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<nettime> Tactical Art in Virtual Space 1
Josephine Berry on 13 Sep 2000 16:58:32 -0000


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<nettime> Tactical Art in Virtual Space 1


This chapter of my thesis has just been published in the erratic British
jounal 'Inventory', in their latest Homo Ludens issue -
http://www.inventory.mcmail.com/journal.htm

Also, the footnotes have been lost in transit from Word to email...I've
pasted them in at the end but annoyingly the numbers in the text are gone.
Please mail me if you want to read this as a word document.

Josie


"Another Orwellian Misnomer"? Tactical Art in Virtual Space


Self-conscious tactics in an unstable space

In the wake of Michel Foucault's discussions of the discrete, invisible
and all pervasive 'microphysics of power' at work within technocratic
society, Michel de Certeau was moved to write an alternative account in
which the 'network of an antidiscipline' is uncovered; a category of
largely invisible, improvised and ephemeral practices which comprise
'everyday life'. This heterogeneous set of practices, de Certeau claims,
exists outside discourse and has no proper name, belongs to no ideology,
acts heterogeneously and by virtue of its evasiveness comprises an ongoing
and pervasive resistance to an optical and panoptic regime of power. The
exteriority of these practices to discourse is also, ironically enough,
seen by Foucault to have characterised the advent of panoptic power ,
which emerged in a similarly 'mute' manner. The panopticon's articulation
in discourse happened after the decentralised historical growth of a
panoply of observational techniques resulted in a coherent disciplinary
regime.This, argues de Certeau, is a mode of power almost necessarily in
decline because it has ceased to operate at an unconscious level; it has
become distinct. If the panoptic mode of power gained ascendancy in
silence, de Certeau spectulates, what other silent forms of power are
coming into being? In his 1984 book The Practice of Everyday Life, he
asks:

"If it is true that the grid of 'discipline' is everywhere becoming
clearer and more extensive, it is all the more urgent to discover how an
entire society resists being reduced to it, what popular procedures (also
'miniscule' and quotidian) manipulate the mechanisms of discipline and
conform to them only in order to evade them, and finally, what 'ways of
operating' form the counterpart on the consumer's (or 'dominee's'?) side,
of the mute processes that organize the establishment of socioeconomic
order."

In what was not only a riposte to Foucault's uni-directional discussion of
the discrete mechanisms of panoptic power but also an analysis of the
all-too visible phenotypes of technocratic rationality, de Certeau
mobilises two modes of operation: strategy and tactics. The former
describes force-relationships "that can be circumscribed as proper
(propre)"  and which are brought to bear on objects or targets distinct
and external to themselves. Strategy is the mode by which legitimated
power operates from within a designated field; through language, political
structures of representation, the assignation of gender roles, the
regulation of space, discourses of the body and so on. In short, it is the
productive mode of hegemonic power. Tactics, by contrast, has no proper
site, discourse or language, of its own - it "insinuates itself into the
other's place" , it adorns itself in the other's garb, speaks through the
other's language, and, because it has no fixed address or permanent mode,
never consolidates its own achievements or preserves its conquests.
Tactics comes out of the encounter with the rigid geometry of urban
planning, the syntax and vocabularies of languages, the regulated flows of
television, the choreography of the supermarket. In de Certeau's terms,
tactics is the practice produced by 'making do' with the oppressive
conditions of modernity and common people are "unrecognised producers,
poets of their own affairs, trailblazers in the jungles of functionalist
rationality" . It is a mode of production based in the heart of
consumption, a production that feeds on the desire provoked by the
commodity but which is used in the creation of an own language rather than
the singular conformity to the libidinal economy of the commodity's
'promissory note'.

