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<nettime> Southern Oscillation Index
McKenzie Wark on Wed, 14 Oct 1998 18:34:44 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> Southern Oscillation Index


Southern Oscillation Index
McKenzie Wark

One of the things that reminds me about why the net matters is seeing
Rupert Murdoch's face on the front cover of _The Australian_ newspaper. He
owns that newspaper, but that's not the only reason it covered his speech
to News Corp stockholders on the front page. News Corp is a major
international corporation. One that just happens to be based in the
provincial Australian city of Adelaide, where the local stock market rules
are a convivial environment. 

News Corp companies own 70% of Australian newspapers, measured by
circulation. Australian media is one of the most highly monopolised in the
world, and as such is a model for how other national media environments
are likely to turn out, if they follow the kind of regulatory practices
that successive Australian governments adopted. 

It matters that there is a space in which to write about these kind of
things, which is why the net matters, for instance. I write for _The
Australian_, but while I personally have no complaints about the way that
paper treats my writing, its not a publication that has a terribly strong
interest in this issue of media concentration. 

For a while it looked as though the net could be some kind of ideal
alternative to big media. It didn't turn out that way. Its curious how
scepticism about the potential of the net was very unevenly distributed.
While the net was supposed to be a gossamer thread weaving in and out of
national spaces, escaping from them or subverting them, I don't think
that's turned out to be the case. So while its good to have a new space,
outside of big media, its still an open question what kind of space it is.
The virtuality of the net, it seems to me, is imperfectly mapped. 

I'm writing from a milieu in which there was never any great enthusiasm
for what Mark Dery calls the "theology of the ejector seat". There was
never a strong sense in Australian culture that technology was a route to
transcendence. Its true that Rupert Murdoch actually expressed an
enthusiasm for global media's capacity to break down totalitarian
governments, but this was more of a pragmatic than a transcendent way of
thinking. It was a view of changing media in terms of undoing something
wrong, rather than of raising the human essence to a sublime plane. In any
case, its a remark he seems to have retracted when it caused difficulties
for him in the emerging Chinese market. 

By the same token, I don't think Australian culture is a milieu all that
receptive to the European alternative to transcendent American thinking
about the net. In the European view, as Geert Lovink once summarised it,
the media is not just a political and cultural space, but a metaphysical
one. Its not a question, in this version of media theology, of the leap
forward, the raising of consciousness to a new plane. Rather, its a more
classical ideal. Behind the actual, messy, everyday business of the media,
lies the pure, rational, and just concept of what the media ought to be.
This shining ideal, rendered so flatly in English, is the 'public sphere'. 

There could be particular historical accidents behind these perceived
differences. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari say, "the only universal
history is the history of contingency". So its not a matter of any
intrinsic essence of American-ness or European-ness. Its a matter of
accidents that lead to the formation of milieus, which in turn incubate
particular concepts. A milieu, in Deleuze and Guattari's thought, is a
plane upon which difference proliferates. But there are different planes.
They are historical and contingent, and theory has to seek them out. 

This, incidentally, is where media theory collides with D+G. Its clear
from the first milieu they talk about, that which simultaneously produced
Aegean trade routes, Greek democracy, the city state and the practice of
philosophy, is among other things a media milieu. The calm pond upon which
the vectors of bronze age naval skill could navigate, the construction of
cities around spaces of talk, the practices of oratory and of writing --
its a media milieu. 

On this score, their work is intersects with that of the great, neglected
Canadian pioneer of media theory, Harold Innis. For Innis, a milieu can be
made out of many different kinds of communication vector, all of which
cross space and time in different ways. Some media, like writing on
papyrus, are space binding, good for sending orders and running an empire.
Some are time binding, like carving in stone, are time binding, good for
priestly casts to maintain there authority through the ages. Innis saw
ancient Egypt as a complex struggle between these vectors, a
shape-shifting milieu. D+G touch on a way of seeing classical Greece the
same way. But it is the Canadian who has the stronger sense of the
material construction of the vector, and its fragility. 

