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nettime: interview with Mark Dery
Geert Lovink on Sat, 1 Jun 96 12:03 MDT


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nettime: interview with Mark Dery


BUILDING A PROGRESSIVE, PRAGMATIC FUTURISM
AN E-MAIL INTERVIEW WITH MARK DERY (CYBER-CRITIC, NEW YORK)
BY GEERT LOVINK

Geert Lovink: Your book, _Escape Velocity_, doesn't literally deal with
the speed at which a body overcomes gravitation. In contrast,
Virilio's latest book (which has the same title, ironically) _does_.
For you, cyberculture is first and foremost a futuristic story we tell
each other---myth, rhetoric, even an escapist movement. At the same
time, your book is full of playful descriptions of what the "digital
underground" has been tinkering with in the last decade. How does this
obsessive praxis, in the margins of society, relate to the real powers
of the state and the corporations? In the final analysis, do all these
weird desires to build machines, programs, and networks just end up
incorporated into the One Big Story of capitalism?
   In your Open Magazine pamphlet _Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing,
and Sniping in the Empire of Signs_, you used the term "culture
jamming" to critique what you've defined, elsewhere, as "a combination
of information warfare, terror-art, and guerilla semiotics, directed
against the information society in which we live---an ever more
intrusive, instrumental technoculture whose operant mode is the
manufacture of consent through the manipulation of symbols." There
isn't much "cyber jamming" going on, and even the myth of subversion
seems to be absent. Are the '90s really such a Dark Age when it comes
to politics? And should we just wait until this naive technotopian
storm is over?

