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<nettime> Geert Lovink's Dark Fiber
McKenzie Wark on Thu, 3 Oct 2002 00:45:18 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Geert Lovink's Dark Fiber



Geert Lovink, Dark Fiber: Tracking Critical Internet Culture,
MIT Press, Cambridge Mass, 2002
ISBN 0-262-12249-9  US $27.95

Reviewed by McKenzie Wark

The book is becoming a residual art-form. Like carving in stone, it is a
way of presenting information for ritual occasions that might more easily
be conveyed in other ways. In his new book Dark Fiber, Geert Lovink is
well aware of the anachronistic quality of a book about net culture.
"Scholars are stuck between print and online forms of knowledge
hierarchies", he writes.

But while official book culture is in media limbo, the freelance
intellectual has the liberty to approach the problem more artfully. Lovink
uses this book-based mix of his online writings as a way to get "text
crystals" to move differently. The internet is good for getting words
across space, but nobody knows how it will work out as an archive. The
book is the empire of time.

Too many books of net journalism grow obsolete even before they are
printed.  Unlike the more feverish apostles of the virtual, Lovink comes
to print at a more reflective moment. "Cyberspace at the dawn of the 21st
century can no longer position itself in a utopian void of seamless
possibilities." While Dark Fiber is very much of its time, it will be a
valuable resource, many years into the future, for understanding that
weird time between cyberspace utopia, dot.com mania and the pale triumph
of media business as usual.

Lovink has a unique trajectory in the net criticism world, as he is across
the heavy scholarship of German media theory, the ludic pragmatism of
Dutch media activism, and has taken the time to figure out how to
translate those worlds into English. His approach draws on the work of
Friedrich Kittler and others, who dissented from critical theory's
reduction of media to the social, cultural or economic domains. Media is
above all a technical medium, in their view. Lovink lightens the
scholastic-bombastic German approach with the stylistic flair of his
maverick predecessor, Willem Flusser.

In moving into the English language, Lovink draws on the pragmatism of
Richard Rorty. Lovink espouses a "radical pragmatism", somewhere between
the desire for utopia, the will to negation, and the practicalities of
carving out spaces for creation. He identifies the problem of synthesizing
tactical media with strategic theory, a union that is "easier said than
done."

Lovink's pragmatism is an attempt to break new ground, at some remove from
the three bodies of thought that elsewhere inflect and infect net
criticism.  In Lovink's view, Parisian high theory is in decline: "If the
Gulf War did not take place, the Jean Baudrillard no longer exists
either." Marxism has lost the plot of its revolutionary subject: "With one
eye on streaming financial data, another on the Financial Times at the
breakfast table, Negative Marxism without Subject has reached its highest
stages of alienation." The intellectual poverty of American cyberutopian
effusions is all too obvious: "The consensus myth of an egalitarian,
chaotic system, ruled by self-governing users with the help of artificial
life and friendly bots, is now crushed by the take-over of telecom giants,
venture capital and banks and the sharp rise in regulatory efforts by
governments."

When writing in Dutch or German, Lovink and his fellow theorists in the
Adilkno collective favored a strategy of theory as rhetorical overkill.
The group's pet topics included the colors of boredom, electronic
solitude, collective forms of disappointment. They were the Sam Becketts
of theory, acting out the ritual of its impossibility, but persisting with
the effort, nonetheless. Adilkno's problem was finding a way to write
within a spectacle that no longer aroused any cultural friction. "This is
the unbearable lightness of the exploding media universe: more channels,
less content, less impact." They settled for "Negative dialectics 2.0 used
as a tool for anti-cyclic thought." In their book Media Archive, they
exploited the rhetorical possibilities of turning media theory against
itself with a cool hand.

Dark Fiber is a very different book to Media Archive, and partly the
difference is attempting to come to grips with the possibilities of
English, both as a language and a cultural tradition, and one with a more
powerful grip on the invisible spatial empires of the net. Hence,
pragmatism: "A net pragmatism requires vigilant efforts to articulate the
net with materiality." This approach is less optimistic for what theory
can achieve, but more optimistic about what it has acheived -- the ability
to make more or less good descriptions of the world. And so much of Dark
Fiber is taken up with dispatches from attempts all over the world to
bring together artists, theorists and activists with the technicalities of
creating networks. "Cyberspace is still a work in progress", Lovink
writes, and he details many of the setbacks as well as the much fabled
successes in building an open net culture.

Central to Lovink's trajectory is the recognition that you can't get new
thinking out of old institutions. New media practices require the
integration of new thinking in new kinds of organization. "Today's
challenge lies in orchestrating radical intercultural exchanges, not in
closed monocultures." He has always taken his distance from opportunist
academic programs in 'new media studies' as much as from speculative
business models.

One of the real treats of Dark Fiber is the case studies. The Digital City
project in Amsterdam gets a preliminary assessment here, as does Berlin's
Internationale Stadt, Public Netbase in Vienna and Ada'web in New York.
It's curious how the same problems keep coming up. Not many attempts at
building alternative networks ever really embraced a participatory
democracy that included its users. With roots in artist's collaborations
or activist projects, the problem is often a lack of formal structure,
which could lead all too easily to a management takeover or privatization.
There's a lot still to be written about the experiments of the 80s and 90s
in alterative networked economies, polities and cultures. There's a taste
here of European experiments to set alongside experiments more familiar in
the US such as The Well and Lamdamoo.

Dark Fiber also includes travel reports from Taiwan, India and Albania,
and an account of Serbia's B92 radio, giving the book a wonderfully
cosmopolitan range. Lovink is aware that whether one comes from theory,
art, or activism, what counts is the ability to combine attributes of all
three. From the politics comes the art of compromise, of addressing
different people directly about things that affect them, and working with
people within an autonomy that respects differences without fetishizing
them. From the art comes the politics of how languages work, of how to
seed awareness of communication, and to do it in appropriate forms. From
the theory comes both the art and politics of relating the conjunctures of
the moment to history, the point of contact between the particular and the
abstract.

By examining this problem from different points on the globe, Lovink
provides test cases for any theory, any practice, with pretensions to an
ability to be generalized. For example, in the Balkans, 'tactical media'
has to come to grips with the limitations of working in a local way during
wartime. Locality is no longer a virtue when it means you can be shut down
and cut off from your audience. By looking at places like Taiwan, where
computer hardware is manufactured, or India, where programming and service
support are becoming proletarian industries, one gets a reality check on
global cyberspace fantasies, be they from left or right. What Lovink
invents here is a practice of negotiating how to describe things in the
emerging vectoral world.

A particular treat is Lovink's account of the early years of Nettime --
the New Left Review of the digital post-pomo politico set. Nettime evolved
a "a dynamic beyond the internet itself." It was a mailing list, but it
was also a series of meetings, and publications in different formats. It
had what noncommercial networks need to survive: "a vision, a groove and a
direction." What that was depended on who you asked. It thrived on the
positive confusion of the aims of its participants, all of whom could
think of it in their own way and imagine everyone else concurred.

Started in 1995 by Lovink and others, Nettime arose out of the discontents
of critical theory. It found a negative semantic terrain in its hostility
to Wired magazine, the Rolling Stone of new media sellouts. Nettime
positioned itself against the "unbearable lightness of Wired" Confronting
the full blown ideology of a free market digital utopia, Nettime was a
negative consensus around the need for a countervailing theory. "The
pretense that American technoculture would lead the rest of the world is
kindly refused here." As such it was way ahead of its time.

Always a fragile mix of writers, artists, activists, techies, Nettime was
the venue for the collaborative invention of the practice of
"collaborative text filtering", and experiments in how to express textual
information for different media vectors -- as listserver, online archive,
photocopied collation, fullblown publication or free newspaper. It is
still going, one of the most viable legacies of Lovink's past
collaborations. His version of its past could be a useful tool for
thinking about its future.

Nettime embodies a wider phenomena: "A meta techno intelligentsia is on
the rise, transcending the primitive social Darwinism with its
winner-loser and adapt or die logic." But it has yet to grow beyond the
fragments from which it arose. Perhaps what's needed is not tactical
media, but strategies, logistics, but ones that build on, rather than
ignore, the gains and lessons of new forms of local and contingent work.
Again. it's easier said than done. Ever the pragmatist, Lovink identifies
the material conditions for moving forward:  "What is needed are new
spaces fore reflection and critique, free zones where researchers of all
kinds can work without the pressure of sponsors and administrators."

Lovink has experimented successfully with temporary media labs, but
perhaps its time to think about longer durations. "What is badly needed
are autonomous research collectives that critically examine the social,
economic, and even ecological aspects of the information technology
business." They exist around questions like food or sweatshops -- so why
not the net?

So called 'tactical media', which Lovink had a hand in promoting, has been
an enormously enabling rhetoric, but it has its limitations. It's
interesting just how much semantic freight Lovink tries to get this term
to carry. Tactical media is to "combine radical pragmatism and media
activism with pleasurable forms of nihilism." But it is also " into
questioning every single aspect of life, with 'the most radical gesture'."

Tactical media plays with "the ambiguity of more or less isolated groups
or individuals, caught in the liberal-democratic consensus, working
outside the safety of the Party or Movement, in a multi-disciplinary
environment full of mixed backgrounds and expectations." It is also "about
the art of getting access, hacking the power and disappearing at the right
moment." While "Tactical media are opposition channels, finding their way
to break out of the subcultural ghetto" it is also " a deliberately
slippery term, a tool for creating 'temporary consensus zones' based on
unexpected alliances."

"What counts" with tactical media "are temporary connections between old
and new, practice and theory, alternative and mainstream." But it is also
"a question of scale. How does a phrase on a wall turn into a global
revolt?"  Tactical media may intervene within a movement, but it may also
link a movement to social groups. Or perhaps it is even a "virtual
movement", with no existence outside of its network expression. Then
again, "Perhaps we are just a diverse collection of wierdos, off topic by
nature."

The most tactical thing about tactical media is the rhetorical tactic of
calling it tactical. Curiously, this deployment of language tactically
turns out to be a consistent Lovink strategy. There's a big difference
between the Adilkno texts and Lovink's travel reports, but both use
language within the context of the net vector as something meant to work
within a given dispersal of space and time.

By not being too specific, by not exhausting a rhetoric to the point of
implosion, as for example in cyberutopian writing, Lovink keeps open the
sense of possibility within net discourse -- the possibility of
possibility.  "Here comes the new desire." Above all, Dark Fiber is a
freeze dried sampling on acid-free paper of a certain kind of practice,
traces of this exemplary intellectual's attempts to work in (and against)
the world.

Commissioned by rhizome.org




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