July 28, 2003
Exchange on Circulars

[Here's the final, unedited version of Darren Wershler-Henry's and Brian Kim Stefans' exchange (in a series of 250-word paragraphs) about the website Circulars, which yet lives even if we treat it here as a dead project. The exchange meanders into a discussion of blogs, group authorship, appropriation, the public sphere, intellectual property, etc. and we get a little argumentative at the end -- not quite Freddy vs. Jason, but enough to create wrinkles. This exchange forms the third part of a three section essay on the website to be published in a forthcoming MIT book.]

BKS: I've come up with an awkward, unsettling title for this essay: "Circulars as Anti-Poem." I'm sure cries will be raised: So you are making a poem out of a war? The invasion was only interesting as content for an esoteric foray into some elitist, inaccessible cultural phenomenon called an "anti-poem"? (There is, in fact, a lineage to the term "anti-poem" but I don't think it's important for this essay.) This legitimate objection is to be expected, and I have no reply except the obvious: that a website is a cultural construct, shaped by its editors and contributors, and more specifically, Circulars had a "poetics" implicit in its multi-authored-ness, its admixture of text and image, its being a product of a small branch of the international poetry community, etc. Of course, the title also suggests that this website has some relationship to a "poem," but perhaps as a non-site of poetry—as it is a non-site for war, even a non-site for activism itself, where real-world effects don't occur. But my point for now is that the fragmentary artifacts of a politicized investigation into culture—Gramsci's Prison Notebooks for example—has an implicit "poetics" to it, but standing opposite to what we normally call a "poem." This suggests roles that poets can play in the world quite divorced from merely writing poetry (or even prose, though it was the idea that poets could contribute prose to the anti-war cause—as speech writers or journalists, perhaps—that initially inspired the site.

DWL: Hey Brian: what are you using to count words? MS Word says the previous paragraph has 254 words; BBEdit says 259 (me, I'm sticking to BBEdit). Poets—particularly poets interested in working with computers—should be all about such subtleties. Not that we should champion a mechanically aided will to pinpoint precision (a military fiction whose epitome is the imagery from the cameras in the noses of US cruise missiles dropped on Iraq during the first Gulf War), but rather, the opposite—that we should be able to locate the cracks and seams in the spectacle ... the instances where the rhetoric of military precision breaks down. As such, here's a complication for you: why "anti-poem" instead of simply "poetics"? Charles Bernstein's cribbing ("Poetics is the continuation of poetry by other means") of Von Clausewitz's aphorism ("War is the continuation of politics by other means") never seemed as appropriate to me as it did during the period when Circulars was most active. The invocation of Smithson's site/non-site dialectic is also apposite, but only in the most cynical sense. Is the US bombing of Iraq and Afghanistan the equivalent of a country-wide exercise in land art? In any event, the relationship is no longer dialectical but dialogic; the proliferation of weblogs ("war blogs") during the Iraq War created something more arborescent—a structure with one end anchored in the world of atoms, linked to a network of digital nonsites.

BKS: I hesitate to tease out the "non-site" analogy—the site itself is too variable: for me, I was thinking of Circulars as being the non-site of activism, not just a corollary to the sweat and presence of people "on the streets" but a vision of a possible culture in which these activities (otherwise abandoned to television) can exist, not to mention reflect and nourish culturally. That is, are our language and tropes going to change because of the upsurge in activity occurring around us - in the form of poster art, detourned "fake" sites, maverick blogging? I admit that some of what we've linked to is nothing more than glorified bathroom humor, but nonetheless if the context creates the content for this type of work as a form of dissent, I think that should be discussed, even celebrated. I haven't read too much about this yet. Thinking of Circulars as the "non-site" of the bombing itself is both depressing and provocative: it's no secret that one of the phenomena of this war was not the unexpected visibility of CNN, but Salam Pax's Dear Raed blog, written by a gay man from the heart of Baghdad (even now he is remaining anonymous because of his sexuality). I could see Circulars as a "poetics" but I prefer to think it as an action with a poetics, my own tendency being to think of poetry as the war side of the Clausewitz equation, simply because poetics seems closer to diplomacy than a poem.

DWL: The variability and heteroegeneity of the site, was, I think, partly due to the infrastructural and technological decisions that you made when putting the site together, because those decisions mesh well with the notion of coalition politics (I’m thinking of Donna Haraway’s formulation here). The presence of a number of posting contributors with varied interests, the ability of readers to post comments, the existence of an RSS (Rich Site Summary) feed which allowed anyone running a wide variety of web software packages to syndicate the headlines, a searchable archive, a regular email bulletin—these are crucial elements in any attempt to concentrate attention on the web. Too seldom do writers (even those avowedly interested in collaboration and coalition politics) take the effect of the technologies that they’re using into account, but they make an enormous difference to the final product. Compare Circulars to Ron Silliman’s Blog: on the one hand, you have an deliberately short-term project with a explicit focus, built around a coalition of writers on a technological and political platform that assumes and enables dialogue and dissent from the outset; on the other hand, an obdurate monolith that presents no immediate and obvious means of response, organized around a proper name. Sure, the sites have different goals, but Silliman’s site interests me because it seems to eschew all of the tools that would allow any writer to utilize the unique aspects of the web as an environment for writing. And sadly, that’s typical of many of the writers’ blogs that exist.

BKS: I haven’t been too bothered with those aspects of Silliman’s Blog for the mere fact that it would double his time having to respond to the comments, many of which could be vicious flames. I’ve deleted some of the comments on Circulars, in one case because the poster was making scandalous allegations (drugs, child molestation) about the head of an advertising agency, and another because the poster, in American fatwa-esque fashion, deemed that I should have a rocket shoved up my ass. Of course, your point is well taken—Silliman’s Blog could use some real-time play-by-play; I’m sure a diagnostic essay is forthcoming. I did set Circulars up with the intention of there being subsets of discussion on the site, separate groups of people who would engage with each other over some time—“committees” of sorts, with their own story threads. This happened for a brief period—there was a lot of heat generated by one of Senator Byrd’s speeches against the war, and there was a discussion about Barrett Watten’s “War = Language.” I was prepared to develop new sections of the site if anyone so requested, though I confess to being dictatorial about the initial set-up, basically because I know more about the web than most poets and I hate bureaucracy. I was hoping that some of the more frequent poet bloggers who were writing political material would send their more considered material for posting to Circulars, but most simply posted to their own blogs without telling me.

DWL: I’m not suggesting that blogs and newsforums should be about the abrogation of editorial control—far from it. It’s always necessary to do a certain amount of moderation and housecleaning, which, as you well know, takes assloads of time. During its peak, I was spending at least 2 or 3 hours a day working on Circulars, and I’m sure you put in even more time than that, even with the help of the other industrious people who were writing for the site. Which takes me back to the value of the coalition model: a decent weblog NEEDS multiple authors to work even in the short term. The classic example of a successful weblog is Boing Boing , a geek news site that evolved from a magazine and accompanying forum on the WELL in the late 80s/early 90s. Mark Frauenfelder, the original editor, has worked with many excellent people over the years, but the current group (including Canadian SF writer/ Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Cory Doctorow, writer/video director David Pescovitz and media writer/conference manager Xeni Jardin) presents a combination of individual talent and a shared vision. There’s nothing *wrong* with personal weblogs, but, like reality TV, they get awfully thin over time. Even when the current search technologies adapt to spider the extra text that blogging has created, the problem of anemic content isn’t going to go away unless we start doing more collective writing online. The problem is partly a need for education; most writers are still in the process of learning how to use the web to best advantage.

BKS: I'm not sure that it's necessary for a blog to be multi-authored; what it really needs is a mandate, and it's possible that, were the mandate simply to produce rich, incantatory prose -- imagine the Marcel Proust blog -- a highly disciplined approach could work. Steve Perry's Bushwarsblog, for example, succeeds quite well on this level (not the Proustian but the muckraker), as does Tom Mantrullo's Swiftian Commonplaces. Both of them have "political" agendas, but they are also well-written and thoughtful for what are in effect news publications without an editor. It helps that these two are journalists and conceptualize their blogs as a distinct form of news writing alternative to the mainstream -- the individual voice is sharpened by an informed sense of the social arena in which it will resonate (in which the message will ultimately become dulled). Just today, Tom posted a link to the Times story on corporate blogging—yecch -- and has coined this aphorism, a detournement from Foucault though sounding somewhat Captain Kirkish to me, to describe his project: "To blog is to undertake to blog something different from what one blogged before." A version of "make it new" but with the formal precedent being the blog itself -- a vow not to let individual "multi-authoring" become equal to corporate mono-glut. Perhaps the model blog is that which responds to the formal issues of other blogs as if they were social issues (i.e. beyond one's "community"), hence transforming the techne of the writer into a handling of hypertextual craft.

DWL: It’s all to easy too imagine the Marcel Proust blog—Christ, what a nightmare (shades of Monty Python: “Proust in his first post wrote about, wrote about …”). Endless streams of novelistic prose, no matter how incantatory, are *not* what I want to read online. William Gibson, for one, thinks there’s something inimical about blogging to the process of novel-writing. I think that the paragraph-as-“post” is the optimal unit of online composition, and that an optimal online style would be some sort of hybrid of prose poetry and healthy geek cynicism (imagine a Slashdot full of Jeff Derksens). But I think I see your point, that it’s possible for one writer to produce the kind of dialogic multiplicity that could sustain a blog. There is, however, a large difference between “possible” and “likely.” IMO, as less stratospheric talents than the geniuses of high modernism, we stand a better chance of generating strong content collectively. Another model that I find promising is the Haddock Directory -- a site I’ve been reading daily for at least 4 years. Haddock has recently moved to a two-column format: standard blog description-plus-link on the left (maintained by the site’s owner and editor-in-chief, if you will) and entries from the Haddock community blogs, identified by author, on the right. It’s a very neat example of the effective aggregation of data within a particular interest group. And it seems to follow Stein’s dicta “I write for myself and for strangers.”

BKS: I’m still curious about the line “generating strong content”—what do you mean by “content”? My guess is not “writing” as we know it, but some admixture of links, intro paragraphs, pictures, HTML formatting, that creates a dynamic, engaging, and timely space on the screen. “Content” moves from “writing” to the shape one creates by selectively linking to other sites, serving, but also provoking, a “particular interest group.” (I wrote earlier today in a dispute over blogs: “Circulars was a short-term effort (or as short-term as the war) that was a response to what I sensed was, or would be (or hoped to be) a moment of crisis in terms of American self-identification.” Who would have thought, ten years ago, that a group of weblinks and writing could contribute to a crisis in national identity?) Most writers would probably feel demeaned to be referred to as “content managers,” as if all writing were a versioning of some other writing (put it back in your pants, Harold), but, frankly, we’re admitting for a whole lot of plagiarism in this concept of “content.” I think the blog-ring model on haddock.org is strong, since it lets writers tend their gardens, deriving whatever classic satisfactions one gets from writing, and yet contribute unwittingly to a larger collective. I agree: some “types” of writing just work better online—claustrophobic syntax, also non-sequiturs, drives readers back to hunt for hearty prose (though writers like Hitchens seem to be as uncompromisingly belle-lettristic on screen as on paper).

DWL: I like to think of myself as a malcontent provider. As someone who works regularly with found text, copping to the “plagiarism” that’s at the heart of all “original” writing doesn’t worry me at all; in fact, I’m beginning to think it’s a necessary strategic position for artists at this particular moment in history. As thinkers like Siva Vaidyanathan and Lawrence Lessig have been arguing strenuously for the last few years, the concept of intellectual property is a relatively recent, regressive invention that has nothing to do with the reasons that copyright was established two hundred years ago, and that it actually reverses copyright’s original function – to provide a short-term monopoly solely to drive innovative thought, not to create perpetual profit. Artists in many disciplines are increasingly moving toward creative processes based on appropriation, sampling, bricolage, citation and hyperlinking, but the multinationals and the entertainment industries are driving legislation in the exact opposite direction by arguing that ideas can and should be owned. Artists and writers who have a large investment in their own “originality” do us all a serious disservice by refusing to recognize and protect the public domain … the very thing that makes ongoing artistic activity possible. So by all means, yes, don’t just “write” (a verb which in many cases bears the superciliousness of the Romantic), build (mal)content. Bring on the hyperlinks, intro paragraphs, pictures, PHP scripts and HTML formatting, especially if they help to demonstrate the mutual indebtedness that all creativity entails. Use Your Allusion.

BKS: Copyright laws may never expire fast enough for internet plagiarizers who want appropriation now, but I haven’t heard anything recently about the Edison company suing Napster, nor did the estate of George Meredith go after David Bowie for stealing “Modern Love.” Unfortunately, for poets it hardly matters—if there were a P2P system for trading poems, we’d love it, and so poetry may be not a rich ground for recruitment in this battle. No one cared about the Vaneigem series until the Times cease-and-desist letter came in (Vaneigem still doesn’t care); it’s the reverse of that Benny Hill routine in which a pervert’s trying to look up a lady’s skirt—once she takes it off and stands there in a bikini, he loses interest. Poets are already in the public domain—we’re floundering there, certainly not unwittingly, but nobody asks permission to steal their turns-of-phrase, their new sentences and rhetorical ticks, or any linguistic innovation. As for creative products geared toward highlighting how indebted creativity is to reworkings of other cultural products—I like them, of course, but didn’t this trend already pass, along with Verfremdung effects in theater— placards, talking to the audience, sweating on them? Kenny’s Day is an exception, but it took him 836 pages to be one. I welcome the challenge of working with language apart from appropriation, I suppose because, on the web, I’m all about appropriation—The Truth Interview, Circulars, etc.—and non-appropriative stuff—programming Flash, “writing” poems—seems fresh again. Ah, the dialectic!

DWL: If we treat creative products geared toward highlighting how indebted creativity is to reworkings of other cultural products as a trend that’s had its time, we’ll get precisely the culture we deserve – i.e. one with no public domain (with the Supreme Court’s rejection of the Eldred appeal of the Sonny Bobno Copyright Extension Act and Mexico considering extending copyright to life-plus 100 years and allowing the government to collect royalties on works in the public domain, we’re that much closer to a continent-wide lockdown). And while I agree in spirit with the notion that poetry’s value is arbitrary (which, for the most part, means it’s valueless), as someone who ran a press for five years, I know all too well that (a) poets are as capable of getting all pissy about contracts as any other kind of writer and (b) that no business is too small to receive a cease-and-desist letter from a multinational hell-bent on maxing out the value of its intellectual property holdings. Besides, with Circulars, I thought that the project wasn’t poetry qua poetry as much as it was expanding an innovative poetic sensibility outward into policy and politics … which means, in my mind at least, championing the values of an open relationship to content. As writers, we need to have the freedom not only to repost and recontextualize the news of the moment, but also to deconstruct, détourne and all of those other French verbs that start with D, without a constant fear of litigation.

BKS: Circulars was indeed intent, on the most abstract level, on “expanding an innovative poetic sensibility outward into policy and politics,” but not to argue for that sensibility. I agree that a liberated public domain is necessary to maintain the type of free-wheeling, free-borrowing public discourse necessary in a heteroglot “democracy” but, alas, the point of the site was to upset a government and exploit any means necessary in creating the sort of fervor one might associate with a “revolutionary” culture. Appropriation was one suprisingly popular means. Tom Raworth’s poem “Listen Up,” written in the voice of a bigoted warmonger in tight couplets and submitted as a joke to the “Poets For the War” website, was another (and stronger for being sui generis). I do think the torrent of “remixes” and detournements that ensued leading up to the war put centerstage a seething but as yet underground counterculture that shares many of your (and my) views on “property” – that could go somewhere. This is a generation of people who are on the other side of the paradigm shift regarding cultural property – that and other values could be the seed of a new, but as yet themeless, sensibility. My hope with Circulars was to illustrate the potential power of such sites in times of crisis as provocative, popular cultural tools, and to put our “avant-garde” poetics to the service of a specific cultural effort, not to refresh arguments for classic avant-garde gestures themselves. But, of course, intentions are neither here nor there.

DWL: Okay, time to boat this bass. I don’t think it’s possible to separate advancing an argument from at least the implicit support for the underlying sensibility – otherwise, you have no credibility. If the arguments you make succeed to some extent in supporting the cultural effort in question, then there is still some point in proceeding to operate from that underlying sensibility, because you’ve demonstrated its efficacity. Circulars was a beautiful thing because, within the mandate it established for itself, it worked … but part of the reason that it worked is that there’s something useful in the fusion of innovative poetics, geek culture and a transnational left/oppositional politics. That’s a more quiet stance than revolution, but I’m not a revolutionary, just a frustrated idealist with a talent for synthesis. As we continue to glue new fins and antennas to our weird little poetic cyberspaceship, I can’t help but feel that the underlying sense of the mission continues to evolve. I mean, I’ll use some of the techniques that the historic avant garde has to offer, but am not interested in many of its values (opacity, for instance) and am skeptical of the potential for revolution. That doesn’t mean that I won’t try to cruft together a more amenable space (for and with anyone who’s interested in being involved) in the interstices of late capitalism with whatever tools and materials are available. Right now, that means, among other things, websites, weblogs, mailing lists and whatever else we find along the way.

Posted by Brian Stefans at 11:27 AM
May 03, 2003
Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Constituents of a Theory of the Media

[Here is one of the more important considerations of digital technologies in relation to progressive political activism. Written in 1970, German poet Enzensberger (not unlike Erwin Piscator, who appears elsewhere on Circulars) was prescient in his critique of how unfounded optimism in the "communicative" aspects of technology often confuses the issue of who, really, is in "control" of the media realm, opinion, the will to act, etc.

It appears that some paragraphs are missing from this text, which I lifted from another site -- I'll see if I can locate them elsewhere.]

If you should think this is Utopian, then I would ask you to consider why it is Utopian.

-- Brecht: Theory of Radio

1. With the development of the electronic media, the industry that shapes consciousness has become the pacemaker for the social and economic development of societies in the late industrial age. It infiltrates into all other sectors of production, takes over more and more directional and control functions, and determines the standard of the prevailing technology.

(In lieu of normative definitions here is an incomplete list of new developments which have emerged in the last 20 years: news satellites, color television, cable relay television, cassettes, videotape, videotape recorders, video-phones, stereophony, laser techniques, electrostatic reproduction processes, electronic high-speed printing, composing and learning machines, microfiches with electronic access, printing by radio, time-sharing computers, data banks. All these new forms of media are constantly forming new connections both with each other and with older media like printing, radio, film, television, telephone, teletype, radar and so on. They are clearly coming together to form a universal system. (Illustrative material and asides, originally printed in a smaller type, are here enclosed in brackets.)

The general contradiction between productive forces and productive relationships emerges most sharply, however, when they are most advanced. (By contrast, protracted structural crises as in coal-mining can be solved merely by getting rid of a backlog, that is to say, essentially they can be solved within the terms of their own system and a revolutionary strategy that relied on them would be short-sighted.)

Monopoly capitalism develops the consciousness-shaping industry more quickly and more extensively than other sectors of production; it must at the same time fetter it. A socialist media theory has to work at this contradiction. Demonstrate that it cannot be solved within the given productive relationships -- rapidly increasing discrepancies -- potential destructive forces. ‘Certain demands of a prognostic nature musy not a problem. It is consciously prevented for understandable political reasons. The technical distinction between receivers and transmitters reflects the social division of labor into producers and consumers, which in the consciousness industry becomes of particular political importance. It is based, in the last analysis, on the basic contradiction between the ruling class and the ruled class -- that is to say between monopoly capital or monopolistic bureaucracy on the one hand and the dependent masses on the other.

(This structural analogy can be worked out in detail. To the programs offered by the broadcasting cartels there correspond the politics offered by a power cartel consisting of parties constituted along authoritarian lines. In both cases marginal differences in their platforms reflect a competitive relationship which on essential questions is nonexistent. Minimal independent activity on the part of the voter/viewer. As is the case with parliamentary elections under the two-party system the feedback is reduced to indices. ‘Training in decision making’ is reduced to the response to a single, three-point switching process: Program 1; Program 2; Switch off (abstention).)

‘Radio must be changed from a means of distribution to a means of communication. Radio would be the most wonderful means of communication imaginable in public life, a huge linked system -- that is to say, it would be such if it were capable not only of transmitting but of receiving, of allowing the listener not only to hear but to speak, and did not isolate him but brought him into contact. Unrealizable in this social system, realizable in another, these proposals, which are, after all, only the natural consequences of technical development, help towards the propagation and shaping of the other system.’ (Bertolt Brecht: Theory of Radio (1932), Gesammelte Werke, Band VIII, pp. 129 seq., 134.)

The Orwellian Fantasy

3.George Orwell’s bogey of a monolithic consciousness industry derives from a view of the media which is undialectical and obsolete. The possibility of total control of such a system at a central point belongs not to the future but to the past. With the aid of systems theory, a discipline which is part of bourgeois science -- using, that is to say, categories which are immanent in the system -- it can be demonstrated that a linked series of communications or, to use the technical term, switchable network, to the degree that it exceeds a certain critical size, can no longer be centrally controlled but only dealt with statistically. This basic ‘leakiness’ of stochastic systems admittedly allows the calculation of probabilities based on sampling and extrapolations; but blanket supervision would demand a monitor that was bigger than the system itself. The monitoring of all telephone conversations, for instance, postulates an apparatus which would need to be n times more extensive and more complicated than that of the present telephone system. A censor’s office, which carried out its work extensively, would of necessity become the largest branch of industry in its society.

But supervision on the basis of approximation can only offer inadequate instruments for the self-regulation of the whole system in accordance with the concepts of those who govern it. It postulates a high degree of internal stability. If this precarious balance is upset, then crisis measures based on statistical methods of control are useless. Interference can penetrate the leaky nexus of the media, spreading and multiplying there with the utmost speed by resonance. The régime so threatened will in such cases, insofar as it is still capable of action, use force and adopt police or military methods.

A state of emergency is therefore the only alternative to leakage in the consciousness industry; but it cannot be maintained in the long run. Societies in the late industrial age rely on the free exchange of information; the ‘objective pressures’ to which their controllers constantly appeal are thus turned against them. Every attempt to suppress the random factors, each diminution of the average flow and each distortion of the information structure must, in the long run, lead to an embolism.

The electronic media have not only built up the information network intensively, they have also spread it extensively. The radio wars of the fifties demonstrated that in the realm of communications, national sovereignty is condemned to wither away. The further development of satellites will deal it the coup de grāce. Quarantine regulations for information, such as were promulgated by Fascism and Stalinism, are only possible today at the cost of deliberate industrial regression.

(Example. The Soviet bureaucracy, that is to say the most widespread and complicated bureaucracy in the world, has to deny itself almost entirely an elementary piece of organizational equipment, the duplicating machine, because this instrument potentially makes everyone a printer. The political risk involved, the possibility of a leakage in the information network, is accepted only at the highest levels, at exposed switchpoints in political, military and scientific areas. It is clear that Soviet society has to pay an immense price for the suppression of its own productive resources -- clumsy procedures, misinformation, faux frais. The phenomenon incidentally has its analogue in the capitalist West, if in a diluted form. The technically most advanced electrostatic copying machine, which operates with ordinary paper -- which cannot that is to say, be supervised and is independent of suppliers -- is the product of a monopoly (Xerox); on principle it is not sold but rented. the rates themselves ensure that it does not get into the wrong hands. The equipment crops up as if by magic where economic and political power are concentrated. Political control of the equipment goes hand in hand with maximization of profits for the manufacturer. Admittedly this control, as opposed to Soviet methods, is by no means ‘water-tight’ for the reasons indicated.)

The problem of censorship thus enters a new historical stage. The struggle for the freedom of the press and freedom of ideas has, up till now, been mainly an argument within the bourgeoisie itself; for the masses, freedom to express opinions was a fiction since they were, from the beginning, barred from the means of production -- above all from the press -- and thus were unable to join in freedom of expression from the start. Today censorship is threatened by the productive forces of the consciousness industry which is already, to some extent, gaining the upper hand over the prevailing relations of production. Long before the latter are overthrown, the contradiction between what is possible and what actually exists will become acute.

Cultural Archaism in the Left Critique

4. The New Left of the sixties has reduced the development of the media to a single concept -- that of manipulation. This concept was originally extremely useful for heuristic purposes and has made possible a great many individual analytical investigations, but it now threatens to degenerate into a mere slogan which conceals more than it is able to illuminate, and therefore itself requires analysis.

The current theory of manipulation on the Left is essentially defensive; its effects can lead the movement into defeatism. Subjectively speaking, behind the tendency to go on the defensive lies a sense of impotence. Objectively, it corresponds to the absolutely correct view that the decisive means of production are in enemy hands. But to react to this state of affairs with moral indignation is naļve. There is in general an undertone of lamentation when people speak of manipulation which points to idealistic expectations -- as if the class enemy had ever stuck to the promises of fair play it occasionally utters. The liberal superstition that in political and social questions there is such a thing as pure, unmanipulated truth, seems to enjoy remarkable currency among the socialist Left. It is the unspoken basic premise of the manipulation thesis.

This thesis provides no incentive to push ahead. A socialist perspective which does not go beyond attacking existing property relationships is limited. The expropriation of Springer is a desirable goal but it would be good to know to whom the media should be handed over. The Party? To judge by all experience of that solution, it is not a possible alternative. It is perhaps no accident that the Left has not yet produced an analysis of the pattern of manipulation in countries with socialist régimes.

The manipulation thesis also serves to exculpate oneself. To cast the enemy in the role of the devil is to conceal the weakness and lack of perspective in one’s own agitation. If the latter leads to self-isolation instead of mobilizing the masses, then its failure is attributed holus-bolus to the overwhelming power of the media.

The theory of repressive tolerance has also permeated discussion of the media by the Left. This concept, which was formulated by its author with the utmost care, has also, when whittled away in an undialectical manner, become a vehicle for resignation. Admittedly, when an office-equipment firm can attempt to recruit sales staff with the picture of Che Guevara and the text We would have hired him, the temptation to withdraw is great. But fear of handling shit is a luxury a sewer-man cannot necessarily afford.

The electronic media do away with cleanliness; they are by their nature ‘dirty’. That is part of their productive power. In terms of structure, they are anti-sectarian -- a further reason why the Left, insofar as it is not prepared to re-examine its traditions, has little idea what to do with them. The desire for a cleanly defined ‘line’ and for the suppression of ‘deviations’ is anachronistic and now serves only one’s own need for security. It weakens one’s own position by irrational purges, exclusions and fragmentation, instead of strengthening it by rational discussion.

These resistances and fears are strengthened by a series of cultural factors which, for the most part, operate unconsciously, and which are to be explained by the social history of the participants in today’s Left movement -- namely their bourgeois class background. It often seems as if it were precisely because of their progressive potential that the media are felt to be an immense threatening power; because for the first time they present a basic challenge to bourgeois culture and thereby to the privileges of the bourgeois intelligentsia-.--a challenge far more radical than any self-doubt this social group can display. In the New Left’s opposition to the media, old bourgeois fears such as the fear of ‘the masses’ seem to be reappearing along with equally old bourgeois longings for pre-industrial times dressed up in progressive clothing.

