McKenzie Wark on Thu, 4 Jul 2002 15:51:50 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> the language of tactical media

[from] Tactical Media and Tactical Knowledge
McKenzie Wark

Geert Lovink and David Garcia speak of a tactical media that
might free itself from the dialectic of being an alternative or
an opposition, which merely reproduces the sterile sense of a
Wedom versus a Theydom in the media sphere.  They claim
that the "identity politics, media critiques and theories of
representation" that were the foundation of oppositional
media practices "are themselves in crisis." They propose
instead an "existential aesthetic" based on the temporary
"creation of spaces, channels and platforms". Lovink and
Garcia's seminal text on tactical media doesn't entirely succeed
in extracting itself from the oppositional language of Wedom
versus Theydom, but it points towards an alterative strategy
to the negation that paradoxically unites Osama Bin Laden,
George W Bush and the writers of The Nation as purveyors,
not of the same world view, but of world views constructed
the same way. It is a question of combining tactical media
with a tactical knowledge, of using the extensive vector of
the media in combination with the intensive vector of the
scholarly archive.

In a nominally democratic country, one acts as part of a public
sphere in the sense Alexander Kluge give to the term.   A
public sphere  a matrix of accessible vectors  acts as a
point of exchange between private experience and public life;
between intimate, incommunicable experience and collective
perception. Public networks are arenas where the struggle to
communicate takes place. Two aspects of this concept are
relevant here. For Kluge, writing in post war Germany, the
problem revolves around the historic failure in 1933 of the
public sphere to prevent the rise of fascism. "Since 1933 we
have been waging a war that has not stopped. It is always
the same theme  the noncorrelation of intimacy and public
life  and the same question: how can I communicate strong
emotions to build a common life?"  For Kluge, the public
sphere is a fundamentally problematic domain, caught
between the complexities of the social and the increasing
separation of private life.

One has to ask: for whom does Kluge imagine he speaks?
Perhaps there are other experiences of the relation between
the time of intimate experience and the time of the public
sphere, buried out there in popular culture. Perhaps it is only
intellectuals who feel so estranged from the time of
information in the era of telesthesia. After all, the mode of
address adopted by most popular media doesn't speak to a
highly cultured intellectual like Kluge  or even a provincial
one like me. We were trained in slower ways of handling
information, and have a repertoire of quite different stories
with which to filter present events. How could we claim to
know what goes on out there in the other interzones, in quite
other spaces where different flows from different vectors
meet quite other memories and experiences of everyday life?
After all, we intellectuals keep finding more than enough
differences amongst ourselves.

A tactical knowledge of media may have among its merits the
fact that it takes these other interzones seriously. It tries to
theorize the frictions between Kluge's intimate experience and
the network of vectors, or it actually tries to collect and
interpret accounts of such experiences.  It is necessary to at
least attempt to maintain a self-critical relation to the codes
and practices of the interzone specific to intellectual media
experiences. After all, 'our' training, 'our' prejudices in
relation to the vector might be part of the problem. Nothing
exempts 'our' institutions and interests from the war of the
vector, the struggle to control the trajectories of information.

With the spread of the vector into the private realm, a
window opens that might be used to create a line along
which the communication of intimate experience and collective
feeling might take place, in those eventful moments when
their separation collapses. The protocols of tactical media are
not given in advance. As Gilles Deleuze says: "Experiment,
never interpret."  What is at stake is not the recreation of the
public grounds for a universal reason, but finding the tactical
resources for a far more differentiated and diverse struggle
to communicate, that simple thing so hard to achieve.

The maintenance of democracy requires a practice within the
public networks for responding to events that it was never
quite designed to handle. Virilio asks whether democracy is
still possible in this era of what he calls 'chronopolitics'.
Perhaps democracy succumbs to 'dromocracy'  the power
of the people ploughed under by the power to technological
speed.  Well perhaps, but the only way to forestall such
pessimism is to experiment with tactics for knowing and
acting in the face of events. One has to experiment with
relatively freely available conceptual tools and practices and
base a democratic knowledge on them. This may involve
moving beyond the techniques and procedures of the
academy. In Antonio Gramsci's terms, the academic
intellectual risks becoming merely a traditional intellectual, one
of many layers of cultural sediment, deposited and passed
over by the engine capital and the trajectory of the vector,
caught up in a temporality that is not even dialectically
resistant, but is merely residual. One has to make organic
connections with the leading media and cultural practices of
the day.

Nevertheless, the historic memory and living tissue of
scholarship stores resources that are useful and vital. In
studying an event like September 11, a tactical knowledge can
build on the best of two existing critical approaches. To the
schools that concentrate on the structural power of
transnational capital flows and military coercion it adds a
close attention to the power of transgressive media vectors
and the specific features of the events they generate. To the
schools that study the space of the media text in the context
of periodic struggles for influence with the national-popular
discourse it adds an international dimension and a closer
attention to the changing technical means that produce
information flows. The event is a phenomena a little too
slippery for either of these approaches. Hence the need to
examine it in a new light, as the chance encounter of the local
conjuncture with the global vector  on the operating table.

The chance encounter of Osama Bin Laden with CNN, like
the meeting of the umbrella with the sewing machine, has a
surreal, 'surgical' logic specific to it. It is not entirely reducible
to the long term temporalities of capital or military power and
lies in the spaces between national-popular discourses.
Writing the vector is not really something that can be
practices with the tools of the Herbert Schiller school of
political economy or the Stuart Hall school of cultural studies,
alone, although a tactical knowledge might owes something
to both.  A tactical intellectual practice that uses the moment
of the event to cross the divide between infrastructural and
superstructural time.

The event is not reducible to the methods of the 'areas
specialists'. When studying events from the point of view of
the site at which the originate, they always remain the
province of specialists who deal with that particular turf.
Events often generate valuable responses from area
specialists, but these usually focus on the economic, political or
cultural factors at work in the area the specialists know first
hand. They do not often analyze the vectoral trajectories via
which the rest of the world views the event. A tactical
knowledge borrows from area studies without being caught
within its territorial prerogatives.

In an age when transnational media flows are running across
all those academic specialties, perhaps it is time to construct a
discourse that follows the flow of information (and power)
across both the geographic and conceptual borders of
discourse. Perhaps it is time to start experimenting, as Kluge
has done, with modes of disseminating critical information in
the vector field. Perhaps it is time to examine intellectual
practices of storing, retrieving and circulating knowledge.
Without wishing to return to the practice of the 'general
intellectual', it may be worth considering whether the
development of the vector calls for new ways for playing the
role of the tactical intellectual.  The tactical intellectual would
combine the practices of tactical media and tactical
scholarship, while being careful not to fall into the temporality
of either journalism or the academy, but rather remain alert
to the moments in which such distinct times are brought into
crisis by the time of the event.

                   ... we no longer have roots, we have aerials ...

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