet lovers, filesharers and pirates gathered in Stockholm to express their fight for internet freedom. There was music and three speakers talking about the transgression of IP law and creativity. A hand to hand copyswap was extended to a coffin where you could place and share CDs. A big crowd of something like 800 people assembled with banners declaring things like: ‘No Software Patents’, ‘Sharing is Caring’ and ‘All Your Base [Stations] Belong to Us.’ This aggressively humorous attitude is something that characterises the movement in Sweden. One beautiful example is the letter written by TPB in response to legal threats and the request by big companies like Microsoft, DreamWorks and Warner Bros, to remove copyrighted material:

Last year the transgression of IP law spurred a copy riot in Sweden; people from right to left have woken up and spoken out on the subject. This escalated further when Sweden’s anti-piracy lobby organisation, Antipiratbyran (APB), raided Swedish ISPs claming they hosted unlicensed material. The raid was conducted in an unlawful manner and it was discovered APB had paid an infiltrator for several months to upload copyright-protected material and place hardware at the ISP.

This spawned a public outcry and the lawyer and spokesperson for APB, Henrik Ponten, received hate-SMS, including death threats, from a lot of angry kids. The homepage of APB was hacked by a group that called themselves Angry Young Hackers and mails between people from APB were published showing that APB were also infiltrated. In response PB has pressed charges against APB for their different unlawful actions. And APB was told by Swedish authorities to withdraw the most aggressive of these threats to protect their own integrity.

The demonstration was mostly a great celebration with a lot of different people sharing and also making connections. The slogans at the demonstration were: ‘Copy me – we will continue to copy everything’, ‘Don’t touch our internet’ and ‘Welfare begins at 100 Mbit’. The counter-allegations against the anti-pirate organisation APB for the action and the raid at the Swedish ISP Bahnhof was ready at that time and was handed to the police.

Mute: As I understand it Sweden has yet to sign European agreements on copyright law. Does this make it a ‘zone of exception’ as far as the increasingly aggressive policing of IP is concerned?

PT: No, but for a long time it was legal to download for personal use. Now the EU [Copyright] Directive is implemented and in force in Sweden (as of 1 July), even though there have not yet been any cases resulting from the new law. This ‘zone of exception’ comes rather from the fact that people accept and live with filesharing, the police don’t have the will, priorities or resources to criminalise kids. TPB and PB is a concrete, factual and living example of this, among other things. This zone of exception is important and natural for this generation and is not something that will change any time soon.

Mute: What is the bigger picture behind these protests? Was this the first public act of disobedience in opposition to the new laws or are there events that have prefigured this one?

PT: PB has a broad political base, from high-tech autonomists to free libertarians. A group based in Malmo called The Street Action looks upon filesharing as digital class struggle and organises public copyswaps inside shopping malls in order to desecrate the commodity. And there are several other interesting projects based on disobedience in Sweden, of which my favourites are and is a site for free subway riding and runs a fund to which you can subscribe and get your money back in case you get caught and fined. is a site for shoplifting culture.

Mute: You spoke of finding the ‘power to strike again’, at what forms of power are you directing these attacks and through what means?

PT: I always appropriate, borrow or steal others people’s work to make something new. I live in, distribute, and take from the circulation of information. The configurations of the medial structures in which this information exists is the pipeline in which I work. The motivation for my work is to try to intervene in this structure and to create an alternative work space, basically to make my becoming a place were I am free to appropriate again.

There is an endless amount of targets to strike that oppose our way of living, but right now it feels important to build the alternative playground of sharing and gift culture. The confrontation comes naturally in the process of exploring these grounds. The primary means for this is collaboration and exchange of knowledge. I think hacking that involves hardware modification will become more important because the industry understands they have lost the information battle and are moving towards the protection of hardware. This means that it will be important to realise real infrastructures of communication like Wi-Fi and meshed networks and self-made entities for IP broadcast.


Image > Pirates and filesharers demonstrating in Stockholm on Sunday May 1st, 2005, Piratbyran

Mute: What then are the implications of a ‘post-scarcity’ system in which the cultural products of immaterial labour are available for free exchange, whilst the cost of living and reproducing oneself rises?

PT: The flow of money and information are immanent to each other. When information is transformed into commodities they become potential allocators of the money you could buy food with. If you are a student you’d rather spend your money on beer and as a parent you spend your money on food rather than paying for CDs or books. If you use alternative circulations like the library, sharing or downloads, your economy becomes richer.

The hacker, the artist or the housewife for that matter, do not live independent from the economic structure of society – on the contrary they are parasites upon existing structures in place within welfare systems, companies and universities. Like all people they are attached to a grey zone where they produce an important surplus value for society that we find more important than most are willing to openly admit. [For a critical discussion of this notion, see Steve Wright’s ‘Reality Check: are we living in an immaterial world?’ in this issue of Mute, p.34-45]

Mute: Trackers (and other P2P technologies) are playing a powerful role in the ‘economy of attention’. They are becoming important producers of opinion, hype, and desire around new releases from multinationals, as well as facilitating their distribution. Are there ways that Pirate Byran can radicalise this process?

PT: Yes, by bringing in new groups to filesharing. For instance, as in the project ‘small pirates’ run by PB where the focus is on filesharing for parents and kids, or bringing new content to the trackers as in the project run by the Danish Pirat Gruppen. I think there is a radical process inherent in the movement, so what is needed is to deepen the understanding of the redistribution of culture. One recent attempt was the book produced by PB about filesharing culture, Copy Me. A lot of projects have evolved from the forums at PB. I think it is important to always branch out into different projects so that the process becomes independent from singularities of any kind.

There are always different levels of involvement in a community, some rising and some falling. I think filesharing and open source has a radicalising process attached to it right now because it points to the structural division of information in society. I would say that these links you talk about already exist, the important thing is to make them visible. The best way to do so is to get important files and projects online for filesharing. One of the more recent examples initiated by the sister organisation of the PB in Denmark, Pirat Gruppen, is a project called Students are encouraged to digitise and share the expensive books on their reading lists, and in this way use filesharing to create a digital library resource for fellow students, circumventing the costs and control of large publishers. So far, the campaign has resulted in books being shared on The Pirate Bay, while the publishing companies have joined the entertainment industry in their desperate hunt for filesharers. The Pirate Bay can be used by anyone that wants to share files or come up with new models for distribution.   Mute: The asymmetry of access to ownership of communications media is a major factor provoking their seizure and re-distribution. Historically, piracy has arisen at times of enormous economic hegemony (empire), and though formed in opposition to dominant culture frequently plays an economic and geopolitical role in reproducing it. How can the new forms of data piracy support and nourish alternatives and even opposition to dominant economic imperatives?

PT: Overcoming lack of access is not a very important notion in our approach. Not even opposition to dominant forms of culture. Internet piracy is all about desiring-production, and its deepest effects in the long run may well not have so much to do with access, or may go far beyond that notion – just as Walter Benjamin talked about art as the production of desires that cannot yet be satisfied, but will inevitably reach far beyond goals originally impossible to imagine.

Maybe what is most important now is to bypass the urge for solutions, for victory in battles or for compromise and stability. For example, talking about how to ‘compensate’ copyright holders obscures the truth about the social production of culture, replacing it with the myth of copyright as some kind of ‘wage’ for artists. On the contrary, trying to keep the ‘grey zone’ as open and wide as possible, will almost automatically produce better conditions for going beyond prevalent economic imperatives. If nothing else, it will do this by simply curing some of the neurotic sickness of copying-control. But making general statements about different political implications and alternative economic models when talking about piracy and free copying would almost be like accepting copyright’s claim to universality.

I think the shift to alternative ways of organising, in more of a rhizomatic manner, is driven by desires and the possibilities of connection. The drive to think, invent and discover alternative processes of production is the affirmative power of life as an experiment in complexity.


Palle Torsson <> is a Stockholm based artist, researcher and organiser. He has been a pioneer working with internet, game culture, and intellectual property. He runs the site and works with Pirat Byran, an organisation that fights for the freedom to copy and share media

Proud to be Flesh

FLOSS Redux: Notes on African Software Politics

The info-technological development of Africa is providing a critical laboratory for testing the utilitarian and egalitarian claims of the FLOSS community. The question of whether to adopt a free or proprietary route quickly expands beyond the immediate consideration of set up costs. Soenke Zehle considers how FLOSS fares in the competition to be the fittest 'tropical' technology, assesses different visions of continent-wide development, and examines FLOSS's own ambiguous economics

With a host of corporations, foundations, and organisations active in the fields of advocacy and assistance, free and open source software (FLOSS) has become a dynamic area of info-developmental cooperation. In the eminently pragmatic approach adopted by many of these efforts, the intense controversy over free vs. open source software and the extent to which advocacy should stress freedom over commercial applicability somehow seems a thing of the past. At the same time, the focus on FLOSS as an economic strategy of autonomous development within a global network capitalism rather than a post-capitalist practice of collaborative creation recalls some of the general ambivalences at the heart of software-political struggles.1


In many African countries where computer users are not necessarily owners, important choices are often made by those in charge of establishing public ICT infrastructures. While many companies and organisations have chosen to adopt FLOSS on their own, the status of governments as the largest procurers of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) means that government action is bound to stimulate industry in various ways, including the provision of FLOSS training and support. The recently founded Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA), currently headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, has therefore identified national ICT policy and procurement procedures as major advocacy targets.2 For Bildad Kagai, co-founder and one of its secretaries, the licensing, localisation, and local skill building advantages of FLOSS, coupled with ‘leapfrogging’ technologies like wireless that help skip an entire generation of expensive infrastructural investments, offer an alternative to the technological dependency and resource drain associated with an exclusive reliance on mainstream proprietary software.

Given the many problems that beset the ICT sector in Africa, FLOSS advocacy is inevitably tied to political reforms in contracting, public services, and competition policy, as well as the creation of FLOSS related employment and business opportunities. Taking advantage of the organisational dynamic of WSIS and working closely with civil society organisations, corporations, and international donors, FOSSFA has created an effective advocacy coalition: Kenya’s ICT policy now gives preference to open source (and open standards) over proprietary solutions, and FOSSFA also convinced the Committee on Development Information of the Economic Commission for Africa (CODI) to adopt a policy that prioritises FLOSS.

This is no small feat, given that many African states have yet to articulate any ICT policy whatsoever, and FOSSFA is also educating policy makers across the continent about FLOSS.3 The 2004 Idlelo meeting in Capetown, co-organised by FOSSFA and the African Virtual Open Initiatives and Resources Project (AVOIR) at Western Cape University, was the ‘First African Conference on the Digital Commons’.4 Bringing some 200 FLOSS activists and developers from across the continent together with international researchers, Idlelo emphasised the need to shift from the mere adoption of FLOSS to the local development of FLOSS applications, the use of FLOSS in education, and the development of non-proprietary open content alternatives. Hoping to be able to recruit government representatives from all 53 African states, Idlelo 2 has already been scheduled for 2006.5

South Africa Goes Open Source

The breakdown of Idlelo participants by country reveals the uneven geography of IT development in Africa: by far the largest contingent came from South Africa, followed by Nigeria and Kenya.6 South Africa’s influence in the African FLOSS movement is related to its dominance of the African IT sector at large. But there are other reasons, one of which is the impact of projects sponsored by Mark Shuttleworth.7 Shuttleworth, a South African celebrity entrepreneur known for his space travel – Shuttleworth was the first ‘afronaut’ – as well as his philanthropic ambition, has overseen the development of Ubuntu (an already-popular Debian-and-GNOME based linux distribution updated in regular release cycles) and his Shuttleworth Foundation has co-launched a nation wide ‘Go Open Source’ campaign.8

Supported by the Meraka Intitute of the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) as well as HP and Canonical, the campaign has included the production of the first ever television series on open source – broadcast on public television and available for download – and the installation of ‘Freedom Toasters’, stand alone CD/DVD burners loaded with the latest FLOSS operating systems and applications, across South Africa.9 In addition to working on an ‘edubuntu’ classroom version of its linux distribution, the Shuttleworth Foundation also works with South African schools to set up FLOSS-based thin client networks through its ‘tuXlabs’ initiative.10 And following the 2005 ‘Go Open Source Task Team’ conference, South Africa’s national policy on free/open source software and open content is now being turned into an ambitious action plan.11

But is South Africa ‘really’ Africa? FOSSFA’s Kagai notes that ICT developments in South Africa are not representative of Africa at large, and some see in the ideas of an ‘African Renaissance’ less a new Pan-Africanism than a mere culturalisation of South Africa’s own economic and geopolitical ambition.12 Yet it would be a mistake to associate less well off areas of the continent with a lack of interest in digital and network technologies – a point made years ago by none other than John Perry Barlow (ex-Grateful Dead and Electronic Frontier co-founder).13 Barlow had concluded from his own experience of country life that Africans might have preserved a pre-industrial sense of connectedness and would want to bypass the crippling effects of an individualist industrialism to embrace the digital technologies of the network society. Even after the dotcom crash, his occasionally, albeit ironically, exoticist travelogue is still worth a read, in part because much of his ‘let’s wire Africa’ enthusiasm was shared by the initial wave of international ICT task forces that were to turn the new economy experience into a fully fledged paradigm of info-development. And it encouraged Russell Southwood, a former UK management consultant, to start Balancing Act Africa, already one of the most important information services on ICT related developments across Africa, including the failures and successes of FLOSS advocacy.14

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, FLOSS has not been an easy sell. One reason, suggests Ethan Zukerman, might be the overemphasis on free beer at the expense of free speech; a reference to Richard Stallmann’s famous definition of free software.15 Zukerman, a co-founder of GeekCorps – ‘an international non-profit organisation that transfers tech skills from geeks in developed nations to geeks in emerging nations’ – and initiator of ‘BlogAfrica’, believes that many African users continue to associate ‘inexpensive’ with ‘inferior’, a legacy of technology transfer and appropriate technology projects that sometimes amounted to little more than the dumping of obsolete technology.16 And in areas where non-licensed copies of proprietary software are widely available as well as a great deal of corresponding ‘street’ expertise, comparatively expensive manuals and a lack of bandwidth for accessing online support can easily increase the total cost of ownership of non-proprietary alternatives generally assumed to be ‘free’. FLOSS advocates should stress the expandability, transparency and resulting high performance of their software instead.

While a growing number of studies make an empirically based case for FLOSS in general, less is known about the experiences of FLOSS adoption across Africa.17 One such report has been published by, an international NGO with offices in South Africa and the US.18 According to, the availability of the source code is an advantage actually rarely exploited at the computer lab level, whereas the cost of software licenses – the ‘free beer’ argument – remains a key concern, especially evident when these costs are expressed in terms of GDP share. Among the factors that lower software costs, piracy is the most important, followed by donations and so called thin-client configurations that bring back to life hardware generally considered obsolete. FLOSS, concludes the report, has become a mainstream alternative. Yet because of the level of expertise required to establish and maintain a FLOSS based computer lab, it tends to work better in large projects that have the resources to address the practical problems of migration, training, and support, in contrast to individual labs that can simply take advantage of proprietary solutions that are already in place.

Info-Political Visions

Beyond the issue of appropriate means, how do the local politics of software relate to competing visions of what ‘info-development’ is and should be about? In the larger info-political vision that frames local decisions over software and standards, questions of autonomy are central, frequently articulated in response to the hegemonic presence of corporate software and IT giants. FLOSS advocates have criticised the most recent wave of international public private partnerships in this area, for example, because they involve only the usual transnational suspects. Microsoft, HP, and Cisco are all well represented in the activities of major development agencies, advertising themselves as ‘partners in development’ to promote ICTs as the vehicles for ‘good governance’ and ‘effective service delivery’, but also to stake out their own commercial claims, crowd out grassroots or public sector alternatives, and subvert South-South cooperation.

Take SchoolNet Namibia.19 Having to work with substantially fewer resources than the Shuttleworth Foundation, SchoolNet has nevertheless set up FLOSS-based thin client networks in over a hundred schools, launched an ISP to offer subsidised internet service, and is exploring the set up of wireless access in rural areas. Once they had found that students were a lot more likely to embrace FLOSS than their teachers, and standard advocacy tools were not doing much to change that, SchoolNet launched Hai Ti (‘Listen Up!’), a comic strip that features real life FLOSS users.20 Its contractual agreement with schools specifies that the teams who manage the local computer lab include students as well as teachers. Yet occasionally, SchoolNet finds that their FLOSS-LANs remain unmaintained while students use equipment donated by Microsoft and administered with support from MS certified engineers. Executive director Joris Komen is convinced that Microsoft has targeted Namibian schools specifically because SchoolNet Namibia has become an outspoken critic of the company and its philosophy.21

Commenting on recent agreements between Microsoft and the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Bildad Kaigai of FOSSFA agrees that such deals work to confine the software choices these agencies can make and effectively transfer wealth away from an emergent local software industry. Kagai calls on African leaders to emulate the successful development strategies of Asian countries instead.22

Other ICT analysts note, however, that African countries will have to do so under dramatically different circumstances. Yash Tandon of SEATINI stresses that ‘most of the so-called “technology transfers” ... are essentially excuses for transnational corporations (TNCs) to take over local companies, or to carve out a share of the domestic markets.’23 Rather than ‘stripping naked’ to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) from the North, Tandon also makes the case for the ‘creation of a home based Domestic Scientific and Technology Capacity (DSTC), including capacity to undertake relevant research and development, the actual purchase (as opposed to transfer) of appropriate technology from the open market, and a transfer of technology, preferably between South-South, only under certain conditions.’ But Tandon also notes that options exploited by the ‘Asian Tigers’ are no longer available to Africa: ‘Countries such as Korea and Taiwan, as all other now advanced economies in history, were able to do it because they disembedded the technology from its capital base (by, for example, copying intellectual property, and through reverse engineering), and by creating a ‘national’ base for capital. Some countries were able to do this during the cold war years when the West needed them to fight against the Communist threat coming from China and Vietnam. ... Since the end of the cold war, this option is no longer available. ... Now, with intellectual property rights embedded in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) under the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), scientific knowledge has become monopolised in the hands of a few thousand multinational corporations that use this knowledge to control the economies of the third world.’ For Tandon, Africa has only so many options: ‘It is in this context that Africa must develop its own DSTC, including a policy on relevant research and development. The R&D policy must be based on the production conditions in the region, the need first to produce for the domestic/regional market (only secondarily for the export market), and Africa’s location within the global value chain.’

It seems that third worldist strategies sustained by a generalised critique of neocolonialism have been replaced by the exhausting creation of advocacy networks that hold local governments just as accountable as transnational corporations.24 Yet while visions of Africa’s future have sobered significantly, the emergent dynamic of South-South cooperation still echoes a tricontinentalist spirit. Brazil’s official commitment to what its minister of culture, Gilberto Gil, has refererred to as a ‘tropicalisation’ of open source has been a major push for FLOSS advocacy in Africa. One such example of a South-South technology transfer was Brazil’s support for the adoption and implementation of open source software for the management of Top Level Domain (TLD) registries in a number of African countries, a process that will eventually automate TLD registries.25

An increasing ‘post-third worldist’ cooperation is visible in other international info-political fora as well. One example is the campaign for a ‘WIPO Development Agenda’ and a Treaty for Access to Knowledge, supported by a broad coalition of southern governments as well as grassroots organisations.26 The World Intellectual Property Organisation is a UN agency whose current mandate is ‘the maintenance and further development of the respect for intellectual property throughout the world.’ In the eyes of its critics, this mandate limits WIPO to the role of an enforcer of Euro-American positions on intellectual property, supporting the WTO’s Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) as well as at least condoning the aggressive ‘TRIPS-Plus’ bilateralism both the US and the EU have engaged in to effectively bypass the ongoing review process of key TRIPS provisions.27 The access-to-knowledge campaign puts the question of FLOSS and the struggle over open standards in a much broader context. WIPO defines creativity in relation to the prospect of proprietisation, as culture is defined as the creation of private property. The FLOSS controversy, on the other hand, is not just about reducing the cost of running a computer lab, but over the implications of its approach to ‘commons-based peer production’ (Yochai Benkler): i.e. processes of collaborative creation and an information and knowledge commons actively enlarged in opposition to the ‘second enclosure’ (James Boyle) associated with an ever expanding IPR regime.28 Take the role of FLOSS developers. Rishab Ghosh, FLOSS Program Leader at the Maastricht Economic Research Institute on Innovation and Technology (MERIT), stresses that licensing costs do matter, especially when GDP is taken into account.29 But another key emphasis in his studies on FLOSS in developing countries is on the skills-building in FLOSS networks. In addition to standard developer skills, open source communities address, almost by default, questions of copyright law and licensing, and introduce users to new forms of collaborative creation. Ghosh calls these ‘informal apprenticeships’ whose social cost is, of course, borne by individual users, but it is done so voluntarily, and he even considers the free sharing of developer expertise (often based on expensive degrees) a form of technology transfer. Most definitely exploited by employers who often encourage their employees to participate in FLOSS fora on the job, this voluntarist dynamic is also the basis of networks of ‘roving technology consultants’ like GeekCorps or E-Riders, as well as the collaborative practices of the FLOSS community at large.30

Info-Political Pragmatism

Ghosh has been a major global FLOSS advocate, and his projects specifically address the use of FLOSS outside Europe. Yet some of his economic arguments are based on the assumption that proprietary alternatives are not locally produced. What Ghosh describes as the benefits of ‘deep access’ offered by locally developed FLOSS applications – customisation, quick bug fixing, as well as the re-use of code in other applications – is exactly how Herman Chinery-Hesse, CEO of Ghana’s successful Soft Tribe, describes his own approach.31 All of Soft’s software is based on ‘tropically relevant’ code, Chinery-Hesse’s reference to the full spectrum of constraints he associates with local computer use: frequent savings to disk help deal with power failures and work offline lowers costs for online access. In the case of Soft’s document management software for the Ghana Human Rights Commission, storage on remote servers addresses possible interruptions caused by a change in government. And unlike Ubuntu, Soft’s applications are optimised for the low-end hardware that dominates Ghana’s offices and cybercafés.

Soft trains the majority of Ghana’s programmers, often left to their own devices in poorly equipped computer science departments. Yet Chinery-Hesse thinks that FLOSS would impede the development of a local software industry, as developers would, he worries, be reduced to installers of pre-existing applications. His main concern, however, seems to be possible tampering with the code both by users and competitors – Chinery-Hesse fears internal mismanagement and has no interest in interoperability that could threaten Soft’s pole position in the local software market. Soft rarely releases beta versions, software does not have an autoinstall function, and bug fixes are not generally released. Evidence of Chinery-Hesse’s entrepreurial pragmatism, he has also entered into a cooperation agreement with Microsoft, hoping to take advantage of its global distribution channels to bring an add on from Ghana to desktops around the world.

For Guido Sohne, a former Soft employee and vocal FLOSS advocate, Soft’s deal with Microsoft is a form of technology transfer rather than a simple sell-out, prompted by the departure of some of its key developers without whom their previous portfolio of applications could no longer be maintained.32 Sohne left in part because Soft did not want to explore FLOSS-based alternatives to address this development impasse. Microsoft is there to stay (the new Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Centre in Ghana also entered into a deal with Microsoft), but it looks like Soft’s emergent competitors are already relying on FLOSS. So while Ghana’s developer community as a whole has not yet embraced FLOSS, this is likely to change.

In the current ‘Africanisation’ of the politics of software, the proprietary/non-proprietary divide is but one of several vectors. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise, given the hybrid dynamic of FLOSS itself. In her analyses of the cooperation between corporations and the FLOSS community, techno-feminist Yuwei Lin describes this process as ‘hybrid innovation’, marked as much by a sense of interdependence and mutuality as by unease over the irresolvable tension between commercial and community-oriented practices.33

The dependence on corporate support illustrates the paradoxes of immaterial labour and suggests that common assumptions regarding the relationship between FLOSS and visions of a post-capitalist future be revisited. Often understood in terms of an anti-monopolistic practice, FLOSS is not, as such, anti-capitalist (GPL-founder Richard Stallman describes himself as anti-fascist instead). One of the reasons for the popularity of the FLOSS paradigm is that it appears to be able to accommodate a wide range of visions of cultural, economic, and social transformation, from cyberlibertarian views of natural capitalism to the post-autonomist vision of a coming communism, actively anticipated by way of multitudinal self-organisation. Countercultural cachet notwithstanding, the high visibility of FLOSS as a mainstream alternative to proprietary software is due in large part to the support from corporations like IBM or Sun Microsystems, and the commitment to openness reverberates with an info-capitalism attempting to reinvent itself around concepts of trust and transparency.

And while the controversies over software licenses are so intense because their clauses redefine what property means in the network society, not all of FLOSS is geared toward an enlargement of the information commons. Following the popularity of user-defined license provisions like Creative Commons, Sun Microsystems has announced its own ‘Open Media Commons’ initiative to develop FLOSS based digital rights management tools.34 FLOSS, already adopted by cost cutting governments across the world, is also easily aligned with state power – South Africa’s FLOSS and open content strategy includes, after all, the migration to FLOSS of its prison management systems.35 This makes one-size-fits-all approaches to the politics of software almost impossible, even more so in the context of African ICT controversies.

Yet what is certain is that an African info-politics is already emerging along key faultlines of network-economical conflict, challenging images of an Africa forever mired in ‘tribal rampages’ and natural disasters. And while it is too soon to say what transformative impact FLOSS efforts may already have had, examples like FOSSFA or SchoolNet show that FLOSS is not reducible to an imperial voluntarism out of sync with the ‘real’ Africa. FLOSS‘s collaborative ethic is not a post-materialist luxury limited to those on the sunny side of the digital divide. Instead, the Africanisation of FLOSS in terms of an ‘ubuntu’ philosophy of sharing may soon connect to other collective efforts in a larger Pan-African vision of renewal. This project driven mainly from below is rarely included in the sovereign perspective of afro-pessimist prophecies accompanying the current wave of imperial nostalgia.36 In his documentary afro@digital, Congolese director Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda retrieves the story of the Ishango Bone, the oldest known table of prime numbers, to suggest that mathematics, and by implication the network society as a whole, needs to be given a new, Afrocentric genealogy. FLOSS advocacy may not have to go that far. Yet perhaps a discussion of software politics in Africa should not begin with the question of software, but with the contradictory images of Africa that linger in the collective post-colonial imagination.


1 For an account of free software vs open source software in terms of a struggle over discursive hegemony, see David  Berry, ‘The Contestation of Code: A preliminary investigation into the discourse of  the free/libre and open source movements’, Critical Discourse Studies 1.1 (April 2004),  65–89,


3 Bildad Kagai and Nicolas Kimolo, ‘FOSSFA in Africa: Opening the Door to State ICT Development Agendas – A Kenya Case Study’, SSRC The Politics of Open Source Adoption (2005),; CODI, ‘Resolutions of the Fourth Meeting of the Committee on Development Information (CODI-IV)’, UNECA Commission on Development Information (23-28 April 2005), See the country policy tables at:



6 Derek Keats, ‘Idlelo: First African Conference on the Digital Commons’, Final Report to Department of Science & Technology South Africa (2004),




10, A thin client is a computer (client) in client-server architecture networks which have very few resources, so it has to depend primarily on the central server for processing activities. A thin client network centralises maintenance tasks on a (remote) server


12 For a middle of the road assessment of the African Renaissance, see Elias K. Bongmba, ‘Reflections on Thabo Mbeki’s African Renaissance’, Journal of Southern African Studies 30.2 (June 2004). For more critical views, see Neil Lazarus, ‘The South African Ideology: The Myth of Exceptionalism, the Idea of Renaissance,’ South Atlantic Quarterly 103.4 (Fall 2004), 607-28, and Neville Alexander, ‘South Africa – Example or Illusion?’ An Ordinary Country: Issues in the Transition from Apartheid to Democracy in South Africa, New York: Berghahn Books, 2003, 137-73, 188-90

13 John Perry Barlow, ‘Africa Rising,’ Wired 6.01 (1998)


15 Ethan Zukerman, ‘Free Beer Doesn’t Sell’, Linux Journal 111 (July 2003)


17 David Wheeler, ‘Why Open Source Software / Free Software (OSS/FS, FLOSS, or FLOSS)? Look at the Numbers!’, (May 2005)

18, ‘Comparison study of Free/Open Source and Proprietary Software in an African context: implementation and policy-making to optimise community access to ICT’ (May 2005)




22 Bildad Kagai, ‘FOSSFA responds to Microsoft-UNDP Deal’ (Feb 2004),

23 Yash Tandon, ‘An Alternative View on Technology’, SEATINI (Sept 2004),

24 Thandika Mkandawire, ‘Good Governance: The Itinerary of an Idea’, D + C Development and Cooperation 31.10 (01 Oct 2004)

25 Rebecca Wanjiku, ‘Brazil opens its arms to Africa’, Highway Africa News Agency (05 April 2005)


27 Peter Drahos and John Brathwaite, ‘Who Owns the Knowledge Economy? Political Organising Behind TRIPS’, Corner House Briefings (Sept 2004),, also see

28 Yochai Benkler, ‘Coase’s Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm’ (2002); James Boyle, ‘A Politics of Intellectual Property: Environmentalism For the Net?’ (1997)

29 Rishab Ghosh, ‘Free/Libre/Open Source Software for developing countries: skills, employment and costs’, 2nd National Congress on Software Libre, Buenos Aires, Argentina (07 June 2005),


31 G. Pascal Zachary, ‘The African Hacker,’ IEEE Spectrum Online (Aug 2005),

32 My assessment of Soft is based on an email exchange with Guido Sohne (Sept 2005). Also see

33 Yuwei Lin, ‘Hybrid Innovation: How Does the Collaboration Between the FLOSS Community and Corporations Happen?’ Knowledge, Technology and Policy 18.2 (Summer 2005), 34 As the history of commons-based resource management systems shows, ‘commons’ doesn’t necessarily imply the free-for-all often associated with it, and it is not necessarily obvious – a point made frequently by advocates of indigenous and traditional knowledge databases, for example – that ‘commons’ and ‘access restrictions’ are mutually exclusive; what emerges instead are ‘hybridised’ commons that take the information needs of specific communities into account.


36 Martin Meredith, The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence, London: Free Press, 2005; Seumas Milne, ‘Britain: imperial nostalgia’, Le Monde Diplomatique (May 2005). Also see Chris Landsberg and Shaun Mckay, ‘Engaging the new Pan-Africanism’, Centre for Policy Studies (Sept 2005)

Soenke Zehle <s.zehle AT> teaches transcultural media studies at Saarland University, Germany


Proud to be Flesh

Capital Climes

Liberal critics assume that climate change is a ‘man-made’ process, not a natural phenomenon. Against this view, Will Barnes argues that global warming does indeed have an inhuman agent behind it – not nature but capital


Capitalist Criminality


With invaluable assistance from modern science and technology, capital is perpetrating a crime for which there is no name, the enormity of which has hitherto been and, apart from the literary holocausts of anti-utopian science fiction, largely remains unimagined.


Capitalist development, whether expanding or contracting and crisis-ridden, merely intensifies and exacerbates ecological degradation. The mindless and extraordinarily destructive disregard for the ecological consequences of the profitable pursuit of exploitable ‘natural resources’ has led, for example, to the consumption of hydrocarbon-based fossil fuels that are producing a warming of the earth that is melting the ice caps and raising sea levels, thus threatening the vast seaboard populations of the world. It has produced specifically the denuding of tropical forests, which, in the end, will deprive humanity of incalculable medicinal wealth. This pursuit has produced the strip mining and clear cutting of vast tracts of land – which have, in turn, created desertification rendering potentially agriculturally productive lands depleted. It has created a biotechnology centred on genetic engineering that has introduced transgenes transmitted through natural interspecies crosses which, in turn, have allowed emergence of resistant superweeds and superpests, which, in their turn, demand the application of further chemical poisons, i.e., herbicides and pesticides, that end up in groundwater, waterways and oceans and poison the food chain. The profitable pursuit of exploitable ‘resources’ of nature has further led to industrialisation of poultry and livestock production that, in the interests of a greatly enlarged worldwide markets for meat consumption (chicken, beef, pork), has generated life threatening strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria (E coli, Campylobacter, etc.) and highly pathogenic, potentially pandemic viruses. It has led to the massive and criminal termination of animal species and micro-biotic life forms, an extraordinary contraction in the very basis of life itself. More precisely, the pursuit of exploitable ‘natural resources’ for capitalist production on a world-scale has created a geological and biological regression reversing thousands and millions of years of natural evolution.


