joanne richardson on Wed, 3 Jul 2002 21:45:29 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> the language of tactical media


An earlier version of this text was first circulated on the Next 5 Minutes
4 editorial mailing list. Current version rewritten for a feature on
tactical media of the magazine Balkon, due to appear in conjunction with
the Cluj, Romania co-edition of N5M4 in September.

The Language of Tactical Media
.....        Joanne Richardson

“World War III will be a guerilla information war, with no division
between military and civilian participation.”   -- motto of Tactical Media
Crew, borrowed from Marshall McLuhan

The future is a series of small steps leading away from the wreckage of
the past, sometimes its actors walk face forward, blind to the history
played out behind their backs, other times, they walk backwards, seeing
only the unfulfilled destiny of a vanished time. The promise of the
tactical media of the future - the end of the spectacular media circus as
everyone begins to lay their hands on cheap ‘do it yourself’ media
technologies made possible by new forms of production and distribution -
was inspired by a distinction between tactics and strategies made by
Michel de Certeau in 1974. Strategies, which belong to states, economic
power, and scientific rationality are formed around a clear sense of
boundary, a separation between the proper place of the self and an outside
defined as an enemy. Tactics insinuate themselves into the other’s place
without the privilege of separation; they are not a frontal assault on an
external power, but makeshift, temporary infiltrations from the inside
through actions of thefts, hijacks, tricks and pranks. But for de Certeau,
the distinction was almost entirely focused on the power of reading (the
consumption of signs) to transform submission into subversion.  The most
memorable example of tactics in The Practice of Everyday Life is the
indigenous Indians who under Spanish colonization appear to be submissive
but really “often made of the rituals, representations, and laws imposed
on them something quite different from what their conquerors had in mind;
they subverted them not by rejecting or altering them, but by using them
with respect to ends and references foreign to the system they had no
choice but to accept.” The apparently submissive kneel, bow down, put
their hands together in prayer, but they don’t believe the words; when
they mouth them they secretly mean something that was not intended by the
original producers. The strength of their ‘resistance’ is in their silent
interpretations of these rituals, not in their transformation.

Maybe the most interesting thing about the theory of tactical media is the
extent to which it abandons rather than pays homage to de Certeau, making
tactics not a silent production by reading signs without changing them,
but outlining the way in which active production can become tactical in
contrast to strategic, mainstream media.  The examples of tactical media
have almost become canonical by now: billboard pirating by Adbusters,
plagiarized websites by the Italian hackers,,
RTMark’s mock websites for G.W. Bush and the World Trade Organization, and
(as theYes Men) their impersonations of WTO representatives to deliver
messages that don’t challenge the WTO’s position but over-identify with it
to the point of absurdity. In contrast to mainstream media, tactical
interventions don’t occupy a stable ideological place from which they put
forward counter-arguments; they speak in tongues, offering temporary
revelations. But while shifting the emphasis from the consumption of signs
to an active form of media production, the theory of tactical media seems
to have lost some of the original contours of de Certeau’s distinction.
The tactical media universe as mapped by David Garcia and Geert Lovink
in ‘The ABC of Tactical Media’ also included ‘alternative’ media, although
its logic seems quite different. Grassroots initiatives which are focused
on building a community around other values than the mainstream, do occupy
an ideological place that is marked as different; they don’t infiltrate
the mainstream in order to pirate or detourn it, as RTMark might
infiltrate the media image of the WTO.

And especially in the recent transformation of alternative media into the
global Indymedia network, the separation between Indymedias’ alternative
voice and the mainstream enemy is quite evident. Indymedia critique the
pretensions of mass media to be a true, genuine, democratic form of
representation; it opposes the false media shell with counter-statements
made from a counter-perspective – a perspective that is not questioned
because it is assumed as natural. My Italian friends who work with
Indymedia showed me a video they co-produced about the anti-globalization
demonstrations in Prague and asked what I thought. I replied that it was a
good piece of propaganda, but as propaganda it never examined its own
position. In this video you see a lot of activists who came to Prague from
America, UK, Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy, etc; occasionally you even
get ossified Leninist bullshit from members of communist parties. What you
really don’t get is any reflection of the local Czech context – many
locals denounced what they saw as attempt to playact a revolution by
foreigners who invoked slogans from an ideology the Czechs themselves
considered long obsolete. The confrontation of these different
perspectives is absent from the video, since it is meant to promote
Indymedia’s own anarcho-communist position, raised to the level of a
universal truth. And in this sense it was as strategic and dogmatic as
mainstream media; it was only the content of its message that differed.

