For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been thinking about what the political component to the New Aesthetic might be. The New Politics that accompany the New Aesthetic, as part of the New Aesthetic, is going to be largely a nebulous concept. Bruce Sterling’s latest delve into the theory of the NA was basically an explanation of how a Tumblr works, that is also applicable to the NP:
How do you grasp the schauung in the weltanschauung, and the geist in the zeitgeist? Where is the boundary between the “New Aesthetic” and a new aesthetic?
So far, the best evidence that something has really changed is of this kind. Imagine you were walking around your own familiar neighborhood with some young, clever guy. Then he suddenly stops in the street, takes a picture of something you never noticed before, and starts chuckling wryly. And he does that for a year, and maybe five hundred different times.
That’s the New Aesthetic Tumblr. This wunderkammer proves nothing by itself. It’s a compendium of evidence, a heap of artifacts, and that evidence matters. It’s a compilation of remarkable material by creative digital-native types who are deeply familiar with the practical effects of these tools and devices.
We don’t need to romanticize the medium of the Internet any further to get that culture is not anywhere near as nailed down as it used to be. But when it comes to theories of the Political, we’re still fighting a 20th Century hangover. We still have this line of thought that dictates technological/political transitivity. If Twitter is somehow political, then Politics must somehow be Twitter. Douglas Rushkoff makes this case just about as good as anyone, and while it all sounds great (especially when you are online) it is actually not true whatsoever. Just because Politics reminds us of the Internet and uses the Internet and is found on the Internet, does not mean that it is the Internet.
And this is important to keep in mind, because while “how” a Tumblr works is important to understanding the status of the theory/politics of the New Aesthetic, the theory/politics of NA is not reducible to Tumblr. Think of the difference between new-aesthetic.tumblr.com and wearethe99percent.tumblr.com. These are very different things, while they are also very similar things. “We are the 99 Percent” is a piece of 20th Century political branding, and a pretty brilliant piece at that. It galvanized the movement, and introduced it to the world at large. Each post was a new propaganda billboard, and in place of Dear Leader’s gleaming visage, we received a pair of eyes, and the heart-tugging poverty of a hand-written sign. Now we are stuck with that haunting slogan of “99 Percent”, which curses us as much as “The People’s _____” cursed communism with its subtle but irresistible irony.
And we know that “We are the 99 Percent” was a piece of 20th Century politics, because it was easy to come up with a counter version: “We are the 53% Percent”, or whatever it was. If you can have counter-protesters, no matter how effective or silly they might be, then you are in the realm of 20th Century politics where everything has an opposite, whether it be a Right to a Left, an Authoritarian to an Anti-Authoritarian, or a Centralized to a Distributed.
But where is the “counter” to New Aesthetics? Where is the “Old Aesthetics” Tumblr? If there was such a thing, it might attempt one of these three possibilities:
1) invent an atemporal cultural genre (Steampunk, Atompunk, Dieselpunk, etc.) in an attempt to be fantastically “old”.
2) rehash a previous genre (cyberpunk, New Age, Great-Gatsby-Punk, whatever) in an attempt to be historically old.
3) it would be a list of stuff that is “normal”, in the temporally present. A photo of an iPhone on a glass coffee table. A utility pole on a regular street with exactly the expected number of cables leading to it. Something like that.
None of these are really opposites, because they don’t attempt to refute the logic of NA, they just present something that is alternative to it, and by doing so, validate the NA’s conglomerate intrigue. These alternatives are the phenomenal “field” to the NA’s blurry “shape”. These are the far-flung edges of that indescribable shape in the center that avoids the rules of Euclidean solids.