Indeed, species, new ones, comes into being and they disappear: Human beings, abrupt climatic changes, and even the occasional (by geological standards) natural calamity originating from beyond the earth in the solar system bring about extinctions, even the rare mass extinction. Yet, if the Arctic polar bear dies out (as a consequence of its inability to gain access to food sources as global warming melts the ice fields it uses to traverse distances and as a result of the early death of its young as PCBs, the product of industrial emissions that fall in their greatest concentration to earth in the Arctic, lodge in milk of lactating mother bears), it is an unnecessary loss of a majestic creature, one that is final. Extinct species do not make evolutionary reappearances. Nonetheless this loss, unintended and undesired, is not of the same order or magnitude as that at which bourgeois civilisation unknowingly takes aim. The problem is that specifically capitalist social transformations are borne along by an objective logic whose outcome is necessarily the very destruction of the natural world in its autonomy, cohesion, and otherness, that is, in its abiotic coherence, as living, and as a presupposition of specifically human life: It is the natural world as the totality of earthly nature (earthly nature as a totality and in its totality) that capitalist social transformation takes as its object.


The grand sweep of capital’s movement at the beginning of the 21st century can only portend a future in which nature, because for capital nature is raw material for commodity production, at the very least undergoes continuous and ever greater homogenisation. Homogenisation means in the most minimalistic sense the ongoing destruction of ecological diversity, of species-specific ecological niches and, accordingly, species destruction. It entails, first, the loss of nature as an aesthetically beautiful setting and context in which human and other life forms live. Second, homogenisation of nature is characterised by the emergence and proliferation of a limited number of dominant species (e.g., coyotes, rats, starlings, cockroaches) that, highly adaptable to disrupted habitats, will be increasingly unsettling to life practices of other species. Third, it means the gradual disappearance of real, organic foundations of human (and generally animal) health and medicine as centres of biodiversity (such as the Amazon forests) disappear or collapse. Fourth, produced in and through the movement of capital, homogenisation of the earth will tend toward the creation of nature existing at two poles, uglified raw material basins (denuded forests, open mines, desertified grasslands, etc.) at the start of a cycle of commodity production and toxic wastelands and garbage cesspools (wetlands turned into landfills, decaying urban centres, vast stretches of ocean densely littered with plastic refuse, etc.) at the end of that cycle, i.e., with commodity consumption. Human beings acting and interacting in nature in this form will tend over several generations to become organically, physiologically, and perhaps even anatomically and morphologically a degenerating species.


The presupposition of homoeostatic, biospheric nature (i.e., nature as a self-regulating totality capable of internally modifying and adjusting its moments to maintain stability and equilibrium in the face of external changes, e.g., increases in ultraviolet radiation) is sufficient internal diversity. This diversity includes, among other things and relations, a variety of different climatic regimes and zones, a multitude of regional landscapes, and, centrally, a huge assortment of different life forms. Thus, it is precisely this internal diversity that the movement of capital is destroying and destroying independently of climate change, and, accordingly, it is the self-regulating character of nature, and life as it has developed over tens of thousands of millennia, that is disappearing.


Climate Change

What is important to recognise here is that the criminality of capital goes beyond the vast and potentially catastrophic problems that climate change has introduced. Even if societies of capital at the level of the world come to grips with ongoing climate change in a manner that allows them to maintain the ‘achievements’ of capitalism (densely populated reserve industrial armies and objective substance, i.e., built environment, means of production and the mass of circulating commodities) on capitalist terms, generalised ecological collapse as described above is encompassed by capitalist development itself, that is, by the practical reduction of surrounding nature to raw materials for capitalist production.


Let us, here and now though, consider climate change. The earth as we immediately apprehend it, what we call the biosphere, is a unitary phenomenon, its various partial systems (weather, oceans, atmosphere, abiogenic matter, organic life including ‘man’) are fully integrated and mutually dependent. It is a self-regulating ‘system’ whose internal diversity (precisely that which capital without regard to climate change is destroying) provides its own coherence and guarantees the preservation of life on earth. As the ‘external envelope’ of earth, it orders the constant energy inflow from space (solar energy) on which it is dependent. The constitution of earth’s biosphere has qualitatively changed over geological time, meaning its composition, hence its structure (or the ‘laws’ governing its ‘behaviour’) has also changed. For any evolving, real totality such would have to be the case. What is basic for the earth as self-regularity is comprehended physically: The earth, from this perspective, is grasped as an energy system that makes ‘self’ adjustments to maintain an energy equilibrium (inflow of solar heat equals its outflow over time). Climate change is the mechanism of this adjustment, and climate is the immediate expression of this constitution of earth’s biosphere.


To understand climate, and climate change, we must consider reconstructions of the earth’s geography on a geological time scale. While the earth, at some 3.8 billion years of age, is estimated to be nearly as old as the solar system, geological dating begins in earnest 570 million years ago with the emergence of truly complex, highly developed life forms (fish, insects, reptiles). For the entirety of this vast sweep of geological time down to the present, we can designate ‘cool’ and ‘warm’ climate modes on earth. A simple determination of a climate mode is offered, namely, the presence of ice … ranging from periods of intense glaciation (emanating from the poles covered with permanent ice caps) to phases in which the high altitudes have been seasonally cold. Tectonic activity, because it is capable of shifting continental-sized landmasses, has played the largest role in making possible intense cold, especially glaciation. For the latter only occurs when there are landmasses very near or over the poles. It should be obvious that over this simply enormous stretch of geological time, there were periods when landmasses were near or at the poles, and periods when they were not.


Antarctica split off from the ancient, gigantic continent known as Gondwana (encompassing present day Australia, Antarctica, South America, Africa and Asia Minor and Arabia) and arrived at it current locale over thirty million years ago. But by the time it reached what we identify as the southern pole it had already begun to glaciate (in response to tectonic changes, to plate uplifting and volcanism). The formation of the Southern Ocean, as an open waterway (with accompanying winds) sweeping round the earth, isolated Antarctica creating an atmospheric barrier against weather systems beyond this continent. Until recently, Antarctica has largely made its own climate, one very cold and dry, which, in turn, has helped cool an earth that hitherto (prior to its separation and drift) was warm and wet, Gondwana largely a temperate rainforest. Some twenty million years ago, tectonic activity entered a period, still ongoing, of considerable diminution (after the continents as we know them today formed), lessening, for the geological time being, its determination in the formation of climate. (Continental drift has brought large landmasses near to the poles thus allowing the earth’s orbital eccentricity to cyclically create ice ages.) These cooler, drier conditions were particularly noticeable in Africa. And, under these newly forming climatic conditions, species, especially some of the truly large species (ancestors to many of today’s large mammals who to them stand only as dwarf instances), died off and new ones appeared. Among the latter group were hominid lines, including the larger brained hominids who appear to be our ancestors.


Beginning about two and half million years ago, the dynamic climatic structure (‘laws’) characterising the most recent geological epoch stabilised. So what does our geologically ‘contemporary’ climatic structure look like?


For an answer to this question we must consider physical theory aimed at solving the problems of recurrent ice ages (glaciation). Today, our understanding of glaciation in the geological time frame we live in (it more or less slowly began fifteen million years ago) has largely been resolved into three great cycles that drive the earth’s climatic variability. The earth’s orbit around the sun is elliptical completing a cycle every 100,000 years. At its greatest as opposed to its smallest distance from the sun, a determination of the earth’s eccentricity, there is a 20-30 percent reduction in the amount of radiation (heat) that reaches the earth. At that eccentricity, it is this relation (of sun to earth) that has produced ice ages at regular intervals over the past two thousand millennia. The second cycle concerns the tilt of the earth on its axis, its obliquity. Tilt determines where the most radiation from the sun will fall on the earth. A full cycle occurs every 42,000 years. As the earth revolves around the sun, tilt produces seasons. The last, shortest cycling, periods of 19,000 and 23,000 years, turns, so to speak, on the earth’s wobble (called precession). Created by the magnetic mass distributed unevenly and off-centre between the earth’s inner core and mesosphere, wobble creates a shift on average every 21,700 years in its ‘true (celestial) north’ (north determined along its axis in contradistinction from the Geographical North Pole) from Polaris to Vega. This shift affects seasonal intensity (e.g., hot summers, frigidly cold winters). In the case of all orbital cycles, the changes in radiation that reach the Earth are amplified by the amount present (more or less) of those gases, especially carbon dioxide, that trap solar radiation in the atmosphere.


We note that once the current warming synonymous with the last interglacial (the end of the last ice age ended roughly 11,600 years ago) was under way, ‘archaic’, stateless communities first began to form. Early on during this interglacial (effectively extended by the greenhouse gas emissions warming of the last century and a half) the rudiments of agricultural, sedentary social life, the state and civilisation emerged for the first time.


Relative to over two million years of ‘contemporary’ geological time, historically constituted patterns of weather, such as the regularity of seasons each with its own predictable structure, are today disappearing. Instead, weather patterns that have existed over millennia are vanishing, and based on these vanishing patterns ‘the weather’ itself is losing its predictability. Similarly, climatic ‘regimes’ characteristic of specific geographical regions (e.g., a temperate region with mild summers and cold winters) are losing their defining features as these regimes become much more ‘elastic’. Destabilised, under conditions of global warming induced climate change, the occurrence of weather at its extremes becomes more and more frequent (increased intensity of hurricanes in the Gulf and El Niño effects) because warming radically increases the moisture content in the atmosphere and thus produces extreme weather. (The unpredictability and extremism of global warming is perfectly consistent with instances of ‘normality’ by historical standards, e.g., frigid cold such as in Moscow last winter. It should be added that those extremes are not fixed. What is an extreme today may be ‘normal’ five years from now, and what is extreme then might very well hardly be conceivable today. In an abstract way, the only requirement for such warming is that over time the average annual temperature rapidly rises for the planet as a whole.)


Consequences – a ‘New Nature’?


Climate change and in particular warming, as we now understand it, can be abrupt, occurring over years or decades and not over millennia (or hundreds or maybe thousands of millennia). Abrupt climate change has certain ‘tipping points’ that ‘force’ change. Under geologically current conditions, there are three components of the self-regulatory system of the earth that are crucial for the constitution, if you will, of a ‘new nature’, that is, a different regime of climate, seasonality and weather. They are a shut down of thermohaline circulation in the North Atlantic (the Gulf Stream as it warms Europe, a shut down of which would be disastrous for Britain and North Europe), the destruction of the Amazon rain forests, and the release of gas hydrates (clathrates, ice crystal trapped methane, a carbon-based gas) from the ocean floors. All three are threatened by warming as it is generated by capitalist activity on the scale of the world. For example, sufficient warming (say, by no later than 2080) would melt enough of the Greenland ice sheet to shut down the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic (melting of which pushes fresh water into the Stream’s current – a vast conveyor of hot water from the Gulf, diluting the heavier because saline Gulf water, thus, preventing it from dropping toward the ocean floor in the area of Iceland, further preventing it from pulling more warm water in behind it, i.e., effectively shutting it down). The shut down would induce cooling which, in turn, would bring a halt to ice sheet melting that, in turn, would eventually restart the current and start a re-warming, all of which could go on for centuries until the ice reserve had reached a reduced threshold at which point it could no longer add enough fresh water to stop the circulation. Climatic see-sawing of this sort is one possible, under current conditions likely, outcome of warming. Climatic see-sawing is not, however, a lawful creation of a ‘new nature’, for example, a ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ mode, or better, as long as see-sawing continued, a new mode would not be firmly established, as climate at least in some parts of the world alternated between the two. (On the other hand, a massive release of clathrates premised on sufficient warming of the oceans, leading to species extinctions on the order of the Permo-Triassic extinction event, is another, this time abrupt, shift that could usher in a new climatic regime in just decades.)


Suspending consideration of the shape of a ‘new nature’, let us briefly reflect on the some of the features of warming as it is now occurring. These include, among others, increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather (ice storms, hurricanes or cyclones, tornadoes spun from hurricanes, etc.), rising sea levels, and, possibly, the cooling of northern Europe (not to mention elsewhere the shift northward of subtropical seasonality and temperature into temperate zones).


To even the casual observer here in the United States, the incidence of extreme weather has qualitatively been on the upswing since the 1980s. For example, in 2005 the North-West experienced a severe winter drought; western states had a record heat wave in July; in the South-West, a marked increase in winter storms included record rain and snow; the central states had a major drought worsen throughout the summer; the South and South-East experienced a record number of hurricanes, fourteen, seven of which were major; and, the North-East had flooding in April and record precipitation in October… In two decades, rising sea levels will flood as much as a quarter of the land mass of Bangladesh; Dhaka, now on average 137 miles (221 kilometres) from the sea, will front the Bay of Bengal at 60 miles (97 kilometres); and, thirty million people will be displaced, countless others dead. Today, the freshwater wells immediately south of Dhaka have become increasingly saline, the water nearly undrinkable. Or, again, in two decades parts of Sydney, Australia, beginning from its harbour, will be underwater… As we write (28 February 2007), the temperature in London (latitude 51.52 °N) reached 47° F (8 °C); in the region of Moosonee (latitude 51.31 °N) in eastern Ontario at the southern tip of James Bay temperatures ranged from 9 to 14 °F (-13 to -10 °C). Both are roughly seasonal averages. And while London may generate 10F/6C degrees of its temperature as a consequence of its concentration of built environment, Moosonee is London’s fate under conditions of a shut down of the thermohaline circulation in the North Atlantic.


'Man-Made’ Climate Change?


The overwhelming consensus among scientists and spokespeople of capitalist states in the world today (and even in the U.S., Australia and Bangladesh among the most recalcitrant of states, there is grudging acceptance) that, in terms of causation, ‘man’ is responsible for warming induced climate change.


While the evidence is straightforward, the attribution both of culpability and the liable agent are effectively ideological, masking real agency and responsibility. Consider, first, the evidence.


From the outset of the current interglacial some 11,600 years ago down close to the end of the 18th century, average global surface temperatures have risen slowly, very slowly, but steadily. This increase, it should be noted, is relative. Plot the average from the peak of the last ice age (last glacial maximum) 22,000 years ago, and that incremental increase (circa 9600 BC to 1760 CE) is not noticeable. But plot average global surface temperature from 1760 to 1870 and the line of temperate approaches a positive 15° angle of incline. Plot it from there to the present and the angle of incline rises to roughly 45°. Back up and plot it from 8000 BC to the present, and those last 235 years present a nearly straight vertical rise.


Note the dates: As suggested earlier, circa 8000 BC is the point at which we mark the beginnings of sedentary agriculture, social division and the rise of the state. And 1760 marks that point at which we can date the commencement of the mechanisation of industry in the West (i.e., in capitalist England). In the former case, initial sedentary life and, with it, rising population began to generate a human input, methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2), into the atmosphere, nothing that before 1760 might delay a glaciation, but incrementally in the short view, noticeable. The development of capitalist industrial production after 1760, however, has indeed transformed the chemical make-up of the atmosphere. How?


On a geological time scale, atmospheric CO2 has ranged from lows of 200 parts per million (ppm) during major glaciations to highs of 280-300 ppm during warm interglacials. Today, atmospheric CO2 concentration stands at marginally more than 380 ppm, and is rising in geological terms at an extraordinary and unprecedented rate with, at this moment, no end in sight. Best estimates put a tipping point (qualitatively hastening ice cap melting) as low as 480 ppm, reachable with even modern emissions reductions before 2080. This, then, is the major piece of evidence for anthropocentric based warming.


Second, consider the attribution of agency and, accordingly, responsibility for climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us ‘man’, ‘his’ activity, is altering climate. In one sense, a very crude argument can and has been made (though not explicitly by the IPCC) that sheer human numbers, a global population of six billion, and the outputs that result from the volume of activity of so many people, bear direct responsibility. While the quality of human (animal and plant) life may well be grounds for limiting population growth, global warming does not result merely from the activity of masses of humans at any level of development: Today, an Indian child (the Indian subcontinent being one of the most densely populated regions on earth, India having the second largest population in the world) consumes 1/90th of the annual energy that her American counterpart does. The problem is forms of consumption, energy inefficient consumption not to mention profligate consumption, and the type of development that underpins that consumption.


If we have raised ourselves to the level of an understanding at which it is intuitively obvious that human population, either in the contemporary sense or the historical sense (going back some 10,000 years) or both, is neither the agent nor, accordingly, responsible for climate change, we have dissolved one mystification. ‘Man’ (here, human population generally) as such is a merely formal concept without a determinately real referent. Perhaps, then, the ‘industrial system’ is at issue. Or, perhaps, it is a question of ‘man’ in the ‘industrial system’. In either case, we are dealing with empty abstractions. The issue is the historically specific configuration of groups of living men and women working within that ‘industrial system’, i.e., capitalist production. More precisely, the issue is the group which dominates that production. We refer, here, to those personifications of economic categories, capitalists (as well as the bloc of classes they have in tow). Capitalists (and states that unify otherwise disparate or competing capitals) make decisions concerning the allocation of monies and capital, concerning what and the manner in which ‘natural resources’ are exploited and utilised, and concerning the technologies on the basis of which those activities are carried out. Still, it is not just those decisions, but the entire system of social relations, that is at issue in climate change. In this sense, it is the subject of society (a part of nature, yet confronting it as raw material for the production of commodities) that is the agent responsible for climate change. It is not ‘man’ that is remaking, as it were, the biosphere; that remaking is a product of ‘his’ own objectified and alienated power. This power is capital: Capital is the real subject of human society under conditions of capitalist production (real domination).


At the ‘price’ of cataclysmic human and social costs abrupt climate change could transform the geography and sociology of social life: Over the period of decades, a qualitative increase in regimentation and repression of domestic populations to insure compliance with draconian restrictions on energy consumption; drought and starvation, massive, unnecessary death; depopulation of coastal areas around the world, forced dislocation, creation of huge frontier zones and camps of displaced persons along national borders, refugees in the tens of millions living in squalor without hope, resource wars between states, ethnic cleansing and genocides as a regular feature of daily life. Nonetheless, while capital cannot stem the ecological collapse which its very movement is engendering and within which climate change is situated, it can and, in our view, will meet the warming-induced, climate crisis. Whatever else, the social relations of capitalist production will neither disintegrate nor disappear in the maelstrom of climate change.1 The real question is whether capital, at unimaginable human cost, will set the terms on which this change is confronted, or whether we shall.



[1]In the imperialist centre of global capitalism, governed by that most backward, obstinate of regimes, capital has begun to weigh in. As we write, TXU Corp., a Texas-based energy conglomerate is being sold to a group of finance capital-based private investors in the largest ever private equity deal. The new investment group promises not to build eight out of eleven proposed coal-fired power plants, and to double its investments in wind power and the creation of internal efficiencies qualitatively reducing emissions; at the same time, independently of the American State at the national level, five western state governments including California have signed an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.



Will Barnes <wwbarnes AT> is a long-time activist living in the northern United States



Proud to be Flesh

Chapter 5: Introduction – Organising Horizontally

Proud to be Flesh Cover

Introduction to Chapter 5 of Proud to be Flesh – Organising Horizontally


The internet’s structure as a distributed network was seen by many as providing the tools with which to run mass experiments in direct democracy, perhaps for the first time. The appearance of the World Wide Web in the early-’90s was accompanied by new forms of political activity, coordinated across the internet, which took on analogously distributed and networked forms, and helped to grow the anti-globalisation movement which culminated at the end of the decade.

The aim of many of these emergent political organisations and platforms was to supersede the outdated vanguardism of the party form and to forge alliances across diverse groups, without the need for a controlling centre, a clearly defined ideology or a set of goals. While this revitalisation of political energies by the net was doubtless also felt on the right, Mute was concerned with its anti-capitalist manifestations. As the decade wore on, and open publishing sites like Indymedia and alliance-political experiments came of age, we found our pages increasingly filled with debates around the viability of so-called horizontality.

The first sustained analysis of the new political shoots of many-to-many media in Mute was Richard Barbrook’s article, ‘Holy Fools’. In it, he traced the left’s disillusionment with party politics post-May ’68, through the ‘schizo-politics’ of Deleuze and Guattari and its latter-day, and purportedly de-politicised, re-adoption by the digerati. For Barbrook, the professed rejection of vanguardism by the New Left – alongside the project of modernity tout court, in the name of psychologised ‘molecular revolution’ – nevertheless gave rise to a kind of covert elitism and snobbery within the political and artistic avant-gardes. According to Barbrook, writing in 1998, the digerati were adopting D&G and their ‘poetry of flows’ as a way of feigning progressiveness while abandoning revolutionary politics in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Unnoticed by these ‘techno-nomads’, however, capitalism was quietly withering away in the net, as the gift economy was normalised and mass participation in media gave rise to a far more experimental culture than that of the official avant-garde.

The year following Barbrook’s text saw an explosion of anti-capitalist activity and civil disobedience, with London’s financial district sustaining millions of pounds worth of damage during the Carnival Against Capitalism (J18), and, later, the mass boycotting of the WTO meeting in Seattle (N30). These events triggered a wave of protest that finally broke with the events of 9/11 – or so left mythology would have it. But, reading across the articles we published on the question of organising and alliance-based politics at the time, it seems that the seeds of dissolution were sown from the start in highly festishised, but broadly under-examined, forms – horizontality and openness. As Eileen Condon describes in her text on London’s May Day, 2000, the ‘confoundingly atomised’ protests of J18, in which a clear anti-capitalist message was given, had degenerated into a ‘locatable, better containable core’ whose message was easily hijacked. The Guerrilla Gardening escapades in Parliament Square and the Cenotaph’s defacement were interpreted as an attack on the nation, with Reclaim the Streets acting as spokesperson.

Writing in 2002, Horacio Tarcus touches on similar experiments with leaderless organising in the context of Argentina’s economic crisis. As the country’s economic meltdown led to the widespread rejection of parliamentary politics and the state’s loss of legitimacy, Assemblias, or neighbourhood assemblies, sprang up across the country. Here, people debated and decided upon local issues, often for the first time. Of course, despite the revolutionary hopes vested in these direct democratic structures, Tarcus describes the power struggles which took place within them between independents (in which ‘a good deal of libertarian mettle exists’) and party members. The complexity of this particular situation, and, indeed, the problematic in general, lies in the simultaneous attempts at ‘rejecting politics’ and ‘politicising society’.

It is this complexity which J.J. King picks up on in his careful study of the so-called ‘open organisations’ of the anti-globalisation movement. Using the tools of the web and adopting the collaborative working methods of Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS), many groups ran, and continue to run, experiments in dismantling the ‘formal hierarchical membrane of groups’. Despite making declarations of organisational openness and a general faith in the progressiveness of these structures, closer analysis revealed that ‘tacit control structures’ tended to emerge. The tearing away of hierarchical structures seemed to allow for the self-reinforcement of the inequities which structure society in general.

Hydrarchist – in his autopsy of the Italian extra-parliamentary group, the Disobbedienti (Disobedients) – homes in on the other problematic inherent in horizontality’s rejection of representative politics: how to ‘have an effect’. Despite the relative failure of these experiments, there has been no mass defection to older structures such as the party form. Even if only as a kind of negative critique of mainstream or failed revolutionary politics, openness and horizontality still maintain a progressive allure. And, while a religiose devotion to collaborative structures persists in many quarters (pace relational aesthetics, FLOSS and ‘consultative’ politics), the idea that they might, in themselves, provide a panacea to society’s ills appears to be on the wane. How we de-programme our capitalist selves, however, still seems as relevant a question today as it did in ’68.

Proud to be Flesh

May Day May Day

London’s May day was fertile, anti-capitalist fun for all the family. Until there was a fight and things turned nasty. And a leader was nowhere to be seen. Eileen Condon on 101 ways to Reclaim The Streets.


In what must seem like an unbelievable resurrection to those in the West who declared street protest defunct, it has resurfaced as a widespread and regular phenomenon. After a period of systematic marginalisation, new forms of protest are gaining serious currency in mainstream politics and media under the recurrent theme of a ‘carnival’ against global capitalism. Harnessing all niches of modern media and full wardrobe facilities for their symbolic resonance, the protest movement has rediscovered the power of performance.

Despite the ‘need for dialogue’ campaigns of multinationals (epitomised by recent statements from Monsanto, Shell and McDonald’s calling for constructive exchange with their critics), this political influence is not testament to a new sensitivity on the part of the establishment. The underlying success of recent protests is attributable mainly to the manner in which a roster of loose-knit but broadly sympathetic political groups have forged a new type of alliance. Under the aegis of a networked protest ‘against global capitalism’, they have targeted the institutions viewed as its most pernicious instruments — the IMF, World Bank, WTO, etc. The global remit of these organisations, and the reach of the corporations cast as their only real beneficiaries, has ensured the formation of a broad oppositional coalition that can link groups as diverse as US Teamsters and Earth First, students, anti-road protestors and anarchist groups. As the shareware manifesto of ‘J18’, last June’s large-scale networked protest, stated: ‘Resistance is as transnational as capital’.

As the frequency of these events increases, a rush to homogenise and historicise has occurred: J18 (occasion: G8 summit, Frankfurt, June 30,1999), ‘N30’ (occasion: WTO meeting, Seattle, November 30, 1999) and ‘A16’ (occasion: World Bank and IMF meetings, Washington DC, April 16, 2000) are now routinely placed in a sort of analytical string of pearls. As a closely connected series, they can be effectively employed — by both protest organisers and the police — as models with which to think through issues of organisation, mediation and security. The meaning of these ‘pearls’ is as pliant to the strategies deployed by the various police forces as it is to the historical abstractions and political posturing of the protestors (‘luddites — Reclaim The Streets’).

London’s recent May Day celebration is a case in point. To all intents and purposes the Reclaim The Streets performance held on Parliament Square conformed to the non-programme and non-ideology of J18, N30 and A16. However, ‘Guerrilla Gardening’ (an RTS slogan erroneously used by the media to name the ‘mass action’) lacked a singular contemporary catalyst symbolic of the ‘Washington Consensus’ (free market determinism). Instead of protesting against capitalism’s crude stand-ins, RTS, the self-styled front ‘(dis)organisation’, chose to celebrate holistic, non-alienated lifestyles of the urban realm under the new banner ‘Resistance is fertile’. In equal measure, this was to be a 21st century homage to a pre-modern mythos (May Day) and a modern collectivism (international Labour day), paid in the bright colours of a Situationist carnivalesque.

But the events in Parliament Square can also be seen within the broader counter coordinates of a resurgent and politically reductive form of nationalism. In the face of the socio-economic fall-out of globalisation, the British government and its ‘opposition’ are reaching for some tried and tested political formulas.

‘Guerrilla Gardening’ occurred at a watershed moment for New Labour. May 1 was the third anniversary of Labour’s landslide victory in 1997; the debacle of an unwanted mayoral candidate being elected in London loomed (May 4), as did disappointing results in the regional elections and Romsey by-election and a disastrous end to the BMW/Rover negotiations in Longbridge, which threatened thousands of jobs and Labour’s questionable reputation as a staunch supporter of industry. Adding insult to injury, in a show of Conservative opportunism, Anne Widdicombe and William Hague were making vociferous xenophobic attacks on Labour’s ‘soft touch’ asylum and immigration policies.

It is an understatement to say that New Labour is sensitive to public opinion: it is focus-group and opinion poll obsessed. This tsunami of negativity — itself not extraordinary for a government near the end of its first term — called for a firm stance and a reiteration of its core values. May Day provided the occasion: an event ideologically and structurally malleable enough to represent a win-win opportunity. Showcasing the tolerance in Jack Straw’s ‘zero tolerance’ (digging up Parliament Square was permitted and graffiti was allowed on Whitehall) as well as the subsequent police clampdown when the so-called single radical element violated its predictable target (McDonald’s), the government deftly choreographed pro free speech postures with those defending British national identity and security. Neither the liberal nor conservative ends of the political spectrum were to be left wanting. Tony’s catch-all outrage was widely quoted the next day: "The people responsible...are an absolute disgrace. Their actions have nothing to do with convictions or beliefs...To deface the simply beneath contempt. It is only because of the bravery and courage of our war dead that these idiots can live in a free country at all." The formula is clear: free market values = freedom = Britain.

Cultural War veteran Reclaim the Streets did little to avert this: organiser or disorganiser, by making the seat of government the main theatre of operations, it allowed Labour’s nervous nationalism, disguised as a defense of Western democracy, to eclipse its anti-capitalist cause. In anticipation of May Day, financial institutions had criticised the Metropolitan Police’s handling of J18, which led to 101 arrests and millions of pounds of damage in the Square Mile, and forewarned of further dangers to London’s reputation as a financial centre. By their own admission, the police had been wrongfooted by J18’s ‘starburst’ tactics (see Mute14). Determined not to allow a repeat performance on May Day, they staged their biggest security operation for thirty years.

In the aftermath of J18, large sections of the media managed to build RTS into a quasi-official front organisation. On this occasion it performed that role enthusiastically from the outset. It’s a curious stance for a self-declared Situationist entity. Naturally, the media and hordes of observers ignored the RTS call for a ‘no spectators’ event. As self-styled performance group and front organisation with easy access to the press, it missed a critical opportunity to juxtapose conflicting paradigms of freedom and ‘rights’.

In abiding by free market determinism — even the ‘soft’ type that Labour has — national governments protect the illusion of democracy but waive their power to regulate against the excesses of global capitalism. While they wag their fingers at Haider’s Freedom party’s xenophobia and racism, British ‘social democrats’ make full concessions to, and even use of it on their home turf. While they regulate for easier access for high-skilled tech workers, they rely on thousands of Eastern European labourers to toil on their farms illegally, and draft Draconian Immigration and Asylum Bills. RTS does not believe in speeches, leaders, representative politics. But on May Day its oddly centralised carnival triggered a paradoxical slide — away from a confounding atomised protest under one banner, towards a locatable, better containable core, under none.

Eileen Condon

Proud to be Flesh

Together Forever

When we told Tiziana Terranova about our sustainable publishing diagram (Mute19), she asked whether we’d heard of the the 1975 ‘onNLine System’. Here, she explains why today’s knowledge management systems are yesterday’s news. On the right, a visual parallel she sent us: O’Reilly’s Linux work model.

Douglas Engelbart’s NLS (oNLine System) appeared to have died in 1975, when federal funding into networked, intellectual team work dwindled and XEROX Parc’s computer scientists shifted the paradigm to a ‘one user one computer’ model. NLS was an advanced file-sharing, multimedia system which allowed users to communicate by means of shared, visual displays of information. Conceived as a working tool for intellectual collaborations, Engelbart’s NLS was based on a fundamental, cybernetic intuition: the nature of intelligence does not exclusively depend on or originate from the individual capacities of the human brain. Intelligence is a cybernetic system that Engelbart named the “H-LAM/T system” or “Human using Language, Artefacts and Methodology in which He is Trained.” Engelbart dreamed of a total system “of a human plus his augmentation devices and techniques... This field constitutes a very important system in our society: like most systems, its performance can be best improved by considering the whole as a set of interacting elements rather than a number of isolated elements.”<1>

Engelbart understood from very early on that the process of thinking could no longer be modelled on that of the isolated genius and that computers could be much more than simple number-crunchers or static memory banks. The increasing amount of information available and the increasingly complex nature of the problems faced by intellectual work demanded an internal reconfiguration of the H-LAM/T system. For Engelbart, any intervention at any level of the system would automatically engender, through a system of feedback loops, a resonance which would propagate and challenge the whole structure. Even the simple introduction of a low-level capability like text-editing and word-processing was bound to alter the overall structure of thinking, freeing up a surplus of labour which could be qualitatively reinvested in the process.

NLS was eventually funded by the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) which implicitly tied up research into augmentation with existing research on time sharing (Engelbart Augmentation Research Centre was one of the first original nodes of ARPANET, another key project funded by the IPTO). In 1964, the IPTO provided Engelbart with a million dollars a year to run a time-sharing system and half a million dollars a year for his augmentation research. With time-sharing, and following Engelbart’s encounter with Peter Drucker’s work, the emphasis shifted to intellectual team work, which the ARC team identified with the future of knowledge work. The ARC was an infinitely hot and dense ‘dot’ comprising all the components that would later disperse into the far, but connected galaxies of the digital economy: an ‘engine room’, where the new time-sharing computers were located; a hardware workshop, where the constantly upgraded computer system and experimental input-output devices were built and maintained; and, as Howard Rheingold states in his book Tools for Thought, a model “intellectual workshop that consisted of an amphitheater-like space in which a dozen people sat in front of large display terminals, creating the system’s software, communicating with each other, and navigating through dimensions of information...”

