Transfiguration of the Avant-Garde

The Negative Dialectics of the Net

In his essay, "Presenting the Unpresentable: The Sublime", Jean-François Lyotard observes that capitalism, technoscience and the pictorial avant-garde of the twentieth century share an 'affinity to infinity'. All three point towards a sensibility that is constitutive for the experience of the modern world.

Lyotard is best known for having coined the term 'post-modern' for a certain diagnosis of the social conditions of advanced capitalist society. His work fascinates because of the intersection it creates between contemporary aesthetics, the avant-garde (especially in the visual arts), and their relationship to the seemingly separate areas of technoscience and advanced capitalism.

Paradoxically, however, the position he takes vis-à-vis the new technologies, and especially the process of digitalization, is stifling for any critical engagement with these technologies. His position denies the possibility of critical artistic and cultural activity in the realm of digital mediation, exactly at a point where his reading of the avant-garde could play a tremendously productive role: in a further exploration of this affinity to infinity that not only informs the avant-garde, technoscience and advanced capitalism, but that can also be recognized in the rise of what sociologist Manuel Castells has called the network society.

Lyotard's exploration starts with the assertion of the 'impossibility' of painting. So this is where I will start to consider his argument.


For Lyotard, the impossibility of painting is a result of the arrival of photography, which makes painting economically unsustainable, while photography itself and the act of image making falls prone to the infinity of the capitalist production/consumption cycle. He writes:

Something 'too beautiful' is inherent in the perfectly programmed beauty of the photograph: an infinity; not the indeterminacy of feeling, but the infinite ability of science, of technology, of capital to realize. The ability of machines to function is, by principle, subject to obsolescence, because the accomplishments of the most esteemed capitalists demand the perpetual reformulation of merchandise and the creation of new markets. The hardness of industrial beauty contains the infinity of technoscientific and economic reasons.

The destruction of experience that this implies is not simply due to the introduction of that which is 'well-conceived' into the field of aesthetics. Science, technology, and capital, in spite of their matter-of-fact approach, are also modes of making concrete the infinity of ideas. Knowing all, being capable of all, having all, are their horizons - and horizons extend to infinity. The ready-made in the techno-sciences presents itself as a potential for infinite production, and so does the photograph.

The pictorial avant-garde responded to painting's 'impossibility' by engaging in research centred around the question, 'What is painting?'
One after another previous assumptions about the painter's practice were put on trial and debated. Tonality, linear perspective, the rendering of values, the frame, the format, the supports, surface, medium, instrument, place of exhibition, and many other presuppositions were questioned plastically by the various avant-gardes.

According to Lyotard, the great transformation in the act of image making that the avant-gardes introduce is not so much their insistence on constant transformation of the visual field. These transformations perform a highly specific function: they all point towards the fact that any convention of image making not only presents a specific possibility of giving order to the visual field, but that it simultaneously conceals the infinity of possible alternative modes of ordering that visual field. This infinity of alternate visual modes is necessarily absent from the image as it remains unrepresentable. It is, however, referred to indirectly by the denial of a definite visual order of things.

And Lyotard asserts: 'The avant-garde painter feels an overriding responsibility to the fulfilment of the imperative implied by the question, 'What is painting?' Essentially what is at stake is the demonstration of the invisible in the visual.' [2]

Entering the Realm of the Negative Sign

The avant-garde painters engaged in a negative dialectic of the image - a continuous invention of visual modes that challenge and negate previous propositions of what an appropriate image looks like. This process of the negation of dominant artistic conventions can be illustrated with some classic examples of avant-garde interventions:

Cubism; breaking up the unified perspective:

In the cubist painting, the object represented is shown from different angles simultaneously, thus alluding consciously to the artificial constraints of the two-dimensional surface of the canvas, and acknowledging the fact that the eye only perceives when it is in constant motion. The cubists understood that, therefore, visual perception always rests on the combination of a multitude of images received from different points of view, even when the eye is firmly fixed on a certain object. With their multidimensional perspective, the cubists denied the validity of linear perspective (as it is programmed in the photographic machine) as the 'correct' representation of the world in visual terms.

