Date: Thu, 3 Oct 1996 10:37:58 +0200 (MET DST)


The Design Center of Babble:

Clarification with Richard Barbrook

and Mark Dery

Willem van Weelden

Conducted for the Web Journal of the Ars Electronica Festival on September 4, 1996.


Being the most politically outspoken and controversial speakers of the first day of the symposium, the idea of doing an interview with both Mark Dery and Richard Barbrook on the same occasion seemed maybe not an altogether original yet still sane thing to pursue. Moreover, Barbrook for a large part determined the 'nature' of the discussion in the 'Future of Evolution' net symposium (, by criticising the biologisation of the social sciences, and the paralysing effect it may have on critical thought. Both, Dery and Barbrook share that same critical stance towards the primarilly Californian 'ideology' but given that affliation with each other's ideas it seemed an interesting thing to give them for the journal the opportunity to speak the differences of their convictions. Thus focussing in on the off-centered, shadowy American quality of Dery's approach and the more historical Arbeiteristic (workerist) European approach of Richard Barbrook.


Mark Dery: 'I've done precisely what you suggest Richard Barbrook has done: restore a sense of historical context to the whole of the discussion on Memetix or Memesis. In fact, I'm taking us not to the Meta-Meme but to the Ur-Meme: nature. Which is precisely what Richard argued in a different way. He referred to the creeping biologisation of the social sciences, or what might also loosely and rather inaccurately be called the humanities, but also specifically, the critical exegesis of cultural dynamics. That was precisely the point of my paper: that appeals to nature as the mute inscrutable legitimator of human agency in the social sphere occurs with real delitarious, measurable, profound corrossive impact on the whorp and whoof of peoples everyday lives, a profoundly pernicious gesture far from recently arrived. I'm absolutely the historian when I talk in my paper about previous appeals to the beginning of the 20th century: the Eugenics movement in America leaps immediately to mind but we can even go further back to the17th century where, as I said in my paper, the compressed crania of women, non-whites and other lesser others in the lower most rungs of the great chain of being were adduced as incontrovertable, scientific, biological evidence of their inferiority.

WvW: If dialectics is still a usefull tool in structuring the various viewpoints and subtleties in the debate, then it was this remark that roughly synthesized the core of the skeptical camp versus the camp of scientists and artists who are the defenders and afficionado's of the Meme. This journal has chosen to concentrate its investigations on the former side of the discussion. Still, it is remarkable that simple, unelaborated historical facts without a context and random remembrances can be of such a convincing 'nature' that they actually close off, reduce, and belittle entire discussions. For, at least in this talk, the whole 'biological' part of the discussion was more or less left behind after the Dery statement, the attention shifting more towards the role the advocates of the Memetic rhetoric play in the media and public sphere, propagating the adoption of 'biological' metaphors and references in social analysis. Thus making way for the political discussion of how to address the issue of (net-) democracy at the era of the 'end of organized capitalism'. Let this review be of any help in the choosing of positions in the debate.

Richard Barbrook: The key point is what Kevin Kelly, Wired Magazine and the Extropians and other leaders of this Memes cult are doing, which is basically recycling Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism. Which comes, as you know, out of Victorian England. It's a defense of liberal economics against the need for state regulation and state intervention.


MD: I would simply add as a kind of hypertext link to that statement, the term 'liberal' in America means something very different [from the European use of the term. wvw] and I think the boilerplate phrase 'liberal economics' is more usefully phrased for Americans as a 'laissez-faire' Ayn Randian deregulated economics. Not liberalism in the sense of social policies but 'liberal' meaning the least regulated, the least statist intervention.

RB: Simon Martin Lips says in his book 'American exceptionism' : 'all Americans are liberals' it is just that they are either conservative liberals or social liberals. And that is part of the problem in the American debate; it is completly narrow. And he says quite rightly that there's never been really a conservative party, you know a pro-church, pro-aristocracy party since the revolution. And similarly, there's never been a real socialist party, not even in the social democratic sense.


MD: When Richard suggested they recapitulate Spencerian social theory it is intresting to know that the Spencerian theory was every bit as popular with the monopoly capitalists of his days as the neo-biological downsized demassified decentralized theories of Kevin Kelly are with corporate managerial theorists as Peter Drucker and Tom Peters, the last one being the author of the book 'Thriving on Chaos' which is a bizarre carnival mirror, a very strange funhouse distortion of Deleuze. The disillusion of the body politics in sort of a flesh-eating viral fashion into a puddle of anomic atomized cellular units protoplasmicly going their own seperate ways on the one hand echoes delirious excesses of Deleuzian theory at its most outermost bounds, and on the other hand the American militia movement at this moment, which also embraces very much the notion of micro-political resistance. Where have we ever heard that phrase before? Foucault sits upright in his grave and coughs a blood bubble!

RB: That's the interesting thing there is this link between the new left and the new right which is : anti-statism which in actually is anti-democracy. Both are against representative democracy. They see the political process as inherently corrupt because it involves compromise, the articulation of interests. The both have the common fantasy of direct democracy. Pure speech and actions between people. This is interesting because in classical republicanism media freedom was seen as part of participation in the democratic process, it was not the substitute for it. But both the new left and the new right saw the media as a substitute for representative political institutions. Guatarri talks about the community radio stations as the immense permanent meeting of the airways where people engage in direct democracy, bypassing the Italian state. As we know it is a very deeply reactionary idea. Because politics involves being a citizen, that's the reason why I'm an social democrat and not an ultra-leftist. You have to accept that we are not just members of supersociety. Both deny this dialectic between membership of civil society and political citizenship.


MD: Since you are looking for differences between us, one difference that should be absolutely highlighted as well as triple-underscored, italiced and said in fluorescent, wired, dayglo orange: I'm not a social democrat! Nor am I an academic neo-marxist! I'm deeply, deeply disenchanted with the notion of the nation state and profoundly saddened about the paralysed state of constitutional participatory democracy in America at this point. Which is not to say that I don't think that it is a remarkably robust line of political code and that it is inherently one of the more liberatory political systems. But where Richard and I part company is that in America the federalist paradigm, the government has been effectively brought to heel and hollowed out and turned essentialy into a lapdog by corporate power that is ever more global in scope, that flows with the frightening liquidity over national borders from hence springs all of this utopian rhetoric in the Wired camp about the end of the nation state, the end of geography in a sort of dizzy vertiginous hyperreal way that almost sounds post-modern. And again the discorporation from the immediate physical body. But in their hands, in the hands of what a New Yorker essayist called the 'Tofflerist/Gingrichist alliance' all this rhetoric of returning power to the individual and ultimately to the local level is really a very transparant threadbear blind for on the one hand utterly unravelling the social safety net and laying the full burden of responsibility for social concerns at the doorstep of the individual, and simultaneously, as I said in my paper, dismantling the rickety framework of the nation state that even now only just constrains corporate power to clear the way for transnational media monoliths whose power is utterly unconstrained and answerable to none. So the pernicious, corrosive enzyms of corporate power have effectively hollowed out constitutional democracy in America. And we need look no further than the recent capitualisation to all of Rupert Murdochs attempts to roll back anti-monopoly legislation when essentially all of the inside-the-beltway powerbrokers basically melted and kissed his ring. This is the moment to my mind where the state is in serious peril.

RB: This libertarian rhetoric is of a limited section of the economy and is an ideology in the classic sense of the word: it is a false description of reality. What's intresting is that it is not a really successful economic strategy compared to the post-war period or the New Deal. State regulations and taxes are like exercises, nobody really wants to do them or have it imposed on them. A good example is universal access. One of the big campaigns of these freemarketeers is to remove universal access from the provision of this new fiberoptic grid. It is literally going to be the virtual class that will be half-wired into the fiberoptic grid and the rest of the population will be left the decaying copper infrastructure. But if you create a massmarket you need the masses to be on-line. So it needs the state to pro-actively build the turn-and-see value in order to electrify to.... If I were Time Warner I would want the state to organise the infrastructure so I would be able to sell my commodities.

MD: But how do you respond to my critique, my misgivings, profound weariness, my trepadation about rallying around the banner of the state. As a social democrat you sound much more sanguin about participatory democracy's abbility to disentangle itself from the tentacles of corporate power, and I would like you to address the way in which corporate power profoundly undermined the fundamental tennents of participatory democracy.

RB: Political democracy is centered around state structures. If you are against the state in a very fundamental sense you are against political democracy. It is about participating in political decision-making at a region, a national, and now at a continental level in Europe. That you have to state first and foremost. We are living within a mixed economy, and each of these actors plays a different role. But we have to be weary of saying that the state is disappearing, because in a sense it is accepting the propaganda. Still the state plays an enormous role, in America as everywhere else. You have to be aware not to over exaggerate globalisation. We are still not at the stage we were in 1914.

International trade is less important than it was then. After that we entered was a period in which nations became radically autonomous, especially in the Depression era, Eastern Europe as the prime example. Everybody retreated behind the protectionst walls. Yes, they have been broken down in the last fifty years while we reassembled a global trading system, but even now we are still not at the point we were at the beginning of this century.

MD: My question hangs in the air explicitly unanswered: What is your response to my question about the extent in which corporate intervention and influence peddling and the enormously long dark shadow of transnational corporate power pass inside the beltway which effectively parries with participatory democracy? There is a growing feeling in America which gives rise to the Militia Movement throwing a lever in a ballot booth. The real decisions made in the corridors of power have everything to do with pacts and corporate influence peddling acting as a profilactic, a firewall against the real wills and desires expressed by the people. Your response to that is that we first have to concede that we are committed to the state, and the state is a really profound influential entity; I would not deny that the state has a profound influence and still exercices an enormous impact on the everydays lives of citizenry, e.g., in America. The point is that the state is ever more ventriloquised by transnational corporate power. Let me give you a material example: the recent telecommunication legislation in America, a statist, highly interventionist, radically deregulatory act. It is the issue that draws all the heat and light from the Wired people because as libertarians they are very concerned with individual rights; it is the Hide-amendment, the so-called Communication Decency Act, which is a hairball! A fleetingly brief mirage, a distraction! The real profound issue is the evisceration of common carriage, the roll back of the regulation that would prevented monopolies and given media markets. So this is statist intervention, but it is essentially the Hamburgler handpuppet given out at McDonald playlands operated by corporate power. The pincers of the state close on our lives, but the people manipulating those indicators are, in fact, Deakyanesque captains of consciousness of global corporate power. You have to take that into account when you robustly sing the athem of statism.


RB: There is a very specific problem in American because fifty percent of the population doesn't vote. Your very bizarre constitution was designed to obstruct popular will, as you can read in the Federalist papers. Hamilton makes it absolutely clear. You need constitutional reform, the end of the division between legislator and executive, proportionate representation, etc. A number of measures are necessary on a more profound level than Roosevelt, his political project the only consciously articulated social democratic value in America.

MD: That is a distant, geographically removed, academically aloof analysis of why Americans aren't voting. If you descend to the ragtag and bobtail and ask them why they don't vote, they don't say: "We don't vote because we think the democratic project has been brought to its knees by too much seperation between legislative and executive branches." They say : "I don't vote because I feel it doesn't make a difference!" In fact, that impact has largely been subverted by the real powers who have kind of woven their tendrils inside the beltway to the point where they have fenced out real democratic participation. It seems to me that the profilactic, alternative, pragmatic, progressive solutions you propose don't address the real gut-level visceral embodied quotidian reasons that Americans en masse are saying, "Don't Vote!"To me it's a no-brainer that it doesn't make a difference because corporate power has unplugged participatory democracy with vast amounts of liquid capital flooding the halls of representative legislation. If you're going to make the case for the nation state you've got to look who at the end of th ecentury in terminal culture is evermore ventriloquising the nation state. My position, my half-hearted animic endorsement of the nation state, has entirely to do with the notion that the last threadbear, shopworn, flimsy profilactic, ever more rickety firewall between us and the raging fireball of totally unconstrained corporate power will run rough-shod over individual liberty.

Date: Mon, 7 Oct 1996 08:54:06 +0200 (MET DST)


About Hacking

the Future

Interview with Arthur and Marilouise Kroker

by Ricardo Dominguez

RD: HACKING THE FUTURE is a virtual road trip across the blast sites of a terminal America, an America exiting history, and crawling amidst the ruins of the neo-liberal dream--everything is in a state of fading out. Do you sense any type of counter-hacking that would allow the emergence of zones that could sidestep the force of the ruling cultural algorithms? Or is this now a complete impossibility?

