Mark Dery on Fri, 6 Feb 1998 01:25:02 +0100 (MET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> The Californian Demonology

     I haven't read David Hudson's _Rewired_ book but, as with most

of us, that won't stop me from rushing in, vorpal sword drawn,

where angels fear to tread.  

     Richard Barbrook often amuses, sometimes enlightens, and

rarely fails to provoke.  In his review of _Rewired_, he manages to

do all three.  Since I haven't read the book under dissection, I

won't comment on Barbrook's overarching points.  Rather, I'm

writing to urge him to consign his creeping xenophobia to the

dustbin of history.  The by now drearily predictable digs at Ugly

Americans in general and "Californians" in specific that mar even

his best polemics play to a pinched parochialism, a small-minded

mistrust of anything not Made in the U.K. that isn't worthy of him. 

I'm reminded (as long as we're trading in nationalist jabs, here)

of J.G. Ballard's chagrin, in _The Kindness of Women_, at returning

to England after the war: "I was marooned in a small, grey country

where the sun rarely rose above the rooftops, a labyrinth of class

and caste forever enlarging itself from within."  

     Worse by far, Barbrook's demonology of all that's

"Californian" (I have the horrible suspicion that he no longer

means the adjective metaphorically) mistakes geography for

ideology.  It's as if the Mark of the Beast, in this conspiracy

theory, were 90210.  The "Californian" Ideology didn't spring,

full-blown, from Louis Rossetto's brow as he languidly caressed his

robot owl in the penthouse of the Tyrell Pyramid.  _Wired_'s

Bedtime Stories for Young Extropians have found fertile

intellectual soil in the Bay Area for complex historical reasons I

detail at some length in _Escape Velocity_, in my chapter on the

confluence of '60s counterculture and '90s computer culture. 

Barbrook's emphasis on the *Californian* zip code of this ideology

is a tactical error the Left can ill afford at a time when global

capitalism flows effortlessly around trade unions, regulatory

frameworks, and other artifacts of the Age of the Nation-state. 

This, unfortunately, is an ideology with legs, and understanding

its *global* nature---while conceding its uniquely American

hybridization, in the _Wired_ gospel, of laissez-faire economics,

Social Darwinism, and "born-again" eschatology---is crucial.  

     More trivially, conspiracy theories about the "Californian"

roots of our evils give rise to conspiracy theories about the

"English" roots of those same evils, Mark Stahlman's hilariously

Lyndon LaRouche-ian vision of a cabal of degenerate Anglophiles

bent on world domination, wider bandwidth, and free love with

barnyard animals being a case in point.             

     A few last cavils: 

1. "Because so few people within the USA challenge the conservative

politics of 'Wired', the publication of 'Rewired' is an important

event over there."  

     The presumption that we in the colonies are little better than

forelock-touching yokels, apolitical and historically amnesiac,

is an article of faith in Barbrook critiques.  Unfortunately, like

so many religious convictions, it's unfounded flapdoodle.  The

undeniable significance of Barbrook and Cameron's _Californian

Ideology_ notwithstanding, the most vociferous, pointed critiques

of _Wired_'s politics have come from bumptious, benighted souls in

the States, from _The Bay Guardian_ (a constant thorn in Rossetto's

side) to freelance critics such as Paulina Borsook ("The Memoirs of

a Token: An Aging Berkeley Feminist Examines _Wired_," in _Wired

Women_), Keith White ("The Killer App," in _The Baffler_ anthology

_Commodify Your Dissent_), Critical Art Ensemble (in innumerable

interviews, performances, and panel discussions), Gary Chapman

("Barbed Wired" in _The New Republic_), and of course David Hudson,

not to mention, immodestly, myself (see my essay on _Wired_ at, as well as the _Mute_ interview I conducted with

Geert Lovink).  De Tocqueville, Baudrillard, Christopher Hitchens,

and other Europeans have come, seen, and sat in witty judgement,

but *no one* pillories the American booboisie with greater relish

or ferocity than Americans themselves, as Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken,

and Noam Chomsky amply evidence.  

2. "For instance, Hudson's historical approach is useful for

reminding Americans that the Net was invented using their tax

dollars rather than through market competition."  

     Being beaten with this shopworn stick begins to bore.  Few of

us, save the Digerati themselves, require such reminders at this

point, certainly not the cultural elite which is the target

demographic, presumably, for Hudson's book.  As thunderclap

revelations go, this is a bit of soggy fizzle, at this point.

3. "Despite ending 'Rewired' with a look at the potential of

community networks, Hudson accepts that cyberspace will inevitably

be swallowed up by commercial interests."

     Breathes there a soul so naive that he or she believes this

irrevocable process isn't well underway, if not complete?  Can I

have a show of hands, here, that the Internet, as the Temporary

Autonomous Zone of all our subcultural hopes and dreams, is *over*. 

Obviously, there are, and hopefully always will be, cells of

Foucault-ian micropolitical resistance lurking in the cracks, and

as the author of one of the best-known manifestos in the subject

(_Culture Jamming_), I remain heartened by the virulence of such

infestations.  But if there's one thing consumer capitalism excels

at, it's the commodification of dissent, and one needn't be a card-

carrying member of the Horkheimer-Adorno Memorial Society to

believe that.

