Online Generation - The strategy of refusal and the refusal of strategy
Erik Empson and Arianna BoveThey went to war, we responded 'don't do it'. The war was yes/no - on/off - and binary citizenship hardly had a chance to consider. And with this the democratic peoples of the world tasted what is suffered day to day by its majority; the blind indifference of power. As the military curtain fell, representative democracy issued a sigh and went to sleep.
Hypocrisy, for a long time the official business of politics is now its paymaster. And only with blind hypocrisy could we continue to satisfy our ‘will do do something’ by tacitly delegating it to the official apparatus that is now perpetrating war. The resulting moral lack informs all practice. The same injunction of the need to act informed the political spectrum from the US military to the Aid Agencies and from the embedded journalists to the Anti-War Coalitions. The large scale F15 protests seethed with an unnerving sense of loss of the old rituals of consent creation. Not a new political activism but nostalgia for the old contretemps between people and state. Enfranchised only by commerce and the fourth estate, only by protesting against it could people participate in such a ‘historic’ event and show their solidarity with its awesome post-S11 manufactured gravitas.
There seems to be nothing distinctly political behind the urge to act, and without serious delusions we cannot accept the sovereign mythology that political decisions are the outcome of popular will. Kicked to the floor, our desire that has no single object divides into voluntarist enthusiasm or despair. What happens in the intervals between Power's spectacular events and 'historic moments', when the daylight armies have retreated, when the indignation wanes and gradually resigns itself to reproducing the ridiculous and mundane present?
In the diffuse spaces of the internet, in place of the vacuous vessel we are instructed to see as ‘politics’, this urge is continuously manifesting itself in a host of far more concrete, embracing and profound collaborative forms. Less and less an escape from day-to-day life these moments of communication outside of the routine are increasingly constitutive of the wider sociality of human life. The new user/ producers’ joy is not something that has disappeared whilst internet technologies and cultures have proliferated and matured. Rather, the mutual self-exposure allows for consciousness to operate within its own global milieu: not just the discovery of new things, but uncovering of distant elements that whilst influential have never before been seen as tangible. In face of this, elements of the ‘political’ tend to recede from immediate relevance to daily life. In fact, the process of becoming- producer within this mode of production undermines the spatial, affective and political separation of the producer from his product. In order to be effective the political and legal apparatus have to respond to this new dimension of production to regulate the reproduction of social life.
They say knowledge is the new capital and information its currency. What types of combination does the networked society produce and how does the control over information determine the kinds of collectivities possible? It seems right that the satisfaction of immediate and alienated desires should have been the explosive use of the mass use of information networks. But for us in its own spectacularly inane way, the online generation of the smart mob is emblematic of the growing recognition of the power to associate and combine, irrespective of any particular agenda or actual purpose. This online generation fascinated the print media expressing how acutely the establishment fears the potentially spilling over of freedom of information to spontaneous freedoms of association on the street. In the political imaginary the mob is the uncontrollable element, it is faceless and attacks power with an unreasonable energy and with no due regard for the game of war. Clearly the participants in the flash mob were not a mob in this sense at all, nor particularly spontaneous but following banal and premeditated instructions before predetermined dispersal. And yet, perhaps by the very fact that it carried the name ‘mob’ and appeared as if from nowhere this content-less form of activity seemed to show how in and of themselves urban movements successfully generated online would by necessity have a character that either disrespects or side steps the consecrated mechanisms of political assembly and representation. In its practice rather than its ideas, the flash mob carried with it a critique of the moral vacuity behind the phoney radicalism of proxy politics, the moribund apparatuses of speaking for but saying nothing. By operating in an empty space with an empty signifier, the impulsive moral lack that is conventionally disguised by political rhetoric, banners and slogans are sent up by issuing a purer form of their organisation of banality. In affect if not in intent, generated in the social space of what-ever-ness, the flash mob is the practical critique of the politics of representation: making an autonomous spectacle out of oneself. It doesn’t represent anything but it expresses something quite unique: the power of combination in itself to produce affect.
‘What is to be done’ is the perfect corollary to this desire without demands, the sense of loss of something never possessed and the impulsive drive to act. Unlike its vanguardist form the question does not conceal an answer: it is generated as much out of our voluntarist enthusiasm as our exasperation. Whilst the objects of our desire are transitory our desire isn’t. What do we make of the instruments at our disposal, with all this data, opportunity and the commons that past generations bequeathed?
The problem of information is not simply one of bandwidth or its control. Crucial is the quality of information we exchange and what we make of it. As little as it matters today what soggy rag of someone else’s tabloid radicalism we in yesteryear touted on some barren street corner, as little does it matter today which oeuvre of any architect of established consciousness we ransack for ideas to toss out into the e-traffic. As it ever was, it’s the meeting of fellow travellers and at other times the enemy in the process that counts as the constitutive moment. However, like never before, ‘political strategy’ has come to inhibit the proliferation of the inter-subjective moment. In our small and partial way we have understood that answering the question ‘what is to be done’ involves an uneasy turn away from politics and from the acceptance of a necessary and given position within a fixed order: the difficulty of participating within the dark fibre of social life without turning its projects into institutions and their spirit into codes of conduct.
The British affair of the Iraq dossier and the hapless David Kelly resonated around three astounding incredulities: that a government minister would sex up its propaganda, that its content was plagarised from a student and, seemingly the most astonishing of all, that it was found on the internet. Is this all really so hard to believe?
Knowledge and information are not individual production and ideas are not reducible to data. Partly knowing this drives our ambition to attain a social space for the production and dissemination of meaning that is worthy of the sociality of consciousness. Rather than autopoietic confidence, it was a sense of weakness and vulnerability under the saturation of the structuring of information into regimes of truth that created the shared need for projects like generation-online and the thousand other initiatives like it.
In the excitement of the last few years, there was a real possibility of the practice of defining the multitude of contributing something to the conscious fabric of what it might designate, of what it might become through communicating its idea and the honest interrogation of its practice. Through affective communication expanding our sense of possibility of creatively altering the actual. For those that took up this rare challenge it has continued to be a point of reference in practice. For others who squandered the opportunity by shit-shovelling predjudice, it was only ever going to be a nauseating negative moment. And yet how the concept multitude caught on in both senses is indicative of the state of the common and the extent to which the elements could identify in the mutual diffusion and with collective ethos. Despite all the resources having been made available a few clicks away, the texts and geneaologies, debates and inquiries being free and available and despite the hundreds and thousands of committed individuals that saw themselves in it and part of a minor theoretical revolution, this participation and mututal creation was to remain officially unseen by the majoritarian sectors of the the production of meaning. Instead of engagement, the architects of established consciousness circulated only prejudice and practised only exclusion.
Lacking any marketable spectacular properties, the production of meaning in networked society goes almost entirely unnoticed by the commercial media until it effects directly the property relations it universally upholds. But this exposes the disparities of the information war. We tried to analyse the words and concepts used in reflexive political discourse and social discourse, in order to get closer to what are the unwritten and unexpressed mechanisms of power. Maybe what we found in that space of the unrepresentable was two vunerabilities of modern capitalist regimes: Being social, our words concepts and ideas can only be made private property through the intervention of an absented politics. Interiorising these property relations or allowing information to be structured by them is a process of atrophy, the cancellation of part of their social power and a restraint on production in general. Secondly that the becoming minoritarian that responds to this parcelisation of the intellect is an experience in subjectivity and collectivity. It need not be about forging a smug community but harnessing the same power to drift through the reflexive complexities of thought that is immersed in the freedom that the body demands for its desires. Collaborative exploration of the nature of politics in these times is part of its redefinition.
*Arianna Bove and Erik Empson - text produced for Make World Paper 3 - September, 2003