An intensive open source workshop, NLS conceived of its users as the ‘designer-subjects’ of the experiment. Using the system meant being involved in its evolution, a machinic enslavement which was also a new mode of subjectification based on higher-than-ever levels of positive, transformative feedback. Pioneers of open source and burn-out syndrome, the ARC team would be tested to the limits by the creative destruction of proliferating positive feedback loops. Tools for Thought describes how, at the end of the project, a psychologist had to be brought in to consult on “those parts of the system that weren’t to be found in the circuitry or software, but in the thoughts and relationships of the people who were building and using the system.”

Tiziana Terranova <tterra AT> lectures in media, culture and film at the University of Essex. She is the author of Network Culture: collective politics and digital media (Pluto Press, forthcoming).

<1> Engelbart, Douglas C. (1963) ‘A Conceptual Framework for the Augmentation of Man’s Intellect.’ in Paul W. Homerton and David C. Weeks eds. Vistas in Information Handling. Volume 1. The Augmentation of Man’s Intellect By Machine. Washington Dc: Spartan Books and London, England: Cleaver Hume Press, p. 5.

©2001 O’Reilly & Associates, Inc. Funnel illustration from ‘O’Reilly Anatomy of a Linux System Poster,’ illustrated by Jeff Reynolds Design. Used with permission of O’Reilly & Associates, Inc.

Proud to be Flesh

Get Rid of the Lot of Them! (Argentinian society stands against politics)

Since 19 December, 2001, the day when the citizen masses overthrew the ‘super-minister of Economy’ Domingo F. Cavallo, and forced the fall of the Radical government of President De la Rúa on the following day, a profound political crisis has engulfed Argentina. Nine months (at the time of writing) down the line, there are still no clear signs of a solution. Here, Horacio Tarcus explores the history and meaning of the crisis, the forces and personalities involved, and its possible outcome Translation by Adolfo Olaechea

The collapse of an economic model

The extraordinary social protests that erupted last December were a reaction to the ‘corralito’ (fencing) regulations. ‘Corralito’ means the restrictions imposed by the government on the withdrawal of bank deposits at the beginning of that month. This measure was the last impotent throw of the dice by a bankrupt economic model. This model, blessed by the IMF, was established by the neo-Liberal economist Domingo Cavallo in 1993, under the neo-Peronist regime of Carlos S. Menem. It remained in place during the two years of the Radical government of Fernando de la Rúa, when Cavallo was also the Minister of Economy.

One of the pillars of this model was the so-called ‘convertibility’ which pegged the Argentinian Peso to the US Dollar and established a parity rate of ‘one peso to one dollar’. Following the traumatic hyper-inflationary experiences of the 1989-1991 period, the monetary stability afforded by convertibility conferred long years of legitimacy to the Menem government and his super-minister Cavallo. For the salaried, retired workers and pensioners, it meant that their incomes (fixed and in pesos) would not continuously erode. For the middle classes it meant a chance of keeping their savings in dollars, buying imported products at artificially low prices, and travelling abroad. For the local bourgeoisie it signalled an opportunity to undertake spectacular business deals.

Some sectors, however, were driven to the wall. For example, local producers such as the textile manufacturers who were unable to compete against imported products while the dollar was artificially undervalued or the traditional farming industries who saw the value of their exports decline for the same reason. However, a new ‘export/finance’ bourgeoisie did grow at breakneck speed, under the wing of the political power. The apparent success of stability, the consumer boom and the emergence of the newly rich pushed issues such as the Menem government’s absurd levels of corruption and the scandalous submission of the judiciary and parliament to the executive into the background. Even though these were the main political themes for the opposition, they only confronted the government from a democratic-institutional and ethical stance and the Menemists were therefore able to respond with the legitimacy of efficiency. That was sufficient for Menem to get re-elected in 1994, following constitutional reform.

Nevertheless, another hidden iceberg was the asset stripping of the state used to pay for the costs of their economic model. The Menem/Cavallo regime began an extraordinary process of privatising the patrimony of the state. Thousands of millions of pesos received from the sale of oil and gas fields, railways, airlines, telephone networks and the metropolitan underground transport systems, etc., silently financed the model, supplying the dollars needed to keep up the ‘one to one’ convertibility. Within the framework of monetary stability and convertibility, Menem’s offer of the state’s industrial and service companies was more than tempting for international investors who did their billing in overvalued Pesos and then returned their profits abroad, having previously exchanged them into dollars. It was a fabulous business indeed. At the end of the day, the model was financed by the creation of chronic indebtedness.

Of course, the model had its winners and its losers, the latter consisting mainly of the lowpaid and the unemployed. However, it did work for the first 5 years with the support of the middle classes. Finally, after several years of recession, the system broke down in December 2001, causing the most serious social cost imaginable. Given that it was inevitable, the escape from convertibility to a clearer system could have been achieved in a negotiated, gradual and less traumatic fashion. Also, convertibility could have lasted many more years. This would have required the government to shift the economy from a deficit into a substantial surplus by collecting outstanding taxes, investing productively and promoting exports.

The collapse of convertibility occured because it became impossible for the State and private sector to obtain any more credit to paper over the ongoing monetary deficit. In permanent expansion, this deficit had three causes: firstly, the public deficit generated by gigantic tax evasion and the state retirement system covered by external loans; secondly, the private deficit generated by the incapacity of local industry to compete in the global market; lastly, the accumulation of interests on contracted loans feeding back into the public deficit. The prohibition on withdrawal of cash from the banks was a side effect of the wave of speculation which started when the masses of depositors realised (several months after the banks who had taught them to be incapable of thinking beyond the parameters of convertibility) that the rate of exchange was unsustainable and that dollar funds were at risk. Efforts to avoid the collapse of the banks led the government to embargo the savings of hundreds of thousands of depositors and caused the collapse of both internal savings and external credit. The collapse of economic activity resulted in a spiral of bankruptcies, wholesale lay-offs among the work force, as well as a new drop in salary levels.

Given all this, the collapse of convertibility is a by-product of a type of profit generation and a form of relationship between the state and the private sector based upon the most parasitic and primal tendencies of capitalism. Companies harvested monopolist rents from the internal market, totally unsupervised by any form of user or consumer organisation. These companies subsequently exchanged these profits into dollars sold to them by the state at bargain basement rates. This was an ultra-inefficient role for the state, incapable of planning or using resources within socially valuable criteria and subjected to the individual demands of companies and economic blocs. (Aronskind, Ricardo, 2002).

Crisis of the State

In parallel with the economic crisis, an unprecedented crisis of the state has developed. Without a doubt, this is also the result of 25 years of persistent neo-liberal policies aimed at reducing the state’s capacity to regulate so as to ‘liberate’ the market forces. Left to its own dynamics, the ‘invisible hand’ of the market led to something slightly different from the ‘productive revolution’ promised by Menem in 1989: it led to a truly unproductive revolution. If any doubt remained, today it is clear that there is no place in capitalist globalisation for Argentina. In the space of a few years, one of Latin America’s most prosperous countries had gone from role model to basket case.

The fragility of the State is such that it hardly seems to exist at all. It lacks all substantive attributes and does not perform any of its essential functions. For instance to guarantee compliance with the law? The government of De la Rúa fell when the population challenged the state of siege. To maintain public security and to issue and support its currency? Not only the public, but also certain state institutions keep their reserves in dollars abroad. To collect taxes? The Argentinian tax system is completely regressive. The Argentinian bourgeoisie does not pay and has never paid their taxes. To safeguard property? Consider the way the property of the bank depositors has been dealt with. To defend the unity of the country? The former Governor of San Luis Province, who was president of the country for a few brief days after the fall of De la Rúa last December, recently began to speak about ‘secession’...

A rebellion of the middle classes?

Having said all this, I would suggest that the system of classical analysis which holds that ‘an economic crisis gives rise to a sequel of political crisis’ does not address all the nuances of the current scene in Argentina. Moreover, the equation: Economic model in crisis + seizure of depositors’ savings = sudden mobilisation of the ‘middle class’, not only devalues analysis but in fact distorts it.

During the events of 19 – 20 December, a new social protest movement was born in Argentina. The direct trigger was the run on the banks of 30 November and the economic measures that followed the fencing of bank accounts and fixed-term deposits. This led many observers to point out that it was the middle class that propelled the social protest of December and hence it was dubbed a ‘French revolution’ in the mass media and other quarters.

There is no question that the fencing of bank accounts directly affected and maddened the small and medium sized depositors, and that the lack of ready funds did the same to shopkeepers and other traders. However, it also affected, directly or indirectly, all workers as well as the retired and other state or private pension recipients. A special characteristic of the social protest was that very diverse types were swept along with it: unemployed workers and youth who had never been employed, ordinary workers and retired workers, small depositors, shopkeepers and other traders.

Did the working class stay away? Obviously it was absent in its classical trade union marching columns. Nevertheless, one should rather say that it was the trade unions that were not present in December. This was particularly true of the two factions into which the Peronist CGT (Confederación General del Trabajo) is divided: the hard-liners and those in favour of the government. The more militant CTA (Central de Trabajadores de la Argentina) was slow to come on board.

For example, the massive demonstrations in the Plaza de Mayo or in the Plaza del Congreso (Parliament Square) lacked the characteristics of traditional mass actions accompanying general strikes, with each worker marching under the banner of his own union, political party or union tendency. There is no doubt that the workers took part in these events, but they did not come out into the streets and squares in organised columns. They came alone or at most in small groups and were then amassed by way of some sort of molecular dynamics.

The spontaneous character of the mobilisation, the deliberative role adopted by the groups that swarmed the street corners and squares in the various neighbourhoods were – in that sense – reminiscent of the mass mobilisations of Holy Week 1987. However, those were mass actions either to support or to put pressure on – according to the different tendencies – the democratic government in the face of a military rebellion. Today, after 15 years, the scene is different. In a country in ruins, a popular uprising has overthrown a government impotent in the face of national and global economic power. Cavallo was the symbol of that economic power, De la Rúa, the embodiment of an impotent government.

Social dynamics of a political crisis

Within the span of a few hours, the masses that on 19 December began by demanding the resignation of Cavallo, the minister, were demanding the resignation of De la Rúa, the president. And along with the ghostly round of presidential musical chairs that occurred between the end of December and the first days of January, the cry: ‘Get rid of the lot of them’ increasingly became the slogan of the different sections involved in the social protest.

According to a Buenos Aires newspaper, the government believes that by somehow relaxing the bank deposit fencing regulations and by granting a measure of ‘social welfare’, the protest will start to die down. (‘Talks between Duhaldeism and the UCR seek to avoid attacks on politicians’, Clarín, 3 December 2002). This suggests that the so-called political class believe that, even if a revival of social enthusiasm for politicians cannot be effected, at least society can return to its passive, sceptical state.

The problem is that while the present political crisis blew up days after the introduction of the bank fencing regulations, it results from a social process with much deeper roots. For example, the elections of 14 October, 2001, with their towering levels of absenteeism and invalid or spoiled ballot papers, had already given electoral expression to a very serious political crisis blowing across the whole of Argentina. These (non)voters were once believers. Aware, now, that they had been defrauded, they had lost faith in politics. Up until the events of Argentina’s ‘hot summer’ their protest was almost individualistic, an impotent expressions of political discontent.

Taken together with the secession of a younger generation raised in a world where politics was devalued, these elections could have given discontent a collective and political meaning, but the political class and the mass media had, for many years, ignored and glossed over these phenomena. However, on 14 October, its impact could no longer be disguised. Barely two months later, and ever since, the so-called protest vote has ceased to be something passive and has turned into mass action. It has gone beyond the electoral booth and into the streets.

The aspirations of different sectors within this movement converge and, in the process of unifying this diversity, those aspirations are partially modified and adopt new meanings. Horizontally, the crisis is cutting across diverse social and political strata. Men and women, old and young, employed and unemployed, pensioners and people in active service, wage earners and bank depositors, union members and non-union workers – all are converging into a movement in which the only common denominator appears to be the desire to ‘Get rid of the lot of them!’

What is the meaning of this? The demand has spread like wild fire and is chanted in all public demonstrations. There is no doubt that it is less naïve and more complex than it appears at first sight. It expresses the libertarian protest of society against the State and all its institutions, from Parliament to the police as well as the entire official mass media. It is the protest of the little people, the common men and women, against a political class they now perceive as a parasite preying on society.

Maybe this is the best symbol of the Argentinian political crisis. Antonio Gramsci defined a political crisis in terms that may be useful today: ‘At a certain moment in their historical development, social groupings divorce themselves from their traditional parties. This means that traditional parties, given the organisational form they embody, with those specific persons who constitute, represent and lead them, are no longer recognised as the appropriate expression of their class or of a section of a class’. For the Italian thinker in ‘these situations of contrast between the represented and their representatives’, the political crisis ‘is transmitted to the entire organism of the state’. Gramsci held that such situations could arise ‘when the leading class had failed in some political enterprise for which it had demanded or compelled by force the consent of the wide masses.’ He pointed out that these situations could also arise ‘alternatively, because a broad mass of people... went suddenly from political passivity into a certain activity and proceeded to make demands that in their chaotic whole amounted to a revolution’ (Gramsci, 1962: 76-77).

Gramsci’s ideas seem to offer useful angles from which to consider the crisis in Argentina, where the emptying out of political content from the parties was extended to the entire organism of the state. From 1984 to the present, the ruling class of Argentina has repeatedly failed to create its hegemony – a social order that the masses would at least accept. The masses, in turn, moving beyond the protest vote, have extracted themselves from political passivity and gone on to win the streets and the public spaces.

However, we are far away from what Gramsci understood by the term ‘revolution’. We are a little bit closer than we were on 18 December 2001, but a protracted process of collective building lies ahead of us. If, as Rosa Luxembourg believed, the crisis is the expression of the fact that the old is dying but not yet dead and the new is being born but not yet out of the womb, we have crisis ahead for a long time to come.

Today the state is waiting for a certain erosion to occur from so much social mobilisation so that it can try punish all those who violate article 22 of the National Constitution which states that: ‘The people do not rule or deliberate except by means of their representative’. This is precisely how Senator Raúl Alfonsín (a Radical Party leader, former president of Argentina between 1983 and 1989) put it in his speech of 21 February last year in the Senate. It is a fact that Peronists and Radicals are holding consultations seeking a legal framework to curtail mobilisations and ‘escarches’ (impromptu mass protest meetings) so as to return the masses to their jobs and homes. They aim, by means of a de-politicising of society, to put politics back in the hands of the State. However, President Eduardo Duhalde warned them that ‘If this ever gets interpreted as a self-serving corporate law, or as a barrier to the democratic freedom to demonstrate, we will be throwing petrol on the flames’ (Clarín, 3/3/2001).

In other words, it will be impossible today to repress all of society by declaring it in rebellion just because people are holding public discussions and wish for self-government while patently repudiating their so-called representatives (“Get rid of the lot of them!”).

Nevertheless, a latent threat against the ‘movimientos piqueteros’ (the picket movement) and the neighbourhood assemblies exists. On 26 June this year, ferocious police repression of a picket in Avellaneda on the outskirts of Buenos Aires City, two unemployed youth, Darío Santillán and Maximiliano Kosteki, were gunned down.

Picket movements and neighbourhood assemblies

The ‘villas miseria’ present a postcard image from the Menem decade. These are the cardboard shacks of the homeless, hardly noticeable when one is driving fast along the highways. However, this changes when the unemployed climb onto the tarmac and form a ‘picket’, burn tyres and block traffic while bellowing out their battle cry of ‘Piqueteros, carajo!’ (The Pickets are here, damn it!)

While it is true that pickets interrupting traffic is something that goes back a long way in the history of Argentina’s workers’ strikes, the characteristic feature of the new pickets is that they are made up of the unemployed. The movement was born in 1996 in Neuquén province, when Menem was still president. There the sacked workers of YPF, the state oil company, erected a blockade on a key highway. Five years on, the movement has spread like wild fire all over the country at the tempo of the crisis. It was born of dire necessity, a desperate measure to force the government directly, bypassing the patronising structures of Church or political parties, to give the strikers access to ‘Planes Trabajar’ (the State’s monthly unemployment allowance of 150 pesos – around 40 dollars today). Once the ‘planes’ were granted, the picket was lifted. From then on ‘misery became socialised’. The picket movement is not limited to blockading highways; a remarkable solidarity network has grown up alongside it. It is a network that runs communal kitchens, allotments, school supplies, health centres, libraries, etc. Each ‘picket-man’ collecting his $150 pesos must survive the entire month on that money, less the $3 he pays to the movement. That money goes into a common fund for the organisation’s expenses. Moreover, they are obliged to help at the Picket Action Centres for 4 hours a day from Monday to Friday. The pickets run a horizontal organisation, but, nevertheless, some leading figures do arise. The leaders are members or former members of the leftist movements but the rank and file has no political formation of any kind. They come to the pickets driven by unemployment and hunger. The most militant and hard line sections are the least inclined to negotiations and the most anti-politics in outlook.

There are three tendencies in the Picket Movement: The first one is affiliated to the CTA, the Central de Trabajadores Argentinos (Argentinian Workers Union) and one of its leaders, Luis D’Elía, comes from the militant wing of Peronism and currently leads the ‘Federación Tierra y Vivienda’ (Land and Housing Federation). Its other leader, Juan Carlos Alderete, is close to the CCC (Corriente Clasista y Combativa) which is linked to the Maoist party (PCR). A second tendency, the ‘Bloque Piquetero’, is an umbrella for the picket groups linked to the leftwing political parties, such as the ‘Polo Obrero’ run by the Workers Party (Trotskyist) and the ‘Movimiento Territorial de Liberación’ (run by the CP). However, the most important current in this bloc, the ‘Movimiento Teresa Rodríguez’, led by Roberto Martino, is independent. The third tendency, and perhaps the one most independent and remote from the world of political parties, is the ‘Coordinadora Aníbal Verón’. The two picket youths assassinated by the police on June 26 belonged to this organisation.

While this movement was born prior to the mobilisation of December 2001 and its aftermath, it is from that date on that it began to garner more popular support and to grow spectacularly. At that time two new movements were also born. Firstly, the movement of the bank depositors demanding the return of their funds, and, secondly, the movement of neighbourhood assemblies. The former, while basically limited to the middle classes, has not lowered its banners during nine months of mobilisations. But the latter, without any doubt, is the most novel because of its organisational form and its collective discussions on street corners and in public squares. In this movement citizens of all ages, walks of life, professions and social extractions, hitherto uninterested in public affairs and hardly ever bothering to vote, are now debating what is to be done. What concretely is to be done about the serious crisis in the neighbourhood hospital or school? They also discuss how to tackle the problems of security - without giving more power to the police. Each assembly in turn sends its delegates to an assembly of assemblies, the ‘Interbarrial’ (Inter-Neighbourhood Assembly).

Strong tensions between the independents — non-party members, who generally have no previous political experience and who are much more ‘horizontal’, more libertarian and more averse to political/institutional ways— and the old left wing movements seeking to seduce those social strata, also exist, just as they do within the picket movement. A program of ideas and action for a left that is open to criticism, for a left that is in tune with the era should, among other things, try to help strengthen pickets and neighbourhood assemblies. It should try to ensure their democratic operation and to enrich their political culture. The left wing currents that take part in these movements would benefit from this too, because this type of participation would rebound upon them, raising their own political culture and their internal democracy. There are left wing groups who dream of the neighbourhood assemblies playing the role of ‘soviets in embryo’. Many attempt to sneak in their slogans or boast about how much they exert control over these assemblies. Maybe there are sections of this militant left who are overlooking the libertarian mettle the social protest is demonstrating. The political crisis is affecting the left wing organisations too in good measure, along with their leaders, their apparatuses and their instrumental approach to politics.

It is not simply his own weakness in directing the transitional period that has dictated the President’s call for early elections in March 2003. Eduardo Duhalde, who was invested by Congress as President, is precariously supported by a makeshift federation of Peronist governors who, in turn, are involved in serious wrangling amongst themselves. The decision to bring forward the elections was also dictated by a need to defuse the mobilisations and social protests.

The electoral calendar and the tempo of the social movement are not in tune. The left vacillates between taking part in a process – where it sees the prospect of increasing its vote – and marching alongside the most militant sections of the social movement, those who are rejecting the government’s call for elections.

So what is to be done? ‘Get rid of the lot of them!’ — say some. Others respond: and then, what happens? Take part in official politics? Reject all politics? Create a different type of politics? These are the issues being debated today by the social movements and the left wing groups in Argentina. At the same time, there is talk of rejecting politics and politicising society. The State is rejected, but at the same time there are demands for education, health, security, social policies. There is rejection of paternalism and of the substitution of the self-led actions of the masses by a political leadership, all within a vacuum of political leadership in general. Argentinian society has transformed itself into a great Assembly. There is a willingness to talk and also to listen, learn and build. There is no better moment than the present for the birth of a new collective will. A New Left.

Horacio Tarcus <htarcus AT> is a historian. He is a lecturer and researcher at Buenos Aires University and the Universidad Nacional de La Plata. Author of The Marxism that Argentina Forgot (1996) and Mariátegui in Argentina (2002), co-editor of El Rodaballo, a cultural and political magazine. He is also director of CeDInCI (Centro de Documentación e Investigación de la Cultura de Izquierdas en la Argentina) (Center for Documentation and Research of left wing Culture in Argentina)

Proud to be Flesh

The Packet Gang

Jamie King on the impasse of political organisation in the age of 'openness'


Openness – as an organising principle and political ideology – has become an article of faith across networked social movements. From its role as a central tenet of free and open source software production to its current popularity within activist circles, the concept of openness is attracting enthusiastic adherence. Here, as part of our series on the politics of alternative media structures, JJ King takes a less credulous view of what lies beneath the dream of organisational horizontality


Since the founding of the Free Software Foundation in 1985 by Richard Stallman and the Open Source Initiative in 1998 by Eric Raymond, the idea of openness has enjoyed some considerable celebrity. Simply understood, open source software is that which is published along with its source code, allowing developers to collaborate, improve upon each other’s work, and use the code in their own projects. The cachet of this open model of development has been greatly increased by the high-profile success of GNU-Linux, a piece of ‘free-as-in-libre and open source software’ (FLOSS). But, taken together with the distributed co-composition offered by, for example, the wiki architecture,[1] and the potential of peer-to-peer networks like Bittorrent and Gnutella,[2] a more nuanced and loose idea of openness has suggested itself as a possible model for other kinds of organisation. Felix Stalder of Openflows identifies its key elements as:

[…] communal management and open access to the informational resources for production, openness to contributions from a diverse range of users/producers, flat hierarchies, and a fluid organisational structure.[3]

This idea of openness is now frequently deployed not only with reference to composing software communities but also to political and cultural groupings. For many, this is easily explained: FLOSS’ ‘self-evident’ realisation of a ‘voluntary global community empowered and explicitly authorised to reverse-engineer, learn from, improve and use-validate its own tools and products’, indicates that ‘it has to be taken seriously as a potential source of organising for other realms of human endeavour.’[4] In these circles, openness is now seen as ‘paradigmatic’. Computer book publisher and guru Tim O’Reilly’s presentation at the Reboot conference in 2003, entitled ‘The Open Source Paradigm Shift’, placed FLOSS at the vanguard of a social phenomenon whose time, he said ‘had come’; its methods of ad hoc, distributed collaboration constituting a ‘new paradigm’ at a level consistent with, for example, the advent of the printing press and movable type.[5]

Such accounts of the social-political pertinence of the FLOSS model are increasingly common. A recent essay by activist Florian Schneider and writer Geert Lovink, for example, exhibits the premature desire to collapse FLOSS-style open organisation into a series of other political phenomena:

freedom of movement and freedom of communication [...] the everyday struggles of millions of people crossing borders as well as pirating brands, producing generics, writing open source code or using p2p-software.[6]

More soberly, Douglas Rushkoff has argued recently in a report for the Demos think-tank that ‘the emergence of the interactive mediaspace may offer a new model for cooperation’:

The values engendered by our fledgling networked culture may [...] prove quite applicable to the broader challenges of our time and help a world struggling with the impact of globalism, the lure of fundamentalism and the clash of conflicting value systems [...] One model for the open-ended and participatory process through which legislation might occur in a networked democracy can be found in the open source software movement.[7]

meeting places 2

Rushkoff does not try to draw direct parallels between FLOSS and other forms of activity in the manner of Schneider and Lovink, but argues equally problematically that the model used in open source software composing communities could be usefully applied to democratic political organisation. A growing willingness to engage with the underlying code of the democratic process,’ he contends, ‘could eventually manifest in a widespread call for revisions to our legal, economic and political structures.’[8] Clearly, then, the idea of openness has appeal across rather different constituencies – here we already have both the reformist-liberal and the radicals activists claiming openness as their ally. Indeed, as ICT theorist Biella Coleman suggests, the widespread adoption and use of the idea of openness and its ‘profound political impact’ may precisely be contingent on its peculiarly transpolitical appeal. ‘FLOSS,’ she writes, resists

political delineation into the traditional political categories of left, right or centre [...but] has been embraced by a wide range of people [...] This has enabled FLOSS to explode from a niche and academic endeavour into a creative sphere of socio-political and technical influence bolstered by the internet.[9]

But the broad-church appeal of the idea of openness suggested by FLOSS need not necessarily be a cause for celebration, especially since many of the constituencies making use of it conceive of themselves as fundamentally opposed. Can the idea of openness these divergent constituencies embrace really be the same? And how can it be that they consider it sufficient to their very different aims?

The chief purpose of this article is not to answer these questions by examining the ‘self-evident’ truths of open source production. Such studies are already being carried out in forums like Oekunux []; indeed, in this issue of Mute, Gilberto Camara, Director for Earth Observation at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, publishes research that challenges some key tenets of the FLOSS model. His research exposes the possibility that, in many cases, FLOSS does not innovate significantly original software, or sustain projects outside of corporate or large scale academic involvement. Instead this article seeks to address the intense political expectation around open organisation among diverse elements of the diffuse activist organisations which, post-Seattle, have been loosely referred to as ‘the social movement’ or ‘social movements’. In referring to the social movement, this article concerns itself primarily with groups such as People’s Global Action, Indymedia, Euraction Hub and other such non-hierarchised collectives; it does not have in mind more traditionally structured organisations like the Social Forums, Globalise Resistance or so-called ‘civil society’ NGOs.

In the social movement thus defined, openness is clearly becoming a constitutive organising principle, as it connects with the hopes and desires circulating around the idea of the ‘multitude’, a term whose post-Spinozan renaissance has been secured by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s book Empire. The multitude is a defiantly heterogeneous figure, a collective noun intended to counter the homogenising violence of terms such as ‘the people’ or ‘the mass’. For many thinkers in the post-Autonomist tradition, this multitude is a way of conceiving the revolutionary potential of a new ‘post-Fordist proletariat’ of networked immaterial labourers. In certain circuits within the social movement, pace Schneider and Lovink, FLOSS organisation is seen as the techno-social precondition of a radical democracy in becoming. However tenuous this assemblage may be, it goes some way to explaining the way in which FLOSS and openness have become quite central rhetorical terms in the struggle to produce an identity for the networked, anti-capitalist movement. But it is also true that certain characteristics of the idea of openness have genuine organisational influence within the movement. A study of openness in this context is useful in three degrees: first, to the social movement itself ‘internally’; second, to ‘outsiders’ wanting to gain a good understanding of ‘what it is’; third as a critique of those who would seek to represent the movement with, or attempt to manipulate it through, a particular deployment of the idea of openness.


It is too easy to make sweeping generalisations about the ways in which the social movement realises the idea of openness. Instead we need to look at the ways in which the kind of openness identified in FLOSS may practically correspond to specific moments of organisation in the social movement. Based on my direct involvement in the social movement in contexts such as the anti-G8, No Border Camps, PGA meetings and various actions, I think it is possible to see correspondences in five key areas:

Meetings and Discussions

The time and location of physical meetings are published in a variety of places, online and off. The meetings themselves are most often open to all comers, sometimes with the exception of ‘traditional’ media. Although often no recordings or pictures are allowed at meetings, there is rarely any other vetting of those who attend. Anyone is allowed to speak, although there is often a convenor or moderator whose role is to keep order and ensure progress. Summaries of discussion are often posted on the web (see 3., Documentation) where they can be read by those unable to attend a physical meeting or those otherwise interested parties.

The same is true of IRC meetings, which anyone may attend, and for which the ‘logs’ are usually published (see, again, Documentation).

Net-based mailing lists, through which much discussion is carried out, are usually open subscription and, as with physical meetings, those joining are not vetted.


Most often, anyone present at a meeting may take part in the decisions made there, although these conditions may occasionally be altered. Currently, the majority of decision making is done using the ‘consensus’ method, in which any person present not agreeing with a decision can either choose to abstain or veto (‘block’). A block causes an action or decision to be stopped.


In general, documents that form organisational materials within the movement are published online, usually using a content management system such as wiki. In most cases, it is possible for even casual visitors to edit and alter these documents, although it is possible to ‘roll back’ to earlier versions in, for example, the case of defacements.


The majority of demonstrations are organised using the above methods. Not only is their organisation ‘open’ but, within a certain range of political persuasions, anyone may attend. Self-policing is not ‘hard’ but ‘soft’.


Even some ‘actions’ – concentrated interventions usually involving smaller numbers – are ‘open’, using the above methods to organise themselves and, if the action is ongoing, even allowing new people to participate.

Thus some key moments within the social movement share certain characteristics with the FLOSS model of openness. Indeed, the movement deploys many of the same tools as FLOSS communities (i.e., wiki, IRC and mailing lists) to organise itself and carry out its projects. But its characteristic uses of openness are not enshrined in any formal document. Rather, they have developed as a way of organising that is tacitly understood by those involved in the social movement: an idea of openness that, to differing degrees, inflects its organisation throughout. Although the principles are not rigidly followed, there is often peer criticism of groups who do not declare their agendas or who act in a closed, partisan fashion, and, generally speaking, any group or project wanting to keep itself closed has an obligation to explain its rationale to other groups.

Some of these attitudes and principles derive from the People’s Global Action (PGA), an influential ‘instrument’ constituting a visible attempt to organise around networked openness. The organisational philosophy of PGA,[10] which was formed after a movement gathering in South America in August 1997, is based on ‘decentralisation’. With ‘minimal central structures’, the PGA ‘has no membership’ or ‘juridical personality’: ‘no organisation or person represents’ it, nor does it ‘represent any organisation or person’. It is a ‘tool’,

a fluid network for communication and co-ordination between diverse social movements who share a loose set of principles or ‘hallmarks’ [...] Since February 1998 [...] PGA has evolved as an interconnected and often chaotic web of very diverse groups, with a powerful common thread of struggle and solidarity at the grassroots level. These gatherings have played a vital role in face-to-face communication and exchange of experience, strategies and ideas [...] .[11]

The PGA has attempted to structure itself around a set of ‘hallmarks’ which have been updated at each key meeting. These are currently as follows:

1. A very clear rejection of capitalism, imperialism and feudalism; all trade agreements, institutions and governments that promote destructive globalisation.

2. [... A rejection of] all forms and systems of domination and discrimination including, but not limited to, patriarchy, racism and religious fundamentalism of all creeds. [...An embracing of] the full dignity of all human beings.

3. A confrontational attitude, since we do not think that lobbying can have a major impact in such biased and undemocratic organisations, in which transnational capital is the only real policy-maker.

4. A call to direct action and civil disobedience, support for social movements’ struggles, advocating forms of resistance which maximise respect for life and oppressed peoples’ rights, as well as the construction of local alternatives to global capitalism.

5. An organisational philosophy based on decentralisation and autonomy.[12]

These hallmarks function to structure participation in the PGA process. In theory, they allow the network to remain ‘open’ while designating the kinds of activities that don’t fall within its field. PGA meetings, for example, do not exclude those who don’t subscribe to ITS hallmarks, but neither would discussions explicitly contrary to them be given much attention. Certain kinds of discussion are openly privileged over others on pragmatic grounds.

