As power becomes traceable: raising the stakes on critique

Among the many troubling and bizarre features of contemporary politics, the following apparent paradox can be found: Informationalisation has brought along enormous increases in the traceability of the doings and dealings of the powerful. But the disruptive power of the exposure of these activities to the public, today seems especially low. After information technology, the going about of those in power and their abuses, are increasingly documented, and the resulting records are increasingly susceptible to leakage to the public. Email is an obvious example. In the run-up to the last Iraq war, a message by an official of the National Security Agency (NSA), which requested ? aggressive surveillance ? of UN Security Council Members Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria and Guinea, made its way to the newspapers.

(1) During this time it was also being widely reported that the US was twisting the arms of the above countries, making trade- and aid-related threats, in order to extort from them support for the war. But these reports did not develop into a full-blown scandal. There are hosts of other recent examples of such ? failed ? scandals ? to name just one: the report of the Dutch bank ABN/AMRO Bank being in bed with the British INSYS group, a producer of cluster bombs. Dodgy activities of political and business elites are increasingly recorded, and they circulate ever more widely, but in many cases they fail to cause upheaval.

Obviously, there are many complex reasons why the availability of more scandalous reports does not necessarily lead to more scandals, and many interpretations of this troubling situation are possible. One explanation is the fact itself of the traceability of the abuses of power, and the circulation of the records of them: The more disturbing facts circulate, the less disturbing (i.e. the more acceptable) they seem to become. The sociologist John Thompson argues that with the increases in traceability brought along by information technology, the boundaries of the public and the private are being redrawn. With so much of social and political life being recorded, previously private and secret dimensions of life are now there for all to see. In that sense, you could say, it is not surprising that the publication of ? private facts ? about big business and politics, including the questionable ones, looses some of its shock-value. Such facts are now simply part of the horizon of social life. But, if such a diagnosis makes sense, then there are some potential disturbing consequences for critical information practices. If critical information about the activities of the powerful no longer has the capacity to raise any eyebrows, what then is the point in the collection and publication of such information?

One critical information practice of which such questions can be asked is ?the cartography of power?. Media artists, activists and researchers have in recent years set up several mapping projects that aim to make visible the formal and informal relations that organize business and politics. (2) Such critical cartography projects take advantage of precisely the increases in the traceability of political and powerful actors, events and issues, referred to above. They bring into view more or less hidden relations among political and powerful institutions. The wide circulation of similar facts in the mass media, and the lack of disturbing effects that this has, raises questions about the point of this kind of work as a form of critique. If reports of the dodgy doings and dealings among those in power appear to have little shock-value, what then is the point of such projects?Rather than drawing the conclusion that critical information practices are apparently useless, it is far more important to see what this situation teaches us about the constraints on political criticism in the current media situation. Taking into account these constraints, critical information practices like the cartography of power, I want to argue, turn out to provide us precisely with important sensibilities.

The failure of scandals to materialize when more and more reports are circulating that call for scandal shows us, among others, that there are very specific constraints on good and effective critique. With reports of abuses by powerful elites circulating as a matter of course, without causing much upheaval, it becomes obvious that only under very particular circumstances does a critical claim become tenable, politically speaking. With so many potentially scandalous situations being recorded, and so many of these records circulating, it is clear that claims made on the basis of them, acquire the capacity to shock only under very specific conditions. To give one example, the claim that current intellectual property regimes risk to make it impossible to fight AIDS in Southern Africa, only really began to hold, politically speaking, when big pharmaceutic manufacturers finally backed off from its lawsuit against the government of South Africa, which it had instituted to keep this government from distributing generic AIDS drugs, in 2001. Before that event the claim could still be downplayed or simply ignored. But in order to produce that event, thousands of meetings had been held, mails and letters written, phone calls made, not to mention the innumerable conversations during dinners, and in hallways etcetera.

