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<nettime> Henk Oosterling: Radical medi {AT} crity (Modified by Geert Lovink)
Geert Lovink on Sun, 20 Feb 2005 15:44:28 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Henk Oosterling: Radical medi {AT} crity (Modified by Geert Lovink)


(posted to nettime with the permission of the author. henk oosterling
recently gave a talk in berlin with similar ideas at transmediale 05.
the text also appeared in the german magazine babel. /geert)

From: <hafo {AT} xs4all.nl)

Radical medi {AT} crity: Xs4all
By Henk Oosterling

Automobility: subject becoming traject

One late Friday afternoon in mid-December a traveler is returning to
Amsterdam from a business meeting on Long Island, New York State.
Trains coming into Penn Station are late because of a sudden flurry of
snowstorms. Connections are missed. Even though the ethereal voices
echoing around the rarefied transit space of Newark departure lounge
attempt to put the passengers in hopeful mood, the gate numbers and
departure times on the screens keep falling behind. Planes have to be
de-iced. Arrangements threaten to fall through. The traveler's mobile
phone has insufficient range, and he has no telephone card to hand. As
finally the aeroplane glides into the night, the traveler is able to
call from the satellite phone sunk into the armrest using his credit
card. He sends a few e-mails from his pocket PC with its expandable
keyboard and completes some notes. Meanwhile, the aircraft speeds onward
- though seemingly suspended immobile - at more than 900 km/hour
towards the other side of the ocean. The traveler follows the
intercontinental route still to be covered, step-by-step, on a
screenin front of him.

On arriving at Schiphol, the information screens for train arrivals and
departures announce that frozen power lines are causing delays on the
Amsterdam-Schiphol route. Jetlagged passengers grasp their mobile
phones, holding dozy conversations. Most of them are gossiping about
sweet nothing while staring blankly in front of them; others are
already fully alert and busy relaying the latest state of affairs via
their headphones.

At Rotterdam's Central Station the traveler withdraws some euros from
the ATM and steps into a waiting taxi. The intercontinental and
interlocal congestion acquires a couleure locale: they head out into
the grips of urban gridlock. Three chock-a-block lanes of cars are
being squeezed out of the centre past six sets of traffic lights.
Despite the dangerous but well-intended manoeuvres by the Rotterdam
chauffeur of Moroccan origin it takes more than a quarter of an hour to
get past the main square only 500 metres further on.

Their conversation about the practical paradox of 'automobility' --
namely the immobilization caused by the excesses of motorized road
travel -- is repeatedly interrupted by a voice from the taxi firm's
dispatch office. But the chauffeur interweaves his hands-free responses
with the conversation, and pointing to a little screen at the bottom of
his windscreen he turns the banter to fast and distant journeys: with
the Global Positioning System (GPS) it is possible to trace the route to
any given street in Helsinki, Moscow or Casablanca. Not only is the car
vectorally equipped for the entire globe, it is also a system that
adapts to its driver like a made-to-measure suit: to the left under the
dashboard there is a button with three encoded settings, one for each of
the taxi's chauffeurs. When one of them keys in his code the equipment
downloads his personal data and thedriver's seat adjusts automatically
to the most comfortable position for him.

Once out of the centre the journey proceeds smoothly. At the front door,
the traveler taps in his access code, walks down the hallway to the
waiting lift and whizzes upward. In the bedroom he switches the TVon
and zaps through the channels. The adverts urge him to purchase a mobile
phone with a built-in camera so he can use MMS, the 'multimedia
messaging service'. At any given moment, the owner can telematically
share his surroundings with his friends. Exhausted by high-speed stasis
and hyperactive observation, the traveler finally falls into a profound
slumber.

Dividual medi {AT} crity

How mediocre has life of Western individuals become? Are there no more
heroes anymore? Way back a working class hero was something to be, but
nowadays this is an anachronism. And if we could be heroes than just for
one day or only for a Warholian fifteen television minutes. The
predicate 'mediocre' does not exclude mediamatic heroism. Once we take
the notion 'mediocre' as literal as possible, it ishard to ignore
thefact that third millennium man has become radically mediocre. I
realizethat the suggestion that we live an average life full of boring
routines is counterbalanced by the indisputable observation that in
visual and global culture, where entertainment, infotainment and
politainment are the key targets for maximizing ratings, the senses of
the average TV viewer and festival onlooker are continuously triggered,
stimulated and enhanced. Even when there is no time to enjoy it real
time and live, one can participate interpassively, as Slavoj Zizek
acknowledges: our recorder enjoys the late night TV movie. The only
thing that is left, is storing the tape, never to be looked at again.

