McKenzie Wark on Tue, 4 Nov 1997 20:55:46 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> The Virtual Republic

The Virtual Republic
a paper for the
Research Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences
University of Sydney
by McKenzie Wark

"There is a witch hunt on United States campuses. Its not 
being run by hard-left radicals hounding their conservative 
opponents, as reported. It is the other way around. 
Conservatives are accusing the left of being 'politically 
correct', and PC is being used as an excuse to silence debate. 
The US media have been only too happy to amplify such 
charges. Australian media are beginning to pick up and 
repeat these beat-ups without questioning the evidence."1

Questioning the evidence is what I went on to do, writing in 
the Australian, back in 1992. Not that it did any good. 
'Political correctness' became a key term in the 'culture wars' 
of the 1990s, even figuring in the federal election campaign 
of 1996. 

Here was a first lesson in the way what some call the public 
sphere, what I call the virtual republic, actually works. The 
term 'political correctness' does not actually represent any 
pre-existing state of affairs. Rather, it expresses a certain 
configuration of the passions that only comes into effect after 
the term circulates. What's more, it would be pointless for 
me to try and represent to you what the term means, for it 
has no necessary range of meaning. A search of a database of 
trade journals reveals that the term has been applied to 
everything from financial planning to shoes.

If I can't expose the gap between the representation (in this 
instance 'political correctness') and what it claims to 
represent, then critique is useless. The best I can do is use it 
to call into existence a different configuration of possible 
desires. I can differentiate the term from itself, but I can't 
eradicate it. Uttering a statement on the virtual republic is a 
matter of affirming a difference in the way a term is 
expressed. It is not a matter of negating a representation in 
the name of the (mis)represented.

This is a process of empirical investigation. I observe some 
things going on in the virtual republic. I write something 
about it in the Australian, the experimental zone that is 
open to me within the virtual republic. Then I observe what 
takes place after what I write appears, including what 
happens in the radio interviews that sometimes follow. 

I'm coming around to the view that media and cultural 
studies has to be more inductive and experimental. For 
many years media studies has been mostly deductive and 
critical. Media studies approaches the media as a reservoir of 
images and stories from which to select those bits that 
conform to a hypothesis formed independently of it. Media 
studies constructs the media in its own image. Media studies 
now has a very detailed knowledge of this object of its own 
construction. A knowledge that is useful for many things, 
but not for actually making media. 

I was involved in an experiment about this once. My 
colleague Catharine Lumby and I asked leading media and 
cultural studies practitioners to say what it is that they do, for 
a story for the Sydney Morning Herald. The result was that, 
while most of my colleagues seem to have a very good 
understanding of what a soundbite is and what is wrong 
with soundbites, very few can actually produce one. The 
conclusion: media studies is not necessarily helpful in 
actually making media.

Now, I'm not about to embark on a critique of media and 
cultural studies. As should be clear by now, I'm sceptical 
about the value of critique. All I want to say is that there are 
parts of media and cultural studies that I didn't find useful 
in my work. I'm interested in producing a new kind of 
media and cultural studies alongside the existing ones.

The canny listener might object at this point that there is 
nothing empirical about the way I arrived at a concept of the 
way a term circulates in the media. The idea of 
communication as the expression of differences rather than a 
representation of similarity is a sort of soundbite version of 
Deleuze's essay 'Plato and the Simulacrum'. 

What happened was this: five years ago I read Paul 
Johnson's attack on political correctness in the Australian. I 
also read Gilles Deleuze's essay. The combination of both 
reading events contributed to a writing event that includes 
both my column in the Australian, my book, The Virtual 
Republic, and this paper I am giving now. 

Or in other words, I'm refusing a hierarchy of reading 
experiences, where one kind is called 'theory' and the other 
'research', or 'practice'. In my work, there are only textual 
events, experiences of reading and writing, and very 
heterogeneous ones at that. 

