Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> THE HOLY FOOLS <part 1>
Richard Barbrook on Thu, 27 Aug 1998 18:37:17 +0200 (MET DST)

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

<nettime> THE HOLY FOOLS <part 1>


[Mute/Telepolis mix]

Richard Barbrook,
Hypermedia Research Centre

"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said the [Cheshire] Cat: "we're all mad here.
I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."

-Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland  <1>

1: The Lost Utopia

The Net is haunted by the disappointed hopes of the Sixties. Because this
new technology symbolises another period of rapid change, many
contemporary commentators look back to the stalled revolution of thirty
years ago to explain what is happening now. Most famously, the founders of
Wired appropriated New Left rhetoric to promote their New Right policies
for the Net.<2> Within Europe, a long history of class-based politics and
compulsive theorising makes such ideological chicanery seem much more
implausible. However, this does not mean that Europeans are immune from
embracing digital elitism in the name of sixties libertarianism.
Ironically, this bizarre union of opposites is most evident in writings
inspired by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. 

Although these two philosophers were overt leftists during their
lifetimes, many of their contemporary followers support a form of
aristocratic anarchism which is eerily similar to Californian
neo-liberalism. In doing so, the Deleuzoguattarians have unwittingly
exposed the fatal weaknesses within what appears to be an impeccably
emancipatory analysis of the Net. Trapped within the precepts of their
sacred creed, the disciples of Deleuze and Guattari can't even grasp why
the spread of the Net really is such a subversive phenomenon. 

At the end of the century, the superficiality of post-modernism is no
longer fashionable among radical intellectuals. Because the Soviet Union
has collapsed, the European avant-garde can return to its old obsession
with Leninism. Instead, TJs look back to the libertarian spontaneity of
May '68.<3> Even after decades of reactionary rule, the folk memory of the
sixties still remains an inspiration for the present. The democratic ways
of working, cultural experimentation and emancipatory lifestyles initiated
in this period survive - and even flourish - within the DIY culture of the
Nineties.<4> However, belief in the overthrow of capitalism is no longer
credible. Therefore contemporary European intellectuals have turned social
transformation into theoretical poetry - a revolutionary dreamtime for the

The cult of Deleuze and Guattari is a prime example of this aesthetisation
of sixties radicalism. Above all, their most famous book - A Thousand
Plateaus - now provides the buzzwords and concepts for a specifically
European understanding of the Net. In contrast with the USA, a vibrant
techno-culture has been flourishing across the continent for over two
decades. Pioneered by computer-generated dance music, this digital
aesthetic now embraces fashion, art, graphic design, publishing and video
games. When it emerged in Europe, the Net was at first seen as a place for
social and cultural experimentation rather than as a business opportunity.
Unlike the Californian ideology, the writings of Deleuze and Guattari do
seem to provide theoretical metaphors which describe the non-commercial
aspects of the Net. For instance, the rhizome metaphor captures how
cyberspace is organised as an open-ended, spontaneous and horizontal
network. Their Body-without-Organs phrase can be used to romanticise
cyber-sex. Deleuze and Guattari's nomad myth reflects the mobility of
contemporary Net users as workers and tourists. 

D&G now symbolises more than just Dolce & Gabbana. Within the rhizomes of
the Net, the Deleuzoguattarians form their own subculture: the
techno-nomads. These adepts are united by specific 'signifying practices':
computer technologies, techno music, bizarre science, esoteric beliefs,
illegal chemicals and cyberpunk novels. There even is a distinctive
Deleuzoguattarian language which is almost incomprehensible to the
uninitiated. Above all, these techno-nomads possess a radical optimism
about the future of the Net. While all that remains of hippie ideals in
Wired is its psychedelic layout, the European avant-garde - and its
imitators - still champions the lost utopia of May '68 through the
theoretical poetry of Deleuze and Guattari. The revolution will be

2: The Politics of May '68

Far from deterring an audience educated in structuralism, the hermetic
language and tortured syntax used within A Thousand Plateaus are seen as
proofs of its analytical brilliance. However, this idiosyncratic
Deleuzoguattarian discourse is causing as much confusion as elucidation
among their followers. For instance, the Rhizome web site blandly
announces that: "rhizome is... a figurative term... to describe
non-hierarchical networks of all kinds."<5> At no point does this web site
explain either the political meaning of this peculiar concept or how its
principles might be applied within the Net. On the contrary, rhizome is
simply a hip European phrase borrowed to celebrate the disorganised nature
of the New York cyber-arts scene. 

Yet, Deleuze and Guattari were not simply avant-garde art critics. The two
philosophers were 'soixante-huitards': supporters of the May '68
revolution.<6> Deleuze and Guattari championed the most radical expression
of Sixties politics: anarcho-communism. As its name suggests,
anarcho-communism stood for the destruction of both state power and market
capitalism. Society would be reorganised as a direct democracy and as a
gift economy. The appeal of anarcho-communism did not derive only from its
abstract theory, but also from its concrete practice. During the sixties,
anarcho-communists led the search for radical solutions to the
historically novel problems facing young people. With the arrival of
consumer society, the traditional Left policy of unrestricted
modernisation appeared to have reached its limits. Once almost everyone
had annual rises in income and mass unemployment had disappeared, the
problems of everyday life took on increasing importance, such as
restraints on sexual and cultural freedom. 

Above all, many people now wanted a say in the decisions which affected
them. They were no longer willing to accept leadership from above without
some form of dialogue. Responding to these historically specific
circumstances, young militants rediscovered and updated anarcho-communism
not just as a theory, but also as a practice. Unlike their parents'
parliamentary parties and trade unions, the New Left could articulate
their contemporaries' demands for more participation. Instead of others
deciding their lives for them, young people wanted to do things for

'[Anarcho-]communism is not a new mode of production; it is the affirmation
of a new community.'<7>

3: The Romance of  'Schizo-Politics'

Like other gurus of the New Left, Deleuze and Guattari believed that the
state itself was the source of all oppression. According to their
foundation myth, the state and its allies had been using top-down
tree-like structures to subjugate people ever since the dawn of agrarian
civilisation. Described as a process of 'territorialisation', they claimed
that the media, psychoanalysis and language were the primary 'machinic
assemblages' used by the state to control everyday life in the modern
world. In contrast with Marxist analyses, Deleuze and Guattari believed
that economics was only one manifestation of the state's primordial will
to dominate all human activity. 

Facing the transhistorical enemy of the state was a new opponent: the
social movements. Deleuze and Guattari thought that the traditional style
of left-wing politics was now obsolete. As part of the 'guaranteed' sector
of the economy, private and public sector workers not only had been bought
off by the system, but also had their desires manipulated by the family,
the media, the dominant language and psychoanalysis. Like much of the
post-'68 New Left, the two philosophers instead looked to social movements
of youth, feminists, ecologists, homosexuals and immigrants to
'deterritorialise' the power of the state. As part of the 'non-guaranteed'
sector, people in these movements were excluded from the system and were
therefore supposedly eager to fight for the revolution.<8>

In A Thousand Plateaus, the nomads poetically symbolised the 'molecular'
social movements which were making the anarcho-communist revolution
against the 'molar' tyranny of political power. Far from trying to seize
political power, nomads used their mobility to avoid the 'territorialised'
control of the authoritarian state. Similarly, the social movements formed
a multiplicity of hippie tribes which were autonomous from all
centralising and hierarchical tendencies, especially those supported by
the mainstream Left. Along the 'lines of flight' mapped out by the New
Left, the oppressed would escape from the control of the authoritarian
state into autonomous rhizomes formed by the social movements. In A
Thousand Plateaus, the rhizome became the poetic metaphor for this nomadic
vision of direct democracy. 