(At the very beginning of the student revolt, during the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, the computer was a favorite target for aggression. Interest in the Third World is not always free from motives based on antagonism towards civilization which has its source in conservative culture critique. During the May events in Paris the reversion to archaic forms of production was particularly characteristic. Instead of carrying out agitation among the workers in a modern offset press, the students printed their posters on the hand presses of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. The political slogans were hand-painted; stencils would certainly have made it possible to produce them en masse, but it would have offended the creative imagination of the authors. The ability to make proper strategic use of the most advanced media was lacking. It was not the radio headquarters that were seized by the rebels, but the Odéon Theatre, steeped in tradition.)

The obverse of this fear of contact with the media is the fascination they exert on left-wing movements in the great cities. On the one hand, the comrades take refuge in outdated forms of communication and esoteric arts and crafts instead of occupying themselves with the contradiction between the present constitution of the media and their revolutionary potential; on the other hand, they cannot escape from the consciousness industry’s program or from its aesthetic. This leads, subjectively, to a split between a puritanical view of political action and the area of private ‘leisure’; objectively, it leads to a split between politically active groups and sub-cultural groups.

In Western Europe the socialist movement mainly addresses itself to a public of converts through newspapers and journals which are exclusive in terms of language, content, and form. These news-sheets presuppose a structure of party members and sympathizers and a situation, where the media are concerned, that roughly corresponds to the historical situation in 1900; they are obviously fixated on the Iskra model. Presumably the people who produce them listen to the Rolling Stones, follow occupations and strikes on television, and go to the cinema to see a Western or a Goddard; only in their capacity as producers do they make an exception, and, in their analyses, the whole media sector is reduced to the slogan of ‘manipulation’. Every foray into this territory is regarded from the start with suspicion as a step towards integration. This suspicion is not unjustified; it can however also mask one’s own ambivalence and insecurity. Fear of being swallowed up by the system is a sign of weakness; it presupposes that capitalism could overcome any contradiction -- a conviction which can easily be refuted historically and is theoretically untenable.

If the socialist movement writes off the new productive forces of the consciousness industry and relegates work on the media to a subculture, then we have a vicious circle. For the Underground may be increasingly aware of the technical and aesthetic possibilities of the disc, of videotape, of the electronic camera, and so on, and is systematically exploring the terrain, but it has no political viewpoint of its own and therefore mostly falls a helpless victim to commercialism. The politically active groups then point to such cases with smug Schadenfreude. A process of un-learning is the result and both sides are the losers. Capitalism alone benefits from the Left’s antagonism to the media, as it does from the de-politicization of the counter-culture.

Democratic Manipulation

5. manipulation -- etymologically, handling -- means technical treatment of a given material with a particular goal in mind. When the technical intervention is of immediate social relevance, then manipulation is a political act. In the case of the media industry that is by definition the case.

Thus every use of the media presupposes manipulation. The most elementary processes in media production, from the choice of the medium itself to shooting, cutting, synchronization, dubbing, right up to distribution, are all operations carried out on the raw material. There is no such thing as unmanipulated writing, filming, or broadcasting. The question is therefore not whether the media are manipulated, but who manipulates them. A revolutionary plan should not require the manipulators to disappear; on the contrary, it must make everyone a manipulator.

All technical manipulations are potentially dangerous; the manipulation of the media cannot be countered, however, by old or new forms of censorship, but only by direct social control, that is to say, by the mass of the people, who will have become productive. To this end, the elimination of capitalistic property relationships is a necessary, but by no means sufficient condition. There have been no historical examples up until now of the mass self-regulating learning process which is made possible by the electronic media. The Communists’ fear of releasing this potential, of the mobilizing capabilities of the media, of the interaction of free producers. is one of the main reasons why even in the socialist countries, the old bourgeois culture, greatly disguised and distorted but structurally intact, continues to hold sway.

(As a historical explanation it may be pointed out that the consciousness industry in Russia at the time of the October Revolution was extraordinarily backward; their productive capacity has grown enormously since then, but the productive relationships have been artificially preserved, often by force. Then, as now, a primitively edited press, books and theatre, were the key media in the Soviet Union. The development of radio, film and television, is politically arrested. Foreign stations like the BBC, the Voice of America, and the Deutschland Welle, therefore, not only find listeners, but are received with almost boundless faith. Archaic media like the handwritten pamphlet and poems orally transmitted play an important role.)

6. The new media are egalitarian in structure. Anyone can take part in them by a simple switching process. The programs themselves are not material things and can be reproduced at will. In this sense the electronic media are entirely different from the older media like the book or the easel-painting, the exclusive class character of which is obvious. Television programs for privileged groups are certainly technically conceivable -- closed-circuit television -- but run counter to the structure. Potentially the new media do away with all educational privileges and thereby with the cultural monopoly of the bourgeois intelligentsia. This is one of the reasons for the intelligentsia’s resentment against the new industry. As for the ‘spirit’ which they are endeavoring to defend against ‘depersonalization’ and ‘mass culture’, the sooner they abandon it the better.

Properties of the new media

7. The new media are orientated towards action, not contemplation; present, not tradition. Their attitude to time is completely opposed to that of bourgeois culture which aspires to possession, that is to extension in time, best of all, to eternity. The media produce no objects that can be hoarded and auctioned. They do away completely with ‘intellectual property’ and liquidate the ‘heritage’, that is to say, the class specific handing-on of non-material capital.

That does not mean to say that they have no history or that they contribute to the loss of historical consciousness. On the contrary, they make it possible for the first time to record historical material so that it can be reproduced at will. By making this material available for present-day purposes, they make it obvious to anyone using it that the writing of history is always manipulation. But the memory they hold in readiness is not the preserve of a scholarly caste. It is social. The banked information is accessible to anyone and this accessibility is as instantaneous as its recording. It suffices to compare the model of a private library with that of a socialized data bank to recognize the structural difference between the two systems.

8. It is wrong to regard media equipment as mere means of consumption. It is always, in principle, also means of production and, indeed, since it is in the hands of the masses, socialized means of production. The contradiction between producers and consumers is not inherent in the electronic media; on the contrary, it has to be artificially reinforced by economic and administrative measures.

(An early example of this is provided by the difference between telegraph and telephone. Whereas the former, to this day, has remained in the hands of a bureaucratic institution which can scan and file every text transmitted, the telephone is directly accessible to all users. With the aid of conference circuits, it can even make possible collective intervention in a discussion by physically remote groups.

On the other hand those auditory and visual means of communication which rely on ‘wireless’ are still subject to state control (legislation on wireless installations). In the face of technical developments, which long ago made local and international radio-telephony possible, and which constantly opened up new wavebands for television -- in the UHF band alone, the dissemination of numerous programs in one locality is possible without interference, not to mention the possibilities offered by wired and satellite television -- the prevailing laws for control of the air are anachronistic. They recall the time when the operation of a printing press was dependent on an imperial license. The socialist movements will take up the struggle for their own wavelengths and must, within the foreseeable future, build their own transmitters and relay stations.)

9. One immediate consequence of the structural nature of the new media is that none of the régimes at present in power can release their potential. Only a free socialist society will be able to make them fully productive. A further characteristic of the most advanced media -- probably the decisive one -- confirms this thesis: their collective structure.

For the prospect that in future, with the aid of the media, anyone can become a producer, would remain apolitical and limited were this productive effort to find an outlet in individual tinkering. Work on the media is possible for an individual only in so far as it remains socially and therefore aesthetically irrelevant. The collection of transparencies from the last holiday trip provides a model.

That is naturally what the prevailing market mechanisms have aimed at. It has long been clear from apparatus like miniature and 8 mm cine cameras, as well as the tape recorder, which are in actual fact already in the hands of the masses, that the individual, so long as he remains isolated, can become with their help at best an amateur but not a producer. Even so potent a means of production as the short-wave transmitter has been tamed in this way and reduced to a harmless and inconsequential hobby in the hands of scattered radio hams. The programs which the isolated amateur mounts are always only bad, outdated copies of what he in any case receives.

(Private production for the media is no more than licensed cottage industry. Even when it is made public it remains pure compromise. To this end, the men who own the media have developed special programs which are usually called ‘Democratic Forum’ or something of the kind. There, tucked away in the corner, ‘the reader (listener, viewer) has his say’, which can naturally be cut short at any time. As in the case of public opinion polling, he is only asked questions so that he may have a chance to confirm his own dependence. It is a control circuit where what is fed in has already made complete allowance for the feedback.

The concept of a license can also be used in another sense -- in an economic one; the system attempts to make each participant into a concessionaire of the monopoly that develops his films or plays back his cassettes. The aim is to nip in the bud in this way that independence which video-equipment, for instance, makes possible. Naturally, such tendencies go against the grain of the structure and the new productive forces not only permit but indeed demand their reversal.)

The poor, feeble and frequently humiliating results of this licensed activity are often referred to with contempt by the professional media producers. On top of the damage suffered by the masses comes triumphant mockery because they clearly do not know how to use the media properly. The sort of thing that goes on in certain popular television shows is taken as proof that they are completely incapable of articulating on their own.

Not only does this run counter to the results of the latest psychological and pedagogical research, but it can easily be seen to be a reactionary protective formulation; the ‘gifted’ people are quite simply defending their territories. Here we have a cultural analogue to the familiar political judgments concerning a working class which is presumed to be ‘stultified’ and incapable of any kind of self-determination. Curiously, one may hear the view that the masses could never govern themselves out of the mouths of people who consider themselves socialists. In the best of cases, these are economists who cannot conceive of socialism as anything other than nationalization.

A Socialist Strategy

10. Any socialist strategy for the media must, on the contrary, strive to end the isolation of the individual participants from the social learning and production process. This is impossible unless those concerned organize themselves. This is the political core of the question of the media. It is over this point that socialist concepts part company with the neo-liberal and technocratic ones. Anyone who expects to be emancipated by technological hardware, or by a system of hardware however structured, is the victim of an obscure belief in progress. Anyone who imagines that freedom for the media will be established if only everyone is busy transmitting and receiving is the dupe of a liberalism which, decked out in contemporary colors, merely peddles the faded concepts of a pre-ordained harmony of social interests.

In the face of such illusions, what must be firmly held on to is that the proper use of the media demands organization and makes it possible. Every production that deals with the interests of the producers postulates a collective method of production. It is itself already a form of self-organization of social needs. Tape recorders, ordinary cameras and cine cameras, are already extensively owned by wage-earners. The question is why these means of production do not turn up at workplaces, in schools, in the offices of the bureaucracy, in short, everywhere where there is social conflict. By producing aggressive forms of publicity which were their own, the masses could secure evidence of their daily experiences and draw effective lessons from them.

Naturally bourgeois society defends itself against such prospects with a battery of legal measures. It bases itself on the law of trespass, on commercial and official secrecy. While its secret services penetrate everywhere and plug in to the most intimate conversations, it pleads a touching concern for confidentiality, and makes a sensitive display of worrying about the question of a privacy in which all that is private is the interest of the exploiters. Only a collective, organized effort can tear down these paper walls.

Communication networks which are constructed for such purposes can, over and above their primary function, provide politically interesting organizational models. In the socialist movements the dialectic of discipline and spontaneity, centralism and decentralization, authoritarian leadership and anti-authoritarian disintegration has long ago reached deadlock. Network-like communications models built on the principal of reversibility of circuits might give indications of how to overcome this situation: a mass newspaper, written and distributed by its readers, a video network of politically active groups.

More radically than any good intention, more lastingly than existential flight from one’s own class, the media, once they have come into their own, destroy the private production methods of bourgeois intellectuals. Only in productive work and learning processes can their individualism be broken down in such a way that it is transformed from morally based (that is to say as individual as ever) self-sacrifice to a new kind of political self understanding and behavior.

11. An all too widely disseminated thesis maintains that present-day capitalism lives by the exploitation of unreal needs. That is at best a half-truth. The results obtained by popular American sociologists like Vance Packard are not unuseful but limited. What they have to say about the stimulation of needs through advertising and artificial obsolescence can in any case not be adequately explained by the hypnotic pull exerted on the wage-earners by mass consumption. The hypothesis of ‘consumer terror’ corresponds to the prejudices of a middle class, which considers itself politically enlightened, against the allegedly integrated proletariat, which has become petty-bourgeois and corrupt. The attractive power of mass consumption is based not on the dictates of false needs, but on the falsification and exploitation of quite real and legitimate ones without which the parasitic process of advertising would be redundant. A socialist movement ought not to denounce these needs, but take them seriously, investigate them and make them politically productive.

That is also valid for the consciousness industry. The electronic media do not owe their irresistible power to any sleight-of-hand but to the elemental power of deep social needs which come through even in the present depraved form of these media.

Precisely because no one bothers about them, the interests of the masses have remained a relatively unknown field, at least insofar as they are historically new. They certainly extend far beyond those goals which the traditional working class movement represented. Just as in the field of production, the industry which produces goods and the consciousness industry merge more and more, so too, subjectively, where needs are concerned, material and non-material factors are closely interwoven. In the process old psycho-social themes are firmly embedded -- social prestige, identification patterns -- but powerful new themes emerge which are utopian in nature. From a materialistic point of view neither the one nor the other must be suppressed.