The Theory-Object of NA does not rely upon oppositional borders. But when one attempts to theoretically nullify the NA, these alter-concepts appear. This is important to remember. The Tumblr Theory-Object does not come into existence by opposing itself to a non-Tumblr Theory-Object, or by opposing itself to a Tumblr non-Theory-Object. Just as a revolution-that-uses-Twitter does not rely upon a revolution-that-does-not-use-Twitter as its opposite to bring itself into positive being, in proving the former to be a definitive case of “Twitter Revolution” in contrast to a “Non-Twitter Revolution”. This is the logic that proves that a war that uses aircraft, in that it is different from a war without aircraft, is suddenly an “Air War”. And yet, when you hold up the example of “Non-Twitter Revolution” on the edge, you do realize something different is happening in the middle, just not a binary opposite.
This binary logic needs to be left behind in the 20th Century, when it was still useful. It is an epochalizing, casuality-dependent, negative theology of time. The NA does not come “from” something, or will it “turn into” something. It appears to be spontaneous, because of its composite, non-ideological composition. It is not actually spontaneous, of course. But the Theory-Object of the NA is an assemblage of cultural objects and theoretical considerations, that once seen, like an optical illusion, is very difficult to un-see. And if you wish to make it difficult to see an optical illusion, you certain do not just stare at its “opposite”. Because what is the opposite of an optical illusion?
We are not free from the specter of 20th Century Wars, anymore than we are free from 20th Century logic, or 20th Century politics. However, a new logic and politics is emerging, for whatever reason. It is interesting by the nature of its non-symmetrical difference from these previous ways of thinking. It may or may not be really “New”, it may or may not be an “Aesthetic” or a “Politics”. But it is interesting, self-generating, and self-accumulating. Therefore, it deserves us taking a good look at it.
While the “optical illusion” metaphor of a Theory-Object is all well and good for something as cultural and neither-here-nor-there as an “Aesthetic”, for a Politics, things become more difficult. Politics, heretofore, have necessitated “doing something”, or “fighting against something”, or “standing for something”. If these “demands” are not immediately apparent, then certainly the Politics must have a good reason, and define itself in the negative to these centralized theoretical aspects of Politics, right?
Perhaps, if we are leading with ideology. If we were preoccupied with convincing others that we were “right”, then we should be worried about the terms of the argument that our Politics is going to define. This leaves New Politics open to the perpetual criticism of 20th Century politics: it is not a “real politics”, it doesn’t “accomplish anything”, it has “no definition” that would determine whether we are doing it or not. All of which are true to an extent. And, if joining a 20th Century politics actually changed anything for anyone in the 100+ years throughout which it has attempted to do so, this might actually be something to worry about.
This different Theory-Object is assembling itself. It is not an alternative to something, an occupation of something, or a dual power organization in relation to something. These are “oppositional” epochs, like a Twitter Revolution. The New Politics is much more concerned with the particular problematics of life in The Street, so to speak, than of articulating a particular banner for arenas or agoras. And there is a long, long list of these particular problematics. So many and so diverse, that they can’t be listed on a party platform, a conceptual map, or even a Wiki. Maybe some of them would fit in a Tumblr, though.
But let’s cut the theory, as I think I’ve said more than enough for one blog post. Let’s watch a video.
This video for Diplo and Nicky Da B’s song “Express Yourself” is a strong example of the New Politics, in my opinion:
What do you call this thing, from a political standpoint? 20th Century Politics labels this as “pop culture”, “socio-economic culture shock”, “performativity of sexuality”, “urban culture”, “sub-culture”, “hip-hop poetics” or any other number of meaningless categories that are not the “WOM WOM WOMWOM WOM” when the cut drops at 0:15. But this is not even about escaping from the theoretical language to a more ludic expression of art, and calling that Politics. It is about all of it, wrapped into a phenomenological assemblage of any number of potential theory angles, while also being captivated by the beat, and feeling one’s hips start to move in expressive solidarity with “what this is”.
And what is this? It is Hard Bounce, it is New Orleans, it is a DJ Hit, it is Video Art, it is Sex, it is Politics. It is freaking out (insert cultural appropriate slang phrase here) to music in a convenient store in a certain part of town. It’s me watching this, thousands of miles from New Orleans, and still feeling it. It’s putting this video in a pile of others, and watching them all in a row, or posting saving them to “Watch Later”, or posting this to a Tumblr, or embedding this in a blogpost and writing “see, this is what I’m talking about”.