De Certeau was a child of his time, maybe as a former Jesuit he was more
timid and better behaved than his siblings, but he played with the same
conceptual toys. In its historical moment tactics was an important idea
that sought to define a way of subverting the information spectacle that
would avoid using the same tools (strategies) against its opponent.
Tactics recycled the Situationist idea of detournement: taking over the
images and words from the mass spectacle, but putting them through an
unexpected detour, using them in a way they were not originally intended
by combining them in surprising combinations, heretical juxtapositions.
The Lettrists kidnapped a priest, and, dressed in his gown, gave a sermon
at the Notre Dame on the death of god; the SI altered the soundtracks of
karate and porn films to reflect the struggle against bureaucracy; even
striking workers during May ’68 stole the media image of James Bond with a
gun for a poster announcing themselves as the new specter haunting the
world.  These were neither art nor political speech; their disruptive
power was that they did not use the familiar, straightforward language of
politics.  Their wit and lack of directness was a measure of their
success; the danger always lurking in the background was that this new
mode of production through theft and infiltration of public spaces,
including the media, could ultimately be used to deliver the same kind of
blunt, inflexible propaganda as the media spectacle. As a practice,
detournement reflected a contradiction between the recognition that
fighting on the same terrain as the enemy is a seductive but inevitable
trap, and the desire to occupy the buildings of power under a new name.
This contradiction crystallized in the hijacking metaphor: detourne was a
verb commonly used to describe the hijacking of a plane.

The SI played upon this connotation, announcing their own productions as
hijackings – of films, of politics, of quotidian desires. The terrorist as
a symbolic equivalent of the subversion of power was never far in the
background of associations. And in an almost straight line stretching
across the precipice of history, aesthetic terrorism continues to be
invoked as an honorific title.  Etoy advertise themselves as ‘digital
terrorism’; in an interview, Mark Dery called CAE a ‘philosophical
terrorist cell’ and made comparisons to the Red Brigades; RTMark is often
congratulated for its brand of ‘media terrorism.’ Now it could be lamented
that an unfortunate metaphor is being applied to practices that are very
different – but in what sense is the affinity only a matter of metaphor?
Terrorism is a way that the weak, lacking the strength in numbers and
political influence, can try to make use of the strong by infiltrating
their places of power, in the hope that the temporary seizure of a key
building, an airplane, or a politician might shift the balance of things
and bring power to the bargaining table. Ever since terrorism abandoned
the tradition of tyrannicide and became a form of propaganda of the deed,
it operated through a hijack of the media. Letters to the press,
communiqués: 5 minutes under the opaque illumination of the media
spotlight. The terrorist use of media hijacks is the point where tactical
media and strategy meet – it may be a surprise infiltration rather than a
direct attack, but an infiltration with a clear sense of separation
between its own position and that of the enemy, an infiltration that
ultimately mirrors the political organization, juridical system and mode
of expression of the power it opposes. The Red Brigades’ hierarchy of
brigades, columns, national branches, and an executive committee was a
double of the centralist organization of the state; the Weather
Underground’s counter-institution of ‘proletarian’ justice mimicked the
obscenity of the law in reverse: “We now find the government guilty and
sentence it to death on the streets.” And today’s fundamentalist terrorism
is a mirror of the network society of a stateless, global capitalism.
Western educated bin Laden militants don’t belong to any specific country;
they travel the globe from Bosnia to Paris and New York, use the internet
and cellular phones, and have access to communication networks even in a
desert cave.

Asking how media can be used tactically today implies a recognition of the
contradictory history in which the idea was born – the moment of crisis
when new social forces rendered old categories obsolete, and Marxism began
to reveal itself as a bankrupt system in which capitalism found not its
abolition but its supreme fulfillment. But alongside new ideas and the
search for a new language, lingered old modes of organization dating back
to the Jacobin terror, and the mythic image of the armed, militant hero.
Tactics sought to express a new way that the weak could fight against
power by using different tools - but in the old language of military
engagement. Before de Certeau, the distinction between tactics and
strategy was invoked by Clausewitz in 1812. Tactics is the manner of
conducting each separate combat; strategy is the means of combining
individual combats to attain the general objective of the war. Tactics is
the deployment of individual parts, strategy, the overview of the whole.
This is a very different distinction from de Certeau’s opposition between
modes of combat; de Certeau’s tactics is actually closer to what
Clausewitz called strategem – a concealed, indirect movement which doesn’t
actually deceive but provokes the enemy to commit errors of understanding.
This is analogous to what Sun Tzu termed a ‘war of maneuver’ – an artifice
of diversion undertaken by weak forces against a large, well-organized
opponent, an unexpected move that entices the enemy, leading him to make
mistakes, and eventually self-destruct.