Every day I go to the newsagent and read all the headlines 
and straplines. Every week I go to Gleebooks and read all the 
back covers of all the new books. Every month I check out 
current serials at Fisher library. I make selections from this 
inductive sampling. These selections are not based on an a 
priori theory, but on the experience of previous iterations of 
the inductive sampling. The hypothesis emerges out of, and 
is continually modified by, the ongoing experiment of 
reading and writing.

Doing this for the last five years, two emergent patterns 
struck me as interesting: the culture wars fought out in the 
newspapers; and the rise of Deleuzo-guattarian theory in the 
academic publishing world. This explains why I happen to be 
using Deleuze's book on Hume as a starting point for 
understanding the culture wars.2

There may be something quite arbitrary about this. But 
critical theories of media and culture are equally arbitrary. 
Why do we quote Walter Benjamin when writing about TV 
sitcoms as if this were the most natural thing in the world? 
While the critical method and my method may be equally 
arbitrary, at least my method produces results that differ over 
time, whereas critical methods tend always to find the same 

'Those who are my followers are not my followers', as 
Zarathustra says. While I'm grateful to those who have 
explicated what Deleuze thought, I'm more interested in 
how one might think differently, after Deleuze. So while the 
Virtual Republic doesn't use much of the terminology of the 
current Deleuzianism, it is deeply indebted to his work. My 
interest was in how his ways of thinking might be otherwise 

Deleuze argues that Hume had a distinctive theory of public 
institutions. The idea of the social contract conceives of the 
institution as a limit on social energies that might otherwise 
prove destructive. In this tradition, government is always at 
best a necessary evil. The new left and the economic 
rationalist right share common roots in this idea. The state is 
a limit on the expression of individualistic self interest to the 
right, or on the identities of different communities to the 

Deleuze says Hume had another idea. Institutions are not a 
limit to the passions, but a way of combining and 
orchestrating them. Hume is  sceptical about whether 
'human nature' can be known, let alone reformed. He had a 
modestly practical approach to the shaping of institutions 
that might facilitate the extension of sympathies groups of 
people might feel for those close to them to a wider, more 
abstract community. Human nature is an emergent property, 
something produced by the assembling of bodies and 
institutions. It is always a second nature.

Hume's politics was, as Oakeshott says, a politics of 
scepticism, not a politics of faith.3 Hume, and for that matter 
Oakeshott, are most usually read thesedays by high minded 
Tories, but I think they are recoverable for a social 
democratic project of widening public sympathy and 
understanding through the incremental and experimental 
creation of institutions.

Institutions create entitlements. Entitlements to space, to 
time, to language, to appearances. Entitlements to a future, to 
the present, to various pasts. There are all kinds of 
entitlements. When they come into conflict, there is often 
no way of adjudicating between them. This I learned, not 
just from reading Hume, but also from reading Arendt and 
Lyotard, who come back to this problem of judgement after 
Kant.4 I also learned it through clipping story after story from 
the papers about Mabo and Wik. 

Among the many entitlements that require constant 
renegotiation involve those of speaking. Who can say what, 
when and in what manner? Who owns the past? Or the 
future? Or at least, who is entitled to speak of it? Questions 
that arise, not just in the discourse of theory, but in the 
discourse of media, under the heading of 'political 
correctness', for instance.

Entitlement, it appears to me, is one of the fundamental 
shifting points at work in the textual events of the culture 
wars. Who is entitled, in the world of speaking and writing, 
to a fair go? What kind of thinks get said, and what kinds of 
relations hold between the things that get said? 

In Virtual Republic I explored this by following four of what 
I now call textual events, and by intervening experimentally 
in them. I won't go into all that now. Some of you will have 
read my columns on Demidenko and Manning Clark and 
Pauline Hanson and Christopher Koch. You won't have read 
me on David Williamson. The paper refused to run it out of 
fear that Williamson might sue. That in itself is an 
interesting story to do with entitlement and the fair go, but 
its in the book, so I won't reiterate it. 

What I want to do here is describe a concept emerging in my 
mind about what the hell I was doing. When I read 
Habermas on how the public sphere ought to work, I 
discover a very humane and plural understanding of what is 
good in the space of public discourse. But I don't get any 
sense of the time of public discourse. One of the things that 
happens in media and cultural studies is that experience of 
events is reified and separated off from the temporality in 
which it occurs. Talking about things as 'texts' facilitates this. 
One ends up in an intertextual space, divorced from the 
lived time of their intensity. 

The trouble with public discourse is that it has no respect for 
the tempo of academic work. It completely disregards the 
pattern of teaching and semester breaks, not to mention the 
temporality of study leave and research grants. So its not 
surprising that researchers want to refashion these unruly 
events into texts, which can be displaced from one tempo to 

But I thought it might be interesting to reverse the process, 
and write my research according to the tempo of the media, 
rather than vice versa. Or perhaps: rather than flattening out 
the multitude of tempos according to which textual events 
unfold, might we not read and write across a heterogeneous 
range of tempos? 

Or, another way of talking about the same issue. It seems to 
me that very often the form of media discourse becomes the 
content of academic discourse. This results in a twofold 
problem. Only media discourse gets critiqued at the level of 
form. Academic discourse proceeds as usual. The second 
problem is that attention to the form of media discourse 
enables its deconstruction and reconstruction in another 
form, in academic discourse. But because the process is 
incomplete, it provides no clues as to how to deconstruct and 
reconstruct academic discourse back into media discourse. 

The result is a media studies that, for all its ambitions to be a 
critical discourse plainly isn't. It has exempted itself criticism 
as a form of media more broadly speaking. By working across 
several tempos and styles of writing, I want to produce a 
version of media studies that in principle at least enables 
transcoding between any and every register. 

This is not the same thing as fictocriticism or other attempts 
to deconstruct the differences between genres. I see those as 
having a lamentable tendency to collapse everything back 
into academic discourse. The academy becomes a black hole 
that swallows every kind of speech but from which no 
utterance ever escapes. In publishing Virtual Republic as a 
trade paperback, I was trying to create a different kind of 
textual event. 

The problem with any empirical approach to the media is 
that it confronts a great ever proliferating mass of 
information. One seems greatly disadvantaged relative to 
theoretical approaches which have preset filters  blocking out 
the vast bulk of media experiences from consideration. 

Here Deleuze proves useful again. His work explores the way 
difference produces itself out of itself, without any reference 
to an essence or limit. Differences can be captured and 
contained, turned into repetition. But difference always 
proliferates across some kind of zone. The way difference 
differentiates across a zone is the main thing. The blockages 
and captures of it are something secondary. Identities, be they 
nation and self or being and other, are only repetitions, 
points at which difference is captured and contained. 

This is a rather crude rendering of what is always a far more 
elegant metaphysical diagram in Deleuze. But I think its 
good enough to do the job at hand, which is to put it 
alongside one's experience of the media. Now, its not just 
that I think this concept explains the experience of the 
media. Its that I also think the concept of the media explains 
Deleuze. 'Explains' in the quite restricted sense that one can 
port a diagram from one field to another and watch it 
connect things up. 

According to Andrew Riemer, in his Sydney Morning 
Herald review of The Virtual Republic, "Wark spends 
considerable space discussing what he calls 'vectors', leading 
him to meditate on the cultural implications of 
republicanism, and so coming to rest on an essentially 
Sydney-style concept of pluralism."5

Riemer doesn't quite seem to get what these vectors are. 
Perhaps I've just never been clear on this. To me, a vector is 
any movement across a zone that has a particular speed and 
intensity, but has no fixed position. It might traverse its zone 
this way or that way -- its still the same vector. Vectors occur 
only in a zone that enables a certain freedom of movement. 

Have you seen those ads for the Telstra privatisation? 
Phones just ring, eveywhere, calling people with the news of 
the privatisation. Among other things, its a nice illustration 
of the vector field that is telephony. Teltra's telephone 
network is a vector field. A phone call has certain properties 
of speed and intensity, but in principle Telstra's phone 
network can connect any point ti any other point. 