On the active side of this interpassive, spectacular gamma we are also
far from being bored. We are hectically, even panicky busy: physically
travelling around the globe as tourists, traders or terrorists,
virtually locating ourselves via GPS or communicating our tele-presence
to others via e-mail, SMS, MSN, MMS or whatever digital data device.
Within this mode of being - actual and virtual at the same time -
presence and absence are no longer oppositions: we are continuously
anticipating our future presence. As Peter Sloterdijk rightly states,
time is no longer an issue. The issue is dynamic space, i.e. our
vectored displacement within a spherical ambiance.

So the secretly implied suggestion that boredom immobilizes us like it
once did the Russian aristocrat Oblomov on his couch, is counterfactual
too: over the last decades all life processes have been sped up. It
accelerates exponentially. Life has become very excessive, even
ecstatic. In spite of infrastructural immobilizations like traffic-jams,
terrorist threats, tsunami's or physical and digital viruses, our
mobility has become part of our selves (auto). The very essence of
global consumers is becoming Aristotle's Demiurgos: the ultimate self
(Greek: autos) mover (Latin:mobilis).

Notwithstanding apparent paradoxes and evident counterexamples I still
cling to my thesis that global and local life, i.e. our glocal human
condition has become radically mediocre, be it that we have to agree on
applying the notion 'mediocrity' in a more psycho technological than in
a sociopsychological sense. I address the acknowledged fact that media
in the broadest sense - from transport media like planes and cars to
communication media as computers and cell phones - are ruling (Greek:
kratein) our lives: mediocrity is first and for all medi {AT} crity. Once
connected to the world - and who isn't nowadays? - former autonomous
individuals, have turned into, to update Friedrich Nietzsche, dividuals
- split, cross-eyed persons (di-videre) whose lives are contractions of
at least two perspectives: they are global and local, virtual and
actual, and as a result: private and public. This counts for both
transnational CEO's and dish antenna and mobile phone owning immigrants
and their offspring. Living in the best of both worlds is being urban.

Capsular nodes: ecstasy beyond oppositions

In everyday life both worlds are no longer experienced as opposite.
These are necessary supplements, separated by blurred borders. How can
this hybridization be adequately conceptualized? Neither by politically
correct double identification nor by neoconservative, xenophobic
crusader rhetoric that polarizes the tension into we against them. More
philosophically tuned one can say that the oppositions by which modern
subjects valued their own autonomy and the other's alienation - true
versus false, good versus bad, beautiful versus ugly, democratic versus
fascism - have become hybrid tensions. These have torn the autonomous
subject apart. The subject as traject became a dividual.

Dividuals realize that they are nodes. They contract and connect all
vectoral media trajectories that connect them to other people and to the
world. In being connected they are. Being is being in between. The
dividual has become an assembly point - or as Gilles Deleuze would
phrase it: an assemblage. Divided we stand. Linked to each other -- 
both psychologically and technologically - dividuals are always right in
themiddle. Being 'right' in the middle - both spatially and ethically
--means that from an inner perspective that everyone is centred. But
froman outer perspective everyone is a target too. In Ulrich Beck's
risk society a dividual is spectator and actor, victim and killer.
In risk society anticipation of one's actions implies at least two
possibilities -- or better: virtualities. Controlling can become
disastrous. The only option we really have is an adequate insurance.
Medi {AT} cre men live a self-insured life.

In order to protect himself from this double-edged sword post-modern man
has turned himself into a capsular being. In order to counterweightthe
centripetal forces of acceleration and hybridization he has encapsulated
himself in cars, planes, and digital devices, hiding behind window
screens, TV screens and interfaces. From a radical medi {AT} cre point of
view these interfaces do no longer mediate reality.  They produce
reality. Or hyperreality, as Jean Baudrillard prefers to call this
excessive existence. In our thoroughly mediated society ecstasy manifest
itself as a national broadcasted TV quiz on earlier TVprograms.

>From all this we may conclude that medi {AT} crity does not exclude 
excess.  On the contrary. Post-modern man has access to all available
products and services at any time from whatever location in the world.
In havingaccess to everything that is available, dividuals are highly
excessivebeings. They ecstatically reach out to their very being, that
is no longer situated within them -- as Freud for instance
conceptualized --but beyond their boundaries: no absolute outside,
but a space in between one and the other.

Xs4all instead of autonomy: paradoxical freedom

This radical medi {AT} crity has serious consequences for our experience of
liberty. Let us first accept the fact that freedom is a typical modern
desire that has been produced at the very moment that equality became an
option, i.e. in the course of the 17th century in the texts of Hobbes
and Rousseau. Before that crucial period in western history time
freedom was part of the discourse, but in a different way. If for
instance Socrates was free, he was so thanks to a already given order
that was memorized through reflective soul searching. But even during
the Enlightenment freedom still had to do with knowing oneself.
Socrates was revisited by Kant and adapted to modern subjectivity that
no longer took God into account. Everything was centred on the self or
'autos', implied by self-consciousness. That is why Sloterdijk 
compares Kant's transcendental subject with the present automobile
subject.

In the 19th and the first half of the 20th century freedom was gained
through collective self-knowledge. Knowledge empowers subjects. The will
to know, as Michel Foucault extensively argues, produces an inside:
modern man's self-consciousness or subjectivity, with Bildung based
emancipation as its goal. Emancipation was the result of a class
struggle for knowledge, unveiling and dismantling ideological power
structures. However, in information society, as Manuel Castells coins
out times, knowledge has been fragmented into information. As a result
different desires are triggered. Spam creates choices. It makes us want
what we could not even imagine. Telling is selling. Information pays
off, because it connects. The will to be informed turns modern
interiority inside out: We do no longer enjoy knowledge, but sheer
access.

Access being the main topic in information society, as Jeremy Rifkin
claims, autonomy becomes secondary. Enforcing your own (auto) rules
(nomos) on your self -- modern subject - is now overruled by the media
exposure. Our freedom consists of inventing these instruments for
enhanced comfort. But once we start using these media, they take on
their own life. Once a car of a cell phone has become an integral
partof my social life and as such an inextricable quality of my being,
disconnecting feels like cutting off a healthy leg or piercing an well
functioning eye or ear. Once the medium has become the message -- an
experience in itself and no longer an explicit means to an end -
refusing auto mobility feels like crippling, blinding or deafening
oneself. The impossibility of stopping the ecologically catastrophic
impact of massive car use through international cooperation is
indicative of this paradoxical logic.

On the level of everyday experience we are confronted with other
paradoxes, such as the paradox of freedom. Emancipation and autonomy are
related to freedom. I have gained freedom when, as the most famous
American song goes, I did it my way. Freedom of speech - or whatever
constitutional liberty - cannot be restricted by religious or
ideological dogma. Modern man should not be determined by heteronymous
powers: church, monarch, capital or non-specifically identifiable, but
unmistakably misleading ideas that obscure the individual's autonomy.
For the modern subject, so ingeniously constructed by Immanuel Kant in
his three critiques, behaviour and thought is always checked by rational
reflection.

Threefold enlightenment: brain, body, and eyeball

Kant's heirs however underestimated the scope of this rational
enlightenment. It was interpreted solely on a mental level: man is
getting smarter and -- by implication -- morally better. Next to this
mental impact however, enlightenment had a double sensory impact. After
the steam engine became the matrix of modern industrialization and
collective transportation by train was overruled by the application of
the internal-combustion engine in private cars enlightenment of matter
supplemented mental enlightenment. More brains produced more physical
comfort. And at that very moment the invention of the light bulb
heralded a third enlightenment. In short, mental enlightenment is
accompanied by a twofold physical enlightenment in car and electricity.
The interconnectedness of brain, body and eyeball reflects in this total
enlightenment.

During the last five decades this three folded enlightened experience of
freedom has been qualitatively transformed due to the complexification
and acceleration ofhuman interactions, transactions and communications.
Nowadays our main brain frame is not exclusively mental reflection, but
automobile and interfacial reflexes as well. Bynow it looks like
physical enlightenment, i.e. total unbiased, frictionless comfort has
outrun its mental component. As the above described homeward journey
implicitly suggests, we feel free as long asall media smoothly
function: an extended brain - i.e. a laptop full ofinteresting
articles to be published soon -- a elevated unbiased bodyfloating in
the air and a complete survey of the trajectory on the interface and a
upgraded cell phone. All these are not experienced as heteronymous
powers that alienate us from our inner self. This mediocrity forms an
onto-technological grid that assembles our mental and sensory faculties
and enhances those to their full extent. Kant would qualify these as
conditions of possibility that enable us to experience at all.

The bottom line of our mediocrity is not reason, as is always suggested,
but unconditional belief. In order to feel free we have to believe in
the media that 'cocoon' us. For this belief it suffices thatthe media
work. Efficiency and result oriented output is crucial.  Embedded within
'frictionless capitalism', as Bill Gates once coined his ideal, life
becomes an ecstatic enlightened experience, beyond emancipation and
Bildung. Perfect. This philosophical perspective is taken very literally
by 'techgnostics' as Hans Moravec and Max More ofthe Extropian
movement: referring to research on artificial intelligence they take the
body to be a medium that can be thrown awayafter consciousness has
been downloaded and uploaded in another medium.

In that graceful immaterial state no-body creates friction and no-thing
resists any longer. Man has reached the heavenly state of zero-gravity,
as Paul Virilio states, the eternal godlike weightlessness as the post
human condition we have been striving for.