Structures like PGA and those being experimented with more widely are part of the social movement’s general rejection of organisational models based on representation, verticality and hierarchy. In their stead comes ‘non-hierarchical decentralisation’ and ‘horizontal coordination’. ‘From this movement,’ writes Massimo De Angelis, ‘emerges [...] the concept and practice of network horizontality, democracy, of the exercise of power from below.’[13] For this ‘radical political economist’[,] this form of ‘social-cooperation’ is ‘ours’. It is ‘our’ horizontality and these are ‘our’ networks, part of a set of modes of coordination of human activity that

go beyond the capitalist market and beyond the state. [...] we are talking about another world. [...] the slogan on T-shirts in Genoa was entirely correct: another world is not only possible. Rather, we are already patiently and with effort building another world – with all its contradictions, limitations and ambiguities – through the form of our networks.[14]

In other words it is the open, networked, horizontal form of the movement that produces its radical potential for social change: the message, yet again, is the medium. In the case of the self-described ‘open publishing’ project Indymedia, for example, the open submission structure is said to collapse the distinction between media producer and consumer, allowing us to ‘become the media’. The Indymedia newswire, write the collective

works on the principle of OPEN PUBLISHING, an essential element of the Indymedia project that allows anyone to instantaneously self-publish their work on a globally accessible web site. The Indymedia newswire encourages people to become the media [...] While Indymedia reserves the right to develop sections of the site that provide edited articles, there is no designated Indymedia editorial collective that edits articles posted to the [] news wire.[15]

meeting places 3

Here, the idea of openness presents itself as absolutely inimical to the ‘dominant multinational global news system’, where ‘news is not free, news is not open’. With open publishing

the process of creating news is transparent to the readers. They can contribute a story and see it instantly appear in the pool of stories publicly available. Those stories are filtered as little as possible to help the readers find the stories they want. Readers can see editorial decisions being made by others. They can see how to get involved and help make editorial decisions. If they can think of a better way for the software to help shape editorial decisions, they can copy the software because it is free and change it and start their own site. If they want to redistribute the news, they can, preferably on an open publishing site.

The working parts of journalism are exposed. Open publishing assumes the reader is smart and creative and might want to be a writer and an editor and a distributor and even a software programmer [...] Open publishing is free software. It’s freedom of information, freedom for creativity.[16]

Accounts such as this and De Angelis’ bear out my argument that an extreme amount of expectation is being focused on openness as an agent for change. Not only is openness central to the organisation of the social movement, but in many cases it is taken as read that the organisational quality of openness is inherently radical and will be productive of positive change in whichever part of the social-political field it is deployed. This is seen, for example, in the work of the group Open Organisations, comprised of three individuals – Toni Prug, Richard Malter and Benjamin Geer – who were previously closely involved with UK Indymedia, and who have until relatively recently been united in their belief in the radically liberatory potentials of openness. For them, it is simply an as-yet insufficiently theorised and elaborated form and thus they have been working on what might be characterised as a ‘strong’ or ‘robust’ openness model which recommends a set of working processes or practices intended to foster it. ‘Open Organisations’ are entities that anyone can join, [that function with] complete transparency and flexible and fair decision making structures, ownership patterns, and exchange mechanisms, that are designed, defined, and refined, by members as part of a continual transformative and learning process.[17]


In effect, by creating ‘structured processes’, Open Organisations try to provide for a consistent openness. In doing so, they implicitly recognise that there are inconsistencies between the rhetoric and behaviour of contemporary political organisations. But what are these problems and who, indeed where, are openness’ discontents? In fact they may be found everywhere. In the case of Inydmedia’s ‘open publishing’ project, for example, openness has been failing under the pressures of scale. Initially small ‘cottage-industry’ IMCs were able to manage the open-publishing process very well. But, in many IMCs, when the number of site visitors has risen past a certain level, problems have started to occur. Popular IMC sites have become targets for interventions by political opponents, often from the fascist right, seeking opportunities to disrupt what they regard as an IMC’s ‘countercultural’ potential and a platform from which to spread their own rhetoric. Of course there is nothing to prevent this in the IMC manifesto; but it has impelled the understandable decision to edit out fascist viewpoints and other ‘noise’, using the ad hoc teams whose function was previously to develop and maintain the IMC’s open-publishing system. Some IMCs have ultimately been seen to take on a rather traditional, closed and censorial function that is all too often undeclared and in contradiction with the official IMC ‘become the media’ line. In other words, Indymedia channels are often politically censored by a small group of more-or-less anonymous individuals to quite a high degree.

This emergence of soft control within organisations emphatically declared open is becoming a common and tacitly acknowledged problem across the social movement. As with Indymedia, practical issues with open development and organisation too often give the lie to the enthusiastic promotion of openness as an effective alternative to representation. After one PGA meeting, the group Sans Titre had this to say:

Whenever we have been involved in PGA-inspired action, we have been unable to identify decision-making bodies. Moreover, there has been no collective assessment of the effectiveness of PGA-inspired actions [...] If the PGA-process includes decision-making and assessment bodies, where are they to be found? How can we take part?[18]

This problem runs through the temporary constitutions and dissolutions of ‘open’ organisations that make up the social movement. The avowed ‘absence’ of decision-making bodies and points of centralisation can too easily segue into a concealment of control per se. In fact, in both the FLOSS model and the social movement, the idea that no one group or person controls development and decision making is often quite far from the truth. In both cases it is formally true that anyone may alter or intervene in processes according to their needs, views or projects; but practically speaking, few people can assume the necessary social position from which to make effective ‘interventions’. Open source software is generally tightly controlled by a small group of people: the Apache Group, for example, very open-handedly controls the development of the Apache Web server, and Linus Torvalds has the final say on the Linux kernel’s development.[19] Likewise, in the social movement, decision making often devolves to a surprisingly small number of individuals and groups who make a lot of the running in deciding what happens, where and when. Though they never officially ‘speak for’ others, much unofficial doctrine nonetheless emanates from them. Within political networks, such groups and individuals can be seen as ‘supernodes’, not only routing more than their ‘fair share’ of traffic, but actively determining the ‘content’ that traverses them. Such supernodes do not (necessarily) constitute themselves out of a malicious will-to-power: rather, power defaults to them through personal qualities like energy, commitment and charisma, and the ability to synthesise politically important social moments into identifiable ideas and forms.

This soft control by crypto-hierarchies is tacit knowledge for many who have had first hand experience with ‘open’ organisations. Statements such as the following by a political activist introduced to what he calls ‘the chaos of open community’ at a Washington State forest blockade camp in 1994 and then later the Carters Road Community, are typical:

the core group, by virtue of being around longer as individuals, and also working together longest as a sub group, formed unintentional elites. These elite groups were covert structures in open consensus based communities which said loudly and clearly that everyone’s influence and power was equal [...] We all joined in with a vigorous explanation that [...] there were no leaders [...] The conspiracy to hide this fact among ourselves and from ourselves was remarkably successful. It was as though the situation where no leaders existed was known, deep down by everyone, to be impossible, outsiders were able to say so, but communards were hoping so much that it was not true that they were able to pretend...[20]

To examine how much this ‘pretence’ is the rule within the social movement is beyond the scope of this piece. But what is clear is that each of the five characteristics of ‘openness’ described above, when subjected to scrutiny, reveal themselves as extremely compromised. The details, for example, of meetings and discussions are published and circulated, but this information is primarily received by those who are able (and often privileged to be able) to connect to certain (technological/social) networks. Likewise, the language of a ‘call’ or equivalent can determine whether a party will feel comfortable or suitable to respond to it: like PGA’s ‘hallmarks’, language and phraseology is a point of ‘soft control’, but not one that is openly discussed and studied. Furthermore, meetings may be ‘open to all’, but they can quickly become hostile environments for parties who do not or cannot observe the ‘basic’ consensus that is often tacitly agreed between long-term actors in a particular scene. This peer consensus can indeed, on occasion, so determine the movement’s ‘open’ decision-making process as to turn it into a war of attrition on difference, with divergent points of view gradually giving themselves up to peer opinion as the ‘debate’ wears on and on. The ‘block’ or ‘veto’ is in fact rarely used because of the peer pressure placed on those who would use it (‘Aw, come on, you’re not going to block, are you?’ – a common enough plaint at movement meetings). In some cases the apparently neutral ‘moderator’ role can also become bizarrely instrumentalised, giving rise to the sensation that ‘something has already been decided’, and that the meeting is just for performative purposes.

Likewise, documentation of meetings and decisions usually only tells half the story. Points of serious contention are frequently left out on grounds that the parties involved in the disagreement might not want them to be published. This ‘smoothing over’ of serious difference is quite normal. In fact participants in IRC discussions habitually inflect what they say because of the future publication of the logs, using private channels to discuss key points and only holding ‘official’ discussions and ‘lines’ in the open. Too often the open channel only ‘hears’ what it is supposed to hear and important exchanges are not published.

All of this explains why some activist-theorists are beginning to interrogate the experiment with openness as it is taking shape in the social movement. History has put significant resources at their disposal. Jo Freeman’s ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ is a key document, originating from the experiences of the ‘60s feminist liberation movement, and provides a critique of the laissez faire ideal for group structures still absolutely relevant today. As Freeman argues, such structures can become

a smoke screen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. Thus, structurelessness becomes a way of masking power. As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few, and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules.[21]

Freeman’s insight is fundamental: the idea of openness does not in itself prevent the formation of the informal structures that I have described here as crypto-hierarchies; on the contrary, it is possible that it fosters them to a greater degree than structured organisations. Underneath its rhetoric of openness, the non-hierarchical organisation can thus take on the qualities of a ‘gang’. As Jacques Camatte and Gianna Collu realised in 1969, such organisations tend to hide the existence of their informal ruling cliques to appear more attractive to outsiders, feeding on the creative abilities of individual members whilst suppressing their individual contributions, and producing layers of authority contingent on individuals’ intellectual or social dominance. ‘Even in those groups that want to escape [it]’, writes Camatte, ‘the [...] gang mechanism nevertheless tends to prevail[...] The inability to question theoretical questions independently leads the individual to take refuge behind the authority of another member who becomes, objectively, a leader, or behind the group entity, which becomes a gang.’[22]


What this initial investigation has indicated is that the idea of openness, which is receiving such a promotion on the heels of the Free-Libre and Open Source software movement, is not in and of itself an immediately sufficient alternative to the bankrupt structures of representation. There seem to be good reasons for the discontent with open organisation felt by many activists, much of it based on evidence that must remain, by nature, anecdotal. But what is clear is that, if we are going to promote open organisation within the social movement, we must also take care to scrutinise the tacit flows of power that underlie and undercut it. The accounts here suggest that once the formal hierarchical membrane of group organisation is dismantled – in which, for example, software composition or political decision-making might have previously taken place – what remains are tacit control structures. In FLOSS, limitations to those who can access and alter source code are formally removed. But what then comes to define such access, and the software that is produced, are underlying determinants such as education, social opportunity, social connections and affiliations. The most open system theoretically imaginable, this is to say, reveals perfectly the predicating inequities of the wider environment in which it is situated; what the idea of openness must tackle first and most critically is that a really open organisation cannot be realised without a prior radicalisation of the social-political field in which it operates. And that, of course, is to beg the oldest of questions.

This essay is part of a year-long collaborative investigation into innovative media forms enabling cooperative discourse, which will also involve a series of public events. For updates and texts, see Metamute [] and the General Intelligence Group website []



[1] See: ‘What is Wiki?’ at []

[2] See: [] for a review of current peer to peer and fileshare services

[3] Felix Stalder, ‘One-size-doesn’t-fit-all. Particulars of the Volunteer Open Source Development Methodology’, available at []

[4] Adam Greenfield, ‘The Minimal Compact: Preliminary Notes on an “Open Source” Constitution for Post-National Entities’, []

[5] Tim O’ Reilly, ‘The Open Source Paradigm Shift,’ Keynote, Reboot 2003, available at []

[6] Florian Schneider, ‘Re: <nettime> Reverse Engineering Freedom’, Nettime, Tue, 14 Oct 2003, available at []. See also Florian Schneider and Geert Lovink, ‘Reverse Engineering Freedom,’ in Make Worlds, 2003. Available at []

[7] Douglas Rushkoff, ‘Open Source Democracy: How Online Communication Is Changing Offline Politics’, Demos, 2003 []

[8] Rushkoff, ibid [9] Biella Coleman, ‘Free and Open Source Software’, in Survival Kit, Part one, proceedings of RAM4

[10] See: []

[11] ‘Sophie’, ChiapasLink UK, ‘We are everywhere! People’s Global Action meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia’, posted to A-infos list, 8 Dec 2001. []

[12] PGA hallmarks, available at: []

[13] Massimo De Angelis, ‘From Movement to Society’, in The Commoner, August 2001, []

[14] De Angelis, ibid[15] Indymedia collective statement []

[16] Matthew Arnison, ‘Open Publishing is the Same as Free Software’, March 2001, available at []

[17] Statement taken from: []

[18] Sans Titre, ‘Open Letter to the People’s Global Action’, 05-09-02.[]

[19] See, for example, Paula Roone, ‘Is Linus Killing Linux?’, in TechWeb, January 28, 2001, []

[20] Chris Lee, ‘An Article Concerning the Issue of Covert Power Elites in Open Communities’, 4/12/2001, []

[21] Jo Freeman, ‘The Tyranny of Struturelessness’, first printed by the Women’s Liberation Movement, USA, 1970 []

[22] Jacques Camatte, ‘On Organisation’, in Invariance, Annee V, Serie II, No.2, reprinted in This World We Must Leave and Other Essays, Autonomedia: New York, 1995, p.30

JJ King <> is information politics editor of Mute and founder member of GIG []

Picture Information:The pioneering research of Paul Baran in the 1960s, who envisioned a communications network that would survive a major enemy attack.

The sketch shows three different network topologies described in his RAND Memorandum, ‘On Distributed Communications: 1. Introduction to Distributed Communications Network’ (August 1964). The distributed network structure offered the best survivability. (From

A:Abbasian Mansion, Kashan, IranView of the central courtyard 12059/big/IIR0339.jpg

B:Christ Church Old North, 1723 – 1724

C:A.B.U. Theatre Workshop, Zaria, NigeriaMain entrance to ABU Theatre Workshop 26074/big/IAA8169.JPG

D:Mosque Mali jamesmorris/DJENNECH1.jpg E:Chapel, Portsmouth Priory SchoolPortsmouth, RI Pietro Belluschi, 1961 F:Shaker VillagePittsfield, MA Anonymous, 1790 – 1864

G:Jonathan Corwin House (witch house) Salem, MA Anonymous, c. 1642

H:Meeting HouseSandown, NHAnonymous, 1773 – 1774 I:Friends Meeting HouseDover, NHAnonymous, c. 1768 J:Conference Hall, Bamako, MaliInterior, Conference hall 22453/big/IAA4547.JPG

K:Community Center and Cyclone Shelter, Cox’s Bazar, BangladeshFront faÁade of the shelter at Moheshkhali big/IAA3005.JPG

L:Meeting HouseDanville, NHAnonymous, c. 1760

M:Anup Tala-u Pavilion, Fatehpur Sikri, IndiaExterior close-up view toward north showing coloumns N:Kahere Poultry Farming School, Koliagbe, Guinea

O:Boston City HallBoston, MA Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles with Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty, 1961 – 1968 P:Baghdad Conference Palace, Baghdad, IraqInterior, conference hall big/IAA7152.JPG

Q:Ouagadougou, Burkina FasoPublic area in front of a government building

R:Jefferd’s Tavern and Historic DistrictYork, ME Anonymous, c. 1750

Disobbedienti, Ciao

Hydrarchist analyses the death of the Italian extra-parliamentary political network, Disobbedienti (Disobedients), and reports on the rise of social precarity as a focus of political action in Italy

No formal announcement certified the end of the Disobedients (Disobbedienti) in Italy but the once dominant extraparliamentary network’s demise seems scarcely in dispute. What originated as the ‘White Overalls’ (WO) alliance between groups in the Veneto, Rome and Milan in 1998, encompassing satellite groups in other cities, is now in full decomposition as its constitutent elements abandon the logo and reassume identities related to their everyday territorial reality. The consequences are manifested both in a reshuffling of the relationships between the movements and the political parties, and a plurality of campaigns as the focus of struggle. But first some background and explanation.

The Disobbedienti at the Florence Social Forum, 2002

The widespread riots and fierce police repression that accompanied the G8 in Genoa dealt a mortal blow to the model of controlled conflict and hybridisation with other political forces that had constituted the WO project since 1998. A language of heightened confrontation was adopted prior to the G8, but the scale of state reprisals found them unprepared. Afterwards there was a failure to assess what had really happened, as each group attempted to distance itself from responsibility. But repression can also produce unity and trans-regional ties were galvanised between some of the fractious inheritors of Autonomia Operaia (where a strong Rome – Padua axis can be traced to the late ’60s), the youth section of Rifondazione Communista (RC – an offshoot of the old Communist Party and still a major force on the reformist left) and the Greens around a platform of ‘social disobedience’. Thus occurred an apparently seamless transition from White Overalls to Disobedients, presented as a laboratory for experimentation with new political forms rather than a proposition for any type of unitary organisation. Nonetheless the new network suffered numerous defections due to exhaustion, unhappiness with the way in which Genoa had been managed, and from a sense that the open and experimental spirit which fuelled the WO had now disappeared. From this point onwards the Disobedients would be perceived as a force threatening to hegemonise and erode the autonomy of other groups. Their national nature, media-presence and involvement with political parties made them easy to cast as imperialist and overbearing.

Apart from a shared hostility to the suffocating and disciplinary pressures of the Communist Party there have always been radical differences in the autonomist left as to the attitude to assume towards elections. From 1976 some ‘extraparliamentary’ groups ran candidates on the list of Democrazia Proletaria (absorbed by RC in 1992). Participation was justified as a means to construct counter-power and extend the dynamic of conflictuality to these institutions. Others assumed an abstentionist position, rejected mediation and advocated social autonomy – the daily unfolding of material conflict in perpetual antagonism to politics, understood as an institutionalised management of social conflict.

Relations with the parties vary according to local factors, which in Italy can never be underestimated. In the Veneto (Padua, Venice) acute hostility towards the Communist Party tradition combined with the evisceration of concentrations of labour in the factories – the Veneto’s restructured economic form based on small-scale networked production has made it a textbook example of post-fordism – and the importance of environmentalism have made the Greens the post-autonomists’ political vehicle of choice. Being a ‘salon’ party with neither tradition or a consolidated grassroots, the Greens are less resistant to new ideas, more malleable to internal reconfiguration. The relationship has allowed the translation of the autonomists’ strong territorial presence into an increased political visibility and thus provided a greater margin for action. There are concrete benefits as well: the stability of occupied spaces; the ability to create structures with which its militants can survive materially; and legitimation through a role in local government.

Meanwhile in Rome the chaotic urgency of the metropolis produces self-organised reappropriation for the resolution of basic needs, especially housing. RC remains an important force in the city and contains significant pro-movement elements. Here the Disobedients have reformed around ACTION (Agency for Social Rights), driven by activists from the social centre Corto Circuito, which has won accomodation for more than a thousand people through occupations and earned considerable respect. Since 1997 they have also elected city and district councillors as independents on the list of RC, a relationship which extends their capacity to negotiate over housing and provides protection from otherwise certain police prosecution. In both Rome and the Veneto work with migrants for housing and papers has been central in recent years – and this extends to libertarians and activists of all stripes – and has been an area where intervention at an institutional level is both useful and inevitable.


Tensions over the relationship with the political parties came to a head in the Disobedients during the European elections in June. Whilst the Veneto section supported the candidacy of the Greens’ Bettin, the Romans ran a popular candidate on the list of RC, Nunzio D’Erme, famous for having dumped several bags of manure in front of Berlusconi’s Roman residence. Polling better than expected, he was their fifth highest vote-winner nationally. RC’s share of the vote gave them five seats to distribute but D’Erme was passed over in favour of Niki Vendola, from the South where the RC are currently enjoying considerable growth. Given that a candidate from the North-East was given a seat with a far smaller number of votes, this was understandably viewed as betrayal, and evidence of a cynicism towards the movements to which it had professed an openness since the mid-’90s. This crisis polarised existing divisions within the Disobedients and political bloodletting on a local level lead to a reversion to local identities and a retreat from hybridisation. RC are now openly in cahoots with the government-in-waiting of Romano Prodi, whose Grand Democratic Alliance will challenge and probably defeat Berlusconi at the next election. Consequently the radical left needs to reposition itself with respect to the future power structure, both to get what they need and retain a clear oppositional profile.

Nonetheless some type of relationship with the political system remains unavoidable, even if unformalised or unwitting. How one conceives the purpose of representation will fashion the terms on which it occurs. One vision explicitly legitimises local politics as a space to establish a counterweight to the deterritorialising tendency of globalised production, and a stage for practical demonstrations of counter-government. Here parallels are made with Zapatista autonomous communities, which, transposed to Italy, has meant involvement at a municipal level and the election of councillors. Elsewhere Antonio Negri recently set out criteria for the relationship with party politics in general, insisting on the absolute primacy of the social movement over political parties, whose legitimation resides solely in their capacity to serve, resource and open up political space for extra-political activity.[1] Accordingly, party alliances are justified provided that the relationship is not one of subalternity (whereby parties exploit social movements so as to rebuild their diminishing base) but ‘navigational’ authority, where party direction derives from demands expressed externally. Handily enough this both functions as a justification for the past as well as a programme for the future, and an argument for keeping RC at arms length.

Proletarian shopping, Panorama supermarket, Rome, 6 November

In the meantime the rapid rise to prominence of social precarity as a political flash-point has seen an influx of former Disobedients (now rebranded as ‘Invisibles’ and ‘Global’) into the organisation of the Mayday parade in Milan.[2] A derivative network named PreCog – precarious and cognitive workers – has taken shape in the last year, popularising the cult of San Precario, mythopoetical patron saint of dispossessed but combative subjects, with the intention of rejuvenating the popular imagination of a fight for new social rights. As a network PreCog contains many sensibilities external to the former Disobedients including a ‘Neurogreen’ tendency (environmentalist and libertarian with a focus on imposing pressure at local and European level) which sees in the Green Party a vehicle for more flexible political opposition and a global environmentalist sensibility proper to the problems of advanced capitalism. Meanwhile the social autonomy perspective within PreCog and the the ‘National Network for a Guaranteed Income’, which continues to prioritise the diffuse conflictuality of the ‘precariat’ and its ability to configure the social balance of forces, is also in a process of growth and recomposition.[3] In spite of these heterogeneous approaches the outline of a shared trajectory emerged around the question of income, encompassing the national demonstration for a guaranteed income on 6 November 2004 and next year’s Mayday Parades.


The simmering tension between parties and movements came to a head during the November demonstration. Under the playful acronym GAP – Grand Alliance of the Precarious, a parody of Prodi’s Grand Democratic Alliance – workplace committees from Alitalia to care-workers, grassroots trade unions, and social centres of every hue converged for direct actions of reappropriation to protest the increasing cost of living and demand access to wealth and a street parade through the city centre. ‘Autoreduction’ is an Italian term for imposing a discount ‘from below’ and it was planned to perform one in a suburban supermarket. Having neutralised police attention through cunning use of the subway system, the protestors arrived eventually in Pietralata, immortalised in Pasolini’s films Theorem and Accatone, where a shopping centre owned by Berlusconi is handily located by the train station. Once inside 700 participants filled their trolleys with goods, and blocked the cash registers chanting ‘everything costs too much!’ Negotiation began with management for a discount of 70 percent for everyone in the store, but in the meantime many people simply walked out with their trolleys and began distributing goods to families and pensioners, drinking wine and sharing sweets. This gesture was initially met with incredulity, but soon the party was in full swing. Meanwhile the electronics and clothing departments upstairs were by now in the grip of frenzy: computers, phones, DVD players and flat-screen monitors made their way out the door. At this point many ‘ordinary shoppers’ had succumbed to repressed desire and started to help themselves. Faced with a plainly uncontrollable situation the small number of police present were powerless. Later that day it had been planned to distribute copied DVDs inside the Feltrinelli book and entertainment chain as a symbolic rejection of copyright laws that limit access to culture and knowledge. Echoes of the morning however were too strong; as the demonstration passed by 200 people entered, filled their arms with books and charged back out into the street into the street parade of 25,000 people: workers committees, migrants, grassroots trade unions, house occupants and students, and a hundred other shades of precarity.

Predictably the media and political class have embarked on a hysterical condemnation of these actions, and have attempted to impute responsibility to the Disobedients, who as recounted above scarcely exist. Arrests and a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy have been promised. Notwithstanding the brouhaha, commentators have had to acknowledge both a widespread sympathy for what happened and the emergence of the precariat as a problem henceforth at the centre rather than the margins of society.[4] Individual MPs from both the Greens and RC have even expressed support, but the parties have officially distanced themselves from the acts, widening the schism between movement and orthodox forms of representation. RC’s current fixation with consensus and terror at any taint of illegality that could be depicted as being violent makes constructive cooperation nigh impossible. Here no violence was involved and the action was performed without any attempt to conceal participants’ identities, a fact for which participants will pay a heavy legal price.

Amidst all this however, GAP has maintained a tortured silence, torn between the need to respond whilst under the public eye and the distrust of collective utterance and representation which remain unresolved. Journalists have filled this void by nominating former Disobedients as the voice of the precarious. This unhelpful personalisation derives from their use of ‘spokespeople’ – in fact leaders – that monopolised media coverage of the ‘no-global’ period. Such distorted representations allow the action to be pigeonholed as belonging to pre-fabricated media constructions – ‘autonomists’, ‘Disobedients’, ‘inheritors of ‘77’ – cast as alien to people’s everyday experience of contradiction with their living conditions, and so inhibiting any broader social identification with the practice.[5]

A renewed realism as to the acute difficulties faced in everyday life underlies the emphasis on precarity. Spiralling rents, an increased cost of living, and poor social/labour mobility – not to mention the apocalyptic turmoil worldwide – are generating a pervasive sense of uncertainty about the future. In the absence of a substantial social welfare buffer, this focus enables a narration of needs and desires in the first-person and facilitates a rupture with discourses of the ‘no-global’ period which often lapsed into a jaded third-worldism, where the ‘serious’ problems were often exoticised or abstracted as somebody else’s, somewhere else.

Social movements in Italy function best when external factors oblige cooperation and marginalise intra-movement rivalry, yet an inability to coldly appraise the efficiency of discarded strategies threatens to nullify the benefits of experience. The Gordian knots of representation, relations with the institutions, and internal and network democracy are not going away. With a centre-left government on the horizon, and the fertile ground for reactionary demagogy that promises, the challenge will be to maintain abrasive contestation, autonomous from the party system, without being relegated to the margins, where the only dividend is unceasing police attention.


[1] Antonio Negri, ‘Contro il pensiero molle dell'organizzazione’, Posse, Nuovoi Animali Politici, Manifesto Libri, April 2004
[2] and
[3] See
[4] For a good introduction to the politics and cartography of precarity, see Green Pepper’s issue devoted to the theme. and of course this issue of Mute, pp. 87-105
[5] Hierarchical political action remains prevalent in Italy, a fact often missed

Hydrarchist is a researcher and contrarian

Proud to be Flesh

Chapter 6: Introduction - Assuming the Position: Art and/Against Business

Proud to be Flesh Cover

Introduction to Chapter 6 of Proud to be Flesh - Assuming the Position: Art and/Against Business


I want to burn down all your factories!

Gustav Metzger


The last thing we should be doing is embracing our miserable marginality.


The title of this chapter hopefully conveys a sense of the dangers involved in mirroring the corporate ‘other’ by self-understood radicals. As the slogan on a badge produced by the artists’ collective, Inventory, has it: ‘Ironic mimesis is not critique, it is the mentality of a slave!’ This formula’s vitriol no doubt derives from over-exposure to at least a decade’s worth of ‘adbusting’ and ‘culture jamming’. Such strategies, argues Neil Mulholland in his article on the cultural logic of Ambient, amount to little more than an attempt at ethical capitalism. But, if adbusting is now widely understood to be a kind of ‘anti-corporate corporatism’, are all mimetic strategies deployed by the postmodern and post-web generation to be so summarily dismissed? Mute’s coverage of ‘political’ and electronic civil disobedience, especially during the latter half of the ’90s, reveals a thinking around the mimicry of capitalism’s modalities that goes beyond mere liberal reformism or radical chic. This chapter deals with the self-mirroring transformations of business and culture within digitally networked globalisation, and compiles the arguments for and against imitating the veneer, if not logic, of corporate activity within networked capitalism.

The interview with Artist Placement Group co-founders, Barbara Steveni and John Latham, by myself and Pauline van Mourik Broekman, uncovers some of the early moves in the courtship between art and business in the mid-1960s. In step with a contemporary desire to spin the modes and materials of industrial capitalism in new directions, this UK-based group of conceptual artists, negotiated industrial placements for artists. This project, the aim of which was to throw a creative catalyst into the heart of commercial production, created some very divergent results. Gustav Metzger drove a captain of industry out of the APG-convened Industrial Negative conference by declaring, ‘I want to burn down all your factories!’ Meanwhile, in the 2002 interview, Steveni reveals her more conciliatory position by describing companies as ‘conglomerates of individuals’ open to influence. Capitalism, this suggests, could be reformed by converting key players at the top of the tree, not by violent proletarian struggle from beneath. While some of its members engaged in class-based politics, APG could certainly be accused of pre-empting today’s neoliberal ‘culture industry’ and alliance culture.

Neil Mulholland’s above-mentioned critique traces the trajectory of culture’s assimilation into commerce to its suffocating terminus. Amongst a wide array of things ambient, he discusses the work of Glasgow-based artists David Shrigley, Ross Sinclair and Jonathan Monk. These artists, working in the cash strapped, post-recession ’90s, used nonchalant, witty and minimal strategies for ‘interrupting the equilibrium and continuity of temporal space’. These low-budget means of ‘re-narrating’ the city were ‘gradually disassociated’ from art and academia to become, by the end of the decade, the tools of viral advertising and ‘ambicommerce’.

Reviewing the ICA’s CRASH! Corporatism and Complicity show of 1999, however, Benedict Seymour questions the implied obligation for art to perform a critical function. While the show’s curators and many of its artists struggled to thwart the paradigm of ironic mimesis, or complexify it beyond the point of simple co-optability, Seymour suggests that less self-flagellation and more ‘being in uncertainty’, even luxuriant escapism, may be what’s required.

While Seymour speculates that the solution to the riddle of contemporary cultural politics is, perhaps, a rejection of art’s ethical responsibility, interviews with Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) and Electronic Disturbance Theatre’s (EDT) Ricardo Dominguez strike a very different note. Rejecting the efficacy of representative democracy and, in CAE’s case, the attendant forms of street-based protest bar highly localised ones, they advocate a proliferation of anarchist-style cells working across the internet to thwart the smooth functioning of power. This electronic civil disobedience should be as nomadic and distributed as its state-corporate target. Rather than accepting the ‘voyeuristic’ and ‘narcissistic’ relationship to virtual space prescribed by the military-industrial complex, EDT advocate that participants in net culture assume an ethical stance vis-à-vis a ‘distant other’. Both groups have pursued a ‘marriage of convenience’ between activists and hackers to disrupt techno-capitalism and hit it where it hurts – its databases.

In their ‘Culture Clubs’ article, Anthony Davies and Simon Ford formulate a similar response to the flattened networks and hollowed-out companies that characterised the commercial landscape of the ’90s, and continue to do so. As outsourcing and flexibilisation become the order of the day for business, cultural organisations followed suit, and these hollowed out institutions, part-funded through corporate sponsorship (rather than patronage), were increasingly made available to commercial agendas. As faith in the culture industry peaked with New Labour and the newly desirable arts were understood as the ‘secret weapon of business’, any residual idea of art’s autonomy beyond the sphere of commerce perished.

But if, in response, adopting the virtual and nomadic forms of capital seemed to be justified by the successes of the anti-globalisation movement of the late-’90s and early-’00s, its cultural variant was arguably less successful. In his text, ‘Learning the Right Lessons’, which revisits the politics of ‘tactical media’ ten years on, David Garcia quotes Bifo’s denunciation of the Telestreets movement at a 2004 meeting in Senigallia. While representatives from the micro-broadcasting movement met in an obscure Italian seaside town, Berlusconi’s government passed the Gasparri law, consolidating his grip on the Italian mediascape. Bifo and others berated the Telestreets producers for embracing their ‘miserable marginality’ and consequently missing the opportunity to attack the legislation head-on. The diffusion of efforts and effects, amidst loosely allied producers, despite being a celebrated tactic for subverting networked capitalism, risks evaporating altogether. As with the alliance culture of the business sector, such loose ties of commitment and intention can produce as much instability as contingent support. The mimesis of capital’s modus operandi by radical groups and artists, though not necessarily displaying the mentality of the slave, is liable to the same turbulence and collapse that its markets are currently experiencing. In the multimedia age, if a return to the politics of what Baudrillard called ‘the system of meaning and representation’ is no longer an option, what forms of collaboration will develop within, and against, capitalism’s nomadic networks? And, whatever happened to the strategy of burning down its factories?

Proud to be Flesh

Do As They Do, Not As They Do

All work and all play make Toywar soldiers' day! Josephine Berry on etoy and eToys' legal tussle in the symbolic economy.

