[iDC] Off Topic? Not really...

Brian Holmes bhcontinentaldrift at gmail.com
Sun Dec 19 22:08:07 UTC 2010

On 12/16/2010 12:37 PM, Snafu wrote:

> I tried to expand on Samuel Weber's
> suggestion that what holds a network together are the narratives and
> stories that people tells. Drawing on Arquilla and Ronfeldt's notorious
> essay on Netwar, in Target of Opportunities Weber conflates military,
> religious, and Internet-based networks to suggest that narratives come
> to play a crucial cohesive function when a center lacks a center or a
> leader. This is particularly true when we start thinking of networks in
> a diachronic rather than merely synchronic fashion.

This thread ended Micha's earlier one about how to start a movement in 
an alienating environment like University of California at San Diego. 
But I'd say the two are intimately linked, around the question of social 
cohesion that Snafu is raising. How to build intense and lasting 
political relations in a society that aims to individualize you, to 
careerize you, to map out your desires the way biologists used to stick 
a butterfly on a pin? How to pass those relational forms down over time 
and even over generations?

Of course I totally agree with my companero Armin Medosch's idea that 
there is no technologically neutral network. In fact my "Absent Rival" 
text (linked in a previous mail) centers on the industrial production of 
exactly the kinds of electronic widgets that Armin describes, memory 
aids and relationship devices, with their strategies for getting inside 
your house and getting under your skin. These industrially produced 
devices are what Bernard Stiegler, following Foucault, describes as 
"hypomnemata," technologies for exteriorizing subjective experience and 
thereby engaging in shared (but also massively imposed) practices of 
collective self-fashioning. How to rival with those  technopolitical 
strategies, how to propose a different way of creating yourself in 
relation to other people?

If the mail art genealogy for counter-cultural networking practices is 
important, is because it reveals some of the forms of sociability that 
predated the Internet and allowed for early subversive uses, in what was 
essentially a passage of generations. Luther Blisset, an Italian group 
of subversively networked literary production that Heidi surely knows 
quite well, was probably the clearest example of a mediation between the 
older mail art culture and the new forms of social experimentation that 
developed in activist circles in the 1990s. But the very possibility of 
this generational mediation was not an accident. To understand the 
Internet and how it took on its social form, you also have to realize 
that an open communications system was ardently desired by many people 
in the innovative, rebellious and chaotic years of the 1960s and 70s: 
that was exactly the message of Pynchon's fantastic little book on an 
alternative postal system, The Crying of Lot 49. The hacker narratives 
that Snafu points to are another kind of mediation, this time between 
Cold War military culture and a new sort of networked public sphere: we 
can see the amazing fruit they are bearing today, with the advent of 
WikiLeaks and its like. How do such subversive groups arise? Through 
specific techniques of subjectivation in rivalry with dominant functions.

A piece of mail art can, at least sometimes, quite literally be a 
"story": but it is also a visual input, a practice of making, a protocol 
of addressing, a habit of receiving and even a way to break one's own 
habits, to keep open a form of experimentation. To the extent that mail 
art pieces are unfinished and ask for modification, they are temporal 
objects unfolding in time. The rhythm of exchange keeps open a relation 
between senders-receivers. But this malleability of the transitional 
medium, according to Karen Knorr Cetina, is exactly the characteristic 
of an "epistemic object," whether it's a continuosly updated piece of 
software (like the Linux OS on which I write), a stream of financial 
information, a feed of words or images etc. You "consume" such unfolding 
objects by intervening in the temporal flow at an opportune moment, 
making an adjustment, placing a bet, injecting a twist on the message: 
and such interventions have become one of the primary modes of 
work-activity in the semiotic economy. The political question is how to 
set up forms and rhtyhms of exchange that twist away from the dominant 
patterns of social interaction that isolate people, that wall them up in 
their poverty or their privileges?

Like Snafu (and I guess, Samuel Webber) I wrote a text about that, 
focusing not so much on stories per se (though I agree they are 
important) as on the visual cues, machinic protocols, ethical principles 
and philosophical/metaphysical horizons that structure a networking 
relation and keep it coherent over distance and time. Drawing on Knorr 
Cetina's work among others, I wanted to suggest that there have been and 
will continue to be rival strategies for collective self-fashioning in 
the informational era:


Armin is totally right to point to the dialectical relationship between 
the software app Android nestling in an individual's palm, and the 
massive data-warehousing of information on the habits, desires and 
dreams of entire populations. But if the relationship is dialectical, 
then the struggle is over what its contradiction will produce, where the 
significant antithesis will emerge. Clearly we can all be reduced to 
zombies by this stuff: that is the message of The Matrix. And we can 
dangle our very selves on the hierarchical desire to become superior 
manipulators: that is the message of untold thousands of "golden boy" 
narratives in the high-end world of corporate consultants and financial 
traders. But there are also cultures of subversion and revolt and 
transformation, however fragile they may be and however scary for some. 
Often these cultures go unnoticed for years and generations, there is no 
response, no interlocutor, no visible rivalry, as was usually the case 
with tactical media interventions like those of the Yes Men. Today, 
WikiLeaks has opened an explicit breach in the media system. I think we 
need many more, on different scales and of different kinds. Let a 
thousand subversive networks bloom.

best, Brian

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