I think Deleuze understands the movement of thought in a 
parallel way to how I've been explaining communication. 
Thoughts are vectors of a certain kind of intensity and speed 
that traverse a zone. In thought, as in communication, we 
only glimpse this zone of potential movement through the 
actual movements that occur. Beyond the observation of 
actual movements is the concept of the virtual zone of 
potential movements. A zone which, moreover, may change 
with each and every actual movement. 

This might be an expression of what happens when thinking 
thinks; this might be an expression of what happens when 
media mediate. I happen to think these are aspects of one 
and the same thing. The virtual republic is the limitless set 
of instances of what might possibly traverse a transubjective 
world of sense. This is the process by which a public comes to 
know itself and to produce itself. Or rather, the virtual 
republic is the zone of imminence that enables productions 
of public-ness and private-ness, collective identities and self 
identities -- as points of capture and repetition. 

The virtual republic cannot be studied as a thing apart. Our 
individuality is something co-produced alongside its public-
ness. This is why we have to proceed experimentally. I 
cannot distinguish my private self as a space that is separate 
from the public world. But I can distinguish between two 
iterations of my relation to the public world. I can examine 
the change in myself from time to time.

The virtual republic has an historical form. Its current form 
is that the vector field that creates the potential for vectors of 
sense is a matrix of institutions dominated by what I call a 
'third nature'. That is to say, dominated by the media vectors 
of television, telephony and radio. 

I call this a third nature because there seems to me to be a 
property of this construction of the field of culture that is 
fundamentally different from its predecessors. Since the 
telegraph, information has moved faster than the 
movement of people or things. Since the telegraph, 
information has permeated formerly distinct public and 
private worlds, creating quite different relations between the 
spaces and times of culture. 

So among the institutions that produce, among other things, 
the extension of sympathy that characterises culture are these 
very new, very different and very strange institutions of the 
media -- from the telephone to television to the 
telecommunications of the internet. We know very little as 
yet about any of this. 

I was on Lateline a couple of weeks ago. Totally terrifying 
experience. Nick Minchin, Howard's special minister of state 
was in the Canberra studio. So too was Mark McKenna, the 
historian. Tim Costello, the Uniting Church minister, was in 
the Melbourne Studio. I was in Sydney with the show's host, 
Maxine McHugh. Now, the weird part was that while 
Maxine and I were about ten feet apart, I couldn't see her. I 
was facing in another direction, looking at her face projected 
on a glass screen, behind which was a camera -- its a simple 
trick for getting you to look at the camera when speaking. 
The distracting part was that I heard her and the other guests 
and the floor manager through an earpiece, but I could also 
hear Maxine's voice from somewhere out of vision to my 
right. The space in which we existed was almost entirely one 
of third nature, except for this nagging echo of Maxine's 
voice from across the floor.

The topic was the constitutional convention. It took all three 
of us amateurs, Costello, McKenna and I, but I think we 
scored a point or two off Minchin, who is a real political and 
media pro. But what struck me about it was how much the 
whole impression have that Australia exists at all is an effect 
of a matrix of vectors, a vector field, called the ABC. 

This impression was reinforced by doing interview after 
interview about Virtual Republic, with ABC radio hosts 
from Geraldton, Darwin, Perth and Toowoomba, all from 
the comfort of a 'Tardis booth' at ABC radio in Ultimo. The 
Tardis booths are aptly named, for like Doctor Who's Tardis. 
they are bigger on the inside than the outside. In the second 
nature of the built environment, they are about eight feet 
square; in the third nature of radio, they a zone that can 
aurally contain any part of Australia.

I mention all this to reinforce just how scary it is that this 
government attempted to lobotmise the ABC. And right at a 
moment when the vector field of the national media is more 
and more an extension of a global network of vectors. We no 
longer have roots, we have aerials. Someday we may no 
longer have aerials either.

Now, this raises several interesting problems. Without a 
process of producing itself out of itself, the national culture 
simply doesn't exist. Third nature is what synchronises that 
process. The national culture is not much more than a 
particular tempo at which certain kinds of difference 
proliferate and dissipate across the surface of third nature. 
The culture wars, for example. A dispersal of ideas about 
what it is emerges at a synchronised tempo, as a host of 
media vectors distribute the same images and terms at the 
same time, but to wildly proliferating and differentiating 
effects. The media do not homogenise culture in space, they 
synchornise it in time. 