Henri Lefčbvre has proposed the concept of the spectacle, the exhibition, the show, to fit the present form of mass consumption. Goods and shop windows, traffic and advertisements, stores and the world of communications, news and packaging, architecture and media production come together to form a totality, a permanent theatre, which dominates not only the public city centers but also private interiors. The expression ‘beautiful living’ makes the most commonplace objects of general use into props for this universal festival, in which the fetishistic nature of the commodities triumphs completely over their use value. The swindle these festivals perpetrate is, and remains, a swindle within the present social structure. But it is the harbinger of something else. Consumption as spectacle contains the promise that want will disappear. The deceptive, brutal and obscene features of this festival derive from the fact that there can be no question of a real fulfillment of its promise. But so long as scarcity holds sway, use-value remains a decisive category which can only be abolished by trickery. Yet trickery on such a scale is only conceivable if it is based on mass need. This need -- it is a utopian one -- is there. It is the desire for a new ecology, for a breaking-down of environmental barriers, for an aesthetic which is not limited to the sphere of ‘the artistic’. These desires are not -- or are not primarily -- internalized rules of the game as played by the capitalist system. They have physiological roots and can no longer be suppressed. Consumption as spectacle is -- in parody form -- the anticipation of a Utopian situation.

The promises of the media demonstrate the same ambivalence. They are an answer to the mass need for non-material variety and mobility -- which at present finds its material realization in private car-ownership and tourism -- and they exploit it. Other collective wishes, which capital often recognizes more quickly and evaluates more correctly than its opponents but naturally only so as to trap them and rob them of their explosive force, are just as powerful, just as unequivocally emancipatory: the need to take part in the social process on a local, national and international scale; the need for new forms of interaction, for release from ignorance and tutelage; the need for self-determination. ‘Be everywhere!’ is one of the most successful slogans of the media industry. The readers’ parliament of Bild-Zeitung (The Springer press mass publication) direct democracy used against the interests of the demos. ‘Open spaces’ and ‘free time’ -- concepts which corral and neutralize the urgent wishes of the masses.

(The corresponding acceptance by the media of utopian stories. E.g. the story of the young Italo-American who hijacked a passenger plane to get home from California to Rome was taken up without protest even by the reactionary mass press and undoubtedly correctly understood by its readers. The identification is based on what has become a general need. Nobody can understand why such journeys should be reserved for politicians, functionaries, and business men. The role of the pop star could be analyzed from a similar angle; in it the authoritarian and emancipatory factors are mingled in an extraordinary way. It is perhaps not unimportant that beat music offers groups, not individuals, as identification models. In the productions of the Rolling Stones (and in the manner of their production) the utopian content is apparent. Events like the Woodstock Festival, the concerts in Hyde Park, on the Isle of Wight, and at Altamont, California, develop a mobilizing power which the political Left can only envy.)

It is absolutely clear that, within the present social forms, the consciousness industry can satisfy none of the needs on which it lives and which it must fan, except in the illusory form of games. The point, however, is not to demolish its promises but to take them literally and to show that they can be met only through a cultural revolution. Socialists and socialist régimes which multiply the frustration of the masses by declaring their needs to be false, become the accomplices of the system they have undertaken to fight.

12. Summary.

Repressive use of media Emancipatory use of media
Centrally controlled program Decentralized program
One transmitter, many receivers Each receiver a potential
Immobilization of isolated Mobilization of the masses
Passive consumer behavior Interaction of those involved,
Depoliticization A political learning process
Production by specialists Collective production
Control by property owners or Social control by self-bureaucracy organization

The Subversive Power of the New Media

13. As far as the objectively subversive potentialities of the electronic media are concerned, both sides in the international class struggle -- except for the fatalistic adherents of the thesis of manipulation in the metropoles -- are of one mind. Frantz Fanon was the first to draw attention to the fact that the transistor receiver was one of the most important weapons in the Third World’s fight for freedom. Albert Hertzog, ex-Minister of the South African Republic and the mouthpiece of the right wing of the ruling party, is of the opinion that ‘television will lead to the ruin of the white man in South Africa’ (Der Spiegel 20/10/1969). American imperialism has recognized the situation. It attempts to meet the ‘revolution of rising expectations in Latin America -- that is what its ideologues call it -- by scattering its own transmitters all over the continent and into the remotest regions of the Amazon basin, and by distributing single-frequency transistors to the native population. The attacks of the Nixon administration on the capitalist media in the USA reveals its understanding that their reporting, however one-sided and distorted, has become a decisive factor in mobilizing people against the war in Vietnam. Whereas only 25 years ago the French massacres in Madagascar, with almost one hundred thousand dead, became known only to the readers of Le Monde under the heading of ‘Other News’ and therefore remained unnoticed and without sequel in the capital city, today the media drag colonial wars into the centers of imperialism.

The direct mobilizing potentialities of the media become still more clear when they are consciously used for subversive ends. Their presence is a factor that immensely increases the demonstrative nature of any political act. The student movements in the USA, in Japan, and in Western Europe soon recognized this and, to begin with, achieved considerable momentary successes with the aid of the media. These effects have worn off. Naļve trust in the magical power of reproduction cannot replace organizational work; only active and coherent groups can force the media to comply with the logic of their actions. That can be demonstrated from the example of the Tupamaros in Uruguay, whose revolutionary practice has implicit in it publicity for their actions. Thus the actors become authors. The abduction of the American Ambassador in Rio de Janeiro was planned with a view to its impact on the media. It was a television production. The Arab guerillas proceed in the same way. The first to experiment with these techniques internationally were the Cubans. Fidel appreciated the revolutionary potential of the media correctly from the first (Moncada 1953). Today illegal political action demands at one and the same time maximum security and maximum publicity.

14. Revolutionary situations always bring with them discontinuous, spontaneous changes brought about by the masses in the existing aggregate of the media. How far the changes thus brought about take root and how permanent they are demonstrates the extent to which a cultural revolution is successful. The situation in the media is the most accurate and sensitive barometer for the rise of bureaucratic or bonapartist anticyclones. So long as the cultural revolution has the initiative, the social imagination of the masses overcomes even technical backwardness and transforms the function of the old media so that their structures are exploded. ‘With our work the Revolution has achieved a colossal labor of propaganda and enlightenment. We ripped up the traditional book into single pages, magnified these a hundred times, printed them in color and stuck them up as posters in the streets . . . Our lack of printing equipment and the necessity for speed meant that, though the best work was hand-printed, the most rewarding was standardized, lapidary and adapted to the simplest mechanical form of reproduction. Thus State Decrees were printed as rolled-up illustrated leaflets, and Army Orders as illustrated pamphlets’ (El Lissitsky. The Future of the Book, New Left Review, No. 41, p. 42.). In the twenties, the Russian film reached a standard that was far in advance of the available productive forces. Pudovkin’s Kinoglas and Dziga Vertov’s Kinopravda were no ‘newsreels’ but political television magazine programs avant l’écran. The campaign against illiteracy in Cuba broke through the linear, exclusive, and isolating structure of the medium of the book. In the China of the Cultural Revolution, wall newspapers functioned like an electronic mass medium-- at least in the big towns. The resistance of the Czechoslovak population to the Soviet invasion gave rise to spontaneous productivity on the part of the masses, which ignored the institutional barriers of the media. (Details to be supplied.) Such situations are exceptional. It is precisely their utopian nature, which reaches out beyond the existing productive forces (it follows that the productive relationships are not to be permanently overthrown), that makes them precarious, leads to reversals and defeats. They demonstrate all the more clearly what enormous political and cultural energies are hidden in the enchained masses and with what imagination they are able, at the moment of liberation, to realize all the opportunities offered by the new media.

The Media: an empty category of Marxist Theory

15. That the Marxist Left should argue theoretically and act practically from the standpoint of the most advanced productive forces in their society, that they should develop in depth all the liberating factors immanent in these forces and use them strategically, is no academic expectation but a political necessity. However, with a single great exception, that of Walter Benjamin (and in his footsteps, Brecht), Marxists have not understood the consciousness industry and have been aware only of its bourgeois-capitalist dark side and not of its socialist possibilities. An author like Georg Lukįcs is a perfect example of this theoretical and practical backwardness. Nor are the works of Horkheimer and Adorno free of a nostalgia which clings to early bourgeois media.

(Their view of the cultural industry cannot be discussed here. Much more typical of Marxism between the two wars is the position of Lukįcs, which can be seen very clearly from an early essay on ‘Old Culture and New Culture’ (Kommunismus, Zeitschrift der Kommunistischen Internationale für die Länder Südosteuropas, 1920 pp. 1538 -- 49). ‘Anything that culture produces’, can according to Lukįcs, ‘have real cultural value only if it is in itself valuable, if the creation of each individual product is from the standpoint of its maker a single, finite process. It must, moreover, be a process conditioned by the human potentialities and capabilities of the creator. The most typical example of such a process is the work of art, where the entire genesis of the work is exclusively the result of the artist’s labor and each detail of the work that emerges is determined by the individual qualities of the artist. In highly developed mechanical industry on the other hand, any connection between the product and the creator is abolished. The human being serves the machine, he adapts to it. Production becomes completely independent of the human potentialities and capabilities of the worker.’ These ‘forces which destroy culture’ impair the work’s ‘truth to the material’, its ‘level’, and deal the final blow to the ‘work as an end in itself’. There is no more question of ‘the organic unity of the products of culture, its harmonious, joy-giving being’. Capitalist culture must lack ‘the simple and natural harmony and beauty of the old culture -- culture in the true, literal sense of the word.’ Fortunately things need not remain so. The ‘culture of proletarian society’ although ‘in the context of such scientific research as is possible at this time’ nothing more can be said about it, will certainly remedy these ills. Lukįcs asks himself ‘which are the cultural values which, in accordance with the nature of this context, can be taken over from the old society by the new and further developed.’ Answer: Not the inhuman machines but ‘the idea of mankind as an end in itself, the basic idea of the new culture’, for it is ‘the inheritance of the classical idealism of the nineteenth century’. Quite right. ‘This is where the philistine concept of art turns up with all its deadly obtuseness -- an idea to which all technical considerations are foreign and which feels that with the provocative appearance of the new technology its end has come’ (Walter Benjamin: Kleine Geschichte der Photographie in Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit Frankfurt 1963 p. 69).

These nostalgic backward glances at the landscape of the last century, these reactionary ideals, are already the forerunners of socialist realism, which mercilessly galvanized and then buried those very ‘cultural values’, which Lukįcs rode out to rescue. Unfortunately, in the process, the Soviet cultural revolution was thrown to the wolves; but this aesthete can in any case hardly have thought any more highly of it than did J. V. Stalin)

The inadequate understanding which Marxists have shown of the media and the questionable use they have made of them has produced a vacuum in Western industrialized countries into which a stream of non-Marxist hypotheses and practices has consequently flowed. From the Cabaret Voltaire to Andy Warhol’s Factory, from the silent film comedians to the Beatles, from the first comic-strip artists to the present managers of the Underground, the apolitical have made much more radical progress in dealing with the media than any grouping of the Left. (Exception -- Münzenberg). Innocents have put themselves in the forefront of the new productive forces on the basis of mere intuitions with which communism -- to its detriment -- has not wished to concern itself. Today this apolitical avant-garde has found its ventriloquist and prophet in Marshall McLuhan, an author who admittedly lacks any analytical categories for the understanding of social processes, but whose confused books serve as a quarry of undigested observations for the media industry. Certainly his little finger has experienced more of the productive power of the new media than all the ideological commissions of the CPSU and their endless resolutions and directives put together.

Incapable of any theoretical construction, McLuhan does not present his material as a concept but as the common denominator of a reactionary doctrine of salvation. He admittedly did not invent but was the first to formulate explicitly a mystique of the media which dissolves all political problems in smoke -- the same smoke as gets in the eyes of his followers. It promises the salvation of man through the technology of television and indeed of television as it is practiced today. Now McLuhan’s attempt to stand Marx on his head is not exactly new. He shares with his numerous predecessors the determination to suppress all problems of the economic base, their idealistic tendencies and their belittling of the class struggle in the naļve terms of a vague humanism. A new Rousseau, like all copies only a pale version of the old, he preaches the gospel of the new primitive man who, naturally on a higher level, must return to prehistoric tribal existence in the ‘global village’.

It is scarcely worthwhile to deal with such concepts. This charlatan’s most famous saying -- ‘the medium is the message’ -- perhaps deserves more attention. In spite of its provocative idiocy, it betrays more than its author knows. It reveals in the most accurate way the tautological nature of the mystique of the media. The one remarkable thing about the television set, according to him, is that it moves -- a thesis which in view of the nature of American programs has, admittedly, something attractive about it.

(The complementary mistake consists in the widely spread illusion that media are neutral instruments with which any ‘messages’ one pleases can be transmitted without regard for their structure or for the structure of the medium. In the East European countries the television newsreaders read 15 minute-long conference communiqués and Central Committee resolutions which are not even suitable for printing in a newspaper, clearly under the delusion that they might fascinate a public of millions.)

The sentence -- the medium is the message -- transmits yet another message, however, and a much more important one. It tells us that the bourgeoisie does indeed have all possible means at its disposal to communicate something to us, but that it has nothing more to say. It is ideologically sterile. Its intention to hold on to the control of the means of production at any price, while being incapable of making the socially necessary use of them is here expressed with complete frankness in the superstructure. It wants the media as such and to no purpose.

This wish has been shared for decades and given symbolical expression by an artistic avant-garde whose program logically admits only the alternative of negative signals and amorphous noise. Example: the meanwhile outdated ‘literature of silence’, Warhol’s films in which everything can happen at once or nothing at all and John Cage’s 45-minute-long Lecture on Nothing(1959).

