Henning Ziegler on Sat, 13 Jul 2002 04:14:10 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Hypertext [part 2 of 5]

[Part 2 of a 5 part paper, corrections or comments are very welcome]

2 On the Political Interpretation of New Media Objects

Henning Ziegler

Form and content in discourse are one; once we understand that verbal
discourse is a social phenomenon. —M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination

In their essay “The California Ideology,” European cultural critics
Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron have argued that “a loose alliance of
writers, hackers, capitalists, and artists from the West Coast of the USA
have succeeded in defining a heterogeneous orthodoxy for the coming
information age.”(2)  This ‘heterogeneous orthodoxy’ is what the writers
call the California Ideology: The idea that new media will make everybody
“both hip and rich,” being able to “express themselves freely within
cyberspace.” Barbrook and Cameron hold that this utopia is grounded on a
Californian “willful blindness towards (...) racism, poverty, and
environmental degradation,” so they see a need for Europeans to step into
the picture “to develop a more coherent analysis of the impact of
hypermedia than can be found within the ambiguities of the Californian
Ideology.” Although I find this argument somewhat overstated (and I’m not
sure if I would call the resulting ‘more coherent analysis’ a “rebirth of
the modern”), this paper could be seen as a part of the theoretical
project to ground new media theory in the social and political sphere
instead of a lofty West Coast utopia.
	Several key concepts from Fredric Jameson’s seminal book The
Political Unconscious might prove useful in this regard.  Basically,
remembering that “men represent their real conditions of existence to
themselves in an imaginary form” (Althusser 1971:  163), it is not hard to
see why the political should somewhat enter the analysis of new media
objects or ‘texts’ at all.  What’s harder to see is the primacy of a
political reading over other readings from theoretical schools such as
psychoanalysis, feminism, or deconstructionism, this primacy, however, is
precisely the notion that I need to establish in order to justify a
reading of new media objects in purely political terms.  In The Political
Unconscious, Jameson asserts that he is not calling for just another
‘method’ of political criticism—since the social and the political form
the backdrop of cultural production, he rather holds that “Marxism
subsumes other interpretative modes or systems; or, (...) the limits of
the latter can always be overcome, and their more positive findings
retained, by a radical historicizing of their mental operations, such that
not only the content of the analysis, but the very method itself, along
with the analyst, then comes to be reckoned into the ‘text’ or phenomenon
to be explained” (Jameson 1981: 47).  In his view, then, text, method, and
analyst all become part of a larger political configuration that can only
be uncovered by a ‘radical historicizing’ of the methods’ mental
structuring of material—zooming into the ‘text only version’ is just too
quick a move for a comprehensive understanding of the structural
limitations that have been at work in the society the cultural object
originated from.  But how does Jameson arrive at this conclusion?

	On level of the philosophy of history, he does away with the
fashionable notion that ‘everything is a text’ (in a similar way, Régis
Debray does away with the ‘sign’ in favor of the structure in media
studies(3)).  Without receeding to an essentialist notion of history,
Jameson holds that “that history is not a text, not a narrative, master or
otherwise, but that, as an absent cause, it is inaccessible to us except
in textual form, and that our approach to it (...) necessarily passes
through its prior textualization, its narrativization in the political
unconscious” (Jameson 1981: 35).  When uncovering this narrativization in
the process of textual interpretation, however, history never reveals its
‘true’ meaning to the critic; the ‘real’ history remains the ‘absent
cause’ for the ‘text’ as a cultural production.  The structure of any text
or new media object becomes an expression of a specific historical
configuration whose ‘authenticity’ can never be finally established; it
remains a cultural object that is indexical to a non-existent cause—the
political unconscious.  Significantly, Jameson also points to the
necessity of reading history through cultural objects: We are left with
them as ‘traces’ of the political unconscious, or of our ideas of
historical power configurations.  In my mind, Jameson’s move of
deconstructing essentialist notions of ‘history’ by calling history an
‘absent cause’ while also establishing a kind of ‘formalist essentialism’
with which stuggles over the interpretation of history can be discovered
in the structure of cultural objects convincingly establishes the primacy
of a political reading of old and new media objects.

	On the formal level, then, a political criticism of any cultural
object will attempt to extract structural antagonisms that are indexical
of a historical dialectic as ‘absent cause.’ This reading strategy is, of
course, to some extent based on Engels view that “all history (...) was
the history of class struggles” (Tucker, MER 699): Form and content of a
cultural object are not two opposite aspects to be discussed; rather,
dialectic historical struggles are manifest in the form itself.  
Furthermore, when one understands form as “sedimented content” (Jameson),
“the individual narrative, or the individual formal structure, is to be
grasped as the imaginary resolution of a real contradiction” (Jameson
1981: 77).  The cultural or new media object is a strategy for unification
of differences which retains certain traces of those difference in its
formal limitations.  It is important to note, however, that the object is
not different ‘from itself’ (in the sense of Derrida’s différance), since
the differences do refer to historical struggle, if only as an ‘absent
cause.’ Interestingly, Jameson mentions two aspects of new media objects
in his argument which will prove useful in my later analysis: The
pluralism of (class) struggle and the relationality of all antagonism:
“For Marxism (...) the very content of a class ideology is relational, in
the sense that its ‘values’ are always actively in situation with respect
to the opposing class” (Jameson 1981: 84).  If the cultural interface as a
new media object is a site of differences, those differences take on the
form of multiple, opposing views that ‘overdetermine’ (Ernesto Laclau) the
interface and that, furthermore, only work as active oppositions: I am not
what I’ve set a hyperlink to.

	The method of European criticism against the ‘California Ideology’
then becomes something like “the rewriting of the (...) text in such a way
that the latter may itself be seen as the rewriting or restructuration of
a prior historical or ideological subtext” (Jameson 1981: 81).  In a way,
the California Ideology incorporated into its world view the idea that
politics has come to an end and that restistance is merely a matter of
‘culture jamming.’ This cultural turn, which, as Barbrook and Cameron have
pointed out, ironically comes from the very people that participated in
the ‘countercultural’ movements of the 60s, overlooks the ways in which
political antagonisms are still structurally inscribed into new media
objects.  Or, as Jameson says, “the convenient working distinction between
cultural texts that are social and political and those that are not
becomes something worse than an error: namely, a symptom and a
reinforcement of the reification and privatization of contemporary life”
(Jameson 1981: 20).  Importantly, however, the kind of political criticism
that I have advocated here does not lead to the ‘unmasking’ of new media
objects as mere feedback loops into the system which they were originally
in opposition to.  The benefit of a formal, political analysis is that it
doesn’t automatically lead from the view that ‘everything is culture’ to
the cultural studies dead-end of seeing opposition as only preparing
another ‘underground trend’ for the multinationals to take up.  As Jameson
relativizes, “the lesson of the ‘vision’ of a total system is for the
short run one of the structural limits imposed on praxis rather than the
latter’s impossibility” (Jameson 1981: 91).

(2) Barbrook, Richard and Andy Cameron, “The California Ideology,”

(3) See Régis Debray, Media Manifestos (London, New York: Verso, 1996)

[End of part 2]

Henning Ziegler, Berlin

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