For Deleuze and Guattari, the overthrow of political power was only the
beginning of the anarcho-communist revolution. They believed that
political domination was only made possible through personal repression.
The anarcho-communist revolution therefore had to liberate the libidinal
energies of people from all forms of social control. The individual
'delirium' of schizophrenics prefigured the chaotic spirit of collective
revolution. This meant that radicals not only had to detonate a social
uprising, but also personally live out the cultural revolution. The New
Left revolutionary was symbolised as the Body-without-Organs: a person who
was no longer "organised, signified, subjected" by the rationality of the
state.<9> Such individuals were forerunners of the new type of human being
who would emerge after the anarcho-communist revolution: a hippie
equivalent of Nietzsche's Superman. For Deleuze and Guattari,
anarcho-communism was therefore not just the realisation of direct
democracy and the gift economy. In their 'schizo-politics', the revolution
would destroy bourgeois rationality so each individual could become a holy

"[The Fool]...is the vagabond who exists on the fringe of organised
society, going his own way, ignoring the rules and taboos with which men
seek to contain him. He is the madman who carries within him the seeds of
genius, the one who is despised by society yet who is the catalyst who
will transform that society."<10>

4: The Moment of  Community Radio

Within the exuberant writings of the Deleuzoguattarians, there is a
curious - and revealing - omission. They almost never mention Guattari's
claim in the eighties that the Minitel system was about to replace
top-down mass media with bottom-up 'post-media'.<11> The reason for this
absence must be found in the close similarity between Guattari's Minitel
utopia and his earlier dreams about the revolutionary potential of
community radio. Paradoxically, it is Guattari's anarcho-communist
adventure within radio which provides the answer to why his contemporary
disciples have developed such a curious affinity with the aristocratic
ideology of Wired. 

After May '68, many members of the New Left believed that producing
alternative media was the most effective and fun way of putting their
revolutionary theory into practice. In both Italy and France, the
nationalised radio and television corporation had disseminated propaganda
from the ruling conservative parties for decades. During the seventies,
New Left activists challenged this monopoly by setting up pirate radio
stations. As the regulations against unlicensed broadcasting collapsed,
thousands of 'free radios' emerged first in Italy and later in France.
Although most were commercial, a minority were run by New Left activists. 

According to Guattari, community radio stations were the only alternative
to the domination of the airwaves by mindless 'disco radios'. He wanted
radio broadcasting to be used to create an electronic form of direct
democracy which could replace the corrupt system of representative
democracy. Instead of elected politicians, people would directly express
their own opinions on the programmes of the community radio stations. The
community radio stations supposedly prefigured the imminent reorganisation
of the whole of society around direct democracy after the
anarcho-communist revolution. Even this ultra-left utopia didn't go far
enough for Guattari. The ultimate aim of a 'free radio' was the subversion
of bourgeois rationality and repressive sexuality within everyday life.
When people were able to express their own views over the airwaves,
Guattari hoped that the 'delirium' of desire would be released within the

In the early eighties, Guattari was the leader of Frequence Libre, a
community radio station licenced to broadcast across Paris. However, it
soon became obvious that turning Deleuzoguattarian theory into practice
was impossible. Far from encouraging audience participation, the sectarian
politics of the two philosophers actually discouraged people - including
many on the Left - from getting involved in their community radio station.
Guattari and his colleagues were more interested in lecturing the audience
rather than engaging in discussions with them. This revolutionary elitism
even extended the musical policies of the station. When some rappers
approached Frequence Libre about the possibility of making some
programmes, the station refused to let any hip-hop crews on-air until
their lyrics had been politically vetted! After they'd alienated most of
their potential activists and audience, Guattari's 'free radio'
encountered growing difficulties in raising sufficient cash and recruiting
enough volunteers to operate the station. Eventually, Fr=E9quence Libre
went bankrupt and its frequency was sold to pay its debts. Guattari's
attempts to turn theory into practice within the 'free radio' movement had
ended in tragedy.<13>

#  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} desk.nl and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL: http://www.desk.nl/~nettime/  contact: nettime-owner {AT} desk.nl