Wild Nature or The Society of the Debacle *
Hans Enzensberger once wrote that "no avant-garde has thus called for the police to rid it of its opponents." Times have changed! Indeed, the coy alliance between predictable ferment and repressive tolerance enveloped most of the creative practices of the 20th century. As is clear from even a casual understanding of cultural and creative practices in the last decades, the issue of technology has generated responses ranging from desperation to euphoria. In the accelerating environment of the past 20 years, the urgency of the staggering cumulative effects of technology on the physical, cognitive and imaginative realms has hardly been conceptualized despite a growing literature of speculative, fictional, and theoretical assessments. Little has been published considering the tension between what seems to be emerging as a form of cataclysmic millennial utopianism and a reactionary anxiety about the disruptions of technoculture. In an era in which the inversions of artistic and corporate intention further blur the already hazy concept of the "avant-garde," it comes as little surprise that politics, spectacle, technology, revolution, violence and Luddism meet in a perverse ecological logic; and that terrorism, denial, repression, disdain, and alarm become a call-to-arms in a catastrophic negative avant-garde in which the police, militias, terrorists, and even futurists, join in survivalist tactics of retroactive legitimation.
How else can one confront the historical complexity and contingent certainty of the Rodney King incident, the Oklahoma bombing, the Ruby Ridge murders, the Waco debacle, the ethnic cleansing and Western "response" in the former Yugoslavia, the siege of Chechnya, the Gulf War, the massacres in Rwanda, the decimation of students in Tianamen Square, the renewal of nuclear testing by the French, the neo-Nazi trials in Austria, the mega-mega mergers in the telecommunications, cable, and entertainment industries, the excessive status of technologies of the artificial, the scientific evidence, police misconduct and racism in the O.J. Simpson trial. It is clear that a siege mentality pervades, one that is burdened by its all too real historical proportions and whetted by its appetite for an all too artificial, and hence ethically vacuous, future. This juncture of the promise of technology and the actuality of events has initiated profound discontinuity in the stability of the electronic ambience in which we live. Relentless crisis haunts the public sphere. To be in public is to be in danger. Indeed, as the Critical Art Ensemble has written:
The web connecting the bunkers -- the street -- is of such little value to nomadic power that it has been left to the underclass... giving the streets to the most alienated of classes ensures that only profound alienation can occur there... the actual appearance, in conjunction with media spectacle, has allowed the forces of order to construct the hysterical perception that the streets are unsafe, unwholesome, and useless. Nomadic power speaks to its followers through the autoexperience of electronic media.
Pervasive surveillance, terrorism, police misconduct, vigilantism, drive-by shootings, drugs, viral infection, etc., etc., make for a social ecology of dread. In this deeply alienated environment, the retreat into the soft world of computer networks seems as much an act of survival as one of extension. But for all the hyperbole about the network version of the 'global village,' little of the predicament of culture has been ameliorated. The community has become the communety, an order of affiliations mediated by secure sockets, guaranteed insulation, predetermined interest groups and the aura of ubiquity, and just a smidgeon of corporate profit. This is not "being digital" (as Mitchell writes), not one-ness in the "noosphere," nor finding solace in the "architecture of cyperception." This is a mode of communication in which the transformation of the polis as a site of affiliation and history is absolute. The telepolis has emerged to sustain and extend the city as information and as the locus of the so-called 'reality' of the electronic age.
Yet, amid all the raucous unities of the electronic world has emerged a document riddled by the crisis of late 20th century culture. The publication of the essay, "Industrial Society and its Future," as a joint venture by The New York Times and The Washington Post came after intense debate about coercion, journalistic independence, government interference and possible copy-cat ultimatums. The tract, presumably written by the eco-terrorist identified as the Unabomber, raises a number of serious issues about the ability of government (or media) to maintain order without strategies of containment. The argument goes: without containment, the strategy of terrorism leaves the world as an unregulatable target. As much a policy for the maintenance (security) of the street as it is for the regulation of behavior in the cybersphere, the Cold War pathology of command and control is never far from the systems of communication - print or bit. For the Unabomber, however, the ecosystem of technology is the destruction of "wild nature," and he advocates "a revolution against the industrial system," "an ideology that opposes technology."