Last November 29th, US online toy retailer eToys brought a suit against the European net art collective etoy, blocking them from using their own domain name — registered two years before eToys even existed — in a clear cut case of corporate might and spite, not to mention greed. The closeness of ‘’ to the retailer’s own URL, argued every kiddy’s favourite corporation, was confusing customers who also risked being exposed to pornographic and violent (a.k.a. European and arty) content. eToys played heavily on the family values card to secure a preliminary US court ruling in their favour. Not surprisingly, this action elicited torrents of vitriol from etoy fans and the Reclaim the Domain Name System lobby alike. Quite a lot more surprising, however, given the hotness of the DNS topic right now, was the professionalism and commitment accomplished by Toywar — etoy’s name for its resistance campaign and website — whose antics finally secured eToys’s total climb down as they watched their shares plunge by 70rom $67 to $20 a share. In what has been described as "the Brent-Spar of e-commerce", eToys dropped the case ‘without prejudice’ on January 25th (i.e. withholding the option to resume proceedings again) and agreed to pay etoy’s court costs of $40,000. There is no doubt that this has been a landmark victory in the crucial battle over Domain Names and an inspiringly unorthodox example of ‘dispute resolution’.

But hold on, did I say ‘professionalism’ and ‘commitment’ just now? Wouldn’t those words look more at home in a go-gettin’ corporate presentation? Precisely the trick. etoy was itself, as Douglas Rushkoff recently put it, intended "both as a satire of the corporate value system and a barometer of the information space." If power is corporate and global, argue etoy, then art should be too. The etoy campaign is replete with both metaphors and strategies lifted straight out of the corporate world. Potential recruits are incited to "HELP US PROTECT THE etoy.BRAND AND BECOME A SHAREHOLDER!". Partisan efforts are rewarded with loyalty points corresponding to ‘etoy.SHARES’ in the ‘etoy.ART-BRAND’. In a press release their spokesman, Zai, informs us that "investors keep etoy alive. They invest into the future of Internet art." Indeed, US based activist art group RTMark’s decision to award etoy ‘sabotage project funding’ could effectively be seen in terms of a joint venture. Not only are individual art groups adopting the walk and talk of the corporate world, but they’re even corporatising amongst themselves; sharing resources and databases, and piggybacking on each another’s brand value.

Could it be that etoy’s use of shares and markets effectively extends the modernist game of turning the conditions of the artwork’s making into the subject of the artwork itself (e.g. turning the canvas into the subject of the work) to the immaterial realm of financial markets? In other words, is the market really becoming more than just the subject of the art? Is it becoming subject and support (of the signifier) in one? Is an etoy.SHARE an actual share and its metaphor at the same time? Before ‘speculating’ on this any further, it should be mentioned that the role played by the Toywar in the free-fall of eToy’s shares is greatly contested. The FT’s view is reassuringly prosaic, blaming eToy’s humpty-dumpty antics on "the cost of tripling its customer base over the christmas holidays" amongst other things.

Etoy’s own line on the status of their share system masquerades behind an equally neutralising and predictable language: that of art history. Commenting on the possible illegality (within the US legal system) of issuing ‘etoy.SHARES’, they neatly side-step the whole modernist trajectory mentioned above. Insisting on the docility of the signified, they claim: "we never sold a share to a person who did not know that this is an ‘ART INVESTMENT’ ... according to international lawyers and advisors the word ‘share’ is not limited or registered for the use in financial markets! If artists can call art products ‘landscape XY’, ‘naked body blabla’ or ‘the death’ …we insist on the right to call our work etoy.SHARE... because value systems, stock markets and the surreal etoy.CORPORATION are our TOPICS!" So if an ETOY.share is not literally a share but can nonetheless be bought, acquired and exchanged, what is it? If etoy is not really a corporation but is nonetheless, at their own insistence, involved in effecting fluctuations in the market value of another company, their ‘rival brand’ so to speak, what is the art work’s relationship to its signified?

Surely what art risks when pastiche tips over into market manipulations and legal victories is the loss of the very thing that distinguishes it from its satirical victim: its own autonomy. Perhaps this sounds like an apology for a discredited ideal of disinterested art or ineffectual art, but it’s hard not to feel that etoy’s albeit ludic and PC deployment of markets isn’t achieving a too perfect symmetry with its dark other.

Josephine Berry <>

Proud to be Flesh

Everything Must Go

If the CRASH! Corporatism & Complicity exhibition at the ICA didn’t live up to its Situationist swagger, was it more than just an exercise in recycling avant-garde strategies? Benedict Seymour asks what modes of resistance are left to artists in an era of ‘creative capitalism’, ‘Prada Meinhof’ and art for business’ sake.

"Ironic mimesis is not critique, it is the mentality of a slave!" It may be hard to fit on a badge, but this was one of the more resonant slogans plastered across the walls of London’s ICA in the dying months of the 20th century. Amid the slew of agit prop stickers and corporate Newspeak that formed the CRASH! show’s background hum of unrest, this testy aphorism hung in the air, needling at you and its surroundings. The phrase seemed to refer outwards to the banal self-reflexivity of the media, cultural recycling, the ‘anarchic’ mummery of licensed fools like Chris Evans or Jim Carey of which the show’s curators have written so harshly. But it also turned back on its immediate environment, drawing attention to the artists’ own varied but almost universal reliance on modes of subversive appropriation.

The ICA obviously didn’t feel as absolute about the psychic servitude involved in this strategy, declaring in the pre-show blurb: "The artists in CRASH! mimic a range of activities and services, from trading, marketing, spin doctoring, genetic engineering, and advertising to spying and hairdressing." Is there a margin for critical reflection in such techniques or do the institutions and discourses imitated overwhelm the art? What modes should an effective critical art deploy? And is ‘critique’ a proper vocation for art anyway? These were questions raised (but not necessarily resolved) by the show — and this precisely because of the curators’ unusually vocal commitment to a kind of engaged, socially conscious art not much witnessed in the ‘Cool Britannia’ ’90s.

Matt Worley and Scott King, already known for their self-published magazine, billboard subversions and style mag rants, co-ordinated this art gallery extension of their dissident media project in collaboration with the ICA’s Emma Dexter and Vivian Gaskin. Having made clear their impatience with the false liberations of postindustrial capitalism — from ‘flexible’ working to corporatised leisure — they now had a proper gallery with a selection of artists, activists and theorists of their choosing with whom to explore the themes of ‘Corporatism & Complicity’ referenced in the exhibition’s subtitle. Proclaiming that CRASH! would be "both a reflection and a condemnation" of contemporary life, this was an unusually ambitious, confrontational approach which would take some living up to.

The curators stressed their intention to break with the self-indulgence and harebrained trivia of recent British art, and emphasised a commitment to ideas, politics, and a less fetishistic conception of the artwork. Instead of decorative self-absorption and an obsession with ‘identity’, this would be non-commodified, performative and even artless art with a design upon its viewers’ minds as much as their senses / wallets. The artists were looking at some subjects already familiar from the work of their populist yBA forbears, "real and even banal everyday concerns" being a hot ticket in the arte povera 90s, but their ambitions were larger, encompassing the topics of work and money, consumerism and dissent, globalisation and investment, democracy and the market and the interpenetration of all of these.

In the Corporatism-and-complicity equation the latter could have been a reference to the general state of culture vis-a-vis the market, or specifically that of art, but for sure it was also a self-dramatising acknowledgement of the show’s own conditions of possibility. Colliding the neutral space of the office (Rachel Baker installed a temp agency for artists complete with desk and waiting room, Szuper Gallery engaged in online day trading near the entrance to the show) with the makeshift architecture of contemporary protest (Inventory erected a wigwam full of polemic and information — a centre of operations, not a piece of art ), the show as a whole was more ambivalent than the CRASH! boys’ rhetoric let on. If it lacked the wild energy of their punk rock heroes, preferring constructive dialogue and dissident focus grouping to riotous assembly (Kate Glazer hosted an ongoing discussion forum in the gallery and online called ‘Thinktank/ Mindpool’), the show did share punk’s proto-Thatcherite brazeness about feeding from the hand it was biting. It seemed both unnerving and appropriate that sponsorship should come from the 90s masters of ‘ironic’ retro advertising, Diesel.

Of course, corporate patronage is not exactly unusual, but Matt Worley’s noisy dissatisfaction with the ‘Prada Meinhof’ and the choice of this particular sponsor seemed to point up the ironies of art’s compromised position. Who better, cynics might ask, to fund a simulacral recycling of 70s political and conceptualist gestures than the arch recyclers of 70s kitsch? The CRASH! catalogue is punctuated with updated Situationist squibs and, sometimes, clumsy soixante-huiticisms ("Never work, Never Sleep", "Burn It Down", "London’s Burning With Boredom Now"), just as Diesel clothing’s influential ad campaigns deployed what you might call an ‘ironic mimesis’ of the mendacious high consumerist rhetoric the Situationists more maliciously détourned ("Diesel: for Successful Living"). Diesel were surely aware of the kind of non-conformism they were trying to align themselves with, since their pitch relies on their target group’s self perception as ‘different’, sophisticated and un-duped. As Worley himself has written, vampiric capitalism recently moved on from recycled kitsch to the exhumation and (unselfconsciously) ironic mimesis of the signs of its erstwhile antithesis: from Che Guevara bars and terrorism on t-shirts, to the e-commerce ‘revolution’ and the rehabilitation of Marx — the sign of capitalism’s material triumph is also the index of its symbolic feebleness. The superficial or not-so-superficial similarity of sponsors, curators and artists in relying on modes of pastiche and varieties of subversion just emphasised how ambiguous the return to a critical art might be in the current climate, whatever the convictions of those involved.

Could CRASH! escape from the potential neutralisations and make a show that was more than a blank parody of political dissent? Perhaps, despite the curators commitments, the artists weren’t too worried. All shared a suspicion of art’s once vaunted claim to autonomy, and their often textual or performative ‘pieces’ tended to emphasise that art, business and other kinds of work exist in a continuum: Janice Kerbel gave us meticulously detailed plans for a bank job, as if taking the old conceptualist ideal of art as an (uncommodified) blueprint for a work to be executed by others to its logical, materialist conclusion; Matthieu Laurette’s ‘art’ was the ongoing project of his subsistence, living, since 1996, on money-back products — an example of scrimping rebelliousness whose margin of aesthetic ‘freedom’ must become as routine and time-consuming as any other job.

On the other hand, beyond the preliminary assumption of art’s implication in everything else, there seemed to be important differences in orientation. The forms of simulation deployed by the artists, ranging from a direct (re)enactment of corporate work-leisure in the temple of art (Szuper Gallery’s day trading activities, Rachel Baker’s temp agency putting artists in touch with potential employers) through John Beagles and Graham Ramsay’s didactic appropriation of the schoolroom wallchart to present viewers with a neglected history of metropolitan protest (Wat Tyler Wot Happened?), to Heath Bunting’s (spoof ?) DIY kit for producing GM resistant weeds (Natural Reality Superweed Kit 1.0), were as diverse in content and agenda as they were unified in strategy. Perhaps it was this dependence on second order mimesis — whether imitating corporate discourse or directly intervening in its processes — that heightened the show’s homogeneity. Even when the general tone of the artists was polemical and combative, as with the Inventory group, the politicised discourse was freighted with self-consciousness. Their list of demands, scribbled across the slats of a Venetian blind that hung in the centre of the tent, was sincerely belligerent but ruefully and comically self-cancelling: "We Demand that Sweden be flatpacked and shipped to Kosovo! / We demand that artists… oh, forget it." Acknowledging the incongruity of the gallery situation and the intransigence of their audience, even enemies of ironic mimesis could not sustain a rabble rousing discourse without, well, irony. As Novalis wrote, despair is the most terribly witty state of all.

Where Szuper Gallery seemed to indulge a fascination with the abstraction of high finance out of a desire to probe the latter for possible points of weakness, Carey Young’s video Everything You’ve Heard Is Wrong got even closer to its imitated object. The video showed a corporate-suited Young presenting an immaculate rendition of a business communication skills presentation at Speaker’s Corner. As the straggle of passers by and oration-lovers gathered and dispersed in the foreground, a fervent Moslem demagogue could be made out at the edge of the frame, creating an odd collision of sacred and secular modes in this anachronistic relic of the old public sphere. The passion and depth of the one would contrast wryly with the neutrality and selfreflexivity of the other. And yet, despite their ostensible disparity, in form and content, both perhaps aspired to a perfected communion, and neither mode could have been foreseen by the Victorian burghers who inaugurated this space. A presentation on public speaking at Speakers Corner? The world had swung from Chartism to flowcharts. The circularity of the performance made one think of the cancerously proliferating business book business, and the post-literacy of their authors. The recursive loop of addressing an audience with a lecture about how to hold an audience’s attention, and the lecture’s title, which xeroxed corporate language but also turned it against itself, gave off a cool absurdism.

It might be tempting to read the performance as a parodic reflection on the frictionless corporate ideal of ‘communication’, the reification of the richness of language by a base functionalism. Yet the deadpan mode, which was funny but not that funny, distinguished her schtick from straight satire. In addition, Young’s own reported enthusiasm for developing the synergies between creative businesses and the business-like creatives who work for them mitigates against such an interpretation. Perhaps this was the ‘ironic mimesis’ condemned in the slogan, a habit (or ‘slave mentality’) of empty mockery adopted in order to sustain the banalisation of everyday life? (This is surely the logic of the ‘subversive’ current affairs comedy show, not so much an assault on the status quo as a device for coping with, and hence reproducing, it.) But, on the other hand, who said art had to issue in ‘critique’? The ambiguity and complexity of connotation here seems to me more interested in a Keatsian ‘being in uncertainty’ than a rush to either polemic or comic relief. If some of the CRASH! artists had already identified the enemy and the field of combat in advance, Young’s approach retained a ludic openness that should not be summarily written off as co-opted. Young’s practice, reformist rather than revolutionary in tendency, may accept the parameters of the brave new corporate world but in its sensitivity to the implosion of previously distinct categories could be more useful than reheating old battle cries for gallery consumption. As Young has suggested, creativity and imagination, the intellectual and conceptual dexterity traditionally the preserve of the artist, have become fetishised values in the postindustrial workplace. Where the CRASH! curators recoil in horror from this reification of human potential, Young seems to play with the possibilities of ‘personal development’. Taking the logic of the yBAs’ entrepreneurialism a step further, on closer inspection the CRASH! show could have been heralding the next stage in arts subsumption under capitalism as much as calling for its revenge.

The ambiguities of Young’s work contrast usefully with those of another video-documented performance: We The People by Beagles and Ramsey. At first sight similar to Young’s work in its incongruous intervention in the public sphere, the video shows the artists attempting to make contact with secret service agents and presenting a provocatively vacuous petition to 10 Downing Street (It read simply "We The People", as if commencing a list of demands then immediately giving up). Apart from the deliberate futility of these activities, the fact that the actors/ artists had assumed the iconic appearance of Taxi Driver’s postmodern antihero, Travis Bickle, from the proto-punk mohican and manic De Niro grin down to the army boots, upped the ludicrousness quotient. Again, the performance’s futile non sequiturs seemed calculated to expose the hollowness of an institution, the alienation implicit in democratic representation, within a comic mode now hyper-familiar from postmodern British TV comedy (think of Adam & Joe, or the routinised assimilation of Chris Morris’s innovations in the 11 o’Clock Show). But the identification with the psychotic, vengeful figure of Bickle — the isolated, skewed crusader of a corrupt post-Vietnam polis — cut both ways, suggesting more meanings than the piece could organise. Lost in the labyrinth of implications, the sense of disenfranchisement and atomisation evoked by the original film returned as bathos. Here the work didn’t get beyond its mimesis of an already over-familiar if ambivalent signifier, leaving the world as dizzyingly cluttered with references and depleted signs of representation as it found it.

One could summarise the difference between the CRASH! show’s artists less on the level of technique or address (since imitation was common to almost all) than in whether or not they hoped to wring a final refusal of the global situation out of the deadlock their work evoked; in the case of Beagles and Ramsay, Heath Bunting or the Inventory group, pushing towards a more radical gesture to which their art and theorising was a partial contribution, or on the other hand, with Young, accepting the indeterminacy of the postmodern condition, the apparent absence of alternatives, and turning one’s attention to improving conditions within these limits as a kind of expanded, executive aestheticism. But did any of the work on show give a taste of these potentials, a breath of the new, improved life latent in ‘the banality of everyday life’? Between the latterday Situationists — who consider art already superseded by activism and regard such gallery interventions as merely one weapon in the cultural terrorist’s arsenal — and the business artists — following Warhol’s trajectory out of the autonomous sphere of art and into the office — there seemed little to choose. Neither offered a compelling aesthetic jolt of alterity or opened up a sense of escape. Ultimately the show’s very dependence on the genres of corporatised and commodified culture made the latter’s presence suffocating — the artists almost seemed to be hiding in the cloak of the adversary, afraid to strike out into anything so arrogantly deluded as a self-sufficient work.

Except for Mark Leckey, that is. The only piece in the show that was willing to sell out to the sensuous, whilst confidently registering seismic cultural shifts, was his video (not a document of an intervention this time but a deconstructed montage of documentary footage), Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore. Shut away behind black rubber curtains in a club-like darkness and projected across the length and depth of the room, it was a disorienting and heady shot of image after the dry texts that preceded it. Like guilty voyeurs, viewers could finally indulge their sick taste for sensory stimulation and narrative pleasure in this history of popular dance culture from northern soul to acid house. Faced with the conceptualist mirror of late capitalism who could blame you for taking the traditional route and getting out of it by getting out of your head?

This was not in fact an ‘escapist’ film, however. The form was chronological but discontinuous, the significance of the changes in gesture, dress, and musical style registered in the diverse source materials not explicated for the viewer but offered up for analysis. But it did feel like a release after the preceding dialectic of indifference. Perhaps art, which admittedly has been fetishised as a site of play, ambivalence and otherness, is nevertheless suffering not from too much luxuriant, escapist incertitude, but too little. There is a danger that, following the lead of a newly humble and self-flagellant capitalism (which, after all, has borrowed its new clothes from earlier artistic and political ‘creatives’), artists will feel obliged to downplay art’s residual freedoms, hairshirting themselves into the same reflex of repentance that gives us reality TV ("we don’t want to make the viewer’s feel they are less interesting or important than the stars — plus we’re strapped for cash"). Meanwhile, beyond the confines of the gallery, the artists and activists had been upstaged by events in Seattle, an eruption of organised political opposition to corporate domination which made it all look suddenly rather academic. Ironic or what?

Benedict Seymour <ben AT>

Proud to be Flesh

Branded to the Bone

Chris Wilcha’s lo-budget documentary The Target Shoots First follows a post-punk rock-loving twenty-two year-old into the murky world of a large record company. Chris Darke compares his findings to those of Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, and to the criticism of the new American cultural order collected in the anthology Commodify Your Dissent. The question all three of these beg is: how far can one resist assimilation?

“The bourgeois scheme is that they wish to be disturbed from time to time, they like that, but then they envelop you, and that little bit is over, and they are ready for the next.” Claes Oldenburg, 1961

“It shouldn’t have been a shock, but it was.” Chris Wilcha, 1999

March to the Royal Festival Hall to hear a recital by the tabla virtuoso Zakir Husain. Projected above the stage was the logo of that evening’s sponsor, the financial services corporation HSBC. Nothing unusual about that; corporate sponsorship is so much a feature of high profile cultural events that the HSBC logo appeared as much in keeping with the evening as the musician’s arrangement of performance rug and flowers. But as an envoy from the Indian Embassy took the stage, name-checked the musicians, then introduced a representative of HSBC, a murmur ran through the audience which soon strengthened into a hiss of disapproval that hung over the auditorium. When Mr. HSBC began the customary spiel in which arts sponsorship is gently massaged away from being mistaken for a lucrative exercise in tax-loss philanthropy, the hissing became a sotto voce groan. By the time we were told about HSBC’s long relationship with the Indian subcontinent and about how many corporations have come to recognise that they have duties “beyond making a profit”, a slow handclap had started up, as if to express a collective sentiment of ‘Yeah, right’. Mr. HSBC then revealed he had a cheque to award to a worthy cause, which he proceeded to present to a representative of Unilever. A storm of hilarious derision broke over the unfortunate CEO, who retired from the podium having barely started his acceptance speech.

There was enough sheer ire in the air that night to suggest that, post-Seattle, even anti-corporate souls over here had tasted blood. In setting the stage for a performance of Indian devotional music with a soft-focus appeal to its colonial legacy, HSBC didn’t simply generate an unexpected PR-breakdown. Rather, it was a case of the public having a short fuse and little tolerance towards such juxtapositions. The audience at the Festival Hall expressed its hostility as outsiders given the uncommon privilege of shouting-down a mode of speech that has become a dominant form of public discourse. PR-spin is a language in which everything is addressed as product and everyone appealed to as a consumer and hostile rejection is a direct response to the saturation of the culture by this corporate vernacular. The vehemence with which this response was expressed requires that, in order to blunt it, the sharp men and women of corporate PR will have to wage a new, more concerted form of spin-warfare.

But what if an insider within the belly of promotional culture were to sustainedly train a camera on it, probe its etiquettes, crack open its contradictions and, with an almost naïve insistence, ask “What the hell am I doing here?” In May 1993, Christopher Wilcha, a 22 year-old philosophy graduate, went to work for Columbia House, the mail-order wing of Columbia Records, and took a Hi8 camera with him. Over the next two years, Wilcha gathered footage for a 70 minute tape, The Target Shoots First. Part video-diary, part counter-motivational training film, Target is that rare document – a sustained essay in corporate anthropology and a young Gen-Xer’s search for clarity in contradiction. It’s a work of well-balanced details, of analytical commentary elucidating anecdotal video-verité. Wilcha has a journalist’s sense of the facts that matter, so we learn early on that Columbia House is (was – there’s since been a merger) owned by Sony/Time Warner, that their combined revenue was $70 billion and that, as an employee, he’ll “have access to Sony and Time Warner’s cafeterias”. He also has the film-maker’s eye for the resonance in simple visual details: over shots of the empty and anonymous corporate corridors of his 19th floor eyrie his commentary remarks on “the weird institutional deja vu – the corporate workplace reminds me of high school.”

But fundamentally, Target is an essay in the processes of assimilation – of the kid by the corporation, of the kid’s music by the record company machine. “How naïve is that?” could be the po-mo(ronic) response to this precis of Target’s themes. But the film-maker’s no ingenue; he’s more interested in discovering whether it’s still possible even to be quizzical about the condition that Naomi Klein describes in her book No Logo as being “branded to the bone”. If the anti-WTO demonstrations proved anything it’s that it’s no longer enough just to raise an eyebrow and come over all resignedly mandarin about what the American journal of political satire The Baffler calls “the business of culture in the new Gilded Age”. To engage with it requires that one engage with the culture of business.

Wilcha’s time as Assistant Product Manager of Music Marketing at Columbia House coincided with two major developments in the music industry. First, there was the advent of ‘grunge’ with the major cross-over success of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Second, there was the change from vinyl to CD. “The ‘90s way of buying was to replace a vinyl collection completely,” Wilcha narrates. “Record clubs were one of the ways to do this.” Columbia House was reaching a market of 8 million subscribers a month but, as Wilcha discovered, was also ripping off its artists while reaping the dividends of sales and direct marketing. Artists would be paid reduced royalties and publishing rates on the sales of club CDs. These general infrastructural facts of music marketing are bought into focus by Wilcha’s own sense of cultural alignment with the alternative rock scene. With the release of Nirvana’s In Utero album, he’s put in charge of producing the magazine for Columbia House subscribers – the senior writer having resigned (the film’s good on the power-divisions between marketing types and ‘creatives’, the former working on the 19th floor, the latter subordinate on the 17th). Wilcha’s boss tells him: “This is a Gen X band. You can speak for them.” He duly writes the feature and finds himself “confronted by the fact that my identity as a punk rock fan and my job as a Columbia House employee have finally collided.” In gathering material for the film, Wilcha explores this dialectic while trying to demarcate some independent space: “For the past six months, taping has been a way of convincing myself that where I work isn’t who I am.” But it’s also a way of, if not reconciling the contradictions of his new-found corporate identity with his individual cultural identity, then bringing those contradictions into the open and of expressing a by no means fashionable uneasiness with the processes of appropriation and assimilation at play.

Yet Target is itself a document not so much compromised as complicated by its very access to internal corporate processes. I asked Wilcha if he was at all concerned that, in showing the film to management, he might realise that it could be the model of a new genre of media-savvy corporate training video? “The first screening (in 1999) coincided with a corporate merger,” he told me. “They [Columbia House] merged with CD Now, the giant online retailer, and the week of my New York screening was the week they were announcing the merger, so the screening was completely off the radar. Finally, in the weeks that followed, a bunch of upper management people, including the President, watched it. Some people disagreed with what I had to say. Others in management, comically enough, saw it as some kind of sociological study of a failed business experiment. They wanted to know how we could replicate that kind of consumer reaction on the web, instead of seeing it as an expression of how people felt about their jobs.”

As an ‘essay film’ – a hybrid genre of documentary observation and first-person intervention whose time has surely come round again – the strength of Target lies in the way it develops and explores its key theme of assimilation. Wilcha’s team produced a pilot version of the club magazine, successfully delivering a model for niche-marketing ‘alt.rock’ as well as ‘divulging club sales tactics, innovating the selection, sneaking in criticism – we put anything into the magazine we like.’ At which point, corporate assimilation takes yet another turn. “Management brings in an advertising agency who, for a fee, sell our idea back to the company. It shouldn’t have been a shock, but it was,” Wilcha relates.

The Target Shoots First can be seen as taking its place alongside the interventions and critiques of writers such as Klein and journals like The Baffler. It’s also of a part with, but at one remove from, the neo-Situationist, perceptual pranksterism of ‘culture jamming’. As a form of semiotic subversion, ‘culture jamming’ covers a range of art-based activism. From Adbusters’ satires on the values and techniques of advertising, through etoy’s interventions into the stock market exploring the porous boundaries between the business of art and the ‘art’ of business (see Mute 16), to rtMark’s overtly risky brand-sabotage activities, ‘culture jamming’ wagers – and in some senses seeks to redefine – avant-garde art strategies against the speed with which such strategies may be assimilated by their very corporate targets.

Wilcha, Klein and The Baffler represent a tendency that’s slightly different from this pranksterism – one that’s based on a necessary defensiveness in the face of the market without limits of reach and responsibility. The symptom of such defensiveness is to wrest back certain journalistic precepts – of investigation and independent critique – that should, by nature, be resistant to the glossy cant of marketing. Should be – but haven’t proved to be so. As media convergence has demonstrated, editorial values can quickly become hostages to advertising fortunes.

The value of the insights that Wilcha brings to bear on the coopting of ‘alternative culture’ is what really aligns Target with the work by journalists such as Klein and The Baffler. Culture becomes the field in which capitalism stalks the ever-newer ‘new’ and The Baffler has made analysis of this phenomenon its forte, along with the detailed institutional analysis of American journalism and union activity. The collection of ‘salvos’ from The Baffler published in Commodify your Dissent date from around the mid-90s but remain relevant in their splendidly distempered take on corporate culture as it chases, in ever decreasing circles, after the spectacle of the counter-culture until, as predicted, pop eats itself. And business picks up the tab. In the tail-chasing flurry of hungry assimilation, culture became marketing and marketing culture. In his 1995 essay ‘Alternative to What?’, Thomas Frank, co-founder of The Baffler, writes: “There are few spectacles corporate America enjoys more than a good counterculture, complete with hairdos of defiance, dark complaints about the stifling ‘mainstream’, and expensive accessories of all kinds. So it was only a matter of months after the discovery of ‘Generation X’ that the culture industry sighted an all-new youth movement, whose new looks, new rock bands, and menacing new ‘tude quickly became commercial shorthand for the rebel excitement associated with everything from Gen X ads and TV shows to the information revolution.”

The fear that both Wilcha and Thomas Frank identify with is that all ‘deviant’ cultures are so rapidly assimilated, that it’s increasingly difficult to out-manoeuvre the mainstream and that corporate culture is frighteningly adept at absorbing its dissident voices. ”I think it’s often very hard for Americans themselves to see what’s going on,” admits Frank. “One of the comments we keep getting from our readers’ letters is that they didn’t think that criticism like this still went on. We hear that all the time. In the US, the labour movement has really fallen off the cultural map. Thirty years ago every newspaper in the country had a labour reporter. Now the only ones that do are The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Chicago Tribune. Organised labour has to be the wellspring of scepticism towards the corporate universe. When those people showed up in Seattle, and a lot of them were from unions, this astonished people, they thought unionism was over in America.”

There is, inevitably, a generational issue here, a question of a shared cultural and political memory that corporate culture does its best to undermine and erase. Hence the accuracy in critiques of cultural ‘dumbing down’, where infantilisation of the public incubates precisely the willed, induced amnesia that makes a good, loyal consumer out of a former citizen with a cultural life and political allegiances. In this respect, Wilcha is smart to compare his absorption into the corporate world of work with that of his father, and understands that his is one of the (last?) generations with a sense of self that could still be located outside of the mall. “What my father went to business school to study,” he narrates, “I trained for simply by being a committed consumer.” In conversation he told me: “I’m 28 years old now and for a lot of kids who are around 25 – they’re labelled Generation Y – these concerns are invisible to them. If you’re in a band now, it’s no longer a question of selling out as far as having your music in advertising is concerned, it’s part of the marketing plan! It’s a given. Literally it’s been in the space of a couple of years that there’s been a whole change in consciousness about the relationship between art and commerce, with culture being used to prop up and sell things.”

We’ve been here before. Maybe we’ve been nowhere else since the 1950s. The professional Jeremiahs of Wilcha’s father’s generations were Vance Packard, author of The Hidden Persuaders, and Consumer’s Rights supremo Ralph Nader. Perhaps between them, Wilcha, Frank, Klein and others of their growing number might restore and revitalise critique, satire and analysis to the vital work of cultural analysis that exists outside of academia’s self-absorption. One that understands that ‘culture’ means more than the miasma produced by the multinational entertainment oligopoly where, in Don DeLillo’s phrase, “nothing happens until it’s consumed.” Perhaps we’re in for a new generation of characters (after all, in Target, Chris Wilcha is ‘Son of Organisation Man’) who haunt the corridors of corporate culture with their hostility and confusion yet to be dulled and bought off. Or perhaps we’ll just wake up one day, niched to within an inch of our lives.

Chris Darke <chris AT>

Proud to be Flesh

Culture Clubs

New Labour orthodoxy maintains, in line with its predecessor, that public private partnerships are the only way forward economically. Transport, health and education have been the most controversial new enterprise zones, but is the cultural sector's restructuring any less absolute? Anthony Davies and Simon Ford report

Where corporations once sponsored art and culture, they now ‘co-produce’ it. Where their structures used to be rigidly hierarchical, they are now flexible and networked. These shifts render unworkable all sorts of categories we used to employ when distinguishing between the public and private spheres. In an effort to identify the often elusive architecture — and architects — of the new cultural economy, Anthony Davies and Simon Ford report on a representative sample of Third Way alliances.

Today, a new variety of club is emerging: a type of club dedicated to the networking of culturepreneurs and the business community. Much of this activity has been in line with organisational and structural shifts occurring in the corporate sector — principally, the shift from centralised hierarchical structures to flat, networked forms of organisation. In this report we look at how these networks and ‘new’ economies are being formed, accessed and utilised, where they converge and where they disperse.

In the late 1990s the surge to merge culture with the economy was a key factor in London’s bid to consolidate its position as the European centre of the global financial services industry. Culture was part of the marketing mix that, within the context of the European Union (EU), kept London ahead of its competitors, particularly Frankfurt.<1> This can be traced back to the UK’s exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992 and a range of economic initiatives aimed at attracting inward investment, or Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). During this period the UK accounted for 40 per cent of Japanese, US and Asian investment in the EU. ‘Cool Britannia’ may have been a media spectacle, but it was the need to attract FDI, combined with the co-ordinates of a new service-based economy, that underpinned London’s spectacular emergence as the ‘coolest city on the planet’. (This state of affairs could be about to change with the proposed link-up between Frankfurt’s Deutsche Börse and the London Stock Exchange (i.e. the iX market) and the recent German tax reforms that will pave the way for a radical restructuring of its corporate landscape.<2> With higher international inward and portfolio investment and the combined iX market, Germany looks set to become the leading market destination for young companies, making Berlin’s pitch to become the new cultural ‘it location’ look increasingly viable.<3>)

In London it was the cultural requirements of the ‘new’ economy that resulted in the emergence of culture brokers — intermediaries who sold services and traded knowledge and culture to a variety of clients outside the gallery system, from advertising companies and property developers to restaurateurs and upmarket retail outlets. Job descriptions such as artist, curator, critic and gallerist no longer reflected the range of activities these individuals were engaged in. For culture-brokers art production was just one element that, along with the music, drug, fashion, design, club and political scenes, could be brought together, mediated and repackaged in a range of formats, from exhibitions and websites to corporate parties and instore merchandising.<4> At the same point many companies were beginning to move away from sponsorship towards an integrated partnership or alliance strategy. This marked a further shift from the ‘something for nothing’ arm’s-length philanthropic model to a ‘something for something’ contract in which marketing departments perceived cultural (and often environmental) programming as an integral part of ethical marketing strategies (the so-called Total Role in Society).<5>

Along with these new developments corporate strategists realised that, because of the emerging knowledge-based economy, a company or individual could be valued principally on ‘intangible assets’ (e.g. intellectual capital and access to networks). This brought about a revolution in the corporate sector.<6> The underlying trend has been to develop flatter, more flexible and intelligent forms of organisation. This, in turn, has put pressure on companies to form alliances and break down inflexible departmental structures and initiate cross-departmental project teams (increasingly staffed by short-term or outsourced contract workers). Indeed, we have recently witnessed the birth of an alliance culture that collapses the distinctions (or boundaries) between companies, nation states, governments, private individuals and even the protest movement, as we shall demonstrate later. This trend towards alliances and partnerships has resulted in what have been variously described as ‘virtual’ or ‘boundary-less’ organisations. It has also made it increasingly difficult to identify ‘cores’: as companies loosen their physical structures through outsourcing, concerns have also been raised about the danger that core activities are disappearing, leaving fragile shells or ‘hollow’ organisations.<7>

A number of corporate organisations are currently gauging the potential of extending their networks into strategic alliances with other sectors, particularly the public sector.<8> This new alliance culture between the public and private sectors can be seen within the context of the UK government’s drive to establish a Third Way in which ‘public’ is no longer equated solely with ‘the state’, but with a combination of public/private agencies. With the private sector leading the way, public institutions are undergoing an ideological and structural transformation to make themselves more compatible with corporate alliance programmes. Like their corporate partners, many cultural institutions now perceive their role as ‘hanging out with culture’, interacting with and being part of it. In their drive to formalise informality, they provide what are essentially convergence zones for corporate and creative networks to interact, overlap with one another and form ‘weak’ ties. The prominence that events such as charity auctions, exhibition openings, talk programmes and award dinners have attained demonstrates how central face-to-face social interaction is to the functional capacity of these new alliances.

Some institutions go further. At London’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), for example, a networking club for cultural entrepreneurs and, initially at least, educationalists, arts administrators, television executives and business consultants has been set up in conjunction with Goldsmiths College, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), Channel 4, the Arts Council and Cap Gemini.<9> The Club is coordinated by Andrew Chetty and Sarah Duke at the ICA, Andrew Warren at Cap Gemini and Alan Phillogene at the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College. It is an invite-only monthly event that provides "a networking base for its members" and promises to introduce them to agencies from television companies to venture capitalists and private organisations who "may wish to support and commission them".

Through initiatives like The Club the ICA aims to become the leading institutional home for cultural entrepreneurs and perceives its role as a facilitator and "ideal forum for the cross fertilisation of ideas, and support base for these enterprises".<10> After the success of the first two meetings at the ICA, the third will reputedly take place at Channel Four in September. Such nomadism indicates that The Club itself has no fixed base or home and can move to any location within the network. This makes identifying the core organisation difficult and, in line with the complex and often hidden alliances that characterise the new corporate landscape, it raises serious questions of transparency, representation and accountability.

Given their foregrounding of The Club’s ‘development and growth’ potential, its coordinators must be aware of the current sale talks surrounding First Tuesday, the market leader of match-making clubs for internet entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. With 100,000 members on its database and the claim to have raised $150m in seed capital from its networking events, it is no surprise that its valuation of £33.5m was based principally on access to its "extensive database of the digital elite".<11>

A variety of means exist to finance these clubs. First Tuesday take a two per cent commission on deals, while other culture clubs generate capital through membership (The Fourth Room) or building the most "influential list of contacts in the world" (Free Thinking). With the creative industries generating £60bn a year (seven per cent of national gross domestic product) and estimated to increase at a rate of 5% per year, it is no surprise that The Club is endorsed by both government agencies (NESTA) and private companies.

At this stage it is difficult to locate the mutual bonds and orientation of The Club, but it is a good example of the emerging inter-organisational relationships that characterise the ‘new’ economy. With representatives from the corporate, state, media, educational and cultural sectors, it may also represent the initial stages of a corporatised future for UK cultural and educational institutions. This falls in line with the forthcoming DTI spending review, which aims to refocus its funds into promoting enterprise, small business and ‘knowledge transfer’ and to "concentrate on managing change rather than attempting to direct companies’ activities."<12>

In the education sector ‘knowledge transfer’ translates into an £80m fund (the University Innovation Fund) to establish consultancies that will mediate between universities and businesses. With the ICA and Goldsmiths College stepping up contact with Cap Gemini and providing a "support base (and provider) for enterprise", the so-called revolutionary venture capital models proposed by companies like The Fourth Room come into the equation.

The Fourth Room was set up by former Chairman of The Research Business Wendy Gordon, founder of brand consultancy Wolff Olins Michael Wolff and former head of strategy at Interbrand Newell and Sorrell Piers Schmidt in 1998 as a hangout zone and creative bolt-hole for corporate executives and other ‘leading individuals’. It has been variously described as a business development club, a networking club and a strategic marketing consultancy which aims to take the strain out of networking and "put together venture ideas and management teams and take them from the moment of thinking through to the patent or crystallised idea".<13>

The £10,000 per annum membership fee includes use of the clubhouse in central London and access to "focus groups comprising of [sic] ‘ordinary’ people and teenagers who will act as sounding boards for new ideas".<14> In addition to the clubhouse, members receive a weekly in-house publication and an opportunity to eavesdrop on "emerging cultural trends and monitor changing patterns and beliefs".<15> This is described by the company as a corporate early warning system. As with The Club at the ICA, very little information is publicly available, but we know that The Fourth Room is "dazzlingly white, with high ceilings, long windows and white painted floorboards" and that members are encouraged to draw on the walls with coloured crayons to release their creativity.<16> As Piers Schmidt claims, "it’s all about collaboration", and to this end the aim is to get CEOs mixing with eco-activists like Swampy to discuss environmental issues over breakfast.

The relationship between Cap Gemini and the ICA and Swampy’s proposed breakfast with CEOs at the Fourth Room indicates that terms such as ‘collaboration’ can be utilised to mask a variety of vested interests. The recent shift in terminology regarding arts funding (i.e. away from ‘sponsored by’ towards ‘co-production’, ‘in partnership with’, ‘in association with’ and ‘co-produced by’) is also indicative of a new agenda based on alliances and an increased corporate decision-making role in cultural programming. A signal event in this diversification was the UK-based Association of Business Sponsorship of the Arts (ABSA) rebranding itself as Arts & Business (A&B), in the conviction that "the arts are the new secret weapon of business success". As a government funded organisation A&B have taken collaboration and alliances a step further through the Professional Development Programme and the NatWest Board Bank, which has placed 1500 young executives on the boards of arts companies.<17>

The Creative Forum members at A&B, who include American Express Europe, Arthur Andersen and Interbrand Newell and Sorrell, are seen as the ‘shock troops’ in the involvement of arts in companies and as a result A&B receive £5.05m a year from the government to run the Pairing Scheme. The arts organisations, it is claimed, gain from the decision making and entrepreneurial skills of the executives, while the executives gain valuable experience in creative processes through working with artists.

Other examples of recent collaborations follow an informal, networked and often hidden alliance-type arrangement between galleries, public institutions and corporations. An alliance-type project covered by this new lexicon is the Fig-1 website, project space and club founded by curator Mark Francis and gallerist Jay Jopling and financed by Bloomberg, the financial information company. Fig-1 aims to present 50 projects in 50 weeks; given such a collaboration, the claim to be simultaneously "in association with" Bloomberg and "independent, non-profit [and] free from institutional and commercial obligations" seems curiously paradoxical.<18> Rather, it appears that Fig-1 operates as a (principally new media) satellite organisation for White Cube and a cultural scratch-and-sniff site for Bloomberg.

We turn finally to a consideration of what might be termed ‘political engagement’. In order to meet the challenge posed by these new alliances and networked global businesses, new forms of flexible and subversive organisation have emerged that can disperse and re-form anywhere, at any time.<19> These strategic movements also take into account the fact that company networks and hollow organisations actively solicit and harness counter discourses to service the illusion of dissent and dialogue.<20> In a networked culture, the topographical metaphor of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ has become increasingly untenable. As all sectors loosen their physical structures, flatten out, form alliances and dispense with tangible centres, the oppositionality that has characterised previous forms of protest and resistance is finished as a useful model.

In the cultural sector (particularly the ‘cutting edge’ art world), with so many brokers acting as corporate-friendly conduits to an artificially constructed ‘outside’, ‘marginal’ and ‘socially engaged’ culture, it should come as no surprise that these oppositional metaphors, for some, are difficult to dispense with.<21> Yet in contrast to such attitudes, more astute activists and agitators who once spoke of critical distance now recognise that their challenge lies in the forms and quality of access and connection. Fittingly, a useful new metaphor for this challenge comes from the world of digital systems. In a networked society individuals and groups are constantly alternating between ‘on’ and ‘off’. As a result we can expect to see emerging new forms of ‘engagement’ which exercise border controls on networks, withhold, filter and restrict access to information and disable ‘eavesdropping’ strategies and ‘early warning systems’ employed by business consultancies, corporations and public institutions.<22> The extent and nature of these forms is still to be determined and will be examined more closely at a later date. But it can already be asserted that informal networks have become extremely effective forms of counter organisation in the sense that — just as with corporate alliances — it is extremely difficult to define their boundaries and identify who belongs to them. Informal networks are also replacing older political groups based on formal rules and fixed organisational structures and chains of command. The emergence of a decentralised transnational network-based protest movement represents a significant threat to those sectors that are slow in transforming themselves from local and centralised hierarchical bureaucracies into flat, networked organisations.

These developments are taking place against a backdrop of waning confidence and belief in the ability of governments to regulate the growing power of global corporations and their networks of influence. But thanks to corporate restructuring and the access it provides to global networks, new forms of knowledge-based political engagement promise possibilities and scales of effect previously unimaginable.

Anthony Davies and Simon Ford <sford AT>

FOOTNOTES:<1> Graham, George, ‘Overseas banks warned on London’ and Graham, George and Timewell, Stephen, ‘City confident of keeping status’, The Banker supplement, Financial Times, 27 November 1997.

<2> Grass, Doris and Boland, Vincent, ‘Deutsche Börse board split on link up with the LSE’, Financial Times, 13 July 2000; and Simonian, Haig, ‘German tax reforms set to aid investors’, Financial Times, 15 July 2000.

<3> Powell, Nicholas, ‘Avant-garde flock to Berlin’, Financial Times Weekend, 3/4 October 1998.

<4> For a fuller discussion of these developments see Ford, Simon and Davies, Anthony, ‘Art Futures’, Art Monthly, no. 223, February 1999.

<5> For a discussion of this concept see Law, Andy, Open Minds, London: Orion Business, 1999; and Alburty, Stephen, ‘The Ad Agency to End All Ad Agencies’, Fast Company, no. 6, December 1996.

<6> The INNFORM research programme found widespread initiatives in almost all new forms of corporate organisation in the period 1992-1996. See Whittington, Richard et al, ‘New notions of organisational fit’, Financial Times, 29 November 1999.

<7> Centre for Research in Strategic Purchasing and Supply (CRISPS). Returning to core or creating a hollow? Bath: Bath University, 1999.

<8> See Capital Strategies, the city corporate finance house, ‘Education News’ at []

<9> Cap Gemini Ernst & Young is one of the world’s largest management consulting and computer services firms and has collaborated with the ICA on previous occasions, most notably Imaginaria ’99. The ICA’s definition of ‘cultural entrepreneur’ is derived from an earlier collaboration with Demos. See Leadbeater, Charles and Oakley, Kate, The Independents, Demos: London, November 1999.

<10> Duke, Sarah, The Club press release, 14 June 2000.

<11> Daniel, Caroline, ‘First Tuesday in sale talks’, Financial Times, 20 July 2000.

<12> Brown, Kevin, ‘DTI allocated funds to boost enterprise’, Financial Times, 17 July 2000.

<13> Schmidt, Piers, ‘Me and My Partner: Michael Wolff and Piers Schmidt’, The Independent, 7 April 1999.

<14> Jones, Helen, ‘Help is at hand to make the right contacts’, Financial Times, 12 February 1999.

<15> The Fourth Room, Invitation booklet, London: The Fourth Room, 2000.

<16> Deeble, Sandra, ‘Fourth Room opens the doors of perception’, Financial Times, 30 December 1999.

<17> See the Arts & Business website []; and Thorncroft, Antony, ‘From a cosy warm glow to hot support’, Financial Times, 6 September 1999.

<18> See its website []

<19> See, for example, Vidal, John, ‘The World@War’, The Guardian, Society Section, 19 January 2000.

<20> See Knight, Philip ‘A forum for improving globalisation’, Financial Times, August 1 2000, and Tomkins, Richard, ‘Global chief thinks locally (Douglas Daft is persuading protestors to drink cans of Coke, not smash them)’, Financial Times, August 1 2000.

<21> See Art Monthly, Editorial, February 2000, No 233: "It is hard to resist the lure of direct action, particularly for those of us frustrated by the inexorable process of commodification of even the most critical art practices, and by the marginal position occupied by art in our society as a whole." And exhibitions: ‘Unconvention’, Centre for the Visual Arts in Cardiff, November 1999 - Jan 2000, and ‘Crash’, Institute of Contemporary Arts, November 1999.

<22> See Carpenter, Merlin and Davies, Anthony, ‘The protest had already impacted on London in the form of its absence’, from the catalogue As a painter I call myself the estate of, Secession, Vienna, 2000.

Proud to be Flesh

Learning the Right Lessons

Whatever happened to tactical media? David Garcia, one of the genre’s early formulators, takes C6’s recent publication DIY Survival as an opportunity to reflect on the general state of cultural politics after its net propelled reinvention in the `90s. Concerned with the commercial cannibalisation of tactical media, he identifies a need to connect its ‘hit and run’ ephemerality with more permanent structures of resistance

In 2005, the London based artist/activist outfit C6 published DIY Survival, a short book to coincide with their show, Sold Out. In the intro C6 declare their aim to ‘produce a guide of tactical means for collective art making’. The result is an amalgam of bits and pieces, ranging from the serious and helpful through to the self-mocking and frankly trite. This material has been helpfully divided into three sections: DIY Theory, DIY How To and finally DIY Case Studies. Part of the book’s patchiness might be the result of a decision to minimise editorial intervention. Whether there was any selection is not quite clear. The intro tells us that the contents are the result of an open call put out to a number of sympathetic internet mailing lists, but it is unclear whether there was any further editorial selection or intervention. We are simply told that they were ‘immersed in a flood of responses’ and ‘decided that their task was to let chance take over’.

It is clear from the outset that this book addresses the area of practice that, a decade ago, some of us dubbed ‘tactical media’ – although C6 wisely avoid a term that has already become quasi-institutionalised. Nevertheless most aspects of what could be described as tactical media are represented in this book.

The term was originally coined to identify and describe a movement which occupied a ‘no man’s land’ on the borders of experimental media art, journalism and political activism, a zone that was, in part, made possible by the mass availability of a powerful and flexible new generation of media tools. This constellation of tools and disciplines was also accompanied by a distinctive set of rejections: of the position of objectivity in journalism, of the discipline and instrumentalism of traditional political movements, and finally of the mythic baggage and atavistic personality cults of the art world. This organised ‘negativity’ together with a love of fast, ephemeral, improvised collaborations gave this culture its own distinctive spirit and style and helped to usher in new levels of unpredictability and volatility to both cultural politics and the wider media landscape. But this was long ago and the practices have long since become a familiar part of the media diet. So the question arises as to whether or not C6’s DIY Survival is taking us anywhere new. Whatever the answer, it should at least give us the opportunity to take stock, and ask whether any parts of this kind of practice retains value or credibility in a world it helped to change.

The cover of DIY Survival is sharp and funny and immediately raises expectations. It is a clever simulation of an ‘Airfix’ style model building kit, featuring one of those ubiquitous plastic frames to which the components of model Apache helicopters, Sherman tanks and so forth were attached. But in this version we find instead the miniature parts needed to construct today’s media ‘freedom fighter’: camcorder, lap-top, balaclava, graffiti spray can etc. Although the book’s cover can compete for attention with anything on the magazine rack, once inside we are transported back into a ghetto – the world of the 1970s fanzines. There is even an ironic (I hope) nod to the punk godfathers of DIY culture, with endless images of safety pins appearing to hold the disparate bits of content together. Of course it’s all very knowing, displaying a desire to recuperate the fast and furious punk ethos using 21st century Print On Demand technology. The trouble is C6’s DIY Survival suffers badly in comparison with the angry high-octane visual flare of punk. It is not that this uniquely English sense of failure, madness and defiant hedonism has disappeared, but you’d be better off looking for it on the NeasdenControlCenter website or watching an episode of Black Books or even listening to the Baby Shambles.

But if we are able to turn a blind eye (and it’s difficult) to the style problems, there is some useful and informative stuff to be found, particularly in the DIY How To section which includes the hacklab mini-manual for building Linux networks from cast off terminals and a piece with tips for creating a wireless node. But all too often the good stuff is undermined by cheesy, cop out, self-mockery such as the ‘How to be a Citizen Reporter’ photo-style guide or the risible cardboard cut out for ‘Robot Buddies’. The accumulated effect does little more than suggest an enclosed micro culture every bit as self-regarding as the white cube art it purports to undermine.

The Homeopathic Option

In the DIY Theory section there are some valuable moments, but it would have been so much more accessible (or just readable) with a more active editorial presence. For instance, it is great to have some of the distinctive rhetorical style of Brazilian ‘Midia Tactica’ in Hernani Dimantas’s piece ‘Linkania – The Hyperconnected Multitude’. But the text’s value is undermined by too many unexplained references, such as one to Globo – Brazil’s near monopolistic media giant. On the level of detail this is a trivial complaint, but more importantly without some clearer context we lose a sense of the uniquely Brazilian ‘cannibalistic’ interpretation of media tactics.

Wisely the book chooses to kick off with its most coherent and tightly argued essay, Marcus Verhagen’s 'Of Avant Gardes and Tail Ends'. This piece is worth closer examination not least because it could be assembled into if not exactly a DIY Survival manifesto then at least an articulation of its core belief in art’s sovereign role as subversive agent. For the most part the text is a brief history of the gradual erosion of the avant garde’s subversive bite. Verhagen makes useful but overly simplified distinctions, such as his opposition between the ‘critical’ and the ‘hermetic’ avant garde. One of his most telling points is to have identified the way in which art has relinquished any aspiration to depict utopias in anything but ironic form. ‘The utopian imagery’, he writes, ‘once conceived by Signac and Leger as force for social renewal, is now the preserve of Benetton and Disney. How often are utopian visions offered without irony in contemporary art?’

This is just one of the arguments Verhagen mobilises to insist that the critical art and media which orientate themselves to traditional fine art contexts are pointless since the real power now lies elsewhere. He describes the contemporary landscape thus, ‘Hollywood film, the magazine advertisement, or hit single: these constitute a more powerful force than the concert hall or the museum, they more faithfully represent the dominant values of the day and are better suited to co-opting avant-gardist work; after all commoditisation is more effective than canonisation’.

In the last few paragraphs of the essay, Verhagen advocates deploying Frederic Jameson’s ‘homeopathic strategies’ that seem to consist of a Foucault-like process of ‘unmasking’ power – a form of ideology critique carried out with images. It is hard to see how this differs from the approach which has become a familiar part of visual art’s currency since the first wave of critical post-modernism of the 1970s and 80s where mass cultural phenomena are examined and reproduced to ‘reveal their internal workings, their means and objectives.’

Verhagen goes on to claim that ‘homeopathic works are more difficult for the mainstream culture to appropriate because they are already in some sense part of it.’ This is all too true but, far from representing the ultimate in subversion, such an approach results in producing mere epiphenomena of communicative capitalism not only tolerated but consumed by it with relish. It is not that cultural or information politics are not important, it is just that outside of a broader context and strategy of meaningful confrontations they are simply not enough.

In his final clarion call Verhagen declares that ‘the grand subversions of the nineteenth century are coming to seem almost quaint, homeopathic tactics are surely more effective’. I would argue that the direct opposite is the case. It is only when the ideology critiques of image (or code) are deployed as part of a more general strategy of direct action that things start to move. The case of the AIDS activist campaigning group ACT UP’s use of visual tactics in the 1990’s are a classic demonstration of how cultural politics can have real power.

Telestreets’ Dilemma

The report on the Italian Telestreets movement by Slavina Feat (mysteriously placed in the DIY How To section) encapsulates the limitations of the book whilst at the same time pointing to an instructive example. The report is about the Italian micro TV movement Telestreets and a sister organisation New Global Vision, a collective of Italian hackers who have used BitTorrent to disseminate an archive of radical political video on the net whilst also helping Telestreets to distribute local content nationally.

Feat’s report is another of DIY Survival’s missed opportunities. It goes no further than re-cycling the familiar Telestreets hype that has been doing the rounds for a couple of years. It fails to raise the questions that we need to ask about this movement. To begin with what is the status of the network today? Is it growing or shrinking, or did it, (as I suspect, but do not know) reach its high watermark nearly two years ago? Is Telestreets now in decline, or worse, in the process of fragmenting under the weight of its own internal contradictions? Surely a book with a critical agenda must aspire to more than publicity puffs like this.

The Telestreets example is important because it embodies some of the starker choices for those involved in tactical media. These dilemmas were already visible in a Telestreets meeting, which took place in Senigallia in 2004. This meeting coincided with the moment that the infamous Gasparri law was being pushed through the Italian parliament. This law, named after the then minister of communication, allowed Berlusconi to consolidate his domination of the Italian mediascape.

Nothing defines the connection between media power and political power so well, because so crudely, as the Berlusconi phenomenon and the passing of this bill. So given the fact that this was a defining moment for Telestreets, the choice to hold the meeting in Senigallia, a small coastal resort was surprising. Although there were good reasons for this choice, Franco Berardi (Bifo) lead a number of dissenting voices in arguing that Telestreets had missed the boat and that they urgently needed to raise the stakes and focus their energies on mobilising resistance against the Berlusconi regime. By over emphasising expressive or artistic interventions and micro-media at the expense of direct confrontation, Telestreets was slipping into irrelevance. Bifo ended his ‘hair raising’ speech by declaring ‘the last thing we should be doing is embrace our miserable marginality’.

The Old Split

This Telestreets anecdote illuminates three interconnected tendencies that have emerged since the tactical media of the ‘90s. Firstly there is a widespread rejection of the homeopathic and the micro-political in favour of ambitions scaled up to global proportions coupled with a willingness to move beyond electronic and semiotic civil disobedience and to engage in direct action, to literally ‘re-claim the streets’. This is almost entirely as a result of the emergence of the powerful global anti-capitalist movement that (from its perspective) has transformed tactical media into the ‘Indy-media’ project. But there is also a third less visible and more troubling tendency, a tendency towards internal polarisation. This polarisation is based on a deep split which has opened up between many of the activists at the core of the new political movements and the artists or theorists who, whilst continuing to see themselves as radicals, retain a belief in the importance of cultural (and information) politics in any movement for social transformation. Although I have little more than personal experience and anecdotal evidence to go on, it seems to me, that there is a significant growth in suspicion and frequently outright hostility among activists over the presence of art and artists in ‘the movement’, particularly those whose work cannot be immediately instrumentalised by the new ‘soldiers of the left’.

So what is it that has changed since the ‘90s to give rise to these tendencies? To understand we must cast our minds back to the peculiar historical conditions of that time. The early phase of tactical media re-injected a new energy into the flagging project of ‘cultural politics’. It fused the radical and pragmatic info politics of the hackers with well-established practice based critiques of representation. The resulting tactical media was also part of (and arguably compromised by) the wider internet and communications revolution of the ‘90s which, like the music of the 1960s, acted as a universal solvent not only dissolving disciplinary boundaries but also the boundaries separating long established political formations. The power some of us attributed to this new ‘media politics’ appeared to be born out by the role that all forms of media seemed to have played in the collapse of the Soviet Empire. It seemed as though old style armed insurrection had been superseded by digital dissent and media revolutions. It was as if the Samizdat spirit, extended and intensified by the proliferation of Do-it-yourself media, had rendered the centralised statist tyrannies of the Soviet Union untenable. Some of us allowed ourselves to believe that it would only be a matter of time before the same forces would challenge our own tired and tarnished oligarchies. Furthermore the speed and comparative bloodlessness of the Soviet collapse suggested that the transformations that were coming would not have to be achieved through violence or personal sacrifice. This would be the era of the painless ‘win win’ revolution in which change would occur simply through the hacker ethos of challenging the domains of forbidden knowledge. It came to be believed that top down power had lost its edge. As late as 1999 in his Reith lecture, Anthony Giddens could still confidently assert that ‘The information monopoly upon which the Soviet system was based had no future in an intrinsically open framework of global communications’.

Giddens and other third way social theorists were part of a wider movement who dreamed that the profound political differences that had divided previous generations had been put on hold. This was made credible through the ubiquity of one of the dominant myths of the information age, a myth shared by activists and new media entrepreneurs alike. The myth that knowledge will set you free. This founding narrative of techno-culture visible from Ted Nelson ‘Computer Lib’ onwards, recycles (in intensified form) the age old proposition that knowledge and freedom are not only connected but may actually entail one another.

The fact that a belief in the necessary relationship between knowledge and freedom has gone largely unquestioned is based in part on the depth of its lineage, ‘ancient stoics and most modern rationalists are at one with Christian teaching on this issue’. And ‘ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free’. As Isaiah Berlin pointed out in 1968, ‘This proposition is not self evidently true, if only on empirical grounds.’ It is, he asserted, ‘one of the least plausible beliefs ever entertained by profound and influential thinkers.’1 In addition to being fallacious the accompanying rhetoric of transparency, freedom, access, participation, and even creativity, has come to constitute the ideological foundation of ‘communicative capitalism’, transforming tactical media’s homeopathic micro-politics into the experimental wing of the so-called ‘creative industries’ and ‘corroborating the temporal mode of post-Fordist capital: short-termism.’ 2

Neo-liberalism’s effective capture of the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and ‘creativity’, has re-opened an old fault-line which the first wave of tactical media did so much to bridge; the fault-line dividing artists from political activists. The theorist and activist Brian Holmes described its origins as going (at least) as far back as the cultural politics of the1960s. He describes a split ‘between the traditional working-class concern for social justice and the New Left concern for individual emancipation and full recognition and expression of particular identities.’ According to this account corporate foundations and think tanks of the ‘80s and ‘90s have succeeded in inculcating market-oriented variations on earlier counter-cultural values, rendering the interventions of artists (including tactical media makers) profoundly if unwittingly, de-politicising. Holmes goes on to describe (or assert, I am not quite sure which) a critique in which ‘the narcissistic exploration of self, sexuality and identity become the leitmotif of bourgeois urban culture. Artistic freedom and artistic license have led, in effect, to the neo-liberalisation of culture.’3 The puritanical and authoritarian tone of this analysis is just a little unnerving. At the very least this tendency could lead to a crass and oppressive philistinism and might signal far worse to come.

Bifo’s plea at the Senegallia meeting in 2004 for Telestreets (and by extension all artist/activists) to scale up our ambitions is increasingly being answered. There is a growing number of inspiring cases which we can point to: the Yes Men’s achievement in securing global distribution in mainstream cinemas, Yomango’s high voltage contributions to the global, protest movement and’s extensive inititiatives in which the provision of indigenous activists with DIY media with their campaigns is connected to the legal processes of human rights. These and many other interventions are pointing to the growing willingness to strategically globalise dissent. This process has been accompanied by growing willingness to relinquish the cult of ‘ephemerality’ – one of the shibboleths of tactical media. In place of the hit and run guerrilla activism, the direct opposite is now required, ‘duration’. It’s a time for longer-term commitments and deeper engagements with the people and organisations networked around contested issues.

One of the most extraordinary examples of these developments is ‘Women on Waves’ a Dutch Foundation initiated by the Rebecca Gomperts who studied medicine at the University of Amsterdam and specialised as an abortion doctor and then went on to study visual arts at the Rietveld Academy and Sailing at the Enkhuizen Zeevaartschool (Nautical College). The most celebrated achievement of Women on Waves is the Abortion Boat, a large floating clinic that tactically exploits maritime law, anchoring the boat just outside the 12-mile zones of countries where abortion is forbidden. On the Abortion Boat women can be given information and terminations performed by a team of Dutch medical practitioners (including Dr Gomperts) on Dutch ‘territory’. Thus, women are actively assisted and local organisations are supported and inspired in their struggle to legalise abortion.

Along with the practical intervention of the Abortion Boat, Women on Waves also uses art and design as part of their global campaign for abortion rights. For instance the I had an Abortion installation consisting of vests on wire coat hangers printed with this statement in all European languages. On their website a diary can be found of a Brazilian woman relating her experiences of wearing one of these t-shirts. The continued validity of the modes of political address pioneered by tactical media are apparent in her account of how the message on these t-shirts was preferable to something like ‘Legalise Abortion!’ that might have read like earlier forms of agit prop. These t-shirts function ‘not’ she declares to ‘make myself a target. That was not the point; it was to give all those women without a face a support. As to say, don't worry, it's all right, you’re all right.’ This fulfils one of the prime directives of classical tactical media, unlike traditional agit prop, it is designed to invite discourse.

The example of Women on Waves is a reminder that cultural politics in its modern sense was in large part a creation of the women’s movement. Those who question its value would do well to remember that feminism also served to transform the lives and politics of many men who were taught (sometimes painfully) that they were failing to live out in their ordinary lives the democratic values they publicly espoused. The way in which ‘culture’ is central to feminism’s demands and not peripheral is powerfully explored by Terry Eagleton in his valuable book After Theory which describes the centrality of ‘the grammar’ in which the demands of feminism were framed. ‘Value, speech, image, experience and identity are here the very language of political struggle, as they are in all ethnic or sexual politics. Ways of feeling and forms of political representation are in the long run quite as crucial as child care provision or equal pay.’4 This expanded political language was articulated not by activists and writers alone but by many important women artists. Women artists were critical in shifting the centre of gravity of the art world of the ‘60s and ‘70s from Greenberg’s formalism to a new expressive and subject centred naturalism, which remains influential and important to this day. Whatever the ambiguities, impurities and problems, and there are plenty, we should not be tempted to relinquish the essential legacy of cultural politics.

DIY Survival is not alone in failing to face up to the dilemmas and choices that confront us. There is much in the realm of the activist/art scene that, like C6’s book, uncritically replicates myths of the information age along with the twin obsessions of the ratings-driven news cycle – spectacle and immediacy. If C6’s DIY Survival has achieved anything it is as a timely reminder of the need not only to move on and learn new lessons but also, crucially to learn the right lessons.

Info DiY Survival, eds. Betti Marenko & Leon C6, C6, 2005


1. Isaiah Berlin, ‘From Hope and Fear Set Free’, 1968 2.Ned Rossiter & Geert Lovink, ‘Dawn of the Organised Networks’, (2005) 3. Brian Holmes, ‘The Scandal of the Word “Class”: A Review of David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford UP, 2005)’, 4. Terry Eagleton, After Theory, (Penguin 2003)

Proud to be Flesh

Wide Area Disturbance

It is something of a cliché to say that net culture is in constant flux. However, recent seismic shifts in the political and cultural landscape brought about by the economic downturn, the further militarisation of American foreign policy after September 11 and the museumification of are forcing many to rethink the aims of electronic engagement. Here, interdisciplinary artist and writer Coco Fusco talks to hacktivist and Electronic Disturbance Theater member Ricardo Dominguez about the hybrid net_art_activism‚ past and future

Coco Fusco: Has there been a significant change in the focus of anti-globalisation activism in the aftermath of Genoa and the attack on the World Trade Center?