And that’s all I want to really say about this particular piece of the puzzle, other than the main thing this video makes me want to do is Make Stuff, really badly. And not just any Stuff, but the sort of Stuff that might, in another decade, have been a spectacle worthy of shocking the bourgeois out of their slumber, but in this day and age is just one more thing that will be as mentally and bodily captivating as this is, that will get circulated through certain channels for a while, and then will go to sleep, until kids rediscover it some day in the future and pirate it for parts. And then I want to blast this Stuff in the streets until I get tired of it, and then make something else.
Now, this is music. But I want to do this with other things too. With buildings. With protest tactics. With water filtration systems. I want to do this with Stuff that makes the world a better place, at least for a few people. Maybe this is only me, because I have some delusional drive for being Political in my psyche. Maybe for most people, this is simply a New Aesthetic, that they will look at and then click through. But for me, this weird-desiring-to-make-Stuff feels like something that I am already doing, most of the time.
Finding weird stuff, copying it, and amplifying it as loud as I can. But for a reason. Is this any closer to anything meaningful? I’m not sure.
Further explorations into what a “political module” of the New Aesthetic might be.
There have been a couple of posts by Madeline Ashby and Rahel Aima that indict “the gaze” as being a primary political problem in the New Aesthetic. As Rahel said in her piece:
Ashby alludes to something seemingly basic but as-yet unacknowledged. The New Aesthetic is about looking, undeniably. Yet as a paginated yet endlessly scrollable tumblr, is in itself a thing to be looked at. It is about being looked at by humans and by machines, about being the object of the gaze. It’s about the dissolution of privacy and reproductive rights, and the monitoring, mapping, and surveillance of the (re)gendered (re)racialised body.
Is it crude (not to mention awkward) to suggest that the attraction of the New Aesthetic lies in the chance to briefly inhabit a feminised subjectivity? Possibly, probably. Still, it’s worth returning to Laura Mulvey, and her seminal—!—essay on the gaze, Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema. Here, she discusses the three gazes present in cinema: the directorial or camera’s gaze, the audience’s gaze and the gaze “of the characters at each other within the screen illusion.” Employing psychoanalytic theory, she goes on to illustrate how the conventions of the medium deny the first two categories and subordinate them into the third, diegetic gaze.
But, while there are certain strong aspects of the gaze present in what is largely a visual aesthetic, it is important to remember that much of the watching here is not done by humans, but done by machines. As Jonathan Minard reminds us in his response to Bruce Sterling’s essay:
By attributing superhuman intelligence to machines, we forget that they are still dumb tools invented by people for people—this is Sterling’s most basic point.
As Nietzsche declared “God is Dead,” Sterling will be one the first voices of our era to refute the existence of A.I.: “Robots lack cognition. They lack perception. They lack intelligence… They lack aesthetic judgment.” He urges us to abandon our atavistic worship of false robot idols.
This is not to bracket or minimize the way that sexual dynamics crop up again and again in surveillance culture. But there is something set apart in a surveilling machine that is different than the person watching the monitor. While standard scopophilic subjectivities sit in front of many surveillance terminals, there are also the machines themselves.
Me and my partner Rosalynn have been working on a concept called ‘Drone Ethnography’ for a few months now. We don’t have anything written yet (if you had a venue that would inspire us to sit down and get to work, let us know) but the basic idea is that drones symbolize an ethnography that has become an all-encompassing epistemology in a way it never has before.
Once, the ethnographer had to keep in mind the inherent power relations in the observing relationship. There is a lot of power in being an observer, and this can negatively affect the information that is being collected by observation, even if the purpose of collecting the information is intended to empower those who are being observed.
