[iDC] : Internet as Boho Art-Space and Heaving Public Square: play, Iran, Twitter, cybernetics

pat kane playethical at gmail.com
Thu Jun 18 13:19:15 UTC 2009

Some further notes on play and labor:

Yes, Julian and Brian, play is a primordially ambiguous domain of  
human responsiveness. Indeed, in terms of its evolutionary role as  
maintaining a sense of energized possibility for the organism, the  
darkest power-plays as well as the most bucolic festivities have to  
be part of its repertory of simulations, repetitions, games and  
laughter. (I often, and no doubt contentiously, say that if the work  
ethic can take a bad trip and end up at the sign over the gates of  
Auschwitz, the play ethic can also terminate in the boudoirs and rape/ 
torture chambers of the good Marquis).

Indeed, our multidisciplinary ludi-guru, Brian Sutton-Smith, would be  
the first to assert that, as Julian's quotation from him shows, the  
too-idealised zone of child's play is a pulsing phantasmagoria of  
transgression, insurrection, corporeal anarchy - if only adults could  
hear it. Part of my definition of a 'play ethic' is partly that the  
sheer non-moral openness of play compels us to think "ethically", in  
that Foucaultian sense of ethics as a practice of freedom. It's too  
powerful in our lives not to take, as it were, deadly seriously.

So Julian, I do think I acknowledge play's murkier potentials - I'm  
not one of those legions of blithe boosters about its effects that  
appear in management circles, play as a toolbox for positive  
psychology. But you will know that  that the final words of Sutton- 
Smith's The Ambiguity of Play, when he lays out his evolutionary  
thesis about play, is a confession that "despite my extensive  
criticisms of the rhetoric of progress,  I have now invented yet  
another form of it, although this time as only the potentiation of  
adaptive variability".

I keep my eye on play theory for the same reasons, I think, that  
Deleuze and Guattari kept their eye on fractal mathematics, non- 
linear systems theory, or neuroscience. That is, as a resource to  
confirm my assumptions about an immanent creativity in the human  
condition (which of course for D&G was part of that greater, concept- 
strewn plane of materiality). It's certainly about counterposing a  
more open and unpredicable bio-subject than the "Homer Economicus" of  
behavioural economics, that coming governmentality in Euro-America,  
which erects upon our evolved psychosomatic equipment some miserably  
limited (and easily governable) consumer-citzens, "nudged" this way  
and that ahead of their savannah atavisms by a mandarinate of  
"liberal paternalists". Some of you may think it's dangerously  
positivist to engage in the "politics of human nature" this way: I  
feel the opposition is too powerful not to.

But to the "play-labor nexus". I urge you all to read Brian Holmes'  
very elegant essay on play, link previously posted here - http:// 
constellations. And I want to take seriously Brian's, Ulises',  
Trebor's and others ludo-scepticism: That the absorption-in- 
possibility which defines the play experience is, through interaction  
design, a mechanism of identification with the social order - and one  
which could be, at worst, a willful mystification of our relationship  
with real-world exploitation ("Web 2.0 as ideology itself", as Brian  
says). In his new essay, Brian tries to establish some kind of  
opposition between play-as-identification, and play-as- 
disidentification. It's worth quoting at length, just for the prose:

".... Will a repressive hush fall back over the emergent world  
society, as the postmodern tool sets are gradually outfitted with  
surveillance mechanisms and encumbered with intellectual property  
laws, while dissident behaviors are pacified and normalized within  
corporate frames? Or will a resurgent artistic activism learn from  
its historical failures, and launch new and more effective techniques  
for the free and open transmission of countercultural knowledge? How  
to enlarge the circle of initiates? How to increase the possibilities  
of active participation? How – and where – to extend the terrains of  

"...The procedures of deskilling and deconditioning, the anti- 
disciplinary revolts deployed by the early vanguards against the  
remains of a bourgeois ideal of ennoblement, then by mid-twentieth  
century artists against the quality standards and technocratic  
abstraction of the corporate capitalist societies, are only  
understandable as a struggle within this dominant politics of  
culture, conceived in Schiller’s terms as the psychic vector of a  
social status quo: “free play” as the intimate and voluntarily  
cultivated instance of the state. This is what we are up against, if  
we seek, like the Situationists, to invent “an essentially new type  
of games.”

"... Now the urgency of deconditioning makes itself felt once again  
in vastly expanded cultural circles, even as the patronage of  
imperial capital exerts increasingly stronger channeling and framing  
effects. How to introduce a subversive “free play” into circuits of  
exchange that have been built up on the dogma of dematerialization,  
liquidity, liberalism? How to twist the grids of expression outside  
the control of the managerial elites? How to eliminate the brokers?"

