Tiziana on Sat, 2 Feb 2002 14:00:11 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] The degree zero of politics, part 2.

second part of the talk


Virtuality and constituent power
I would like to start this last part of the talk with two quotes, one by the
Critical Art Ensemble and another by Austin-based sociologist Harry Cleaver.
The Critical Art Ensemble are a collective of radical artists and activists
who have widely published on the subject and who also maintain a large
Internet presence, as posters and activists. Harry Cleaver is the author of
Reading Capital Politically, and a well known theorist of social movements
from an Œautonomist¹ perspective. Both essays were widely circulated in the
network of mailing lists. These two quotes are meant to provide a bridge to
outline the main argument of this paper: that networked social movements can
be accurately called Œvirtual¹ because they express a return to the
Œvirtuality¹ of collective politics, a return to a degree zero of politics
which insistently asks the question: where does power come from? And how
should it express itself?
In a posting entitled "Electronic Civil Disobedience, Simulation, and the
Public Sphere", the CAE re-propose the thesis that the spectacle of mass
disobedience, that worked well in the sixties, is no longer an adequate
vector for spreading political dissent. Mainstream media are said to be
bankrolled and supported by capitalist organisations and the saturation of
our visual culture is said to have reached such a point that it hardly
registers anything. (Unless, that is, one is willing to defy the simulation
machine by going to the extremes of symbolic and material violence of which
September 11 was a clear instance.) The only available vector for the
production of a different cultural politics lies for the CAE in the
constitution of Œdecentralised flows of micro-organisations¹ that challenge
network societies on their own space (cyberspace) .  The absence of a
unitary purpose is, then an advantage: "conflicts arising from the diversity
of the cells would function as a strength rather than a weakness; this
diversity would produce a dialogue between a variety of becomings that would
resist bureaucratic structures as well as provide a space for happy
accidents and breakthrough inventions".
Harry Cleaver has similarly described the features of virtual activism as
constituting what he calls a Œhydrosphere¹, a fluid space "changing
constantly and only momentarily forming those solidified moments we call
"organizations" Such moments are constantly eroded by the shifting currents
surrounding them so that they are repeatedly melted back into the flow
itself." . He prefers the notion of a Œhydrosphere¹ to that of the net in as
much as the latter seems to him to be more appropriate to global
organisations such as the NGOs that rely on stable nodes organised with a
view to act on specific issues. Virtual social movements, on the other hand,
seem to him to exceed the network because of the intrinsic mobility of their
elements, connected together by a multiplicity of communication channels,
converging and diverging in mobile configurations.
What seems to me to be interesting in these statements is not so much that
they provide *the*  answer to the virtual activists¹ attempt to formulate
the features of a non-spectacularised and non-representational politics. It
seems to me rather that they point at an attempt to engage the nature of the
Œplane of composition¹ of political activity, that is to initiate a return
to a Œdegree zero¹ of politics as such. I would like to suggest that this
return to this Œdegree zero¹ can be also understood as a virtualisation.
Pierre Levy, following Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze, has described
Œvirtualisation¹ as follows:

Virtualisation is not a derealization (the transformation of reality into a
collection of possibles) but a change of identity, a displacement of the
center of ontological gravity of the object considered. Rather than being
defined principally through its actuality (a solution), the entity now finds
its essential consistency within a problematic field. The virtualization of
a given entity consists in determining the general questions to which it
responds, in mutating the entity in the direction of this question and
redefining the initial actuality as the response to a specific question.
(Pierre Levy Becoming Virtual, 26)