This is still the case, of course. But it is vastly more complicated. We first realized this when Rosalynn was doing a folklore study of comments and response-videos on Youtube. When we were talking about the like/dislike function of the site, we realized that it was impossible for Rosalynn to watch a video without clicking the “Views” counter up. This, in and of itself is not such a big deal. She was watching videos with thousands if not millions of views, and even the 20-30 times she would watch a particular video, plus showing the video when she presented her research, was really an analytic drop in the ocean. Her research would end up publicizing the video regardless simply by picking it out of the billions of minutes of video on all of Youtube, so the rating boost that a video might receive through her Heisenbergian observations wasn’t a threat to her ethnographic objectivity.
But we then extended the concept. What if her research was about Facebook? Come to think of it, neither of us could do research about Facebook, because neither of us has an account. We would have to become part of Facebook, in order to study Facebook. Joining the long tradition of emic field research would not necessarily be a problem for us (our abhorrence of Facebook aside). But in joining Facebook, we would not just join the social network that is Facebook. We would join the massive, historically unprecedented, ethically-questionable ethnographic project that is Facebook.
It is no surprise that large corporations like Google and Facebook hire anthropologists to help them study their customers/products (these two things being interchangeable). Advertising agencies have hired anthropologists for years. The military hires anthropologists. These organizations don’t hire anthropologists to further the study of anthropology, but to use anthropology to do what they do better, be it extracting profit, waging war, or both.
But because of the nature of the product in the case of social media (you), there is no differentiating the work of the anthropologists from the entire endeavor. By engaging in the activity, you are studied. You are basically being given a bit of cheese to run through a maze, day after day, from your desk at work, from your mobile phone, from your bedside tablet device.
This puts those of us that are not corporations or militaries at a distinct disadvantage. We don’t have access to the data, and yet we are still trying to figure out what we make of all this. We are attempt to do ethnography of our rapidly evolving culture, and suddenly this culture is not just owned by someone else, but it is invisible to us. And it is recording us, while we struggle with this new state of affairs.
Sure, with Facebook, who cares? If someone wants to Click a Cow, who cares? We folklorists and public intellectuals can go back to studying the less commercialized aspects of culture that we probably prefer, and if everyone in Farmville gets a barcode tattooed on their neck, we could just ignore it, or say “we told you so”.
This would be true. Except, as Rosalynn and I realized, for the case of drones. And this is why we are calling this concept “Drone Ethnography”.
When you are being observed by drones, it is not because you didn’t read the EULA carefully. It is not because you signed up for a “Taliban Login” that there is a drone aircraft orbiting 10,000 feet above your head twenty-four hours a day, with a few laser guided missiles under its wings. It’s watching you, and waiting. Waiting for what? How should you know? For whatever the particular mission parameters of whatever agency of whatever country has decided makes you an enemy combatant or not. And until then, it is going to observe.
Sure it’s creepy, but the missile that will come and kill you if you dig a hole near the wrong road or watch the wrong wall or make a cell phone call to the wrong person is not creepy. It’s simply death. A Hellfire missile is not the masculine gaze. (To be clear, I’m not making the assessment of “which is worse” as if there was a way to assess that. I am simply stating that they are not the same thing.)
This must change our most deeply held hermeneutical assumptions about the way we observe the world. Rosalynn and I aren’t attempting to say that there can be no ethnographies in the age of drones. We are saying that all ethnographies must acknowledge the facts of drones, and what that means for ethnography as a concept.
Every observation we make about ourselves or others, must be held in relation to the massive databases that exist, holding vast quantities of data about ourselves and others already. There is a new discursive regime being built in these Drone Ethnographies, and any attempt to speak for ourselves is being held in relationship to that regime, whether we know it or not. We don’t have the ability to dive into an alternate reality and escape this regime, like certain SF characters. We are forced to live underneath a sky swarming with drones, because there is no other landscape.
This landscape is not just a plane on which we stand, but more and more, everything we know. It is the phones in our pocket that can be rooted by the NSA, it is the roads we walk on, surveilled by the DOT. Everything we are doing is being recorded somewhere, even if we are doing nothing. What does it mean to describe your own behavior, if the act of you doing so is being recorded and logged into a database somewhere? This is not simply a confusing meta-issue, a “what are we talking about when we talk about talking?” sort of question. It renders observation marginal, but not necessarily to an objectifying power structure, but to structure itself.
