Vector Block on Telecom Avenue

By Mark Dery, 24 October 2008
Image: Collection of books on the histories of biowarfare and disease along with books written by Critical Art Ensemble that were seized by the FBI when they raided Steve Kurtz's home in 2004

Critical Art Ensemble Interviewed by Mark Dery

Call them Legion, for they are many; though small in number, Critical Art Ensemble contains multitudes, philosophically speaking. An artistic collective whose inventive blend of multimedia performance and philosophy in the mosh pit explores the intersection of radical politics, postmodern theory and vanguard art, CAE is a philosophical terrorist cell – a splinter group of mutant free radicals from the post-everything left. Founded in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1987, by Steve Kurtz and Steve Barnes, Critical Art Ensemble began as an avant-garde video/theory collective. From the outset, the group’s screenings and lectures incorporated slide shows, film projected on paintings and live performance, and were staged in unconventional venues such as nightclubs and bars. Dedicated to the proposition, ‘Give the audience one quick “riot of semiosis” and then move on’, CAE’s performances were hit-and-run events inspired by guerrilla art forms such as street theatre – swift, tactical insertions into a public mind that was unprepared, to say the least.

Currently comprised of Barnes, Kurtz and his wife, Hope [now deceased], Dorian Burr and Beverly Schlee, CAE has evolved into an alt.theory think tank. Its performance-lectures have become must-see events at European symposia on the politics of cyberculture. Cloned from the cultural DNA that yielded William S. Burroughs’s Electronic Revolution, Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone and other primers of ‘nomadic resistance’, CAE’s essays (many of them archived at []) have become instant classics of what the media theorist, Geert Lovink, calls ‘net criticism’.

In The Electronic Disturbance and Electronic Civil Disobedience (1994 and ’96 respectively, both published by Semiotext(e)’s Autonomedia imprint), the group downloads intellectual shareware from Marx, Foucault, Deleuze, Bataille, Kristeva, Debord, anarchism, the ‘zero work’ polemics of Bob Black and the pro-plagiarism rhetoric of anti-copyright advocates, customising it with CAE’s own idiosyncratic theories. The result is a quick-and-dirty but robust hack – the philosophical equivalent of the ‘sloppy corrective programming’ extolled by Marvin Minsky in Stewart Brand’s The Media Lab.

Re-calibrating leftism to the cultural torque of post-industrial capitalism, CAE targets the political ground zero of the late 20th century. Electronic Civil Disobedience (ECD) asks, ‘What are the strategies and tactics needed to fight a decentralised power that is constantly in a state of flux?’ The argument begins in the key of Marxist historical materialism, but soon modulates into a postmodern leftism familiar from Jean Baudrillard. ‘Before computerised information management, the heart of institutional command and control was easy to locate’, the group writes. ‘Castles, palaces, government bureaucracies, corporate home offices and other architectural structures stood looming in city centres, daring malcontents and underground forces to challenge their fortifications.’ But in a digital age based on the manipulation of symbols of one sort or another, ‘power is neither visible nor stable’; the imposing edifices that once housed it are now monuments to its absence. With the virtually unchallenged global dominance of a ‘post-national’ capitalism, for which the regulatory meddlings of nations are comic relief, power has ‘retreated into cyberspace where it can nomadically wander the globe, always absent to counter-forces, always present whenever and wherever opportunity knocks’.

Unaccountably, the left, whose ideology is supposedly built on historical bedrock and whose recent critiques stress the significance of our shift from an industrial to an information economy, remains doggedly wedded to the tactics of ’60s-style civil disobedience – a tactical misstep CAE attributes to ‘the continued presence of the remnants of the ’60s New Left within the ranks of activist groups’. According to CAE, ‘nostalgia for ’60s activism endlessly replays the past as the present, and, unfortunately, this nostalgia has infected a new generation of activists who have no living memory of the ’60s. Out of this sentimentality the belief has arisen that the “take to the streets” strategy worked then, and will work now on current issues’.

This magical history tour suffered serious collateral damage during the Gulf War, when the Pentagon’s stage management of media reality, coupled with the war’s made-for-TV brevity and its Nintendo bloodlessness (from the American perspective, at least), presented the anti-war movement with a frustratingly stealthy target, seemingly designed to evade or outmanoeuvre the tactics of traditional activism.

Conceding the historical gains of street protests at a local level, CAE maintains that such tactics have had little effect on ‘military/corporate policy’: ‘CAE has said it before, and we will say it again: as far as power is concerned, the streets are dead capital! Nothing of value to the power elite can be found on the streets […]’ Since transnational capital – and, by extension, global power – resides increasingly in the immaterial elsewhere of the internet, CAE advocates electronic civil disobedience – ‘nomadic resistance’ for an age of decentralised, dematerialised power. ‘As in civil disobedience, the primary tactics in electronic civil disobedience are trespass and blockage’, the group writes. Political pressure is brought to bear on corporate, governmental or military wrongdoers by activist hackers who block offenders’ access to their own databanks.

The group proposes an unlikely alliance between ‘anti-authoritarian’ hackers and to-the-ramparts activists, a marriage of convenience that would presumably politicise the hacker class, even as it dragged the left, kicking and screaming, into the terminal reality of the late 20th century. (Precisely how this shotgun wedding would be arranged is never explained.) Weary of Marxism’s faith in the assertion of a ‘collective will’ by a radicalised global proletariat (a utopian fiction whose epitaph is written in the internecine bloodletting of identity politics), CAE pins its hopes to a ‘technocratic avant-garde’ of politicised hackers and jacked-in activists, organised into small cells on the model of anarchist terrorists (and, ironically, the right-wing militia movement and eco-guerrillas such as Earth First!). ‘Collective democratic action may be weakly effective on the local (micro) level,’ argues CAE, ‘but it becomes next to useless on a macro scale’; the individual interests of nations often trip each other up, ‘the complexity of the division of labour prevents consensus, and there is no apparent apparatus through which to organise… To fight a decentralised enemy requires decentralised means… If the cells are working in double-blind activities in a large enough number, and are effective in and of themselves, authority can be challenged.’

Not that CAE’s theories of nomadic resistance to peripatetic power spring full-blown from the group’s brow: In ‘Striking at the Heart of the State’ (1978), his acid-bath critique of a gang of Marxist terrorists called the Red Brigades, Umberto Eco synopsises the intellectual framework that undergirds modern terrorism, anticipating CAE’s argument that the social and economic dominance of multinational capitalism ‘rests on the ability of an institution to move where resistance is absent’. Eco notes that multinationals, in the eyes of terrorists like the Red Brigades, can only be thwarted ‘through acts of harassment, exploiting their own logic: if there exists a completely automated factory, it will not be upset by the death of the owner but rather by erroneous bits of information inserted here and there, making work hard for the computers that run the place’.

But CAE goes further, enacting the cultural trajectory tracked by its argument, moving from the hard-headed rationalism of Marxist historical materialism to a Deleuzean ‘schizo-analysis’ (or its political equivalent), better suited to an age of chaos capitalism, in which commodity futurists such as George Gilder inform Forbes readers that ‘equilibrium is death’ and managerial gurus such as Tom Peters proclaim ‘the limits of rationality’ and exhort corporate culture to ‘lighten our attachment to logic’.

CAE’s amok politics is loosely rendered at best, but its fuzzy outlines bear at least a passing resemblance to the surrealist liberation of the unconscious; to the Dionysian psycho-politics of radical Freudians like Norman O. Brown; to Deleuze and Guattari’s embrace of the free-floating, fragmentary psychology of the schizophrenic as a wrench in the repressive, Oedipal machinery of capitalism; and to Hakim Bey’s ontological anarchism.

As always, CAE’s arguments sew the seeds of their own rebuttals. Taking as its cornerstone the premise – inherited from post-structuralism and identity politics – that the democratic notion of consensus is merely a user-friendly term for the dictatorship of the majority, CAE stakes its faith in an ‘emergent’ resistance borne of the disparate, decentralised activities of innumerable activists, all waging covert actions against an ‘authoritarianism’ that’s equal parts Darth Vader and Scrooge McDuck. It’s a leftist leap of faith that begs the obvious question: How do we agree, in the absence of democratic consensus, on what constitutes ‘authoritarianism’? ‘Let each group resist from the coordinates that it perceives to be the most fruitful’, CAE hedges. All well and good, but how, then, do we avoid the absurdist nightmare of undercover agents, unknown to each other, working at cross-purposes? Then, too, what happens when CAE’s massively parallel, unknowing co-conspirators hack the pan-capitalist mainframe? ‘While we may not extract tactical possibilities for political and cultural resistance from these observations’, the group writes in ECD, ‘we do hope to contribute to the production of the ideational conditions for such possibilities to emerge in the realms of appearance and action.’ As with the workers’ paradise of Marxist theory and the rapture of Christian eschatology, CAE’s morning after, like the liberatory dénouements of so many theoretical utopias, is forever forestalled.