But in daily life the very moment the body burns out, the server is
down, the payphone card or chip card are emptied, the plane is iced or
the car out of order, we feel ourselves as imprisoned as a prisoner of
war, taken out by an unknown enemy. Strangely enough this sudden death
is not felt like regained independence or autonomy. It feels like
lacking freedom of action. After 911 this unobserved immobility is even
conceived of as unsafe and insecure. Man would rather be spied upon than
being left alone or neglected.

In all this the former opposition between private and public is no
longer operative. Post-911 men gladly exchange freedom for security.
Seen from a modern perspective the protective 'cocooning' of the
capsular dividual can therefore be conceived as an indication for a
highly paradoxical freedom: we feel optimally free in being completely
dependent upon 'our' media.

(Auto) Fundamentalism as free market ideology

In his book on modern mythologies Roland Barthes describes the jet-man.
This pilot, Barthes states, voluntarily becomes one with 'his' machine
and media: in his autonomous struggle for weightlessness the pilot,
paradoxically enough, places his autonomy in the 'hands' of technology.
He subjugates himself to the level of the means. His faith equals an
absolute submission to technology surrounding him. He is no hero, but
factually mediocre in his absolute faith in a total and machine-driven
functionality within an all-encompassing technological matrix. I would
like to qualifythis faith in oneself via the media 'auto
fundamentalism'. This is indicative of the crypto-religious character of
ecstatic auto mobility.

The idea of radical medi {AT} crity 'contracts' in the Stealth-bomber pilot,
who gave a TV interview after returning from a mission in the First Gulf
War of 1990. His freedom was ecstatic and had nothing to do with an
inner experience. He survives thanks to this ecstatic awareness in which
thinking has become a meta-physical reflex. As this pilot the faster we
move, the less vulnerable we are. This engenders analogous shifts on
other levels. Economically this boils down to the following:the more
we spent, the more we gain. Savings and property are old-fashioned
assets; investment and speculation are highly rewarded.  Ethically this
means that in risk society responsibility is jurisprudentially recessed
in terms of accountability and justifiability.

In this world every contact is secured and insured by a contract. Micro
political radical medi {AT} crity as the total in betweeness of
self-consciousness is geopolitically mirrored in a free market ideology.
Once individual freedom is secured by markets, freedom can only be
gained in terms of contracts in the in between world of free enterprise.
Neo and ultra liberalism are the politico-economic legitimizations of
this geopolitical medi {AT} crity. And, to close the circle by referring to
critical voices like Georges Soros and Joseph Stiglitz - or should we
say: hypocritical? -- Market fundamentalism isthe hidden 'religious'
agenda of the free market ideology. Within thisreligious perspective
freedom of speech is both a market value that isdirected by the
imperatives of a technocratic flexibility that, being areligious
dogma, overrules all other considerations.

Being-in-between: inter-esse

Is that all there is? Is a Peggy Lee syndrome the end of this story?
No, there is one promising aspect to radical medi {AT} crity. We - but who is
this 'we' - have indeed reach a turning point in thought that we'd
better not neglect: consciousness can no longer 'progres' by opposing
the mediocrity of the others to 'ours'. We have to face our 
mediocrity directly in order to gain insights into other modes of
existence. Our only hope lies in doing it radically. Therefore the
active core of radical medi {AT} crity is affirmative. We have to face the
fact that we really want to be connected to everybody else. As such
psycho-technologically - though not primarily socio-psychologically -
everyone is interested. The German expression, applied by philosophers
from Kant to Heidegger and Deleuze, is even more instructive:
inter-esse. Post-modern capsular dividuals - always outside themselves,
i.e. ecstatic - are first and for all in-between people, as is
acknowledged in the Japanese word for man: ningen or in between (nin)
people (gen). The current human condition is a psycho-technological
inter-esse or a being-in-between. This desire for betweeness has been
the key to the success of ICT. It is the state of betweeness --
literally: the esse of the inter, interesse -- that secures faith.

What do all these rather abstract reflections mean for everyday life and
for human, all too human policies? Referring to the beginning of my
text this at least provides an argument in favour of public transport.
Why would not we face the inevitable consequences of our excessive auto
mobility and create space for advanced and free 'public' mobility? 
If the perceived lack of safety on the streets is caused, in part, by
reduction of the public domain to a sum of vacuous private vectors --
capsular trajects - who only use public space for shopping and
transmitting politico-economic messages, if so, why not negotiate a
post-automobile urbanity? As long as we continue, in our radical
medi {AT} crity, to identify our inner 'self' with capsular 'auto' and as in
a ecstatic trance reiterate the mantra that this 'medium' was, is and
will always be the 'message', we will never transcend modern
consciousness stuck in its paradoxes. The safety and vitality of the
public space probably has more to gain from smashing the capsule. The
interest of being interested is unconditional interesse.

(Henk Oosterling is Associate Professor Dept. of Philosophy, Erasmus
University Rotterdam; see: http://www.henkoosterling.nl)


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