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||| Unleashing the Collective Phantom |||
Resistance to Networked Individualism
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Ghosts in the Machine
Arthur Kroker had an inkling of these things. Almost a decade ago, he and Weinstein wrote about the "liberal fascism" of the "virtual class": a technological elite, driven by possessive individualism, whose interests lay with the financial establishment, the military state and the big corporations. But like all neo-situationists in Baudrillard's wake, Kroker is obsessed by "the recline of the West" and the hypnotic power of the digitized image: "The virtual class is populated by would-be astronauts who never made it to the moon," reads a passage from Data Trash. "They do not easily accept criticism of this new Apollo project for the body telematic."
No doubt that was true, in 1994 when the text was written. But the virtual realm has expanded vastly since then, and with it, the space for critique. One major effort has been to describe the new mode of domination. Another is to create a poetics of resistance: _virtual class relations_, alongside the embodied ones that never disappeared.
Consider the AAA, founded in 1995 with a five-year mission: establishing a planetary network to end the monopoly of corporations, governments and the military over travel in space. The Association of Autonomous Astronauts is a kind of multiple name, a freely invented identity. Forget about the moon: "Reclaim the Stars" they said on June 18th, 1999, during the Carnival against Capital. The idea was to create not an art group, but a social movement - a collective phantom acting on a global scale. "Unlike a multiple name that is restricted to art practices, a collective phantom operates within the wider context of popular culture, and is used as a tool for class war," says an astronaut of the South London AAA, in a text called "Resisting Zombie Culture."
One aspect of the project was infrastructural mapping, identifying the satellite hardware that links up the world communications network. But another was what Konrad Becker calls "e-scape": "Cracking the doors of the future means mastering multidimensional maps to open new exits and ports in hyperspace; it requires passports allowing voyages beyond normative global reality toward parallel cultures and invisible nations; supply depots for nomads on the roads taken by the revolutionary practice of aimless flight." Ricardo Balli gives a further idea of what the galactic phantom might do: "We are not interested in going into space to be a vanguard of the coming revolution: the AAA means to institute a science fiction of the present that can above all be an instrument of conflictuality and radical antagonism." (Both quotes are from Quitter la gravité: .)
What does it all mean? The ideas sound fantastic, but the stakes are real: imagining a political subject _within_ the virtual class, and therefore, _within_ the economy of cultural production and intellectual property that had paralyzed the poetics of resistance. Consider Luther Blissett, an obscure Jamaican football player traded from Britain to Italy, who fell short of stardom but became a proliferating signature, the "author" of a book called Mind Invaders: Come fottere i media. There, between tales of Ray Johnson and mail art, Blissett takes time out for some political-aesthetic theory: "I could just say the multiple name is a shield against the established power's attempt to identify and individualize the enemy, a weapon in the hands of what Marx ironically called 'the worst half' of society. In Spartacus by Stanley Kubrick, all the slaves defeated and captured by Crassus declare themselves to be Spartacus, like all the Zapatistas are Marcos and I am all we Luther Blissetts. But I won't just say that, because the collective name has a fundamental valence too, insofar as it aims to construct an open myth, elastic and redefinable in a network...."
The "open myth" of Luther Blissett is a game with personal identity, like the three-cornered football played by the AAA: a way to change the social rules, so a group can start moving simultaneously in several directions. This "fundamental valence" lies at the prehistory of the counterglobalization movement. Just think of the way names like Ya Basta, Reclaim the Streets, or Kein Mensch ist Illegal have spread across the world's social networks. One can see these names, not as categories or identifiers, but as catalysts, departure points, like the white overalls (tute bianche) worn initially in north-eastern Italy: "The Tute Bianche are not a movement, they are an instrument conceived within a larger movement (the Social Centers) and placed at the disposal of a still larger movement (the global movement)," writes Wu Ming 1, in the French journal Multitudes. This "instrument" was invented in 1994, when the Northern League mayor of Milan, Formentini, ordered the eviction of a squatted center and declared, "From now on, squatters will be nothing more than ghosts wandering about in the city!" But then the white ghosts showed up in droves at the next demonstration. And a new possibility for collective action emerged: "Everyone is free to wear a tuta biancha, as long as they respect the 'style,' even if they transform its modes of expression: pragmatic refusal of the violence/non-violence dichotomy; reference to zapatismo; break with the twentieth-century experience; embrace of the symbolic terrain of confrontation."
Yet a strange thing happened, explains Wu Ming in another text: "Some rhetorically opposed the white overall and the blue overall, and the former was used as a metaphor for post-Fordist labor - flexible, 'precarious,' temporary workers whom the bosses prevent from enjoying their rights and being represented by the unions" (www.wumingfoundation.com). Between politics, class uncertainty and sheer word play, the Tute Bianche got into full swing. The technique of "protected direct action" - allowing ludicrously padded protestors to face blows from the police - was a way to invade, not just the media screens, but above all the minds of hundreds of thousands of other people. They converged in Genoa in July 2001, to open a real political debate in a country stifled by a neofascist consensus.
Another example of the effects created by a confusion of identities are the Yes Men, in their cameo or "chameleo" appearances as representatives of the World Trade Organization. Here we're talking about two artists, whose names aren't hard to discover. But the uncertainty over language is no less interesting. To say "yes" to neoliberal ideology can be devastatingly satirical, as when the self-elected WTO representative "Hank Hardy Unruh" displayed the logical fiction of the Employee Visualization Appendage, a telematic worker-surveillance device in the shape of a yard-long golden phallus. But what kind of satire is at work when Kein Mensch ist Illegal takes the neoliberal ideology seriously, and declares all the world's borders open, for everybody? Like the fire-colored masks worn by thousands in Quebec City, today's networked protests have two faces: the laughter of open communication, or the violence of a gagged mouth behind a chain-link fence. Both faces are the truth of the contemporary political confrontation.
Voice and Exit
No doubt millions of the world's "flexible" workers remain largely gagged - mute - with no voice and no hope of escaping. But as use of the Internet has increased, and as people have seized its communicational power for both organization and subversion, a metamorphosis has invaded the "transnational public sphere," which formerly was only open to the corporations. The global e-scape remains _virtual_, but in the sense of Deleuze: virtuality as latency, as unmanifest reality, potential flight-lines waiting to be taken.
The virtual class in this sense, or the immaterial laborers - I've always preferred to say networkers - cannot _stand in_ for the rest of the world's population. There is no universal subject, not even "the individual." But an active indistinction of identity has begun to spread, like a new departure point. In a recent text, Paolo Virno locates the universal in _pre-individual_ aesthetic and linguistic experience, in the impersonality of perception and circulating language. The chaotic dissension of public space then becomes the landscape, not of defensive individualism, but of evolving paths to _individuation_: "Far from regressing, singularity is refined and reaches its peak in acting together, in the plurality of voices, in short, in the public sphere" (Multitudes #7).
The kinds of conflict that began in the universities in the 1960's have crossed over into the global knowledge-space, whose nature as a public domain in now intensely at issue. If the new voices and political confrontations should ultimately point to an exit from the flexible personality, and from liberal fascism, then there will have been no waste in the speculations of the late 1990's - whatever the multiple names of the investors.
||| [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.