Even so, Critical Art Ensemble is one of very few voices on the techno-literate left, ready to take the fire fight to the enemy’s doorstep. Eschewing the technophilia of the libertarian digerati and the neo-Luddism of centrist liberals like Bill McKibben and Sven Birkerts, the group foregrounds issues of social justice and economic equity in a wired world. Tinkered together from radical politics, pirated theory and postmodern sci-fi, CAE’s broadsides are a welcome corrective to the DOS-for-Dummies futurism of Nicholas Negroponte and the tie-dyed cyberbole of John Perry Barlow – logic bombs for those of us in the Empire of the Wired who dream of Striking Back.


Mark Dery: The Electronic Disturbance includes scorched-earth critiques of traditional theatre and performance art, with its Me Generation exaltation of the solipsistic self. You call for a ‘postmodern theatre of resistance’ that incorporates acts of poetic terrorism in the real world and information warfare in virtual realms. I was surprised to stumble, in the thick of your argument, on an approving reference to the Living Theatre’s attempts to demolish the proscenium arch and take its psycho-politics into that mythical site of all ’60s resistance, the streets. ‘It collapsed the art and life distinction, which has been of tremendous help by establishing one of the first recombinant stages’, you write, the other being the virtual world of the net.

I couldn’t help wondering: To what extent does CAE draw inspiration from the radical theatre of the ’60s – from the Living Theatre and the San Francisco Mime Troupe to Yippie pranks such as the celebrated attempt to levitate the Pentagon, and the media manipulation of proto-postmodernists such as Abbie Hoffman and the New York-based anarcho-Situationist group, the Motherfuckers?

Critical Art Ensemble: Radical American theatre of the ’60s certainly contributes to our identification with street action, but no more than the many other manifestations of resistant performance. Berlin Dada, Theatre of the Oppressed, feminist performance of the ’70s, Guerrilla Art Action Group or the Situationists proper were just as inspiring.

Street action is a strange project because there’s no more progress to be made. The tactics have been thoroughly researched and tested, its spatial limits are understood – it’s really only useful at a local level, and its primary function is to create pedagogical situations for consciousness-raising. Certainly, guerrilla art activity continues ever onward, reintroducing itself with each new situation that calls for shifting political perception; however, the research and experimental phase of the genre seems finished – the early-’70s was the last time it had an experimental form.

CAE’s interest in the Living Theatre stems from our belief that it offered a proto-postmodern model of cultural production. The group quite consciously located itself in the liminal position between the real and the simulated. Various behaviours were appropriated and redeployed so perfectly that, regardless of their ontological status, they had the material impact of the real. The Living Theatre performed the crisis of the real before it had been adequately theorised, and contributed to the conceptual foundation now used to understand and create virtual theatre. It helped make it clear that for virtual theatre to have any contestational value, it must loop back into the materiality of everyday life.

In the case of electronic resistance, the prank has become the dominant model. Unfortunately, it’s the one with the least political impact. While we can take personal delight in pranks, they’re not tactically viable in any political sense. CAE wrote Electronic Civil Disturbance in an attempt to create a narrative to show what was at stake, to present the contestational opportunity that is currently available, and to hurry the research process into more sophisticated forms of resistance.

MD: I’m disheartened to hear that CAE feels pranks aren’t ‘tactically viable in any political sense’, since the best ones would seem to incorporate the postmodern tactics you advocate, striking at the heart of the spectacle, to update the battle cry of the Red Brigade. I’m thinking of the infamous phone hack that re-routed calls to the Palm Beach County Probation Department to a phone-sex hotline, free of charge, or the covert addition of kissing men to SimCopter by a gay employee who wanted to call attention to the absence of gay characters in computer games, or the Barbie Liberation Organisation’s (BLO) corrective surgery on Barbies and ‘Talking Duke’ G.I. Joes, transplanting sound chips so that Barbie bellowed, ‘Vengeance is mine!’, while Joe chirped, ‘Will we ever have enough clothes?’ Then, too, such pranks display a sense of humour sorely lacking on both the old left, with its flatfootedly earnest agit-prop, and the postmodern left, with its hectoring identity politics and its poured-concrete jargon.

CAE: First, we need to make some distinctions. There is a very big difference between a piece like Igor Vamos’ BLO action, and rerouting calls to a phone sex hotline. The latter is exemplary of what CAE means by the term ‘prank’. The call reroute gag is unquestionably funny, but it’s a lot like putting a tack on the teacher’s chair. The teacher sits on it, the class gleefully exclaims ‘ha-ha’, and then it’s business as usual. Other than demonstrating a brief moment of defiance, there’s no real purpose. CAE looks at the BLO action as interventionist art. What makes the BLO action different from the re-route prank is that it creates a pedagogical situation in which people are given the opportunity to escape the taken-for-granted authority of stereotypical gender codes. In this moment of liberation, they can think about alternative possibilities for gender identities and roles. This kind of work is extremely important, and CAE gives it full respect and support. However, such action is pedagogical, not political. It prepares the consciousness of individuals for new possibilities, and in the best of cases moves them to political action. The activity inspired by the piece is the political action. (In this context, by political action, CAE means the temporary or permanent redistribution or reconfiguration of power relationships.)

MD: Could you recap on a few of the examples given in ECD, for the benefit of our readers?

CAE: What CAE suggests in ECD is moving the tactic of civil disobedience (CD) into cyberspace. CD has lost most of its power as tactical leverage in political struggle (except on a local level) because the use of electronic equipment allows those under pressure to simply move their operations to another location. This is the major advantage that the nomadic corporate state currently has over traditional street activism. This leaves the question: What is of value to the corporate state and how can it be appropriated? The answer, of course, is its data and/or means of communication. Without it, the velocity of information capital slows, and the system collapses into its own inertia. Relentless strikes of this kind would cause such financial disruption that it would be cheaper for capitalist agencies to offer tangible concessions to the activists than to continue the battle with them.

As for examples of this activity, how could we know of any? No activist would publicly speak about it since such activity is currently placed under the sign of high criminality bordering on treason. This framing occurs in spite of the fact that ECD does not destroy or vandalise data, it only blocks it. Any institution which was struck by this action would never go public about it for reasons I’m sure you can deduce. And, if CAE did know of any examples, we certainly wouldn’t speak about them! This kind of activism is real political action, and not the politics of spectacle, so it has no public forum. Only the theory can appear; the activity is underground.

MD: In The Electronic Disturbance, you exhort ‘resistant cultural producers’ to use consumer media technologies to parry the relentless assault of corporate media – a call to arms that reminds me of Andrew Ross and Constance Penley’s vision, in the introduction to their Technoculture anthology, of everyday cyberproles ‘turn[ing] technocommodities into resources for waging a communications revolution from below’.

I’m as much of a sucker as anyone when it comes to romantic myths of political resistance, but isn’t it time we dissected some of these stories in the unforgiving light of the ‘materiality of everyday life’ CAE ritually invokes? In The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Hakim Bey writes, ‘Many anarchists and libertarians have deep faith in the PC as a weapon of liberation and self-liberation – but no real gains to show, no palpable liberty.’ At the end of the day, isn’t symbolic disturbance just that – symbolic? Obviously, classic Marxism’s hardheaded materialism blinds it to the significance of cultural politics – the subcultural acts of subversion and perversion that Stuart Hall calls ‘resistance through rituals’. But, just as obviously, Michel de Certeau’s argument that consumption can be a form of production has its limits, and we slam headlong into them in cultural studies essays that place our last, best hopes for micropolitical resistance in the Dionysian promise of the rave, the Bakhtinian carnival of the Burning Man festival, pornographic Star Trek fanzines or (not again!) online gender-bending. Even Hal Foster, whose critical anthology, The Anti-Aesthetic, helped secure the art world beachhead for postmodernism, has heralded the ‘return of the real’ in his book of the same name, proclaiming the resurrection of art and theory grounded in – heaven forefend! – ‘actual bodies and social sites’.

How do we (and CAE) wriggle out of the philosophical Catch-22 implicit in the fact that any analysis of the flux and flow of power in the late 20th century has to reconcile the material effects of power with the increasingly immaterial nature of power in the Information Age? CAE argues, on one hand, for an engaged activism grounded in ‘the materiality of everyday life’, and on the other for an ontological anarchism whose brief-lived pirate utopias recall Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘deterritorialised’ social spaces or Hakim Bey’s temporary autonomous zones. Can you (and we) really have your politics both ways – materialist and surrealist?