Mark Dery: It seems a little premature to be performing Last Rites for
the myth of subversion, which is alive and well in heady subcultural
dreams of Temporary Autonomous Zones, Islands in the Net, and other
anarchotopias, online and off. For example, _Wired_ conjures
wild-and-crazy visions of "out- of-control" cybercapitalism to
reassure the male, 30-something, 81k-a-year knowledge workers who are
its typical readers---Robert Reich's symbolic analysts, by any other
name---that they're still teenage mutant ninja hackers under the skin.
It speaks the language of managerial gurus like Tom Peters, who
preaches a gospel of "atomized corporations" with spunky "subunits
headed by disrespectful chiefs." _Wired_'s very design plays to Boomer
fantasies of what an MTV slogan memorably called "revolution without
all the mess," reconciling 21st century cybercapitalism and
countercultural rebellion in Day-Glo graphics and Mighty Morphin
typography that are equal parts corporate annual report and cyberdelic
Spin Art. As Keith White noted in his _Baffler_ essay, "The Killer
App," the idea that "being a corporation isn't dull and conformist
anymore---it rocks!" is soothing music to the digerati, "aspiring
members of a new, socially insecure elite." So the myth of subversion
survives, albeit drenched in irony, in _Wired_'s turned-on, booted-up,
jacked-in pseudorevolution for managerial professionals.
   Of course, techno-bricoleurs like Mark Pauline of Survival Research
Laboratories better embody what you probably mean by "the myth of
subversion." The rogue technologist who wages guerrilla war on the
military-industrial complex with robots made out of appropriated,
re-animated techno-trash has been enshrined, through William Gibson
characters like Slick Henry in _Mona Lisa Overdrive_, in the cyberpunk
pantheon, alongside the outlaw hacker.
   The problem with SRL-inspired fantasies of a techno-revolution by
garbage pail kids is that they're underwritten by an incongruously
Weathermen-esque faith in the power of a well-placed bomb to "strike at
the heart of the state," as the Red Brigades put it. Obviously, it's a
keystone assumption of postmodern analyses of the nonlinear dynamics of
power, from Debord's _Society of the Spectacle_ to the Critical Art
Ensemble's _Electronic Disturbance_, that power has etherealized---that
control controls (to use a William S. Burroughsian turn of phrase) less
by corporal punishment than by colonizing the mass imagination with
media fictions that manufacture consent. Pauline is all too aware of
this; SRL's theater of operations is founded on the assumption that
even ritualized resistance to technocratic power produces tangible
effects, if only in the minds of audience members. My critique of SRL
in _Escape Velocity_ ends with Pauline saying, "I believe in the
political potency of the symbolic gesture"---a quote that could easily
do double duty as the battle cry of the cultural politics theorized by
Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige, and their ilk.
   Unfortunately, symbolic resistance is just that: symbolic. It cedes
territory in the larger cultural arena in the name of micropolitical
resistance (an Achilles Heel it shares with virtual communitarianism,
incidentally) and unwittingly lends itself to easy appropriation by
consumer capitalism, which guts, skins, stuffs, and mounts "symbolic
gestures," no matter how politically potent, with alarming speed. To
invert Gibson's cyberpunk shibboleth, the strip mall finds its own uses
for things, too.
   Finally, pockets of resistance that can't be malled beyond
recognition may be allowed to function as petri dishes, culturing
strange new memes in the consumer capitalist equivalent of a vaccine
against more virulent political infestations. As Andrew Ross notes in
_Strange Weather_, the cyberdelic counterculture championed by _Mondo
2000_, like the illicit enclave of Chiba City's Ninsei in
_Neuromancer_, serves as an "experimental sounding board for
legitimate industrial developers." Which brings us full circle to
_Wired_, and its role as a cultural airlock for cyberlumpen in transit
to Microserfdom.
   As political tactics these rituals of resistance---"myths of
subversion," to use your term--- stand in relation to the raw power of
nation-states and the multinational megaconglomerates fast rendering
them obsolete as the Japanese stratagem of trying to start forest fires
in the U.S. with incendiary devices made of paper and bamboo, floated
over on the jet stream, stood in relation to the American atom bombs
simultaneously falling on Japan.
   Does that mean that "all these weird desires just end up
incorporated into the One Big Story of capitalism," and that we should
"just wait until this naive technotopian storm is over?" Not at all.
While I'm leery of romanticizing postmodern primitivism, transgender
activism, _Star Trek_ pornography, or the Abject (tm) as our last, best
hopes for micropolitical resistance, I'm equally wary of the doomy
tendency, inherited from the Frankfurt Marxists, to envision
cyberculture as a panoptical nightmare of unrelieved domination. And
I'm deeply suspicious of the dizzy dysphoria Arthur Kroker inherits
from Baudrillard---a profoundly dystopian vision that offers no way out
of the socioeconomic and environmental problems all around us, but
couches its pessimism in sci-fi jargon that turns those problems into a
giddy apocalypse in an academic theme park. This is what Walter
Benjamin was talking about when he warned us that mankind's
"self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its
own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order."
   The _last_ thing we should do is hunker down in our bunkers and wait
for the increasingly Hobbes-ian reality of our two-tiered social
reality to have the "naive technotopians" and their New Age dreams of
Gaian groktopia for dinner (an admittedly appetizing prospect). The
first step toward finding a way out of this place begins when we take a
flamethrower to Gingrichian-Tofflerian laissez-faire futurism, which
entrusts our collective fate to the tender mercies of the marketplace,
or New Age cyberbole that would have us pin our hopes to a millennial
blastoff. We have to relocate our cultural conversation about the
promise of technology in the noisy, dirty here and now and begin to
build a progressive, pragmatic futurism.

GL: Referring to Vinge, Drexler, and Moravec, you see science spawning
a techno-eschatology of its own, what you call "a theology of the
ejector seat." For these prophets of Tomorrowland, technology seems to
have religious aspects. "The Sacred is alive and well inside the
machine" is the conclusion of your chapter on Northern Californian
cyberdelic culture and its techno-transcendentalist fantasies.
Apparently, cyberculture isn't criticizing its own religious
aspirations. Feuerbach, Marx and Nietzsche all wrote critiques on
religion and its institutions, but there's no "Anti-McKenna." The New
Age seems to be so deeply imbedded in technoculture that hardly anyone
is questioning this unspoken consensus. Of course, one cannot expect
the postmodern thinkers to do so. Could you imagine a radical, digital
atheism that will counter these current belief-systems? Or is the cool,
modernist version of cyberspace so unbearable that metaphysical
ingredients are necessary for us to accept it?

