We are at a threshold of social change, brought on by a failed economic model which has also led to melting icecaps and blazing war. The paradox is that few people appear willing to make a change in their own lives and to contribute to a historical transformation – the kind of which art and philosophy make us dream, and which the violence of the world makes us desire so intensely. Unlike in turn-of-the-century Argentina the banks have not even temporarily closed their doors, and the middle classes of the overdeveloped countries are not out in the streets alongside the workers and the excluded. Not that it would necessarily suffice if they were.
It is hard to forget the photographs of endless ranks of police on guard before the Buenos Aires boutiques, while the insurrectionists marched in their thousands. It is equally hard to forget the testimony of one of the enragés of May 68 in Paris whom I happened to meet, who explained that to his shock and eternal disappointment, August came and the radicals who had paralyzed the city left on vacation. These emblematic images – the power to enforce a suffocating status quo and the imperious aspiration of a pleasurable void – can serve as a prelude to this inquiry, which tries to answer a triple question. What constitutes a break, a rupture, in societies like ours? How does a momentary departure from the norm become a durable alternative in people’s lives? And if such alternatives do exist, what are their chances in the current crisis?
The question asks about the metamorphosis of subjectivities through processes of collective resistance. But it also asks how such shifts play out in the more diffuse evolution of society over time. Finally it asks about the horizons of these mutations, what they make possible for the future.
A consensus on the Left locates the last historical break in the global movement of 1968, not only in the affluent North but also in the South, marking the apex of the national independence struggles. The same thinking grudgingly concedes another break in 1989, often cast as an inevitable implosion rather than the consequence of any political will. But this concept of the “historical break” is drawn from Marxist dialectics, with its teleological schema of history as a struggle between self-aware social classes. And as the most acute witnesses of the Sixties recall, the culminating episodes of Third World liberation also marked the dissolution of the communist notion of collective action that had defined the Left since 1917.
Chris Marker offered a reflection on the breaking wave of twentieth-century collectivism in his film Sunless (1982), particularly in the scene filmed in 1980 in Guinea-Bissau, where then-president Luis Cabral decorates a military fighter for his revolutionary deeds. Cabral’s half-brother Amilcar had waged a successful guerrilla war against the Portuguese, which this ceremony commemorates. Yet the soldier’s tears upon receiving his honors “did not express a former warrior’s emotion, but the wounded pride of a hero who felt he had not been raised high enough above the others.” One year later the soldier, Major Nino, would be the author of a military coup. The desire for singularity is the worm in the fruit of collective vision. The commentary continues: “Beneath each of these faces, a memory. And in place of what we were told had been forged into a collective memory, a thousand memories of men who parade their personal trauma through the great trauma of history.”
The film’s pathway through the spiral of a nascent world society, from Europe to Africa, Asia and North America, has its origins in this rupture, understood on the historical Left as a break-up of the very dynamic of history. Marker insists on the point, quoting the Portuguese poet Miguel Torga on the 1975 revolution against the Salazar dictatorship: “Every protagonist represents only himself; in place of a change in the social setting, all he seeks in the revolutionary act is the sublimation of his own image.” But then the scene shifts to the fascinating synthesized images of Hayao Yameneko, electric shadows replaying the struggles of the 1960s and 70s (the first to be shown are the great Japanese protests against the construction of Narita airport). The facticity of filmic recording (what André Bazin called “the ontology of the photographic image”) has dissolved into mobile sprays of colored dots, making the sequences appear as shades of the dead. For Yameneko, the electronic realm is a space of freedom. In a bittersweet phrase that delivers the key to his own predicament, the narrator draws the cultural consequences of the sublimated self-image: “I look at his machines. I think of a world where each memory could create its own legend.”
Twenty years before, pop art had monumentalized the images of press photos and comics, exposing the manufactured collectivities of postwar Fordist culture to their own affective origins. Marker still does it in Sunless, showing streaming Japanese crowds beneath huge, idiosyncratic billboards. Yet what he understood at the outset of the 1980s, through the youthful intercessor Hayao Yameneko, was that future histories of subjectivity would be miniaturized into personal electronic mirrors, like those reflective glasses that tint the world and make everyone an enigma to the others. Is there a politics of the endlessly mediated urban dream whose musical score the narrator of Sunless claimed to decipher in the Tokyo subway?
From the 1980s onward, postmodern sociologists repeat the contrary. They say that ours is the age of liquid life, liquid love, liquid fear, liquid time.1 Amid the flux of technoscientific change, they say, our reactions to events can never gain the consistency of viable politics and shared ethical principles. And they are right about one thing. Any alternative to the postmodern norm has to deal with the chaotic flux of change – and its systemic regularities.
