Critical Strategies in Art and Media Discussion - part 07
Konrad Becker: Coming to a conclusion, I would very much appreciate, if we could do a wrap-up now. Will we come up with any strategies beyond “technology,” “the new,” and “community?” Peter, you know a lot about mythologies and have a lot of experience, so maybe you have a word about it, even about strategies that are beyond language, that are in the realm of the invisible and hyper-dimensional. I think you wrote a bit about that.
Peter Lamborn Wilson: Strategies beyond technologies, is that it? First of all, we are not allowed to use the word technology anymore. I always thought it meant the working of the verbal study of technique, but I guess it’s one of these words that has been spoiled. I believe in seizing words back as much as possible. As a writer I always get upset when words get lost unless they have been completely schmeared over by fascist crap or any other kind of crap for that matter; it’s the writer’s job to try to seize words back and not just give them up to the enemy. So I’ll try to say something about… I’ve already said something about a strategy beyond technology and that is... I also used another forbidden word: community, by which I meant: the social. If we can’t use these words it gets to be very, very difficult to say anything at all on these subjects. I think that the strategy beyond technology involves a lot of refusal of technology, from the negative point of view. And a lot of attempts to rescue the social before it disappears forever down the drain of predatory too-late capitalism.
I would say there have to be conscious efforts to salvage what we would genuinely like to think of as community. Not all the fake varieties that have been criticized. Think in your heart what the social really means in the highest intellectual and emotional sense. And then think about trying to save that from disappearence through some kind of militant resistance and critique of technology that involves actual practice rather than just theory. In other words what technology do we use and what technology we don’t use because we feel it’s too inherently anti-social or anti-communal. That’s what the Luddites were up to, that’s why they smashed certain machines and not others. The use of the word “Luddite” in idiot American journalism nowadays denotes someone who simply doesn’t like machines or doesn’t understand how to use them. The original Luddites were up to something quite different. They were destroying machines that had destroyed their livelihood and their community. And I think if we look around the world today to see what machines are destroying our livelihood and our community it won’t be that difficult. It’s not that deep a mystery. Yes, it involves thought, it involves taking care, it involves studying the past, hopefully so as not to make mistakes; I always say that people who do know the past are forced to watch while other idiots repeat it, but hopefully there is some use in studying history from this point of view.
And to end up my statement for the day: I’m not a pessimist on this at all, I’m not an optimist, but I am an anti-pessimist and I do think that there are ways forward for the struggle. I expect to see them start to coalesce and crystallize much more in the very near future. I think the times they are a-changin’ again and I’m not predicting the revolution or the end of history from the leftist perspective — God forbid — but I am thinking that there is going to be a whole new set of attitudes towards community and technology that perhaps we here today can only dimly glimpse in our flawed and cloudy crystal balls of theory, or maybe not, or maybe we will turn out to be the prophets of the new millennium. So there is always hope, there is always revolutionary hope.
Jim Fleming: I share much of that, though I’ll distinguish my position a bit on the question of technology. For me technology isn’t as basic a question as is this “era of quantification” in which all values become interchangeable, and where every kind of human difference gets flattened into terms of “less and more” rather than radical differences in “kind.”
Claire Pentecost: I earlier posed a question about conditions of optimism. And by that I don’t mean something fatuous. I think I mean how do we keep ourselves apprised of the surprising and intense experiences of life and I think for me at this point part of it has to do with tuning my attention to emergent changes, emergent practices where people are actually trying to, actually venturing, actually risking the effort of different kinds of solutions to this very question of our relationship to the technologies that we have produced and to the earth that sustains us and to this question of community. So it’s not just about what is going to happen in the future, but what is happening right now that we overlook. Part of the problem is that we are so masterful at critique that we can’t so anything else, because that affords a kind of compensation. If we just keep critiquing everything we can at least feel that we are mastering the situation. I’m not saying give up critique, obviously it’s a given, but it’s just not the place to stop. I have personally got to the dead end of it and it’s despair and that’s just not interesting. There is no surprise or intensity.
