Brian Holmes on Sun, 10 Nov 2002 17:52:03 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] Re: <nettime> From Tactical Media to Digital Multitudes

Here's some thoughts about various contributions to this thread, 
quite a useful one for me anyway, which David Garcia has now about 
capped off by contributing Gregg Bordowitz's insightful and even 
revolutionary reflections on AIDS and globalization. While awaiting 
the fusion of documentary and poetry :)

Kermit really doesn't like the slogan "everyone is an expert": one, not even a genius, becomes an expert without the training, 
education and discipline necessary for creative and critical thought. 
Training and education involve the mastery of rules, techniques and 
ideas.... it is impossible to found a culture on despair, nihilism 
and a principled rejection of all ideas and debate, even if one 
chooses to call such an approach "tactical media", "radical media 
pragmatism" or even "art". [snip]

Kermit, sometimes I wonder if you do any political organizing? You 
know, it might be great if leftists could only associate with people 
who had a clear sense of self, sharply honed critical faculties, a 
good background knowledge of all the issues, sound moral reflexes and 
a sense of coherency in their actions. Trouble is, these days that 
list of qualities probably better describes the majority of American 
voters who just gave Bush a mandate for holy war. "Negative thinking" 
is a philosopher's word for the difficult attempt to resist a badly 
oriented rationality, a predatory individualism, a malevolent 
discipline. But the sources of effective resistance don't just come 
from philosophy: they also come from the fringes of alienation and 
anger and despair, from the insights of artistic experience, from the 
sudden enthusiasms of technological change, sometimes from more 
obscure rejections of the status quo. One of the main issues today is 
that the majority of the "experts" never question the holy mantra of 
economic growth, or the unspoken credo of racist exclusion. Somehow 
that expertise has to be challenged, it's urgent. What Geert and 
Florian are doing is not just armchair resistance, they're trying to 
give fairly large numbers of people a possible way into political 
life, which is always about debate, even when that debate takes the 
form of a riot or a hacker attack. Did you ever stake your own 
physical freedom on an issue? Do you think someone who does might 
also have principles? The main thing right now is not to diss 
everyone off and claim the high ground. I mean, I appreciate your 
scholarship and also that you even take the time to apply it to what 
we're talking about here. What's dismaying, generally, is that the 
minority concerned about something other than their own greed spend 
half their time fighting with the people on their own side. We could 
use some subtler criticism.

I really liked Nik's post in this thread, recalling the role that the 
PGA and all the social movements associated with it have played in 
putting a new critique of capitalism seriously on the table. In the 
absence of that history and that continuing reality there would be no 
social forums, just a complicit center left waiting to cave in and 
abandon everything. Without a few principled riots the critique would 
have remained so "reasonable" that it'd just be contemplative 
nostalgia from a bunch of well-heeled artists, old profs or has-been 
communists. If you have problems with armchairs and you're not 
totally hooked on computer screens, check out the PGA for a change. 
I've found those meshworks to be the best way for me personally to 
experience and develop the kind of global cooperativity and 
solidarity that's going to be a broad basis of real resistance, as 
the days get darker and all of this bullshit economic crisis goes on 
wrecking people's lives.

I also liked the way that MacKenzie came back in his second post and 
talked about three major types of resistance, against three forms of 
domination, over land, the means of industrial production, and 
abstract or symbolic property. Those are actually Karl Polanyi's 
three anthropological categories: land, labor and money (or the 
social institution of exchange). Polanyi showed how the liberal 
fiction of self-regulating markets destroys all three, leading to 
violent conflict. The complexity and diversity of resistance, based 
on differing relations to those three categories, is a key reality, 
it's one that you have to respect in order to understand why 
different people stand up for their different struggles. Our job as 
intellectuals is to at least try to bridge the gap, whenever it's 
possible. But I don't think the "vector" thing adds much to the 
argument. Way back in the mid-eighties, people had analyzed what's 
still unfortunately true: finance capital reigns supreme in this 
phase of capitalism. Before the World Wide Web, abstract dollars and 
deutschmarks and yens were spinning madly around the planet in 
electronic circuits, and doing the kind of damage they're still doing 
today. And they did it in the 20s too, before electronics. The great 
grandaddy of intellectual property, the way of controlling land and 
labor and even commerce at a distance, is big money, stock, financial 
instruments, supported as always by national and international law 
that favors owners over non-owners. IP is just a new twist in that 
very old story. Again I agree with Nik.

All the above suggests the critique that I personally have of the 
concept of "multitudes." But first of all, to say it's a synonym of 
mob is just ridiculous. In all the autonomist texts the multitudes 
arise from subjective processes of individuation, which are opposed 
to the consensual figure of the "people" within the normalizing 
framework of the nation-state. The notion of the multitudes is a 
demand to go beyond the current premise of representative democracy: 
that a virtuous, unimpeachable collective will can be derived from 
just counting up votes or polling opinions in frameworks that ask 
only for knee-jerk reactions, and not for any kind of 
self-elaboration or collective participation (not even the kind you 
go through when you take part in a big demo). Paolo Virno puts the 
whole mob argument to rest in his article in the French journal 
_Multitudes_ #7, when he says that this singularizing process is 
actually an intensification of political sociality: "Far from 
regressing, singularity is refined and reaches its peak in acting 
together, in the plurality of voices, in short, in the public 
sphere." OK, for every Virno there are lots of sloppy uses of the 
word, and I agree with Kermit that it's right to point them out. It's 
really a word that needs to be kept at the level of philosophy, at 
least for a while anyway. But the fundamental problem I have with 
multitudes is the argument that says that we're all intellectual 
laborers now, or even if we're not, that's the key process, the same 
way as Marx said that industrial labor was the key process giving 
rise to the proletariat in the 19th century. I think the danger there 
is taking your own navel for the whole orange, or worse, for the 
whole planet. 6.25 billion post-fordists is just not yet reality. We 
intellectual laborers definitely have some scores to settle with 
finance capital and IP, and those are important struggles, for sure. 
But let's try and keep our intellectual eyes open for the ways that 
everyone else is living too.

Brian Holmes

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