Sally Jane Norman on Thu, 8 Apr 1999 19:09:03 +0100

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Syndicate: cumbersome sequel to unuseful expression of solidarity

Dear friends

Strange and strained weeks of physical and electronic episcopal onslaughts. Here in my mind’s screen eye addressing the people I know, since so many people I don’t are making themselves heard on the list at present for reasons obvious and laudable. Again the reluctance to encumber vital communication channels, again the prelude/ apologia : if you’re needing/ seeking pragmatic info skip and forgive this intrusion into precious network space-time-energy. But conversations with a number of Syndicate friends over the past days have convinced me, rightly or wrongly no doubt depending on how you look at it, that our community needs to be able to air and hear its own voices, to confront sentiments and ideas that are ensuing from this singular context, even if they’re not fraught with the ultimate mortal urgency of other messages being sent at present. Because Syndicate has existed for years in a spirit of exchange of creative thinking and a common striving to uphold open dialogue. Not wanting to sound like the old guard, like the hard core pioneers, like those SIGGRAPH old-timers who flash their array of conference ribbons the way Russian generals and black market hawkers flash medals. Sometimes the list has taken on a patently "billboard" facade but for those who’ve followed it at greater length, this has always been attenuated by the fact that (at least) dozens of us are familiar with posts and authors that go beyond this advertising circuit with its specific but also largely indefinable ideological and geocultural terrain. The "bottom line" being attempts at some kind of critical awareness. Including self-critical.

Talking with these Syndicate friends brought it home how much this situation in the Balkans has perversely silenced us. I and possibly many on the list are dumb, leaving the floor to others. To people with emergency messages.Those who are coordinating refugee and humanitarian aid, who are indicating the safest routes out of town, who are acting as relays for "missing" persons, who are battling to uphold communications systems, those who are an essential lifeline. Alongside emergency messages there are enlightening visions and versions of history, long gone and fresh from yesterday. People with articulate knowledge and experience that are (in-)valuable and that others like me can only "passively" consume. Including people with knowledge and experience (because they are) currently caught in the crossfire, who are immediately threatened by the nightmare present of this history in the making, and whose words therefore seem to rightfully deserve more attention than ours. (But by what criteria?) And there are the burgeoning news postings about activity and reactivity. A daily stash of press clippings that zap you through the biggest satellite bouquet imaginable stuck up in the stars like a vortex, an imploding black hole of accounts of events that just go on getting worse. Some fucking nightmare scrapbook. And the wrangling occurring round all of this, around what and where is an emergency and for whom and why, which is just the flayed, immediate skin of history perhaps, hot off the parchment press, before it goes cold and gets archived forever.

And there are the understandably angry messages of newcomers for whom this list is the only place for such understandably angry messages to be heard, because of its specific but also largely indefinable ideological and geocultural terrain, and because we know why they’re angry and empathise with their anger we listen. And occasionally somebody not tuned in to the same angry wavelength at the same depth, someone who’s missed the wavelength altogether, makes a shamefully breezy contribution and an angry person tells them angrily where to get off and we listen still and are not exactly tempted to speak. Like, you have to sound steeled and tempered and wisened by Father Time, don the grey locks or shaven head of zen desert fathers, in order to dare to air anything that’s neither an emergency message nor a sufficiently solemnly meaty piece of useful reflection. So meanwhile what’s happened to the list, what’s happened to our community? What is Syndicate and what is the place within Syndicate of the friends who built this community in the first place, or do we obligingly die off like dinosaurs who just copped a furtive comet on their silly little atrophied heads? Do I start getting territorial here about my network tribe? Like, xenophobic about my virtual community?

We had something like this discussion at the Nettime reader presentation in Rotterdam last November; it was a kind of "coming out party" therapy session, after the traumatic development from cool list to still pretty cool or even more cool reader to Book (oh shit!). Something about evolutivity of lists, communities, about the rules and (self-)definitions whereby a "virtual community" is constituted and upheld, about population expansions and breakaway communities and about the necessity to respect "natural" growth phenomena. Sounds like Spencer or a Santa Fe textbook. Or like the reason the Maori people took to their canoes and crossed the Pacific to find new land. Simple demographics. Ka pu te ruha, ka hao te rangatahi/ The old net is cast aside, the new net goes fishing.