Simultaneity; breaking the unity of time:

Giacomo Balla's beautiful image Dynamism of a dog on the line of 1912 perfectly illustrates the point. Rather than showing only one moment frozen in time, the image represents a series of moments in one image - the paws of the dog moving swiftly as he tries to keep track with the elegant lady walking the dog. Frantisek Kupka had started introducing this principle of simultaneity to painting, inspired by the chronophotography of Etienne Jules Marey. And of course Duchamp's famous Nude descending a staircase further imprinted this visual principle upon the public consciousness. Here the arbitrary nature of the frozen image, as opposed to the constant flux of life processes, is acknowledged and revealed. We know from historical sources that the experiments with photographing animal motion revealed that their traditional representation in 'realist' painting and sculpture was but a convention.

Abstraction; breaking away from figuration:

This case is all too obvious, looking back from a contemporary point of view. With the acceptance of abstraction, painting shed its last ties to an illusionist mode of representation. Rather than representing a specific outside reality beyond the painting itself, it could now become an inverted symbol for the infinity of the visual and the infinity of ideas.

In the end, the process of negation of dominant visual languages even abolished the image itself. Emblematically, in the case of the black square of Malevich. Here the image has become a non-image: devoid of shape, colour, texture or representation, the painting had become a negative sign; an inverted symbol for the absence of the image. But this non-existence did not point towards the impossibility of image production as such. Rather it had become a negative sign for the unrepresentable infinity of possible modes of visual invention, or what Lyotard describes as 'the infinity of plastic invention'.

Thus, Lyotard concludes that the avant-garde painters introduced painting into the field opened by the aesthetic of the sublime. In the Kantian formula, an Un-Form, something that cannot be synthesized into a unique spatiotemporal form, as (by no coincidence) the concept of infinity.

The Immaterials/Les Immatériaux

In 1985, Lyotard was responsible, together with Thierry Chaput, director of the Centre de Creation Industrielle, for the concept and realization of a groundbreaking exhibition called Les Immatériaux - roughly translated as 'The Immaterials'. Les Immatériaux attempted to highlight and intensify a sensibility about the things in our immediate surroundings that have been influenced by new materials and conceptions of reality that predominantly derive from technoscientific enquiry. In the press-release for Les Immatérieux of 8 January 1985 he states:

Why 'Immaterials'? Research and development in the techno-sciences, art and technology, yes even in politics, give the impression that reality, whatever it may be, becomes increasingly intangible, that it can never be controlled directly - they give the impression of a complexity of things . . .

The devices themselves are also becoming more complex. One step was set as their artificial brains started to work with digital data; with data that have no analogy to their origin. It is as if a filter has been placed between us and the things, a screen of numbers . . .

A colour, a sound, a substance, a pain, or a star return to us as digits in schemes of utmost precision. With the encoding and decoding-systems we learn that there are realities that are in a new way intangible. The good old matter itself comes to us in the end as something which has been dissolved and reconstructed into complex formulas. Reality consists of elements, organized by structural rules (matrixes) in no longer human measures of space and time.

Technoscientifc inquiry thus testifies to the infinite malleability of the concept of reality. Reality, according to Lyotard, first of all consists of the messages that we receive about it. But these messages are increasingly mediated by ever more complex machines. Digitalization introduces a final level of abstraction into this process by imposing a finite scheme of encoding that translates all messages into one abstract universal code, the digital code; a code without an analogy to its origin. 'The model of language replaces the model of matter,' Lyotard asserts, and with it, the concept of reality becomes as malleable as language itself.

Critical Arts in the Age of Total Media Incorporation

The capitalist commodification of everything includes the domain of beauty, and even those monstrous negative non-entities that were once the exclusive terrain of the avant-garde. These negative modes of representation have long been identified as marketing tools to provide access to fringe and niche markets. They have become a form of distinction and possibility for identification with those market segments that the aesthetics of beauty tends to exclude. Aesthetics, both in its positive forms and its negative manifestations, has thus become part of the infinite quest for markets that lies at the very heart of capitalist logic.

For Lyotard, digitalization marks the final incorporation of experience in a finite scheme of coding - the digital matrix. With it, experience is trapped in the system of technoscientific logic and its infinite quest to transform the concept of reality. Within technoscientific logic, the world is translated into a problem as coding, as Donna Haraway puts it, and made entirely subject to the functional demands of scientific enquiry and the advanced forms of informational capitalism. Escape from this defining logic is no longer possible within the system of digital mediation, incorporation is complete.

Against this view I would like to propose a completely opposite analysis of digital mediation. The system of digital mediation, and in particular the sphere of networked digital communication, presents itself as a highly productive domain for critical strategies and artistic intervention. Interestingly, it is the legacy of the avant-gardes of the last century that provides an enormously useful set of conceptual tools and references to develop a critical engagement with the conditions of digital mediation. The context in which these avant-garde strategies play out has, however, radically transformed. It takes these strategies far beyond the sanctified realm of the arts.

The Negative Screen

The screen of global media presents itself as a seamless surface; be connected wherever you go, see whatever happens anywhere, communicate in real-time. This is the utopian image of global mediation. The industrial model of broadcast media, television and radio, in the age of digital media is diversified to fine-tune the media offerings to ever more precise market segmentations. The clean and seamless surface is the mythological image of the networked media age. In the ideology of its protagonists, it should remain unchallenged, inviolable. The mechanisms directing this permanent electronic enactment of the world remain well out of sight, deliberately hidden beneath the illusionary surface of the screen.

The absolute horror of the media professional is the interrupted broadcast. In the TV format, it is sometimes witnessed in a brief interval as a traumatic black screen - the moment when the signal drops away, when the spectacle suddenly turns into a black square, ironically reminiscent of Malevich's sign of the infinite. In radio, the despair of silence is even greater than the absence of the image on TV. Horror Vacui is replaced here by an electronic form of Horror Silentiae. The silence of the faded radio signal and the blackness of the imploded screen do not merely mark the absence of a signal. The implied horror refers to the immanent destruction of the seamless media surface, which requires the continuous illusory suggestion of immediacy and connection that gives the viewer the reassuring impression of the transparency of the media screen.

It is the moment at which this flow is interrupted, when the code is broken, or when the sound has collapsed and the screen is extinguished, that the possibility for an alternative message, a new code, is created. This is the space of negation: the void created by the rupture is the open field in which a new synthesis of unique forms in space and time become possible. The emergence of the new code out of the void of the Horror Silentiae reconfirms the connection of the media subject to the world. It is within this moment of delight over the conquered threat of the end of existence that the avant-gardes come into play and transform the meaning of the media codes.

The strategies, the conceptual tools, the tactics of intervention in the new digital hypersphere are highly familiar. They draw on the legacy and experience of the avant-garde movements. Indeed, many of the interventions that have been most successful in engaging the new conditions of digital mediation have been artistic interventions. But something has changed dramatically; the object these interventions engage with is no longer the aesthetic framework of contemporary art, not the holy concept of the author, nor the artist genius, or the canonized conventions of artistic creation. What is challenged is the seamless surface of the networked media spectacle itself, and its illusion of stability. The negative dialectics of the digital avant-garde no longer challenge the notions of art, but those of the symbolical digital realm it operates in, and its inherent instability.

The Aesthetics of Impropriety

The pure and simple disruption of media signals is an obvious strategy of challenging the dominant media codes, but it is not a very interesting one. The disruption of the appropriate flow of media signals is only the entry-point for an alternative discourse, nothing more.

The transference of the classical avant-garde's negative dialectics of the image to the networked media screen has been executed most paradigmatically by the artists duo [4] On their now famous website, they have been creating incomprehensible, yet highly poetic and evocative visual and sometimes auditory processes that seem to reverse the hierarchy of the professional media screen.

All sense of connection is lost, intelligibility is gone. Instead of the conventional presentation of printed page-type layouts with a mediocre amalgamation of pseudo-moving imagery, supported by lengthy invisible sets of code, at, the screen is in constant flux and occasional stasis. There is no clear relationship between the action of the viewer and the response of the system. Sometimes the page halts, but we don't understand why, then the screen suddenly changes but we are left clueless, why at this particular moment? The screen is continuously strewn with code that can sometimes be recognized as fragments of disjunct HTML, sometimes as meaningless ASCII garbage and is sometimes just sheer incomprehensible and meaningless code.

The artists are often asked: 'What is this all about??', to which they provide no answer. The imagery and processes that the viewer witnesses on entering the site are deliberately 'inappropriate'. Their ambiguous and incomprehensible nature refers to the virtually inexhaustible array of possible modes of representation in the digital hypersphere. often seeks out the mistakes in the software. A careful analysis of new mainstream software products reveals where the bugs are, and these mistakes, that may cause delay, flimmering screens, erratic movement or infinitely repeated loops, are immediately transformed into aesthetic material. These 'mistakes' then become not the disruption of a code, but the essence of the new code that replaces the conventional ones with. In short, creates a set of negative signs that point towards the infinity of alternate codes of writing and reading networked media.

The impressive Wrong-Browser project makes this point even more clearly. [5] Here, we are presented with a set of browsers that read HTML and process them as abstract data-structures, represented in a highly colourful aesthetic language programmed in the browser software. Invariably, the software becomes a subjective machine for aesthetic processing, the outcomes of which are defined by the contestational logic of its program code.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

The US-based art collective ®TMark deploy quite a different strategy, but one that reveals the vulnerability of the web-based representational systems more dramatically. In 1999, during the anti-WTO/G8 protests in Seattle, ®TMark produced a website which has since become well known in and net-culture circles. The site,, was named after the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, one of the early global trade liberalization treaties that many of the protesters on the street were contesting.

At first glance, the site looked very much like the official website of the World Trade Organization ( No surprise, since ®TMark had simply copied the entire layout, graphics and pictures from the original WTO site for its own, including the welcoming word of the WTO director Mike Moore and his picture. The text, however, was entirely reversed. Where the original WTO site praises the benefits of market liberalization and global free trade, the site laments the destruction of democratic politics and the lack of social and environmental responsibility that informs the trade liberalization negotiations. And the policy documents on the WTO site were replaced with counter documents from many of the social and ecological movements that were protesting in the streets of Seattle.

This would have probably gone more or less unnoticed had the WTO not attempted to intervene in the publication of the website. Infuriated by this case of illegitimately appropriating of their corporate image, they issued a warning on their site that informed the general public of a fake and misleading website 'purporting to be the official web site of the World Trade Organization'. The site 'compromised the transparency' of the WTO and its efforts to make policy documents publicly available via their website.

Of course, the warning was quickly adopted by the site, which then claimed the WTO site was illegitimate. This continued in a cat-and-mouse game that resulted in the WTO issuing an official press release denouncing the attack on the 'organization's transparency' by a fringe art group. With this press release, the site hack became world news and attracted millions of visitors to the website.

Strangely, the story did not end there. After the attention for the struggle on the appropriated site died down, and the WTO decided to change the entire layout of its page, seemed to lead a quite life as an archived document of a curious artistic intervention in networked global politics. However, after some time, the ®TMark collective started receiving emails from visitors to the site that indicated that these visitors were still under the impression of visiting the WTO site, despite the notably different content of the messages on the site. These emails included invitations to high-level international trade conferences as official representatives of the World Trade Organization.

®TMark adopted an alternate guise (the ¥E$ Men) to respond to these friendly invitations, and accepted a limited number of invitations by actually going to these conferences to lecture, posing as official representatives of the World Trade Organization. One of the most hilarious of these site-specific performances is the lecture given at an international textile producers conference in Tampere, Finland. The action is extensively documented on the '' site. [6] In this lecture, one of the artists first gives a totally implausible account of free trade, and then reveals a golden suit that supposedly provides the manager of the future with bodily feedback about productivity in the sweatshops they are controlling. Immediate contact with the work floor is provided by a gigantic inflatable phallus fitted with a video-screen that has a wireless connection to the sweatshop in real-time - be connected wherever you go!

This performance seamlessly crosses over from the imaginary (the website) to the real (the textile trade conference in Tampere), and back to the imaginary (the ¥E$ Men's sarcastically staged lecture/performance). Amazingly, the lecture remained totally unchallenged by conference participants, testifying to the strong belief they put in the fact that they were being presented with an actual representative of the WTO. This expectation was built on the initial belief of the organizers in the representational system of the website they visited, the WTO iconography, tone of voice and familiar narratives for trade liberalization, even if, as on the site, the message carried by these narratives was entirely reversed. Beyond this mistaken identity and its hilarious results, the action reveals the seamless transition between the real and the imaginary within the networked media spectacles. [7]

To Act; the Geste

The sphere of international economics and politics has become inseparably linked with the new constellations of broadcast and networked media. The principal challenge of the network society is the complete fusion of media, digital technology, economics and politics. The logic of the digital network now informs all dominant aspects of society. On the one hand, this fact marks the end of the virtual, a sphere that has become completely intertwined with the 'real' world. At the same time, however, every significant social interaction can only become meaningful by virtue of how it is mapped in the digital domain.

Beyond representation, the space of digital networks has become the backbone of economic interaction, enabling the immediacy of financial and economic flows across geographical and territorial divides. The connections between the networked structures and the physical domains have become so diversified and interdependent that it is no longer useful to distinguish physical geography as 'real', from networked constellations as 'virtual'. In fact, the very opposition of the real and the virtual has become misleading. Geography and technological, social and economic networks together create one system that is becoming increasingly integrated and sophisticated. But this system remains highly problematic for excluding more than it accepts.

The new sphere of networked media and communications is intrinsically vulnerable to the type of interventions described above. This double-sided nature of the Net is puzzling in many respects. On the one hand, digital networks appear as the ultimate control apparatus, but simultaneously, they remain a refuge for alternative views, a space without final closure, always only partially under control, and in permanent transformation. The authority of the system is challenged when the seamless surface of the media interface and its illusion of transparency are broken and reconstructed in a multitude of alternative agendas, indeed an infinity of alternative micro- and macropolitical agendas.

Saskia Sassen once pointed out, and quite rightfully so, that the Internet is constituted by the practices employed in it. But the nature of interventions in this space of networks transcends the limits of conventional representational systems. There is a specific form of performativity here, where the symbolic interventions on the level of social discourse become paradoxically real. Rather than 'representing' reality, the intervention is an act, a geste, that 'creates' an alternative reality in the immediacy of its digital mediation.


The conditions that create this specific form of performativity are what sociologist Manuel Castells describes as the 'culture of real virtuality' in The Rise of the Network Society. [8] Here, he asks what is a technological communication system that, in contrast to earlier historical experience, generates real virtuality?

Castells: It is a system in which reality itself (that is people's material / symbolic existence) is entirely captured, fully immersed in a virtual image setting, in the world of make believe, in which appearances are not just on the screen through which experience is communicated, but they become the experience.

All messages of all kinds become enclosed in the medium, because the medium has become so comprehensive, so diversified, so malleable, that it absorbs in the same multimedia text the whole of human experience, past, present, and future, as in the unique point of the Universe that Jorge Luis Borges called Aleph.

Castells goes on to demonstrate that the culture of real virtuality is not a condition that is entirely specific to the system of networked media and communications. The superimposition of the real and the imaginary onto each other, within one and the same multimedia text, is something that began to form in the television age, but was heightened and intensified after the emergence of ever more diversified wireless communication media.

Castells himself takes his prime example from American television, a strange blending of fiction and reality that happened during the election campaign for the US presidency in 1992. At the time, George Bush Sr and vice-president Dan Quayle were competing with the Clinton/Gore team.

In a televised election speech Dan Quayle started to attack the fictional persona Murphy Brown, the main character of a popular TV series by the same name. The character was played by the actress Candice Bergen. Murphy Brown was a typical independent woman, living in one of the major cities of the USA, unmarried and in control of her life. She (MB) decides at some point that she wants to have a child, but without a father, and takes the necessary steps to have that child. And it is exactly at this point that Quayle intervenes and attacks her for a lack of, in his view, moral standards, and for exhibiting a behaviour that is not conducive to proper family values.

What is really strange about his intervention is that it was not aimed at the scriptwriters and director of the series, nor at the actress Candice Bergen. Instead he chose to point his criticism directly at the fictional character Murphy Brown, acknowledging the importance of this character as a role model for real-life social arrangements. The creators of the series responded intelligently by letting the fictional character Murphy Brown, in the fictional setting of the TV series, watch and comment on the 'real-life' speech of vice president Dan Quayle.

Out of this curious dialogue between a real and an imaginary person, a heady political discussion evolved about 'a woman's right to choose' that had a significant impact on the course of the election campaign. Ultimately the Quayle/Bush Sr team lost, for a host of reasons, but the relevant point here is, of course, the blending of the real and the imaginary in a crucial sociopolitical process. The criticism of the real vice president Quayle became part of the fictional narrative of the series and the narrative of the series became part of the real presidential campaign. This was only possible because both operated in the same 'multimedia text'.

Castells explains that this condition is truly inescapable, because these messages can only achieve communicability by being mapped in this new sphere of interconnected media and communication networks. But once part of this system of electronic and digital mediation, they become vulnerable to the inherent inconsistencies of this system. Castells:

What characterizes the new system of communication, based in the digitized, networked integration of multiple communication modes, is its inclusiveness and comprehensiveness of all cultural expressions. Because of its existence, all kinds of messages in the new type of society work in a binary mode: presence/absence in the multimedia communication system. Only presence in this integrated system permits communicability and socialization of the message. All other messages are reduced to individual imagination or to increasingly marginalized face-to-face subcultures. [10]

To act in the culture of real-virtuality means to act both symbolically and real at the same time, because both levels of social reality coincide within the same 'multimedia text'. In this paradoxical environment, dominant discourses of social, political and economic power can be challenged at the level of the representational systems they employ. The classical avant-gardes provide a repository of ideas, tactics and strategies that are played out in a radically enlarged context; no longer the context of art itself, but that of the network society.

The negation of a dominant mode of speech implies the infinity of possible modes of speaking.

Postscript: The Ethics of Symbolic Intervention

If under the conditions of real-virtuality, as outlined by Manuel Castells, to act symbolically within the realm of networked media in a paradoxical way also means to act directly on social reality, then this would imply that such symbolical interventions carry a deeper and more serious ethical dimension. Political contestation in a networked media environment should take conscious account of that ethical dimension if it is to retain a basic sense of legitimacy. Symbolic acts in such an environment have actual consequences - we would be tempted to say 'real-life consequences', but that assertion would still overlook the crucial point that these symbolic interventions are already 'real' in and of themselves. It is this aspect that makes things complicated (and interesting) here.

This principle became more clear than ever in what till date (October 2007) is probably the ¥€$ Men's most famous and controversial intervention, the appearance of ¥€$ Man 'Andy' as Jude Finisterra, spokesman for Dow Chemical's Ethic and Compliance Office, for a live interview on BBC World on 3 December 2004, 9 am GMT, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the disaster with a chemical plant, then owned by US chemicals company Union Carbide, later bought up by Dow Chemical, in Bhopal, India on 4 December 1984. An explosion and subsequent leakage of toxic chemicals in a residential area is considered responsible for the death of at least 3,500 people, as well as injuring, in some cases severely, many thousands more. Twenty years after the disaster, the victims have not received adequate compensation, the site has not been cleaned up and remains highly toxic, while responsible top-level management of Union Carbide and Dow Chemical have continued to deny legal accountability. The spokesmen for Dow's (non-existent) Ethics and Compliance Office, 'Jude Finisterra' [11] announced that all this will change, and that Dow Chemical will finally and fully acknowledge its legal responsibility, resulting from the take-over of Union Carbide ('We knew what we were getting when we took over Union Carbide'). The Bhopal plant will be sold and dismantled, 'liquified' into 12 billion US dollars, this money will be used to compensate the victims and for medical care, but also for research into the effects of toxic poisoning and the development of ecologically responsible production methods. Furthermore, Dow Chemical will finally make public the information of the exact compound that was released into the Bhopal environment (an industrial secret kept by Dow Chemical for over 20 years), so that more targeted medical treatment can be developed 'at long last' for the victims of the disaster. Finally, the site of the Bhopal plant will be cleaned up, something that was never done, either by Dow Chemical or by the Indian government, even though it continues to be used as an 'informal' residential area and children's playground.

The enormous breakthrough of this action should not be underestimated. The 20th anniversary of this tragic disaster and the gross negligence of both Dow Chemical and the Indian and US governments in dealing with the aftereffects and compensation of the victims all became headline news around the globe. The broadcasts on BBC World themselves informed an audience of millions, while they also helped to stir up a global debate about the Bhopal disaster as well as responsible business practices (or the lack thereof). Most importantly, the appearance on BBC World helped to link the name of Dow Chemical to the Bhopal disaster, which had till then consciously been linked to the name Union Carbide, the company later bought by Dow Chemical. This link of Dow Chemical to the disaster was something that ecological activists had been trying to achieve for many years, basically since Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide, but had never managed to achieve in mainstream media coverage of the disaster and commemorative actions concerning it.

The ethically disturbing aspect of this action was exactly its reverberation around the planet. First of all, it was broadcast live on satellite television in many countries, including India itself. Subsequently, the coverage of the action, responses, denial of responsibility by Dow Chemical and public discussion obviously also reached Bhopal and the victims involved in the disaster, many of whom still require expensive medical treatment which they either do not receive or which lead them into financial ruin. None of the problems the victims are facing on a daily basis have been resolved for them, not even some three years after this intervention. While most victims will probably welcome the worldwide attention to their horrible fate, this has not meant any improvement in their daily living conditions, and of course it raised false hopes that were quickly shattered.

The question is: How can activists respond to such conditions? In their website coverage of the action, the ¥€$ Men themselves address this issue in some detail. First of all, they were aware of this problem before the action was launched, when there was reason for some initial doubt. Their estimate was that if the live interview would be carried with success, the hoax would probably be discovered within one or two hours at the most (in actuality it took two hours, and the interview was actually aired a second time in a rerun, one hour after it was recorded). Two hours compared with 20 years was an acceptable trade-off, according to the activists. On the question of raising false hopes with the victims of the Dow Chemical Bhopal disaster, they write:

'Whatever be the circumstances under which the news was aired, we will get $12 billion from Dow sooner than later,' one Bhopali activist is quoted as saying. But the 'false hope' question does come up in some articles, especially in the UK. Much as we try to convince ourselves it was worth it, we cannot get rid of the nagging doubt. Did we deeply upset many Bhopalis? If so, we want to apologize. We were trying to show that another world is possible.

We're also bothered that the BBC has taken the fall, and that this has somehow called the BBC's credibility into question. It shouldn't. The BBC, as soon as Dow finally noticed out that 'Jude Finisterra' wasn't theirs, promptly and prominently retracted the story. There was no net misinformation. In fact there was significantly more information as a result, since more people knew about Bhopal and Dow, especially in the US.

And in the 'Frequently Asked Questions' section of the ¥€$ Men website, they answer two more concerns about the ethical dimension of their real-symbolic intervention:

Do you feel bad about the consequences of your action, the raising of false hopes with Bhopali in particular?

If you think we hurt the Bhopalis, then do something about it! If the deaths, debilities, organ failure, brain damage, tumors, breathing problems, and sundry other forms of permanent damage caused by Dow and Union Carbide aren't enough to arouse your pity, and the hour of 'false hopes' we caused is - fantastic, we won! Go straight to and make a donation.

Why don't you feel bad about it?