It matters, this historical and materialist analysis of how a milieu makes
a culture possible, makes certain kinds of ideas possible. But the milieu
doesn't determine the concepts that form within it. Rather, a milieu is a
space of virtuality, out of which the contingent assembly of, say
democracy and the city state and philosophy might emerge. 

So what kind of milieu might produce not only Rupert Murdoch but also a
certain uneasy distance from both American cyberhype and European
netcritique? The same kind that produced Harold Innis -- a peripheral, new
world environment. One in which the media space of the nation actually
precedes the state. 

Recent historical research by Graeme Osborne and others shows how the
colonial era constitutional conventions, out of which arose Australian
federation in 1901, were also forums that took a keen interest in
inter-colonial telegraphy and coastal shipping -- the earliest vectors out
of which the space of the nation was created. 

The very existence of the colonial, peripheral world depended on the
construction of a milieu. Innis showed this in the Canadian case in terms
of the importance of a trans-Canadian rail link as a way of averting
dependence on the markets and information centres of the United States. 

The mix of pragmatism and anxiety in Australia or Canada, about the
transformative power of communication vector, seems to me to have a long
history, born of the struggle to create a milieu that might make it
possible to even imagine what these places are. What comes naturally to
the old world or the metropolitan centres is to the periphery an object of
continual anxiety. Europeans and Americans, whatever their differences,
argue about what kind of identity they possess. Australians and Canadians,
argue about whether they have any identity at all. Given the fragile state
of the milieu in which the question gets asked, its not surprising that
the answer is often that it has all come to nothing, that the milieu is
dissipating into the global slipstream. 

Innis was strongly involved in policy decisions to try and maintain the
Canadian milieu. Much the same effort has gone into the maintenance of an
Australian media space, although somewhat unevenly so. There was
practically no Australian content on television in the late 50s and early
60s. It took a conscious effort to create a partition behind which some
kind of local media milieu could exist, and of course changes in media
form continually challenge its existence. 

Some may ask why it matters. Surely nationalism belongs to the right?
Surely the left is internationalist in outlook? Yes and no. In Europe,
where nationalism has so often existed in fascist forms, where its
ideological premise has so often been 'blood and soil', its a tainted
concept. But in states that resisted fascism and stalinism, maintained
democratic constitutions, and indeed may require the ongoing viability of
the state in order to avoid the imperial demands of stronger and more
populous states, there's an argument for a radical nationalism. It
provides the semi-permeable membrane within which differences local to
that milieu can articulate themselves, discover their own virtuality. 

This is a very different thing to the coercive nationalism of, say the One
Nation Party. Indeed, it may be the only way to resist it. Exposure of
national economies to global economic opportunity and global flows of
information entails a cost, one that rural constituencies and low skilled
workers are going to bear more heavily than anyone else. Their demand is
for a strong state to protect their interests and affirm their existing
culture, without any recognition of the need for change and negotiation
with difference. The state has to be an agent that negotiates differences,
between cultures, between concepts of the shared culture, and which makes
globalisation actually work in terms of generating jobs, distributing
wealth and so on. 

But the preservation of a purely national space media space can produce
unintended results. One of which is Rupert Murdoch. I mentioned that
Australian media is a highly monopolised space. Part of the reason is the
restriction on foreign ownership, which over the years created a protected
market for local oligopolists. Now we're down to two: Rupert Murdoch and
Kerry Packer. The latter diversified into other kinds of business; the
former built a global media business, and hence is the more
internationally famous. 

Ironically, I see constant reports from other countries where business and
government elites justify restricting the flow of international capital
into their media businesses on the grounds that they have to resist
Murdoch. But the process usually serves only to create local 'Murdochs'.
Or perhaps local Kerry Packers. This is the sense in which monopolisation
proceeding from to simplistic a linkage of local ownership to local
content production is a perverse outcome of nationalistic media regulatory
policies. 

I once said that Australia needed a branch of the Soros Foundation because
its media configuration was even more of a threat to the 'public sphere'
than in some Eastern European countries. I wasn't necessarily kidding.
Part of the impetus for wanting to create a media practice in the margins
stems from the monopoly conditions so evident in the centre of Australian
media. 

