Kermit Snelson on Sat, 27 Jul 2002 21:46:51 +0200 (CEST)

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RE: <nettime> how to defeat activism

> Corporate media is designed to sell... process activism
> through it and you end up with "commodified dissent"... is
> that your argument?  Perhaps it's an attempt at subverting
> pop culture?

I think the term "commodified dissent" is a bit too mild for what I'm
claiming.  Under Negri and Jameson (et alia), the ideology of progressive
activism has degenerated far beyond what was formerly simple, harmless
"commodified dissent."  In fact, it has now become the developed world's
first version of a primitive Polynesian cargo cult.

The first stages of this development took place in the 1960s, when Marcuse
divorced radical theory from the economic concerns of working people and
cast it instead around psychological "issues" of identity formation and
sexual awakening.  And so the tool developed by Karl Marx for the use of
working people and statesmen degenerated into something that could seriously
interest only confused adolescents.  This well-heeled adolescent confusion
did, however, create vast fortunes for record companies, rock stars, drug
dealers, and even a few university professors.  "Commodified dissent" was

Some of those adolescents, as they grew older, eventually discovered that
activism based on such theories wasn't accomplishing much in the world of
grownups.  And more importantly, it wasn't supporting them in the style to
which they had grown accustomed as children.  And so they founded businesses
like ecotourism, which cart their customers over vast distances so they can
trample and disturb the fragile things they care so much about.  Like "The
Body Shop", which decorates the world's swank retail districts and duty-free
airport concourses with posters of picturesque poor people.  Like "Ben &
Jerry's", the Unilever subsidiary that allows people to express their deep
concern over the rape of the Earth by eating ice cream with names like
"Rainforest Crunch."  And now the new chain of retail "Fair Trade"
storefronts brought to you by the Global Exchange organization, the goal of
which apparently is to do for the world's traditional, tourist-oriented
aboriginal craft stands what Starbucks did for the world's coffee houses.
And since any new industry needs a new legal framework, the university
progressives have now been put to work on a jurisprudence of the marketably
picturesque, granting intellectual property rights and other forms of legal
personality to the native cultures, species and even scenery (which the
international securities trade calls "hospitality assets") on which such
businesses depend.  Welcome to "commodified dissent", Phase II.

The third and final stage in the cultural logic of late activism then comes
to pass just as the world's free and civilized peoples are now on their way
back into an age of lawless slavery to unaccountable masters.  The developed
world's most prestigious universities, just as the doomed Paiute Indian
tribes in the USA did during the 1890s, have responded to this grim prospect
by producing prophets of the Ghost Dance.  Think of today's academic talk of
street theater and other forms of artistic activism, of learned discourses
by Félix Guattari about liberating the world through a revival of
"aboriginal subjectivities," of chained-together Zerzanites at WTO meetings,
of monographs from Australian universities touting the liberatory benefits
of a copyrighted Dreamtime, while reading this:

     "In January 1889, a Paiute Indian, Wavoka, or Jack Wilson, had a
revelation during a total eclipse of the sun. It was the genesis of a
religious movement that would become known as the Ghost Dance. It was this
dance that the Indians believed would reunite them with friends and
relatives in the ghost world. As the movement spread from tribe to tribe, it
soon took on proportions beyond its original intent and desperate Indians
began dancing and singing the songs that would cause the world to open up
and swallow all other people while the Indians and their friends would
remain on this land, which would return to its beautiful and natural state.
The unity and fervor that the Ghost Dance Movement inspired, however,
spurred only fear and hysteria among white settlers which ultimately
contributed to the events ending in the massacre at Wounded Knee." [1]

Closely allied with the latter-day Ghost Dance prophets are today's
"tactical media" theorists.  They have invented the developed world's first
version of the cargo cults that originally appeared among the doomed native
cultures of Polynesia in the 1930s, spreading the gospel of a New
Dispensation based on consumer electronics.  And this message goes far
beyond their advocacy of intellectual consumption rather than production, or
their "aesthetic of poaching, tricking, reading, speaking, strolling,
shopping, desiring" [2].  For that would simply be an updated version of
secretly spitting into massa's meal in the kitchen before serving it to him
in the dining room.

No, the modern "cargo cult" of consumer electronics goes far beyond this,
even to the point of forecasting that the consumer electronics revolution
will create a post-human cybernetic subject that will evolve in biological
symbiosis with its machines and eventually free mankind forever from all
forms of physical bondage.  Of course, this kind of talk delights consumer
electronics manufacturers like Motorola, who have indeed recently shown
themselves to be more than happy to fund such very scientific results.  And
thus we have reached "commodity dissent" in its highest and final form.
Just as it proved to be for the American Indians and the Polynesians.  The
rest is silence.

Kermit Snelson


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