So what matters, for example, about the constitutional 
convention is that it has a certain temporarily as a textual 
event, rippling across the surface of the media. A temporality 
in which the national culture produces itself as a dispersal of 
differences. The res publica, the 'public thing', or 'public 
reality' is that common sign that circulates in its difference. 
The virtual republic is that zone in which circulate the 
unknowable set of potential things that the public thing 
might become. 

The idea of 'republic' itself, for example, is a public thing that 
circulates. It produces a difference in people. They become for 
it, or against it, or even indifferent to it. But either way, 
synchronised by it. 

The idea of the republic gets captured from time to time. It 
gets captured in the adversarial structure of media discourse. 
To be 'republican' means to want an Australian to be head of 
state, which is necessarily opposed to being a monarchist, 
which is the desire to retain the English monarch in said 

But sometimes the public thing escapes from capture, which 
is what happened for a moment or two on Lateline. Minchin 
and McHugh got stuck in a dialectic of opposites. The three 
remaining talking heads tried to prise the term 'republic' 
loose, make it proliferate, make it mean otherwise.

Experimental media studies, as I conceive it, is more like an 
art than a science. It is about experimenting with the way 
that media vectors might carry significations that proceed 
otherwise. It is about that which might escape from 
representation and its critique. It is also about what might 
escape from the dialectic of representation opposed by 
counter representation. 

There was a great joke on Frontline once, where the 
Executive Producer wanted to find a psychologist to 
comment on air, and his Production Assistant could only 
find a psychology student. The EP was unimpressed, until 
the PA said that he might only be a psychology student, but 
he's got a beard.

I mention this by way of expressing a problem I discovered 
over the course of this experiment. Who am I when I 
conduct such an experiment? Is that a matter of experiment 
too? Or is it decided in advance? The words experiment and 
experience have, after all, the same root. To be in peril: to 
undergo a trial or a test.

There are particular roles for 'experts' in the media. One gets 
drafted according to one's speciality, one's 'expertise'. But 
what if one's expertise is in experimenting with this 
experience itself? 

One curious property of 'media expertise' is the odd way in 
which competence creates its own authority. Socrates proved 
that while the reciter of Homer is expert in reciting, he is not 
for all that an expert in subjects to which the verses refer. He 
may know nothing of the art of war, for example, or the 
geography of Troy. 

Likewise, Maxine McHugh's expertise is in asking questions 
about things, not in the things about which the questions are 
asked. The media expert is the one experienced in 
condensing a complex matter into a small set of abstract 
signs. The soundbite is a form of poetry. 

The experiment with the expertise of the media that is 
perhaps most interesting to conduct in the media itself 
concerns the expansion of the boundaries of this most 
condensed poetics. In particular, it seems urgent to me to 
explore alternatives to the 'call and response' pattern of the 
poetry of current affairs media. Everything is always a 
dialectic, in which each position both depends on, and 
negates the other. If totalitarian communication is about the 
rhythmic repetition of one cluster of signs, then democratic 
communication all too often reduces itself to the repetition 
of two clusters.

At least there is change in this, although change of a 
somewhat predictable kind. The attacks on political 
correctness and postmodernism during the rightward 
opening moves of the culture wars created the space from 
which an answering voice could assuming a speaking 
position. Mark Davis did this most successfully in his book 

But one can observe some ill effects of this kind of media 
discourse, too. I think the failure of the rhetorics of social 
democracy in the Keating years had to do with the way they 
identified minorities dialectically, in opposition to an other, 
in opposition to an Anglo-Celtic majority. The perils of 
Pauline may very well be something summoned up by social 
democratic media strategies themselves. What Hanson 
spoke for was everything that for a good few years had been 
so loudly spoken against. Social democracy created the 
dialectical possibility of its own negation.