The larger point about peripheral media zones in the new world is that the
pragmatics of maintaining any kind of media milieu at all rules out the
kind of effervescent optimism of American cyberhype. That and the lack of
deep cultural roots for the kind of Protestant millenarianism within which
cyberhype thrives. Seen from the outside, transcendent faith in technology
looks like the kind of confident doctrine that could only flourish close
to the heart of empire, even if that empire is now a military
entertainment complex, rather than a military industrial complex. 

Ambivalence about European media metaphysics may have even deeper roots.
Kant's essay on the enlightenment can stand as Foucault's exemplary
document of the 18th century idea of reason, and Bentham's Panopticon as
the 19th century engraving in stone and flesh of the instrumental
consequences of that reason. But seen from the other side of the world,
the key figures are quite different. The 18th century man of reason who
matters is not the idealist Kant but the more practical Joseph Banks,
botanist and explorer, who brought back from Cook's voyages of discovery
in the South Pacific whole categories of plant and animal species that did
not fit the ideal order, the 'chain of being', that pre-empirical science
imposed on the natural world. Empiricism begins, to put it crudely, with
the attempt to integrate the Pacific into the matrix of knowledge. Its
data blew that matrix apart, and empirical order, where the categories are
imminent in the differences within the data, gains ascen! dancy. 

One of Bentham's famous pamphlets was 'Panopticon or New South Wales?" Of
course, the Panopticon was never built. English power never really
depended on its disciplinary strategies of enclosure and classification.
Instead of putting prisoners inside Panopticons, the English sent their
resistant surplus populations to the colonies, including New South Wales,
Australia. 

In short, a strategy not of turning inward, rationalising and making
productive a space long inhabited, but rather a strategy of looking
outward, across the open plane of the sea, for space across which power
could be extended. Colonial expansion, at which the English excelled, is
the unexplored side of European enlightenment and modernity. That colonial
expansion always involved the projection of a matrix of vectors across the
globe. Enlightenment was not a matter of constructing the metaphysical
public sphere in which the essence of pure rationality could find it self.
Enlightenment was a matter of constructing a matrix of communication and
transport via which the raw materials for constructing modern life could
be systematically extracted from the colonies to the advantage of the
metropolis. 

Of all the paths out of colonialism, places like Canada and Australia had
the easiest route. It was granted without a fight. But this lack of self
legitimacy stemming from postcolonial struggle comes back to haunt these
exceptional peripheral zones. These are not milieux that ever had the
confidence to create powerful ideas. These are milieux that were
always-already experiencing 'globalisation' as a source of anxiety. What
appears as a late 20th century phenomena was actually a foundational one. 

In the Australian case, the impulse toward federation into a national
space was in a large part what we now call globalisation. Federating the
colonies was seen as a way of creating economic sovereignty, and
preventing the recurrence of the depression of the 1880s. That both the
1880s and the 1930s created worse experiences of depression in the
periphery than in the metropolitan centres indicates that the
counter-globalising impulse was not successful. 

What I'm trying to say is that its hard, from the periphery, to share the
enthusiasm for any of the reigning discourses of cyberspace, as they all
seem to me implicated in the uneven spatial distribution of what I would
call vectoral power. Unlike disciplinary power, vectoral power engages
with an outside, and is a completely flexible relationality. Its a matrix
of vectors that distributes a flow of information, which in turn organises
a flow of material resources. But from the telegraph to
telecommunications, it has always been experienced in the periphery as an
unequal flow. How can you get enthusiastic in the periphery about new
imperial vectors? How can you get enthusiastic in the periphery about new
rhetorics about the power of new modes of communication? 

It all sounds so attractive, and of course the attraction of American
cyberhype and European netcriticism is itself imperial. It emanates from a
centre. Here's the irony: a rhetoric about networks and distributed
communication that seems, in its own pattern of distribution, very highly
centralised. Its hard not to oscillate between tepid enthusiasm and
vehement distaste. 