Networked social movements can thus be defined as Œvirtual¹ not because they
operate within a Œvirtual¹ that is technologically mediated, disembodying,
less-than-real context. They are rather virtual in the sense described by
Levy, they ask the question of where power comes from as if returning to a
degree zero. Degree zero does not imply a ground, that is an origin, but a
full potentiality, like that of the the cytoplasmic egg, that needs to be
actualised, to find its expression. They are engaged with the venerable and
old question of the nature of Œconstitutent power¹. This is the question to
which historically all grassroots movements return at every instances of a
Œcrisis¹ of governmentality. In this case, the crisis of governmentality is
related to the uneven unfolding of processes of cultural, economic and
political globalisation, of which the Internet itself has been a carrier. As
usual with this type of things, we are not in the presence of an absolute
break, but of an Œeternal return¹. Since every return implies a difference,
however, I would argue that this difference, in this case is also inflected
by the medium, by the collective engagement with the medium as the plane in
which a collective cultural politics of the twenty-first century unfolds.
I would like now for a moment to return to academic discussions of the
cultural potential of cybernetic communication in a networked mode. In the
Rise of the Network Society, Manuel Castells has argued that
computer-mediated communications interacts with cultural globalisation at
two levels: at one level, it produces a common time-space continuum, that by
its nature is characterised by an extreme form of time-space compression. He
has argued that in network society, the constraints of time disappear, thus
engendering a timeless time, while at the same time the solidity of space
and its borders are undermined by flows (of capital, signs, and people). At
the same time, however, he also argues that the constitution of such a
timeless space of flows causes a severance of the link between the wired
minorities and the disconnected majorities. Thus computer-mediated
communication potentially both connects (a minority) and disconnects (this
minority from the majority of impoverished inhabitants of this planet).
How does this influential understanding of cybernetic communication relate
to the crisis that I have described and its subsequent return to the
question: where does power come from? And how should it express itself? In
one sense, the potentially timeless space of flows is forcefully
re-connected, at the level of debates and practices, to the supposedly
disconnected and excluded world of locality. Thus virtual social movements
keep injecting the passions of the local and supposedly disconnected into
the timeless and disconnected global. From the banal form of the
cross-posting of petitions and alerts, to the continuous circulation of
information about local struggles (from Colombia to Zimbabwe), virtual
social movements continuously re-connect that which is separated (by space,
time, limited information in the mainstream media etc). But there is also
another side to this process. This other side is expressed by the relation
of these movements to the virtual plane of computer-mediated communications
as such, a virtual plane that expresses a potential of the medium to become,
rather than simply to be and produce effects. The virtual plane that these
collective debates explore in their attempts to formulate such answers is
again and again that of the medium itself, the Internet understood not as a
fixed technological medium, but as a mode of communications that is
activated by a technical machine.
If the degree zero of politics, as Sylviere Lotynger put it in a different
context, is "the desire to allow differences to deepen at the base without
synthesising them from above, to stress similar attitudes without imposing a
general line, to allow points to co-exist side by side", then how is this
desire actualised within a medium that permits it at a technical level?
After all, isn¹t the Internet the medium of the ultimate disappearance of
the mass, the political subject of modernity? If there is a mass on the
Internet, as David Teztloff has put it, it is "scattered across the multiple
nodes of the Net". 
I am not implying here that the Internet embodies this degree zero of
politics or that as a medium it allows the regeneration of a public sphere
or any such like. What I am arguing is that these groups¹ engagement with
the medium is informed by an intuition. The intuition is that such degree
zero, as it can be glimpsed at some level through the Internet itself, is
not some kind of easy utopia, where differences are allowed to co-exist or
go their separate ways if they want to. On the contrary, it is the ways in
which the Internet allows such processes to take place that reveals the hard
work that such scattering implies. This scattering, this tendency to
disconnect and separate, coupled with that of connecting and joining,
presents different possible lines of actualisation: it can produced virtual
ghettos, amplify solipsism, reproduce old forms of power and so on. However,
it also offers the potential for the production of a different type of
politics, where the capacity to connect and disconnect is used productively
as a kind of degree zero to which it is important to return and relate to.
Such capacity in fact is in itself not so much neutral as not immediately
given. Connectivity allows for difficult or easy communications, for long
term commitments and fleeting affairs, it is crossed by conflicts, gives no
guarantees of success and possesses a weird kind of memory, collective,
fleeting and yet durable. It demands then a sustained effort.
To conclude this brief excursion, I would like to suggest that this
collective production of a cultural practice is worthy of rigorous
engagement by those of us who work in the scholarly traditions of the
university. This rigorous engagement implies not only an obvious caution
about simplistically celebratory claims. As scholars, we are almost
genetically endowed with exceptionally long and structured memories and we
know that things are never simple. On the other hand, I also think that we
can learn a few things from the collective intelligence of these virtual
social movements. After all they are also an experiment in, among many other
things, the collective production of an ethical globalisation, culturally,
politically, and economically. And we are in some need of it. 

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