Everyone involved in critical information practices of course knows that it is only under very specific circumstances that critical claims become tenable, politically speaking. But this fact tells us something about the nature of critique, in a context that is overflowing with critical information. For one, it shows that critique these days derives its force not so much from revelation, to the extent it has been assumed to do in the past. With so many critical reports circulating, the point of critique is not so much, or at least not only, what it can reveal to be the case, the question is more whether any given critical claim acquires social or political strength. So much is known. In that light, what matters most is to figure out when and where, what claims are pertinent. And to strengthen critical claims, so as to make them tenable in those situations, to the point that they can only be ignored or denied at great cost. (3) To put it bluntly: You can show that the rich are in part responsible for the recent increases in poverty. However, seeing that this fact is not exactly a secret, the critical question becomes how such a claim can be inserted pertinently into social practices, whether it is a dinner conversation, an outdoor event, or a debate.

The ?constructivist? point that claims have to be made to hold, that they aren?t true and shocking in and of themselves, in some sense runs counter to the critical spirit. One reasons for this is the type of claims critique is concerned with: here claims often deal with issues of major injustice, issues of violence and poverty. When it comes to such issues, the relativistic point that it depends on contingencies whether a claim is politically viable or not, is in many senses a tasteless and perverse point. For people living with AIDS in Southern Africa the fact that without access to cheap generic drugs, medicine distribution will not get of the ground in this country, is a hard fact in the strongest sense of the word. Another reason why critique is traditionally not interested in the idea that claims have to be made convincingly, and aren?t convincing in themselves, is that critical theory ? as it goes back to the Frankfurter Schule and to Marx ? characteristically operates by positioning itself outside the political game of having to convince others. This also goes to a degree for critical practices of more concrete case building and claim making. Critical theory and in a sense, critical practices, derive their force from this move beyond debates in which participants have to convince the others. Critical theory classically declares, with more or less absolute authority, what is the case, irrespective of what others claim. These days, however, instead of making transcendental moves, critique takes detours.

Critique, one could say, these days derives its force from finding a place for itself where a pertinent language can be developed for its claims, and where they can be nourished with passion. Critical claims depend critically on such a movement, if they are to take on any significance. To return one more time to the example of the fight for generic drugs in South Africa, without the many discussions among people living with AIDS in South Africa and elsewhere, and the many events organised by them, the sense of commitment, strength and tragedy that is connected with the issue would never have been fed into the claim against the pharmaceutical companies, and for generic drugs. Without it, the claim would have remained empty. Also, the claim derived its wordings at least in part from these discussions and events. That is also to say, the passions that derive from rock solid facts that are politically speaking not (yet) tenable, as the horror, the courage and the humour that life with AIDS gives rise to, are among the great resources of critical practices. Infused with language and passion, critical claims can sometimes be taken on the road, to be presented to a target. However, as critique feeds on passions and language in this way, it also raises the question of return: will the claim that is taken on the road ever return to those places where effort and energy were fed into them?

But, to build a critical case, what is also required besides a passion behind it, and a language to phrase it in, is a sensibility for the specific political configurations in which the case is to be inserted. A critical claim also derives its force from how it plays on and takes advantage of the power-relations in which it intervenes. It requires a target, a location, and good timing, among others. It is in this respect that critical information practices like the cartography of power may be of use. To expect that the things revealed by cartographies of power are enough to generate critical claims all by themselves, is absurd. The cartography of power is done in a context that is already overflowing with critical information. In this situation, it precisely becomes obvious that for a critical claim to work, much more is required than the revelation of dodgy activities of powerful individuals and institutions. For critique to hold, passions must flow into it, a language must be developed for it, a voice must be found to speak it, etcetera. But, as an activist support system that helps to make its audiences sensitive to the political configurations in which critical claims are to be inserted, critical information practices like the cartography of power might prove very valuable.

(1) Link to observer, guardian
(2) These projects will be discussed as part of the panel: tactical cartography
(3) Perhaps here the order of point 1 and 2 should be reversed. //also point out that this goes as much for ?dinner conversation? as for grand critical politics at the global stage