The Achievement of Benjamin

16. The revolution in the conditions of production in the superstructure has made the traditional aesthetic theory unusable, completely unhinging its fundamental categories and destroying its ‘standards’. The theory of knowledge on which it was based is outmoded. In the electronic media, a radically altered relationship between subject and object emerges with which the old critical concepts cannot deal. The idea of the self-sufficient work of art collapsed long ago. The long-drawn discussion over the death of art proceeds in a circle so long as it does not examine critically the aesthetic concept on which it is based, so long as it employs criteria which no longer correspond to the state of the productive forces. When constructing an aesthetic adapted to the changed situation, one must take as a starting point the work of the only Marxist theoretician who recognized the liberating potential of the new media. Thirty-five years ago, that is to say, at a time when the consciousness industry was relatively undeveloped, Walter Benjamin subjected this phenomenon to a penetrating dialectical-materialist analysis. His approach, has not been matched by any theory since then, far less further developed.

‘One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence and in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements. Their most powerful agent is the film. Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage.’

‘For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. . . . But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice -- politics. . . . Today, by the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value, the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental’ (‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Illumination;, London 1970, pp. 223-7).

The trends which Benjamin recognized in his day in the film and the true import of which he grasped theoretically, have become patent today with the rapid development of the consciousness industry. What used to be called art, has now, in the strict Hegelian sense, been dialectically surpassed by and in the media. The quarrel about the end of art is otiose so long as this end is not understood dialectically. Artistic productivity reveals itself to be the extreme marginal case of a much more widespread productivity, and it is socially important only insofar as it surrenders all pretensions to autonomy and recognizes itself to be a marginal case. Wherever the professional producers make a virtue out of the necessity of their specialist skills and even derive a privileged status from them, their experience and knowledge have become useless. This means that as far as an aesthetic theory is concerned, a radical change in perspectives is needed. Instead of looking at the productions of the new media from the point of view of the older modes of production we must, on the contrary, analyze the products of the traditional ‘artistic’ media from the standpoint of modern conditions of production.

(‘Earlier much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art. The primary question -- whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art -- was not raised. Soon the film theoreticians asked the same ill-considered question with regard to the film. But the difficulties which photography caused traditional aesthetics were mere child’s play as compared to those raised by the film.’ -- ibid., p. 229.)

The panic aroused by such a shift in perspectives is understandable. The process not only changes the old burdensome craft secrets in the superstructure into white elephants, it also conceals a genuinely destructive element. It is, in a word, risky. But the only chance for the aesthetic tradition lies in its dialectical supersession. In the same way, classical physics has survived as a marginal special case within the framework of a much more comprehensive theory.

This state of affairs can be identified in individual cases in all the traditional artistic disciplines. Their present-day developments remain incomprehensible so long as one attempts to deduce them from their own prehistory. On the other hand, their usefulness or otherwise can be judged as soon as one regards them as special cases in a general aesthetic of the media. Some indications of the possible critical approaches which stem from this will be made below, taking literature as an example.

The Supersession of Written Culture

17. Written literature has, historically speaking, played a dominant role for only a few centuries. Even today, the predominance of the book has an episodic air. An incomparably longer time preceded it in which literature was oral. Now it is being succeeded by the age of the electronic media which tend once more to make people speak. At its period of fullest development the book to some extent usurped the place of the more primitive but generally more accessible methods of production of the past; on the other hand, it was a stand-in for future methods which make it possible for everyone to become a producer.

The revolutionary role of the printed book has been described often enough and it would be absurd to deny it. From the point of view of its structure as a medium, written literature, like the bourgeoisie who produced it and whom it served, was progressive. (See the Communist Manifesto.) On the analogy of the economic development of capitalism, which was indispensable for the development of the industrial revolution, the non-material productive forces could not have developed without their own capital accumulation. (We also owe the accumulation of Das Kapital and its teachings to the medium of the book.)

Nevertheless, almost everybody speaks better than he writes. (This also applies to authors.) Writing is a highly formalized technique which, in purely physiological terms, demands a peculiarly rigid bodily posture. To this there corresponds the high degree of social specialization that it demands. Professional writers have always tended to think in caste terms. The class character of their work is unquestionable, even in the age of universal compulsory education. The whole process is extraordinarily beset with taboos. Spelling mistakes, which are completely immaterial in terms of communication, are punished by the social disqualification of the writer. The rules that govern this technique have a normative power attributed to them for which there is no rational basis. Intimidation through the written word has remained a widespread and class-specific phenomenon even in advanced industrial societies.

These alienating factors cannot be eradicated from written literature. They are reinforced by the methods by which society transmits its writing techniques. While people learn to speak very early, and mostly in psychologically favorable conditions, learning to write forms an important part of authoritarian socialization by the school (‘good writing’ as a kind of breaking-in). This sets its stamp for ever on written communication -- on its tone, its syntax, and its whole style. This also applies to the text on this page.)

The formalization of written language permits and encourages the repression of opposition. ‘in speech, unresolved contradictions betray themselves by pauses, hesitations, slips of the tongue, repetitions, anacoluthons, quite apart from phrasing, mimicry, gesticulation, pace and volume. The aesthetic of written literature scorns such involuntary factors as ‘mistakes’. It demands, explicitly or implicitly, the smoothing out of contradictions, rationalization,ż’’’‚�ƒ�„�…�†�‡�ˆ�‰�Š�‹�Œ�Ž‘’""•–—˜�™�š�›�œ�žŸ� ”�¢�£�¤�„�¦�§�Ø�©�Ŗ�«�¬�ž’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’±�²�³�“�µ�¶�·�ž’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’ regularization of the spoken form irrespective of content. Even as a child, the writer is urged to hide his unsolved problems behind a protective screen of correctness.

Structurally, the printed book is a medium that operates as a monologue, isolating producer and reader. Feedback and interaction are extremely limited, demand elaborate procedures, and only in the rarest cases lead to corrections. Once an edition has been printed it cannot be corrected; at best it can be pulped. The control circuit in the case of literary criticism is extremely cumbersome and elitist. It excludes the public on principle.

None of the characteristics that distinguish written and printed literature apply to the electronic media. Microphone and camera abolish the class character of the mode of production (not of the production itself). The normative rules become unimportant. Oral interviews, arguments, demonstrations, neither demand nor allow orthography or ‘good writing’. The television screen exposes the aesthetic smoothing-out of contradictions as camouflage. Admittedly, swarms of liars appear on it, but anyone can see from a long way off that they are peddling something. As at present constituted, radio, film, and television, are burdened to excess with authoritarian characteristics, the characteristics of the monologue, which they have inherited from older methods of production -- and that is no accident. These outworn elements in today’s media aesthetics are demanded by the social relations. They do not follow from the structure of the media. On the contrary, they go against it, for the structure demands interaction.

It is extremely improbable, however, that writing as a special technique will disappear in the foreseeable future. That goes for the book as well, the practical advantages of which for many purposes remain obvious. It is admittedly less handy and takes up more room than other storage systems, but up to now it offers simpler methods of access than, for example, the microfilm or the tape bank. It ought to be integrated into the system as a marginal case and thereby forfeit its aura of cult and ritual.

(This can be deduced from technological developments. Electronics are noticeably taking over writing: teleprinters, reading machines, high-speed transmissions, automatic photographic and electronic composition, automatic writing devices, typesetters, electrostatic processes, ampex libraries, cassette encyclopaedias, photocopiers and magnetic copiers, speedprinters.

The outstanding Russian media expert El Lissitsky incidentally demanded an ‘electro-library’ as far back as 1923 -- a request which, given the technical conditions of the time, must have seemed ridiculous or at least incomprehensible. This is how far this man’s imagination reached into the future:

‘I draw the following analogy:

Inventions in the field Inventions in the field
of verbal traffic of general traffic

Articulated language Upright gait
Writing The wheel
Gutenberg’s printing press Carts drawn by animal power

? The automobile

? The airplane

I have produced this analogy to prove that so long as the book remains a palpable object, i.e. so long as it is not replaced by auto-vocalizing and kino-vocalizing representations, we must look to the field of the manufacture of books for basic innovations in the near future.

There are signs to hand suggesting that this basic innovation is likely to come from the neighborhood of the collotype.’ -- op. cit. p. 40. Today, writing has in many cases already become a secondary technique, a means of transcribing orally recorded speech; tape-recorded proceedings, attempts at speech-pattern recognition, and the conversion of speech into writing.)

18. The ineffectiveness of literary criticism when faced with so-called documentary literature is an indication of how far the critics’ thinking has lagged behind the stage of the productive forces. It stems from the fact that the media have eliminated one of the most fundamental categories of aesthetics up to now -- fiction. The fiction/non-fiction argument has been laid to rest just as was the 19th century’s favorite dialectic of ‘art’ and ‘life’. In his day, Benjamin demonstrated that the ‘apparatus’ (the concept of the medium was not yet available to him) abolishes authenticity. In the productions of the consciousness industry, the difference between the ‘genuine’ original and the reproduction disappears -- ‘that aspect of reality which is not dependent on the apparatus has now become its most artificial aspect’. The process of reproduction reacts on the object reproduced and alters it fundamentally. The effects of this have not yet been adequately explained epistemologically. The categorical uncertainties to which it gives rise also affect the concept of the documentary. Strictly speaking, it has shrunk to its legal dimensions. A document is something the ‘forging’, i.e. the reproduction of which, is punishable by imprisonment. This definition naturally has no theoretical meaning. The reason is that a reproduction, to the extent that its technical quality is good enough, cannot be distinguished in any way from the original, irrespective of whether it is a painting, a passport or a bank note. The legal concept of the documentary record is only pragmatically useful; it serves only to protect economic interests.

The productions of the electronic media, by their nature, evade such distinctions as those between documentary and feature films. They are in every case explicitly determined by the given situation. The producer can never pretend, like the traditional novelist, ‘to stand above things’. He is therefore partisan from the start. This fact finds formal expression in his techniques. Cutting, editing, dubbing -- these are techniques for conscious manipulation without which the use of the new media is inconceivable. It is precisely in these work processes that their productive power reveals itself -- and here it is completely immaterial whether one is dealing with the production of a reportage or a play. The material, whether ‘documentary’ or ‘fiction’, is in each case only a prototype, a half-finished article, and the more closely one examines its origins, the more blurred the difference becomes. (Develop more precisely. The reality in which a camera turns up is always faked, e.g. the moon-landing.)

The Desacralization of Art

19. The media also do away with the old category of works of art which can only be considered as separate objects, not as independent of their material infrastructure. The media do not produce such objects. They create programs. Their production is in the nature of a process. That does not mean only (or not primarily) that there is no foreseeable end to the program -- a fact which, in view of what we are at present presented with, admittedly makes a certain hostility to the media understandable. It means, above all, that the media program is open to its own consequences without structural limitations. (This is not an empirical description but a demand. A demand which admittedly is not made of the medium from without; it is a consequence of its nature, from which the much-vaunted open form can be derived -- and not as a modification of it -- from an old aesthetic.) The programs of the consciousness industry must subsume into themselves their own results, the reactions and the corrections which they call forth, otherwise they are already out of date. They are therefore to be thought of not as means of consumption but as means of their own production.

20. It is characteristic of artistic avant-gardes that they have, so to speak, a presentiment of the potentiality of media which still lie in the future. ‘It has always been one of the most important tasks of art to give rise to a demand, the time for the complete satisfaction of which has not yet come. The history of every art form has critical periods when that form strives towards effects which can only be easily achieved if the technical norm is changed, that is to say, in a new art form. The artistic extravagances and crudities which arise in this way, for instance in the so-called decadent period, really stem from art’s richest historical source of power. Dadaism in the end teemed with such barbarisms. We can only now recognize the nature of its striving. Dadaism was attempting to achieve those effects which the public today seeks in film with the means of painting (or of literature)’ (Benjamin, op. cit. p. 42). This is where the prognostic value of otherwise inessential productions such as happenings, flux and mixed media shows, is to be found. There are writers who in their work show an awareness of the fact that media, with the characteristics of the monologue, today have only a residual use-value. Many of them admittedly draw fairly short-sighted conclusions from this glimpse of the truth. For example, they offer the user the opportunity to arrange the material provided by arbitrary permutations. Every reader as it were should write his own book. When carried to extremes, such attempts to produce interaction, even when it goes against the structure of the medium employed, are nothing

more than invitations to freewheel. Mere noise permits of no articulated interactions. Short cuts, of the kind that Concept Art peddles, are based on the banal and false conclusion that the development of the productive forces renders all work superfluous. With the same justification, one could leave a computer to its own devices on the assumption that a random generator will organize material production by itself. Fortunately cybernetics experts are not given to such childish games.

21. For the old fashioned ‘artist’ -- let us call him the author -- it follows from these reflections that he must see it as his goal to make himself redundant as a specialist in much the same way as a teacher of literacy only fulfills his task when he is no longer necessary. Like every learning process, this process too is reciprocal. The specialist will learn as much or more from the non-specialists as the other way round. Only then can he contrive to make himself dispensable.

Meanwhile his social usefulness can best be measured by the degree to which he is capable of using the liberating factors in the media and bringing them to fruition. The tactical contradictions in which he must become involved in the process can neither be denied nor covered up in any way. But strategically his role is clear. The author has to work as the agent of the masses. He can lose himself in them I only when they themselves become authors, the authors of history.

21. ‘Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will’ (Antonio Gramsci).

Constituents of a Theory of the Media

Posted by Brian Stefans at 04:19 PM
May 01, 2003
Cyberspace and the Lonely Crowd

by Greg Van Alstyne

In this essay I have tried to elucidate a number of crucial theses from Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle by reexamining them in view of conditions within the growing digital economy. I have also considered what the spectacle is not in the hope of avoiding the kind of oversimplification of Debord's theory which is all too common.