The experiment of multiculturalism ran into difficulties, not 
because it tried to legitimise cultural differences. Rather, 
because it did not open the way for differentiation enough. It 
posited differences against a dominant and allegedly 
hegemonic other. The other articulated itself from the very 
locus where it had been projected. 

So its tempting, particularly for Labor, to abandon the whole 
rhetoric of the minority and join the jostling crowd of 
political populists angling for some alleged 'mainstream'. 
But I think a better solution is to head in the other direction 
altogether. To think of all Australians as different, and 
differently entitled, to make a claim on public affairs. 

My own modest contribution to disagregating majority is, in 
Virtual Republic, to open my own little crack in this monster 
'Anglo-Celtic' culture. A term that would make my Scots 
ancestors turn in their graves. The Virtual Republic is a book 
that is not shy about speaking to the whole of Australian 
culture. I believe everyone who belongs to it has that right. 
What needs be more modest, I think is the authority of 
speaking from the whole of it. That is what needs 
particularising, for those of us with easy access to a 
majoritarian voice as much for those without.

There is a past that marks one, that is the scar of history. 
There is the past one makes, that one tattoos by choice on the 
surfaces of everyday life. I wanted to create an outline of a 
tradition to which I could belong. This is, I think, an 
underestimated problem at present. 

In 1985 Meaghan Morris gave me a very good piece of advice. 
Don't 'Oedipalise' your relationship with your predecessors, 
she said. Don't treat them as intellectual fathers and mothers 
-- to be killed so you can take their place. 

Ten years later, in 1995, I discovered a whole band of would-
be intellectual parent figures to the nation who were trying 
to kill off their own children. Helen Garner thinks we need 
smothering with mothering. Seeing that we have 
succumbed to a 'culture of forgetting', Robert Manne offered 
to go on carrying the burden of remembering for us.

This was one of the more bizarre sides to the culture wars. 
As you might expect, the demonising of a generation as 
victims of an evil postmodernism creates the speaking 
position from which a range of voices have replied, from the 
Phillip Adam's collection Retreat from Tolerance to Mark 
Davis' Ganglands  to Catharine Lumby's Bad Girls to Jenna 
Mead's new book Bodyjamming, to Tony Moore's ABC TV 
documentary Bohemian Rhapsody, which screens on 
December 3rd. 

I couldn't resist the urge to play this game, of participating in 
a re-evaluation of what is living and what is dead in the 
legacy of the 60s. But like Tony Moore, I wanted also to 
construct a possible past, perhaps just a myth of the past, that 
might sustain a way of working in the present. And so, in 
Virtual Republic, I wrote about the continuities between 
Sydney freethought, Sydney libertarianism and Sydney 
postmodernism, from 1927 to 1997. Seventy years of thinking 
and arguing and disagreeing about the politics of difference 
and the culture of autonomy. 

Whether initiated by moralists from Melbourne or the 
member for Oxley, whenever there are attacks on the 
plurality of ways of claiming an entitlement to speak, it 
comforts me to think that there is a tradition of responding 
to those attacks that has not only deep roots but a whole 
dense crabgrass network of tendrils, right here in Sydney. 

So while Virtual Republic unavoidably buys into the 
dialectic of the culture wars, it also tries to escape from it. 
The down side is that these experiments in writing 
otherwise are hurting my sales. The up side is that its still 
possible for such a thing to circulate at all.

1 McKenzie Wark, 'Hunted Are Hunters in PC Beat-Up', 
Australian, 15th April 1992

2 Gilles Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, Columbia 
University Press, 1991

3 Michael Oakeshott, The Politics of Faith and the Politics of 
Scepticism, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1996

4 See Kimberly Hutchings, Kant, Critique and Politics, 
Routledge, London, 1996

5 Andrew Riemer, 'The Cultural War Has Broken Out 
Again. Which Gang Are You In?', Sydney Morning Herald, 
18th October, 1997

McKenzie Wark lectures in media studies at Macquarie 
University in Sydney, Australia

The Virtual Republic is published by Allen & Unwin

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