Citing the "breakdown of natural small-scale communities such as the extended family, the village, or the tribe," the essay rambles through an appraisal of the industrial period, the "leftism," "science," the effects of technology on society, and the necessity of social revolt. And while deeply problematic from the point of view of the reactionary positioning it attempts to establish, the essay stands astride the efforts of writers trying to find balance between the demand to be digital and the desire to sustain continuity in the face of frenzied development. Indeed, the publication of the essay has been both assailed as blackmail and hailed as "absolutely crucial for the American public to understand." This remark, by Kirkpatrick Sale, author of "Rebels Against the Future" (a book linking Luddite ideology with the conformist demands of cyberspace), in The Nation, was made by "a partisan," who disagrees about method, but not about substance. Sale's essay concludes: "There is a crucial message at the core of it for those with fortitude enough to get through it, and unless that message is somehow heeded and acted on, we are truly a doomed society hurtling toward a catastrophic breakdown."
Of course the neo-luddite discourse is alive and well in authors like Sven Birkerts, Mark Slouka, Bill McKibben, Neil Postman, Jerry Mander and a host of others announcing the death of reading, literature, nature, culture and the sacred. None of these authors plausibly confronts the crucial issue of culture of the cybersphere, that of the reconfiguration of space. And it is precisely this issue that has so complicated the speculations about the digital global village, the noosphere, cybersociety, technolopy, the mentapolis and the other clumsy metaphors for community in the computer age. Space, static countervalence to the dynamic temporalities of modernity, can no longer serve so readily to stabilize social discourse. And if the technologies that mastered space and time can no longer (either through the veil of objectivity or through any authoritative system of representation) adequately measure the events of the technosphere, it is because the link between the physical world and the networked or rendered world of electronics cannot equalize these realms, even if they share epistemological affinities. Under-theorized and overestimated, the often intoxicated speculations of virtual and cyber "space" have left vast cultural issues unresolved. Indeed, the network, emerging as a cross between the nervous and circulatory systems has yet to function as the behavioral or cognitive nexus of a new social order.
One might think of the emerging networked communities as post-geographical. Yet, they are linked by the imperative to sustain continuity in the midst of a nomadic digital culture wired for uninterrupted contact, but alienated from the utilization of technology as intimate and empowering. Couple this with the defense rationalizations of ubiquitous video security, trans-optical representational systems, and the regulation of content on the network, and the "intelligent ambience" succumbs to smart surveillance. And while the rapid development of the network is couched in utopian democratic ideals, its maturation comes replete with mechanisms of repression. As Friedrich Kittler has written: "the project of modernity had essentially been one of arms and media technology, all the better that it was shrouded in a petty phraseology of democracy and the communication of consensus."
The issues raised by the relationship between the development of cybernetics, communication, urbanism, identity and the network pose stunning challenges to the traditions of culture. And simultaneously these issues once again accentuate the necessity to consider the whole function of culture within the technological conception of connectionism and distributed systems. It is clear that systems theories of communication, intelligence, biology, identity, collectivity, democracy and politics will not fully suffice to encompass the meaning of digital cultures. Instead, theories of communication will need to be refigured in terms of interaction, dispersal and technology.
Linked by nodes, servers, phone connections and fiber optics, situated with universal resource locators (URL's), domain names and ip addresses, an interactive electronic sphere is circumscribing the bond between communication and community. This reconfigured public sphere is taking shape amid tenuous cease-fires and identity wars. Zealously promoted, technologies of networked communication seem to offer remedies for the uprooted cultures of modernity and confrontations with the return of the polis to the condition of political affiliation and discursive collaboration. As much concerned with ideology as with identity, the netopolis or telepolis, however, is more than a new sociological issue. It stands as a possible location for the establishment of new cultural logic, one premised on interaction as intervention and on the re-establishment of historical identity in terms of the conditions of dispersed affiliation and contingent power. The network breaks the grip of the point-to-point limitations of telephony and shatters the dominance of the broadcast media. In their place is a dynamic system in which distribution is more than an economic relation, in which the abandonment of location is not a signifier or placelessness, and in which representation is not a sign of the loss of the real, or at least, this is what we hope.
* The "Society of the Debacle" is the title of an essay by Adilkno.
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