"The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation." (Guy Debord,The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 1)

Originally published in Paris in 1967 as La Societé du spectacle, Debord's text, a collection of 221 brief theses organized into nine chapters, is a Marxian aphoristic analysis of the conditions of life in the modern, industrialized world. Here "spectacular society" is arraigned in terms that are simultaneously poetic and precise: deceit, false consciousness, separation, unreality. Debord's influence today is beyond dispute.

Upon revisiting this book I have been impressed by the immediacy of the theory. For Debord seemed to be describing the most intensively promoted phenomenon of this decade, the planet-wide network of existing and promised digital commodities, services and environments: cyberspace.

Cyberspace is supposed to be about interactivity, connectivity and community. Yet if cyberspace exemplifies the spectacle through the relationships which we will investigate here, it is not about connection at all -- paradoxically, it is about separation.

Posted by Brian Stefans at 04:45 PM
April 21, 2003
Revolution Is Not An AOL Keyword*

[from biPlog:]

You will not be able to stay home, dear Netizen.
You will not be able to plug in, log on and opt out.
You will not be able to lose yourself in Final Fantasy,
Or hold your Kazaa download queues,
Because revolution is not an AOL Keyword.

Revolution is not an AOL Keyword.
Revolution will not be brought to you on Hi-Def TV
Encrypted with a warning from the FBI.
Revolution will not have a jpeg slideshow of Dubya
Calling the cattle and leading the incursion by
Secretary Rumsfeld, General Ashcroft and Dick Cheney
Riding nuclear warheads on their way to Iraq,
Or North Korea, or Iran.

Revolution is not an AOL Keyword.
Revolution will not be powered by Microsoft on
The Next-Generation Secure Computing Base
And will not star Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee
Or Larry Lessig and Martha Stewart.

Revolution will not promise penile enlargement.
Revolution will not get rid of spam.
Revolution will not earn you up to $5000 a month
Working from home
, because revolution is not
An AOL Keyword, Brother.

There will be no screen grabs of you and
Jeeves the Butler one-click shopping at My Yahoo,
Or outbidding a shady grandma on eBay for
That refurbished iPod 20-gig.
MSNBC.com will not predict election results in Florida
Or fact-check the Drudge Report.
Revolution is not an AOL Keyword.

There will be no webcast of Wil Wheaton boxing
Barney the Dinosaur on the dancefloor at DNA.
There will be no mob- or wiki- blog of Richard Stallman
Strolling through Redmond in a medieval robe and halo
As St. iGNUcious of the Church of Emacs
That he has been saving
For just the proper occasion.

Survivor, The Osbournes, and Joe Millionaire
Will no longer be so damned relevant, and
People will not care if Carrie hooks up again with
Mr. Big on Sex and the City because Information
Wants To Be Free
even while Knowledge Is Power.
Revolution is not an AOL Keyword.

There will be no final pictures from inside the
World Trade Center in the instant replay.
There will be no final pictures from inside the
World Trade Center in the instant replay.

There will be no RealVideo of 2600-reading,
Linux-booting white hat hacktivists
And Mickey Mouse in the public domain.
The theme song will not be written by Jack Valenti or
Hilary Rosen, nor sung by Metallica, Dr. Dre,
Christina Aguilera, Matchbox 20, or Blink-182.
Revolution is not an AOL Keyword.

Revolution will not be right back after
Pop-up ads about eCommerce, eTailers, or eContent.
You will not have to worry about a
Cookie in your browser, a bug in your email, or a
Worm in your recycling bin.
Revolution will not run faster with Intel inside.
Revolution, dude, is not getting a Dell.
Revolution will increase your Google rank.

Revolution is not an AOL Keyword, is not an AOL Keyword,
Is not an AOL Keyword, is not an AOL Keyword.
Revolution will be no stream or download, dear Netizen;
Revolution must still be live.

*See generally Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.


April 09, 2003
Erwin Piscator

Erwin Piscator, coiner of the term "epic theater," was a big influence on Brecht, but also a big advocate of turning the theater into a multi-media realm that reflected historical realities. In Germany, we would stage productions whose text was altered based on what had happened that very day in the news. There's very little about him on the web, and I've only found one book about him back when I was trying to do some research, but I didn't try very hard. Anyway, here's a pretty good web page that runs down some of his basic ideas -- the better web pages are in German.


ACTING: development of epic theatre

"[T]he actors have a totally new attitude to the subject of the play they are acting in. The actor can no longer remain indifferent to his role, as he has done up till now, nor can he ‘lose himself' in it, that is, give up all conscious will." (43)

Series of multi-media productions:

"Film projections, the colour organ, the interchange on stage between light and ‘film light,' complete motorization of the stage--through these, and how many other, innovations modern creative science can supplant the ancient peep-show. And what would happen if it were to introduce a wholly new architecture, making the stage a play-machine, a wonder-world, an arena for battling ideas, perhaps even setting the audience on a turntable, dynamically bursting the static illusion of the present stage? I do not say that new techniques will be the saviour of the theatre. I merely say that they can express new dramatic contents by liberating the creative forces of playwrights, directors and actors."(472)

Designed to present complex social and economic forces shaping contemporary society.

"It has probably become clear from what has already been stated that technical innovations were never an end in themselves for me. Any means I have used or am currently in the process of using were designed to elevate the events on the stage onto a historical plane and not just to enlarge the technical range of the stage machinery." (244)

Technology necessary for two reasons:
[1] needed to represent contemporary reality (masses)
[2] needed to achieve function of connecting to audience and forcing them to take sides.

--- Erwin Piscator ---

Posted by Brian Stefans at 11:32 PM
April 08, 2003
Robert Kocik: The Other Front

“Without doubt it is we, the poets and thinkers, who are to blame for this bloodbath and who have to atone for it.” (Dadaist artist Hugo Ball)


I’d like to forgo my opinion of this possible war…to take a position relative to impossible war.

(By not having stopped war from arriving at this brink, poets have already failed. Have long failed. What recourse within ourselves and our materials does this compel?

(Now that the potential problem with stopping the war is stopping stopping war.)

At this point, to protest war is reaction and compulsory. I’d call it peace conscription. A citizen’s as distinct from a poet’s action.

To instinctively stay within an efficacy particular to the materials of poetry. The language we’d be fighting for peace for.

We don’t live in a world where the use of force is unviable. It’s chronic. It’s called the war to end war over and over. It may one day be terminal--the war that ends all. But it can’t be made acute—like a fever that breaks and takes away the sickness from then on. It’s a terminal condition kept chronic. We can’t just, as a species, get it over with.

Recovering but not cured. Getting hungry again. Back in the saddle. War is likely. It’s back in vogue. Entertainable. (If not this war then some other war.)

Is it a law of nature or just a rule of thumb?

Threat of the use of force in order to empower negotiation, is already war. Poetic failure--specifically because the language of threat is ‘language’. Once the language of threat is unleashed, no poetic operation can retroactively unengender it.

Once reactionary, it may even be tempting to react further—to subvert aversion—come out in favor of war, in the sense of sobering oneself with reality in an unbiased, disinterested sense—or exuberantly admitting war as vital, life renewing, as creation’s ritual creativity. (Not pro-war in the narrow, passionate sense of having belligerently taken one’s own side—which has nothing to do with artwork.)

As Long As The Body About To Be Blown Up Is Not YOU Or YOURS? Too late for artwork to take effect. Artwork not a viable last minute strategy.

What would poets place in the world to bring us to the point where we could even find out if it’s possible to live without force? Apparently not poetry.

What poem?

Looking as little like a poem as unlike a weapon.

As little like a poem as the language of war it would apply in order to be preemptive.

Preempt was a poet’s word (and is now a Wolfowitz word)—a word poetry could have given to the populace so that it would be unavailable for military use. Preempt is another word for portend or prophesize—to materialize, which is to poeticize.

Fighting against has never yet worked. What I fight against is (explicitly) not that which I fight for. Nor is fighting for what I fight for. It gets called ‘lose/lose’. Mutual exclusions.

To fight against is to fight for that which to fight against denies.

To fight for, in the fighting against, is to forfeit that which is fought for.

So, just let roll over me that which would deny the positive goods living without war would be a matter of?

The positive goods, if provided, would disallow war as well as its verge. THAT POEM. (How many and of what sort would it take--while conscientiously, arduously, all-out-resourcefully undertaking it—while at peace (as the Orient goes to the doctor in times of health—the crisis, calling up our total reserves, is all’s well)--to write, that poem, our rewiring?)

(The Surgeons General admits a great deal is known about sickness while very little is known about health. How many pages went into Paradise Lost, and how few could be provided for Paradise Regained? What about us necessarily dims at the brink of peace?)

Fighting against, at most, waylays the occasion (the occasion poetry has in fact forfeited) to implant the moral and vital equivalent de-necessitating that which is fought against. NOT THAT POEM.

(These words are made of my father’s death. He does not have to die on a battlefield to die in glory or fill me with courage. It would simply be misplaced, misleading, malicious and maddening to believe so in even the slightest sense.)

Should poets usurp the means for war—i.e. reason, righteousness, rage, results; knowing that each mental mode is at base a writing genre. To fight against fighting, are we repelled by warlike languages while these very languages have in fact been taken from us in order to wage war—languages which now seem nonnative to poetry and naturalized to power and aggression? All uses of the language belong to poetry because the proper object of poetry is all of the language—all of the languages within the language--because language is a property of poetry.

If not, we can no more than plant geraniums in helmets evermore. Way too post pre emptive. Swords to plowshares re-belligerent.

With our backs to the wall, what’s called Comic Warfare is viable. Comic Warfare is the appropriation of the terms of war toward contrary ends—to stand people back up. Covert, unidentifiable poetry. Conversion not coercion of materials. Overt, disarming poetry.

If poetry has never once kept us from the brink of war, why are we now concerned with conserving its identity (of conserving our identities) in the face of war? Is not the face of war occasion to be less concerned than ever over the conserving of the recognizable poem? If we keep looking strictly at what poetry has done, war remains inevitable. What it has not done, allows war to happen. If there were ever a world only poetry could put in place, war would be no more.

Get out of, not type of genre, but genre itself. Take hold of agency, office, infrastructure and construction in ways that are not redundant to or reiterative of power.

Comic Warfare doesn’t underdo or undo the controls—it outdoes them, comically. If, for example, determinism is killing us, the comic poem could extradetermine—one last loop around or lace straight through the ‘point’ and it is outdone. So overfacilitate the fraud of the ineluctability of force—that upon its next step it fall flat on its face.

(As in my opening quote by Hugo Ball) even the dastardly, reproachful language of incrimination and vindication can be applied with considerable and unexpected poetic efficacy. While blame is the blunt instrument of belligerence, Ball, by blaming himself and his kin, declares personal and total empathy with the catastrophe. He calls on blame to make a ludicrous claim real.)

I’m more than ok with that.

How? To overprovide:

how about adding an adversely active attribute to an antagonistic category? Extemporize predetermination. Alleviate axiomatics. Unbias theophanics. Experientialize expertise.

Haywire teleology. Contradictory is complimentary . Demilitarize security. Concretize Wesenschau.

Up the ample: aestheticize ascetics. sediment the transcendent. Suprasensitize empiricism. Be a munificent, bemuddled mechanist.

Maybe betray your own: actualize inexplicable. Eroticize R&D.

How about disinterested self-help? Rambunctious reductionism?

Or, delve into the extra delectation of overdoing the doubly debunked (a term discredited inside and outside its field): demonstrably vitalist. Add a negative or double debunk to a double debunk: support dead-beat behaviorism.

Although the above operations are stop-gap and not quite occlusive--- belying beatified materiality (globe: as below, so above)--they are nonetheless solid steps toward fighting neither for nor against. Anything but perversity for perversity’s sake--steps pertaining to the impending perpetual peace.

(The obvious danger in appropriating the terms of the oppressor—driving deeper behind enemy lines to directly undo an unwanted world may distance artists from ‘native’ aesthetics of a wanted world (yes, like watching the domestic budget dwindle). One example that comes to mind—the NYC-based artist collective rTmark adopts corporate and free market methodology in order to sabotage advanced global capitalism. RTmark hijacks corporate and political identities in order to snare the unaware. To cite but one instance—rTmark parodies the WTO website by using similar graphic elements as the official WTO site. The confused guest stumbles upon a directory of direct action initiatives that challenge the neo-liberal juggernaut. In another instance, rTmark channeled funds from a military veteran’s group to the Barbie Liberation Organization which used the investment to switch the voice boxes of Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls. )

How might poets, with their open identities, remain pertinent between breakaway utopia and turning into their own antithesis?

Is a poet nothing in particular? Because a poet is nothing special (last nonspecialist), something denatured, denurtured, one card not contained in the deck can be played.

Poets aren’t people. Poets may be citizens--but not necessarily people. I can’t do as a citizen what I can only do as a poet. Politicians are people—though failed people. Speaking for the people with the voice of the people is at best, approximate. Switzerland is full of people. A consensus cult. If I’m speaking, as a poet, with the voice of the people—just how cut off from my material am I--from the shift only I as non-democracy can effect. Like the first fool eukaryote that let in an organelle that we might one day breathe. As opposite elitist as democratic (the requisite agent).

The problem with the MUST of throwing one’s prosdized body before the war machine…losing limbs with which to perpetually jam up the Great Big Biocide of which war is a speck and spectacle. (I’d call it ‘getting Saddam Lewinskied’.