99, our 68
The communist notion of collectivity cast a long shadow over both its adherents and its opponents. In order to “think seriously” on the Left we cling to the idea of class categories, although they have no home in common consciousness. We expect that in a crisis the individuals produced by neoliberalism, with their private interests and fantasies, will automatically find or adopt a collective identity that alone would give them the power to act politically. It should have been understood decades ago that not individuals submitted to massive investments in consciousness management, but only social movements with their unique combinations of embodied practices, philosophical discourses and aesthetic inspirations can launch changes in political subjectivity. And it should have been understood that in our age of relentless overcoding, only experimental groups and tightly woven networks can prolong those transformations into any kind of durable alternative.
When seen from this angle, the ruptures of contemporary society are many – hardly reducible to 1968 or 1989. The year that counts is the year that changed your life, the year you merged into the crowd, discovering a language, a set of gestures, a way of reasoning and acting and also forms of pleasure, of sexuality, a manner of being among friends, of working, of collaborating. But this is also the year, perhaps repeated several times over the course of a life, when you discover systems, implacable and deadly forces on a large scale, operating on strong instrumental, juridical and sovereign grounds, systems that crush other people and threaten what appears as an increasingly precarious existence. You want to break from that nexus of forces. Emerging from the compact heterotopian crowd of protesters, you try to communicate what you have understood – and the panoply around you is vast, of assertions, interpretations, calls to action, lifestyles too. This is the state of ambient confusion in which a political subjectivity is born.
99 was our 68. So I read, in an echo of my own thoughts, on someone’s weblog.2 In June of that year, Reclaim the Streets launched the first “carnival against capital,” followed by the Seattle protests. But the year could have been 1997, when the Zapatista encuentro was held in Spain, or 1998, with the first global days of action against the WTO. Once again, lines of communication and collaboration were opening between the militarized bastions of consumer society in the North and other ways of living and struggling in Latin America, Africa, India or even China: the map of the world was redrawn, somewhat as the invention of a “Third World” had transformed the bipolar map of the Cold War order in the early 1950s. Yet for this new political generation, the tracing, the very cross-hatching of the continents was different. Because the map of the world was now overlaid with a microscopic mesh; and if distant struggles mattered here, where you live, it was because your struggles were intimately connected to farflung communities of collaborators, compañeros, persuasive voices, friends.
The experiments with networks were not only an aesthetic fashion or a new entertainment. They offered access to the intimate thoughts of strangers, to newly invented rituals of exchange, to debates and dialogues on the most important issues, to crowds on the streets and above all to political agency. They reawakened a feeling of generosity, a gift economy on a massive and molecular scale. Through social movements that are discounted by the pundits and the mainstream sociologists, but which were in reality immense, a political generation regained the capacity to come to grips with an unprecedented geographical redeployment of capitalism – whose crisis-prone business cycles and savage outbursts of aggression and barbarism were about to show themselves at full force once again.
That recently lived history was infused with a constructivist spirit, responding in our time to the experiments of the Soviet vanguards. But this “new productivism” emerged in the context of the economy’s linguistic turn and therefore has to be discussed not only in terms of tools and work routines, but above all in terms of communication and codes.3 The Internet’s emergence as a transnational public sphere in the mid-1990s involved a literal decoding of specialized government, military and corporate knowledge. The black boxes of Cold War technology were gradually opened and the operating codes of planetary communication were revealed to the profane.
Hackers continually extended the process of decoding to anything with a digital lock on it, launching a notion of open cultures in the process. The Linux project, based on the public-domain Unix operating system, threw a wrench into the global game-plan of corporate expansion by reverse-engineering a type of Intel chip that had been designed to work only with Microsoft code. Soon a majority of web-servers would run free software. As the open media formats became widely available, new kinds of voluntary association and self-organization were developed to make use of them. Control hierarchies, connective possibilities, structural limits and default options were all recoded, at the level of the machines themselves and more broadly in an increasingly transnational society. For the explosion of the Internet occurred at a time of suddenly opening borders and democratization, in the wake of 1989. Decoding and recoding became fundamental to social change, as individuals, groups and organizations struggled to make a fresh start, with new tool kits at hand and without the perception of overwhelming constraints or pre-inscribed rules.
