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Re: <nettime> The Californian Demonology
ted byfield on Fri, 6 Feb 1998 09:55:03 +0100 (MET)


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Re: <nettime> The Californian Demonology


markdery {AT} well.com (Thu 02/05/98 at 11:42 AM -0800):

>      Richard Barbrook often amuses, sometimes enlightens, and
> rarely fails to provoke. <...>

Someone somewhere sometime said something about how easy it is to trash
one's country abroad and how hard it is to listen to abroaders trashing
one's country. Whether trans-, meta-, or a-national--in a word, virtual
--"communities" will substantially alter this is anyone's guess; myself,
I'm betting that this easy/hard dichotomy will gradually devolve into a
familiar-enough split--between those whose distance gives them "perspec-
tive" and those whose intimacy gives them "expertise." Who knows, maybe
it'll be interesting to watch patriotism transmogrify into a technocrat-
ic discipline besieged by generalists and dilettantes. Boring, probably.

By and large, Richard's windmill-jousting nettles me--not because I was
born in California, not because I live in the US, not because I'm a pat-
riot; but, rather, because as time passes it's starting to smell in the
way that the second, third, fourth LPs of a one-hit wonder smell. Of an
overweening desire to recapture that "magic" moment. Of a "comer," some-
one who desperately wants to Establish himself (and the fact that there
isn't a spec of circumspection in these critiques he flogs, as if birth
in the UK were ipso facto an innoculation against WiReDiSm, as if WiReD
were the problem...this particularly puts a bee up my butt). It doesn't
really matter, though: the magazine's dying, and if Richard keeps it up
he'll wake up one day to discover that he's been given the KOTM award...
And, like many Americans of whatever class, style, and bent, I'll perse-
vere in my attempts to balance my inner life with my cartoon-like being.

Lately, though, at least WRT to nettime, the only "patriotic" sentiment
I can muster is negative: a growing concern that almost every post sent
to nettime by an American is preoccupied with the NSA, the NRO, Infowar,
ECHELON, genetic social engineering, and assorted other chimeras. GET A
GRIP ON YOURSELVES. STOP THE MADNESS! NOW! Fully half of the subscriber
base of nettime has *lived* in "totalitarian" states that were and some-
times still are infinitely more blunt than anything the "Gubmint" would
ever even *bother* to think about doing to you. The rights you cling to
so tenaciously haven't been and aren't now accorded to the *vast* major-
ity of US citizens, *let alone* to those poor schmucks who collectively
constitute the rest of History and Elsewhere. These rantings are little
--nay, *nothing*--more than the nightmares of a middle-class absolutely
terrified that its inheritance of prosperous backyard peace is slipping 
from its grasp. Yes, YOU, my fellow Yanks. That is *precisely* why your
anti-statist rantings are so easily transmuted into free-market blather,
why you so quickly forget that YOUR nightmare--a brutal imperial govern-
ment folding inward on its own citizenry--is *not* universally fearsome,
why you fail to consider that other governments are entirely capable of
shoving aside lunatic US policies, why you rant about the 1at Amendment
to people for whom it's the equivalent of a yurt--a quaint structure in
which curious and distant people continually take shelter. For Christ's
sake, if you gringos don't Klew In, I may just crank up my listserv and
offer a *filtered* version of nettime, 99 and 44/100% free of US raving.

Ted
---
"It was in the nineteenth century that each person began to have the right 
 to his little box for his little personal decomposition."   --M. Foucault










 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
> 
> www.levity.com, 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
> 
> "disorientate."  
> 
>      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
> 
> bio-babble.  
> 
>      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.]
> 
>      P.S.
> 
>      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"
> 
> topic.
> 
> 
> 
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>     
> 
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>  
> 
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>     
> 
> 
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> 
> 
>    
> 
> ---
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---
#  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: majordomo {AT} icf.de and "info nettime" in the msg body
#  URL: http://www.desk.nl/~nettime/  contact: nettime-owner {AT} icf.de