Geert Lovink on Thu, 20 Mar 1997 11:34:57 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Toshiya Ueno/Techno-Mysticism and Media-Tribes


By Toshiya Ueno

Lecture at Metaforum III conference
Budapest, october 12, 1996

Why do information societies or network societies, which depend
on high technology, always need and summon various kinds of
mysticism? Why does the world of globalization contain new types
of tribalism? These are my questions, and they are also the
double bind in which we are caught. It seems to me that these
antinomies are very familiar things in our contemporary world.
But here I do not intend to describe the whole history of the
relation between technology and mysticism or between
globalization and tribalization in our world. Instead, I will
restrict my considerations to some limited contexts. In this
paper I will deal exclusively with the way that these issues have
appeared in historical and critical retrospection and in
activistic thinking about media (sub)culture. I want to begin by
quoting a passage from the philosophy of Feuerbach.(I cite from
the Introduction to the 2nd edition of _The Essence of
"But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the
thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the
appearance to the essence,... illusion only is sacred, truth
profane.Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as
truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest
degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of
I found this translated passage as the epigraph for a book which
may be very familiar and influential to us. As you may know, the
book is Guy Debord's _The Society of the Spectacle_. Debord's
theory often has been read and interpreted as "humanistic
ideology" or a "theory of alienation". But I think that we can
read his theory, and Situationist theory in general, from
another point of view.

In a short essay called "Remarks on the Spectacle" (_New Left
Review_number 214), Regis Debray compares Debord's theory with
the philosophy of Feuerbach. Certainly we can say that both
"Young Hegelian" theory and Specto-Situationism  (Stewart Home's
name for Debord's theory) contribute to "post-Marxist" politics.
Debray remarked on some similarities in their ways of thinking.
First, their theories basically consist of the plagiarism of
style and thought, much like pharmaceutical technology. What does
this mean?  In fact, Debord himself acknowledged these tactics
very clearly. He says, "Plagiarism is necessary" (Fragment 207 in
_The Society of the Spectacle_).
It is well known that Feuerbach stole Hegelian concepts and
philosophy. He used  the same terms and words as Hegel (God,
Subject, Alienation, etc.) in a reversed manner.In a certain
sense Feuerbach appropriated andsimulated Hegelian philosophy. Of
course, Marx pursued this strategy of plagiarism to a more
radical dimension. However, the reason that Debord is a
descendant of Marx and Feuerbach not only comes from plagiarism
but also from another aspect. Both Debord's and Feuerbach's
theories approach the image as separated from something and
projected onto something else. For Feuerbach, God was the
projected image of the human, and the being of humanity separated
itself from its essence by projecting that image onto God.
Consequently, theology (and also mysticism) for him was a
construction that he approached as the object of
"psycho-pathology" (psychische Pathologie). For Debord, market
society become separated from itself by alienating itself in
spectacle. In the same way that Feuerbach criticized the inverted
mirror of humanity, Debord or Marx criticized the inverted mirror
of social relations. On the one hand, both of them revealed the
ghost, the spectre, and the spirit as the mirror of human and
social reality. On the other hand, both were strongly attracted
by these same concepts, concepts like the ghost, the spectre, and
the spirit.
Just as the ghost was the main problem of Feuerbach's philosophy,
the concept of the phantom or the spectre also was a very
important problematic in Marx's critical thinking. In a certain
sense, it was Marx who tried to transform the society of the
spectacle (capitalism of money) into "the society of the spectre"
(capitalism of information or information communism?) by
introducing the concept of the "dead" labor force. (In this
context, it is helpful to refer to the vision of "the society of
debacle" as elaborated by Geert Lovink. Lovink's concept of
debacle means "dead" things and materials in contemporary,
collapsed society.) The ghost and the spectre as a dead labor
force or mystic being represented a "return of the repressed" in
the ideological mirror effects. 
Though their critical theories were haunted by the ghost and the
spectre, Debord, Feuerbach, and Marx secularized mystic and
apocalyptic thought. For them, realized autonomy meant the return
of God to earth and the transformation of the transformed. So
this "critical spectre theory" (or ghost theory) was already
concerned with media communication and media networks. Here is
the secret of techno-mysticism. For example, Regis Debray located
the concept of mediology in the shift from spectacle to
information. He says, "If the spectacle is a form capable of
encompassing all forms of representation, it is also a container
 without contents." On the one hand, the spectacle is a field of
form and image without content. On the other hand, the spectre or
the ghost in the media sp
here tries to invent form and image, creating content.