By means of all the possible actions of the poet of unconserved identity—or even a poem on a piece of paper or a poem read out loud (the point at which the least a poem can be becomes its most) through Comic Warfare, this time brought to a fair fight in the fantastic asymmetry of artwork vs. warworld. (Our publicity will never be as powerful as theirs). The asymmetric strike is quintessentially (quintessence, another recoverable ordure) poetic—poetic scale and odds. A line on a piece of paper up against biocide. Auspicious enough—the gross imbalance beckons ungraspable tactics. Impregnable bubble all around, with a little package delivered directly to the door by one’s own pet. Just a box cutter or the bottom of a shoe will do. As only an act from an asymmetrician can pose a serious threat to the peerlessly, imperially empowered.

And provided poets hit their stride in their fight without side, make it terminal may apply not to people but war.

Posted by Brian Stefans at 05:11 PM
March 29, 2003
Barrett Watten: War = Language

The war is language,
          language abused
                    for Advertisement,
          language used
like magic for power on the planet

          —Allen Ginsberg, “Wichita Vortex Sutra” (1966)

If the first casualty of war is truth, the weapon of choice for its destruction is language. Tautology: “A war is a war.” We are caught in a barrage of language that is meant to destroy our capacity to interpret what is said, to make rational judgments, to evaluate moral choices, to visualize what is going on, to think the unthinkable, to remember, to imagine an alternative future, to connect to others, to use language for all its purposes, to convey content, to express emotion, to reveal its own signification, to make noise. Non sequitur: “Reassurance and Safety Fashion Show in Detroit: Valerie Hillery came because she is concerned. Not scared, she said, just concerned ‘because anything can happen.’” This destruction of truth by language as a military objective is being undertaken in multiple and reinforcing ways, primarily by the selection of metaphors and frame narratives that lock on to interpretive targets (what you are encouraged to think) so as to exclude collateral damage (anything else you might think), reinforced by their stultifying redundancy such that language is emptied of anything but its dumbed-down signification. [. . .]

Personification: “‘This is the head-of-the-snake conundrum,” said one senior official who was deeply involved in the planning for a post-Hussein Iraq.” Euphemism: “‘No one wants to commit themselves until it is clear regime change is happening.’” We are being saturated with the language of war games, policy scenarios, press conferences, official narratives, insider speculation, all scripted to be conveyed as if their assumptions were shared by everyone. “American military officials said the American soldiers had killed about 450 Iraqis and destroyed more than 35 vehicles. There was no word on American casualties.” At the same time, this language depends on a circularity in which the undeniable evidence of power (jets take off from aircraft carriers; military hardware lines up at the border; news media records surgical bombing campaigns; barefoot prisoners of war submit to troops) is juxtaposed with unavailable evidence of mysteries that may never be revealed (foremost among them, weapons of mass destruction as the rationale for war). For Gen. Tommy Franks, “there is no doubt that they exist” is equivalent to “our victory is sure.” Objective pseudo-facts are invented on the spot to explain rationales that have failed: that southern Iraqis have not revolted in support of the invasion = presence of “fedayeen,” so new to the public relations campaign that Gen. Tommy Franks cannot pronounce it. Metonymy: a “fedayeen” is a dark cipher, a shadowy particular that explains any event that does not go according to predetermined script, the antagonistic element that denies us our destiny. For it is a circular truth that everything can only go according to plan, a sublime blueprint known only to those closest to power: providence unfolds in mysterious ways. Narrative: “‘The moment the security apparatus of the country crumbles, the people will rise up,’ he said.” When will we convene a war crimes tribunal for the abuse of language, seen as a universal good? “Mr. Rumsfeld said today: I am very reluctant to run around the world encouraging people to rise up. . . . But I hope and pray they’ll do it at a time when there are sufficient forces nearby to be helpful to them rather than at a time where it simply costs their life and it’s a wasted life.” Driving to Kansas State University in Wichita, in a Volkswagen bus in February 1966, talking nonstop into a tape recorder as he listened to radio reports and took in the road signs along the way, Allen Ginsberg had a prescient vision of the condition of language we are in. Poetry: “Has anyone looked in the eyes of the wounded? / Have we seen but paper faces, Life Magazine? / Are screaming faces made of dots, / electric dots on Television—fuzzy decibels registering / the mammal voiced howl / from the outskirts of Saigon to console model picture tubes / in Beatrice, in Hutchinson, in El Dorado / in historic Abilene / O inconsolable!” The critique of the language is the first place to begin to attempt remove the veil to perception that has been imposed on us and to see things as they are. Pseudo-rationality based on lack of evidence or supporting argument: “It is difficult to conceive the volume of supplies required for a large combat force or the difficulty of delivering them where they are needed in a timely fashion.” We need to take the mechanized hardware of the language of war apart—by locating alternate evidence in multiple media, by questioning the pseudo-objectivity of its delusional conclusions, by unpacking its embedded metaphors and narrative frames, by thinking otherwise. Creative use of non sequitur: “War—what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” We need to place our critical negativity in the language that surrounds us, as Allen Ginsberg did 37 years ago, as it is obvious the situation of language we are now in has grown even worse. Critical intervention: “The war is not the war; it is language.” To dismantle this war, in its causes and consequences, we must begin with language itself.

Read at a Day of Reflection on the War on Iraq, Wayne State University, 26 March 2003.

Posted by Brian Stefans at 01:24 PM
March 12, 2003
Charles Bernstein: Enough!

[Here's Charles Bernstein's statement for the reading for the Enough! anthology -- I've posted a few poems from the book on Circulars already -- that took place at the Bowery Poetry Club last Saturday. It's already caused some controversy; a short response by Kent Johnson can be found at Skanky Possum.]

In these difficult times, let us not draw away from our poetics in an attempt to redress the ominous possibilities of future U.S. government policies or the onerous effects of current government policies. As poets, we need to pursue our own forms of ethical and aesthetic response rather than engage in the sort of pronouncement by fiat and moral presumption of President Bush and his partisans.

In his “State of the Union” message on January 28, 2002, Mr. Bush said, “America's purpose is more than to follow a process; it is to achieve a result.” This statement alone provides sufficient evidence to oppose his policies. What our America stands on, its foundation, is a commitment to process over results, to finding by doing, to thinking by responding. Solutions made outside of an open-ended process compound whatever problems we face.

If this statement does not seem forceful enough, if it appears too uncertain or insufficiently categorically, so be it. If we are to talk of “poets” against the war, then what is it in our poems -- as opposed to our positions as citizens -- that does the opposing? Perhaps it might be an approach to politics, as much as to poetry, that doesn’t feel compelled to repress ambiguity or complexity nor to substitute the righteous monologue for a skeptic’s dialogue.

At these trying time we keep being hectored toward moral discourse, toward turning our work into digestible messages. This too is a casualty of the war machine, the undermining of the value of the projects of art, of the aesthetic.

Art is never secondary to moral discourse but its teacher.

Art, unregulated by a predetermined message, is all the more urgent in a time of crisis. Indeed, it is a necessary response to crisis, exploring the deeper roots of our alienation and offering alternative ways not only to think, but also to imagine and indeed to resist.

A decade ago, just after the previous Persian War, Leslie Scalapino, the convener of today’s session, sent Dead Souls, a series of searing indictments of that war, to a number of newspapers, who declined to publish, as editorial matter, a kind of writing they found inaccessible. But the task for poetry is not to translate itself into the language of social and linguistic norms but to question those norms and, indeed, to explore the ways they are used to discipline and contain dissent.

Poetry offers not a moral compass but an aesthetic probe. And it can provide a radical alternative to the outcome-driven thinking that has made the Official Morality of the State a mockery of ethical thinking and of international democratic values.

We all saw the effect of outcome-driven thinking in Florida during the Fall of 2000, when the Republican National Committee launched a unilateral, anti-democratic campaign, capturing the state power of the executive branch from the winner of the popular vote for President. To achieve their goal, Mr. Bush and his partisans had to turn against their own espoused belief in states’ rights. In the course of their righteous zeal to win at any cost, the Bush faction turned against the will both of the Supreme Court and the electorate of the State of Florida. The prestige and integrity of the United State Supreme Court was collateral damage to Mr. Bush’s determined insistence that ends justify means. The Supreme Court, which we once thought of as a guarantor or liberty, was exposed as a tool of the ultra-right wing agenda of the Republican National Committee. This past week, we have seen this same Supreme Court rule that 50 years of incarceration is not cruel and unusual punishment for a string of three petty crimes. Once again, we see the contempt the Chief Justice, Mr. Rehnquist, and his Star Chamber cohorts, Justices Scalia and Thomas, have for the shared meaning of our common language, shared meanings that are the foundation for the system of laws to which we have given consent through the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.

“Unilateralism” is not just the course the Executive Branch is pursuing, with disastrous consequence, in foreign policy, but also the policy it pursues domestically, in its assault on our liberties, on the poor, and indeed on our aspirations for a democratic society.

So I come here this afternoon, to the Bowery Poetry Club, to say, with all of you, ENOUGH!

Presented at the Enough reading and launch at the Bowery Poetry Club on March 9, 2003: Enough, an anthology of poetry and writings against the war, ed. Rick London and Leslie Scalapino (Oakland: O Books, 2003)

Posted by Brian Stefans at 09:20 PM
March 09, 2003

Donga is the title of an excellent South African poetry e-zine. The eighth issue just went live. From the perspective of the Circulars list, Toast Coetzer's column on global consumption & Nike is on target, but the entire issue is worth reading.


Posted by Ron Silliman at 02:14 PM
February 03, 2003
Situationist International: Détournement as Negation and Prelude

[As some people familiar with my Vaneigem series know, I like to take pre-existing web pages and change the contents of them for political ends. It's not an original idea; in fact, I stole it all from the Situationists, many of whose writings are online at The Situationist International Text Library.]

Détournement, the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble, has been a constantly present tendency of the contemporary avant-garde, both before and since the formation of the SI. The two fundamental laws of détournement are the loss of importance of each detourned autonomous element — which may go so far as to completely lose its original sense — and at the same time the organization of another meaningful ensemble that confers on each element its new scope and effect.

Détournement has a peculiar power which obviously stems from the double meaning, from the enrichment of most of the terms by the coexistence within them of their old and new senses. Détournement is practical because it is so easy to use and because of its inexhaustible potential for reuse. Concerning the negligible effort required for détournement, we have already noted that "the cheapness of its products is the heavy artillery that breaks through all the Chinese walls of understanding" (A User's Guide to Détournement, May 1956). But these points would not by themselves justify recourse to this method, which the same text describes as "clashing head-on against all social and legal conventions." Détournement has a historical significance. What is it?

"Détournement is a game made possible by the capacity of devaluation," writes Jorn in his study Detourned Painting (May 1959), and he goes on to say that all the elements of the cultural past must be "reinvested" or disappear. Détournement is thus first of all a negation of the value of the previous organization of expression. It arises and grows increasingly stronger in the historical period of the decomposition of artistic expression. But at the same time, the attempts to reuse the "detournable bloc" as material for other ensembles express the search for a vaster construction, a new genre of creation at a higher level.

The SI is a very special kind of movement, different in nature from preceding artistic avant-gardes. Within culture, the SI can be likened to a research laboratory, for example, or to a party in which we are situationists but nothing that we do can yet be situationist. This is not a disavowal for anyone. We are partisans of a certain future of culture and of life. Situationist activity is a particular craft that we are not yet practicing.

Thus the signature of the situationist movement, the sign of its presence and contestation in contemporary cultural reality (since we cannot represent any common style whatsoever), is first of all the use of détournement. Examples of our use of detourned expression include Jorn's altered paintings; Debord and Jorn's book Mémoires, "composed entirely of prefabricated elements," in which the writing on each page runs in all directions and the reciprocal relations of the phrases are invariably uncompleted; Constant's projects for detourned sculptures; and Debord's detourned documentary film, On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Period of Time. At the stage of what the "User's Guide to Détournement" calls "ultradétournement, that is, the tendencies for détournement to operate in everyday social life" (e.g. passwords or the wearing of disguises, belonging to the sphere of play), we might mention, at different levels, Gallizio's industrial painting; Wyckaert's "orchestral" project for assembly-line painting with a division of labor based on color; and numerous détournements of buildings that were at the origin of unitary urbanism. But we should also mention in this context the SI's very forms of "organization" and propaganda.

At this point in the world's development, all forms of expression are losing their grip on reality and being reduced to self-parody. As the readers of this journal can frequently verify, present-day writing invariably has an element of parody. As the "User's Guide" notes: "It is necessary to conceive of a parodic-serious stage where the accumulation of detourned elements, far from aiming to arouse indignation or laughter by alluding to some original work, will express our indifference toward a meaningless and forgotten original, and concern itself with rendering a certain sublimity."

This combination of parody and seriousness reflects the contradictions of an era in which we find ourselves confronted with both the urgent necessity and the near impossibility of initiating and carrying out a totally innovative collective action — an era in which the most serious ventures are masked in the ambiguous interplay between art and its necessary negation, and in which the essential voyages of discovery have been undertaken by such astonishingly incapable people.

Posted by Brian Stefans at 05:16 PM
Alan Gilbert: "Startling and Effective": Writing Art and Politics after 9/11

[Here's a short essay by Alan Gilbert I ripped from the Pores website.]

This past summer, as I was sitting in one of Anthology Film Archives' movie theaters waiting for the documentary film Gaza Strip (Longley 2002) to begin, I overheard snippets of conversation coming from a group of six or seven women and men from different backgrounds and in their mid-twenties sitting in the row directly in front of me. One of them was providing some context for the film they were about to watch (it was produced by an American filmmaker who planned to spend a couple weeks in the Gaza Strip making a documentary about the current intifada, but ended up staying three months and filming everyday life under its harsh conditions); another person was talking about films she'd recently seen at Anthology (run by Jonas Mekas, Anthology Film Archives remains one of the few places in New York City, and the United States as a whole, that shows avant-garde and experimental films on a daily basis; even the films of old-school experimental filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage are screened monthly); another member of the group was talking about her new job. Then suddenly, or so it seemed to me because I hadn't heard any of the particular conversation leading up to it, someone in the group said: “It'll be twenty years before anyone makes an avant-garde film again.” Intrigued as I was to hear any responses to such a claim, or further clarifications from the person who uttered it, I couldn't catch much else, and the movie started soon after.

