Geert Lovink on Sun, 20 Jul 1997 17:17:27 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Portrait of the virtual intellectual

Portrait of the virtual intellectual
On the design of the public cybersphere

By Geert Lovink

Lecture at 100 days program of Documenta X Kassel, July 13, 1997

Much has been said here about the changing role of the artist,
the designer and the architect (for example, from Rem Koolhaas) in the
age of cybertechnologies. Clearly, aesthetical professions are undergoing
profound changes. However, little has been heard in this context of the
intellectual. Are intellectuals condemning themselves to manage the
vanishing Gutenberg galaxy? Is the whole idea of the intellectual
disappearing altogether, as Russell Jacoby's book 'The Last
Intellectual' suggests? Most writers and researchers are by now
familiar with the computer as a tool, but this says nothing
of the theoretical concepts they may harbour around the internet,
multimedia, or hypertext. It is a fashion amongst intellectuals
to be sceptical about the so-called 'digital revolution' (who can take
those ugly screens seriously anyway?) One perceives a silent wish that
with the fading away of the cyber-crazes and net hypes, the technologies
themselves will also somehow disappear.

A new distinction between highbrow and lowbrow seems to be in the
making. While the 'true devotees' of culture apply themselves to books,
opera and painting, the grey, uncivilised classes are to be kept busy
with primitive and juvenile 'new' media. The lonely crowds are lured into
a state of permanent numbness, resulting in dazed and confused packs of 
couch potatoes sitting it out in ever lasting zapping-, clicking-,
chatting- and surfing-sessions. Digitisation takes command: electronic
solitude creates a Cybernetic Waste Land. Included here is a new
aristocracy harbouring a deep hatred towards the on-line masses. To
rephrase John Carey: "The crowd has taken possession of media which were
created by civilisation for the best people". The fooling around with
immature, 'beta' media stands in sharp contrast with the "sensual
perception of the wholeness of the artwork". The elitist, usually
government subsidised/state sanctioned and exportable forms of expressions
are slipping into open warfare with vulgar and commercial cyberculture.
Even to-day, very few intellectuals are prepared to take the digital media
seriously. While photography, film and video are now accepted art forms,
the hyper-commercial, constantly changing software landscape still lacks
substantive intellectual and cultural critique. This is the case even
within so called 'art and technology' circles, where many established
theorists seem to suffer from techno-ennui. Into this field one can either
become like a visionary salesperson or assume the role of moaning defender
of established art values.

"Paris, where are you, now that we need you?"  Who will finally manage
to initiate Paul Virilio so that he will give us a more precise, nay, a
more radical, interpretation of the social impacts of the new
technologies? Who will critique the neo-liberal
cyberhallucinations of Pierre Levy and his 'collective intelligence'?
Who will finally stop Baudrillard's tragic complaints? Paris -- once the
intellectual capital of the world -- seems to have fallen prey to
moralistic debates about the 'most favourite victim status' (as in the
case of Bosnia). Here we are seeing most clearly what the current crisis
of the intellectual is about. The production of attractive role models
got us nowhere. The cultural climate has gone into the defensive mode.
The growing anxiety is fluid and can take many forms: sometimes
xenophobic, sometimes against the European Union, or just against the
State in general. Both the emotional and the rational calls for
political engagement are melting away, just like all other information.
The intellectual as TV personality (for example, Bernard-Henry Levy)
seems to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. The
need for spokespeople and experts, producing opinions on a day-to-day
basis has become an integral part of the current Society of the
Spectacle. But the intellectual of the Media Age should not by
definition be identical to the figure of the media personality. What
Paris of the nineties (as an example) is showing us is the urgent need
of 'media literacy': intellectuals who are aware of their real position
within the rapidly expanding media landscapes.

This is partly a generation problem. The generation of the
sixties (known in France as "les quadras"), equipped with the Gramscian
political definition of the 'organic intellectual' closely tied to the
Party and social movements, is now at the height of its power. It has
conquered all possible positions and marched into all possible
institutions. But there is no one leading anymore. Policy implementation
has replaced avantgardism. The Leninist question: SHTO DYALATSH?" (What
is to be done) nowadays lacks both subject and object. The 68-generation
have become parents, worried by the senseless escapism of their
children. Autonomous subcultures (like the 'travellers' in the UK and
Germany), though thriving, have become far less visible even when they
are not reeling under severe state repression. The remaining political
groups seem to have locked themselves in antagonism towards each other
and lack the hedonistic, seductive aspects of the rave and drugs
culture. Protests against the Euro-policies at the Amsterdam-summit of
June 1997, however effective, also illustrated the current crisis in
oppositional culture: marches were held both against unemployment and in
favor of a jobless way of life.  New issues of protest, voiced by
street-ravers, soft-drugs users and art-porn enthusiasts were unable to
connect with the 'traditional' forms of contestation of the established
(new) order.

Back to the intellectual. Take for example Eduard Said, who still sticks
to the old, well known definition of the intellectual. In his 1993 Reith
Lectures, 'Representations of the Intellectuals' he insisted that the
intellectual is "an individual with a specific public role in society
that cannot be reduced to being a faceless professional". Said warns of
the dangers of specialisation and professionalism and instead favours an
amateurism which is "speaking truth to power". Against specific
knowledge, Said highlights general concern. The intellectual should be
endowed with "a faculty for representing, embodying, and articulating a
message to, as well as for, a public". Arguing against rigid
sociological class definitions, which define intellectuals solely
through their profession, Said turns them into moral agents, defined by
their attitude". The intellectual belongs on the same side with the
"weak and unrepresented". This requires a "constant alertness" and
"steady realism".

This sounds touching and noble, and Said is right when he is
stressing that the intellectual and the public are inextricably
intertwined. What is missing here is an analysis of the dramatic
changes of the public sphere itself. Some cultural pessimists have
stated that the public itself has already vanished altogether. The daily
reality is that the so-called public domain in the urban realm (for
example, streets, squares and parks) is under permanent surveillance and
control. More and more of it being privatised. This holds not only true in
real, but also in 'virtual', electronic space.

The essay 'Electronic Civil Disobedience', from American group
Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) states that, as far as power is concerned,
the streets are dead capital. Even though the brick monuments of power
still stand, the agency that maintains dominance is neither visible nor
stable. According to CAE, the only groups that will successfully
confront this new form of power are "those that locate the arena of
contestation in cyberspace". The methods of civil disobedience, like
picket lines, demonstrations and petitions are largely ineffective and
empty rituals. With neither spite nor disdain towards the remaining
traditional attempts to question the current world system of global
capitalism, it should be stated, in public, and as clearly as possible,
that "contemporary activism has had very little impact on military and
corporate policy".

The same could be said of the intellectual that is still living in the
paper world. The days of Foucault's discursive power are over. The
system without alternative does not need the magical power of words
anymore in order to rule. It is this sense that we are actually
witnessing the much-vaunted 'End of Ideology'. The realm of 'ideas' as
such is not dangerous or subversive anymore. Ideology has migrated into
other spheres. It morphed itself into software, e-cash, and data.
Rationality successfully besieged religions and all other metaphysical
expressions and turned them into pure, cold functionalities. The return
of fundamentalisms, nationalisms, regionalisms, etc. is not a serious
threat to the New World Order. Benjamin Barber's endless variations on
the dialectics between 'McWorld' and 'Jihad' are only expressing 
temporary, and very marginal, conflicts. These conflicts may be bloody
and affect the lives of millions of people, but the current catastrophe
zones don't make any impact on the Capitalist Condition. A Black Monday on
Wall Street might. The war in Bosnia has not disrupted Western
economies, though it proved nearly fatal to Bosnia.  This time for sure
Sarajevo won't throw us into a world war again. That's it.

Alain Finkelkraut's 'Ode to the Croatian State', Bernard-Henry Levy's
use of the Siege of Sarajevo as a stage for his media appearances, or
Peter Handke's late and profoundly touristic discovery of the Serbian
countryside all marked the end of the intellectual as a public
figure with any significant impact. The cynical competition for the
'most favourite victim status' amongst the different ethnic groups made
all known methods of outrage and engagement irrelevant overnight. Unlike
the days of the Vietnam War, it has become more and more difficult to
choose sides. This again is drawing us deeper into a status of passive
consumers, bored by the overkill of undistinguishable strains of
infotainment. Intellectuals who are only expressing opinions, in the
belief that the media-industry (particularly television) still
produces common sense content which shapes public opinion, should
simply desist -- they should boycott all talkshows and instead engage in
fundamental research on the 'state of the media'.

Samuel Huntington, with his 'clash of civilisations', overstresses the
role of culture within today's global capitalism. This reflects, in my
opinion, wishful thinking about the return of the old style
intellectual (or priest) who will have the last say in entire
societies. Their will to power is of a highly resentful nature. These
conservatives are defending a model of the West which no longer
exists. The 'clashes' they are predicting might in fact take place in
some decades, when, for example, China will have reached the level of the
Western economic powers. Within the current situation, we can only
interpret these scenarios as a collective, deeply nostalgic re-hash
of ideological, cold war-like conflicts that will not come back.

In fact, the intellectual as opinion leader is slowly losing ground.
What we see is the rise of the VI, the Virtual Intellectual. These
knowledge workers are thoroughly familiar with the 'virtual condition'.
They have also come to terms with the declining power of book culture
and the public sphere as we have known it. Before we try to
outline the shape and task of this upcoming social category, it might be
useful to make a distinction between what I call 'Theory Fiction', and
the description of a new sociological phenomena.

In 'Theory Fiction' terms, the virtual intellectual might very well be
an 'Unidentified Theoretical Object', a UTO, like the ones we described
in Adilkno's Media Archive. We could then compare the VI with categories
such as the data dandy, or the human body as 'wetware'. Just as the
cyberpunk, or the Generation X slacker, or the computer-nerd, the VI
might even leave the realm of literature or theory and enter popular
culture in order to vanish again after a while. The power of the VI is a
potential one: s/he might turn up as a virtual creature, but could as well
remain elusive and never leave the conceptual, beta stage.

We need to examine the context of the emerging VI -- the relationship
between the computer-literate intellectual and the hard- and software
industry. Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein did so in their remarkable
description of the 'virtual class' in their book 'Data Trash' (1994).
This emerging class, with its own 'Wired' ideology, might also have its
own 'organic' intellectuals. However our VI is more than just a
spokesperson for the new media industry and the battalions of 'digital
artisans' infeodated to it.

The playful, ironic, and imaginary categories and the critical
socio-political analysis of new class formations are two different ways
of theory production. In my lecture 'From Speculative Media Theory
towards Net Criticism' I contextualized both by putting them in a
personal, and at the same time historical, perspective. Here I just want
to point out that the virtual intellectual has elements of both: a will
to design, to construct the public part of cyberspace, to be 'radically
modern', combined with the ability to reflect and criticise the (new)
media from all possible perspectives. In both cases it is important to
overcome the widespread resentments, cynicism and elitism such a
position attracts on the one hand, and over-hyped salestalk on the
other. This implies that all forms of technological determinism should
be condemned.

What is it that makes this type of intellectual 'virtual'? Like all
earlier professions that are now migrating into cyberspace, these new
figures will be constituted through their specific mixture of local and
global cultures, digitised and non-digitised source material, real and
screen-only experiences. The VI is conscious of the limitations of
today's texts, without at the same time becoming a servant of the
'empire of images'. Since s/he has been educated in the heritage of the
text, the VI now will now be confronted by the problem of the
visualisation of ideas. Text-only systems can no longer be auto-poetic.
The self-referential tendency of all singular media needs to be
corrected and expanded with crosslinks to imagery, audio files and
hyper-links -- all embedded in on-line databases. Virtual here also means
open, ever changing, in constant contact with other e-writers (and
readers), no longer focussed on the closed, hermetic Magnus Opus that
defined the  'Age of the Author'.  So, on the whole, we may state that
the nature of virtual intellectual a technical one. Unlike its
predecessors, s/he is no longer defined through the relation to the
political sphere in a classical sense. The 'public sphere' itself will
more and more be a product of technical media and lead a true virtual
life of its own, no longer connected to places like the coffeehouse, the
salon, the boulevard or even the more abstract realm of the newspaper
and television discourse. The global capitalist "(wo)man of e-letters"
is part of the on-line masses, but does not feel a need to speak on
behalf of the internet or some virtual community. The VI also lacks any
sentimental drive to represent unprivileged off-line groups. The
goal of the democratisation of the media should be the elimination of
all forms of mediated representation. We now have the possibility to let
people speak for themselves, even if they have little or no bandwidth.
Public access to a variety of communication tools and the world-wide
support of independent, tactical media might ultimately make the
political intellectual redundant.

Thus, the virtual intellectual should be located in the sphere of the
negative. Even in the pragmatic work of programming, designing
interfaces or the planning of network architecture, the negative should
be our starting point. The main threat to a critical praxis nowadays
comes from the positive, 'humanistic' intentions, or what Calin Dan
the 'dictatorship of good will'. Intellectuals might not so easily
commit 'treason' again (Julian Benda, 'The Treason of the Intellectuals'
, 1927) and might not again be attracted so easily by totalitarian
ideologies. But will they be able to resist the current free-market way
of thinking, Ignacio Ramonet's now famous "One Idea System"? The
majority of the knowledge workers are no longer employees of the State,
nor are they be members of the Party. Today's danger is lying in the
growing sector of the NGOs and their anti-intellectual pragmatism in the
name of the Good, locked in a unholy alliance with the real-time mass

Our answer to this will be a gay data nihilism, joyous forms of
negativism: resisting all reductive and essentialist strategies,
connecting all streams of data from either side of the old and new
media, in both real and virtual spaces. Media freedom in this context
means leaving the whole media question behind us. It means mixing and
sampling the local and the global while flying through our own,
selfmade and hybrid data landscapes. And they, just as we, will always
remain under construction.

(edited by Patrice Riemens and Linda Wallace)
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