CAE: Let’s begin with ‘symbolic disturbance’. The impact it’s going to have depends upon what symbols are disturbed. If the disturbance is aimed at cultural representations, such as gender codes, then you’re correct; all that’s being disturbed is the symbolic plane, although it can be for a very good purpose and have very good results. Pedagogical action is not political action, but it’s still an essential part of the resistant political process. However, other symbols have a material impact when disturbed. If Baudrillard taught us anything, it’s that simulated activities and the disruption of simulations can have direct and dramatic material results. An obvious example is information. If a lab can’t access its research data, can that lab function? If a wholesaler can’t access his/her shipping data, can that business function? In both cases, symbolic disturbance causes deep disruption on the material plane because the representational and the material are interdependent, so much so that there are times when it’s difficult to tell which is which. This kind of appropriation of representation can be used as a point of political leverage that can, in turn, be used to reconfigure the material arenas that you just listed.

So, to answer your question about whether we’re ‘Surrealists’ or ‘materialists’, CAE is both – not by choice but because we have to be. As cultural activists, we have to be prepared to continuously produce new cultural possibilities in the minds of others – or, to put it negatively, to help people escape from dominant cultural codes – and we have to be able to create environments that thwart separation and allow people to come together in a situation where social activity is not predetermined. As political activists, we must aggressively confront vectors of domination with the goal of reducing their velocity. These are two different, but equally important, tasks, and they both require action on the symbolic, as well as the material, planes.

MD: To my mind, CAE’s synthesis, in the late-’80s, of politics, postmodern philosophy and performance art forms part of the now voguish genre of performance theory typified by Arthur Kroker, who declaims Baudrillardian one-liners over Wagnerian techno, or Allucquère Rosanne Stone, whose lectures are a sort of avant-vaudeville, incorporating props, slides and audience participation. What does this trend say about the academy’s relationship to pop culture in general, and performance art in particular? Are we witnessing the ‘voguing’ of theory by the academic hip-oisie here, or something more substantive?

CAE: Perhaps we’re back to the Living Theatre again: appropriate and redeploy in accordance with what the situation calls for. The ivory tower has done all it can (as an institution of information managers) to remove itself from those not in information management. In fact, it’s even worse than that. The differing specialisations within the academy no longer have a common language with which to speak with one another. I think the more progressive to radical elements in the academy recognise the need to reconnect with the public. To reach those outside the institution, popular techniques, performative or otherwise, become a viable option. Whether this research project will be fruitful or not remains to be seen. Academics are just beginning to toddle into new territories of process and presentation. The situation is at least cause for some optimism.

MD: Some would argue that the Ivory Tower of Babel is not only unable to converse with itself, but incomprehensible to a larger world that doesn’t speak academese – a serious challenge to the populist dream of ‘reconnecting with the public’. To be sure, carping about academic jargon is often just anti-intellectualism in drag. Still, there’s no denying the obvious irony of

a professoriat that purports to speak for, and to, the proletariat in a language unintelligible to it.

I find CAE’s texts exciting but uneven – the inevitable result of so many cooks stirring the broth. At best, they’re as pithy and plainspoken as IWW pamphlets; at worst, they descend into Arthur Krokerian cybaroque. How does such arguably arcane pomo critspeak advance CAE’s vision of an engaged academy that ‘reconnects with the public’?

CAE: We may have an example of the Tower of Babel right here. When speaking of academia as an information management system separated from those not of that profession, what was meant is that its members have a very difficult time speaking to the ‘public’. But let’s take some time to share the blame. The problem isn’t theory-speak; theory-speak is a small symptom of a larger tendency. As the division of labour becomes increasingly complex, each segment is forced to develop its own specialised language. This language is designed primarily for internal discussion among specialists. It’s rare to find a social segment that doesn’t have a specialised language. If you’re not a part of the profession in question, who can understand the specialised language of a computer maintenance person, a mechanic or a doctor? Now, some professions that must regularly interact with non-specialists (‘the public’) have researched other methods of communicating, and this is what more progressive elements of the university are beginning to do. Talking to the public is a pretty new and contested concept in the university. With any luck, academics will get better at it.

As for the discussion of radical politics among intellectuals using a specialised language, CAE has no problem with that any more than we would with any other social segment using one. Admittedly, CAE uses specialised languages. We use a recombinant style that drifts in and out of different rhetorical possibilities. When CAE wants to communicate with social segments that find no significance in books, we use other methods. Writing is just another weapon in our arsenal, and we like to think we efficiently deploy it in appropriate contexts.