MD: Well, I'm hardly the equal of Feuerbach, Marx, or Nietzsche, but
I'll happily cross swords with McKenna (who strikes me as vastly more
original, and infinitely more eloquent, than other, better known
bearded prophets of millennial cyberhype). In fact, I do just that in
a story for the Australian cyberzine _21.C_, where I theorize
McKenna's cyberdelic visions as bedtime stories for cyborgs, spun from
Arthur C. Clarke-ian sci-fi mysticism, New Age millenarianism, and the
Dionysian "expressive politics" of the '60s (specifically, of Norman O.
Brown). Taking his theories literally, as his more credulous fans seem
to, does McKenna a disservice, since his ideas so obviously fall into
the category I've defined as techno-eschatology---a theology of the
ejector seat. Understood as theology, his speculations assume almost
conventional contours, with the emergence of language in primeval
humans through the catalytic spark of hallucinogenic mushrooms as the
Story of the Fall; McKenna's visionary experience in "fractal geometric
spaces made of light" as Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus; and
his teleological strange attractor---the "transcendental object at the
end of time"---as the Eschaton foretold in the Revelation.
   I'm not sure that a "digital atheism" is required to counter the
neo-gnostic or New Age techno-transcendentalism percolating into
cyberculture; the razor of logic, stropped on the whetstone of engaged,
embodied politics, should work just fine. Frankly, I'm flabbergasted
that _anyone_ would possess the unblinking credulity required to
swallow John Perry Barlow's belief that the Gaian mind will "come
alive" (whatever that means) when the on-line population equals the
number of neurons in the human brain or Douglas Rushkoff's assertion,
in _Cyberia_, that "any individual being, through feedback and
iteration, has the ability to redesign reality at large." Don't be
fooled by the sleek new DataSuit: this is the same '60s Oh-Wowism that
P.J. O'Rourke memorably described as the notion that there is "a
throbbing web of psychic mucus and we are all part of it somehow."

GL: In your genealogy of cyberpunk, you state that this (mainly
literary) phenomenon is rooted in pop music, specifically punk. But
historically, there seems to be no relationship between '70s punk and
technology. Also, punk seemed to lack the narcissistic individualism of
cyberpunk.

MD: I make my case for the cultural DNA shared by punk and cyberpunk
more convincingly in _Escape Velocity_ than I can in the limited space
allotted here, so I'll simply refer anyone interested in tracing these
genealogies to my book. Briefly, though, punk and cyberpunk share a
romanticization of urban decay and scabrous lowlife, a flattened affect
that is equal parts existential ennui and future shock, and most
importantly a tacit faith in the politics of appropriation and the
subversive use of refunctioned rubbish---the kitsch flotsam of consumer
culture, the broken-down detritus of science and industry. In my
chapter, "Metal Machine Music," I quote a former writer for the
legendary New York magazine _Punk_, who says that punk rock "was about
saying yes to the modern world. Punk, like Warhol, embraced everything
that cultured people detested: plastic, junk food, B-movies,
advertising, making money." This particular strain in the punk
aesthetic---the robopathic blankness (reminiscent of _Mondo_ icon Andy
Warhol's expressed desire to be a robot), the smirking embrace of
Stepford-ian suburbia, with its Tupperware consumerism and Space Age
optimism--- harmonizes with cyberpunk's dystopianism, mocking the
promised Tomorrowland that never arrived. There's a deadpan, mordant
humor to it that reminds me of "The Gernsback Continuum," William
Gibson's affectionate immolation of the technocratic fantasies of pulp
SF. This sensibility, which also overlaps with the jaundiced modernism
and fondness for junk culture of the Independent Group (whose 1956 ICA
exhibition, "This is Tomorrow," was pure proto-cyberpunk), pop artists