Since the year 2000, when the dotcom boom deflated and the trending machineries of the overdeveloped nations called a halt to the widespread experimentation with digital gift economies, what we’ve witnessed – and experienced as intensive pressure on the nervous system – is an attempted return to order, or a planetary campaign of overcoding, as Deleuze and Guattari named it in A Thousand Plateaus. The notion, developed from the critique of linguistic structuralism, describes the analysis of human behavior, the constitution of abstracted and regularized models conceived to channel it along preferred paths, and the imposition of those models upon entire populations, via devices, interaction routines, collective facilities and built environments.
I have detailed both the history of this concept and its pertinence for the current situation in closing series of texts included in this volume. But to grasp intuitively what overcoding means, just consider the explosion of Web 2.0 platforms for the solicitation and surveillance of everyday comportments, combined with the constitution of strictly traceable identities, the securitization of public space and the more sinister aspects of contemporary military programs – including “homeland” programs. The targeting society in which we live is a containment strategythat attempts to overwrite and codify the swirling cloud of aspirations to emancipation that always unfold in the capitalist democracies. The fundamental ambiguity of networked existence sprang into full view after 2001, as multiple processes of overcoding began to cohere into a new imperium. Its deep symbolic and affective structures – its most powerful capture devices – are what today’s political generation has to deal with, in order to give itself consistency in time and find its responses to the present.
Territory and Experiment
I realized what I was doing when a friend said to me: “That’s a territory.” He was talking about images of the streets, chronicles of the global upheavals. The experience of mobile grounds, constellated with aesthetic performances, underwritten with oppositional discourses and functioning as proliferating social assemblages, led onwards to other territories, where the question each time is the articulation of the many in view of a horizon. The reason is that a horizon is open and yet does not prevent you from seeing where you are, from feeling the ground beneath your feet. Not by chance did the cartography of potentials become the emblematic expression of a rhizomatic culture.
For me, the mapping aesthetic has culminated in a recovery of Guattari’s most singular project, the Schizoanlytic Cartographies.4 The four fields of experience that Guattari proposed do not map out anything in space but instead try to diagram the overlap of rhythms, images, ideas and embodied pacings that allow a subjectivity to cohere in one place, the territory. Yet the very rhythm that touches a ground also tends to dissolve that one place into the clasping of other milieus, other possible activities that may become places in their turn, always beneath the call of the virtual. Setting up such mobile “places” and exploring their horizons of possibility becomes the most interesting and urgent thing to do. It involves the convocation of metaphors, the analysis of actualities, the forging of devices and points of entry, the unleashing of an experimental project in society with all the energies and capacities of those who compose it. The “continental drift” in which some of us have been involved for years now requires its vehicles, its multiple eyes, tongues and ears. It requires the intensity of its locales, meetings, expressions; but also its means of dissemination and archiving, its protocols and its emblematic dreams, plus a few mailboxes and land addresses.5 Once again: “That’s a territory.”
Artist-activists, whether readers of Guattari or not, have taken this social and machinic creativity in the most diverse directions. Projects such as Makrolab or Hackitectura offer explicit examples, complete with their own models and prototypes, their meta-narratives. But I am also thinking of the kernels of marginal political and aesthetic activity that have multiplied around the world, from the Social Forums to the wildest anarchist cells, the neighborhood centers, the cooperatives of artists, the publishing groups and research projects, all the dissident attempts to transform the law or the psyche or the living space. These are not blueprints for a future society but territorial experiments, alert to what moves on the horizons around them but also to the inner dynamics of their own endeavor, its evolving metaphors, physical locales and discursive linkages to the possible and the real. What could seem like a retreat from the global movements of a few years ago has been a deepening of experimentation, in the space that opened up again when the scattered threads of a former internationalism were rewoven into a new relation of distance and proximity. Borrowing a phrase from the Uruguayan sociologist Raúl Zibechi, one could say that in many lands and at many different social levels, the development of alternative projects currently resembles a phase of latency and crecimiento interior(growth inside).6
The reference to Zibechi’s work on autonomous social movements in Argentina in the mid-1990s has a meaning, despite the huge differences from any situation in the Northern hemisphere. After a period of tremendous economic expansionism that solicited the vital energies of great populations – and which led, on the autonomous left, to a corresponding inflation of the concepts of “biopower” and ‛biopolitics” – what is now staring the citizens of northern states in the eye is a widespread erosion of middle-class status, as has occurred in successive waves throughout Latin America since the outset of the neoliberal period in the 1970s. Because it shakes institutional stability and undermines the dominant processes of overcoding, “precarity” or “precaritization” can offer a chance for critiques to be validated, and above all, for alternatives to make sense. One European country, Greece, has even seen the rise of grassroots movements spreading like wildfire and spearheaded by determined insurrectionists. But one cannot expect social forces in all countries to be so robust; nor does the Argentinian example let us be certain that if the streets are blocked and the city stops for a month or two, the order of the world will change. If the movement of crecimiento interioris so vital right now, it is because of an urgent need to know the ground on which you are standing, including its cracks, its buried secrets, its backwaters and dead-ends. It’s a practical question. The limit-experience of political marginality is to look around at the people in a crowd and to realize that you do not really have any idea what they might do if this situation were suddenly to get worse.
Among the Sphinxes
The problem with the overcoded societies is that they do not leave you in the face of your own questions. The frame of the answer is sketched out in advance: not the exact contents, but the abstract parameters. In art as in politics, the serious discussions always go back to the 1960s and 70s. Maybe our chronologies need reevaluating. Maybe it is the questions of the present, or even the future, that make past thoughts important. In any case I want to close with an unfinished story, borrowed from a contemporary videomaker, in order to explore the scales of existence on a North American territory to which I’ve gradually been returning over the past few years.
Brian Springer is known in media-activist circles for one great work: the pirate documentary Spin (1995). What he did was to purchase a satellite dish and an off-the-shelf decoder, allowing him to record broadcasts from the emerging corporate sector of orbital TV. In the early 1990s, major news channels had just adopted a networked mode of production, sending live feeds of interviews and eyewitness reports across the microwave spectrum for editing at distant studios, without applying any kind of signal encryption. Average consumers stuck to existing channels and ignored these uncensored frequencies, but Springer was able to capture some 500 hours of raw news feeds, full of candid gestures during the make-up sessions and commercial breaks, as well as shocking declarations that were never intended for the public ear. Televisual decorum – the overcode of spectacular politics – was shattered by its primary exponents, allowing a media activist without much funding to construct an astonishing documentary of the 1992 Clinton-Bush campaign from between rather than behind the scenes. Along with Ujica and Farocki’s Videograms of a Revolution (1992), Spin became a touchstone for a generation of tactical media practitioners trying to open up the broadcast system, both to expose official manipulations and to develop new kinds of informed expression.7
Fast-forward to 2007, now infamous as the year in which the overblown American real-estate market began to collapse. Springer releases a very different, semi-autobiographical film called The Disappointment: Or, the Force of Credulity.8 The film takes its name from the earliest American ballad-opera, written in 1767 as a satire on the twin colonial crazes of treasure-hunting and spiritism. But the 2007 version opens with a close-up on a strange syncretic sculpture, a “creature” at once insect, reptile, amphibian and mammal. A halting, faintly British-accented female voice, clearly synthesized by a computer, reads a database entry on this mysterious stone artifact. Switching to the first person, the creature’s electronic voice then explains: “I have been lost for a very long time…”
The hybrid creature, a narrator of its own legend, introduces us to the Springer family: the mother, Doris; the father, C.W.; and the two sons, Larry and Brian. Their story is a search for a Spanish explorer’s golden treasure and personal diary, supposedly buried in the limestone caves beneath a Missouri farm. But there is another main character: Kate Austin, a friend of Emma Goldman and an unsung heroine of American anarchism, who lived on that same farm in the late nineteenth century. Her personal papers disappeared at her death, leaving an aura of uncertainty around this rare bird, a rural woman anarchist. A satellite image of the Missouri countryside becomes a treasure map. A red dot on the site of the Austin farm connects to three others: the limestone cave, a mysterious hieroglyph carved into a rock, and the spot where the hybrid creature was found in the 1880s, before archaeologists declared it a fake and it was “lost by the institutions of history.” With that, all the elements are in place for a plunge into a very personal story, and an excavation of the national unconscious.
Amid reflections from Emma Goldman on the willingness of patriots to drop bombs from flying machines and recollections of Ben Franklin’s fears that the craze for treasure-hunting might ruin the country’s fledgling economy, what gradually emerges is the tale of an average man, C.W. Springer, who left the United States for one of America’s most thoroughly forgotten wars, the “Korean conflict.” His job was to operate in advance of the front lines, directing the extensive napalm bombing that killed hundreds of thousands and reduced much of the country to violet ash. Upon return from the war he could not speak for weeks; but he gradually came back to life and, as we learn from the distant, almost disbelieving voice of the electronic narrator, he “rose into the middle class, and purchased a home in eastern Kansas.” Years later he would teach the Springer family how to see ghosts, by staring at an image and then brusquely closing your eyes. In the early 1970s, they found that the strongest afterglow was produced by TV news anchors reporting on Vietnam… But then rumors about buried treasure led C.W. and his family to Church Hollow in Missouri, the site of the Austin farm. The traumatic memories of Korea faded away into a seemingly endless quest to find the buried gold.