MD: There’s a tart critique, in The Electronic Disturbance, of leftist political documentaries, a time-honoured form of agit-prop which you argue is no less manipulative than the mainstream media it decries: ‘Anywhere along the political continuum the electronic consumer turns, s/he is treated like media sheep’. Do you really believe that independent media voices such as Paper Tiger and Deep Dish TV are as pernicious as mainstream Murdochian media simply because they’re ‘monologic’, as you put it, employing coercive techniques familiar from network news? This strikes me as a textbook example of the long-standing habit in academic theory (taken to Laputan heights by postmodernists) of exaggerating the effects of epistemological assumptions on everyday reality. I mean, does raw power really work this way, in our daily lives? Would CAE honestly argue that Manufacturing Consent, an undeniably polemical documentary about Noam Chomsky, is no less Orwellian than Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, simply because of a mutual reliance on persuasive cinematic rhetoric and positivist assumptions about truth?

And, as long as I’m emptying my ammo clip here, I’m also worried by the whiff of vanguardist contempt for progressive populism that lingers over CAE’s argument. For example, in ECD you dismiss community-based art projects as ‘a sanctioned bureaucratic category’ in which ‘very little work pertaining to the “community” is done’. There’s at least a hint, here, of the elitism that makes strange bedfellows of radical voices on the far left and right.

CAE: When documentaries replicate the status quo of power relationships in terms of cultural consumption, CAE is immediately sceptical, regardless of the message the work presents. The use of such methods and forms indicates the dangerous duplicity of ‘do as I say, not as I do’. This is a behaviour that I, for one, find very elitist. Using a top-down method of presentation – the enlightened attempt to illuminate the unenlightened – is not a smart thing to do when other options are available.

Your choice of Paper Tiger is a smart example of a viable documentary style. Their tapes are presented as editorials, not truth; they always call attention to the fact that the speaker is a specific voice and not a universal one; and they always call attention to the means of production and to the fact that their tapes are manufactured products. CAE believes that better, and more visually exciting, models of production have been developed, but this die-hard, New Left, Brechtian theatre style is still useful.

As for your charges of elitism, we can’t agree. Kept within our social context, we’re only promoting and defending our minority location on the political continuum. How can we be elitist? CAE has no power to separate itself from ‘the rabble’, let alone enforce our opinions as universals. Charging us with elitism is like saying that a black person who speaks against white popular culture is elitist and racist.

Admittedly, CAE isn’t fond of progressives primarily because they still believe the state will save them. The Law/the Logos/the Patriarchy is not going to help anyone, and empowering it further only serves to increase the gravity of power bearing down upon us. But, because of faith in democracy (or at least its simulation), they are always ready to be the dupes of various power vectors. You mentioned community art – a perfect example of this problem. All of a sudden, and out of nowhere, planning and institutional grants have an outreach component. That’s where the bulk of cultural development money in the US is right now. Why? Because managed cultural practice is a great way to buy some time in regard to the problem of collapsing urban infrastructure. Instead of doing what needs to be done to rejuvenate dying urban areas, you send in the artists to do projects with the ‘community’ (a horrid concept of the same ilk as ‘family values’), run the documentation through the spectacle engines and show how things are improving.

Finally, this bedfellow thing. To reduce CAE’s position to a distorted simplicity, we are admittedly anti-state and committed to liberationist practices. The radical right would probably say the same thing about itself. However, CAE is not dedicated to racism, sexism, militarism, Christian (or any other) fundamentalism, patriotic revolution, laissez-faire capitalism or blind obedience to authority. Given these characteristics, one has to question how committed this movement is to principles of anti-state or liberationist practice. In fact, CAE would go so far as to say that the radical right and left have nothing in common at all. This bedfellow accusation lives only in the minds of liberals, conservatives and other centrists.

MD: Fighting words. With all due respect, I think you’ve misunderstood my use of the admittedly hot-button term, ‘elitism’. I was referring to the classist contempt, among radical-chic cultural vanguardists, for the allegedly ‘centrist’, ‘middlebrow’ (read: ‘bourgeois liberal’) political values championed by populist progressives – the virtues of compromise, of working within the system (via grassroots coalitions) as well as outside it (via civil disobedience, electronic and otherwise). What, for example, is wrong with a faith in the radical promise of democracy? Although it would undoubtedly shrink from the term, CAE inarguably shares cultural DNA with a century’s worth of avant-gardism, whose common thread – from the proto-fascist Futurists to the (sometimes) Marxist Surrealists – is a romanticising of The Most Radical Gesture and a thinly veiled contempt for the dull, dirty business of political change on the ground.

