Tiziana on Sat, 2 Feb 2002 23:19:55 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> 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 'autonomist¹ 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 'virtuality¹ 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 'hydrosphere¹, 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 'virtualisation¹ 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.

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo@bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime@bbs.thing.net