Recapturing Subversion

Twenty Twisted Rules of the Culture Game

Introduction to the book: ESCAPE THE OVERCODE

table of contents here


Let’s go straight to the point. How does art become subversive of the social order? How does it undermine normal, legitimate, accepted patterns of behavior, and how does it open up possibilities for the transformation of everyday life? What can subversive art accomplish in the political arena? And what are its limits, how can it exceed them in the future?

Thanks to Deleuze and Guattari, and perhaps even more, to the Autonomia philosophers, we have a good idea of what subversion can mean today.1 It’s not about resisting the continual mutations of capitalism from a retrenched identity position, a class status, a locally instituted cultural tradition (a “whole way of life” as cultural studies founder Richard Hoggart said, or even a “whole way of conflict” as E.P. Thompson riposted). It’s about allowing the inherited forms of solidarity and struggle to morph, hybridize or even completely dissolve in the process of encountering and appropriating the new toolkits, conceptual frames and spatial imaginaries of the present. Power flows through the individuals and groups who constitute a social network. It’s generated by their productive activity, so it can always be twisted away from functional paths and channeled in different directions, to meet existential needs or to explore wild and unpredictable desires.

You can see this subversive potential at work – or liberated from work – in computer hacking, when someone takes the central productive techniques of contemporary society and diverts them for non-profitable or illegal uses, which involve sharing, free cooperation, collective action. Similar things are done by artists: commercial images and corporate organizational forms are taken apart, altered in detail or even at their functional core, then repurposed in a process very much like reverse engineering. Since the 1960s, the massive distribution and sharing of subversive practices has been the basis for a playful, astonishing and literally disarming style of conflict, displacing the fields and stakes of struggle and opening up new lifeworlds even while pursuing directly political goals. That’s what happened at the counter-summits, on the global days of action, and in the networked campaigns, hoaxes and media interventions during the cycle of alterglobalization struggles running from 1999 to 2003.

At the time I collaborated with the French information-mapping group, Bureau d’Etudes. Their graphic charts are populated by state and corporate entities whose operations and interconnections can be precisely described and documented. But when all the informational elements have been stripped away, what these network maps reveal are naked, indeterminate patterns of energy, of constituent power, the kind you feel coursing through your body in the process of social change. The network map becomes an energy diagram. That’s what you can use for subversion. Free cooperation on the basis of subversive energies became something like a “principle of hope” for anti-systemic movements in the late 1990s and the early years of the new millennium. These are the kinds of practices I described in my last book, Unleashing the Collective Phantoms: Essays in Reverse Imagineering.2 Building on those experiences I have developed a theory of the generative diagram, presented here under the heading of “Potentials.”

Once we had understood that individuals and groups can become mobile and active within the maps of constituted power, then we were able to intervene in the social and political arenas. Through inspired collaboration, one could help to invoke networked demonstrations and occupations, and then participate as a “free radical” in an emergent multitude. This is the moment of the mask, the bacchanalia of resistance: the “carnival against capital” that activist-artists like John Jordan and Alex Foti have helped to unleash in city after city, in forms and with political demands that have continued evolving up to the present. One of the things that creates this possibility is the open identity of the collective name, something that the Luther Blissett project made into one of the primary vectors of subversion in media culture.3 What happened around the turn of the century was the emergence of collective phantoms on a transnational scale: movements that take a determinate name, like Reclaim the Streets or the Tute Bianche or No Border or EuroMayday, and then refuse to have leaders or structures, turning the category-trap of mediated politics into the open field of their own self-transformation.

Art can transmit the pleasure of the collective name, so that it becomes a model, a possibility for others. It can show you how to don the mask of power and appear within the constituted circuits, but speaking in a different tongue, twisting the functional language of networked capitalism into different meanings, satires, denunciations, voicing calls for action ranging from policy change to sabotage to exodus. The Yes Men have been a great inspiration. They speak the truth of power, they lay bare its lies, hypocrisies, brutalities. But their way of working is open, cooperative and playful, inviting anyone who can lend a hand to subvert all the communication skills they have developed in their working lives – as I did most recently in 2007, when an entire TV studio in Paris helped us pretend to be a Washington news channel interviewing representatives of political parties in the course of the French elections. In fact, we were broadcasting live from the second floor, while another team was connecting us with the politicos right downstairs!

Subversion is the takeover of urban space and the alteration of capitalist media for experimental ends, allowing you to break out of the normalized patterns and engage in vital contact with the social world and with yourself, with your own potentials. Another example is Nikeground – Rethinking Space, by the group in collaboration with Public Netbase in Vienna.4 This was a paradigmatic case of reverse imagineering. It not only involved the proposal of a thirty-meter “swoosh” as public art for Vienna’s historic Karlsplatz, but also the physical installation of a several-ton infobox on the square itself. The infobox was used to fictively advertise what the Nike corporation does in real life: namely, to transform urban space in its own image and to create the existential parameters within which that space will be experienced. Slogans announced the renaming of Karlsplatz as Nikeplatz, while explaining that the corporation was branding streets and neighborhoods around the world. At the center of the hoax was the product, a pair of brand-new red sneakers displayed in the infobox for the consuming public to desire: the very shoes that connect you to the ground and offer you a new mobility. The work responded to the real transformation of urban space with an aggressive, distorted mirror, both in order to show it for what it is and to suggest that you can change the rules of the game, by taking the right to intervene subversively in the city.

While a scandal arose in the press, with concerned citizens protesting this fake expropriation, another urban myth was reawakened: the trashing of the Niketown in Seattle during the 1999 WTO summit. As the group explained: “We wanted to use the entire city as a stage for a huge urban performance, a sort of theater show for an unaware audience/cast. We wanted to produce a collective hallucination capable of altering people’s perception of the city in this total, immersive way.”

Nikeground offers a striking image of the artistic practices that flourished around the turn of the century. At its best such a hoax can be a provocative transgression and a symbolic echo of broader social movements. But anything transgressive or symbolic can easily fall into the category of the prank, oiling the wheels of commerce with self-reflexive humor. Today we need to ask about the limits of this subversive alteration of perception. How to transform the underlying circuits of power that continue to function massively all around us? How to respond to the real intensification of all forms of exploitation and oppression? What else can be done with the subversive potentials of art in the control society?

Capture and Overcode

Since 2004 I have been less involved with direct action and more with unclassifiable projects that function as mobile laboratories and experimental theaters of social and cultural change, where movements of the imagination unfold at territorial, national, continental and global scales. Such projects are explored in this book under the heading of “Experimentalism.” Often they border on the recognizable limits of art, using sophisticated formal means to develop some relative autonomy from the norms of everyday aesthetic experience in the commercialized societies. But what’s being sought here is the autonomy of an investigative and transformative process that upsets the codes of the constituted fields and undercuts any kind of institutional control.

The surface reasons for this shift are obvious. The increasing repression of the last big cycle of struggles, the consolidation of the post-9/11 security panic and the failure of the antiwar marches of February 15, 2003, all contributed to a momentary decline in street protest in many countries, and a partial retreat of activism into merely symbolic and therefore melancholic forms. Make no mistake: concrete social movements continue to exist, as important, as surprising as ever. But there were theoretical problems to face, which have to do with damning insufficiencies in a number of key ideas in the autonomist toolkit adopted by so many activists and politically engaged artists since the turn of the century. These are practical ideas, dealing with the status of freelance labor in contemporary capitalist societies. Yet practice is inseparable from both aesthetics and discourse. The problems coalesce around the abstract concepts of overcoding and the apparatus of capture, both of which refer to parasitic social constructs that are understood to contain, normalize and channel the diagrammatic energies of free cooperation. Most of the essays in this book, even when they extend to geopolitics, are attempts to understand and to go beyond these key ideas.

Deleuze and Guattari’s text on “The Apparatus of Capture” is a geophilosophy of power, pitting the territorial deployments of the state against the subversions of the nomadic war machine.5 At its heart is the notion of overcoding, developed out of studies of ancient imperial mythology by the historian Georges Dumézil. Overcoding is the institution of a social tie, a quasi-magical bond, imposed as a language of power. It’s the organizing grammar of a transcendent symbolic hierarchy that casts its unifying net over the proliferation of primitive tongues that had initially named and encoded their disparate patchworks of territory. This overcoding of experience appears everywhere there is a symbolic hierarchy, mapping out a realm of transcendent figures that serve as idealized measures of rank and value, to organize the chaotic tangle of social relations on the ground. The overcode is the ultimate apparatus of capture: the law of the gods, the language of the stars, given voice and effective reality by the emperor. Capitalism, with its extension of the world market, came to decode these transcendent structures, releasing dynamic, mobile flows on a plane of pure immanence; and world populations then entered the endless strategic game of encoding, decoding and recoding the possible forms of existence. This game is played out in the smooth space of the market, whose image for Deleuze and Guattari is not the hierarchical chessboard, but the undifferentiated grid of the Japanese game of Go.

The ideas of capture and overcoding laid the foundation for the first really challenging political interpretation of globalized capitalism, Hardt and Negri’s Empire.6 The book uses Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts to explain the difference between the classical forms of late nineteenth-century imperialism and the smooth, networked space of today’s global market. The apparatus of capture now designates all the devices for the modulation of experience and the channeling of behavior that serve to organize the productive energies of the multitude. Thus for Hardt and Negri, the immediate world of direct social relations – and the direct violence of exploitation – does not so much dissolve the ancient operations of overcoding, as transmute them. Along the same lines, Deleuze and Guattari themselves insisted that in the modern period, the quasi-magical powers of the ancient emperors continually return under new modalities. This is exactly why one can speak of a networked empire, exerting coercive powers distinct from those of classical imperialism. Negri and Hardt follow the insights of Deleuze and Guattari into the society of control, and they relate the specific procedures for the capture and modulation of attention under networked capitalism to the regulatory effects exerted by the monetary regime of floating exchange rates, with all its consequences in the financial sphere. What they have done in this way, along with other theorists of postmodern power, is to open up one of the most important fields of research for any practice that wants to gain autonomy from the reigning system of values and measures. In my work since 2004 I have tried to carry out that kind of research in a deliberately destabilizing interplay with artistic inventions, according to a meta-theory of critique that I call “extradisciplinary investigation.” The idea is both to understand a complex world and to change it.

The relation between fluctuating electronic signals and human attention has become a central component of social experience, from Wall Street and Times Square to the great Asian cityscapes, or from the flatscreen TV at the local bar to the cellphone in your ear and the laptop in your bed on Sunday morning. What’s at stake is a sound-and-pixel environment where informational objects unfold in time, exciting human desire and channeling it into mathematically ordered patterns and figures. This relationship with screen environments can be better understood by exploring the underlying technoscientific principles of cybernetics, cognitive psychology and complexity theory. A clearer grasp of how these principles have been applied over the course of the last half-century is fundamental to autonomous practices, since it is ourselves, as cultural producers, who are called upon to fill these screens with content. And beyond these proliferating screens there is a constantly expanding universe of computerized recording, analysis and surveillance, gathering behavioral data in order to more effectively pattern the movements of populations and to produce effects of governance. So we’d better know how these processes work, and how they can be undermined – because experience shows that there is nothing easier to instrumentalize than yesterday’s subversion. The studies devoted to cybernetics, in the final section of this book, are transversal to the essays on art and social movements. The visual metaphors of those texts are drawn chiefly from cinema, giving further scope to the extradisciplinary investigations.

But overcoding in the global market society does not only involve the directive signals of computers and screens. Throughout his later writing, Guattari uses the word overcoding to talk about the imposition of models of interaction, whether in the workplace, in institutions, in aesthetics and entertainment, through professional relations or via the architecture and programming of collective facilities. Like Foucault, Guattari was particularly interested in the subjective dimensions of governmental procedures and technologies; but he always laid more stress on resistance, invention, deviance – in a word, subversion. The clash between politically engaged artistic practices and the management of the creative industries marks one of the characteristic intersections of governmentality and subversion, the site of what I once called “a contested bridge between the psyche and the objective structures of society.”7 One way to prolong the discussion of works like Nikeground is to look at the role of global brands in soliciting and structuring our most intimate desires for creative expression. And here one sees the limits of the autonomist discourses on overcoding and capture.


Analysts of the brand see it as a common semiotic ground for uprooted urban consciousness, a kind of psychic crossroads for post-traditional subjects with no fixed identity. This comes close to the autonomist idea that the productive cooperation of living labor can only be captured by coercive strategies, which are fundamentally weak, exerting only a containing, channeling effect. As Adam Arvidsson explains in his book on the subject: “Nike’s efforts to make its logo condense a complex web of meanings and intensities have the effect that with a swoosh certain actions come to assume distinct and particular meanings.” And he continues: “What brand owners own is a particular pre-determined frame of action, a particular relation between ‘action and semiosis’; between what consumers do and what their actions mean to them.”8 What consumers do, he suggests, is to buy products and put them to their own uses; and what their actions mean to them is that they are creatively individual and connected to others. If corporations control this creative interaction, it is only to the extent that they can make it unfold in more or less programmed directions. For Arvidsson, the brand-relation is exactly this two-way street, which he sees as highly ambiguous and full of untapped possibilities.

Arvidsson claims that the trademark image only succeeds in capturing the attention and loyalty of consumers when it allows them to fill its empty signifier with personal meanings, thus mobilizing “the ability of human communication to produce a surplus sociality.” The key thing for the brand is to become a vector of this surplus, aggregating it into a desirable pole of attraction while still encouraging continually renewed spin-offs of creative divergence. This is how people are supposed to become individuals in our societies. Like the particular clothing, hairstyles and accouterments of the Mods and the Rockers back in the early days of subcultural style, a plethora of global brands now offers the entire consuming class a chance to develop their fantasied self-image, to raise their prestige in the eyes of others, and above all, to reach out to fellow members of their branded community, signaling the vibrancy of their own existence by specific uses of the global product. Information-gathering techniques ranging from personalized ethnographic interviews to automated data-mining can then record and synthesize the unique contributions that consumers make to brand content, permitting an extension and transformation of the trademark image, and therefore, greater use-value for the creative consumer.

Reading Arvidsson, it seems that the “communism of capital” evoked by autonomist theorists is amazingly close. For Paolo Virno, the communism of capital would mean the unrealized possibilities of the flexible work regime: the abolition of wage labor, the end of state coercion, and above all, “the valorization of all that which renders the life of an individual unique.” But watch out: in Virno’s eyes these were unrealized possibilities, cruelly distorted by actual developments in the post-Fordist economy, which had gone in a fundamentally opposite direction since the 1980s.9 For Arvidsson, who deals with contemporary forms of communication, the advent of this “communism of capital” means that the normative character of advertising in the highly regimented era of the 1950s, with its basic injunction to conform to one’s class status by accepting broadly standardized forms of consumption, has now entirely dissolved into a relational paradigm where all the initiative is left up to the consumer. It is she who ultimately sets the terms on which both consumption and communication will take place. In artistic practice, the soft utopias of relational aesthetics offer a perfect image of this communicational universe.10 To be sure, as Arvidsson explains, brand management still functions as a form of Foucaultian governmentality, channeling and orchestrating the diverse expressions of power-potentials that arise from below:

The brand works as a kind of ‘platform for action’ that is inserted into the social and works to ‘program’ the freedom of consumers to evolve in particular directions…. The task of brand management is to create a number of resistances that make it difficult or unlikely for consumers to experience their freedom, or indeed their goals, in ways different form those prescribed by the particular ambiance.11

The most powerful of these “brand-management resistances” is against resistance itself. It is banished by simply denying its existence, as is so often the case in our societies. In a fascinating passage, Arvidsson recounts how consultants define the “cool” or resistant individual in ways that exclude any potential threat to profitability, but instead identify this type of person as a prime source of information about the future pathways of social desire. “Capturing cool,” he writes, “is a matter of incorporating and profiting from the resistance that consumers spontaneously produce.” Yet still he claims that capitalist command over the informational economy is in crisis. Any constraint on the user’s freedom becomes, in his analysis, a powerful contradiction in a system that has had to legitimate itself with an ideology of autonomy. Each time the brand contradicts its own ideology, he says, consumers react with sharp rejections. “The forces of production are becoming too advanced to be contained within the capitalist relations of production,” we read on the final page of his book. So, according to the most precise autonomist analysis of brands, the apparatus of capture has been perfected. And it is now in the process of setting us free.


The analysis flows perfectly from its postulates. Why then is it so strangely mistaken? On the one hand it is the result of a deliberately idealizing strategy, an attempt to cut through the usual gloom and doom to focus on what has really been achieved through decades of collective struggle against advertising and social control. But on the other hand it partakes of a creeping denial of reality, characteristic of postmodern schizophrenia. What we’ve seen since the turn of the century, after a major outpouring of subversive art, a concerted attack on intellectual property regimes and a world-spanning protest movement unfolding under the slogan “No Logo,” is not an implosion of the brand-relation but a veritable explosion of commodity fetishism, at the scale of global markets and the speed of fiber-optic networks. The coexistence of overcoding and resistance is everywhere, sure, but to explain it as a dialectic of freedom or a teleological movement toward capitalism’s self-overcoming is to obscure the real issues.

Travel across the world network: nowhere do you encounter any generalized disaffection from the signifiers of participation in the capitalist economy, despite the deviant minorities in every port. Only a deep financial crisis shakes the faith of the middle classes, as happened during the closure of the banks in Argentina in 2001-2002. But that shaken faith has an odd way of returning. What you do see on such travels is that the rise of the relational commodity has been accompanied by a resurgence of both confessionalism and racism – not only in the underdeveloped lands, but also in the overdeveloped regions of North America and Europe. Here lay the undeniable heart of the problem after 2004. As the world slid deeper into war after Bush’s reelection, all the fundamental issues of power and emancipation seemed to return as unanswered questions. And from my perspective, the most important among them was the role that we could play: we who work with communication, in the so-called creative industries.

To understand where we are, we have to look back into the genealogy of some crucial subversive ideas. Back in the mid-1960s, Mario Tronti described how the organizational and technological structures of capitalism could only appropriate the inventions of workers in their resistance and their freedom.12 Toni Negri developed a similar theme in philosophy, with his vitalist ontology of living labor.13 Foucault and Deleuze also echoed Tronti’s insights, with their paradoxical notion that resistance is primary.14 Over the course of decades, such ideas seeped into broader currents of political philosophy and activism, in and beyond Western Europe, resulting in far more liberating views of grassroots struggle. Yet from here there also arose the willfully optimistic belief that the openness of the relational commodity – in the form of Web 2.0, for example – or the extraordinary proliferation of the creative industries could somehow represent a “great transformation” of capitalist society, a decisive change in its structures that only needed to be taken up in its full promise and stabilized in new institutional forms.15 These ideas were supported by economic developments in America, ranging from the more utopian side of Jeremy Rifkin’s pronouncements on the end of work to the early successes of the Internet-based “new economy,” or the great entrepreneurial infatuation with “crowdsourcing” and the enthusiasm over free software and open-source content licenses, brought to a pinnacle by Yochai Benkler in his book The Wealth of Networks. The key ideas were that innovation and creativity are fundamentally uncontrollable by any labor discipline and that the recording and distribution functions of the Internet offer new possibilities to organize these capacities into a productive synthesis.16 Some even saw the erratic swings of the stock market as an imperfect but promising representation of the collaborative potentials of the multitude.17 Overcoding and the apparatus of capture now began to look like obscure leftist myths dissolving in the sunlight of cooperative agency – exactly as they had always appeared to the liberal theorists of civil society. What disappeared in all this were the ideas of Tronti himself, his passionate conviction that workers must throw off the organizational structures that transform their labor and life energy into the driving force of capital.

Writing in 1971 in a postscript to the second edition of Workers and Capital, Tronti evoked the industrial strategies of Taylorism as “the birth of a new scientific discipline: that theory of technological reality which is the science of labor and the enemy of the worker.”18 In our era, when knowledge management and the endless quest to identify and channel innovation represent the dominant strategies for exploiting the educated postindustrial labor force, how could one see crowdsourcing, corporate networking technologies or the codification of the creative industries as anything but the enemy of the multitudes? If something is to be done with “creativity” today, it must first of all escape from the protocols of capitalist control. Tronti, in his time, was remarkably clear. For him, the working class is “at one and the same time, the articulation of capital, and its dissolution. Capitalist power seeks to use the workers’ antagonistic will-to-struggle as a motor of its own development. The workerist party must take this same real mediation by the workers of capital’s interests and organize it in an antagonistic form, as the tactical terrain of struggle and as a strategic potential for destruction.”19 In our time, this translated into a struggle against the definition of a “creative class” by capitalist sociology, and above all, against its functionalization for strategies of corporate, urban and financial profit.20 Artists, writers, actors, painters, audio-visual producers, designers, musicians, philosophers, architects, all have had to find ways to refuse to let their subjectivity become the mere medium of capital flows, a stepping-stone between money and more money. Anyone who feels the inordinate pressure that direct management now exerts on the intelligence and expressivity that it demands and continually solicits, and anyone who can see those same pressures reiterated in the tight stylistic, financial and temporal constraints of the freelance markets of creativity, will find in Tronti’s writing both an incitement to resistance and exodus, and a keen analysis of the governing structures of capitalist society, of its dynamic equilibrium. Yet this analysis needs to be updated, where both the objective structures of contemporary society and the subjective dimensions of creative labor are concerned.

What becomes visible in my own studies of the productive or “prosumer” ethos of the creative industries around the world is the tremendous effectiveness of the new motivational paradigm and the particular power of conviction it seems to hold for those involved in culturalized production. The reason for this is that even with hyperflexible markets giving all the advantages to the state or corporate buyer, everything connected to the arts still offers a chance for self-expression and a veritable economy of self-development – which is no small attraction. So far, cultural producers have generally been diffident about politics and favorable to free-market conditions, because at least they have themselves to sell at cut-rate prices. In terms of sheer narcissistic pleasure, the comparative advantage to the sale of one’s raw physical labor or disciplined professional expertise is obvious. To theorize an inevitable sublation or even an impending breakdown of the cultural system under the pressure of its inherent contradictions is to repeat an historical error of antiquated Marxism (and the second time around is definitely farce).

Yet something has been going on here nonetheless. What’s happening in the thick of the creative industries is best described as an intensely vital Nietzschean struggle over the transvaluation of values. This struggle unfolds between those who have been won over to the most innovative strategies of overcoding, that is, of concentrating power, prestige and control capacity in salable signs; and those who, on the contrary, seek constantly to decode the frameworks of their experience, to escape the imposition of calculated models of behavior and to discover forms of interaction where the problematic gap between an ethics of collective conduct and an aesthetics of singular desire is the significant question, the central focus of value. At this point, the privileged status of art within the creative city and creative economy discourse obviously has to be left behind; and even more, it has to be actively resisted, deliberately subverted, so that something new can arise in its place. The enigma for us is why this second option has only been taken, so far at least, by a relatively small minority. What creates a contemporary leftist culture? How is a subversive subjectivity forged? And what blocks its formation?

Tectonic Shifts

One thing every new struggle shows is that experiences of cooperation across the divides of class, geographical origins, gender, educational backgrounds and ethnicity is part of the crucible from which dissenting subjectivities emerge. The radical cultural differences of those who cooperate in social movements, and the potential of that cooperation to transform lives, bear witness to a subversive potential that extends far beyond the moments of convergence and action. The type of mobile, dynamic, protean individual shaped by participation in the networked world market (what I call the “flexible personaity”) clearly has a better chance of eluding capture when he or she is exposed to confrontations of values with people from very different horizons. What’s compelling is not just the diversity of backgrounds, traditions and identities, but above all the multiplicity of efforts to overcome a frozen heritage and reconnect the past with the future. But we need to work much more on the ways of articulating multiplicities.

It’s clear from the resurgence of racisms and nationalisms – and from their calculated imposition through governmental rhetorics – that the interactions of the global market are not the only vector for the formation of the self. In fact, it seems that layers or strata of subjectivity are formed quite differently at different scales, from the urban to the national, the continental and the global. Concretions of sovereignty – that is, mechanisms of capture and overcoding – are found at each of these scales, contradicting or at least vastly complicating the notion of a single, quasi-structural opposition between networked empire and multitude. All these formative processes come to bear on the intimate scale, which in turn has its own potentials of invention, expression and contagion. Here is the complex theater where the real is reimagined and reconfigured. What we need at this point is maybe less intoxication with quick and dirty attacks on the brands (irresistible though they may be) and more attention to an anthropology of self-fashioning. And since many thousands of active people who have reshaped their convictions in recent social movements are now beginning to play around with cultural self-management, it may be possible in a time of crisis to launch broader and more significant experiments in decoding and recoding – that is, in collective metamorphosis. Yet to achieve this would in turn require a deeper knowledge of persistent sovereignties and control techniques, along with an ability to map their restructuring with each new round of systemic crisis.

One of the things I’ve tried to do in this book, particularly with respect to art and the creative industries, is to explore the political-economic frames in which collective metamorphosis takes place (or all too often, is blocked and stymied). But rather than analyzing these enabling and constraining frames in their exclusively national dimensions, where most of the information and interpretation is still confined, I’ve shifted the focus both to the globe-girding scale of empire and even more importantly, to the continental blocs, which for many reasons seem destined to emerge as compromises between capital’s demands for ever-increasing mobility and humanity’s need for some kind of political and territorial stability, and ultimately, some kind of ecological balance. To make that more precise, I would say that situating the lived dynamics of a particular city within the necessarily abstracted patterns of national, continental and global circulation is the best way to move toward “Geocritique,” which is the necessary reformulation of cultural critique in the present. Essays in this book deal with Latin America, the European Union and the continental and imperial dimensions of both the United States and China. As we have discovered through collective work in the Continental Drift seminar,21 the five scales of intimate, territorial, national, continental and global experience all tend constantly to interrelate, making the lifeworld into an interplay of scales. The pressures on the self become considerable under the multiple rule-sets of this spatialized game; but so does the vital interest of the players. Tremendous questions of translation arise, of course, even before one moves beyond one’s areas of linguistic competence (English and the Romance languages, in my case). But these questions of translation are among the most urgent and rewarding issues of our time, if one is not afraid of getting lost among the tongues and stories.

That the book should end with detailed studies of the remote-control systems born of the military science of cybernetics is a token of the times, which have witnessed one last desperate and ill-fated resurgence of the old Anglo-American drive to imperial hegemony. Cybernetics is the original model of today’s globally scaled interaction routines. Its early forms are the “Dark Crystals” of a still-expanding control society. The wartime science has developed along two basic paths. One follows the original command-and-control imperatives of the military communication engineers, giving us a global architecture of surveillance; while the other, thrust ahead by the reflexivity of so-called “second-order cybernetics,” has opened up proliferating realms of semiotic experience, worlds of simulacra and simulation which are devoted chiefly to the pursuit of consumerism by immaterial means. The command-and-control apparatus reinforces certain disciplinary paradigms, verging on authoritarianism; while second-order cybernetics tends to reinforce the channeled and guided transformations of the flexible personality. The aspiration to democracy is stretched to its limit along these two paths, as we have seen in the post-9/11 wars and security panic, then in the credit bubble leading to the great meltdown of the computerized financial markets. The wreckage of these developments is still extremely dangerous (“toxic” was the word in vogue at the date of writing). Fortunately, a decade of net-critique has shown that all these artificial worlds can be entered on the sly, hacked, repurposed or just exposed in their sheer arid worthlessness, as the case may be. Reverse engineering is still the great subversive paradigm.

Crucial to any experience of the digitized worlds is the question of modeling, which abstracts from one context of interaction the parameters, rules and protocols that will make it possible to formulate another one. Of course, this is the technique that has given us control environments such as airports, malls, entertainment palaces and other “scripted spaces,” where carefully constructed scenarios of experience are modulated in real time according to data gathered from the people moving through them.22 But a long tradition of dissent and subversion within the sciences of complexity means that cybernetics cannot entirely be reduced to the procedures of control. At their best, cybernetic reflections have offered an introduction to the act of creating a model and inhabiting its unexpected transformations, which are never solely restricted to informatic spaces. The most compelling thing of all is to engage in full-fledged experiments with the grounds, the dreams, the philosophies and the concrete social machines through which people become other, leaving their initial territories behind and embracing the culture of self-transformation that remains the most fertile potential of post-68 experimentalism. Félix Guattari has given one of the most useful indications of how to do this, with his fourfold map of the schizoanalytic cartographies, to which I have devoted the culminating essay.

What’s initially at stake is the relation between mute existential territories and constellations of poetic, lyrical or artistic refrains, which make up what Guattari calls “universes of reference or of value.”23 The philosopher-therapist wants to introduce us to the territories where subjectivity gains the desire to speak and act through a contact with the deterritorializing rhythms of art. He describes art, not as it hangs on the wall in a museum, but as it returns in your memory and your senses, as a refrain or ritornello of insistent presence cut off from anything you could precisely define or own. But rather than stopping there, and specializing in a fleeting and inchoate domain of aesthetics, he goes on to describe how people are inspired to leave behind their initial grounds of existence in order to participate in the temporal flows of concrete social projects which are themselves deterritorialized by rhizomes of abstract ideas. The four zones of the map – existential territories, energetic flows, rhizomatic ideas and constellations of aesthetic universes – thus become a matrix of relations between different domains of action and experience. Art, or philosophy for that matter, is no longer approached as a strictly specialized zone, but as a mobile element in an existential mix. Which means that art, like philosophy or the other disciplines, is no longer a stable or identifiable category, no longer a trap for subversive potentials. What you’re looking at with Guattari’s meta-models are not determinate maps, but suggestions of the kinds of interactions that people can try to orchestrate with each other, in full awareness that there will always be thresholds of unexpected chaos before any kind of world comes together.

Every subversive project, whether artistic, theoretical or activist, attempts this risky passage between worlds. What we need in autonomous cultural production is to try such experiments in more focused, intense, complex and perhaps grander or more chaotic ways. The incessant overcoding of invention and experience by capital is a spur to sweeter and wilder emancipations at all the different scales. There is no reason to be afraid: a movement toward autonomy is the only way to fully reengage with the social and political dimensions of existence. To speak of “capture” in these contexts is only to indicate a momentary grasp, an encounter, an embrace. Maurizio Lazzarato, whose work is a great inspiration, describes speech itself as a pulsating magnet for the attention of other speakers, a “capture of captures” that interjects its transient rules into the fluctuating realms of expression.24 The texts that follow offer twenty twisted rules for the games of art, knowledge, geopolitics, technology and intimate desire. Put them all together and the aim is clear: escaping the overcode, recapturing subversion.




1 For introductions to the political philosophy of Italian Autonomia, see Michael Hardt and Paolo Virno, eds. Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996) and Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi, eds., Autonomia: Post-Political Politics (Boston: MIT Press, 2007/1st ed. 1980). References to Deleuze and Guattari follow below.

2 Brian Holmes, Unleashing the Collective Phantoms: Essays in Reverse Imagineering (New York: Autonomedia, 2007).

5 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), pp. 424-73.

6 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2000).

7 Brian Holmes, “The Flexible Personality: For a New Cultural Critique,” in Hieroglyphs of the Future: Art and Politics in a Networked Era (Zagreb: Arkzin, 2002); online at

8 Adam Arvidsson, Brands: Meaning and Value in Media Culture (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 8.

9 Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude (New York: Semiotext(e), 2004)), pp. 110-11.

10 See Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses du réel, 2002/French 1998); the similarity with Arvidsson’s theories is yet more pronounced in Bourriaud’s Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay, How Art Reprograms the World (New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002).

11 Arvidsson, Brands, op. cit., p. 74.

12 Mario Tronti, Operai e Capitale (Workers and Capital; Turin: Einaudi, 1966/2nd Italian ed. 1971); partial translations in English noted below.

13 Antonio Negri, Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse (New York: Autonomedia, 1991/Italian, 1979).

14 Gilles Deleuze, Foucault (London: Athlone Press, 1988).

15 The chief exponent of this idea is one of Tronti’s French translators, Yann Moulier-Boutang, in Le capitalisme cognitif: La nouvelle grande transformation (Paris: Amsterdam, 2007).

16 For these perspectives, see the work of the P2P Foundation run by Michael Bauwens (

17 Cf. the concluding paragraph of Yann Moulier-Boutang, “Finance, instabilité et gouvernabilité des externalités,” in Multitudes 31 (Winter 2007). The article provoked a deepening split on the editorial board, especially after the crash of Summer/Fall 2008 made it painfully obvious that credit-money lay at the basis of the control mechanisms of neoliberal society.

18 Mario Tronti, “Workers and Capital” (postscript to the 1966 book) in Telos 14 (Winter 1972); available at

19 Mario Tronti, “The Strategy of Refusal” (1966), in S. Lotringer and C. Marazzi, eds., Autonomia: Post-Political Politics, op. cit.; available at

20 Here I am obviously thinking of the academic work and consulting services of the American sociologist, Richard Florida, and of his many European counterparts. See Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2002); Charles Landry, The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators (London: Earthscan, 2000); John Howkins, The Creative Economy: How People Make Money from Ideas (London: Penguin, 2001).

22 On “scripted spaces,” see Norman Klein, The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects (New York: The New Press, 2004).

23 Félix Guattari, Cartographies schizoanalytiques (Paris: Galilée, 1989).

24 Maurizio Lazzarato, Les Révolutions du capitalisme (Paris: Les empêcheurs de penser en rond, 2004), p. 177. It is significant that the French title was imposed by the publisher; the Italian title is La politica dell’evento (Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino Editore, 2005).


4 Responses to “Recapturing Subversion”

  1. Todd Fraser Says:


    I am an artists doing some research on cultural subversion through consumption and am looking for as many examples of this possible…are there any you can think of?

  2. brianholmes Says:

    Well, the celebration of subversion through consumption is not something I really care much about. Notice that here, there is no consumption : there is production. A deliberatiely subversive device like Nikeground is created, not consumed. The blog you are reading is created, and it is read with the strict minimum of commodified relations intervening, to the extent that there is no advertising, you don’t pay for anything except the electricity and the tool you use (I consider a computer a tool), what’s more the talk was delivered at a self-organized, not paid-for event, etc. There is no reason to think of yourself as “consuming” either the blog or the event, the whole point is to clear out some semi-autonomous space within all that pervasive and invasive consumption, which if course is very real and affects us all. There has been a tremendous amount written about “Culture Jamming” (title of a book), Adbusters has year by year accumulated huge amounts of stuff on subversion through consumption, and according to an entire academic discipline called cultural studies, that’s the very definition of culture itself! Of course they have some interesting points to make, but I don’t find this so-called “subversion” very interesting in those forms, and the point of this text is to look beyond that. What you are doing as an artist may be different, may be fantastic, I have no clue and more power to ya if you are on to something new! But subversion-through-consumption is a very old idea, going back to Pop art I guess, and it now has thousands of accolytes among the Madison Avenue types. One could also argue that Nikeground draws on that old tradition even if it gives a slightly different twist; yes, for sure, I would agree, and it is the twist that I find valuable and also limited.

    best, Brian

  3. Book Materials « Continental Drift Says:

    […] -Recapturing Subversion: Twenty Twisted Rules of the Game […]

  4. Ghosts of Our Pasts: Neoliberal Subjectivity and Crisis (Part 1 of 2) | Deterritorial Investigations Unit Says:

    […] 1These five scales of experience were developed by critical theorist Brian Holmes and the 16 Beaver Group’s “Continental Drift” movement. See Brian Holmes “Recapturing Subversion: Twenty Twisted Rules of the Culture Game” Escape the Overcode […]

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