CAE: Before you go on, a couple of quick comments. I don’t think you’re talking about elitism as a socio-economic situation, but about political snobbery and political purity – the last refuge of the disempowered – where the catatonia of a café alcoholic is the only untainted activity. That’s hardly worth speaking about. But identifying with centrist bourgeois liberal values must be addressed. (CAE was actually thinking you meant the liberal fringe, so we were going to be sympathetic, but not now.) To be overly simplistic for a moment, there are two types of authoritarian states. The first is retro-authoritarianism – this one CAE can at least respect, because at least it doesn’t pretend to be other than it is. The second is friendly authoritarianism, and this is the domain of the liberal. This political camp, like the conservatives, is always willing to give their sovereignty (and everyone else’s!) to the state in exchange for security. The difference is that they try to hide the sell-out under the banner of social progress: ‘We need more police, more laws, more jails, more state social workers, more therapists and psychiatrists, more institutions that discipline and punish to stop violence against women, gay bashing and protect abused children.’ The liberals are empowering the system that caused the problems they say they are against. Do you throw yourself on the mercy of the patriarchy to stop violence against women? Do you throw yourself on the institutions of racism to stop racism? To do so is galactically stupid. Centrists rarely do any dirty work; they let cops and lawyers do it for them.

Now, for those who are in independent organisations that function out there on the front lines, feeding and sheltering the homeless, working with addicts, and doing all the other everyday life work necessary to bring some glimmer of hope into oppressed, desperate people’s lives, CAE wishes them the best – more power to participation in those processes. Such activity will never change the system that created those situations, but at least it makes a tangible difference in the lives of some individuals.

MD: What I’m trying to make sense of, again, is the obvious disjuncture, to my mind, between the historical materialism of CAE’s cogent analysis of the ‘new geography of power relations’ under post-industrial, global capitalism and the dream logic of CAE’s call for a Bataillean ‘nonrational economy of the perverse and the sacrificial’. That way lies the Foucauldian politics of the pleasure dungeon, in which S&M is somehow reconstituted as a radical political act: a shattering of the rational Western psyche in an engulfing ‘animality’ that challenges the ontological foundations of the Powers That Be.

It seems to me you’re hoisted on the horns of the dilemma that polarised political radicals and psychedelic bohemians in the ’60s. Radicalism’s tradition had one of its greatest voices in Marx, whose oeuvre is a series of glosses on the theme: change the world! The main battalions of the counterculture – Leary, the Pranksters, the Oracle (a hippy newspaper) – were descended from Emerson, Thoreau, Rimbaud: change consciousness, change life! Doesn’t this binary opposition return to haunt CAE?

CAE: ‘Haunting’ is the right word for this split. Every time CAE goes too far one way, we get a haunting feeling, and we come back the other way. Again, CAE doesn’t see your proposed opposition as an either/or split; it’s an and/both complementary pair. We support both ontological anarchy and epistemological anarchy. As Paul Feyerabend or Charles Fort argued, there is no theory that is not in heaps of critical trouble. All views, perceptions, myths, theories and explanations have their shortfalls and suffer within the parameters of experience, just as each has elements of explanatory power. Marx offered a tremendous critique of political economy; unfortunately, he forgot to factor in the nonrational elements of the social. As Max Weber argued, hyper-rationalised order can only end in human abuse on an institutional level, so is it any wonder that so many Marxist regimes took off on a totalitarian trajectory? On the other hand, Fourier offered beautiful insights into the nonrational activity of people. Unfortunately, he forgot that society cannot be created in a vacuum, so is it any wonder that every time Harmony was built, it was crushed from within and from without? The problem in both of these cases was a zealous dedication to an incomplete theory. The ideologue’s desire for textual purity in the world is the problem.

Contrary to this type of fixed positioning, CAE prefers a more nomadic approach. The more ways of viewing the world, the better chance we have to make sense of all the situational variations we encounter in life. If we learned anything from the Frankfurt School (Freud and Marx – now there is an incompatibility!), it’s that, more often than not, it is creative and constructive to embrace contradiction and incommensurability and refuse enslavement by rigid models, canonised texts and socially constructed facts.

MD: CAE’s embrace of the political equivalent of chaos theory, with its emphasis on bottom-up, ‘emergent’ solutions rather than ‘command-and-control’ management – the growing belief that there’s no way to ‘organise [domination] out of existence’, as you put it in Electronic Civil Disturbance – owe an obvious debt to Deleuze and Guattari. The latest issue of the academic journal, The South Atlantic Quarterly, wonders, in all seriousness, if ours will be remembered as the Deleuzean century, and I’ve heard the term ‘digital Deleuzeans’ applied to Sadie Plant, Manuel De Landa and other cultural theorists who eschew socialism and capitalism for what might be called the emerging, postmodern politics of nonlinear dynamics. What accounts for Deleuze’s growing influence among wired intellectuals?

