Tiziana on Sat, 2 Feb 2002 22:57:54 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> 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

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
'space of flows', 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 'collective intelligence' and Paolo
Virno, following Marx a 'general intellect', 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 cultures.


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

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

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 'movement 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 'concrete 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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