Editorial Mute 3 #2

By Josephine Berry Slater, 22 February 2012

In more ‘ordinary’ times, the sense of all those unwritten articles we’d like to commission for Mute can be quite overwhelming. Just working through the stack of review copies and printed matter that threaten to bury us alive in our office is a sizeable enough task. Then, looking up from the stack, there’s the imposing rock face of human activity in general, and its often inhuman consequences, to be considered. Which pathways should be sheered into it, which abandoned? But these days, the need for coverage has gone into warp drive, as the stable coordinates of our existence are thrown in the air. How can we contend with a picture as complex and fast moving as that of our present moment?

Last year, as Sarah Taylor reminds us [p.14], the prospect of FE and higher education becoming a blatant privilege of the well off seemed, well, scandalous – if only for its official acknowledgement of what we already knew to be the case. But this pales by comparison with the vertical drop in basic living standards now being imposed across Europe, or the casual removal of the last veil of democracy – namely elected politicians – in favour of technocrats who actually ‘know what they’re doing’. The way that the founding principles of ‘decent’ society (read, remnants of social democracy) become, in a heartbeat, the unaffordable luxuries of yesterday, creates a vertiginous sense of how fast and how far this crisis is taking us. The vertigo is light and heavy at the same time.

In such end times, where answers seem unlikely, even suspect, the question of ‘what is to be done?’ haunts us everywhere. A friend recently advised reading Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities for its sharp delineation of a collective desire to act, the pursuit of which becomes a collective pseudo-activity in turn, preventing anything from actually happening. One could say, by extension, that publishing and consuming articles that inform, comment on and diagnose our shattering social relations seems critical right now, and yet the production and proliferation of text can also feel like yet another pseudo-activity blocking us from actually doing anything.

It’s tempting to imagine a situation like that of Egypt last January when the authorities switched off the internet, compelling thousands to flock to Tahrir Square in order to find out what on earth was going on, inadvertently triggering the critical mass with which the ‘revolution’ was carried through. Of course we have to balance this picture out against last August’s ‘Blackberry riots’ in which, or so the moral panic asserts, it was precisely the circulation of information, BBM, SMS and social media, which created mass insubordination and unpredictable swarm effects. The ‘text-act’ becomes what Howard Slater discusses in these pages as the ‘language of acts’ which resolve, in turn, into more mass messaging [p.74]; a feedback loop of cascading effects.

The anti-capitalist engagement with the global conduits and logistics of circulation and communication presents a related dilemma of perspective, of the too zoomed out and the too close in. Arguing against the anarchistic desire to induce system collapse by sabotaging these circuits, Alberto Toscano [p.30] considers how the urban concentrations produced by capitalism have reconfigured human life on a scale that cannot simply be wished away by those looking for new, unalienated realities. In short, we need logistics and capitalism’s advanced means of production and circulation in order to survive as a largely urban species, but how can we repurpose them? What would communist logistics look like?

These sketches pose the same question of how we engage with disaster capitalism from multiple scales, holding the abstract and the first person perspectives together at once. If we spend too long becoming fetishists of a systems analysis, embellishing diagrams – whether textual, informational or discursive – of our own oppression, we risk becoming mesmerised by their complexity. On the other hand, going down into the streets, speaking face to face with our comrades and cutting the power lines which entrap (and produce) us, doesn’t guarantee the Tahrir Effect either. And as we know, the feel good factor of squares can detract from the painful work of dismantling and rebuilding societies so as not to leave the bad ‘old minds’, as an Egyptian activist had it, at the heart of the system.

What we need is some kind of alternating current which can bring situations of immediacy as well as representations adequate to the moment’s complexity into relation. This idea brings to mind a recent project by YoHa, an art group featured in the last issue of Mute, in which Bristol council’s newly open databases were harvested to build contraptions which both reveal and convert the data’s function. In one case, residents could engage in the ‘book stabbing’ of budgetary data or, in another, riding a bicycle seat connected to the indices of council expenditure as it rises and falls. This provided both a venting of unconscious sadism stored up by our subjection to municipal technocracy as well as an enlightened understanding of how data-sets are the endlessly divertable servants (and drivers) of the systems they dwell within.

YoHa's jamming together of data with absurdist and gory actions, bringing representation and its material effects into new proximities, points in a liberating direction. Displacing representations, analyses and data-sets of oppressive social relations so that, at the very least, they are unable to perpetuate an image of business as usual, is a way to use our scant resources potently. A residing image I have of visiting the occupation at St. Paul’s is of a woman sticking up printouts from WikiLeaks with hazard tape. This neat unfolding of impacted governmental data into the pseudo-public arcade at the edge of Paternoster Square invites a new way of reading which quite literally borders on action.

Josephine Berry Slater

<josie AT> is Editor of Mute