CAE: D&G recognised a very important continuum in politics. They understood that the order of the logos (to be simplistic, the state) has a much deeper nemesis than anti-logos. Anti-logos is where many political continuums end: there is the logic of the state, and the anti-logos turns it against the logos – militarised discipline against oppositional militarised discipline (the organised activist tradition). D&G lengthened the continuum by suggesting the power of nomos – an emergent, nonrational, nomadic power. Recent examples of eruptive nomos are Tiananmen Square or the LA Riots.

This notion always appealed to CAE; however, we disagreed with one key premise: that the logos should be rigidly associated with the state, and the nomos should be rigidly associated with the street. At the time D&G were writing their magnum opus, this association was correct, but by the mid-’80s, the situation had partially inverted. The streets were no longer a seething pool of potential resistance but, relative to the environment of the virtual class, a low-velocity sedentary structure. On the other hand, with the help of the revolution in communications and information technology, the corporate state reconfigured itself into a high-velocity nomadic vector. What D&G forgot is that just as there is an anti-logos, there is also an anti-nomos.

MD: Intriguingly, you sound a cautionary note in The Electronic Disturbance when you observe that ‘decentralisation does not always favour resistant action; it can have a state function.’ Should we be concerned about the ironic commonality between Deleuzean visions of better living through decentralisation and the ‘“out-of-control” business strategies for an emerging global economy built on networks’ espoused in Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilisation? Or is a Deleuzean politics of chaos and complexity the only workable alternative to the 19th century world views of capitalism and socialism, which are now hopelessly obsolete?

CAE: We sounded more than a cautionary note about nomadic power in both TED and ECD; it might be more accurate to call it a major alert. The rise of neo-Spencerian ideology (to call it Darwinistic is an insult to Darwin), with its delight in ‘natural’ forces working among the socially and economically ‘fit’ and ‘unfit’, in conjunction with the current revolution in biotechnology, has set us on an historical course aimed squarely at social catastrophe. (CAE goes deeper into this set of problems in our most recent book, Flesh Machine.) Writing in the ’70s, D&G never saw this coming, as they were still focused on the more hopeful situations of May ’68 and the early rumblings of the Autonomia movement.

The reason so many wired intellectuals and social thinkers in general like D&G is because they were among the first philosophers to offer a theory with open architecture. You can take what you need from this enormous slush pile of expandable ideas, transform them, re-route them, whatever. The D&G texts do not ask for fidelity, although some academics are trying to ruin them by insisting that they do. The idea that there are Deleuzeans, a Deleuzean school or a Deleuzean century is appalling. If such people are that deluded, they may as well claim to be Nietzscheans, too.

MD: Since we’ve spent much of this interview skirmishing in the no-fly zone between politics and aesthetics, I can’t resist the boneheadedly obvious question: Is art an effective force for political change? What, at the end of the day, is the cultural fallout of John Heartfield’s photomontages, or Leon Golub’s paintings, or the punk collages of Dead Kennedys album cover artist Winston Smith, or CAE’s symbolic disturbances for that matter?

CAE: CAE would not argue that art is a force of political change, but it’s undoubtedly an important component in the process of resistance. Art prepares the ground for the introduction of new realities and visions; art can act as a catalyst for critical and imaginative thought; and art can act as a signpost of political identity and solidarity. Of course, these swords all cut both ways. Look at it from the other side: Why is so much attention given to expression management and representational management? Because socialisation by symbolic seduction and envelopment is preferable to socialisation by force. Symbolic control is much more orderly and far less expensive than militarised control (the court of last resort). Those who can crack, manipulate and recombine cultural codes have significant power, so long as they are adept at finding points of distribution (the real contestational ground in ‘free speech’ issues). We should also add that, in terms of the production of resistant representation, it’s counterproductive to think of it in terms of one individual’s body of work. You’re right; no single work ever changed the world. It’s the collective production that’s important. I think we can all agree that we can look back and see a history of leftist resistance. The aggregate of representation that reveals this history is a sign of hope and perseverance that cannot be undervalued. From it, we know that, even though we have consistently gotten our collective butt kicked, there is a courage within the movement(s) that will never let us surrender.


© Mark Dery, 1998. All rights reserved.

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