Behind this is his reading of Schiller's theory (which he shares with  
Terry Eagleton) casting the play-drive is the ultimate civic  
seduction, the ultimate embourgoisifier:  "The revolutionary  
individual is not to be crushed, but should ultimately *become* the  
new regime".  Yet I do think we get into hard politics here. And I do  
have some sympathy for John Sobol's blast against "the experts in  
theoretical revolution, who have insisted that capitalist networks  
are inherently anti-revolutionary, inherently anti-human, anti- 
inspiration" – particularly in the light of those "mammets" furiously  
using Twitter, Friendfeed, Typepad and every other corporate platform  
they can get, to sousveille and maintain the momentum of the Iranian  

In short, can one be a reformist in this discussion, as well as a  
revolutionary? And can play be developmental, as well as disruptive?  
Progressive as well as liminal? Bauwens' constant refrain on this  
list is that an autonomous digital counterculture can "fight/hack for  
user rights, open standards, free network service principles" with  
the commercial platforms: they can establish a 'social contract' (a  
social democracy?) from a strong base in which they build their own  
"radical distributed infrastructures". I go with Pekka Himanen that  
hackerism is the first real instantiation of a 'play ethic' in the  
network society. Isn't it this counterculture (which Fred Turner  
hymns) which presses externally and internally upon organisations  
like Twitter and Google? And hasn't hackerism deeply enabled -  
indeed, "conditioned" - the openness and iterability of the platforms  
currently being used by the Iranian people?

And yes, there is a degree of yada-yada-yada about our ritual  
invocation of the Italian autonomists here. But surely one of the  
things they get right is that our new sense of collective power (see  
Kevin Kelly's 'New Socialism' thesis in Wired) is more than just a by- 
product of an increasing cyberneticized fabric of society. Techno- 
potboilers like James Harkin's Cyburbia try to claim (as many on this  
list do) that cybernetics is the core, militarily-originated episteme  
that keeps us phatically and pointlessly chattering to each other,  
over brightly-coloured networks. But as Micheal Hardt puts it (http:// 
www.vinculo-a.net/english_site/text_hardt.html), interactive machines  
aren't just "a new prosthesis integrated into our bodies and minds",  
but also "a lens through which to redefine our bodies and minds  
themselves". This presumes a seer-through-the-lens - meaning, to some  
degree, a subject who can gain some Enlightenment-style purchase on  
their embroilment in protocol and code. An autonomous, passional,  
strategic player, not just the heteronomous, befuddled and processual  

To bring it back to the moment of play: The point about the  
'ambiguity of play', its necessary potentiation and proteanism, is  
that it encompasses (as Sutton-Smith says) *both* extreme agency  
*and* extreme envelopment. Play-as-fate-and-chaos, yes, the play of  
being caught up in cosmic mechanisms way beyond ones power to control  
or influence - but also play-as-progress, play-as-imagination, play- 
as-freedom. Cybernetics is indeed subtle and pervasive in its  
harnessing of human differentiation and singularity - but I'd content  
that play is more powerful, more generative and more constitutive of  
said difference and singularity. Because it is the 'difference  
engine' of our species, it always gives us enough cognitive and  
affective headroom - not just to generate better antagonisms to  
systems, but better systems as well.

Which is what Brian Holmes, to me, exactly does at the end of his  
playpiece, when he invokes the map-makings of personal and political  
potential conducted by Felix Guattari: that is, he points to a better  
system to support richer play. Radical creatives might want to  
disidentify from the interactive funfair of the entertainment- 
military complex, asks Brian - but where, other than the metropolis  
as a stage for "processual social events" and "punctual encounters",  
can they go to practice, let alone theorise,  their counter-play? I  
am touched by Brian's answer:

"The art circuit today – including not just museums, but the enlarged  
and diversified networks of experimentation, debate and display – can  
function as a public site of initiation to this kind of reading,  
making it a new form of common knowledge, too broad and unpredictable  
to remain under corporate control. In this way, art can help  
reactivate the suspended promise that sixties’ thinkers saw in the  
expansion of free time. If it can avoid capture and “ennoblement” (or  
conversely, brutal repression) by the pervasive powers of the  
corporate capitalist state.

"The artworks before your eyes appear irreducibly singular,  
tangential, distant; and everything else that gives consistency and  
dynamism to dissenting subjectivities – the discourses, the  
technologies, the territories of intervention – is necessarily  
elsewhere, displaced into another space. Yet even within the seeming  
calm and neutrality of the museum, these constellations of distant  
universes are inviting you to play an essentially different kind of  

This reminds me so much of that powerful essay that Habermas wrote  
about George Bataille in the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity.  
(Google Books wont show me the relevant page - Bauwens' Chartists,  
advance!). But from misty memory, it's something about how Bataille's  
transgressive and illimitable practice – which is hard-core,  
radically-potentiating play - is good for the steering systems of  
modernity, in that it reminds governance that there will always be  
challenges to its complacency about meeting human needs and desires.  
Art institutions need artists, system needs lifeworld (even at the  
Bataillian limit), and networks need play (and players), to develop,  
form and reform.

We should be vigilant over forms of interaction labor that canalise  
the full spectrum of playful possibilities, yes. But it's a more  
exciting moment for systemic development, of all kinds, than a  
counsel of "control-society" despair. Precisely because we're  
players, and not laborers, in these playgrounds.

On 18 Jun 2009, at 12:36, Ulises Mejias wrote:

> John,
> Thank you for your comments. But are we perhaps confusing the  
> finger for the thing it is pointing at?
> What is remarkable about the events in Iran is that people have  
> taken to the streets to challenge an illegitimate election. The  
> fact that some people are using Twitter to disseminate the news  
> about the events, by-passing traditional media, is important but  
> has little to do with what has motivated the Iranian youth to take  
> to the streets.
> Twitter is not what has made or will make this movement successful,  
> although not surprisingly, we in the West have reframed this  
> uprising to be all about us: it's about how *we* get the  
> information, and about the 'revolutionary' potential of our latest  
> technological gadgets (potential that always seems somehow to elude  
> us here at home, unfortunately). Already the Internet is awash with  
> opinions from Web 2.0 gurus about how Iran is the Twitter  
> revolution (much like Estonia was the Facebook revolution, some  
> other place was the YouTube Revolution, and so on). Maybe it's just  
> me, but I find this kind of technophilic argument reductionist and  
> self-serving. Please give people, not corporate tools, their due  
> credit.
> Having said that, I also don't want to pretend that new  
> technologies don't matter. I find Naeem Mohaiemen's piece on the  
> Iranian protests quite insightful:
> "The Iranian state is getting desperate, and tries to throttle  
> internet traffic, block SMS flow, scramble satellite TV feeds. But  
> every few seconds there is a twitter giving new proxy addresses  
> that can be accessed from inside Iran. Even with net speed down to  
> a crawl, activists keep pushing information through. We will bypass  
> all filters."
> http://unheardvoice.net/blog/2009/06/17/iran-filters/
> Previously, Naeem says, "protests fade as the government waits  
> until protestors are exhausted." Now, perhaps, Twitter keeps the  
> momentum going. But let's not pretend that this is the kind of  
> effect sociable media is intended to have on the masses. The fact  
> that all we can do is consume tweets about what is *happening*  
> elsewhere is an indication of how the system is really supposed to  
> work. *We* (who failed to organize any kind of reaction against our  
> own election fraud) are the mammets, not the people who--out of  
> necessity or choice--revert back to the unmediated action of their  
> bodies.
> -Ulises
> ----- Original Message ----
> From: john sobol <john at johnsobol.com>
> To: Ulises Mejias <uam2101 at columbia.edu>
> Cc: iDC at mailman.thing.net
> Sent: Wednesday, June 17, 2009 10:04:22 PM
> Subject: Re: [iDC] "How (bravely) the mammet twitters!”
> On 16-Jun-09, at 12:27 PM, Ulises Mejias wrote:
>> In the new economics of 'mammet-generated content,' the users are  
>> mindless, sub-human.
>> They are too small to count except in the aggregate. They performs  
>> mindless repetitive tasks;
>> they twitter. But they are also dangerous. There is a potential  
>> threat living inside these
>> Mechanical Turks, a dwarf genius. They are the masses who could  
>> potentially discover --if
>> sociable media wasn't so much darn fun!-- that of all possible  
>> configurations, the network is
>> being actualized as a machine for generating more, not less,  
>> inequality. In this economy, there
>> is no difference between toil and play, and that's not accidental.  
>> The new mammet must be
>> kept engaged in endless twittering--otherwise, it might go jihadi  
>> all over the network.
>> -Ulises Mejias
> A couple of days ago I started writing an atypically benign  
> response to the above, atypical as I have on this listserv been  
> pretty hardcore in the past in challenging what I see as the  
> extreme one-sidedness of the argument that Ulises so effectively  
> articulates here, but the extraordinary events in Iran have been so  
> distracting that I only now find myself with a few minutes to  
> continue writing, and as I do so I see that these current events  
> constitute a far more compelling real-world rejection of the mammet  
> metaphor than anything I could have written. For lo, here we have  
> the mammet rising up and almost literally 'going jihadi all over  
> the network' but without leaving the Mechanical Turk! It is in fact  
> the golem with a flower, the Mechanical Turk dancing for peace.
> Is it not so?
> How is it that these once 'mindless sub-humans' have ridden the  
> back of Twitter to rise up and smite their oppressors? Does this  
> not make a mockery of experts in theoretical revolution, who have  
> insisted that capitalist networks are inherently anti- 
> revolutionary, inherently anti-human, anti-inspiration? Not that  
> cyberwarfare can't be waged from both sides. Or course it can.  But  
> these mammets bravely tweeting understand that human agency lies  
> within human actors, and that 'the system' is never monolothic.  
> That freedom is not necessarily abdicated by participating in a  
> techno-social-network within a capitalist structure, especially  
> when participation consists of telling a meaningful story to real  
> human ears. In fact, it is enhanced, regardless of the ads inserted  
> nearby.
> So may they tweet on in Iran, and come to enjoy the fruits of their  
> user-generated revolt, even as Twitter gains value and somewhere  
> stockbrokers giggle in anticipation of its IPO.
> John Sobol
> --
> www.johnsobol.com
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