Tiziana on Sat, 2 Feb 2002 14:00:03 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] The degree zero of politics: virtual cultures/virtual socialmovements. Part 1


this is the transcript of a talk that I gave last week at a media research
seminar at the LSE (of all places...).  I would welcome any comments and
feedback of course.


tiziana terranova

The degree zero of politics: virtual cultures and virtual social movements.

Good evening and thanks for coming to this presentation. The paper I will be
reading tonight is a short extract from a book I am completing for Pluto
Press provisionally entitled Network culture: the cultural politics of
cybernetic communications. More specifically, the paper is loosely based on
the last chapter of the book, which discusses the emergence of
network-organised forms of political protests. An earlier version of this
chapter was published in Virtual Globalisation, a collection of essays
edited by David Holmes for the Routledge Advances in Sociology series.
There are a few things that I should mention in order to explain the
specific focus of this paper. A substantial part of the research material at
the basis of the book is Internet-derived. In particular, I have used
mailing lists as an entry point, and specifically a group of mailing lists
that has historically been crucial to the Œinternal¹ debate on the cultural
politics of cybernetic communications. The main lists I followed are nettime
and syndicate , but I have also hopped in and out of several other lists,
some of them short lived, some more enduring. What these lists have in
common is that they are specifically concerned with the cultural and
political uses of the medium. I am interested in how cybernetic
communications in a networked mode has been conceptualised and debated in
some of these clusters of communication, these mailing lists, but also
websites and other printed publications that are specifically concerned with
the cultural politics of cybernetic communications.
Mainly, however, I have chosen, mailing lists as an entry-point. I think
that mailing lists are crucial constituent moments within the development of
virtual social movements. Within mailing lists the generalised connectivity
that opposes the users to the magmatic abundance of Internet material starts
acquiring a certain type of organisation, although, as appropriate to a
Œspace of flows¹, a fluid one. Mailing lists organise the use (the
actualisation) of Internet material by coupling the circulation of
information with the circulation of interpretation and evaluation . They are
one of the most powerful ways through which the confusing, dizzying
abundance of information and data on the Internet is organised and filtered
to singular Internet users.
A brief description might contribute to clarify the issue. Mailing lists, of
which exist different types on the Internet, are inherently temporary: they
might run for a long time, but the decision to stop them can be taken at any
time. They are usually focused on specific topics, accepting subscribers
either on a limited or unlimited basis. Mailing lists might go through very
active phases and then die out; or be regular, limited updates streaming
through one¹s e-mail account; they might be moderated or unmoderated; mainly
dedicated to spread information or to discuss specific topics; local,
national or global. Crossposting across mailing lists is common, so that a
network of messages and communication runs continuously among different
users, changing according to the time and topicality. For example the
cross-posting between American and Western European lists with Eastern
Europe increased exponentially during the Kosovo War creating what McKenzie
Wark has called "a new web of witnessing" , but many of the more politicised
mailing lists are consistently crossed by messages from South America or the
Far East. 
Mailing lists are also important, alternative search engines, directing
participants towards selected web-sites for in-depth reports or video- and
audio-streaming in the occasion of specific events. Those participants who
are more actively involved might supplement their online conversations by
meeting face-to-face in regular or occasional meetings; or use mobile or
fixed telephony to set up meetings or organise demonstrations. Participants
to these exchanges might be individuals who are relatively disconnected from
the majority of the other subscribers or might move within physical networks
where regular face-to-face contact cements a group belonging. That is they
might or might not belong to local or global groups; they might feed
information or mostly just absorb it; they might be organisers of specific
events or only occasional participants. However, mailing lists should not be
seen in isolation but as part of a larger matrix of communication that
includes the use of web-sites, mobile telephones, audio and video-streaming,
tapes, leafleting, publishing and so on. .
Mailing lists present virtual social movements with the possibility to
continuously formulate and reformulate the types of problems they wish to
address on the basis of collectively produced information. They connect
individuals and groups to each other but also disconnect them from the
totality of Internet users in order to focus on specific issues. They
introduce users to a variety of opinions and information whilst also
filtering and re-arranging for them the chaotic abundance of available
information on the Internet.
What is the status of this online material in the context of my research?
One thing I am concerned not to do is to look at the results of this work of
monitoring, reading and participating simply in terms of Œdiscursive
constructions¹. The notion of discourse, in fact, as it has become widely
used within some sectors of cultural studies, implies that reality is
constructed by and through language. Language is understood as a signifying
system, or a system of signs, that divides and orders the world of objects
for human understanding and activity. From this perspective, then, all
linguistic expression is a mediation that constructs different types of
reality. It could appear to some, then, as the best obvious strategy to deal
with this material.
However, I have chosen to use this material in a different way, not as a
representation but as the production of a cultural and political practice
which is not limited to the reproduction of signs. This is part of an effort
throughout the book to produce a non-representational and non-representative
analysis of the Internet.  This rejection of a representational method of
cultural analysis does not aim to produce an unmediated truth on Internet
cultures. On the contrary it is about the conscious choice of looking at
Internet debates at the level of a specific cultural and political
engagement with the medium, the types of communication that it enables and
its relationship with the larger cultural context of late capitalist
societies. In this sense, I am interested in how the Internet materialises
what Pierre Levy has described as a Œcollective intelligence¹ and Paolo
Virno, following Marx a Œgeneral intellect¹, a collective assemblage of
bodies and machines where connectivity implies the release of a surplus
value of potential.
What I aim to do in the book is to follow the features of these practices
and engage with them at a conceptual level, relating them to issues debated
in cultural and media studies. This means that within this paper I will not
attempt an all-encompassing analysis of contemporary networked social
movements. I will rather concentrate on those parts of these cultural and
political practices that seem to be concerned more specifically with the
media and their role in the constitution of different types of political