According to Debray's logic of mediology, the good messenger is
one who disappears behind the message and content, as if the
Angel of Annunciation vanishes the moment he appears. In a
certain sense, Paul, Lenin, and Lacan are more important than
Christ, Marx, and Freud,because each of them are mediators who
vanished after they realized their task. In information,
translation, and communication networking this vanishing mediator
serves as the missing link between content and form  (For
example, the good host of a mailing list should be avanishing
But I have the impression that Debray's theory is strongly based
on Christianity and its ideology. It seems to me that we should
be careful about this aspect of his theory. Though Derrida also
addressed the concept of the spectre in his recent book about
Marx, he escaped from this trap. Derrida distinguishes be
tween the spirit and the spectre. The spirit tends to
identification and self-representation.
But the spectre and the ghost manifest themselves as the
indecisiveness between the body and mind. The spectre and the
ghost is the condition of the present. He writes:
"The spectre is a paradoxical incorporation, the becoming-body, a
certain phenomenal and carnal form of the spirit.... For it is
flesh and phenomenality that give to the spirit its spectral
apparition, but which disappear right away in the apparition, in
the very coming of the revenant or the return of the spectre."
(_Spectres of Marx _,p. 6) 
When Derrida uses the concept of the spectre, he is always very
conscious that this concept is used in a very economical context.
But as the information economy, itself, increasingly begins to
function in the cultural and mediatic domain, the concept of the
spectre will prove very useful for both the radical and the
conservative. Derrida highlights the hegemonic power of
cyber-technology and the simulated force of information
capitalism. Of course, we don't need to go back to old religion
or mysticism, but we can actually find mystic and apocalyptic
elements in our daily life.
That is to say, God, for Feuerbach and other philosophers, was a
center or a nodal point of human relationships (or of a network).
This is no exaggeration. Historically speaking, religions and
mysticism have always functioned as informational networks and,
indeed, have been media, itself. This is clear in the
etymological argument that the word "medium" originally meant
shaman. Of course, as you know, the shaman is always a mediator
between God (or a transcendent being) and human (or an objectal
being). The issues of religion, mysticism, fetishism, and so on
necessarily bring us face to face with the problematics of 
the spectacle, the spectre, and the mediator.
Sol Yurick, who is a novelist and critic, argues and analyses
these problematics in his influential book _Metatron_. (I'm the
translator of the Japanese edition of this book.) He writes:
"Modern capitalism is a great factory for the production of
angels....The Catholic Church is a communicating organism with an
apparatus of switches and relays and a communicating language for
the input of prayers through a churchly switchboard up to Heaven
and outputs returned to the supplicant."
Hakim Bey has also frequently remarked on the connection between
religion, mysticism, and computer networks. "True mysticism
creates a self at peace, a self with power." Bey refers to Max
Stirner in order to develop a standpoint of "spiritual
materialism." (So, strangely enough, another "Young Hegelian"
appears!) In the philosophy of Stirner, the unique (I prefer the
term " the singular" which reminds us of Deleuze & Guattari) is
not an ego or a modern individual.
In so far as the unique (einzige) can abandon and sacrifice
one's own-ness, the unique can communicate and make associations
with each other. According to Hakim Bey, Stirner assumed the
model of the association between the lumpen and homeless. It
seems that Hakim put the concept of the potlatch in the
information age.Raoul Vaneigem, who also was an ex-member of the
SI, analysed alienation as a gift or a transfer. God may be a
vanishing point of mutual exchange and reciprocity among people
and things.The thingsgiven or exchanged are not mere materials,
either in primitive society or in modern society, because these
things always become something more. Anything transferred in
symbolic exchange is also the vehicle of a certain meaning and
information. A society is always given form as gift and exchange.
As you know, French sociologist Marcel Mauss explained "hau" and
"mana" as invisible powers in exchanged things, themselves,
through which people in primitive society are able to gain the
motivation to give and make returns. Vaneigem called this
invisible power the free spirit. This is why his argument is more
mystic than Debord's way of thinking. But in this sense we can
understand the connection between (techo-)mysticism and (media-)
political activism.
Cyber-psychic culture has also attracted enthusiasm in Japanese
subculture. But these movements are different from American "New
Age"culture. In Japan, there has been a tendency among many
critics and theoreticians to overestimate the relationship
between cyber-technology and traditional myths concerning the
Emperor system. The Japanese Emperor system has been the object
of a wide variety of myths and folklore. These stories have
included metaphorical thinking about telecommunication and the
transfer of spirit. Originally, the Emperor was a priest and
shaman of Shintoism, a Japanese traditional-ideological mystic
religion. But it should be noted that Shintoism was reinvented
(and drastically changed) in the early Meiji period to
ideologically support the (modern) Emperor system and the Japan
as nation state.
I can put forth some examples and typical persons concerning
this.Takaaki Yoshimoto, who is one of most influential critics
and poets in Japan, analysed the origin of the state from
folklore and myth in Japan on his late 60s book _Communal
Illusion Theory_. He criticized and analysed state power as
communal illusion (like young Marx).And he denied the urban
project in the 70s in his book _Situation_. (He might even be a
Japanese Situationist.) Though he was an opinion leader for the
student and social movements in those days, he has had a very
strong political conversion during the 80s. He has completely
affirmed the postmodern situation by using the concept of "High
Image Theory" like Lyotard. 
And Shinichi Nakazawa, who is "an oriental post-structuralist," 
has appropriated Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese traditional
ideology. (The title of his book is very funny because it is
called _Tibetan Mozart_). People say that his theory influenced
the members of "Aum Shinrikyo" (cult group) which made the gas 
attack in the Tokyo subway.  He is still suspected for his
theoretical connection to the Aum cult. But I'm skeptical about
that point. Anyway, the connection between the theoretical and
the mythical , the radical and the reactionary has been very
strong. But I don't wish to call that condition "Japanese
ambiguity". It is not special and local situation.

By the way, it should not be forgotten that Debord's strategy in
the Situationist movement (especially in Situtionist
International) seems dogmatic at times. Though that movement
included many interesting activities and theories, many of them
were excluded by Debord from the mainstream of the SI. In
general I can understand the difficulty in maintaining political
activism, but at the same time, I can't disregard the elements
repressed in any political and cultural movement. 
For example, "New Babylon" was the urban project for "unitaire
urbanism" suggested by Constant Neuwenhyuis, who was an ex-member
of SI and Cobra. This project of the future city is very
interesting from today's point of view. The whole city in this
project is covered by a transparent huge dome, all the vehicles
 and city-transportation system circulate on the surface of a
membrane. In this city the streets and passages disappear, and
the people there become nomads. But Debord criticised this
project because it was too artistic and esthetic. 
The Danish artist Asger Jorn who collaborated with Constant on
New Babylon was also excluded from SI for almost the same reason.
He was very aware of the complex relationship between technology
and mysticism in artistic expression. In his art and theory, he
always wanted to find "the living art of nature". But this does
not necessarily mean that this nature excludes technology or the
artificial. Jorn's vision and thought derived from the background
of Marxism, existentialism, psychoanalysis, surrealism, and
mysticism in both the West and East. According to the explanation
by Graham Birtwistle, Jorn developed a special theory about the
"triolectic,"which generally opposes the dialectic. Triolectic
thinking does not privilege any moment of compatibility,
contradiction, synthesis, and neutralization in the dialectic.
But rather it is an endless and open-ended dialectic process. He
tried to map logic and movement in his art (not only painting) by
connecting structure and transformation, order and chaos.
In order to develop this vision, he requires the metaphors of
technology, magic, and mysticism. He has depicted the human body
as a system of wires and switches. Concerning the consciousness
and the unconciousness or pleasure and displeasure, respectively,
this system connects and functions whose in nature as well as in
social structures. For Jorn the human as a natural and social
being, itself, was already a network system.  He says: "What is
deplorable in the structure of our civilization is that it is not
accepted that an individual can develop his system of switches,
himself, and the unfortunate thing is that through education
other people are able to construct an artificial network of
unnatural switches in someone else; even more unfortunate is the
fact that it is on a social basis that this network is
constructed, and where there should be a free passage for the
natural life-force, this is blocked by uncertainty, fear, even
loathing and distaste. (Asger Jorn, _Magic and the Fine Arts_
1971, p. 85)
So he did not idealize mysticism and magic. Instead he defined
the magician, the artist, and the activist as the mediator who
should be able to draw the map and cartography of invisible
systems of power and will. In other words, he wanted to imagine
the mediator who could control "the power which the human shares
with all living things."
Probably we could think about the concept and theory of his work
through "bio-morphology". Because the mediator connects the
artist, the magician, and the activist, he might be very
concerned with the relationship between form and content in any
work (not only in art).
Content always effects the form. It seems to me that Jorn
understands content as the program generating form, itself, and
defined form as the shell generating content. But it does not
depend on the dialectic of ordinary meaning. "Form has no value
if it is not the form of content.... Natural form is the form of
content. The form is not only the surface but also that which is
inside and actually produces the form." (_Apollo or
Dionysus_1947, p. 1) Jorn found concrete examples of this process
in the ornaments, maps, and drawings in primitive societies. He
also made many works inspired by this vision. If we want to
understand the meaning of the passage "religion is a surrogate
for communism" from his book _Dream and reality_ (1948, p. 161),
we should not neglect his thinking about living form and content.
And I think that it is still very useful to analyse "content" in
cyber culture.

Debord as well as Marshal McLuhan has already argued about the
paradoxical relation between globalization and tribalization.
Debord says: "Urbanism destroys cities and reestablishes a
'pseudo-countryside' which lacks the natural relations of the old
countryside as well as the direct social relations which were
directly challenged by the historical city.... The 'new town
s' of the technological pseudo-peasantry clearly inscribe in
which they are built." (Thesis 177)
As is clear in the above passage, Debord was already aware of the
artificial tribalism constituted in modern society. I would like
to elaborate on this point of view further. Once Carl Shumitt
said that the essence of politics is the making of the opposition
between friend and enemy. I think that it also applies to
subcultural scenes. Because there are so many tastes and styles
about fashion, music, vehicle, etc., in popular culture, each
individual can choose any taste and style. But sometimes tension
or conflict takes place among different styles. For example, it
is useful to remember the cultural struggle between Mods and
Rockers in the 60s.
They strongly hated one other for their styles, because they had
completely different behaviors concerning clothes, music,
dancing, and motor bikes. They invented their own tribes. But it
should be noted that no taste or style can have total hegemony.
It's impossible to affirm the totality of any particular taste or
style. In other words, one tribe always presupposes the other
tribe. There is no dominant and transcendent taste. Instead,
there are just articulations of segmented tribes. Of course, the
invention of each tribe is formed (exist) in media communication.
I would like to call these articulations "Media Tribes". This is
a sort of constitutive conflict in subculture, itself. Each media
 tribe is a community of sense, but generally media tribes
violate so-called "common sense" (or parent culture) because they
always emerge from subculture and counter-culture. What is most
important in media tribes is that by choosing a tribe, one can
traverse and travel through various styles and tribes as one
There is a funny story in Japanese subculture relating to tribes
and tribalization in popular culture. The Japanese novelist,
Shintaro Ishihara--who later entered national politics and most
recently became famous as the author of _Japan Can Say No_, a
book that criticized Japan- bashing--published a novel calle
d _The Season of the Sun_ in 1957. This novel depicted the
outsiders of the youngest generation of the 1950s and became a
bestseller. "Sun Tribe" (Taiyo- zoku) was created through the
sensation caused by the novel. From the late 50s to the late 60s,
Japanese subculture produced a great number of films, some of 
which depended on Ishihara's novel and the image of the "Sun
Tribe." Ishihara's younger brother appeared in those films and
became a star. 
Interestingly, even after this sensation subsided, tribe (zoku)
has continued to be regularly used in discussing Japanese
society. When people are confronted with a new phenomenon in
subculture or youth culture, people label the people adopting
such different behavior and strange fashions and tastes as a
certain tribe:  Speed Tribe,(Bouso-zoku, Japanese biker gangs),
Bamboo Tribe (Takeno ko-zoku,street dancing groups in the 80s),
Crystal Tribe (Crystal-zoku,Japanese yuppies of the 80s), Otaku
Tribe (Otaku-zoku, info-mania tribe), and so forth. The history
and genealogy of the term persists and probably will continue to
develop forever. These tribes in Japanese subculture interest me
because I would like to analyze these media tribes as supplements
of class, ethnicity, etc.
Generally speaking, many Japanese think that there are no class
or ethnic communities within "Japan." Of course, this is
disavowal rather than a misrecognition. Conversely, I am
interested in analyzing this tendency in order to introd
uce the element of political conflict within subculture. Thus my
interest has no relation to the use of "zoku" or tribe as a
typology or classification. It is very interesting that there are
some parallels between the cultural and political scenes in
Euro-American and Japanese society. But we should not be
satisfied with mere comparisons. What is important is that we are
still caught in the strange trap and double bind of cultural
politics and critical discourse which I mentioned at the
beginning of this paper. If once Situationists argued about the
necessity of "constructed situations", now we should be aware
that the situation in media (sub)culture, or in any social
terrain, always has been (or will be) "under construction". It is
urgent that we find the symptoms of "under construction" for our
situation, because for us,both techno-mysticism and media tribes
can become medicine and poison at the same time (as pharmakon).
It is a"gift" to  us that they will be able to become the basis
for conservative ideology or critical thought.
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