Brian Holmes on Thu, 4 Apr 2002 08:09:47 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Islam and Tactical Media on Amsterdam Cable

David Garcia's reflection on tactical media in Amsterdam makes an 
exemplary local situation into a way to take stock of the whole 
panorama of tactical and direct-action movements that have emerged 
over the last decade.

On the old-new Left that David indicates, both tactical media and its 
favorite subject, interventionist protest action, have mainly been 
understood in terms of pragmatism: doing something, yourself, against 
the systemic forces of the state and capitalism. This DIY aspect has 
had a tremendously liberating, empowering effect. But it has 
concealed another reality, which is that the strength of actions 
based on tactical weakness and scattering is ultimately to make 
possible what can only be called "direct representation."

Direct representation happens when an individual or a small group 
without an institutional mandate surges up through some startling 
tactic to seize the center stage of public opinion, on the basis of 
an implicit or virtual legitimacy. In these situations, when even the 
mainstream media is overwhelmed and its filtering system is 
momentarily broken, the claim can be made by activists that their 
actions represent true equality and justice: "This is what democracy 
looks like": it looks like committed people risking their personal 
security for a higher ideal. At the same time, another claim is made: 
the actually existing institutions are betraying society's trust. 
"This is what democracy looks like, _right now_": cops with tear gas 
and truncheons, protecting leaders doing deals behind closed doors. 
The second version, reality, acts in the best of cases to support the 
universal ideal and to convince many people that something must 
change. Results follow, sonner or later, both in the form of changing 
laws and in the form of growing numbers of people ready to try 
alternative tactics.

Of course, the DIY idea is far from all wrong, and this "direct 
representation" is supported and made possible by the pragmatic work 
of information and organizing within communities of like-minded 
people. Effective direct action takes enormous amounts of work which 
goes on autonomously, independently of any "public opinion" or 
concern about universal representation. And it depends, in its turn, 
on effective tactical media, which alone can get out a different 
understanding of the world, so that people feel convinced enough to 
stand up to the official version of truth with the tear gas and the 
truncheons, or to the armies of lawyers who are no less intimidating.

But what happens if ALL you have to depend on is tactical media and 
direct action? What happens is that you get thrown back to sheer 
tests of strength between communities. And what David seems to be 
saying about the Netherlands is not just that there are 
fundamentalist Islamic communities accessing cable TV channels, but 
also that the existence of these "permanent autonomous zones" of 
migrant communities deliberately cut off from any possible 
representation, and therefore from any need to cast their message in 
universal terms, are now eliciting a reaction from another, larger 
community on the local scene: the Dutch nationalist right. And that's 
always how it'll be in Europe, maybe everywhere. Anyone who can't 
make a universal claim will always be a vulnerable minority before 
the latent fascistoid nationalist community that is produced by the 
mutually reinforcing relations between ethnic borders and capitalist 
class structures.

Tactical media doesn't have it all wrong. The movement has grown from 
a vanguard theory to a global reality. But tactical media's answer to 
the strategies of state and capitalist manipulation depends on a 
widespread, networked understanding of the real power of direct 
representation. That power is the call for human equality and the 
insistence on specific, concrete rights. The media activists in 
Ramallah right now can't do anything directly about the Israeli 
tanks. But they have a huge capacity to represent millions of us and 
help us raise the call for rights for the Palestinians, the right to 
live without tanks in the street.

Underneath the universal calls for equality and rights lies another 
key issue: the call for rights to develop tactical media, but in a 
way that doesn't just serve community identities. In a way that is 
constantly tested by the claim to the universal. Means: the claim to 
a public space in which differences can really coexist, on an equal 
footing. If you only get fifteen minutes of fame, give it to the 
Woomera prisoners or the Palestinians. Afterwards, in the local 
election or even when one of you ends up dealing with the mayor or 
the minister, you can squeeze out a little more space for tactical 

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