But if Foucault and de Certeau can claim the desublimation of the
panopticon, then we can also claim a similar coming to consciousness of
tactics. And just as the discourse and the techniques of the disciplinary
society are split, so too are the goings on of the everyday and their
discursive integration into politics and aesthetics. In 1992, the term
'tactical media' was coined by the Amsterdam based organisors of the first
Next5Minutes conference Geert Lovink, David Garcia and Caroline Nevejan in
1992 . This term soon found its way onto media theoretical mailinglists
such as nettime , and the term gained common currency in the virtual
communities, working groups and social circles in which net artists
participate. By the third Next5Minutes conference on net culture in March
1999, 'tactical media' had become the organising subject, with activists,
media theorists, artists and technologists debating a new context and mode
of political and cultural resistance. In the post-68 political envirnoment
in which the notion of a united front of resistance as questionable as its
erstwhile target, imperial power, is anachronistic, the vagrant hybridity
of tactics provides an important model for conceptualising and organising
resistance. The structure of the Internet, which mirrors and fuels the
decentralisation and hybridity of the global market economy and its
geo-political correlatives, becomes an obvious and important site for
resistance.

In the analysis of net artist's involvement in the cultural logic of
tactical media which follows, the discussion will be framed by the
problematic of virtual space. Although a closer enquiry into the
phantasmatic quality of space on the Net will be presented in chapter 3,
for the present the discussion will hinge on the friction between the idea
of real and virtual space. Although tactics, as theorised by de Certeau,
are by no means limited to spatial practices, I have selected this
framework partly because it is the existence of an evasive but irreducible
difference between real and virutal space that gives the Net it's
distinctive identity. It is within the context of a contested splitting of
real and informational space that the phase shift of power pointed to by
Foucault and de Certeau (the shift from disciplinary power to what Negri
and Hardt have recently termed the 'biopower' of 'Empire' ) begins to
emerge: a world in which power has become as deterritorialised as capital.
Out of the four artworks discussed in this chapter, only Heath Bunting's X
Project addresses this spatial splitting directly but, as I will argue,
the ontology of virtual space and its impact on behaviour are crucial
concerns and points of leverage for all the artworks considered. While
some net critics argue the danger of the libertarian rhetoric of dual
worlds in which cyberspace is cast as the zone of borderless and
unfettered freedom , others see their disjuncture as promising a radical
potential. I will be using the widely diverging theories of the spatial
and environmental production of the subject offered by Walter Benjamin,
Michel de Certeau, Marc Augé and Slavoj Zizek to think through 'the
practice of everyday life online' which the artworks of Jodi, Etoy, Rachel
Baker and Heath Bunting present. In these works, the positing of 'typical'
kinds of behaviour by net artists presupposes a definition of the nature
of space and place, and vice versa. It is through the exploration of
everyday behaviour. which is the concern of tactical net art, that the
radical potential and oppressive flattening of cyberspatiality is brought
into focus.

In a more limited respect, and as we have seen in chapter one, artists
were drawn to the Internet because it offered them the possibility of a
different kind of 'professional' practice; indeed a chance to ellude the
professionalisatin of their own practice. In this sense, the Net offered
them a 'tactical' space in which to evade the strategies of the art
market. But if the Net seemed to offer such a tactical topology , it also
imposes a new set of conditions which can be seen as belonging to
strategic power within which art must operate. The establishment of
technical protocols and languages such as the Domain Name System (DNS),
TCP/IP, HTTP, HTML, XML, CGI and so forth impose a language or
architecture from 'above'. But, beyond the expansion and ellaboration of
tactics and strategy along older lines, the Net participates in a broader
development of mutual imitation that occurs within both dominant cultural
strategy (the 'Prada Meinhoff' mode of advertising) and cultural
resistance (the adoption of corporate identities ). In other words,
strategy and tactics are becoming harder to distinguish or require a new
set of conceptual tools with which to decode them. An important aspect of
this development for the online environment is the mutability of the
Internet's distributed networks and digital modalities which complicate
the production/consumption binary. The ease, for example, with which a
digital file can be copied, parsed, mirrored, linked to and endlessly
redeployed makes it, in some senses, extraordinarily vulnerable to
tactical use. However, this malleability is also harnessed by the
strategic forces of power at work in the Net; we begin to lose the
distinction between the 'properness' of strategy and the vagrancy of
tactics. Where de Certeau describes tactical action as a slow, erosive
force, the "overfow and drift over an imposed terrain, like the snowy
waves of the sea slipping in among the rocks" , in the new media age
tactics are operating under more mutable conditions in which strategy no
longer resembles anything so static as rocks. To grasp this more
concretely, we have only to consider the intensification of market
research carried out within the Net - based on the increased ease with
which individuals' movements and patterns of behaviour can be tracked
through inventions such as 'cookies' - to get an idea of how responsive
the system has become. This is not yet the technological dystopia imagined
by Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein in Data Trash, where the subject
has become totally assimilated into the instrumental operations of virtual
reality. But, to a great extent, the user does provide the 'encrypted
flesh' or behavioural data-set required by the market to continuously
reinvent itself in the putative image of the user-consumer who, in turn,
reflects the conditions of consumption - the series of choices on offer -
in a recursive loop.

