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||| Unleashing the Collective Phantom |||
Resistance to Networked Individualism
||| [part 1] ||| [part 2] |||
The classical function of the stock market is to provide resources for industrial development, through a speculative game that pays off later in the "real economy." But history is cunning, and the result of the dotcom boom may have been to free up vast amounts of private money for the development of a virtual public realm, where people can confront the major corporations on their home turf - that is to say, in transnational space. Huge amounts of infrastructure were installed throughout the world in the period from 1995 to 2000; now the oversupply crisis is accounted a disaster. An alternative history turns that equation upside-down. The speculators of the late twentieth century asked: "Is there any limit to the profit we can make off Internet?" Today a wilder speculation has arisen: "Can we really make the networks useless for corporate capitalism?"
Unlike most people, I don't think the answer is primarily legal, or even technological. Instead it is cultural and artistic. It has everything to do with subjective capacities for resistance. And a history of resistance might suggest a different question: "Can the expanding virtual class finally escape the domination of the flexible personality?"
From Taylor and Ford to Stalin and De Gaulle, the adversary of the radical Left in the twentieth century was rationalizing authority. Whether on the factory floor or in the military ranks that gave the orders, regimentation and the hierarchical pyramid supplied the images of authoritarian oppression. The difference between East and West was slim in that respect. The army muster and the assembly line set the pace of life on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The first to analyze this situation were the Frankfurt School.
The originality of the Frankfurt School was to combine Marx and Freud, to explore the industrial economy's masochistic libido. But to do so was not just to go beyond the pleasure principle. What the Frankfurt School studied from the 1930's onward was a new form of political-economic command that stretched its social fingers deeply into the psyche. The liquidation of nineteenth-century bourgeois individualism and the emergence of a central-planning state, along with a totally mobilized factory society, were pursued on the subjective level by what they called _the authoritarian personality_. They understood this fascistic character structure as a "new anthropological type." Its traits were rigid conventionalism, submission, opposition to everything subjective, stereotypy, an exaggerated concern with sexual scandal, emphasis on power and the projection of unconscious impulses.
The Frankfurt School writers perfected their analysis of the authoritarian regimes in the 1940's and 50's, while living in exile in the USA. There they saw Prussian parade-ground discipline transforming into the softer coercions of behaviorist psychology and the culture industry. We know the new forms of revolt that arose in the 1960's against those standardizing forces: everything from Reichean group-sex, burning draft cards and dollar bills, to Provo events, situationist drifting and LSD, what Marcuse called "outbreaks of mass surrealism." On a deeper level there was an assertion of subjectivity, of identity, of sexuality, the personal that is the political. A poetics of resistance helped bring the decline of regimentation, welfare-state bureaucracies, mass-consumption models and factory discipline. But are we even aware how that decline helped shape today's political-economic system?
In response to the troubles of the 1960's and 70's, a new paradigm has arisen in the developed countries in the past twenty years, with a specific production regime, consumer ideology and social control mechanism, all integrated into a geopolitical order. For almost twenty years this development remained largely unconscious, unnamable. During that time, vanguard movements were obsolete, intellectuals were useless, artists were clowns, there was no alternative. Now the cracks start to open up everywhere. People begin realizing that the New World Order is not just oppressive on its edges, in the so-called developing countries. At the very heart of casual freelance culture, replete with PCs, mobile phones and general nomadism, the technology of control is continuously recreated. Winning the economic game today brings a high reward. You get to be the inventor of _the flexible personality_.
New paradigms are adopted because they work. Only in retrospect can we see them becoming modes of control. Flexibility was an extremely positive idea, in California in the 1970's when the culture of microelectronics was invented. It was the polar opposite of the rigid 1950's: openness to others, embodied experience, self-expression, improvisation, refusal of hierarchies and discipline. These were the utopian days of Bucky Fuller, Gregory Bateson and the Whole Earth Catalog: no-one would have dreamt that An Ecology of Mind could become a management tool. But the looser, more creative lifestyle did not just mean the emergence of a whole new range of products, useful for stimulating consumption. In California, and ultimately in much of the developed world, the new culture seemed to promise a way out of the social conflicts that had stalled the Fordist industrial regimes.
Consider the way things looked to the Trilateral Commission, in their 1975 report on The Crisis of Democracy. Not only were Third World countries using the powers of national liberation to demand higher prices for their resources, while the US lost its war in Indochina. Not only were the capital returns plunging, while wildcat strikes multiplied and the big ecological standoffs began. But worst of all, the huge postwar investments into socialized education, conceived to meet the knowledge needs of the techno-economy, were backfiring and producing resistance to capitalism and bureaucracy, alternative values, demands for further benefits and socializations. These new claims on the welfare state had to be added to the traditional demands of the working class; and then the crisis began. The Trilateral countries were becoming "ungovernable," there was an "excess of democracy." The kind of systemic critique that the Frankfurt School had pioneered reached its height in the mid-1970's. From that point forth, the authoritarian system had to start learning from the enemy within.
The transformation took a decade. The golden age of neo-management began in the mid-1980's, while unionized workers were replaced with robots and unskilled labor was sought overseas. Corporate operations and financial flows expanded outside nations, where regulation and redistribution were called excessive. The triple challenge for the managers was to keep tabs on a distant work force, to open up global marketing and distribution, and above all, to create a culture - or an ideology - that would make significant amounts of younger people want to run this new machine. The key word was "flexibility." The flexible system had to accept and divert the demands for autonomy, self-expression and meaning, it had to turn those very demands into a new mode of control. The magical answer turned out to be a communications device, a language-and-image transmitter: the networked personal computer. Now the computer was going to set you free.
