The Electronic Disturbance

Critical Art Ensemble (Autonomedia,1994)

Technology, far more than economics, religion or sexuality, has consistently bedeviled political, particularly leftist political, thought. Historically the left (understood in the widest sense of the term) has veered erratically between a naive technology worship and a more curmudgeonly strain of opposition to high technology and the militarism and consumerism to which it's been handmaiden. At stake has always been far more than theory, rather the articulation of a vision of a better future, "progress" that is, which, however hackneyed a word, is still the core concept of an activism that would call itself progressive.

As the place of technology is ambiguous, so are radical approaches to it bound to become ambivalent. On the one hand the Western Left tradition is deeply rooted in a vision of technology as a tool for human liberation from material scarcity and poverty, on the other technology's actual role in the pillaging of the planet and as a mechanism of social repression is increasingly evident. Though leftward thought has over the past thirty years or so achieved a unanimity of critique of the wholesale systematic abuses of technology in global nuclear proliferation and enviromental destruction, it's likely new waves of technological change, particularly in information technology, will open up new fissures, and perhaps vistas, in the radical philosophy of technology. It's also likely recently dormant debates between technotopians and neo-Luddites will be revived in new guises.

The Critical Art Ensemble, an anarchist study group with a name that sounds like an improvisational jazz band, has in Electronic Disturbances, sought to fire up such a debate, with appropriate impoliteness and impatience with academic theoryspeak, though not without some heavy arcana of its own. Electronic Disturbances is an agit-prop primer in the time honored tradition of manifestoes of radical tactics. Its most immediate precursor is probably the Situationist tract The Society of the Spectacle, a work it often alludes to and, in part, defines itself against.

The questions the CAE addresses are, one, how the "geography of power" has changed in the society of global information networks, and, two, how strategies of resistance to these new operations of power may be organized. These questions are broached in a fusillade of pensees, loosely organized but individually concise. The analyses themselves aren't exactly original. " Postmodern" small m marxians like Frederic Jameson and Mike Davis have been analyzing the "topologies" of late capitalist "hyperspace" for awhile now. What CAE may lack in theoretical elegance, however, they make up for in chutzpah and vividness. While CAE can be just as abstruse in their language as the next lefties, their evident lust to find new arenas of action and get down to the art of righteous troublemaking, leads them to cut short, for better and for worse, the niceties of analysis and exhort fellow activists to creatively re-imagine their strategies and tactics for public intervention.

The spatial metaphor (cyber, hyper, what have you) is irrestible once one's accepted that " virtual" economics and politics is not only a corporate wet dream (though it IS that), but an organizing principle in the making of 21st century society, as important in its still mysterious way as urbanization, the time clock, the assembly line, mass advertising and mass media were at their inceptions. CAE employ it (hit one relentlessly over the head with it) to make one fundamental polemical point, frightening or exciting depending on how you want to take it, which is that the "power structure" is less entrenched (defined by its tangible real estate and ownership of industrial plant) than nomadic, defined by its liquidity in relation to tangible assets. The "cyberelite" (the cutting edge of the power elite) strives for a far more permeable power than one inhering in the vulnerable positions, institutions and properties traditional ruling strata have strived for. More and more the art and now technology of power succeeds to the extent it renders domination rootless, invisible, unlocalizable and, ideally, unsymbolizable. Or, as CAE describe it," As the contemporary elite moves from centralized urban areas to decentralized and deterritorialized space... class analysis reaches a point of exhaustion. Subjectively there is a feeling of oppression and yet it is difficult to locate an oppressor. The cyberelite is now a transcendent entity that can only be imagined."

As "hard headed" political science this is obviously too intuitive, science fictional even, but CAE trenchantly hits every activist or would be activist, which is to say most readers who'd find their way to Autonomedia Press (not counting, perhaps, government agents) with a telling diatribe against the backwardness of much oppositional activity. They dramatize how the old bag of tricks of grass roots activism (unionization, the strike, the pamphlet, the demonstration, the sit-in), useful as they have been and remain, have been outmaneuvered by multinational power able to shift wealth, location, organization and operation instantaneously.

Nostalgically pre-cybernetic, reflexively anti-technological, the left, according to CAE, remains hung up on outmoded forms of resistance, rebellion and understanding. As they put it, " In the postmodern period of nomadic power, labor and occupation movements have not been relegated to the historical scrap heap, but neither have they continued to exercise the potency they once did. Elite power, having rid itself of its national and urban bases to wander in absence on the electronic pathways, can no longer be seriously disrupted by strategies predicated upon the contestation of sedentary forces. The architectural monuments of power are hollow and empty... these places can be occupied, but to do so will not disrupt the nomadic flow."

Where cyberelites have metamorphosied into nomads, the left remains clumsily stuck in defining its opposition to old symbols of power, in an ironic fetishism of its own traditional methods. Culturally, according to CAE, this means artists repeat rebellious dadaist, surrealist or you name your neoist gestures of subversive art, which function as high class luxury items. Politically, it means traditional images of populist "occupation", of streets, factories and government buildings, dominate the mind sets of radicalism, even as state of the art power (while it may indeed still rest in the barrels of guns among other traditional sites) maintains its edge far less through well fortified bunkers than through the domain recently named cyberspace.

As the "net" has come to epitomize nomadic power, so, in good anarchist fashion, does CAE see the challenge of 21st century radicalism to learn to infiltrate, intervene in and organize in this new global matrix, to get itself wired. Which, in turn, leads to the perennial question of how to take advantage of the marvelous technology of the corporate/military complex without being either sullied or seduced in the process. Like many another radical grouping before them, CAE grapple with the conflict between purity, which necessitates eschewing that which is "contaminated" by consumer society and effectiveness, which necessitates working with available tools.

In the name of common sense, CAE argue persuasively in favor of the left's taking historical advantage of opportunities the net provides for democratic, grass roots insurgence. They rightly lambast "revolutionary defeatists" and other armchair philosophical purists who would dismiss new technologies as (merely) tools of the powerful or yuppie toys (though obviously they ARE both), striking a blow for visionary pragmatism. Which, unfortunately, is not without its limitations and contradictions, as any self respecting critical theorist would be all too glad to point out.

At times, if one substitutes the word televison for telecommunications, the old arguments over the use of television and mass media waged within the anti-Vietnam war movement are recalled. Where televised guerilla theatre and other yippiesque "media freaking" (not to mention nightly images of the war flashed over the then new technology of color televison) "worked" in galvanizing much wider response than a thousand "teach-ins" and pamphlets, those who choose to live by the corporately owned media, as any critical theorist would also hasten to tell you, die by the same. Oppositional activity, without a certain resolute distance from the machineries of mass propoganda (i.e. commercialism) becomes, if it's lucky, just more show biz as usual. CAE are aware of these dilemmas, but have no answers.

There's also, even more dubiously, a congenital anarchist romance with symbolically exciting mischief making and other melodramatic "system fucking" which leads CAE to the same overestimation of the "revolutionary" spirit of wild in the net crazed teenaged mutant hacking crackers and their viruses, worms and "bombs" that earlier generations of sentimental lefties have had in relation, for example, to rowdy bikers. The thought of a well coordinated Berrigan Brother like virtual raid on the secret data banks of some particularly nefarious cyber-authority makes, at the least, for inspiring sci-fi, but it's important to remember whose got the hardware.

Still, caveats like these aside, the strength of CAE's polemic is in its insistence that the uncontrolled growth of new communications technologies gives activists far greater opportunities to forge democratic media than ever existed with either radio or television before their full dive into corporate commercialization and state control. A window of opportunity exists for far less colorful and less revolutionarily glamorous efforts to insure populist access to the net and, as this is accomplished, to use the media to connect a myriad of communities,(e.g. rank and file labor, radical enviromentalist) that remain chronically isolated. This window of opportunity is bound not to remain very open for very long, so whatever their limitations as capital T theory, CAE's analysis is to be lauded, and accepted as a challenge, for the cogency and timeliness of its appeal to direct action.