Media theorists and activists David Garcia and Geert Lovink identify the
shifting, mutating and transferable quality of digital data on the Net as
'media hybridity' and discuss the mobility it produces in their
influential manifesto The ABC of Tactical Media written in 1997. The first
passages of the manifesto synopsise the ideas set out in de Certeau's
Practice of Everyday Life thereby explicitly revealing the indebtedness of
the concept of 'tactical media' to his work. In their text, which was
posted on community-building mailing lists such as nettime , Garcia and
Lovink update de Certeau's tactics for the New Media environment, and
ellucidate on the centrality of mobility and hybridity for this newly
instrumentalisd 'practice of everyday life':

"But it is above all mobility that most characterises the tactical
practitioner. The desire and capability to combine or jump from one media
to another creating a continuous supply of mutants and hybrids. To cross
borders, connecting and re-wiring a variety of disciplines and always
taking full advantage of the free spaces in the media that are continually
appearing because of the pace of technological change and regulatory
uncertainty."

We should not forget that this manifesto of tactical media was written at
a time in which governments were still in a state of relative confusion
over how to regulate the activities taking place over the Net as well as
the Net's own technical administration. Although 1996 saw the first
serious piece of U.S. Interent legislation in the form of the
Communications Decency Act , international governments were still in a
state of confusion as to which existing laws could be stretched to deal
with the network, what new legislation was required and how, if at all, it
could be enforced. This was a symptom of the Net's awkward transformation
from a U.S. government owned and academically administered research and
communications tool, to a commercially open, privately financed space of
international exchange. In the period between 1996 and 2000, a flurry of
legislation has taken place regarding encryption, public surveillance of
private communications, the liability of ISPs for the content stored on
their servers, and a 'purely technical' body has been appointed by the
U.S. government to regulate and administer the DNS system -the Internet
Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). These are just some of
the areas in which the Internet's once 'wild frontier' is being tamed, and
strategy is extends itself legislatively and bureaucratically into this
formerly disregarded zone.

Returning to tactics, the marriage of the terms 'tactical' and 'media' has
come to signify something more than the new terrain of everyday practice.
'Tactical media' belongs to a whole cultural turn in which what might be
described as the old 'strategies' of art and politics are abandoned in
favour of a parasitic, fast mutating and non-originary practice . The
modernist belief in conceptual and aesthic originality or the political
belief in the aggregative basis of opposition such as class and trade
unions cede to a postmodern refusal of such 'essentialist' individual and
collective definitions of subjectivity. Once entities such as authenticity
and origniality are invalidated by contemporary thought and the belief in
the plausibility of global revolution retracts into the limited struggles
of the 'new social movements', the modest contingency of tactical
practices come to the fore; a form of culture and politics as far beyond
metaphysics as the virtualised environment (both on and off the Net) in
which they unfolds. The predominance of parasitism and vagrancy in net art
as such, clearly owes much to the precursive experiments of minimalist and
site specific art which began in the 1960s; the threshold of the
information (post-disciplinary?) age. By this I mean site specific art's
location within a pre-existing network of spatial, social, economic and
political relations as against the artwork's creation of a series of
separate and internally constituted 'internal relations' - the zenith of
modernist practics as theorised by Clement Greenberg. Although not
necessarily adopting practices of the everyday, the expansion of the
artwork's limit beyond its physical 'pretext' to include a
self-constituting network of forces and relations is an important
anticipatory development. Michael Fried discusses this new turn in
'literalist' or minimalist art thus:

"There is nothing within [the beholder's] field of vision - nothing that
he takes note of in any way - that, as it were, declares its irrelevance
to the situation, and therefore to the experience, in question. On the
contrary, for something to be perceived at all is for it to be perceived
as part of that situation. Everything counts - not as part of the object,
but as part of the situation in which its objecthood is established and on
which that objecthood at least partly depends."

This art in which 'everything counts' is a phenomenological conception of
the artwork's meaning occurring in dynamic relationship between work,
viewer and world. In Frederic Jameson's description of the awesome scope
of a Hans Haacke artwork, the circumference of the 'situation' and the
intricacy of its phenomenology extends far beyond those immediate elements
which comprise the artwork's situation to encompass a global situation.
This scope is also the scope of the 'situation' articulated by net art:

"in the work of Hans Haacke, for example, [conceptual art] redirects the
deconstruction of perceptual categories specifically onto the framing
institutions themselves. Here the paralogisms of the 'work' include the
museum, by drawing its space back into the material pretext and making a
mental circuit through the artistic infrastructure unavoidable. Indeed, in
Haacke it is not merely with museum space that we come to rest, but rather
the museum itself, as an institution, opens up into its network of
trustees, their affiliations with multinational corporations, and finally
the global system of late capitalism proper (with all its specific
representational contradictions)."

Here the artwork is understood as creating a self-consciousness in the
viewer which operates on their own unarticulated and/or unreflexive
behaviour (looking at art in public space) and the seemingly remote and
silent functionings of the world order. If we consider how the collective
and largely undirected construction of Net gives the many activities which
compose 'the practice of everyday life' a greater emphasis, while the
emphatically global scale of the Net creates a very different scale for
these activities, we can imagine how the self-reflexivity of the viewer
gains a seemingly more affective quality - hence the sharp focus laid on
the relationship between behaviour and global 'situation' in net art. The
artwork's animation of the intersubjective relationship between the user
and situation can also, in Hegelian terms, be said to have effected a
shift from a quotidian use of tactics 'in themselves to a practice of
tactics 'for themselves. The tactical mode has become an explicitly
self-conscious way for net artists, activists and media workers to act in
cyberspace, lifting the small scale countervailing practices of the
everyday (the repurposing, circumventing, jamming, connecting, reversing
etc. of disciplinary powers) to the level of programmatic cultural
resistance. This tactical self-consciousness in net art can sometimes
exceed that possessed of site specific art because its self-reflexivity
invites the viewer not only to see their (physical, ideological, economic
etc.) relationship to the work and the world as part of the work's
circumference and vice versa, but also because it often invites them to
participate in its morphology. This invitation, although not
unprecedented, has an easiness based in the contiguity of the space of art
and the everyday in the Net, which comprises a (relatively) unhierarchical
organisation and materially homogeneous consistency of space. Art ceases
to be perceived as the site at which 'the practices of everyday life'
grind to a halt and a different kind of behavioral logic takes hold. Some
critics have optimistically formulated this development as 'the art of
involvement' and designate preceding experiments in interactive art 'open
works'. In contrast to the viewer's role within 'open work', where the
viewer is solicited to "fill in the blanks, to choose between possible
directions, to confront the differences in their interpretationsŠ[to
explore] the possibilities of an unfinished monument","  the 'art of
involvement' no longer constitutes an anterior work at all but rather,
"causes processes to emerge, it seeks to open up a career to autonomous
lives, it invites one to grow and inhabit a world. It places us in a
creative cycle, in a living environment in which we are always already
co-authors."

But where does such a programmatic reading leave tactics? Are tactics
simply another name for the productive capacity of countless individuals
which can be massified into a coherent aesthetico-political project? Are
they the behaviours preyed upon by marketers in their search for the true
identity of the consumer or are they that which necessarily eludes this
form of systematic reincorporation? Do tactics become available to
strategists when they reach the level of self-consciousness revealed in
the term 'tactical media' and therefore cease to be tactical? In net art,
as with the coming to self-consciousness of tactics within tactical media,
it is possible to see the elevation of this everyday practice of
resistance (for example la perruque - the use by factory workers of their
employers' resources for their own private ends) to the order of dominant
cultural strategy . If tactics no longer solely constitute ways of 'making
do' under the oppressive conditions of society, but begin to attain the
legitimation of artistic value or political modus operandi, do they still
remain the 'antidiscipline' to the dominant order? By investigating this
question, we must necessarily ask the question of how tactics themselves
change in virtual space, which in turn poses questions over the nature of
that space. But it is imporant to bear in mind that no matter how
self-consciously net artists are adopting tactics, their mutating nature
is as hard to fix down as the changeability of the material and semiotic
terrain in which they unfold.

A Place Made of Space

De Certeau's distinction between place and space - one importantly adopted
by the anthropologist of 'supermodernity' Marc Augé - will be helpful when
determining the nature of the tactical mode in net art. Place, for de
Certeau, describes the coexistence of things determined by their
respective occupation of an exclusive location. And conversely, that
location is reciprocally defined by a thing's occupation of it. In short,
"the law of the 'proper' rules in the place."  (This 'properness' is
partly responsible for Augé's positing of 'place' as a form of resistance
to the deterritorialised disorientation of supermodernity). Space, by
contrast, is "composed of intersections of mobile elements" it "occurs as
the effect produced by the operations that orient it, situate it,
temporalise it, and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual
programs of contractual proximities." De Certeau essentialises this
difference by drawing an analogy to the difference between langue and
parole. Tactics is then, nearly by defninition, a spatial mode, and one
through which place is practiced and experienced.

But what could be said to constitute a place on the Internet? The word
'site', which in ordinary speech would designate a precise location in
space, doubles as the technical term used to indicate a particular digital
file or 'information object' which is only ever viewed in the form of a
reassemblage. That is to say, what we view in our browser window is the
software's interpretation of a set of instructions - a string of 0s and1s.
On the Internet, although things can be designated a coordinate (an IP
number or URL) nothing can ever be said to occupy a unique location. But
even if we accept the distinction made by de Certeau and Marc Augé
regarding place and space, and even though a website no longer occupies a
singular location in the manner of a physical object, it is still possible
to see its equivalence to place. As with place, we know what we have to do
to get there, as with place we can compare the experience of having been
there with others, as with place our knowledge of it is always
existential, dynamised by our passage across it, inflected with our
intentions towards it, coloured by our encounters within it. But
crucially, unlike place, we cannot build a sense of identity around a site
on the Internet, we cannot belong to it and least of all attach foundation
narratives to it. We cannot feel within it the echo of what Augé describes
as 'anthropological place'.