So how does Drone Ethnography play into the New Aesthetic? I’m not sure yet. “Drone Ethnography” is just another name for a weird thing that we started seeing and thinking about. Just like the New Aesthetic, and the New Politic, if that is indeed a thing. Is any of this a thing? Not sure really, and I’m not sure what it “being a thing” would prove. But the drones are real. As I’m getting more and more fond of saying, you can’t debunk a drone.
Someone is always watching. Someone has always been watching.
If you’re a woman, you’ve probably known that your whole life. It started with somebody — probably your mother — telling you how to sit, how to dress, how much to show, what to reveal, what not to reveal. Your skin, your smell, your opinion. Secretly, you wondered, “Does anybody actually notice this kind of thing?” And then, somebody did. A guy. A guy who shouted at you across the street: “HEY! SMILE! YOU’D BE A LOT PRETTIER IF YOU JUST SMILED! THERE! THAT’S BETTER!” A guy with a friend, who did a U-turn in his truck just to say that he thought he’d seen you somewhere before, and what were you doing later? A guy who asked if you were pregnant, because you were starting to look a little thick. A guy who told you to get some sleep, because you looked terrible.
Apparently, it took the preponderance of closed-circuit television cameras for some men to feel the intensity of the gaze that women have almost always been under. It took the invention of Girls Around Me*. It took Facebook. It took geo-location. That spirit of performativity you have about your citizenship, now? That sense that someone’s peering over your shoulder, watching everything you do and say and think and choose? That feeling of being observed? It’s not a new facet of life in the twenty-first century. It’s what it feels like for a girl.
I’m thinking that a lot of what the political aspects of NA might be about, have to do with converting 20th Century political subjectivities to the new technology that is shifting the environment around us. And the problem is that 20th Cent. political subjectivities don’t respond to 21st Cent. problems. That’s not to say that they are useless. We still have plenty of 20th Cent. problems around, like opposition to feminism, which is quickly figuring out how to become a 21st Cent. problem. (Scan your email, scan your uterus. If you’re not hiding anything, why would you say no?)
But we also have 21st Cent. problems that bear very little resemblance to 20th Cen. problems. Or at least through the lens of 20th Cent. politics, look like “The Future”, and hence get labeled with things like “dystopia”. Calling something “dystopia” is really fucking useless, if you live in that dystopia, rather than just imagining what it would be like.
More particular to Madeline’s comments, perhaps this would be a great time to re-mention feminism (when isn’t?) regardless of epochs. More to the point: sexual subjectivities. Which, unlike political subjectivities, are much more difficult to epochalize.
Here’s the comment I left over there, which I’m copy here just to make sure I don’t lose it:
For me anyway, it was Luce Irigaray that introduced me to the preponderance of the gaze, not CCTV. But the arrays of surveillance cameras in the world are indeed, just more of the same in a certain respect. Without reverting to gender essentialism, I would agree that there is something to the experience of femininity, in that subaltern position you describe “as watched”, that does theoretically open up the notion of subjectivity-as-technologically/semiotically-controlled.
But what I wonder is, what are the techniques from the experience of femininity, so described, that might combat, say, a surveillance state? My experience in feminism is that most of the real work is not done in the streets, so to speak (though feminist marches and organized protests are important). Instead, I find that the work is done in the bed room, the living room, and the kitchen. In other words, it is as much about negotiating a re-evaluation of sexual subjectivity with our friends, family, and sexual partners, as it is about politics, in the standard “get out and fight” sense. Countering mental patterns so insipid as sexual privilege and rape culture take a lot of hard, personal work to overcome (speaking “as a man”, who would personally identify as continuing to combat his own mental patterns).