Ricardo Dominguez: No. Activists are still asking the same questions about neo-liberalism, and they are still using the same tactics to disrupt the gatherings of the G8 and the IMF around the globe. Interaction between the NGOs and street activists is the same – one leverages the other. Everyone seems to agree that the violence of Genoa and September 11 should not derail the use of non-violent direct action. In addition, the same critiques of the anti-globalisation movement persist: that it lacks a coherent ideology; that it does not offer any workable solutions to top-down globalisation; that it disregards the last 50 years of extremely violent struggle against neo-liberalism in the South. The South’s political and social thought offers possible reforms that can really challenge the North’s neo-liberal agenda and which shouldn’t be ignored. Many say that the cultural thought and political practices coming from Chiapas, Woomera, Porto Alegre and Kerala can displace the narcissism of activists in the North.

CF: But the activists in the North have to stop believing the media hype that represents them as the only protagonists of note in what is actually a global struggle against dehumanising policies and growing poverty. Activists in the third world have been subject to harassment, surveillance, imprisonment, torture and even disappearance for decades without receiving much attention from the North. While it may appeal to the leftist activists and netizens in the North to promote the idea that, in a post 9-11 world, they have all been deemed ‘the enemy’ in the same way that the entire Arab world has been designated as a target by the US military, this is simply not true. No hackers in the US have been singled out for investigation as a result of the passing of the Patriot Act – at least not yet. If we focus solely on what is happening to Americans and Europeans interested in social change and whether they are imperiled, we end up supporting the American position that posits ‘our’ victimisation as more significant than the rest of the world’s.

RD: Another important issue is the strategic viability of an ‘eventism’. The ‘tourism’ of city hopping from Seattle to Genoa is becoming an empty spectacle of violent confrontations for the media and policy makers, and the movement is being constrained by events organised by global power brokers. Issues beyond protest are being forgotten. This type of ‘eventism’ also dictates the distribution of information produced by net.activists working for Independent Media Centres and related websites. Perhaps it is time to turn towards another form of ‘eventism’ in order to dismantle neo-liberalism. The Zapatistas, for example, convoke their own events rather than responding to those organised by others.

CF: Do you see a shift in the attitude of street activists and NGOs regarding their sense of the viability or relevance of hacktivism?

RD: Yes. In 1998, when Electronic Disturbance Theatre (EDT) launched FloodNet, very few activists or hackers saw any use for direct action on-line. Between 1999 and 2001, EDT and other proponents of hacktivism began to have a marginal presence at Hacker and Street Activist conferences. 2600 is now calling for more panels on Independent Media Centres, street activism, hacking and hacktivism at their next event because net.activism was so well received at their last event. This is an important sign that activism may be moving more to the centre of hacking culture which may have a chance to gain some much needed political depth.

CF: EDT has not carried out any FloodNet actions in support of the Zapatistas during the past year. What has been happening with the Zapatistas in recent months?

RD: EDT has refrained from any actions because the Zapatistas have not made an international call for direct action against the Fox government at this time. They have been in a time of deep silence (since the two week march from Chiapas to Mexico City in March of 2001), thinking about the next stage of actions against the Mexican government’s development of the Puebla-Panama Plan. This entails building a 12 lane highway between Puebla, Mexico, and Panama that cuts right through Zapatista lands. The Zapatistas are also pushing for changes to the Indigenous Bill of Rights that the Mexican Government first accepted and then gutted of any social relevance. The Zapatista use of the internet as a voice multiplier and organisational tool since 1994 should be considered one of the most important activist gestures of the ‘90s – many see a direct connection between the Seattle actions and the Zapatista’s call for the development of the International Network of Struggle and Resistance at the start of 1996.

CF: EDT does have another project in the works called ‘Anchor for Witnessing’. How does it expand the purview of online political engagement?

RD: ‘Anchors for Witnessing: Counter-Surveillance for Off-Grid Communities’ is an attempt to take on the issue of surveillance which is now so important, not only as a mechanism of social control, but also as the latest new growth market in the Guarded Society. In 1998, when the media started to ask EDT about what new tactics the Zapatistas were developing, we said that they were constructing ‘wireless video servers (Anchors)’ to upload real-time netcast video of human rights abuses by paramilitary and the Mexican Military. At the time this was just an idea we thought of presenting as an intimidation strategy. Now EDT is making this a reality. These wireless ‘Anchors’ will use the technologies developed by corporate and military communities in the first world to centralise control of indigenous lands. But we will be making them available to those who are usually the targets of surveillance so they can document the abuses that they are regularly subjected to. The speed of transmission helps to prevent governments or other power structures from succeeding in suppressing information.

CF: Unlike other well known hacktivists groups, EDT’s activities have been absorbed by the art world in general and the community in particular. Documentation of your actions has been included in numerous exhibitions and publications, and your work has been presented widely in theatre and performance conferences. Why do you think that your particular blend of HTML détournment and political critique of neo-liberalism has been interpreted as ‘art’?

RD: We consider our project to be an example of radical aesthetics. We see ourselves as artists and theorists. We also felt that our poetics, with its emphasis on simulation, transparency, mass agency and negative casting of the networks allowed a complex social sculpture to emerge that was not part of the self-referential fetish of code qua code. FloodNet established a mode of telepresence that was bound to the conditions of the social beyond the digital domain. for EDT offers the possibility not only for a human story to become present for many by viewing the artwork, but also for a moment of political solidarity with a distant ‘Other’ to emerge.

CF: In writing about your art in the past, I have stressed its relevance as conceptual sculpture in the tradition of working with negative space, and its connection with a Latin American tradition of infusing minimal strategies with political content.<1> For instance, in the way you convert the game of foregrounding 404 files (a status code which tells you that a requested page was not found) into an indictment of governmental negligence. It is equally important that your work politicises connectivity and interactivity by calling on its users to assume an ethical stance vis-à-vis a distant Other. In this sense, the work undermines what I would call the telematic fantasy of net.culture; that is, the assumption that communicating across vast distances represents a radical gesture in and of itself. ‘Dolores from 10h to 22h’ extends this experiment with another form of simulation (the docu-drama), bringing a human story from the South into the context to focus on the audience’s relationship to viewing the political violence of everyday life in a maquiladora.<2> However, judging from the rather flip interventions in the chat room, it would seem that viewers show their ‘better selves’ more effectively when they are called upon to engage in simulated aggression against an Oedipalised power source (i.e. jamming a server) than when they are asked to reflect upon how their own attraction to net.spectacularity might interfere with their recognition of the grotesque inequities of the global economic order, and that their privileged position can be measured in relation to their voyeuristic pleasure. In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich argues that most successful couplings of simulation and real life action are the screens on fighter planes that assist the pilots engaged in warfare. I would argue that a politicised practice will have to push this relationship more, to stop us from seeing the virtual space of the internet as an absolute representation of reality, the database as the sum total of knowledge and the power of seeing as something to indulge in solely for voyeuristic or narcissistic pleasure.

RD: Yes, I agree that right now aggressive simulation plays better than self-reflection about our relationship to the everyday abuse of workers in the South. Most of the work that falls between and net.activism tends to deal with the injection of the organic as an act of disturbance rather than as act of internal critique – be it Mongrel at the Tate, or EDT, or the Toywar. A project like ‘Dolores’ points to another space that is now emerging.

>> Image Dolores from 10 to 22 hrs, a net performance by Coco Fusco and Ricardo Dominguez, November 2001

CF: How does your extensive background in theatre as an actor and director affect your approach to activism, both on and offline? Does it explain your stress on conceiving of electronic civil disobedience as theatre?

RD: My background in classical theatre, agit-prop theatre and performance art, intermixed with my history of direct action on the streets, my involvement with Critical Art Ensemble, and the powerful theatre of resistance that Zapatismo created, allowed EDT to stage a dramatic sociological event. Our event was bound to a story that lucidly illustrates the social implications of top-down globalisation. EDT was able to create an ‘invisible theatre’ that moved many different individuals and organisations to make visceral responses in the cold space of code. So, my history in the theatre of emotion allowed me to build with the other members of EDT an organic and poetic staging of the unbearable weight of beings saying ‘Ya Basta!’ While EDT stresses that its performance involves a type of electronic civil disobedience, we do not say that it is the only form of electronic civil disobedience. Our gesture staged a simulation of a Distributed Denial of Service – the outcome of mass agency and digital liminality.<3> We move among net.hacking, net.activism, net.performance,, and those who have no at all. The Zapatista FloodNet and the Zapatista Tribal Port Scan are radical aesthetic data gestures that disturb the ontology of the networks without being bound to the networks. These gestures also point to a future form of life where mass mediated communication is not a fallen sphere of consumerism, but a ‘decisive space’, such as the one that Latin American media theorist Martin Barbero writes about, where it may be possible to redefine the social agora and to construct global democracies from the grass roots up.

CF: While it is true EDT was facilitated by the community, that very context of your emergence has shifted radically since 1998. has become part of the very museum and gallery world that it once saw itself as a reaction against. More and more, the net is used by ‘new media artists’ as a promotional vehicle for the sale of new media objects and/or live performances. The institutionalisation of has also entailed a certain containment of its political dimension. For example, it is documentation of your FloodNet actions that museums request for their online exhibitions, not the enactment of a hacktivist gesture. So far the recognition of hacktivism has not led to more dialogue between artists and museums about how can actively engage in institutional critique from within the museum space. On the contrary, now being showcased by major museums is for the most part techno-formalist and devoid of content, or so abstruse as to be virtually unreadable as political gesture. What would you say is the future of the political within practice in light of how cultural institutions are responding to it?

RD: A great deal has changed in the world since 1997. Many museums are now deeply involved in framing for public consumption. You can certainly see a difference rt that was presented at the Whitney Biennial in 2000, which presented work by and that was both political and performative. In 2002, the focus is on techno-formalist net.artists who are working very hard to become an objet d’art – and gain a foothold in the market. It is important for those artists working within a critical performative matrix not to be sidetracked by the latest techno-formalist fetish of museums or the gallery system. In the post 9/11 climate, it is more important than ever to push for aesthetic ‘voices’ that can bear witness to other worlds beyond the ideology of the War on Terrorism.

It is not clear whether institutions will take on the task of presenting political beyond simple documentation. This may start to happen if network_art_activism begins to establish stronger ties with the previous generations of artists who have faced the dismantling of the political in art – both in the North and the South – so that this very immature form which is can gain a sense of history about institutional critique, in order to develop both a deeper aesthetic and historical knowledge about what other artists have done before history was erased by the digital hype. I really don’t see the possibility of cultural support for political works like EDT’s Zapatista FloodNet any time soon. But for projects like ‘Anchors for Witnessing’ – yes, there is interest and support. For political art projects that are about distribution – yes, but for projects that ‘disturb’ – no.

CF: So as things now stand institutions want to fund projects that narrow the digital divide, but not ones that subvert the formalist tendencies of from within.

RD: Yes, projects that follow the market drive to plug everyone in, I think, will continue to gain more institutional presence and support. Those works which don’t fold into the other end of the market drive for formalist containment, or the pure presentation of code qua code, machines qua machines, like network_art_activism, will be left in the archives, and will never be supported as a live performance.

CF: You have mentioned several times that in gatherings of hacktivists and anti-globalisation activists many raise the question of how to bring the issues and activities of political artists and activists from the South or the Third World into the foreground more effectively? What do you propose as a means of making this happen?

RD: I don’t know if there is only one way to do this. Each little gesture builds towards a large social effect and we cannot expect one gesture to solve such a deep and intractable problem as the lack of presence of the voices from the South on the networks or in the anti-globalisation movement easily. But, I think we have a much better chance of having the issues and activities of artists from the Third World taken on by hacktivists, net.artists, autonomous networks and the ‘movement’ than we do from most other sectors in the North. As for suggestions for making this crossover happen, well, I think, in the next year you will see important email lists emerge that will attempt to create a more intercontinental understanding about political art and Lists that will question the institutionalisation of techno-formalism as the only type of of value. Lists that The Thing will host and archive []. Also, we will begin to see a deeper critique of the utopian politics on the Right and Left that only define themselves via the computer as a tool for political and cultural liberation. We will see more projects appearing on networks from regions and people that have been pushed Off-Grid for a very long time. For me, the answer right now is to build a hybrid media network that is somewhere between The Thing and Zapatismo – which means pushing forward down the same road I started on. But this time the work will be even more effective, distributed, and disturbing than EDT’s performance ever was – something to be wished for.


<1>The experimentation with negative space in western art is fundamental to the elaboration of foreground and background in painting and drawing, and to the development of sculpture that highlights how the space around a designated object defines the object even when that object is absent. This is not that different from our numerical system’s inclusion of the concept of zero, a cypher that represents nothing, and in doing so gives meaning to all other numbers. Gestalt psychology looks at the tendency to perceive form and pattern as figure against background. Constructivist Naum Gabo is usually credited with being the first sculptor to concentrate on negative space, having used voids to define shape with his Head No. 2 (1916). Modernist Michael Heizer with his earthworks consisting of gouged trenches and postmodernist Rachel Whiteread with her casting of negative spaces such as the inside of bathtubs and rooms, and the spaces under chairs, are among the better known artists working in this vein. See, Fusco, Coco, ‘The Unbearable Weightiness of Beings: Art in Mexico after NAFTA,’ in The Bodies That Were Not Ours and Other Writings, (London: Routledge and inIVA, 2001), pp. 186-201.

<2>Originally an Arabic term that entered colonial Mexico via Spain to signify the processing of foreign grains. It now refers to assembly plants to which foreign materials and parts are shipped and from which the finished product is returned to the original market. Those plants are located in free trade zones in Mexico and the Caribbean.

<3>On the Internet, a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) takes place when a system attacks a single target by overloading it with an automated repetition of a message. This action jams the server and causes denial of service for users of the targeted system. FloodNet on the other hand enabled a multiplicity of users to overload a system via the simultaneous, automated sending of messages from a range of sites. While DDoS does not require mass participation for effect, FloodNet acquires its force through collective engagement.

Coco Fusco <tongolele AT> is an artist and the author of The Bodies That Were Not Ours and Other Writings and English Is Broken Here: Notes on cultural Fusion in the Americas. She is Director of Graduate Study for the Visual Arts Program at Columbia University's School of Arts in New York

Ricardo Dominguez <rdom666 AT>

For coverage of ‘Dolores from 10h to 22h’ []FloodNet[]Electronic Disturbance Theatre []

Proud to be Flesh

Bill Posters is Guilty (On the cultural logic of ambient)

The concept of ambient has come a long way since Brian Eno’s Music for Airports in 1978. With its successful seepage into the world of art and advertising, its ubiquity has resulted in it becoming a fully-grown cultural logic in its own right. As advertisements now appear everywhere, from bus tickets through to toilet viewrinals, Neil Mulholland takes us on a tour of the latest developments in ambient brandalism, ambicommerce and jambient forms of culture jamming

As a cultural practice, ‘ambient’ has long been associated with the music of Eric Satie, Claude Debussy, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and Holger Czukay. This line of association owes much to Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978), music that invites both active and passive consumption. Eno’s ambient has been the raison d’être of numerous disciples, such as Air and Boards of Canada, producers of music aided and abetted by the crystalline uninterrupted play of Compact Disk. This canon of ambient music has been documented in numerous books, notably Mark Prendergast’s The Ambient Century (2000) and David Toop’s Ocean Of Sound (2001). Although these particular histories are significant, by clutching on to music, they miss out on wider definitions and articulations of ambient. By the end of the nineties, ambient wasn’t simply a record shop genre, it didn’t necessarily share the Zen ancestry of neo-dada, or the ethereal calm of Eno’s wallpaper music, or the hard-headed structure of music concrete; in some cases it wasn’t even audible. In the nineties the meanings of ambient were radically transformed and contested in numerous ways. Ambient became as viral and ubiquitous as ambience, no longer merely a cultural strategy, but a prevalent cultural logic.


In some spheres, ambient seemed to be (and predominantly remains) synonymous with the increasing popularity of ecology movements and ‘alternative’ non-Western thought in the rich post-industrial West. The ethnographic, transcultural world beat music of eighties acts such as Talking Heads and Dead Can Dance sanctioned numerous global trance records in the nineties. These ranged from the cult tranceuroxpress fashioned by Norway’s Biosphere, to the popular Baka chants and African rhymes mixed by France’s Deep Forest. Everyone from The Orb to the Art of Noise sampled and suckled on global beat. Global beat was a musical ideology that allowed ‘nature’ to be appropriated and reconstructed as a mirror of and for ‘culture’ with immeasurably varied levels of sophistication. Non-music, or ambient noise such as whale and forest sounds, was curiously juxtaposed with classical and world-musics, principally Gregorian, Celtic, African and Bulgarian song. In the hands of primitivist acts such as Enya, all samples became ambient in the sense that they could be commercially ascribed to fashionable neo-colonial and psycho-theological notions of the vernacular, the pastoral and the Edenic. As a vague audio representation of the global eco-politics, ambient music gained an authoritative hold amongst anyone who wanted to buy into New Age. Ambient was a polite, well-dressed native who might go unnoticed. It was therapeutic, domesticated and at peace with its surroundings, and hence a favourite of anyone who wanted to present themselves as ‘political, but not in a barricades sense.’ Ambient, in this sense, was a representation of politics, the simultaneous manifestation and exploitation of a burgeoning green economic sector. It was made for the nineties, a decade when people increasingly expressed their political beliefs through what they consumed while concurrently being uncomfortable with consumerism.

As a form of politics by osmosis, ambient offered a paradoxical solution to this dilemma, the solution being a denial of closure. At its best, this was manifested in the infinite run-on groove of Aphex Twin’s We Are the Music Makers (1991) and the concrete pastoralism of his Richard D. James Album (1996). However, since it produced few memorable commercial singles, the legacy of ambient primitivism tended to be a futile search for the sublime, a road to nowhere that can never be exhausted by the market. The evocation of the authority of nature found in lacklustre nineties chill-out techno eternally reverberates in today’s TV ads for nostalgic ambient CD compilations (and ubiquitous organic products). Nocturnal nineties westerners sought supplementary ‘nature’, but they wanted it in the right place at the right time, preferably electronically generated in the back room of a sweaty industrial club. Now they can bung it on the Bang & Olufsen and align chakras at home. This is befitting of the duplicitous and incongruous politics of the rave movement in the early nineties. Deeply narcissistic yet supposedly eco-friendly, demanding, like a sub fusc situationist, the right to party before the right to work, the passive nihilism of ambient techno is one source of our current ambient polity.

In the nineties, this particular brand of ambient practice coexisted with more comprehensive critiques of the environment that drew on rearticulations of spatial and temporal meaning found in postmodern critical social theory, anthropology and geography. These critiques drew attention to the ways in which environments are engendered, empowered and contested by subtle and palpable means. The intimacies of postmodern geographies explored by figures such as Marc Augé, Anthony Vidler, Doreen Massey and Edward Soja built on earlier ambient texts such as Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1969), Robert Harbison’s Eccentric Spaces (1977) and Jacques Attali’s Noise: the Political Economy of Music (1977). Augé’s Non-Places: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Supermodernity (1990), quickly became the Music for Airports of the nineties. The main stumbling block for nineties artists concerned with intangible social spaces, sonic flyposting and geo-political contexts seems to be that too much capital was made in the eighties of the ambient arena of social theory by the neo-avant-garde, artists who had culturally bowdlerised and exemplified postmodernisms to death. Artists such as Barbara Kruger and Krzysztof Wodiczko had carefully fostered ethical engagement with the built environment, considering the city as a stage and script. Nevertheless, such artists lacked an important element of the nineties ambient aesthetic; morphologically, they tended to bellow rather than emphasise the timbrel virtues of the voice. Their well-manicured, big-budget, spectacular, political art retained fewer supporters in the nineties, when situationist writings found new audiences. Nineties artists could not naïvely seek to recover situationist metaphysics, nor did they wish to be regarded as the inheritors of the ‘genuine’ political avant-garde, rather they sought provisional respite from critical postmodernism’s epistemological hole (the liar’s paradox) and its exasperating moral courteousness.

Nineties artists re-examined ambient critiques of spatial temporality, remodelling maps and re-exploring ‘alternative’ psychologies of space from a perspective that was politically detached yet aesthetically absorbed by late avant-garde tactics. The situationist industry of the later nineties belatedly academicised and commercialised the anticipation and zeal that accompanied the rediscovery of (well-worn) counter-cultural tactics practiced by hooligan politicos in the late sixties and early seventies. Nevertheless, for a short time, replicating these strategies again as style had its benefits, chiefly helping to mitigate (rather than repudiate) the stifling theoretical injunctions of critical postmodernism in favour of more playful and subtle approaches focussed towards non-specialist audiences. Artist Shepard Fairey, who began his viral Obey Giant propaganda in Rhode Island in 1989 as ‘an experiment in phenomenology’, now has volunteer operatives bombing around the globe, manufacturing dissent by generating desire for a product (the late wrestler Andre the Giant) that does not exist. In Glasgow during 1990, such ambient approaches were particularly attractive to artists such as Ross Sinclair, David Shrigley and Jonathan Monk who spent that year re-narrating the city as an architectural uncanny, detourning posters (Monk’s Cancelled) and transforming derelict public toilets into bars (Shrigley’s The Ship). Given that it was produced during an economic recession, this ambiart had to differ from that produced by artists such as Kruger and Wodiczko; it was very cheap, simple (much of it was spontaneous), and effective (it spread by word of mouth). Crucially, given its lack of closure, such work was, like the run-on grooves of ambient techno, ethically nonchalant. At that cultural moment, it did not matter if artists produced such stunts; nor did it matter if anyone ever saw them, they were whispering campaigns with nothing to promote and nothing to lose. Unlike later ambient practices by contemporaries – such as Adam Chodzko’s God Look Alike Contest (1992-3) and Mark Wallinger A Real Work of Art (1994) – this group of artists received no official artworld acclaim for their quintessentially timbrel poeticisation of space.

In the nineties, postmodernist ideas of interrupting the equilibrium and continuity of temporal space by exploring ambient strategies were gradually disassociated from their traditional strongholds of academia, architecture and art. This gave certain sectors of ambient a renewed sense of energy and vigour and the political determination for action. Ambient politics were most tenaciously evident in the culture jamming of pop bands such as the Kopyright Liberation Front and Negativland, groups who did see themselves as inheritors of post-situationist avant-gardism. KLF’s White Room (1991) exploited the demand for chill out primitivist ambience to fund their inimitable anti-art agenda – a vitalising blend of hacking, pranks, plagiarism, disinformation, forgeries, nonsense, poetic terrorism, psuedoscience and sabotage. Internationally, self-trained culture jammers were quick to embrace virtual spaces and new media as globalised level playing fields. Nevertheless, much jambient took place in the built environment as witty direct actions, and frequently exhibited ecological concerns. Vancouver Sodders, for example, rented out busy city car parking spaces for sunbathing on deckchairs.

In the nineties, billboard liberation projects, popular since the late seventies, were corporatised by organisations such as Adbusters, who attempted to bankroll dissent. Conceptually and economically, Adbusters’s glossy anti-corporate corporate strategy was perfect for the nineties in the way that it presented opposition as both legitimate and aspirational. Many of its campaigns focused on global corporations that produce unhealthy products such as fast food, tobacco and alcohol (Absolute Nonsense) or had bad employment rights records. Subvertisements such as Buy Nothing Day and Turn off TV were sanctimonious enough to appeal to the paternalism of liberal and puritan Americans alike, providing a privately financed simulacral welfare state. Fighting fire with fire (a tactic exhausted by pop situationists such as Malcolm McLaren in the early eighties), Adbusters embodied the oxymoronic politics of ambient as much as Benneton’s Colors magazine or Naomi Klein’s No Logo: instrumentalist charity remixed.

The avant-garde ambientertainment pioneered by groups such as the KLF, meanwhile, gained momentum among media terrorists such as Chris Morris who took jamming to mass audiences in the UK with self-reflexive TV news spoofs The Day Today (1994) and Brass Eye (1997). Morris satirised the consequentialism of nineties anti-corporate corporatism by fusing the concerns of ambient music and guerrilla politics to the point where both collapsed into style. The Animals episode of Brass Eye negated nineties negation, giving the animal rights movement (or rather its representations) the same treatment as third-rate celebrities and lacklustre politicians. Morris’s return to radio to produce the Radio One programme Blue Jam (1998-99) marked a fitting epitaph to the decade. The programme impeccably travestied the ambient musical genre, mixing smooth jazz loops, ambient groove, trance, trip-hop, drum ‘n’ bass, rock, techno, pop, dub and funk – overlaying them with the avant-argots of a dark comic mind.

By the mid-nineties, ambient was big business in both political and leisure terms. As business clients became increasingly worried about cost effectiveness during the economic recession of the early nineties, the latter half of the decade saw ambient forms of jamming become increasingly common in European advertising, mirroring the impact of the recession on artists working in the built environment. In Britain, ambient advertising, a fledgling sector in 1995 worth £10 million, is expected to be worth £110million by the end of 2002. Ambient strategies have varied enormously, ranging from guerrilla marketing stunts, viral e-mails and fly posting to targeted text messaging. Environmental art has been heavily sourced by guerrilla stunt-driven outfits such as Cunning Stunts, who famously projected naked TV presenter Gail Porter on to Westminster to publicise men’s magazine FHM. The Independent followed, creating its own news by projecting ‘To Let’ onto Parliament during the 1997 general election. Wodiczko’s favoured form of intervention has long been used by cultural jammers such as comedian Mark Thomas (who projected 007 onto the MI6 building in London). Due to the popularity of this tactic amongst ambient advertisers, this has since been made an offence (but commercial pranksters simply add the fines to their fees). Glocal community action has been exploited and parodied by groups such as Diabolical Liberties, who last year were responsible for the viral ‘Save Our Local Takeaways’ campaign fronted by former World’s Strongest Man, Geoff Capes. Numerous chippies and kebab houses as well as BBC Radio 4, Loaded, and the local press were scammed into promoting Snack Stop instant noodles, a new product from powdered baby milk connoisseurs Nestlé. Jamming-style ad pranksters seek radical chic to attract further publicity; no product is taboo, no space secure from reification. This March, Acclaim Entertainment promoted the launch of Shadowman 2, on PlayStation2, by inviting bereaved relatives to allow ad placements on relatives’ gravestones.

Towards the end of the nineties, commercials appeared practically everywhere, from gas silos and shaved heads to shroud wraps on scaffolding. Public spaces were highly sought after by ambient media groups who maintained the sites and sold site-specific solutions to their growing list of clients. In Britain, spaces were practically monopolised on petrol pumps (Alvern Forecourt Media), on sandwich bags and take-away containers (Bag Media), on over 10 billion ticket bus and train tickets (Ticketmedia and Madmedia’s Radion scented bus tickets), toilets (CPA Washroom Advertising and Captive View’s sensor equipped ‘Viewrinals’), changing rooms (Fitting Exposure), free postcards (Boomerang Media), phone boxes (Phonesites), Vespas (SkootMedia), shopping trolleys (The Media Vehicle), milk bottles (Milk Media), the bottom of beer glasses (PintAds), dining tables (Tablemedia), park benches (Benchmark), the floors of car parks and train stations (Face-IT Media) and on plasma screens installed inside buses (Media Initiatives). Such ambient marketing sought to circumvent the brand-saturated world by targeting increasingly fragmented audiences directly. In the UK, In Your Space placed airline adverts on trucks travelling along congested motorways, and FCA wrote ads for holidays in Wales into the grime of white vans stuck in London commuter traffic. Captive and gender specific spaces such as toilets, changing rooms and bars particularly appealed to clients interested in targeting customers when they are most susceptible to suggestion, such as when they are already consuming or when they’re drunk. Science fiction currently plays a key role, with many ambicommerce strategists pre-empting dystopian fictions such as Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. Blade Runneresque images can be projected into the air by a 3D imager developed by the Media Vehicle. Borrowing an idea from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Metrocom are currently preparing to run commercials inside dark London Underground tunnels, mounting light boxes onto the tunnel wall to produce flick-book style moving pictures. The resources available to such organisations outstrip those available to the growing numbers seeking to reclaim public space from private hands. The will to regain the public canvas from ambient interlopers is not supported by the Third Way; rather it is actively discouraged by PPP schemes. Politically, economically and organisationally, ambicommerce is seeking to gain the upper hand. To increase their list of blue-chip clients and to fend off growing complaints from the Advertising Standards Authority, four British companies within the sector have sought to regulate themselves, breaking from the Outdoor Advertising Association to form The Out of Home Media Association in May. A common code of practice for the ambient industry will not restrain rebel ambient companies who know that cheap, inventive guerrilla marketing will always be desirable. Ambient brandalism may be the new spam that jammers seek to police, but ambient creatives are well aware of the opposition’s tactics, since what they practice is a logical outcome of edit culture and its critique. In addition to financial restraints, the ambient commercial proliferation opposed by jammers was spawned by an astute awareness of space created by young graduates’ knowledge of postmodern geographies and semiotic critiques of advertising. Semiotic Solutions’ disdain for market research in favour of semiotic analysis seems to confirm that ambient is a cultural Möbius strip. Ambient is lean-burning and sustainable; it will expand exponentially with its own critique.

Neil Mulholland <n.mulholland AT> is Lecturer in Contemporary Art at the Centre for Visual & Cultural Studies, Edinburgh College of Art

Proud to be Flesh

Countdown to Zero, Count up to Now (An interview with the Artist Placement Group)

We hear a lot about the disappearance of the public sphere these days. We also hear a lot about a group of 1960s conceptualists called the Artist Placement Group, who brokered some of the earliest artists’ residencies in industry and government in the UK. In 1966, when APG was founded, the art world regarded ‘tangling with the dirt’ of commerce and the public sector as an anomaly, even an aberration within art. Today, on the other hand, such tangling has come to define large swathes of artistic practice. Operating with few precedents, APG worked hard to formulate a rigorous methodology of engagement – one that makes many of today’s ubiquitous residencies appear complacent, and complicit, by comparison. With art having long since burst its disciplinary banks, APG’s early excursions outside the white cube’s perimeter also shed light on the emerging hybrid landscape of business art, art & science, socially engaged art and even network art. This summer, Josephine Berry and Pauline van Mourik Broekman talked to APG co-founders Barbara Steveni and John Latham, both artists in their own right, and discovered their sometimes quite different approaches to the organisation and its implications

Key:JB > Josephine BerryJL > John LathamBS > Barbara SteveniPB > Pauline van Mourik Broekman


JB: Could you describe the cultural context in which APG and its thinking came about?

JL: It’s a quite complicated beginning. I was teaching in St. Martins and Barbara came up with this idea: why don’t we go into the factories? These were no-go areas at that moment – and I think she had contact with the Fluxus group. There were high tensions in the art world about having anything to do with organisations of the industrial-commercial kind. They wanted to use art as something prestigious.

BS: Might I come in there? John was in America just at the time, and the Fluxus group came to stay in our house and they were going to do an exhibition in, I think it was called Gallery One – they wanted some material. And I said, I’ll go to the outer circular road, to the industrial estate, and I’ll pick up some material. So I went there, and I got lost in the industrial estate, and it was dead of night, but the factory was absolutely booming away and I thought: well why aren’t we here? Not to pick up buckets of plastic, but because there’s a whole life that we don’t touch. This is what people go on about – academics, artists, politicians – but they go nowhere near it. That was where the idea got born, and when John came back I told him about it.

At that time, artist types like Stuart and Deborah Brisley, John, myself and others, were doing events and happenings in the street – like Peter Kuttner’s Nodnol Lives. Very much out of the gallery and into the street. Looking at a reaction against the object and its value for the market – so that was the sort of context out of which it came. As John was saying, the whole idea of fine artists having anything to do with commerce and stuff was, like, real dirty. But the idea of context, ‘Context is Half the Work’ which John coined, developed into a main APG/O+I axiom [APG became Organisation and Imagaination (O+I) in 1989] through to today, developed as a result of making approaches to industry.

JB: Were you interested in Russian Constructivism as an example of artists going into industrial situations and contexts. Was that known about in London at that time?

BS: It was known about, and especially John was much more into art history. I was into life experience. In fact I had no schooling.

JL: At that time, I was oblivious of art history. I just did what I’d been touched off by as an art experience. It was like seeing something so intensely moving that I had to understand it. And I didn’t bother about the art history. When people talked about Picasso I said, well who’s he?