Quoting from the ethnologist Marcel Mauss, Augé discusses the
part-fictional character of anthropological place in terms of the
relationship of what the former terms 'average man' to the territory he
inhabits. This man is born into a closed world, founded 'for once and all'
and inscribed so deeply upon him that it does not have to be consciously
understood. The 'total social fact' subsumes within itself any
interpretation of it that its indiginous members may have: "The 'average'
man resembles 'almost all men in archaic or backward societies' in the
sense that, like them, he displays a vulnerability and permeability to his
immediate surroundings that specifically enable him to be defined as
'total'" . As we shall see presently, the connection between environmental
permeability and a particular kind of identity are important subjects for
the tactical practice of net art. The level of imperviousness which
characterise the 'average' user's relation to the Net is a point of
investigation for these self-conscious tacticians attempting to create a
more bruising encounter between the space of the Net and its subject. In
order to become the producer of an idiolect (the personal/tactical mode of
enunciation formed within imposed stricutures), the subject must become
sensible to the particularities of their environment and confident of
their ability to find their own passage through it.

In 1996, the Swiss net art group cum spoof 'corporation' Etoy targeted the
supposedly neutral zone of the search engine with their artwork Digital
Hijack . Search engines are some of the most frequently 'visited' sites on
the Net with Altavista already drawing 32 million users per day by
September 98.  They act as huge centres of traffic convergence in the
supposedly decentralised structure of the Net, but notably - similarly to
airports -cannot be described as places of gathering. Although visitors
frequently return, it is not in order to find something rooted in a
singular location or to meet other visitors, but rather to use a service
that spatialises the rest of the Net through the production of a set of
URLs. Hartmut Winkler attributes their popularity to their perceived
neutrality: "Offering a service as opposed to content, they appear as
neutral mediators."  It is precisely because the search engine serves as a
portal to elsewhere that it becomes a heavily frequented site. For this
reason we can see the search engine as the quintessence of the
transformation of place into space, or the predication of place on space
in the Net. The fact that a site's centrality is directly related to its
distributive capacity tells us a great deal about the way in which spatial
practices on the Net are characterised by passage rather than settlement .
Nothing could be further from the permeability of the subject to
anthropological place than the indifference of the Net user to the
putative neutrality of the search engine website.

And it is precisely this neutrality that Etoy singled out for attack in
their Digital Hijack. In tune with Winkler's criticisms, Etoy created a
mechanism for alerting people to their passive acceptance of the search
engine's mode of selecting and hierachising URLs. The actual method of
aggregating and organising websites in accordance with the user's keyword
is, in reality, anything but exhaustive or disinterested. In the early
days of search engines, some companies (such as Yahoo) paid employees to
categorise websites 'by hand', thus making available only a tiny
proportion of the total number of websites on the Net. Of course what was
made available was the final result of a series of subjective choices and
corporate categorisations made by a team of coders. The subsequent
automation of this process has not, however, resulted in any fundamental
increase in accuracy, comprehensiveness or compatibility between the
keyword and the list of URLs displayed in response . Unable to master
complex linguistic issues such as syntax, and therefore unable to
interpret the meaning of strings of search terms, many search algorithms
will simply prioritise URLs according to the number of times the search
terms are mentioned.

This is just one example of how the map of the the WWW produced by the
search engine is deficient and, more importantly for us, how the system is
vulnerable to manipulation. Realising this point of leverage, Etoy began
to analyse the top 20 sites returned by search engines in response to some
of the most popular search terms such as 'porsche, penthouse, madonna,
fassbinder' . Essentially, Etoy found a way to manipulate the system by
updating an older practice called spamdexing. This is a simple 'hacker's'
trick by which a keyword is inserted repeatedly into an HTML document to
ensure that a website is featured high up in the search engine display
hierarchy . Etoy used their 'Ivana bot' (probably an algorithm) to analyse
the particular combination of keywords embedded in the top 20 websites
returned to a keyword such as 'porsche' and then mimicked it. They then
generated thousands of 'dummy trap' pages each of which contained
combinations of thousands of popular keywords, thus ensuring that the
pages would be returned in the top 20 category of myriad word searches.
For a short period after March 1996, surfers using search engines were
regularly 'hijacked' by dummy trap pages which, far from displaying
information about a desirable car or popstar would harass hostages with
the message: "Don't fucking move - this is a digital hijack by etoy.com".
If the hostage/viewer decided to follow the links through the website,
they would first discover what number hostage of the Etoy 'organisation'
they were, then view an animated graphic image file (GIF) of a
shaven-headed Etoy member in dark glasses and ambiguously plugged into a
cable at the navel , and finally receive a blunt mission statement:

"It is definitely time to blast action into the Net! Smashing the boring
style of established electronic traffic channels.