4. "Even the political terms used to describe people's opinions

will disorientate many non-American readers. In this book,

libertarians are not anarchists, but loopy neo-liberals; liberals

are not Thatcherites, but confused leftists; and communitarians are

certainly not communists!"

     Again, a petit-bourgeois narrow-mindedness rears its

unfortunate head, here in the author's incredulity over the fact

that those wacky, slaphappy Americans "have a different word for

*everything*" (to paraphrase our answer to Baudrillard, the

comedian Steve Martin).  The confusion in terms, here, arises from

trivial cultural conventions, on the order of the fact that those

who speak American use the verb "disorient" rather than the British


     A handy pocket key for future reference: in the States, the

term "Libertarian" (with a capital "L") is associated with

Jeffersonian notions of least government = best government, the

near- (or outright) abolition of taxation, robust civil liberties,

and radical laissez-faire capitalism.  It shades, as it moves

rightward, into a shrill, Ayn Rand-ian anti-statism and, on the far

fringes, the paranoid anti-government eschatology of the militia

movement.  Americans don't use the European term "neo-liberal," in

an economic context, since the term "liberal" is already used

politically, applied to the sort of centrist progressivism

associated with, say, Naomi Wolf among feminists (as opposed to the

manifest Leftism of _The Village Voice_'s Barbara Ehrenreich) or

_The Utne Reader_ as opposed to unabashedly Left-wing magazines

such as _Z_ or _In These Times_.  When Europeans say "neo-liberal,"

Americans (at least, *this* American) always translate it into

"Reaganite" or "laissez-faire."  

5. "Beneath the *peculiarity* (MY ITALICS) of American political

descriptions lies a deeper confusion which disables the radical

aspirations of this book. How can anyone take a Left seriously

which erroneously calls itself liberal because it doesn't dare even

to be rhetorically socialist?"

     *This* from the man who jubilantly sports a campaign button

for *Tony Blair*, a memetically engineered product of the Clinton

Genome Project who would rather eat Margaret Thatcher's memoirs

than utter the word "socialist?"  Passing strange.  But I take

Barbrook's valuable, dead-on point that the American Left, whatever

it calls itself, hasn't articulated any grandiose, utopian

alternative to _Wired_'s fever-dream vision of better living

through Darwinian cybercapitalism.  

     Hari Kunzru called me to account on this point at the 1996 Ars

Electronica, and I felt then, as I do now, hoisted on the horns of

a dilemma.  I suspect many on the postmodern Left feel, as I do,

that command-and-control utopias, founded on technocratic

rationalism and imposed from on high, are an artifact of a receding

Modernism.  For that reason, we're hard put to cobble together

grand, political unified field theories of any sort---which *isn't*

to say that we aren't passionately committed to political

engagement on an issue-by-issue basis, outside and even within the

current, deeply flawed system.  But given the ongoing undermining

of our little experiment in participatory democracy by

multinational corporate capital, perhaps Barbrook will forgive the

American Left its acid-drip cynicism about the bright promises of

social democracy.  

     On the other hand, I---and, I suspect, many like me---am *no

less* cynical about what's currently being offered, contra "neo-

liberalism," as our last, best alternative to the centralized, top-

down utopias of recent memory: the growingly popular post-politics

of nonlinearity, hitched to a supposedly "out-of-control,"

"autonomous" technosphere and legitimated in the languages of

chaos, complexity, Deleuzean schizo-analysis, and neo-Darwinian


     This, obviously, is a matter to be taken up, at greater

length, elsewhere, but a useful critique of "rhizomatic" politics

would begin by interrogating its essentialist appeals to Nature;

its science-fiction faith in a technosphere that has supposedly

torn loose from corporate, even human, agency, and its unhappy

bedfellow-ism with "neo-liberal" calls---whether ingenuous or not--

-for the dismantling of social programs and the decentralization of

government (Deleuzeans: read "destratification").  Most of all,

such a critique would cast a wary eye on the seductive charms, to

Leftists who've lost their collective faith in engineered

solutions, of a chaos politics that urges us to hitch a ride on the

zeitgeist.  Why worry, its apologists seem to ask, about the

gritty, everyday details of social justice, economic equity, and

other antiquated Second Wave issues when the "emergent" revolution

of nonlinearity, "hive" mentality, fuzzy logic, and parallel

processing will do all the dirty work for us?  It is, as an early

MTV tagline so memorably put it, Revolution Without All the Mess. 

     In conclusion, let me say, then, that we need Barbrook's

unabashed utopianism and his spirited critiques too much to let him

succumb to an obsolete xenophobia.   

     [My apologies to all for the garrulousness of this post.  But

then, that's why neo-biological evolution, in its infinite wisdom,

gave us the "Delete" key.]


     My faith in mirrorshaded cynicism be will seriously imperiled

if Bruce Sterling, ever eager for a little bloodletting between

Lefties yet oddly unwilling to put his own beliefs on the

barrelhead, doesn't repost this to the WELL's "Goofy Leftists"







#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: