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Re: From Tactical Media to Digital Multitudes
Response by Kermit Snelson
"As the situationists concluded, the true fulfillment of art ultimately implies going beyond the boundaries of art, bringing creativity and adventure into the critique and liberation of every aspect of life; and first of all into challenging the submissive conditioning that prevents people from creating their own adventures." -- Ken Knabb [1]
New media art must indeed fulfill and not simply continue to "demo" its alternative vision of human relations. Geert and Florian are right to ask "what is to be done" to bring this about. However, the passage I just quoted came to mind as I read their analysis, and I'm not sure whether it serves them better as a summary or as a rebuke.
First of all, I don't see much in their post about "challenging the submissive conditioning that prevents people from creating their own adventures." I see quite the opposite, in fact; namely, an emphasis on the use of new media art as a tool for shaping mass psychology. In their own words, they are looking for a "solution to how alternative new media models can be raised to the level of mass (pop) culture." They say that the most important lesson that artists and activists might have to learn from the fall of the '90s techno-libertarian dotcommania is the "importance of marketing." They speak of a "virtual world" as something consisting of "software, interfaces and alternative standards" that must be "installed." And they strongly suggest that what's standing in way of such an "installation" is that the "new media art" discourse is now linked in the public mind with a failed, obsolete and financially ruinous business fad that "no one wants know about [...] anymore." So that means only that it's time to rebrand the product, eh?
Geert and Florian propose such a rebranding in two forms. First, they say it's imperative that the new media art scene disassociate itself from the failed '90s "New Economy" techno-libertarianism by radically critiquing it. Well, Geert co-founded nettime seven years ago to do just that. Apparently with little success, if their analysis of the present state of new media art is correct.
Second, they call for the abandonment of radical left theory in favor of a "new ethical-aesthetic paradigm" that "lives on in the pragmatic consciousness of affective labour" consisting of nerdiness, friendship and political action. This political action, in turn, is motivated by a very broad conception of "openness" that makes a connection, by means of considerable sophistry, between open source and open borders. Geert and Florian say that such a post-ideological, post-solidarity "digital multitude" is already a reality brought about by tactical media, and that "what is to be done" now is to bring this new social form "down to the level of production" by viewing this "multitude" as a producer of "experimental knowledge" whose "algorithms" must be encoded and decoded, all based on the core realization that "everyone is an expert."
But it's simply not true that "everyone is an expert", certainly not in any case at the "level of production", and it's in this conception of the multitude where I believe Geert and Florian's argument breaks down. I have never understood how the concept of "multitude" that Negri, joined by Geert and Florian, distinguishes from the "masses" by emphasizing the former's lack of a common trait, ideology or indeed any distinguishing idea at all [2], differs from the more traditional concept of "mob". McKenzie Wark in his response seems to pick up on this problem with Geert and Florian's argument, arguing that no "digital multitude" will be able to do "what is to be done" without first achieving class consciousness based on a common understanding of its relation to the currently emerging forms of intellectual property law. Whether or not MacKenzie's own rewrite of the Communist Manifesto around IP law is the way forward, he is certainly right to insist that there's still something to the Marxist view that masses influence history only when formed by an idea. Certainly more than Geert and Florian seem willing to credit, anyway.
But MacKenzie also fails to reach the heart of what's wrong with Geert and Florian's argument. Once again, I believe it lies near their idea that "everyone is an expert." To be sure, everyone is _potentially_ an expert. But no one, not even a genius, becomes an expert without the training, education and discipline necessary for creative and critical thought. Training and education involve the mastery of rules, techniques and ideas. They are what any human culture is all about. On the other hand, it is impossible to found a culture on despair, nihilism and a principled rejection of all ideas and debate, even if one chooses to call such an approach "tactical media", "radical media pragmatism" or even "art". A "new ethical-aesthetic paradigm" that consists of only consumption, shopping, Indymedia-style parasitism, electronic vandalism and other forms of "negative thinking" [3] will never do anything but provide the motor force of Empire. This is what Hardt and Negri really meant by "resistance is prior to power" [4], concealing their real purpose in this instance not with their usual obfuscation, but with clarity.
Empire will be defeated not by applying the tools of mass psychology to create a "multitude," but by educating ourselves and others so that such tools may be resisted. We must cultivate our ability to propose answers, make distinctions, construct coherent arguments, refine our concepts, inform our judgments and, yes, make moral choices. Such abilities are the basis of any truly effective activism, just as they are the basis of any truly effective life. Renouncing all these things and calling that "liberating" will only ensure our slavery.
There is no knowledge to be decoded in mindless action, just as there is no freedom in license. Masses are creative and free; mobs are not. Konrad Becker's recent post to nettime notwithstanding, there's a radical difference between propaganda and education. The difference is precisely that education allows one to challenge "the submissive conditioning that prevents people from creating their own adventures," as Ken Knabb writes in the passage I chose to open this post. Mass propaganda techniques based on a "fascination for authoritarian models" [5], even when wielded by well-intentioned media activists, can accomplish only the opposite.
Kermit Snelson
[1] Knabb, Ken; _The Relevance of Rexroth_, Bureau of Public Secrets,
Berkeley, 1990, p.73
[2] Cf. Hardt and Negri, _Empire_, p.103
[3] Lovink, Geert, _Dark Fiber_, MIT, 2002, p.22; cf. Marcuse
[4] Hardt and Negri, _op.cit._, p.360
[5] Lovink, _op.cit._, p.26
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