dan mcquillan on Tue, 14 Feb 2012 09:27:52 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Anonymous and the Digital Antinomians

also online at http://mediasocialchange.net/2012/01/21/anonymous-and-the-digital-antinomians/

Anonymous and the Antinomian Atmosphere

How are we to understand the political implications of Anonymous? How
do we explicate the digitally mediated 'atmosphere of dissent' that
links the Arab Spring and the global Occupy movement? I suggest we
look to the forgotton history of antinomian movements, especially the
radicals of the English Civil War.

Anonymous itself resists easy definition; it is a name invoked to
coordinate and identify a plethora of loosely connected actionsi. It
is meme, a culture, a way of organising online – a loose alias that
nevertheless includes a cadre of skilled hackers. An antinomian is no
easier to pin down – it is 'one who holds that under the gospel
dispensation of grace the moral law is of no use or obligation because
faith alone is necessary to salvation'; also: 'one who  rejects a
socially established morality.'ii

The Ranters were antinomians who were active around 1640-1660, a time
of turmoil and revolution in Englandiii. Their return today is well
signposted; the pastebin rhetoric of Anonymous splinter Lulzsec is the
hacker version of Abiezer Coppe's pamphlets:

“We are Lulz Security, and this is our final release, as today marks
something meaningful to us. 50 days ago, we set sail with our humble
ship on an uneasy and brutal ocean: the Internet. The hate machine,
the love machine, the machine powered by many machines. We are all
part of it, helping it grow, and helping it grow on us.”iv
' 50 Days of Lulz' by LulzSec, 2011

“And the sea, the earth, yea, all things are now giving up their dead.
And all things that ever were, are, or shall be visible... But behold,
behold, he is now risen with a witness, to save Zion with vengeance,
or to confound and plague all things into himself”v
Abiezer Coppe's 'A Fiery Flying Roll', 1650

Appreciating the deeper connection between digital dissidence and
antinomianism means looking at the roots of Anonymous in 4chan and the
/b/ image boardvi (the "random" board). /b/ is characterised by
shocking images and dark, densely layered insider jokes, who's
denizens refer to themselves as "/b/tards"vii:
“At first sight /b/ looks chaotic and offensive. It is. And in a sense
it isn’t. In Turner’s anthropological terms, /b/ can be seen as a
liminoid space that acts as an on going ever-evolving initiation
Its 'no rules' policy and florid rejection of convention incubated an
antinomianism that coloured Anonymous as it evolved from 4chan to
activism, as tracked by anthropologist Gabriella Coleman in
'Anonymous: From the Lulz to Collective Action'ix.

Hence we can understand the foundational commitment of Anonymous to
free speech (as one Anon  put it, “free speech is non-negotiable”x)
not as geek liberalism, or even libertarianism, but a  robustness that
precedes these modern political categories, a free speech typified by
English dissenters like the Ranters, the Levellers and the Diggers.
The historical linking of this form of free speech with the staunch
struggle against tyranny lessens the surprise of OpTunisiaxi, when
Anonymous unexpectedly forked from online hacktivism in to the messy
world of street politics and the struggle to overthrow the
dictatorship in Tunisia.

Anonymous has been a direct link between the Arab Spring and the
global Occupy movement, with a visible presence in camps & protests as
well as online. But they are only part of a plurality of currents that
echo the English Dissenters of the Interregnumxii. It was the Diggers
who most famously 'occupied' St. George's Hill in 1649 the name of
“making the Earth a Common Treasury for All”xiii, and it was the
Levellers call in the Putney debatesxiv for democratic accountability
and financial transparency from government that finds common ground
with the discourse of the Occupy movement. Even the tension between
the different currents of digital culture finds parallels in the
1640's – Digger spokesman Gerard Winstanley's distaste for the
Rantersxv speaks to the differences between Creative Commons and

As with antinomianism, any social movement deploying the affordances
of General Computation and the Internet will tend towards heresy in
the eyes of the Establishment (see the transcript of Cory Doctorow's
talk 'The Coming War on General Computation' at 28c3xvi).  This modern
heresy finds it's practice in hacking, “the intellectual challenge of
creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations”xvii and “a tactic
for transforming pre-existing elements to evoke meanings not
originally intended in the raw material”xviii. As  Otto von Busch says
in Abstract Hacktivism:
“Hacking and Heresy can be seen as two practices of distributed
reinterpretation of systems and political protocols, especially in
relation to organic networked systems where the hacker or heretic
claims the right to be co-author and co-designer”xix

The small group who started the catalytic pre-Occupy camp in Madrid in
May 2011 included hackers. It was a moment that blended technical and
abstract hacktivism:
“In the early hours of 16 May something unexpected happened. A group
of some forty protesters decided to set camp at Madrid’s main square,
Puerta del Sol, instead of returning to their homes. One of them, a
member of the hacker group Isaac Hacksimov, explained later: ‘All we
did was a gesture that broke the collective mental block’ (quoted in
Sánchez 2011). Fearing that the authorities may evict them, they sent
out calls for support via the internet.  The first person to join them
learned about their action on Twitter.”xx

Taken together, these developments become epochal when they raise the
curtain on forgotten social forms outside the framework of capitalist
globalisation. Commenting on the fluid dynamics of the new politics,
the Virtual Policy Network makes an explicit link to the
“A new politics has emerged from the affordances of the internet, and
agile movements are continually emerging from the underlying flow of
micro-political acts...If we look inside these movements we see
complexity, and we can detect a core of deeply rooted pre-industrial
human behaviours mediated through a digitally interconnected global

So what can we expect from an antiomian atmosphere of dissent that
blows across the internet and condenses in the squares? If our English
Dissenters are any guide, it will involve commons-based innovation; as
Charlie Leadbeater points out in 'Digging for the Future'  “the
Levellers wanted to raise food production through mutual ownership of
underused land that would allow new technologies like manuring to take
hold” and they believed “ that knowledge, even of the word of God,
came from within rather than being handed down by the clergy. A
productive, cooperative community would share and create knowledge
rather than be ruled by the dogma of a narrow elite.”xxii

As Nicolas Mendoza concludes about 4chan & Wikileaks: “Rather than
being the result of a violent class struggle, the end of capitalist
hegemony might be the result of a slow Internet-enabled process of
migration, a dripping (to abuse once more the WikiLeaks logo) towards
societies that organize around commons”xxiii. It wouldn't be the first
time there's been an exodus; as David Graeber highlights in 'Fragments
of an Anarchist Anthropology'xxiv there are historical examples of
withdrawal, as there are of societies that have resisted hierarchy &
accumulation altogether. Even micro-examples like Crop Mobxxv show how
the affordances of the net can support pre-industrial modes of
agriculture and the Foundation for P2P Alternatives relentlessly
catalogues the worldwide prototyping of peer-to-peer alternatives, “a
relational dynamic in which people exchange not with each other as
individuals, but with a commons...on a global scale, enabled by
internet technologies”xxvi.

In these times, in the streets and squares blown by the digital winds,
there occur liminal moments of the kind anthropolgist John Postill
experienced with Spain's Indignados.
“Many participants later reported a range of psychosomatic reactions
such as goose bumps (carne de gallina) or tears of joy. I felt as if a
switch had been turned on, a gestalt switch, and I had now awakened to
a new political reality. I was no longer merely a participant observer
of the movement, I was the movement. From that moment onwards, virals
such as #takethesquare or #Iam15M (#yosoy15M) acquired for me – and
countless other ‘converts’ – a very different meaning; they became
integral to the new paradigm that now organises my emic understanding
of the movement”xxvii.

Gabriella Coleman has identified the resonance of Anonymous with the
horizontal network forms and decentralized, non-hierarchical consensus
democracyxxviii, a pattern clearly parallelled in Occupy xxix. But
rather than focus on organisational form we can open ourselves to
their circulations, their tempos and their transmutations. By tuning
instead into their textures and densities we may see them both as
accretions of what Kathleen Stewart describes as an atmosphere:
“An atmosphere is not an inert context but a force field in which
people find themselves. It is not an effect of other forces but a
lived affect - a capacity to affect and to be affected that pushes a
present into a composition, an expressivity, the sense of potentiality
and event. It is an attunement of the senses, of labors, and
imaginaries to potential ways of living in or living through things. A
living through that shows up in the generative precarity of ordinary
sensibilities of not knowing what compels, not being able to sit
still, being exhausted, being left behind or being ahead of the curve,
being in love with some form or life that comes along, being ready for
something - anything - to happen”.
The restless antecedents of the Ranters were the Brethren of the Free
Spiritxxx, an antinomian and egalitarian heresy that ranged across
Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries, challenging earthly powers and
refusing to be repressed. By drawing parallels between the Antinomians
of 1649 and the spirit of Anonymous I am suggesting, perhaps, the
emergence of a Brethren of the Free Internet.

i 'Anonymous: From the Lulz to Collective Action' - by Gabriella
Coleman http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/tne/pieces/anonymous-lulz-collective-action
ii Definition of ANTINOMIAN http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/antinomian
iii Ranters (from Wikipedia) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ranter
iv “50 Days of Lulz” http://pastebin.com/1znEGmHa
v Abiezer Coppe – excerpts from 'A Fiery Flying Roll:A Word from the
Lord to all the great ones of the Earth' (London 1650)
vi 'b/ is the home of Anonymous, it is where people go to discuss
random topics on 4chan' http://boards.4chan.org/b/
vii 4chan (from Wikipedia) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4chan
viii “/b/ acts as an on-going membership rite, as it contains many of
the elements identified and outlined by Tuner referencing Van Gennep’s
1908 Rites de Passage. Specifically 4Chan and /b/ are separate spaces
that require the individual to find, enter and understanding them (as
the rules there are different). The sense of time in 4Chan may be
altered, messages move at an unbelievable pace that can lead
participants to a type of flow state; also many who post there do so
in the middle of the night. The language is highly symbolic – what
words there are seem meaningless or have little relation to the
meaning one might suppose; much of the communication is in the form of
images rather than words (a 4Chan post must contain an image). Lastly
there are, at least superficially, simple symbolic inversions of
meaning – bad taste is good.”
ix 'Anonymous: From the Lulz to Collective Action' - by Gabriella
Coleman http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/tne/pieces/anonymous-lulz-collective-action
x Is Anonymous Anarchy?- by Gabriella Coleman On August 22, 2011
xii “ExLibris focuses here on English dissenters prior to and during
the civil war/revolution in England as well as during the Interregnum.
We view the information broadly, incorporating a variety of religious
and social movements and viewpoints that were active at levels of
state, and among the élites and common folk.”
xiii The True Levellers Standard A D V A N C E D: or, The State of
Community opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men William Everard,
John Palmer, John South, John Courton. William Taylor, Christopher
Clifford, John Barker. Gerrard Winstanley, Richard Goodgroome, Thomas
Starre, William Hoggrill, Robert Sawyer, Thomas Eder, Henry
Bickerstaffe, John Taylor, &c. (April 20, 1649)
xiv Putney Debates (from Wikipedia)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Putney_Debates – full text available from
the University of Essex
xv "Ranting principles" according to Gerrard Winstanley (1609?-60?)
denoted a general lack of moral values or restrain in worldly
pleasures. http://www.exlibris.org/nonconform/engdis/ranters.html
xvi The Coming War on General Computation – a talk by Cory Doctorow.
Presented at 28C3
xvii The Jargon File (version 4.4.7)
xviii  Konrad Becker (2002)Tactical RealityDictionary
xix  Busch, Otto Von, and Karl Palmas. Abstract Hacktivism: The Making
of a Hacker Culture. Mute Publishing Ltd, 2006. p23.
xx Democracy in the age of viral reality (2)
xxi '“I don’t speak on behalf of…” Agile Movements, Fluid Politics and
the new Democratic Bargain' on the Virtual Policy Network
xxii  Charle Leadbeater, “Digging for the Future” (March 2010) | The
Young Foundation
xxiii  A tale of two worlds - Apocalypse, 4Chan, WikiLeaks and the
silent protocol wars RP 166 (Mar/Apr 2011) Nicolas Mendoza
xxiv  Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology
xxv  What is Crop Mob? http://cropmob.org/
xxvi Michel Bauwens: A peer-to-peer economy
xxvii Democracy in the age of viral reality (3) – John Postill
xxviii Is Anonymous Anarchy? - Gabriella Coleman in OWNI.eu
xxix The Future of Occupy | 2012/1 – The Future of Assemblies -
xxx  Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary
Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, Revised and
Expanded Edition. Rev Exp. Oxford University Press, 1970.

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