Two reasons:
1. Our intention was to get news about Bhopal into the U.S., where most people don't even know what happened there in 1984, let alone that a person still dies every day from residual pollution that has never been cleaned up. Right there in Dow's headquarters - Midland, Michigan - most people don't realize that Dow still refuses to do the slightest thing to repair the damage they are responsible for. In getting the news to these folks, we succeeded wonderfully: hundreds of articles about the event made it into the U.S. press, whereas on most anniversaries of the accident, it hasn't even found its way into one mainstream source. (Note: Whereas much of the UK press focussed on the 'false hopes' angle, almost none of the US press did, perhaps because they had to spend the column-inches explaining what Bhopal was in the first place. Since the UK wasn't our target - almost everyone in the UK had heard plenty about Bhopal in the media - the coverage there just didn't matter.)
2. The Bhopali activists we've spoken to are very happy with these results. In fact, they were happy about them the same day, as soon as they got over their disappointment. Why would we care about what anyone else thinks?
3. We're not trying to win a popularity contest.

The main argument they provide for the justification of this intervention is highly interesting; 'We were trying to show that another world is possible', which is of course first of all a word play on the famous slogan of the World Social Forum meetings and the insistence on an alternative to current forms of institutional politics and economics locked in free-market fundamentalism, but this statement also locks the intervention firmly in the avant-garde's pursuit of infinity. The negation of an institutionalized reality (the non-lieu for Dow Chemical over the Bhopal disaster, the dissociation of corporate policies and long-term social and ecological detriments) is replaced not so much by an alternative reality but by a void that negatively indicates the infinity of possible alternate solutions - of which Dow Chemical selling the Bhopal plant and using the revenue to compensate victims, clean up the mess and start research into responsible company policies is only one possible version (a highly attractive one for those involved, no doubt), but many other alternatives can be thought of through this moment of negation.

The effect for the BBC was indeed quite damaging. While the ¥€$ Men also acknowledge that the coverage by the BBC of the Bhopal disaster has been strong, insightful and well-informed, the BBC lost its credibility in this matter, as a result of badly checked credentials of the spokesman of the Dow Chemical Ethics and Compliance Office. Curiously, the journalist who conducted the live interview also disappeared quickly after from BBC World, leaving one to wonder if he had become too much of a liability, the face of deception, for the BBC?

Finally, the shares of Dow Chemical on international stock markets took a plunge. Not surprisingly, shareholders were not amused by the sudden change of direction in company policies, which would inevitably lead to lower financial results of the company - stimulating shareholders to quickly vent their portfolios of Dow Chemical shares before they collapsed altogether. Here the interplay between two symbolic domains, both networked in near real-time becomes apparent, that of the integrated international multimedia network and that of the international financial system. The speed of reaction within the financial system is further accelerated by the presence and formative role of automated trading systems that react to market information without a deeper qualitative analysis of the context in which this information stands. Complete automation of this process is not a regular feature anymore since the 1987 crash of Wall Street, caused by trade computers going haywire in real-time, but it is still a factor that intensifies and exacerbates the volatility of the international trade and financial system.

This seamless transition between the real and the imaginary in the context of internationally networked communication media is hardly understood today, and certainly not taken very seriously in most centres of political and economic decision making. It is, however, a condition that increasingly influences the outcome of processes of social and political confrontation.

To quote Paul Virilio: It is time to develop a media ecology.


1. Jean-François Lyotard, 'Presenting the Unpresentable: The Sublime', Art Forum, New York, March 1982, 64-69.
2. Ibid.
3. Jean-François Lyotard, Thierry Chaput et al., Les Immatériaux - Conception (Paris: Centre de Creation Industrielle/Centre Georges Pompidou, 1985).
7. This seamless transition between the mediated and real also implies an important complication of the ethical dimension of the type of symbolic intervention that The ¥E$ Men became experts in - some thoughts on this follow in the post-script to this essay.
8. Manuel Castells, 'The Culture of Real Virtuality', in: The Rise of the Network Society (Malden/Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1996), 355-406.
9. Ibid., 373.
10. Ibid., 374.
11. Again, as with the appearance in Tampere, the invitation came in via a spoof website mimicking the corporate website of the company under attack - in this case:
12. and, 10 October 2007.