The problem being, as always, how to strike a balance. Because the beatifically conciliatory approach, the go with the flow stuff, it sounds great and peace and flowers and all that, but after a while if this is all you’re doing and proning, you get mushland. What are the points of cohesion and convergence, the nodes in our reticulum, the asperities, the identifying features, that make this community any more recognisable and defendable than another? There must surely be some, in order for this community to have suddenly attracted so many newcomers. And there’s surely a limit to how indefinable a community can be if it can be defined as a community. Otherwise it can’t. I mean, you don’t have to be Wittgenstein to get that far. What about a community that simply lets itself get taken over by another as a function of external events: is this in fact a community, or rather just a location, a platform, a niche, a harbour? What do you do with/about the locals? Do they/we exist, or are we just sporadic postings that wax and wane? (don’t worry this one’s waning) It’s not a matter of being paranoid and insecure and wanting to keep it in the family or anything. Just the puzzlement of no longer knowing who’s round, who we’re talking to. Other than those in the thick of the action whose every post is greeted with relief. So how online is my compassion?

Occasionally lately I’ve felt like I came to the wrong place even though I maybe somehow helped to build it. It’s not that what’s happening there doesn’t deeply concern me, but simply the fact that this was a place where some of us would meet and talk and right now we can’t because our talk appears indecently untimely and incidental in light of topical events. And sometimes I feel like I’m trying to sneak out of the door and don’t know how loudly I should say goodbye and to whom. Or even whether. Should I be polite? Embarrassed? A distasteful and definitely not politically correct metaphor for which I apologise because I simply can’t find another one that translates this feeling. Can already sense the wrath of angry people brewing except I know that the really angry ones gave up on this mail long ago. Please, it’s not meant to be a slight on what’s happening at this place. I have no problem being a wallflower, story of my life, and am watching and listening with increasingly weary anguish and trying to learn from this shit and to grow up a bit through it, but should I be saying this here, to my friends, with all you new people getting irritated, or should I go somewhere else and build another place because there are much more important and urgent things to do now at what was once my place. And I fully agree with their importance and I’m very glad that this place is proving somehow useful.Those who are caught in the fire right now and who have been on this list for some are for me like pilot fish or something; they continue to show access routes in this information low/high/by/way land and to make it feel like something more than a reporters’ list. Because I can see and hear them. Because they are my friends. Even those who make me angry. I bet some of you piss me off just as much as I piss you off.

Talked about this with Syndicate friends. About reticence to reflect right now in any formal way on the changes in our virtual community (hate that stupid buzzword; how can a community that’s grounded in anything human be anything but real? Versailles could be seen as a virtual community insofar as the blazons and symbols of power on which it was built were extraordinarily virtual…). Not wanting to do a Sherry Turkle or anything, life and death on a screen, god help us, but at the same time, if we don’t think about these phenomena now, in vivo, we won’t have any "hold points" to look back to when we do start thinking about them. Talking to Lisa and Andreas about it. Why and in what guise and to what extent do we vindicate Syndicate? (yeah that was cheap).

So many of us are torn by the gaping discrepancy between our "train-train quotidien" and the war that hits us in the eyes and gut every day, every time the modem reins in another batch of horror stories. Not knowing how/whether to say anything any more. We can’t even discuss simple things like trust without sounding corny although this has always been the basis of our communication; we can all hear the big marching boots in the background even though they’re largely airborne for the time being, even if we’re comfortably installed outside stalker Zone. But you’re right Andreas, there’s a strange absence of certain kinds of input that once were the grist of this group. I think it’s because we’re all listening and battling with ourselves and trying to work out how and whether to respond. I think our silence is prompted by a poisonous mix of shock and respect for those who have vital information to communicate. And Andreas, on a few occasions, you’ve had to stick your neck out and ask for our respect for others to be treated with the same respect by those others. But of course it’s hard, because that quickly degenerates into a "them and us" situation which is one of the the bases of war… You say that people are signing on and off, that in many cases new names and addresses no doubt account for this, and I think we all see what we do see of the subscribe/ unsubscribe data (the visible part of the iceberg) with a certain amount of apprehension, because fleeing refugee subscriber/ unsubscribers are so prominently in our minds. Friends who fall silent. Those in physical danger and those in banal mental turmoil. Like me. Momentarily smitten with logorrhea, with a five hour train trip and two fresh batteries.Tough. For people who don’t like reading this kinda stuff three words of advice : don’t read it.

Read recently about dying Central European fauna, about a rare eagle and many other species on the verge of extinction after so many years of human fighting poisoning the elements – the air, ground, water. Tumatauenga, god of war and technology, has struck hard. But I think you’re right, Melentie : Tumatauenga’s tools have to be used to build anew. The new net has to be made and it has to go fishing. Ka hao te rangatahi.

Kia ora

Sally Jane Norman

Paris - Porirua