BS: And I became very interested, when going into the factories, in the social role of the people, the individuals in there, and how they were connecting up to what they were doing. And what was it that the organisation was doing that they were in. And all that developed out of a real interest and questioning which I guess now would be called research. I think they thought I was a sociologist since I’d remarked at British Leyland, for example, on the fact that women worked only in the trimming shops, but they couldn’t be found in other parts of the factory. So my interest was in the role and the purpose of individuals, and their relation to the wider unit beyond, and John’s was what the language was doing.

JB: Was meshing your quite different sensibilities around APG a fairly natural progression? You’re saying that you had this more hands-on sociological approach and John was interested in, you might say, more esoteric areas of physics and language.

JL: I want to answer that one. I was a brush painter, gone into what it was I’d been hit by. As a brush painter, it was a completely irrelevant thing to do to think about having anything to do with anything else really. It was a closed little research establishment to put it in a friendly way – or a waste of time, to put it in another. But I met two scientists, C.C.L. Gregory and Anita Kohsen, who were crossing their disciplines, and who were very dedicated to finding what the difference was between physical and human animal behaviour. Now they’d gone into partnership and we got an introduction to meet them because they lived in the neighbourhood and, as time went on, they suddenly paid a visit, and the professor of astronomy said: Would you like to do a mural for a party we’re giving on Halloween night? Now I’ve told this story before, but the long and the short of it is that I discovered that a spray gun is a very meaningful instrument for getting over what had happened in painting – which was a countdown to zero. A countdown to zero starts from complete confidence in spatial appearances and in the skill that you’ve got in the mid 19th century, say with Delacroix, to a complete rejection of the idea that the spatial appearance of the world is anything but an illusion. That life is an illusion. And it was emphasised by the discoveries from Max Planck in 1900, who came up with the idea of the discrete bit, that everything was made up of discrete events basically. And you don’t find an interval between the discrete events. And this was very important because scientists can’t talk about event structure. Physicists refer to waves and particles in space-time.

PB: And how did this relate to the spray gun?

JL: This is accounting for it after the event. There had been a blank unmarked canvas exhibited as a work and what that meant was that all art is on a par with no action. That was a very high powered, challenging statement.

JB: Was that Rauschenberg?

JL: Yes. Well, he worked a lot with Cage, and Cage may have been responsible for the idea in the beginning – a zero sound concert – the same kind of thing. But what was important was the blank white board, and taking the spray gun to register a history on it with discrete marks of an accretive process that had permanence. Once a point mark has gone down, it doesn’t disappear. And an inference that I drew later on was that this is an insistently recurrent event that makes it seem permanent. And an insistently recurrent event is like a quantum unit of light, it doesn’t have an interval between its discrete bits. I think you’ll come to see that this is very important: what we regard as time is counting. Counting via caesium atoms, clocks, days, years. And very high frequencies in the Planck world give us new techniques. It goes down to something really beyond what we can either repeat or imagine. An initial Insistently Recurrent Event (IRE) is an oscillation between nothing – the blank canvas – and a point mark, and it translates as a proto-event universe.

JB: If you extrapolate from that, does that oscillation suggest the ever present and explosive possibility of transformation? If reality has to reaffirm itself in this insistently recurrent way, is that an instability?

JL: The most logical series is what I’m really talking about. What we have to do is get past this idea of the Big Bang having started out of nothing. Physics has come to a point where it’s very practical. You can find out what happens with most things. But it’s got a problem, which Stephen Hawking refers to about once every ten years. And that is an admission that – and he said it in so many words – we don’t know where to begin. At one time it was, ‘if we haven’t solved it by the end of century we won’t know where to begin.’ And at the end of the century he said on CNN: ‘let the twenty years start now.’ It was the admission that it’s too big a problem and we don’t know where to begin.

Well, the arts had proposed not that the world starts with a bang but that it starts from a prehistory of an event structure which has a non-extended starting line, equivalent to the score in music, that’s to say, not heard as sound. A non-extended state doesn’t show up in physics, it’s not allowed. What you do find though, and one of the ideas that compensates for it is called a vacuum. Now vacuum is a spatial word, you can’t have vacuum in no space, or it’s a nonsense to talk about it. But they can talk about it happily because there’s a quantum vacuum which means the non-space in between the two extended states which form the positive side of the wave. The vacuum is a state nought – very easy to translate into artists terms. If you go into the structure of a concert you experience a clock time duration; a thing starts with a waving of a stick, say, and ends with another waving of a stick. This is in ‘count’ time, say in the minutes between the start and the finish. The performance is an ordering of time-bases or frequencies, rhythms, and pause lengths. With the score aspect of time these make up the three components of three dimensional time, which now constitute the dynamics of a musical performance. So there you’ve got a score which is timeless apparently, but it has such control over what goes on in time that you have an equivalent there for an atemporal, omnipresent coding. It’s not a coding so much as a matrix of previous experience.

JB: Is that the Least Event for you?

JL: Can I say yes? The Least Event in music, you could understand as somebody recognising that a sound was interesting and feeling the do-it-again impulse. The do-it-again impulse is equivalent to saying insistently recurrent. Those two ideas belong together, because what then happens is we’ll do it again and then we’ll do it differently. And if you can think of a proto-event, a universe in a state where there isn’t anything, a total zero extension in space and time, if you can imagine that series in a non-extended context, and it then becomes a habit within that non-extended state, you find that there are performances which are enactments from a score which grow in complexity all the time.

Well, the event-structured world is what the artist naturally works in. We work in it, deriding all the common sense objections and adulations and all the blah-blahs that come in from the outside and which are totally irrelevant to what goes on that’s exciting to do, say, on a wall. It’s that interest, that kind of impulse which is important because it reveals the actual universe to people who are totally blown by the fact that, to quote Stephen Hawking, we don’t know where to begin. They all seem to know what they ought to do next because they have a medium for how to exchange value. And it’s flawed just the same as the verbal medium.

JB: You mean money?

JL: Language and money together.

PB: Sticking with the cultural context of the ‘60s, if you were engaged with this critique of objects and their role as vehicles of value in the art system, how did your critique of language relate to the fact that a lot of other artists were precisely using language as an agent of dematerialisation, as a questioning, philosophical method – all of which they thought could challenge the same system of value, objects and spatial relations?

JL: I think what was intensely interesting in the history of ideas is that people always thought in a dualistic way. They’ve always thought that things are things, but we are not things. We are inhabited by mysterious forces. The most recent quotee is Descartes, who set philosophy on the course of two worlds. There came a point in the early 20th century, in Cambridge, where you found Bertrand Russell cooperating in mathematical philosophy. And he got a communication from Vienna, from Wittgenstein, who as a young punter had said: how about this, is this any use, or is it total nonsense? And Russell wrote back and said: no it’s wonderful, come over and talk to us about it. And the nugget of what Wittgenstein was on about was that they would talk through and discover an atomic proposition or perhaps a set of atomic propositions which are basic and indestructible.

JB: For language you mean?

JL: For language and logic. It’s an attempt to systematise language logic. If we actually go into what then happened – 1912 I think was the initial date in a period where the idea of the Tractatus was being written. He argued the case of the atomic propositions and it got published at the end of the World War One. Wittgenstein had to go and fight in the Austrian army. He then returned to Cambridge and found that he didn’t get on with anybody except the economist Keynes. That was his last sort of friend there, and he disappeared to Norway and places. He was thoroughly frustrated when things didn’t work for the atomic propositions.

Well, 1951 is the date that I quote anyway, of the Cage and Rauschenberg zero action works. It’s also the date of the posthumous publication of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations which says, at the beginning, that the idea of the atomic propositions must have been mistaken. I’ll now go over the bits and bits, sorting out what we mean by and what are useful types of expression. And he’s famous for the second. But he’s famous for starting a movement in philosophy which then went into its opposite, into reverse. He was the trigger for a big effort to get, even with what physics had found out, at the indestructible basic unit which is still not there. It wasn’t identified. We’re still looking for a particle, still spending billions of pounds in crashing one particle against another in these circuits, looking for an initiating particle or state.

Well, the point for us is that if you think in terms of event, you don’t go into all that language and all those heavy equations about the behaviour of matter because we’ve found forms for visualising the event structure. It’s represented on the back of my Time-Base Roller as a memory, like a piece of music, which has got all music behind it so it can go as far back as a proto-Universe. Whereas one bit of an extended state has neither location nor interval. Two Least extended states together set up what we call time, the initial kind of extendedness. We then go to scientific people and they tend to say, well you’ve got to actually describe what space is, and we talked to someone who was interested in the idea and he said, well you’ve got to account for space somehow. And I had this argument out with David Park, a professor of astronomy or astrophysics. Anyway he was in the Williamstown USA Observatory. He had written a paper called ‘Are Space and Time Necessary?’ and it turned up mysteriously on my desk and I was amazed, so I read it. And ‘necessary’ meant, in a philosophical sense, do we need to talk about them, are they structural?

JB: Good question.

JL: I wrote to him saying, I’ve got this paper of yours and I’m sending you a photograph of the Roller that had been in the Tate. The Tate hadn’t bought it, but it got shown and photographed, so I could send him a good photograph. He wrote back saying this is really extraordinary, I had no idea that an artist might be interested in what we’re interested in. And a certain amount of dialogue came about and I said “why is it that you physicists don’t regard the event as parent of the particle?” The answer I got was: “in principle you’re probably right, but in all our equations we have gravity, gravity occurs in all our mathematics, and we can’t get gravity into events.” Now in my forms, gravity shows up as the ‘coming to an end’ of a score being played out. The internal dynamic on the gravity scale is that all events tend to coincide at a zero or dimensionless point. In General Relativity, density of matter in space finally translates from zero space, zero time, infinite temperature into an infinitely rich score somewhere, like in a drawer.

JB: Could we make a transition to art more directly? You say that the ’50s was a zero point in art – a kind of compression of all of art history into a non-gesture. I’m interested in how you see the conceptual artists’ interest in language, a decade on from that point, in which they were trying to escape from the finality of the object. Was that a zero point in itself?

JL: Short answer is, no.

JB: Why not?

JL: The date of the spray gun paintings might have coincided with a lot of other activity. Obviously it did. See the difference is between a mark that goes across the surface and one which hits it vertically as a point. The point mark is an extension of the zero action works, and blows in a new question as to nature’s tabula rasa, a non-extended state as active where the received idea is that any ‘nothing’ state has to be passive. Newton’s claim ‘ex nihilo nihil fit’ is flawed. The answer to your question is that the zero point is not just neutrally zero in meaning. It is that a non-extended but omnipresent score is inherited from long generations of this universe and begins from an active component in the zero which corresponds to many parts of the culture including both sciences and faiths.

For me personally, conceptual artists and their language-based solutions were chasing the wrong hare. And the real one was the problem that Wittgenstein had come across, and that philosophy had come across – that language was a flawed medium. It didn’t do what it set out to do in the most serious instances. So what had been known for all the previous centuries, the belief systems and sacred texts which had come out from the prophets – had all recognised not to try and be logical; take it from the inspired source.

JB: How did these ideas connect to your preoccupation with artists doing placements, and an engagement particularly with the state and industry? And why were you led to engage with the establishment as a means of siting art in a more socially engaged context, rather than creating something like an alternative space of action?

BS: I think that it was very exciting to come across contexts – I’m answering this instinctively now – which were very heavily peopled and very full with material, with ongoing processes and unfamiliar activities. A context which had great extensions out and which seemed to be touching possibilities which artists were only trivially touching before. They were very conditioned by, say, promotional desires like Pirelli’s desk diaries, etc. The idea that there might be another role within these contexts which obviously have a vast influence on our lives made it seem intriguing in juxtaposition with the way we were coming out of the gallery, and those types of things. Also the media at the time was expanding into new forms – sculpture became inflatable, video was coming up, film and performance. So it seemed like a heavily interesting context to engage with, and the idea that one might change what the engagement would be in those contexts and could then filter through into the society differently, was instinctively felt at the time as being a very exciting thing to do. Where else might one go? Didn’t think so much of setting up an alternative. That wasn’t nearly so interesting as what one had stumbled into, this was an alternative. And the possibility that one could stumble into it, and that one could actually have some effect, change things – in both directions – sounds so hideously idealistic ... It’s a bit like, ‘you can never change anybody, least of all your parents.’

JB: But it felt at the time that there was leeway for change?

BS: Yes, absolutely. When we had our first presentation as APG, the Industrial Negative Symposium which brought artists and industrialists together for the first time, down at the Mermaid Theatre, and the Event Structure Research Group, Jeffrey Shaw, one of APG’s founding artists, and Theo Botschuiver came over from Holland, Billy Klüver (really shocking speaker) – anyway, it had a lot of press. I remember the speaker from Esso petroleum saying, I’m glad to see that APG is not asking for support, but to make a contribution. And at another point Gustav Metzger got up and said I want to burn down your factories and the British Oxygen guy walking out….

I do feel that we were virtually responsible for opening up these ‘new horizons’, or this can of worms that led to all this institutionalisation, both by government departments and corporations, of how the artist might be used, in inverted commas. It was the highjack of what we did as artists by the Arts Council that made it a can of worms. At that time, the context was very exciting and shifting for both sides. It was only by doing the industrial placements that we began to find out how art activity, or how as artists, an optimum association might be developed which complied with making an artwork in these contexts – so that both sides were getting something out of it. So after the industrial placements, which were seen as kind of terrible by the majority of the art world, for tangling with this ‘dirt’ so to speak – I was personally, and artists that we worked with, able to find out just what sort of exchange and engagement could be had in these situations. What we discovered was that we have to take great care to preserve the integrity of art’s motivation vis-à-vis the commercial and political interests around. That’s what the Incidental Person or artist’s presence is there to contend with and to insist on. But I think it might have opened up a can or worms which is taking it in this institutionalised direction now.

PB: But don’t you think this can of worms was the precise same thing that gave you a sense of excitement? Was that engagement with what you call more ‘peopled’ environments to do with their magnitude, their existing power? Did you think that if you intervened in these places, you could adopt their existing power rather than seeking it in alternative communities?

BS: Well yes! I realise that this is a very hot question, and it demands a very hot answer. I know this question is leveled all the time, and it’s a main focus for me right now in today’s global ‘money-worshipping societies’ and I don’t have an immediate sound bite.

JL: The difference between the industrial and the government department placements was where the interests lay. If the artists went into the sectional interests, the establishment, they were walking into a fireball. The chances are that it would make more trouble. But the non-sectional interests that a government department has are different; certainly in Britain, the civil service is supposed to be serving the people. It is an institutionalised body that tries to get the elected government to do certain things, but it’s always seeking more info from our side. When we got to the civil service, we were under investigation by the research department, Whitehall’s research station.

BS: I slightly disagree with what John said about industry, because I was seeing it – as I think were the artists who we were working with – as an engagement we had with individuals and a very important learning process; an exchange with large chunks of society that we’d had no engagement with. I still think of it as a conglomerate of individuals whose activities were impacting on society. And I think a lot was learnt about exchange and stuff. And yes, we went to government, which appeared to have less sectional interests at the time. In the language of today they were also trying to manage change. At the time the thinking might have been, we’ve got to have these outsiders in here to think differently. We were the outsiders.

JB: Do you think that an understanding of an organisation as a conglomeration of individuals and activities made you also believe that if you could influence key individuals you could influence an entire system in a certain way?

BS: I think that was rather a naïve motivation, but it did feel that that was happening. Especially when the guy from ICI left and became, as he put it, ‘APG’s first drop-out’ from the company. It brought up the whole question of success and failure again – for whom, the organisation, society, the artist? It was to do with the fact that here was a context previously untouched by the art process which appeared now to change – a shift in the mindset perhaps – however naïve it was. I still think that you do have to engage with all the forces that are powerful, in different ways, and that one is also powerful as an individual, that ideas are powerful. You had to get your hands dirty, and I still think you have to get your hands dirty. I think it’s about responsibility.

JB: So what do you think about class interests and solidarity then? How does an individual artist go into an industrial situation in which you have class conflict, a conflict of power between workers and capitalists, between workers and management, and operate between those two ‘groups’?

BS: Well, very delicately, and ready to be spat out on all occasions. And that was one of the things that we tried to set up. How far could one go without being spat out? And again what would be a relevant activity. What is coming up enormously now, is the question of ‘socially engaged art’. What the hell is that? And how is the aesthetic talking, the actual power of the aesthetic, or the power of the process of engagement. This is being found out and demonstrated through the whole explosion of ‘artists in residence’ that is coming out of our ears now. But I haven’t quite answered your class thing. I had a personal thing which was that – although I was obviously a nice middle class girl and everything – not going to school, I didn’t have an identification like that. They were all people to me and I automatically asked the question at all moments. I was responsible for being me.

PB: Do you mean that not having had an education you didn’t feel socially situated in a way?

BS: Yes, certainly, I’ve never felt socially situated. Because I wasn’t brought up by my parents. I didn’t go to school. Anyhow, APG and I have been very heavily attacked for going in there very naively, and not thinking, not dealing with class. But the point is that I think that artists have a responsibility to the impact of their insights when in these various engagements – as did APG input.

PB: Why was the self-consistency of APG’s identity, one might say the preservation of its unique identity, so important to effecting the wider aim of transforming the social role of the artist?

BS: Part of maintaining the uniqueness of APG/O+I is, perhaps the opaqueness of its terminology, for instance the ‘Incidental Person’. The Incidental Person was a useful way of describing a new socially engaged artist, or a new socially engaged role for a person that has come from the art trajectory, that John dreamed up to distinguish it from the word ‘artist’ that we had to get away from because of all its baggage. (Incidentally, for the Industrial Negative Symposium, Stuart and John jointly wrote a paper on the disappearance of the artist). So, I feel that in relation to your question about uniqueness, that terminology was very useful to begin to define a new role which had come out of first working in industry and then government. The term was linked to the methodology we tried to develop in order to gain the maximum possibilities for exchange and development and new ideas. You also asked whether our idea could to be taken on by anybody else. Yes, certainly – using the Incidental Person was and is a good way of identifying a change of role for the artist. So I guess the term stands historically along with its method of engagement for those with the understanding to ‘use’ it.

JL: It is important to note that you could actually tangle with the money. The Incidental Person, and O+I’s possessiveness has to do with the responsibility one has to host bodies. Supposing that we got to the Department of Education or whatever, if we gave them something really hot and they took it up, we wouldn’t let them simply say they we invented it. We wanted – and I put it down in The Report of a Surveyor – a way of assessing what the contribution was after a placement, after an association. Any good results needed insisting on. What has happened is that the Arts Council is composed of people who are supposed to maintain the status quo. And it’s a total disaster because it means no artist is actively allowed in there. As Donald Macrae apparently said: ‘Only the established may innovate. No innovator is established.’ Basel Bernstein quotes it in his book.

JB: Was it also ever your intention to introduce really truly incidental people into these positions? Without the qualification of the art academy and so on?

BS: Absolutely. It was to try and develop a completely new role, and therefore ask how it comes up through education. One of the things we are trying to do possibly with the London Institute, is to see how the experience can be taken into education, how it can be taken on in a range of areas. This is a different role.

JL: As a self-funding body O+I has got to be responsible for turning out the goods, and arguing the goods, against the opposition. So Incidental Persons as participants need to be well enough informed to cope with the job. Now, if they’re not trained in art, they would be liable to be tripped up. That said, the empowerment which it ought to give to everybody is where anyone can come across very good insights. The most unexpected insights can come to the most improbable people and instead of being dismissed as being too improbable to talk to, as one is by the local bureaucracy, or the arts bureaucracy, that should effect something like what Joseph Beuys was doing in his way. Joseph said that the Incidental Person is a YES solution.

JB: In effect, you might argue that today, in what is called the knowledge economy, or within creative industries, what is being assimilated into production is precisely the creative impulse, the virtuosity, the psychic or social experience that might have previously been left out of industrial technique. In a sense you could argue that everyone has become an Incidental Person within the knowledge economy – at least potentially – but in the most debased way. But do you also see something hopeful in that condition where administration and production now assimilate precisely the kind of imaginative, creative impulses that they formerly excluded?

BS: Well yes, but it’s being taken in this most appalling direction, where it’s the money that determines things.

PB: In a funny way, maybe it brings up language and the event again? If we’re saying what’s being imported are language elements, or art-like language, to stimulate innovation, creativity, change, etc., maybe language can have a positive role if we insist on its greater precision. Specificity could be used to combat the lazy blurring of definitions of artistic activity and commercial production, and instead be made to really describe not obscure what people do.

BS: That’s exactly what has to be done.

PB: Digital culture is suffused with the rhetoric of dematerialisation, time-based processes, social collaboration, interactivity and collective authorship – do you feel any affinity with it?

JL: Not if it reasserts the space-based mindset. Collaboration is not one of the words we would be defined by.

BS: Oh!? But social collaboration has to be something I personally believe in for O+I, provided it can be heard above the rhetoric and not commodified by digital culture.

JL: This issue is around (failed) space-based belief systems and a Time-and-Event means of representing the real world. The event-structured media are inclusive where the space-based are divisive.

Pauline van Mourik Broekman <pauline AT> is co-editor of Mute magazineJosephine Berry <josie AT> is deputy editor of Mute magazine

Proud to be Flesh

Heavy Opera

John Jordan and James Marriott’s operatic audio tour set in London’s Square Mile is intended to awaken city workers to the impact of financial systems on climate change. But not only does And While London Burns misgauge how much the suits already know, its hysterical tone also harmonises too easily with the coming new eco-order

A fountain of water from the river Walbrook shoots up above my head, drums are pounding, a sound system’s bass rumbles. I hear cheers but I can also hear the clatter of police shields and batons around the corner. Seven years after London’s Carnival Against Capital, when protesters outside the LIFFE exchange broke a water mains sending a thirty-foot jet of water into the air, I am walking just a half a mile north of the same spot. Now I can hear the Thames rushing up the valley the Walbrook follows, bursting its banks, laying waste to the tall glass-fronted buildings as some of the most expensive real estate in London collapses around me. I’m swept up in a sonically induced fantasy driven by the tracks on my MP3player. I am taking part in And While London Burns, an operatic guided walk written by John Jordan and James Marriott, set to music by Isa Suarez and produced by the cross-disciplinary art and education group Platform.1

John Jordan has played a role in both these participatory dramas, firstly as a member of Reclaim the Streets – one of the anti-capitalist groups that coordinated the Carnival Against Capital in June 1999. This time around as an artist commissioned by Platform – an interdisciplinary arts, campaigning and research group committed to longer term, less partisan approaches to transforming the activities of the financial institutions and corporations with head offices in the Square Mile. The walk is an attempt to dramatise the research Platform has conducted into climate change. James Marriott, its co-founder, explains:

Heavy Opera 2

‘It's a way of dramatising and humanising these systems [the role of multinationals and financial systems in fuelling climate change]. It's over-dramatised like all opera, which is why we chose the medium.’2


The walk begins at 1 Poultry. At a Starbucks opposite the ruins of the Roman Temple of Mithras our attention is drawn to the multinational’s logo with its allusions to paganism and older gods. The audio tour’s protagonist remembers that before Starbucks went global its logo (designed after a 15th century print by Seattle hippy entrepreneurs) bore nipples and ‘a pair of provocatively spread fishtails’. The mermaid allegorises both allegiance to, and fear of, the sea. She is exotic and, like the valuable cargoes on which the City’s wealth was originally founded, unattainable for those doing the shipping. The City is still resplendent with powerful iconography from the 18th and 19th centuries, pineapples and other exotic objects appear frequently as architectural ornaments advertising the City’s plunder. Today, retail spaces and spaceship architecture adorned with surveillance cameras predominate. At the Royal Exchange (now a luxury shopping mall) our protagonist remembers:

Heavy opera 3

I used to work here in 1989, when it was the Futures Exchange ... the place was a permanent carnival, traders in bright coloured jackets shouting and gesturing to each other ... it couldn’t be more different now.


The new City outwardly tells little about where it draws value from and it is this occultation of money the walk confronts by whispering its secrets in your ear.

As its website explains:


For over 20 years, PLATFORM has been bringing together environmentalists, artists, human rights campaigners, educationalists and community activists to create innovative projects driven by the need for social and environmental justice.3

Platform has gone some way beyond the statements required to declare oneself a corporate entity in the art world. Operating more like an NGO, Platform sought autonomy from the dependencies of art, eschewing support from established galleries or art spaces. Instead the group concentrates upon building relationships between environmentalists, artists and employees of the core financial and carbon-extracting institutions which, at the same time, are the objects of their research and criticism. Since art has taken a relational turn, Platform’s dialogic practice has been somewhat vindicated and is gaining the interest of institutions with a commitment to engaging with ‘public issues’ outside the institutional safety zone.4 The group has often employed organised walks, ‘walking as a research tool, as a ritual, as performance, as intervention, as a political tool’.5 Here, in the Square Mile that demarcated the original Roman settlement of Londinium, Platform taps the rich network of influence and accumulation they call the ‘carbon web’ – ‘the web of institutions that extract oil and gas from the ground’.

Heavy opera 4

Walking, I am accompanied by three voices or groups of voices. The protagonist, a disillusioned City worker, drifts, trying to throw off the pressure and hypocrisy of the city in an anguished monologue. The guide, a softly spoken, reassuring female voice, tells me when to cross, to ‘be careful’, ‘look left and right at the lights’, as well as offering information about BP, the financial groups and investors who support it (Morely, Deutsche Bank, Royal Bank of Scotland). The third voice is a chorus which echoes the protagonist’s monologue and riffs eccentrically on it, singing ‘They stole her nipples’, ‘look up, look up to the sky’, and, in the Royal Exchange, chants: ‘More, more and more, give us more money, give us more and more ... ’.

The carefully guided walk sometimes becomes a gallop as I realise I have taken a wrong turn or when the voices urge me to speed up. As I am led under and through the City’s architectural machines of accumulation, the opera emphasises its status as a principal node processing the world’s financial flows. Later, I am spun around Bank station and the Swiss Re tower as the chorus and music builds to a crescendo prefiguring a portentous end to the narrative and the walk.


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The accompanying music first appears to me as corporate muzak, like the sound of distilled comfort and class played as one waits for the bank’s outsourced operatives to process your phone call. Later, the strings dramatise my rush around the city while street noise blends in as I lurch across streams of commuters and traffic. Once I accept that my route is programmed, I find myself caught up in what feels like the soundtrack to a live video game, gleefully aware that no-one else is conscious of my directed path.

And While London Burns is really an ‘experience’ – in the sense that a trip to Disneyland is. The walk deploys four dramatic elements: the narrative of personal crisis; the music; the information about the Earth’s decline under capitalism; and the sounds and sights of the City itself. As the slew of information about the Earth’s rising temperature builds to a picture of crisis, the protagonist becomes more erratic – we supposedly take on the burden of his self-realisation as our own. But then our ‘own’ crisis over climate change’s destructive potential is experienced as adventure.

And While London Burns shares this array of simple mechanisms for dramatising the present really impending apocalypse with two recent films, Apocalypto and Children of Men. The latter plays out anarchist fantasies of a biopolitical neofascist state in the UK, presenting us with:

Heavy opera 6 Image: still from Children of Men 

a world one generation from now that has fallen into anarchy on the heels of an infertility defect in the population ... Set against a backdrop of London torn apart by violence and warring nationalistic sects, Children of Men follows disillusioned bureaucrat Theo (Clive Owen) as he becomes an unlikely champion of Earth’s survival. 6


Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto draws a clumsy comparison between the internal breakdown of Mayan civilisation prior to Cortez’s conquest of their lands and the demise of the US as a global hegemon:


Throughout history, precursors to the fall of a civilisation have always been the same .... It was important for me to make that parallel because you see these cycles repeating themselves over and over again. People think that modern man is so enlightened but we’re susceptible to the same forces – and we are also capable of the same heroism and transcendence.7


These films, like with And While London Burns, indulge a reactionary millenarianism apparently appropriate to our times characterised by anxiety over reproduction, environmental devastation, migration and wars over resources. Each locates a subjective response to ‘objective conditions’ in a male subject, and we see an awakening to the real conditions of the societies in which they live.

For And While London Burns’ authors one gets the feeling that it is something of a stretch of the imagination to place themselves in this character’s shoes, that some under estimation of the ignorant and complacent ‘suit’ is operating. The dynamic between the identification of the listener with this disaffected conservative and the more ‘radical imagination’ celebrated through historical references was, for me, unconvincing.

I struggle with the opera’s construction of experience (the listener’s as well as the conditions they ‘objectively’ face) as consensus reality without challenge. It seems that after so long working at the margins of artistic practice, Platform have finally conceded to the monoform. There is no transcendental subject, no lone saviour of civilisation. Although And While London Burns’ authors are the first to admit that they are self-consciously playing with clichés to dramatic effect, this walk is the very opposite of psychogeographic practice.8 The work engenders the opposite of an active, critical subjectivity.

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If there is a dialectic to be found in And While London Burns it is that of flight versus contestation. The audio guide points to the irony of the City as both a centre of research into the causes and effects of climate change (in particular Swiss Re, whose reinsurance business is predicated upon the mediation of threats to profitability) and the self-satisfied ignorance of continued irresponsible plunder. As the opera’s story unravels we are informed that the protagonist’s partner, Lucy, has left to live ‘off-grid’. This response to the threat of environmental devastation is the conceptual equivalent of self-organising nuclear bunker drills at the height of the cold war – a duck and cover strategy, internalising the nuclear state’s imperative that we be afraid, that we submit to pointless rituals in the face of death. At the opposite pole, the rich shoring up their wealth and access to unadulterated leisure and consumption in Dubai are playing a similar end-game with equally futile consequences. As if, in the context of a global emergency, anyone will be safe in either a low impact woodland home with its own energy supply or in a glass tower surrounded by the best defenses petro-dollars can buy. Both visions indulge in the fantasy that in the globalised world there is some escape or autonomy, a form of denial which hopes to obscure all ties between that secure haven and the reality of ongoing surplus value extraction from a landless, illegalised, starving (sub-) humanity.

And While London Burns puts this contemporary meme of millennial conservatism to work in a locale that is synonymous with unsustainable economics, personal debt and risk-taking. The work chooses to reinforce the personalisation and internalisation of a crisis for which capitalism itself should be paying the costs. Its dramatisation of the Earth’s climactic instability hinges on a predicted four degree rise in temperature that we are now almost certain to reach according to the IPCC’s recent report. The facts relayed during the course of this walk tend to confirm these projections. I am not in a position to challenge these facts. Without even trying to challenge these facts, it is still possible to object to the terms in which the urgency of change is being framed. The injunction of climate change is literally ‘change’; through crisis, capital is reorganising itself and this has immediate social impacts. What is being proposed is a series of small adjustments for capital and many dramatic shocks for us. There appears to be very little going on in terms of large projects to actually reverse this situation, instead there is a confluence of self-righteous self-flagellation at a consumer level and government programmes to bully workers, small to medium-sized businesses and new home owners.

Platform have a background of deeper engagement with these issues and access to research that should allow them to analyse the joined up system of capitalist ‘wealth creation’ and its affect on the social environment. However, as the UK and other governments worldwide absorb green and environmental discourse and re-spin it as command – to eat less, work more, pay extra for energy and waste – some engagement with this instrumentalisation of ecological threat would be useful, rather than continuing to pursue an alarmist politics fuelling the fires of eco-fascism in becoming.

Heavy opera 10 Image: still from Apocalypto 

From apocalyptic predictions of dramatic climate change down to fashion tips for the greening of lifestyles, we experience exactly the same ‘terrorism of conformity that underlies all the publicity of modern capitalism’.9 The trouble with this work and almost all public discussion of climate, is that rather than critically evaluating the role of this ecological threat as part of the ongoing deterioration of living standards dictated by capital in most of the world, there is a tendency to exaggerate the threat, to rationalise it as a natural fact, and thus approve and provide training for the modification of behavior urged by capitalism.




Available for download at:


Anna Minton, ‘Down to a Fine Art’, The Guardian, 10 January


Platform website,


Anna Minton, op. cit.. This celebratory piece highlights a new movement of artists fusing post-conceptual art and environmental art under the aegis of the Royal Society of Arts whose director, Matthew Taylor, was formerly head of the Prime Minister’s policy unit. It would seem that relational aesthetics is rapidly emerging as the idiom by which artists speak to policy makers on behalf of the public.


Platform website, op. cit..


Children of Men website,


Mel Gibson on Apocalypto from the film website,


As one definition would have it: ‘The theory of the combined use of arts and techniques for the integral construction of a milieu in dynamic relation with experiments in behavior’. Situationist International, ‘Preliminary Problems in Constructing a Situation’ in Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, Bureau of Public Secrets,


‘Geopolitics of Hibernation’, Situationist International #7, April 1962,


Anthony Iles <anthony AT> is assistant editor of Mute