“… all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.” (Benedict Andersen, Imagined Communities, Verso, New York, 1983, p.15)
Strategizing Against Inevitability
Between the technologies of sovereign encoded power and the blissful information mythology of the cybersphere, crisis continually looms. Despite the often excessive debates about the epistemologies (or lack thereof) of simulated, virtualized, or rendered worlds, it is the presence, pervasiveness, and legitimization of systematically harvested information that destabilizes an increasingly dematerialized public sphere. A cross between omnipresent visibility and ubiquitous availability, the ‘flow’ of data demarcates a dynamic system in which the presumption of privacy, the conception of the self, the distinction between the public and private spheres, the differences between communication and distribution, and, ultimately, a relationship with power are paradoxically more transparent and opaque. It is an infosphere in which representation (with its long relationship with authority and subjectivity) again becomes a pivotal issue. But this emerging system is not limited to the visible representations of a calculable 'reality,' but is extending itself into the "programmable" potentials of bio-tech and the life sciences. Understanding the intricate relationships between simulated and engineered realities has become a responsibility for media art and criticism as much as for bio-ethics or the understanding of autonomous economic globalization. Hinged on ideologies of inevitability, the globalization of engineering (as a barely veiled metaphor for totalization) obliterates opposition and marginalizes difference. Because so much of current media practice teeters between outright endorsement and critical engagement, we must develop a discourse that recognizes the stakes and that avoids being enveloped in e-topias or perfected bio or geno-spheres.
In this context, I was reminded of a remark by Roger Caillois who said: "Freedom exists only where intelligence and courage succeed in cutting into inevitability." Thus I have been particularly struck with an emerging issue in which economic instrumentality has come to eclipse—if not dominate—the discussion of art. Rather than strategies for working, we were showered with strategies for funding, capitalization, or aestheticized sell-outs. In many ways it seems a situation in which the faux issue of the economy derealizes the imperatives of art practices in tropish anecdotes about coupling with economic models that more often than not stifle innovation and create deeper compromises in which artistic autonomy is engaged in the arena of ‘limited liabilities,’ some kind of modish entrepreneurship, or in incessant intellectual property skirmishes. This capitulation to economies is little the focus of critical work. Instead we find the aestheticization of marketing, the appropriation of art into the rapacious strategies of global marketing, the insipid self-identification of research, marketing, science, technology, software development as some kind of artistic enterprise in which artists can be blissfully left out.
This comes as so-called market populism turns every citizen into a possible robber-baron. What an amazing scam in which economic reason turns its citizens into accomplices willing to shed any sense of social responsibility to protect the sanctity of a few options. A thoughtful essay by Thomas Frank in The Nation magazine, The Rise of Market Populism: America’s New Secular Religion (now a book) evokes some of the intricacies of this situation. He writes: just about everyone “seemed to find what they wanted in the magic of markets. Markets were serving all tastes, markets were humiliation the pretentious, markets were permitting good art to triumph over bad, markets were overthrowing the man, markets were extinguishing discrimination, markets were making everyone rich…In the right hands market populism could explain nearly any social phenomenon…proved astonishingly versatile as a defense of any industry in distress.” He concludes: “Market populism is, in many ways, the most blatant apologia for economic inequality since social Darwinism.”
“It requires some courage,” writes Armand Mattelart, in his essay, Against Global Inevitability, "as the century draws to a close, to conceive of alternatives to the existing order and to persevere in raising the question of the democratization of communication in all its ramifications."
The international developments in the field of media no longer reside in the mega-cities that seem to be proliferating in the media world. Trying to retrofit such a concept in the game of “cultural policy simulations” we have seen numerous attempts to model digital futures in breathtakingly faux games surfacing from the reverberations of SimCity instead of reasoned attempts to see creativity outside the realms of cultural capital. This is spectacle. In spite of the ever more astonishing mergers between portals and so-called 'content,' much of the mania in the field of telecommunications seems headed towards foreclosure rather than extension. Indeed, the focus of so much of the hype for 'new' media often comes at the expense or the severing of any reasoned relationship with experiences in the now glibly prosaic 'real' world. Little attention is given to reflection, history, or consequences of a mediasphere whose development traverses the entire history of modern culture. Of course every technological transformation has emerged under the sign of revolution and collapses under the weight of domination. And in the culture of speed we are, in the words of Eric Kluitenberg, facing a "fatal acceleration towards the immediate." In the instability, uncertainty of this morass, we are yet promised that technology will become ever more friendly, ubiquitous, embedded, powerful, and subtle, that technoscience has found the code and will program a debugged future.
The spheres of the public, as is abundantly clear from the events of the past decade, are caught between the gleaming infosphere, the economic sphere, and the political sphere But between the clean rooms of the infosphere, the speculative economy of virtualized riches, and the potential of electronic repressive tolerance in the political sphere (just think of Echelon or the incorporation of the Life Sciences), is a social sphere in which the socialization of cybernetics comes with significant resistance. To slip into mystification or universalization behind the veil of benevolent globalization, 'neoliberal' capitalism, or systems integration is as much self-deception as it is cowardice. We cannot deceive ourselves with the modest symptoms of satisfaction that come from an uncritical relationship as beta-testers of cultural software systems, nor can we congratulate ourselves for posing alternative operating systems, or appease our responsibilities for being 'outside' the system. As Critical Art Ensemble write it, "The profit machine is on…."
Our responsibility is perhaps not so much to turn the machine off, as it is to reprogram it, break the assumption that creativity in the media, net, or web is the brainchild of the computer, software, or telecommunications industry. Nor can we continue to extend our assessments back into an art world that continues to endorse the endless ‘legitimation crises’ of art as a symptom of modernist culture’s endless errors, on recklessly tottering assumptions that “new media” is merely the logical offshoot of video, performance, or installation art, or on already wearisome suppositions that the world wide web represents the only artistic frontier. The web is an array of relations It can be merely functional. But it can also be truly "connective, tactical, tendential, operative" (to use the words of Christian Huebler of Knowbotic Research), it can be a zone of discourse, of transformation, it can figure a set of relationships beyond the predicted performance of its protocols, and can still pose a dynamic strategy to constitute communities unimagined by the profit engineers of on-line commerce.
Resistance is crucial. And, in the words of Peter Weibel:
“In this zone of electronic feudalism, media art would have the task of liberating itself from its slavish function towards the industry and to transform the media into an instrument of the citizens in this age of media, emancipating itself from a mechanical art and evolving to become free art. In the techno-industrial complex, what is involved is a new dynamics between art, culture, and technology, between society and technology, a mapping of this dynamic of the art work itself. In this age of global displacements, the role of the mass media is to create a network to strengthen historical forms of rule by restructuring them. In view of the fact that the big companies themselves are becoming the driving force of global displacements, art, specifically media art – if it can recall its original function at all – will have the task of analyzing this displacement and its causes within the global network so as to create the conditions for a resistance to the new feudalisms and the new vertical structures of mediacracy. The amnesia of the media is their daily routine called television. Media art, in contrast, would be memory art. Searching for free electronic citizens instead of enslaved electronic consumers, we can expect more in this respect from artists on the periphery than from the mainstream. The ancient goddess of reason and cunning, Metis, Odyessus and Daedalus who owe their lives, their survival and their immortality to the great Greek allegories for the mature citizen, are also adequate figureheads for the media. Vis-a-vis the power of the media and their frenzied exteriority, browsing on the rails of cunning is the only site in a world that no longer knows where its site is.”