I will start with mainstream media, and television, then. In discussions
about the potential of the Internet for a new type of cultural politics and
new types of political participation, I have found an insistent and virulent
rejection of the world of mainstream media, and in particular of television.
This rejection of television spans even the ideological barriers that still
oppose different groups with different types of investment in the medium. In
1994, Howard Rheingold articulated this rejection clearly in his bestseller
The Virtual Community, denouncing the "commercial mass media, led by
broadcast television, [who] have polluted with barrages of flashy, phony,
often violent imagery a public sphere that once included a large component
of reading, writing, and rational discourse."  These sentiments were widely
shared among early net-pioneers who thought about the Internet as the
anti-television, a medium potentially capable of establishing a true realm
of communicative action free from corporate control and the mediation of
established entertainment conglomerates.
This point was also reiterated with a strong note of caution by the droves
of media activists that quite early on, latched on to the political
potential of the new medium. Media activists have always been very wary of
the easy enthusiasm of early Internet debate, in as much as they bore the
scars of the limited impact of cable TV, another participatory medium at
whose door many hopes had been laid in the eighties. The postings of these
veterans of the media wars are full of warnings about the capacity of
capitalist culture to absorb dissent and recuperate within itself new
technological and cultural spaces. Their comments can often be heard on
these mailing lists, recapitulating for younger users the disillusionment
with the notion that a medium is inherently revolutionary or that political
struggle can be conducted simply through the production of signs of dissent.
Still, in spite of their reservations, they too insist on the centrality of
computer-mediated communication in relation to new forms of social struggle.
Whatever their level of enthusiasm for the new medium, a strong opposition
to mainstream media is common among networked activists. The opposition is
especially foregrounded at every instance of mass mobilisation. In this
sense, the antagonism between Œold media¹ and Œnew media¹ is not simply a
discursive device that is meant to mark a break and provide the new with an
identity. On the contrary, networked social movements live the interface
with mainstream media as a confrontation between two incompatible modes of
communication. In this sense, the encounter between the Net and the Set
manifests itself again and again as a conflict between two different types
of cultural forces, the culture of representation and the spectacle and the
culture of participation and virtuality.
As I mentioned before, this dynamic becomes very evident during the moments
of mass political protests, more recently during the series of
demonstrations that took place all around the globe between 1999 and 2001. I
observed more closely in particular the protests of Seattle and those of
Genoa. It is not by chance than in both cases it was the Indymedia movement
of independent news reporting that came to the fore. The Indymedia movement
is an attempt to establish an Œopen¹ and Œdirect¹ way of reporting news. It
was started in Seattle at the end 1999 as an alternative to what was
perceived as the biased coverage of mainstream media. The indymedia movement
has grown in the last two years, with more sites springing up in location
other than the United States. During the days of the protest, both the
indymedia sites and the mailing lists were filled with accusations against
the capacity of television and the mainstream press to obliterate both the
real issues of police brutality and the larger context for the protests.
On the other side, even potentially sympathetic mainstream media, such as
The Guardian or Channel 4 in Britain, were puzzled. What kind of movement
was a movement with no signs and no consensus? This relationship of
Œincommunicabiliy¹ between these two types of media culture should not be
seen as an indisputable fact. I am not claiming here, although this claim
can be found in a large number of postings, that mainstream media, and
especially television, can be limited to their function of ideological state
apparatuses or/even to that of producers of interchangeable signs of
reality. Personally I think that the hostility of virtual social movements
to television is justified by the latter¹s coverage of the events, but I do
not think that this coverage exhausts the potential of television itself. In
a way, the original mass media have played an important part in engendering
the cultural and social affinities between different groups that enable us
today to have such movements at all (from the spectacle of Tien Na Men to
the global youth cultures of MTV). That is virtual social movements would
not exist without the process of cultural globalisation to which media such
as television have been crucial.
I am more interested, then, in how this hostility is related more than to
the medium of television itself to a larger rejection of Œspectacular¹ and
Œrepresentative¹ politics, and a return to a Œdegree zero¹ in relation to
the question: where does power (puissance or posse) come from? And how
should power, defined as the expression of a collective will from below, be
expressed as a political/cultural practice? In this sense, the puzzlement of
TV journalists at a Œmovement with no signs¹ is an acknowledgment of this
cultural and political divergence. Should politics be about the rational
debate between a limited multiplicity of clearly articulated perspectives
that confront each other in the nominally Œneutral¹ public sphere which
television (ideally) sets itself up to be? Or should politics be about the
emergence of singularised and yet collective levels of engagement with
practice, taking place below and above the level of representative, mediated
communication (between electors and MPs or between audiences and producers)?
In this sense, then, this rejection can also be seen as a rejection of a
whole notion of Œcounter-hegemonic¹ politics, that is the notion that a
coalition of social classes should be able to find its identity under the
sign of a single or hegemonic signifier. Thus if some posters join
mainstream media in accusing the movement of its incapacity to produce a
coherent position that can be unequivocally conveyed through the powerful
megaphone of mainstream media, others reject the notion that such a unity is
needed or justified. Problems of definition and labelling in fact haunt
these debates in many ways. Calls for political unity under a single
signifier are regularly opposed by those claiming that this unrepresentable
diversity is the strength of such movements. The political content of
networked social movements, then, should be found not only in the specific
proposals that are put forwards, but also in (as Nik put it in one of his
postings) "the endless wealth of examples of "theory-in-practice", that is
the autonomous, anti-hierarchical, and networked protest affinity groups ‹
from their decision making structures to the carnival they introduce into
the protests and revolutionary actions." Nik concludes, in a tone that
should be familiar to us by now: " There is a difference between having
alternatives and having the mass of status quo media acknowledge them." The
alternatives, then, are identified not only with Œconcrete proposals¹, but
also with the mode of communication and organisation itself, as it spills in
and out of the actual use of network technologies as such. 

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