Gaza Strip is a mostly conventional documentary that nevertheless eschews a number of conventional documentary techniques: no solemn voice-over, a certain amount of non-linear narrative and editing, and a sprinkling of digital effects that are meant to enhance moments of emergency and danger. Its organizing conceit is to follow around a Palestinian boy named Mohammed Hejazi as he throws rocks at Israeli tanks, sells newspapers, visits his young friends after they've been shot by Israeli soldiers, and joins funerals. But plenty of other aspects of life for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are also represented: bulldozed houses, snipers firing on schoolyards, rockets fired into houses, and poisonous gas attacks; in other words, the film has everything except, as J. Hoberman pointed out in his Village Voice review, footage of the horrific carnage inflicted on Israelis by Palestinian suicide bombers (2002). But Gaza Strip isn't blatantly biased, nor is it overly didactic. Simply filming the Israeli army terrorizing Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is damning enough, especially when a soldier in one of its tanks rolls what looks like a metal toy toward a group of Palestinian children playing, only to have one of the kids discover after he picks it up that it's actually a small bomb which then blows most of his abdomen away.

The 100th issue of the journal October is a special anniversary volume somewhat ironically dedicated to the topic of “Obsolescence.” A number of artists responded to a questionnaire dealing with the concept, and two roundtables addressed it in relation to contemporary art criticism and “American avant-garde film,” respectively. Both roundtables returned again and again to the idea of institutionality—in relation to visual art and the discourses surrounding it. In the roundtable on art criticism, institutionality was seen as a potential danger to art and art criticism, while, at the same time, all of the participants generally agreed on the difficulties of working, or even conceiving themselves, outside the art world system. Andrea Fraser, whose renowned brand of institutional critique receives ongoing institutional support, was perhaps the most representative roundtable member in this regard. In contrast, the roundtable on “American avant-garde film” mostly embraced institutionality as the only way in which this film practice could continue to reach an audience beyond a very select few, the majority of whom are fellow avant-garde filmmakers.

The lone exception, experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs, espoused a do-it-yourself 1960s—later punk, later Internet—fuck the system outsider stance in which artmaking isn't dependent upon institutional support for its vitality. He also fell back on what might be seen as a relatively separate strand of vanguardist innovation:

[Ken] Jacobs: . . . But then you have things that uphold the idea of the avant-garde, which is to forage and get out there into new territory, to think completely freshly, come up with whole other ways of putting things together, unexpected things to go for. New things have been made all through these years. New things are being made now.

[Paul] Arthur: I'm sure that's true, but I find this aspect of the cultural ideology somewhat suspect, even obsolescent. This idea of constant innovation, of stretching the envelope of what's possible in cinema . . . I find that a problematic notion at this point.

[Annette] Michelson: Why?

Arthur: Because I don't see that much stretching these days, but I do see a very strongly institutionalized movement, and for me, that's the essential definition. (2002: 117)

Here, film critic Paul Arthur is referring less to institutionality as a network of support encompassing the production, distribution, and screening of experimental film, and more to a codified, and even ossified, vanguardist aesthetics. If the notion of vanguardism is conceptually derived from the militaristic scouting forays made by the lead part of an advancing army, then maybe after a century of the worst warfare in human history and plenty of avant-garde experiments (many of them ending up in some dubious political affiliations), it's time for the avant-garde to drop back a little, not in order to march shoulder-to-shoulder with this army (as ethicist Emmanual Levinas once described Martin Heidegger's booted march toward Being [1987: 40-41, 93-94]), but to meet it face-to-face. Semantically, at least, the avant-garde would no longer be an avant-garde; but, then, maybe the army would no longer be an army.

After the feelings of shock, sadness, and anger I experienced in the hours following the attacks on the World Trade Center, and when more information began to filter in about exactly what happened, my two initial thoughts were: 1) this will seriously damage the Palestinian cause, since sentiment in mainstream US media and society had finally begun to shift toward a less one-sided understanding of Israeli-Palestinian relations; and 2) this is partly the responsibility of the US auto industry—in collaboration with the major oil companies—for refusing to develop serious alternatives to the gas combustion engine. These may appear odd first thoughts; but one can imagine what it was like to be in New York City on the evening of September 11, 2001, watching the smoke rising from southern Manhattan's enormous scar billow against a spectacular sunset, rendered, it may sound grotesque to say (although people in Los Angeles experience this all the time), even more spectacular by the pollutants in the atmosphere. Everyone in New York City that day and in the following days was breathing in the cremated remains of thousands of people, though absolutely no one could say it—then, or even now. Instantly, what seemed like millions of flyers of missing persons with photographs and contact information for relatives and friends covered every available surface. Spontaneous public spaces were established in parks and open areas around the city; and while some writers exaggerated the level of civic discourse and debate in these temporary public spheres, they nevertheless were places where people congregated and dialogued freely and with a certain degree of self-allowed autonomy.

This made the authorities nervous, but the level of grief was so intense that even then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani—who was pleased to be able to finally run the city like the police state he always dreamed of, and who did a good job of it, if efficiently running a police state is something one can be complimented on or take pride in—couldn't tear down the flyers or break up the gatherings. But within a couple weeks he did, and suddenly the flyers were gone, as if overnight, and people no longer congregated in public spaces. The attacks also meant the Bush administration finally had an objective other than to loot everything in sight; and just as it's easy to forget how low Giuliani had sunk in the general opinion of New Yorker's before 9/11 (the second fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American man by his police corps was one of the final straws), to the point of excusing himself from his Senate race against Hillary Clinton, so, too, is it difficult to remember exactly what the Bush administration was up to before its attentions were turned toward Afghanistan and Iraq. Unlike the Reagan administration, which at least formulated a pernicious ideology of trickle-down economics to justify its greed, Bush, Jr., and his recycled Reagan/Bush père cronies were/are only after one thing: wealth, and the most massive redistribution of it in the US since the latter half of the 19th century.

Exploiting contradictions is one strategy art, writing, and the larger cultural sphere might explore in the wake of 9/11. Focusing in on contradiction, exposing it without necessarily adding explicit commentary and/or a heavy-handed narrative structure, is a dialogic process, one that can be politicized without in turn being made demagogic. But an attention to contradiction is as much a strategy of reading as it is a mode of cultural production. In a so-called “Information Age” of media monopolies, with their consolidations and restrictions of available information, it's increasingly essential to read this information against the grain. It's also crucial to cultivate alternative sources of information, which are in wild proliferation, whether in print or on the Internet. Both attitudes toward information are summarized in Marshall McLuhan's declaration: “When information is brushed against information . . . the results are startling and effective” (1967: 76,78). There's no reason why art can't be “startling” and “effective,” even though the two categories have frequently been kept separate: the former associated with formal innovation and extravagance, the latter with dry political utility and pedagogy.

It's important that an approach to cultural production and reading which brushes information against information have a wide range of applications. For instance, I wouldn't be the first to point to the contradictions at the heart of David LaChapelle's photography, and its very voguish attempt to blur the distinctions between fashion and art (2002, 1999, 1996). On the surface, LaChapelle's work is among the most effusive celebrations of celebrity culture currently produced today. It makes gushing television shows such as Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood, which also push celebrity culture and its products, downright dull in comparison. But perhaps LaChapelle's work is more complex than this. Perhaps Jeff Koons isn't Warhol's most immediate Pop offspring—LaChapelle is (after all, he got his start photographing for Warhol's Interview magazine). Like Warhol, the image factory and its resultant celebrity goods—and vice versa—is LaChapelle's world. Similar to Warhol's work as discussed by Hal Foster in The Return of the Real, specifically his '60s silkscreens of car crashes, criminals, and even celebrities (1996: 130-136), there's a sense of violence and death in LaChapelle's depictions of the commonplace-as-incongruous and the incongruous-as-commonplace in mass culture. Celebrities may strive to transcend mortality in both Warhol and LaChapelle (and in this their art subscribes to one of the most conventional of aesthetic notions), but death and the intrinsic, never-resolved contradiction it brings is always sniffing at the edges of the frame.

At one level, Warhol and LaChapelle's projects couldn't make much more clear—without, that is, becoming purely “effective”—the primary relationship between consumption and death. To this I would add the relationship in capitalist societies between consumption, death, and war. But this connection is also a contradiction: to consume is to try to elude death, and to consume is also supposed to negate war, as Thomas Friedman famously remarked when he said that two countries with a McDonald's in them would never go to war (rather quickly disproved when the US bombed Serbia, to which Friedman responded that this exception actually proved his rule [1999]). In their most complex work, Warhol and LaChapelle bypass irony (the easiest of critical gestures) for contradiction. The very excessiveness of LaChapelle's depiction of celebrity and riches practically begs the viewer to read back critically into the constructed image and to understand that too much is literally too much. Of course, this begging is also a sign of the work's complicity, and one should be careful not to exaggerate the critical aspect of LaChapelle's images. The contradictions I'm pointing to in LaChapelle's photography may serve as a reading of resistance, but the key is to link up this reading with larger social, political, and cultural formations and movements. And for that, a globalized view is necessary, an awareness that's becoming more widespread, if the unexpected strong-selling success of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire is any indication (2000)—though Empire might do a better job of reminding its readers that without robustly functioning nation-states, transnational capitalism would collapse within months, if not weeks.

If any contemporary photographer could be considered the polar opposite of David LaChapelle it might be Allan Sekula. Sekula's epic Fish Story was shown in its entirety at this year's Documenta. In his installation of the work and book of the same title (1995), Sekula documents global shipping routes and ports of transnational trade. If, on first glance, LaChapelle's work is “startling,” Sekula's work might be considered “effective.” Yet there's a rigorous attention to formal concerns in Sekula's photographs. Sekula may work in a somewhat traditional documentary mode, but unlike documentary that tries to capture an entire span of intellectual and emotional response within a single frame or film or video, a Sekula photograph is incomprehensible without the context he creates for it with accompanying images and text, which in turn comment directly on larger socio-economic conditions. The failure of traditional documentary is that it trusts the immediate impact of its images, and remains satisfied with these direct representations. This distinction between different documentary methods is cited by critic and curator Matthew Higgs: “Writing elsewhere on documentary photography, British artist Liam Gillick has described the kind of work that seeks meaning in the apparent profundity of its subject matter in lieu of offering a 'constructed critique' as a 'stunned mirror'” (Higgs 2002: 167). Sekula's quick movement in Fish Story between the macro and the micro, his constant historicizing as well as his attention to the smallest details, are the result of a complex formal and critical process. What at first glance makes Sekula's work appear the product of a classical documentary lineage turns out to be his refusal to accept consumption as the fundamental social and economic reality. Even in a world full of simulacra, most commodities still have to be produced and transported before they can be consumed. In a manner that's the complete opposite of LaChapelle, Sekula's work seeks to strip the commodity of its fetishistic dimension. This forces a reading of resistance to be read back, in turn, into a capitalist economy and social organization that uses an ideology of consumption—of goods and images—to camouflage inherent structural contradictions.

Unfortunately, not much has changed, in art or otherwise, after 9/11. At the same time, a quote such as, “It'll be twenty years before anyone makes an avant-garde film again,” however off-hand, however unsubstantiated, however unjustified, perhaps could only have been made after 9/11. But has anything changed? A space has opened up within political discourse and artistic practice in the US, a space partially and metaphorically vacated by the Twin Towers, in which contradictions have the potential to become more evident. Yet if one of the main challenges of various forms of cultural production is to expose contradictions in dominant ideologies, then they must also learn to expose contradictions within themselves. Without serious self-critique, art slowly loses its capacity for anything more than shallow institutional critique. For the avant-garde in particular (or what's left of it), self-critique may allow it to step back—though not so far as to become a rearguard—and engage with the progressive cultural populism it needs in order to rejuvenate itself and again function as a radical project.

Alan Gilbert



Arthur, Paul; Frye, Brian; Iles, Chrissie; Jacobs, Ken; Michelson, Annette; Turvey, Malcolm (2002) “Round Table: Obsolescence and American Avant-Garde Film.” In October. No. 100 (Spring 2002): 115-132.

Foster, Hal (1996) The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century. The MIT Press, Cambridge and London.

Friedman, Thomas L. (1999) “The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention.” In The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization. Anchor Books, New York. 248-275.

Hardt, Michael, and Negri, Antonio (2000) Empire. Harvard University Press, Cambridge and London.

Higgs, Matthew (2002) “Same Old Same Old.” In Artforum. Vol. XLI, No. 1 (September 2002): 166-167.

Hoberman, J. (2002) “Crime Scenes.” In The Village Voice. Vol. XLVII, No. 31 (July 31-August 6, 2002): 103.

LaChapelle, David (2002) Photographs. Museums Betriebsgesellschaft mbH, Wien.

------ (1999) Hotel LaChapelle. Bulfinch Press, Boston, New York, and London.

------ (1996) LaChapelle Land. Simon & Schuster, New York.

Levinas, Emmanuel (1987) Time and the Other. Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh.

Longley, James (2002) Gaza Strip. Directed by James Longley. Produced by James Longley.

McLuhan, Marshall and Fiore, Quentin (1967) The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Gingko Press, Corte Madera, CA.

Sekula, Allan (1995) Fish Story. Richter Verlag, Düsseldorf.

Posted by Brian Stefans at 12:43 PM