McKenzie Wark on Fri, 6 Feb 1998 19:14:40 +0100 (MET)

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

<nettime> The Virtual Empire

Being equally ignorant about Europe *and* America is my
only qualification for writing on this 'california
ideology' theme. That and the fact that i just watched a
mindfuck of an episode of the X-Files. The latter
was basically a thinly disguised critique of the military-
industrial complex, and a document available free to
air on a major network. Which got me thinking: America
is just a hell of a lot stranger and weirder than us
foreigners ever credit.

Having grown up in the era of the Vietnam war, followed
by the stationing of first-strike nuclear weapons in
Europe, America always figured as a virtual empire, something
that stalked the dreams of anyone who read the papers and
watched enough TV to get some vague, X-File-ish inkling
of the way its power worked in the world. Its power was both
repellent and seductive. It was both the Pentagon and
Hollywood. We were naive enough to assume that these were
always one and the same thing.

It was kinda convenient that this virtual empire existed,
both in reality but also in our dreams. As something one
defined oneself against. But then i started spending time
in America. In some ways, it was *exactly* as i imagined.
After all, i grew up on the Beach Boys and I Dream of
Jeannie. I can remember someone saying to me, in all
seriousness: "its amazing -- Americans really talk in real
life like they do on TV!" But the funny thing is, its

But what is inconvenient for some of us non-Americans is
that America is not reductible to the phantom empire of
itself that animated our dreams. The coincidence of
America as the Pentagon, America as Hollywood, America
as Coca-Cola with the actual geographic place of America
is quite illusory. And I think, in time, its coincidence
with the 'California idelogy' will also prove to be

The whole thing about power, in the way it is organised
in its current phase, whether it be strategic power,
communicational power or commerical power, is that it
tends more and more to be purely vectoral. It colonises
a site only for as long as it is useful node in a matrix,
then it moves on. The irony is that 'America' was the
image for this placeless, rootless, power, in all its
forms. But now we see more and more that this kind of
power doesn't even need America any more. It has not
necessary connection with it. What we mistakenly thought
of as *American* power is just strategic power, commercial
power, communication power, in opposition or alliance,
inhabiting sites or bypassing them.

We know now that it didn't work out, but i think it was
a turning point, when Japanese technology companies
bought Hollywood studios. Or, more successfully, some
upstart Australian built a TV network. Or Congress debates
whether Japanese companies can bid for hi-tech military
contracts. These forms of power are no longer synonymous
with 'America'. Perhaps they never were. 

In any case, there is more than one America. You only see
certain faces of it from abroad. I always imagined it was
a more 'right wing' country than Australia. We have a real
snob mentality about this. America as a lost cause, run 
by the lunatic far right. Or America as a place that has
lost its roots, gone over to the pure power of the vectors
of commerce and communication at home, and dominated by
imperial interests. 

But the more i go there the more i see other things. I start
to see it, not as the 'new', but as something very old
indeed -- the world's oldest democracy. A place that has
struggled with the ageing of its democratic institutions in
a way that has become a tradition in itself -- something
Europe is still too young to understand. Europe, where
most of the democratic states have no more that 40 years of
continuous history.

I see also the strength and innovative quality of grass roots
activism. Act-Up could not have started anywhere else, to
give just one example. Just one of the offshoots of a whole
history of activism going back to the civil rights movement.
The confidence with which 'right' is used as a political
concept -- this just doesn't exist anywhere else i've ever

Of course, the people who sell the place short the most are
often American 'liberals'. But what isn't grasped within
America is how internal bitching and moaning about the place
feeds a demonology that foreigners nurture. One that, while
it contains elements of truth, is not always a good guide.

I was speaking to a friend just today about the alarmingly
high incidences of police harassment in Harlem. We were
revisiting the 'plunger' incident. I mention this so as not
to be taken as an apologist for the American status quo. 
But it seems to me to do a disservice to activists, critical
intellectuals and other curmugeons to pretend that these
struggles don't go on. You don't hear much about grassroots
American media in the mainstream media in Australia, and
i bet you don't in Europe, either. You hear about Wired and
silicon alley, but you don't hear about the freenets and
community network people. You don't get the sense that the
struggle is as a live and well there as anywhere, but happening
in a different language. 

So in short, i think that a discussion in a trans-national
community like nettime has to focus on the trans-national
forms of power that define the space we live and work in. I've
called that power vectoral, and stressed its increasing
independence from locality. Its no longer appropriate to
think of it as a distinctively American phenomenon. Nor is
it accurate to think of America as somehow an examplar of a 
pure space of vectoral power, whereas more enlightened
cultures have resisted this. America seems as mixed an
economy as any other, full of the most bizzare political and
social subventions. And frankly, i find ot refreshing that
in American culture, the welfare state is clearly identified
as connected to the warfare state. In Australia, and i
suspect in some parts of western europe, social democrats
are not terribly honest about this connection. 

Surprisingly, there is a lot social democrats can learn from
America. Not least about the concept of liberty, and of right.
And not least about the market side of the mixed economy. If
social democracy is to be a genuinely syncretic political 
practice, it has to do more than pay lip-service to those
values. If its just good old bureaucratic centrism with a bit
of window dressing, it ain't gonna work. 

"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
 -- McKenzie Wark 

#  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: