Some Reflections on Global Mapping

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an old net-friend “dr. woooo” wrote this to me:

re: Sovereign Wealth Funds and the current global restructure, I’m struggling to keep up with it all, things move so quick now it seems, it is nearly impossible to develop a ‘map’

Indeed, is there any point to it?

My idea over the last 5 years has been that the incessant transforms of global capital are in our nervous systems, like it or not, and that it could be more interesting to see them on the outside, right there big as life, like a skyscraper or a cement factory or a stock exchange. It could be useful and meaningful to map out the restructuring in ways both theoretical and aesthetic, rather than just taking each new jolt through the headlines, the fashions, the clashes in the street, the new management “tools,” the labor movements, the glimpsed oppression at the borders. Since I was flexible (after all) and could ride the cultural air-ticket to a wide variety of destinations, I decided to Just Do It. By going to Edge Europe, to Argentina, to China, to the Midwest and the Middle East, I hoped to meet people who would open up their nervous systems, so that we could not only compare jolts, but better, explore other lengths and depths of time, share different kinds of aspirations, dreams and satirical ironies, replacing headlines with lifelines. I wanted to ask: How has your existence changed since this whirligig of electrocapital came around? And I wanted to feel out what might have come before, not paradise, but historical experience on the intimate level, the kind that shapes a body and the tone of a voice, or the way families and lovers relate, the way people protest or laugh it off or complain or try to escape.

Of course, at the beginning there was a hope to pin it all down, to know how it works, to grasp the “system.” Neoliberalism appeared to have a logic operating not only on the extensive but also on the intensive level, which some of us in the counter-globalization movements had tried pretty successfully to understand in the 1990s and the early 2000s: how capital became cybernetic, biopolitical, the way that relations of accumulation and exploitation were transformed into language and reappeared as motivation in one’s own flesh. To understand that was liberating: it allowed probably hundreds of thousands of people to see a little more clearly through the strategies, to make different decisions about how to use their time and their attention, their love, their sex drive, their computers, their credit cards, their mobility, etc. This kind of mapping is not at all in vain, when you are under the sway of the immense, publicly sanctioned manipulation-machines called “capitalist democracies,” which tend increasingly to merge into one pulsing circuit of soft expropriation and micro-modulated spectacle. But does the intensive knowledge of capital and its limits have any validity (any “purchase” as the English phrase so ironically puts it) where the production system extends outside the centers of accumulation? And can such knowledge even be understood, or more importantly, made useful, inside the new, non-Western centers, where society meets psychology in ways that cannot be presumed on the basis of any shared canon of references or interpretational schemes?

These questions, far from being obstacles to the mapping impulse, now appear to me as fundamental, the very interest and meaningfulness of the whole thing. If there is a social unconscious of globalization — made brutally manifest in simmering national feuds, outbreaks of racism, wars and re-impositions of guarded borders — then that unconscious is founded at least partly on our own opacity to the flows that traverse us, on the way that embodied collectivities “cover up” the capital logic and its insane imperatives. Of course this is where it gets dicey: because what’s the difference between a “cover-up” and an alternative? If capitalism presses necessarily toward individualism — which I believe it does — then any kind of alternative, i.e. any kind of solidarity, necessarily has to involve some kind of community, whether ethnic, national or abstracted. Dogmatically rational leftists are quick to criticize the first two kinds of community, for one good reason: they are not egalitarian, they inevitably draw culturalized lines of inclusion/exclusion. Ethnic and national solidarities operate in denial of the fact that there are always people from the outside, right here among us, working more or less against their will for the system, and being doubly punished for it — that is, both economically (through exploitation) and culturally (through exclusion from whatever counts as “humanity” in a given space/time).

The answer is supposed to be abstract solidarity: in a well-organized society with strictly egalitarian laws, everyone should participate in the fruits of production. I believe this, but my belief itself is abstract, since nowhere do I see it being put into practice. Therefore I am willing to cut a little slack for the really-existing solidarity, to see how it is working on a case-by-case basis. How does peoples’ recognition of each other contribute to a better life? And how does it draw misplaced battle lines resulting in useless enmity and suffering? This is one of the ways I understand “culture” in the broadest sense of the word, and this is one of the multidimensional realities to be mapped out, in a kind of vague and always incomplete way, behind the accelerated pattern of capital flows. To do that kind of mapping is first of all to contribute to one’s “own” culture, that is, to try to share some understanding of the human paradox and hopefully to open up the idea that slowly, intimately, occasionally or maybe even sometimes structurally, social relations can be tipped over onto more convivial plateaus.

All of this sounds great, and also very idealistic. On the one hand there is the risk of superficiality: project a few abstract ideas in your head onto a few glimpses of ways that people live. The only thing I can say is that being called on your superficiality is one of the most productive things in life, it means that your attempt to perceive, learn, communicate and share something is being taken seriously. One of the real obstacles to the multitude of mapping projects — and to the constitution of a “multitude” in all its potential — is the lack of confrontation, of expressed disagreement, of spaces where the superficiality of your own skin is placed at the risk of others, their gazes, their words, their accusations, their potential violence. How to create those spaces and make them productive of greater understanding across the societal divides? That’s another definition of culture, an alternative one, which I think can add a lot to the abstract solidarity of the dogmatic leftists. I look for these kinds of spaces in daily life and on my travels, and I try to contribute to them.

There is, however, another risk on the other hand, which I think might explain the sense of lassitude in dr. woooo’s remark about the near-impossibility of drawing a map. This is the risk of power itself: the risk that it will crush you.

The rise of the neocons in the US, and the way their ideological victory acted to legitimate the resurgence of conservative political forces all over the world, has embodied the risks of blindly crushing power more than any other trend. To a certain extent it has made the finely tuned and subtly insane logic of neoliberalism obsolete, in the face of a kind of crass irrationality that operates above all at the sovereign level. The bloody spectacle of the US and Britain invading Iraq FOR THE OIL is what reopened the geopolitical nightmare, where sovereigns struggle with sovereigns, with all the consequences on the intensive existential level, all the multiplications of misplaced solidarities and blind rage against people whom one does not know.

My situated understanding of the world is that we entered the 2000s not on that uneventful New Year’s Eve, nor even on September 11 of the following year, but on November 4, 2004, when Bush was elected by a real popular vote, bringing the full inertial force of modern, war-making sovereignty back into the world picture. The neoliberal acceleration of capitalism into the nervous system is now freighted, literally, with these massive movements of troops, salvos of missiles, productions and sales of arms, not in a sublimated or sporadic or hidden way but once again as a baseline of the world economy, a regime. It’s like having lead pumping through your veins, again literally for the most oppressed, the ones in the line of fire. And what happens to the overall map is that this sovereign dimension combines with what we used to think of as capitalism-as-usual, so that the development of the productive forces is overdetermined by global military rivalries, and vice-versa.

Unfortunately, that overdetermination is capitalism-as-usual. The entire Middle East has lived through it for decades, parts of East Asia suffered it before that, and meanwhile, the unmediated war in Columbia continues. This forces everyone back to the headlines, back to the journalistic kind of mapping, which even at its best (say, Pepe Escobar’s “Globalistan”) is really the worst, the defeat of any chance to save the cultures from the vultures, or to open up those spaces where everyone’s superficiality can be placed at an interesting risk. The secrets for overcoming such lassitude then become part of life’s not-so-little mysteries. Something about which there would be more to say, in another context.

It has been around 5 years since the Continental Drift project started to take form. High points so far: four autonomous seminars in New York with 16 Beaver Group; the Continental Drift through the Radical Midwest Cultural Corridor that just happened; an upcoming session in Zagreb, with 16 Beaver and WHW. I expect to do this kind of thing for around another 5 years, and hopefully achieve various kinds of useful results in collaboration with many different people — unless something great, like a revolution, happens to come through along the way.

4 Responses to “Some Reflections on Global Mapping”

  1. ed phillips Says:

    Stunning, Brian. I hardly see anything quite like your articulate attempts to map the way we all carry this immense “globe” in our psychic flesh. I’m sorry that you don’t by default post these missives to nettime.

    The diffuse war in the petrodollar corridors. The quite literally stunning display of power that is complete impotence. The consumers of deviance.

    I do note some interesting trends: Obama-demo-machine in tacit assumption of impotence makes gesture to keep Gates at DOD. The war machine is acknowledging its impotence in the face of urban, political war and is now funding attempts at cultural-politcal study and influence. The threat of conventional war reveals itself as mask for a diffuse political war in Iran.

    The petrodollar mini-axes of power are flexing their muscles: Iran, Venezuela, Russia.

    The sham unilateralism of anglophone powers reveals itself as a tacit alliance with the rest of the G8 to attempt to manage and control the chaos that reigns in the interstices of the white markets (the stans, west africa, etc.)

    Asian long century emerges alongside an intermittent set of hiccups in financialization.

  2. dr.woooo Says:

    in terms of possibilities, i think the otra campaign towards 2010 and the mexican movements are growing amazingly. the resurgency of the ‘anti-summit, anti-cap movement in asia and canada 2010 etc is promising. how much the food riots are a zone of proletarian development i can only guess at this stage.

    I came of age politically in the early 90’s a grim time. then things went off for a bit, i am hopeful that something big is around the corner. but who bloody knows.

  3. dr.woooo Says:

    there is a follow up discussion on nettime archives in july 2008

  4. chirax Says:

    This is a really well written article. I have added it my resources list.

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