The reason I bring this up, is because it doesn’t seem like the surveillance state is something to be talked out in the bed room (though the idea has some intrigue). In the effort of trying to figure out what the New Politics aspects of the New Aesthetic are, I tend to think that they are not reducible to feminist criticisms of the gaze–though clearly they would not be cause for an interrupt of the continuation of that critique. The radical new interventions that the surveillance state is making in our personal lives, while not separate from gender politics, would not necessarily be symmetric, either.
So I guess this is an open question: what new technological components does the NA bring to our subjective sense of politics? It could indeed stimulate use to recall previous and ongoing re-evaluations of political subjectivity, but is there anything new here? I wonder as a person, looking for new, potent tools.
This is something that I’ve been sitting on for a couple months, and so I thought I would post it. It seems related to the question of politics and the New Aesthetic, but at the moment I’m not quite sure how. Something to do with the relationship between what we are actually doing, and how we talk about what we are doing. At any rate, I think there is some good language in here that I wanted to put out there.
Douglas Rushkoff doesn’t really understand Occupy. At least in this talk, his words don’t understand Occupy. He might understand it, but he just doesn’t talk about in during this video. That might not be his fault, of course. There are many things that are more complex than words easily impart, especially in the limited time frame and audience of a keynote talk. I’m going to try here, but I won’t necessarily do any better.
But nevertheless, this talk doesn’t get Occupy. Occupy isn’t a fully distributed movement. It is not the commons. It isn’t hyperlinks. It isn’t Twitter, where everyone gets 140 characters, and then what they do with that becomes integrated into some Klout curve of follow counts and RT quotients. As a friend told me, “Occupy is not a platform.” I know this, but it took the friend to remind me. I wish it was these things, because I get social media. I really like using Twitter, and my use of that platform is fulfilling to me. I wish Occupy could be the same.
Everyone says “Occupy is this, Occupy is that, Occupy is everything” and you start to believe it, because if social media was some sort of metaphor for Occupy, then by occupying I wouldn’t be doing anything different than my normal life (if you’re me, and like to chat on Twitter all day). I live half my life on half a dozen networks, I work and Occupy on networks, my friends are networked. So yeah, it’s fractals, it’s rhizomes, it’s the music of the spheres. Why not? I’ve used drugs. I read Deleuze. It all sounds good.
But that’s just the spectacle of Occupy, according to the people that need to keep reminding themselves and re-viewing the spectacle to remind themselves that it exists (i.e. they’re not living it every day so they have to talk about it). The spectacle of Occupy is a “Non-Demand-Based” political occupation of public space. Their emphasis. The weird thing to most people is the lack of demands, and they need to name this as a platform. “Well, if you’re doing something I don’t get, and it’s got a lot of people and it’s distributed, there’s a mess of computers and maybe drones, then it must be the internet.”
No. Occupy is the public street. The Street is just like it always has been. The street is dirty, messy, stretches your understanding of what is and isn’t violent, and is nuts. There are many different streets, and they each have their own character. But there are certain streets that we are starting to pay attention to again. It’s not just a square in the Middle East somewhere, and its not just the National Mall. It isn’t even Main Street, USA. The Street that all of a sudden we are forced to pay attention to is a weird strip of land that we saw everyday for years, that we ignored as innocuous green space. It is a college campus, that is supposed to just be a frisbee park, or a background in Admissions brochures. The Street is in a different place, but it’s still The Street.
There’s a temporal difference as well. The Street is still The Street, but now the smart people are back out in the street, and so The Street is actually doing something “interesting”, and not just being blocked by peasantry standing in the way of JP Morgan’s car. The bourgeoisie are in the street, either because they’ve been forced there, or because the interesting things are going on out there. The Street is relatively safe, despite what the media will tell you. The media refuses to use history as a comparison. But they’re just another vendor with a product to sell, and history is not it.