Whether direct or concealed, offensive or defensive, using the strength of
numbers or the artifice of diversion, both strategy and tactics belong to
the art of warfare and have the same objectives: conquering the armed
power of the enemy, taking possession of his goods and other sources of
strength, and gaining public opinion by destroying the enemy’s
credibility.  And perhaps this is the limitation of a media theory based
on a distinction between tactics and strategies - ultimately both are a
form of war against an enemy power. The tactics of media hacks may differ
from the strategy of independent, alternative media in their formal
aspects, but what seems common to both is their self-definition through an
act of opposition. A fake GWBush page cannot exist without the authentic
one, which it parodies. Indymedia cannot exist without global capital,
whose abuses it chronicles, or without mainstream media, whose
falsifications it denounces.  The mainstream spectacle also needs an
embodiment of opposition to the universal values of democracy, enlightened
humanitarianism, and the right to consume without restraint. And after the
collapse of the other of ‘Eastern Europe,’ the image of the terrorist is
now the perfect media fantasy, the face against which it can define its
own values in reverse.

This reflection was occasioned by my editorial participation in the 4th
Next 5 Minutes Festival; it’s an attempt to think about its content, which
proposes an investigation of the meaning of tactical media in the wake of
September 11, and its decentralized organizational structure, which will
transform it into a series of dispersed but linked events, each focused on
different local issues. If as David Garcia admits, the idea of tactical
media grew out of a specifically Amsterdam context (or perhaps in a wider
sense, the liberal democratic context of the countries of advanced
capitalism), it is commendable that N5M4 is attempting to transcend its
origins and include initiatives that were previously left out of what
seemed to be a primarily ‘western’ idea of tactical media. The editorial
team for N5M4 includes media tacticians like CAE, members of the Indymedia
network, media centers in post-socialist countries which provide
infrastructural support and access and education to local producers, and
European organizations which provide ICT assistance to groups in Mali,
Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Jamaica, and Bolivia. Under the expanded
cover concept of tactical media are included what appear to be both
tactical and strategic media, as well phenomena that differ from both
insofar as they are not forms of warfare - initiatives to provide
infrastructure, improved access, means of communication and exchange to
people who for economic and political reasons are lacking these means.
These modes of production and exchange are not primarily constituted by
being directed against an enemy; the content is not determined in advance
through a preconceived opposition, but left to be shaped by its producers.
Now to my mind, labeling all these diverse practices forms of ‘tactical
media’ risks missing precisely their differences and making the term
meaningless. This loss of signification seems to correspond, in inverse
proportion, to the recent inflation of ‘tactical media’ as a cool label on
the market of ideas. Instead of analyzing concretely what is inherent in
different forms of media production and the ideologies they shelter and
preserve, the term papers over their contradictions. Tactical media is
good, progressive, alternative, etc. There is no need to ask questions,
its truth already appears self-evident.

After making some extremely arrogant, offensive films of Maoist propaganda
during the early 1970s, Godard became embarrassed. And started making
films that had nothing to say. Here & Elsewhere – we went to Palestine a
few years ago, Godard says. To make a film about the coming revolution.
But who is this we, here? Why did we go there, elsewhere? And why don’t
here and elsewhere ever really meet? What do we mean when we use this
strange word ‘revolution’?  It is only when he was old that Godard learned
how to ask questions, stumbling around like a foreigner in a language and
a history he did not possess. Here & Elsewhere, which came out in the same
year as de Certeau’s book, occupies no fixed position, moves towards no
preconceived destination, and takes nothing for granted, not even its own
voice. In an era dominated by a politics of the message (statements,
declarations of war, communiqués, demands in the form of new five year
plans), it searches for a politics of the question.

The idea of tactical media is the harbinger of a question both necessary
and timely: how is it possible to make media otherwise, media that
expresses its solidarity with the humiliated thoughts and incomprehensible
desires of those who seem doomed to silence, media that does not mirror
the strategic power of the mainstream by lapsing into a self-certain
propaganda identical to itself and blind to its own history. But the
language of tactical media simultaneously imprisons the idea of a
different type of media production inside a theory of warfare, as a media
of opposition, defined in relation to its enemy.  While it is necessary to
continue asking the question and experimenting with models of media
production that work in situations of crisis and adversity, it is also
important to know when to change terrain. As wars rage around us - wars
that rationalize the trafficking in merchandise under the shadow of
sublime principles, wars against terrorism, wars against drugs, wars of
information against information - maybe what we need least is to advertise
our practice as an extension of one or another principle of warfare. When
asked to take sides, for or against, siding with one army or the other,
sometimes the only real answer is not to play the game. This refusal
should not be confused with an exodus, a silent passivity, or a patient
resignation. It is the vigilance of continuing to think, beyond the
obvious - of a third, a fourth, or fifth alternative to the apocalyptic or
utopian sense of the media.

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