Welcome to the Internet Underground".

Today, after the search engines succeeded in terminating Etoy's action,
the statement posted on a sample site concludes:

"Although officially stopped, we cannot protect you from getting hijacked.
We lost control.

PIRATES FIGHTING FOR A WILDER NET!"

Shock and the Order of Experience in Modernity and the Net

Walter Benjamin's discussion of the relationship between memory and
experience is a useful text to draw on at this stage, because it provides
an excellent way of thinking about the shock tactics used by Etoy, their
role in the practice of place as well as a means of contrasting the space
of modernity with Augé's discussion of anthropological place - a crucial
way of entering a discussion on place in 'supermodernity' and on the Net.
In his essay "Some Motifs in Baudelaire", Benjamin splits experience into
two terms: Erlebnis and Erfahrung. By Erlebnis, Benjamin means an
experience for which we are psychologically prepared, against which we
have developed a protective shield to parry the impact of a stimulus.
Referencing Freud, Benjamin argues that experiences absorbed in such a way
can pass instantly into our conscious experience (Erlebnis) because they
do not produce any traumatic effects - traumatic stimulation being
understood here as the basis for (involuntary) memory, a function of the
unconscious. Erfahrung, on the other hand, is the order of experience
attributed to a stimulus for which we are unprepared. Our lack of
anticipatory shielding means that this experience cannot immediately enter
our consciousness, but instead plants a memory trace that will then be
worked through retroactively, through the act of involuntary memories or
dreams. Erfahrung, therefore, is the order of experience which entails a
dissolution of shock through the psychological relay of revisitations; the
integration of an experience into a deeper level of identity. One that
cannot be casually and voluntarily recalled, and equally cannot be so
easily disposed with. Benjamin understands Baudelaire's lyrical
relationship to the modern metropolis as the, perhaps paradoxical,
endeavour to preserve its series of shocks in the conscious act of writing
poetry. And asks how "lyric poetry can have as its basis an experience for
which the shock experience has become the norm."

Benjamin, along with other modernist theorists of the metropolis such as
Georg Simmel, makes the observation that as we grow accustomed to the
battery of shocks afforded by the crush of population density, the chaos
of crowds, the din and danger of traffic so too do our protective shields
become more efficient and total. In the modern city, Erfahrung diminishes
under the callousinig of Erlebnis. Benjamin, quoting from Baudelaire,
figures this shift in the disappearance of the daydreamer's unfocused look
and the advent of the prostitute's wary and shifting glance:

"'Her eyes, like those of a wild animal, are fixed on the distant horizon;
they have the restlessness of a wild animalŠbut sometimes also the
animal's sudden tense vigilance.'"

Let us then compare this condition to the permeability of the 'average
man' in anthropological place. Here we can examine how collective social
symbolisations work upon the irregular topography of place as an index of
Erfahrung and Erlebnis. In Augé's characterisation of anthropological
place (as constructed by the ethnologist Mauss) he discusses how, despite
the indigenous inhabitants' knowledge of the relativity of their home
territory, they confer upon it the mythical status of a singular origin. A
way of naturalising the contingent. Each new occurrence, such as a birth
or death, however well 'known', has to be incorporated into a discourse
and thereby naturalised into the mythological syntax. In other words, the
specificity of place is constantly demarcated and thereby reaffirmed
through its inscription in the foundation narrative. By contrast, in de
Certeau's discussion of the 'concept-city' - the modern city of
enlightenment rationality and the urban planner, the city whose origins
Baudelaire witnessed and the precursor of cyberspace - the specificity of
place and its subjects is flattened through the imposition of the
universalising, self-constituting and dehistoricising myth of rationality
. A myth which excludes those stubborn particularities which cannot be
assimilated into its system: "a rejection of everything that is not
capable of being dealt with in this way and so constitutes the 'waste
products' of a functionalist administration (abnormality, deviance,
illness, death, etc.)."  Occuring then at the same time as the increased
violence of the modern city and its concurrent defensive psychological
mechanisms is the invalidation of the specificity of places and their
inhabitants, their histories and contradictions. We can view the
concept-city as a utopian/dystopian fantasy existing in advance of (and at
odds with) its actual construction, operating in tandem with the order of
experience which Benjamin terms Erlebnis.

But what is the order of 'shock' manufactured for Etoy's digital hostages?
The search engine itself can certainly be seen as a kind of concept-city
imposing the template of universality and rationality - through its
promise of categorisation and inclusiveness - onto the specificity of the
Net's myriad layers, aggregations and networks. The user's God-like view
over this map of the Net involves the same fantasy of legibility that
transfixes the beholder of a city from above . Perhaps in this sense, the
production of the dummy trap page causes the user to tumble from their
vantage point into the sticky illegibility of the Net's tangled and
undecipherable networks - the tactical point of view. These self-conscious
tacticians have wrested the stunned subject from the alienating
universality of the spectacle and returned them to the everyday practice
of the walker who "write(s) without being able to read" . Or rather, who
reads a single page without knowing what else they might be able to read.
But has this really shocked the viewer? Has the hoax managed to slip in
under the guard of the viewer's sensory shield and produce Erfahrung in
the place of Erlebnis? Or we could ask the question thus: has the viewer's
divestment of the fantasy of legibility and the universalising myth of the
Net's inherent rationality produced a bruising encounter with
environmental specificity and in some sense converted the search engine
into an actual place? This question contains within it the presumption
that the 'view from above', the construction of legibility is a means by
which the subject defends against the shock which is nothing other than a
glitch in the symbolic tissue through which the Real is momentarily
glimpsed. (I will return to this psychoanalytic line of enquiry below).

But there is an incompatibility between these questions and the Net
because here we are dealing with a simulacral system par excellence.
Within such a system, and in particular one that operates on the
principles of its digital mutability, it is harder to perceive the
distinction between an actual breakdown and its simulation or the
occurrence of the unexpected within a programmatic field of novelty
production. Furthermore we are also dealing with a zone of naturalised
hybridity. The search engine applies the logic of library categorisation
to a networked computer file system which, in turn, adopts the imagery of
geographical space as evidenced in words such as 'website', 'site map' and
'portal' and the browser softwares' adoption of the terms 'navigator' and
'explorer'. The ease with which these categories can be successfully
combined reveals a great deal about the malleability of the Net's symbolic
economy. So long as equivalences can be found between semantic systems and
an appropriate representational language assigned, then their combination
is permissable. This environment then is neither the originary site of the
indigenous fantasy nor the concept-city with its disjuncture between
rationalist myth and specificity. When Etoy engineer the shock of a dummy
trap page, they may educate the viewer as to the workings of the system
but they do not create any fundamentally new relationship or fantasy
between the viewer and the site. In effect the dummy trap page is just a
further augmentation of the constantly shifting simulatory panorama that
is the the Net. In this respect the Net does not possess the metaphysics
of place where things reside in an exclusive location and around which or
against which systems of meaning operate. It is, rather, a differential
system without, to borrow a term from Baudrillard, 'limit'. Self-conscious
tactics, if they do not rupture the simulacral texture of the Web and
remain instead within the play of difference, are unlikely to produce the
experience of shock through which place might be felt.




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