If you don’t think that people build homes in The Street all the time; if you don’t think that riots happen all the time; if you think that people aren’t protesting capitalism outside of the mall every day of the week; if you don’t think that people are always capable of defending themselves against the police if they choose to do so; then you are merely more interested in a different narrative that is not the narrative of The Street, and so you’ve been choosing to ignore it. What Occupy is, is that The Street had a good old fashioned flash mob, and decided to all show up in the same place at the same time, and then people actually showed up, and we’re repulsed by The Street, but actually kind of got into it. And then the Media noticed. It was a word, it was capitalized, and because of a number of pictures that happened at the right time, the word got capitalized, and then the Media could use it to sell advertisements.
This happened in Portland on October 6th, when I met people that I’ve been working with for the last six months. Best flash mob ever. Since then, it’s been business as usual, and that means The Street, as usual. Fighting the narrative that refuses to recognize The Street. Every few weeks we take over The Street, and remind the consolidated forces of power and capital that it isn’t just a roadway. We keep thinking about it, planning it, coming up with better ideas, breaking down bad ideas, and solidify the organization of The Street in the process.
This isn’t a popular movement, it never was, and it never will be. The world is just too multiplicitous of a place for everyone to ever be captivated by anything in particular. We struggle to understand voter disengagement. But can you ever get everyone to do anything? Can’t even get half the population of a supposed “American Culture” to all watch the Super Bowl. Can’t you imagine if you were a popular speaker, but couldn’t even get half of a room to all listen to you at the same time? There will never be a majority of people. A majority of a sample set, maybe. If you force everyone you ask to answer a question as either yes or no.
But The Street keeps doing it’s thing, which is lots of things, each and everyone doing their own thing. The interesting thing about The Street, at least the Occupied street, is that there is still, after six months, a critical mass of really smart people willing to join in this particular sample set. And not just to answer yes or no, but to start working on some really difficult projects.
My personal project is that I’m trying to destroy mainstream media as a capitalist business model, and make it a form of political history. Yeah, we could use some help. It’s not easy to deconstruct a hierarchical system of publishing that relies upon selling marketing material, and remake it into an anarchist media organization. But we’re working on it, and getting a lot better. We don’t have a platform. We couldn’t use one. Facebook is not going to solve this problem, because that is not what the platform will let you do. Twitter won’t solve the problem. No one tool is going to make The Street function better. It’s going to take a whole lot of tools, that will have to be begged, borrowed, and stolen. How is Facebook going to help me when a cop tries to smash my camera with a baton? How is Facebook going to help me when a rogue hacker feels personally insulted by something on our website and threatens to attack us? Who is going to help us? What former institution, what State platform, is going to guarantee a nice, fair, distributed lifestyle for the street? The Police as Platform? Our education system as Platform? Representative Democracy as Platform? Occupy as Platform? Fuck that. It’s not just leaders that have failed us. It’s the systems that anyone with a famous name has tried to sell us. Jordan, Clinton, Jobs, Lin, Obama, Zuckerberg. Fuck ‘em all. We’re going to need a solid crew of real experts who want to keep working in the street, not just some flashy apps, and “platforms”, and the assholes who are going to collect money from us for the privilege of attempting to get on board.
The General Assembly is not platform. It’s not the point, anymore than your homepage is the Internet. It’s just how you start. It’s how you learn about consensus, which is the point. Everyone works on a modified consensus, anyway. The real work goes on in Committees and working groups, in the affinity groups that we use to take The Street for public use and shut down corporations. It’s about how you stay in The Street, not about how you got there, or when and why you decide to leave. Many people think that if we can just get the people to the streets, then everything will take care of itself. But it’s getting the people into the streets, and giving them the tools to figure out what they are doing there, and what they are going to do next. There’s no platform for that. Seen any good Occupy apps? Of course you haven’t.
And here’s what is going on in The Streets.