A&MK: We're no believers in the romantic, but deeply uncritical, vision of autonomous zones. This logic still works within the isolationist logic of normal imperialism and, in fact, may be its necessary double. In pan-capitalism, political culture is permeatated with the viral logic of neo-liberalism, and zonal consciousness is its triumphant victory sign. Rather than get off at the exit marked "temporary autonomous zones," opposition to the ruling cultural algorithms should be a matter of deepening intensities, and subverting zones. Not autonomous, but mutating. Not zones, but outlaw viruses. Like the Zapatista's in Mexico who transform a local political struggle into a global critique of neo-liberalism, or the Crees of Northern Quebec who mutate their critique of the purity of the neo-colonial logic of Quebec nationalism into a broader struggle for indigenous peoples.

RD: Memes seem to be part of the total eclipse of the brain, a bad joke, that has some of our best minds fighting over an imaginary code that only supports the retro-techno state,a California dream-state. Can all this meme fasination produce anything? Or is just another exit on the road of millennial cultural-politics?

A&MK: Neo-darwinianism is all the political vogue these days, and memetic consciousness is its dominant cultural sign. But like all signs, memes are reversible. On its techno-side, it is the epistemological consciousness of the virtual class, which finds in memetic discourse an entirely self-affirming vision of the exteriorization of flesh into the culturescape. In memetic discourse, culture comes alive, and bodies are dumped into the residual category of surplus flesh. On its alien side, memes are ambivalent, speaking also of the futureworld of (our) bodies as they go extra-terrestrial. There's an alien in our (human) consciousness, and it's not so bad.

RD: We are now under the signs of hyper-terrorism and retro-facism. The enemy is no longer them,or the other, but us--in the home. We must now keep constant surveillance over our selves, our bodies, and our links. Is part of our flesh-eating manifest destiny to become auto-terrorist? Targeting ourselves for extinction just for the fun of it? Just for the taste of it?

A&MK: Auto-terrorism is the delirious fetish of the pre-millenial 90s. And it's perfect. Great holy crusades against weakening flesh have to be ceaselessly carried out--self-crusades against smoking, drinking, drugs, language, thoughts, desires, dreams. A relentless will to purity turns its revenge-seeking head from middle-class, right-wing excursions into the publicrealm (anti-immigration, anti-aliens, anti-welfare mothers), and comes tosuppress the enemy within. As Hobbes said in the Leviathan, the liberal self knows that it can't trust anybody because when it first looks into itself, it knows that, above all, it can't trust itself. The equality of insecurity that is the hallmark of the modern project gives rise also to vicious bouts of self-inquisition, self-debasement, and self-terrorism. Or, as Nietzsche said, when self-pity merges with feelings of self-contempt, the result will be monstrous consciousness. Monstrous consciousness? That's the ecstasy and anxiety of auto-terrorism. And all of this, just for the fun of it.

RD: With neo-liberalism in ruins and everything else floating in the cultural toilet bowl waiting to be flushed away--what does the virtual class gain? What do they hope for in this new world code? Or is it the old specter of nihilism just riding the shock-wave of the new again?

A&MK: Under the dominant ideology of neo-liberalism, the virtual class is driven forward by limited goals and limitless horizons. Limited goals because as the digital successor to the emergent bourgeoisie of early capitalism, the virtual class of pan-capitalism seeks, in the short term, to maximize its utilities: profitability, power, and social standing. As a class still wed to the rites of capitalism, the virtual class is both motivated by the values of pan-capitalism and compelled, to a great extent, to limit its aspirations to the horizon of capitalist production. However, what makes the virtual class a virtual class is that in the long run it is both the advance edge of pan-capitalism and its potential antithesis. In its anti-capitalist phase, the virtual class is driven ahead by dreams of exiting material reality, decoupling itself from the rituals of the high-intensity marketplace, and ushering in a new universal extra-human history: the history of digital flesh and recombinant imagination and memetic culture. This is not Nietzsche's spectre of suicidal and passive nihilism, but something different: fetish nihilism for a virtual class that wills to mutate flesh into digital reality.

RD: As the fatal clock ticks away and the corpses begin to do HTML--should we hang-out at the GAP more? What should we wear for the end of the end? Should we all just move to Las Vegas and bet on Baudrillard or Virilio? What are you two going to wear? Where are you guys going for the post-party?

A&MK: The post-party is already over, and we're already at the wake. It's called remake culture: remake cigars, remake cocktails, remake love, remake flesh, remake fetuses, remake liberalism, remake interface, remake terror, and remake oblivion.

09/04/96 Copyright: ThingReviews NYC