The film reaches its enigmatic center with re-enactments of the automatic writing seances of Springer’s mother, Doris. She feels that her hand has been mysteriously injured, before realizing that what she can and must do with it is trace out the diaries of a Spanish priest who was killed by Indians in the cave, with the gold of an earlier empire in his possession. This “channeled” diary (the spiritist equivalent of spurious campaign promises?) is described by Springer as “a repressed retelling of her husband’s experience with wartime atrocity.” It becomes the blueprint for an endless, futile and increasingly dangerous quest in the cave, which the movie appears to be trying to exorcise on several levels. But what never does come to light are Kate Austin’s vanished writings: a possible signpost to another future, outside the nightmare of imperial war and domestic expropriation from which millions of credulous Americans are now struggling to wake up in disbelief.
In 1995, Spin pointed to the open window of technological and organizational change at a moment when the scramble for globalized markets left gaping holes in all kinds of security systems. Soon afterwards, activists in disguise like the Yes Men would step through those gaps and create their own public twists on world events, relying on a knowledge of complex networking processes that the corporate powers did not yet fully control. In 2007 when that openness had become ancient history, the same filmmaker who looked upward at the stars began peering down into the networks of delusion beneath our feet, even as an occupying army tried to secure dinosaur wealth beneath the desert sands of Iraq and the subprime mortgage debacle swept away the average man’s home-owning dreams.
To define the “apparatus of capture,” A Thousand Plateaus explores two opposed ideas: the legalistic concept of mutuum, the medium of exchange, involving freely drawn and freely severed contracts; and the hierarchical concept of nexum, the bond, the knot, the social tie of obedience and submission. The latter is the symbolic domain of the “fearsome magician-emperor” found under multiple guises in Georges Dumézil’s studies of Indo-European mythology. We have seen the sobering return of that figure in the United States over the last decade; yet it now appears mistaken to suppose that a borderless flux of mutual exchange represents the definitive overcoming of the old territorializing claims of sovereign power. For the two concepts mark the opposite poles of a single economic relation, as Dumézil makes clear: “Mutuum is, literally, (aes) mutuum, ‛the money borrowed,’ and also ‛borrowing.’ Nexum is the state of the nexus, of the insolvent debtor who was, very literally, bound and subjugated by the creditor.”9
Springer’s film explores the same issues in material and embodied forms. The quest for release from wage labor (through buried treasure, real estate, the stock market…) opens up a darker morass of ancient debts, where sensations of promise and entrapment become inseparable. There are vital clues here for a future cultural activism that will have to deal not only with advanced technological communications but also with more obscure human motivations, and with the archaeology of an economic order that threatens to collapse into the myriad holes, blind tunnels and architectures of bluff that comprise its very foundations. The Disappointment taps a formidable underground vein – the kind that pulses with buried life, and that you can only mine deeply, at your own risk.
In his Schizoanalytic Cartographies, Guattari associates the territory not only with openness to deterritorialization but also with the threat of a “black hole”: the loss of the outside, the inability to think, to feel, to see anything except a near environment which has become so close that it merges with your own skin. Groups working experimentally at a territorial level, at grips with the aesthetics of everyday life, try to open a horizon after recognizing and exploring the common pitfalls where the languages of power become rooted in the generations. In the industrial democracies, the link between Fordist mass production, consumer desire and faraway war – underwritten by colonial racism – remains the bedrock of symbolic politics, overcoded in our time by the sophisticated and yet violent financial nexus. Under pressure, every country becomes an enigma, crying out to be deciphered. To open up a mobile territory at this level of societal paralysis is to create a break in the psychic decor, to offer the uncertain crowd an exit at the moment of greatest tension.
For Springer amid the industrial ruins of the Midwest, the feminist anarchism of Emma Goldman’s unknown rural friend is a diagram of possibilities yet unrealized, a free rhizome. Following its imagined and desired pathways, the narrator, a local sphinx with an electronically frozen voice, could emerge into the daylight and speak with the others.
1See Zygmunt Bauman’s work on these themes, beginning with Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000).
3See my conclusion to the conference “The New Productivisms,” March 27-28, 2009, at the MacBA in Barcelona (MacBa), audio archive here: http://tinyurl.com/new-productivisms (printed volume forthcoming).
4Félix Guattari, Cartographies schizoanalytiques (Paris: Galilée, 1989).
6Raúl Zibechi, Genealogía de la revuelta (La Plata: Letra Libre, 2003).
9Georges Dumézil, Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty (New York: Zone Books, 1988), p. 99.