Steve Kurtz: All right, I think I can go with you on that; critique is despair. Strategy seems to be to me such an unwieldy, unmanageable problem. There is nothing concrete. My only strategy is: engagement is better than non-engagement. I believe that progressive history is probably going to have more of an emergent property than it is going to be something like, “Let’s get together and write the next grand narrative.” And I know that I don’t want to write the next master narrative. Historically, when that has been done, it has never resulted in anything other than a monstrous time of terror. But I do think Peter is right, that there does seem to be a window of possibility through which we could finally get off this neoliberal train that has just been roaring down the tracks. The bourgeois rallying cry of, “Let them do it, let them go!” may finally have run its course. I don’t think it’s going to be an End of History, but I’m not so skeptical of the possibility of practicable types of new social relationships, like we have seen here today. I think it can be done. Who knows what kinds of possibilities could come out of such efforts? As I stated repeatedly, I do believe in molecular revolutions, and they can be very odd and unpredictable — like the pill, which was basically designed as a way to control poor women’s reproductive cycle, but turned out to have the exact opposite effect: sexual revolution. That technology radically contributed to changing the way we imagine and understand the construct of gender. So these are the kinds of things that are doable, that I feel are within the realm of agency. Because once it reaches a point of such abstraction, I start to ask myself, “How am I going to do something?” I think then we are being counter-productive. Critique is only as good as the use we can make of it. If it doesn’t help me get out the door and do something, I don’t really care about it. I’m not working on these problems. So the balance to me is: try and push that boundary of agency so that there is more I can do, and then hope for the best. Between a historical moment and the possibility of radical shifts arising out of our aggregate actions over time, we may be able to stumble into some kind of alternative strategy that is beyond a simple engagement grounded in tactics.
Ted Byfield: I wish that I could agree with Peter about this cherrypicking of different kinds of technologies and, in particular, communicative technologies. I’ve seen first hand, and have heard it from others who’ve worked around the world, that as these technologies become more pervasive, rural populations are increasingly presented with absurdly idealized images of urban life. This carrot drives a lot of urbanization. Before, I suppose you could have asked them whether they liked their life, but they didn’t really have any point of comparison, so the question was meaningless; but do they have a point of comparison now? On the other hand, who doesn’t love micro-finance, the 69-cent loans to Bangladeshi women, the idea that a trivial sum can make a decisive difference in helping someone to realize their potential? Yeah, yeah, we know this sort of “development porn” image obscures worlds of complexity — but, is the satisfaction of that cheap retort a fair exchange for the possibility of change in the lives of people who have so few options? I don’t think so. So here we have the tendrils of a new kind of capital, whose stated goal is precisely to break social traditions. In some cases, they’re social traditions I’d like to see broken, like patriarchy; but, to use an unfortunate (or maybe honest) metaphor, you can’t “surgically bomb” abstract social tendencies without a lot of collateral
damage. So while I appreciate what Peter said about the Luddites, the machines we’re working with are a bit more complicated these days. There are aspects of “community” and “tradition” that are good, wide, wonderful, what have you, and there are aspects that are oppressive, violent, and awful. With the exception of Claire, we’ve tended to talk about “technologies” or techniques in monolithic, homogeneous terms; they’re anything but — they’re rolling waves, always moving, chewing up entire worlds and spitting them out, and driving the kinds of urbanization that Amanda mentioned. I have no idea what to do about this on the level of “strategy,” but there’s no question that developing strategies for working with these populations in constructive ways is a good idea — because urbanized and disillusioned populations will be a big part of the future.
Amanda McDonald Crowley: I would like to conclude by saying that for me, one of the most interesting threads has been the social. The word community had been used and misused in various different ways as has the word technology. I still think it’s a strategy, not just a tactic, to develop concepts of amateur knowledge across disciplines, so that this silo ghettoization of various fields of knowledge which has come through the hype of an environment in lots of ways and work practices. In the city knowledge becomes so specialized that shared knowledge is for me a core strategy, as is the development of social spaces that are meaningful. From work that I’ve done with Aboriginal communities in Australia I know that using network communication technologies is such a no-brainer for them because it is how they have told stories forever. Their whole culture is based on those network stories, so technology has enabled something that had been decimated by colonization. For me who has, stupidly perhaps, acquired places that I call “home” on four different continents and several cities on some of those continents, the idea of abandoning technology in order to stay in touch with my family, which is my community, is impossible as a strategy now. That is something I can’t give up. I think it’s how we use those communication technologies to develop networks that are meaningful to us.... That is where I’d like to leave the discussion in the end because I don’t think there is a point at which going backwards in order to move forward is not going to work. It’s how you actually subvert what some of the technologies, if we are going to use that word — are being used for. Really I think it’s about shared knowledge and cross-disciplinary practice.
Konrad Becker: Thank you, Amanda. Before I go on to thank everybody I just might like to say that the word “emergent” has only very rarely been mentioned, hardly not at all, which I’m actually quite happy about. I’m very skeptical about this term as it plays on this miraculous appearance which often masks the power to influence results. In a way I am more interested in the question of where certain things are coming from and where they are going to — also on the level of social change. I would like to thank everybody here in the room for participating in this conference.