Learning programming; figuring out how to print things without wasting quite so much material; figuring out what sort of music helps you stay awake on a 40 hour drive because there was no other way; the fine art of quitting smoking, starting again, and quitting again; pre-protest yoga; studying drone silhouettes; sleeping in office buildings; sleeping in cars; sleeping on concrete; sleeping while standing; SEO and social media (yeah it’s in there); dodging bill collectors; ducking the cops, cooking for people with gluten intolerances plus lactose allergies; making a business model to keep a storefront to use it as a place to have meetings; helping a store owner with his/her business model to keep the storefront to use it as a place to have meetings; man/zone defense theories of police brutality media coverage; conveying opinion in meetings by hand signals alone to save time; trying to stay married; trying not to wonder about whether or not to have kids; arguing about whether or not broken windows are violence; healing from wounds; learning how to type on a laptop while running from armed men; picking a collaborative editing platform and sticking with it for the benefit of the people who can’t adopt to new software so quickly; arguing with drunks; de-escalation training; union negotiation; the fine art of threatening people in a non-criminal way over the internet; consensus process; conspiracy theory literacy; and, if there’s any money, getting drunk every now and again to forget all the things you can’t plan or skill out of the equation and remain huge, angst-ridden empty variables, like the inside of a prison, or death.
And it’s a little bit romantic, at least when you sum it up in one long run-on sentence. That’s a privilege of being on The Streets in this country, as opposed to somewhere else where they would be no time or place to glorify it in such ways. And when you’ve been doing it for six months and you’ve already realized that this is what the rest of your life is going to look like, it doesn’t really seem that romantic anyway. It certainly doesn’t seem like you’ve happened upon a new renaissance paradigm. It seems more like you’re fighting a war, but it’s a war that everyone else refuses to believe exists. You start to wonder if maybe if you died from it, that would prove that you’re not crazy. Or maybe it would only prove that you are.
And that’s not the Internet. It has the internet in it, but only as part. It’s life.
Here’s where I start: politics is the elephant in the room. In the portrait of New Aesthetics painted by Bruce Sterling, the glitch-captivation is a worldview. As a way of seeing the world, it has its own political aspects. But there is more than needs to be said.
The New Aesthetic reeks of power relations. Drones, surveillance, media, networks, digital photography, algorithms. This is largely about the technology of “seeing”, and how we see this new technology of seeing. But the technology is also for watching. The ability to watch someone is a form of power. It controls the flow of information. “I know everything about you, but you know nothing about me.” Or, “I know everything about you, and all you can do is make art about the means by which I know things.”
photo via Demilit Tumblr
In some ways, Bruce’s article makes mention of this problem, by noting the difference between the aesthetic appeal of certain technologies, and their actual function.
“Modern creatives who want to work in good faith will have to fully disengage from the older generation’s mythos of phantoms, and masterfully grasp the genuine nature of their own creative tools and platforms. Otherwise, they will lack comprehension and command of what they are doing and creating, and they will remain reduced to the freak-show position of most twentieth century tech art. That’s what is at stake.”
But this is more than hand-wringing over giving up our freedom, life, and death, to machines. The real danger that technology poses is precisely why we can’t “debunk” the aesthetic appeal and pretend that it doesn’t exist. You can ignore a work of art, but a drone or a surveillance array won’t be ignored. Not for long. Our consciousness is invaded and controlled via real space.
Our semiotic interest in these technologies is real. As real as the technologies themselves. So what do we do with it? What sort of actions ought we to take in response to seeing glitch-art from satellite cameras that uses not an anonymous landscape for background, but live images of our own homes? I’m not sure yet. Meanwhile, we continue to be watched.
Drones fire missiles, watching inquisitively for the flash of light. They have no sense of aesthetics. And they continue to fire, until their racks are empty. Then they reload.
This isn’t a criticism of New Aesthetics. It is wondering what the political module is that we will plug into New Aesthetics. These “Theory Objects” are made to network. They are consumer tech, and Theory Objects are as real as your smart phone and its own terrible eco-history. We are obsolete without networking in a politics, as yet uninvented.
We’re going to have to design-fiction a political module quickly. And then, worse: we must fab it, and get it into the field.
If you have ideas, do share. We need to work on this together.