Freedom has always been the great neoliberal watchword, from Hayek and the Chicago economists to the right-wing libertarians and the Cato Institute. Why not throw in the artists' and the drop-outs' dreams, roving desire, semiotic proliferation, Deleuzo-Guattarean schizophrenic visions, multi-culti creativity? After all, the innovations were coming from there. The networked computer promised to place a whole new alchemy of cooperative production in the same kinds of global channels that were already working for the finance economy. Research and invention could happen directly within the circuits of production and distribution.
The laptop computer freed up individuals for physical and psychic mobility; and it could also be used as an instrument of control over distant labor. It miniaturized access to the remaining bureaucracy, while opening private channels into entertainment, media and the realms of "fictitious" capital - the speculative economy that feeds off the dismantling of the public sphere. Best of all, it recoded every kind of cultural production as commodities, multimedia. Here was a mode of development that might solve or at least gloss over the full set of problems inherited from the 1960's, particularly the struggles around the welfare state. Small wonder that the governments and the corporations started actively promoting a myth of flexibility. The emerging "virtual class" - including cultural producers, digital artisans, prosumers, what are now called "immaterial laborers" - stumbled more or less blindly into it.
How does the culture/ideology work? War is popular these days, so let's take the military point of view. The weapon of choice during the Cold War was the ICBM: a huge, never-used giant, endlessly deconstructed by the critiques of phallo-logo-centrism. The New World Order takes off with a smaller, more practical device: the cruise missile. This kind of weaponry gets constantly used, not just on the battlefield. Since the heyday of Star Wars - both the Strategic Defense Initiative and the Lucas movie - the military-entertainment complex has become part of everyday experience.
"It seems that retailers will go to any length to capture customers," reads a 1997 article called "Star Wars turns on to Shoppers" (quoted by Sze Tsung Leong in The Harvard Guide to Shopping). "Witness Safeway, which has recently used an artificial intelligence system from IBM called AIDA (artificial intelligence data architecture) - which was initially developed to detect and identify Russian missiles in space, but is now used... to analyze information on buying patterns with details of purchase from loyalty cards." When consumer desire is "turned on" and encouraged to proliferate, the ultimate control fantasy becomes that of tracking the flexible personality.
"Mass marketing, for all intents and purposes, is dead," writes business guru Art Weinstein, in Market Segmentation. "Precision target marketing... has taken over. By focusing on ever smaller yet profitable market segments, stronger company-customer relationships transpire. With technological products, users can practically invent markets for companies - customers become customizers." When feedback devices are built directly into the distribution circuits, the sources of desire are directly available to corporate monitoring. So you can help perfect your own internal guidance system.
Until recently, such trends seemed comfortably ambiguous - just the irritating price for increased freedoms. But with security-fever rising after September 11, everything starts to look different. The incitement to perform, to find creative ways of deploying the new equipment, reveals its hidden face, the fear of the excluded other, the imperative to ruthlessly extend and perfect the system. And the system really is threatened, not only by suicidal terrorism: the collapse of the "new economy," the growing protests against neoliberal globalization, the revolution against the IMF in Argentina... The perfect solution is total mobilization, the shift to a wartime footing. September 11 was a chance just waiting to be taken - the chance to consolidate the new paradigm, on every level.
The American artist Jordan Crandall has made the military compulsions of the networked system visible. His work began with the heritage of the 1970's: experimentation, cooperation, networked performance, adjustment to the presence of others in virtual space. But in 1998, he hired a freelance military contractor to help him develop movement-predicting software, whose algorithms show up as eerie green tracery around bodies in a video image. The following exhibitions, "Drive" and "Heat-Seeking," were full-fledged explorations of the psychosexual relations of seeing and being seen, through the new technologies in both their civilian and military uses.
A text recently published on Nettime, "Fingering the Trigger," recounts the use by the CIA of an unmanned, camera-and-missile-equipped Predator drone to fire upon a suspicious Afghani man who, it turns out, was probably just scavenging for metal. "We align eye, viewfinder, and target in an act of aiming," Crandall writes. "But we are aimed at, we are constituted in other acts of looking. These are analysis and control systems in which the body is situated.... It sees us as a nexus of data, materiality, and behavior, and uses a language of tracking, profiling, identifying, positioning and targeting.... Within the circuitous visualization networks that arise, one never knows which 'side' one is truly on, as seer switches to that which is seen; as targeter switches to that which is targeted." Crandall thinks a new sexuality lodges in the body-machine-image complex - hence the image of the soldier-man "fingering the trigger."
This work helps us see what the easy money and pluralism of the Clintonian years kept hidden: the outlines of a social pathology. It has an authoritarian cast, like everything that involves the military. But it does not produce unthinking, stereotyped behavior, of the kind we associate with fascism. What Crandall describes is an extremely intelligent process that, precisely by individualizing - tracking, identifying, eliciting desire, channeling vision and expression - succeeds in binding the mobilized individual to a social whole. The new fascism discovers a complex, dynamic order for subjective difference, perspectival analysis, jouissance, even schizophrenic ecstasy. It integrates networked individualism.
||| [part 1] ||| [part 2] |||
"Unleashing the Collective Phantom" taken from the Association of Autonomous Astronauts' [AAA] Guyana Base/AAARosko forum. Posted to that site by Mute/Holmes on 18 April 2002.
The AAA describe themselves thus: "The Association of Autonomous Astronauts (AAA) is a world-wide network of local community-based groups dedicated to building their own spaceships."
The forum is well worth checking out, continuing the work of the AAA beyond their virtual relocation after the end of the Five Year Plan on 23 April 2000.
AAA activities and writings during the Five Year plan are available online.