But this is only a critique of the limits of transcendent cyberhype and
metaphysical netcritique. The trick is to find some potential for a
positive relation to one or the other. There may be one advantage is being
in this ambivalent oscillation about both American transcendent media
theory and European metaphysical media theory: That is that its possible
to see a way out of the impasse created by their confrontation. 

It seems to me that both transcendence and metaphysical critique both
rely, in the end, on the kind of Platonism that the empirical revolution
that followed from the discovery of the South Pacific so radically
challenged. Whether the ideal is something to which to move 'forwards', in
transcendence, or discover by stepping back towards the purity of the 18th
century image of the public sphere, it is still an ideal, against which
the messy difference and chaotic movement of actual media and culture are
measured and found wanting. Both transcendence and critique stage media
theory as a kind of negativity. The roots of the difference between these
kinds of negativity lie in the differences between the kinds of milieu
that make them possible. 

Of course there are lots of different ideas about the media, in either the
American or the European milieu. These ideas are not an ideal expression
of the milieus in which they arose -- to think that way is still to be
trapped within Platonism. Rather, they are just one expression of what
those milieus make possible, but in each case, they are expressions that
keep getting repeated. There are institutional constraints producing
transcendence and critique, over and over -- or at least so it looks when
you consider media theory from somewhere else. One of the institutional
constraints, seen from the periphery, is the desire to reinvent the
imperial necessity. The metropolitan powers, no longer able to project
force with impunity around the globe, or even across the Balkans,
supplement the vectors of material force with vectors of information. 

I never thought I had much to contribute to either the transcendent or the
critical media theory project. I'm from a milieu that just doesn't support
the kind of confidence that is required. I'm too much a product of
anxiety, scepticism, a modest and practical sense of what media are for.
Not to mention a suspicious mind when it comes to declarations of a new
technique of enlightenment that emanates from new or old imperial centres.
On the periphery, its enough just to keep the space viable, open but not
too open, internally differentiated but not incoherent. Australian culture
is just one big listserver, and its enough just to manage the flame wars,
keep the traffic steady, implement the new version of the technology when
it arrives -- from elsewhere. 

And of course there was the rise of a nationalism of the right -- a
serious matter in a country where nationalism is usually on the left.
There were local matters to take care of. But now, I'm starting to wonder
about what productive use to make of this ambivalence about critique and
transcendence. European media theory has been doing a good job of
critiquing transcendence -- critique is what it does best. But its
rhetorical structure is not so different. There is always a Platonic ideal
lurking behind the critique of appearances, against which appearances are
measured and found wanting. 

But the ideal is just the ideal. The public sphere is just a beautiful
work of art, made possible by the fact that the resources of the world
were exploited to create a milieu in which beautiful ideas could be
thought. From Kant to Habermas; from Rousseau to Debord. Images of an
ideal matrix of communication against which the real can be judged and
found wanting have changed shape and colour, but the structure of the
discourse persists. 

This much has been obvious for some time, but the transition from the
broadcast era to cyberspace brings new problems out into the open.
Critique was popular when it appeared that there was a centralised media
that state and capital controlled between them. The metaphysics of
critique fitted with the politics of the left. The image of an ideal world
of true expression that would reign once the actual, coercive regime of
state and capital controlled media was overthrown provided a source of
legitimacy for judging media in terms of what it lacked. The technical
details of this philosophy were always to be filled in later. 

But the proliferation of do it yourself media, even before the internet,
and accelerating with it, can't be sustained by critique alone. It
requires a positive practice. If anything, the practice of the net has
been hampered by critique. Critique is a set of tools for persuading
oneself that reality isn't good enough when compared to an ideal. Its not
so good for discovering the potential of what is actually there. Critique
sees the glass half empty, not the glass half full. A virtual media theory
sees the glass half full, and wants to know what could potentially come
out of any and every possible microscopic agitation, not just within the
water, but also within the glass. 

The internet appears to the Platonism of media critique as something like
the South Pacific appeared to the Platonism of classical naturalism. It
communicates new data that doesn't fit the ideal scheme of the order of
forms. It requires an empirical approach to the production of categories
and concepts, imminent to the data, not imposed upon it. Empirical, but
not empiricist. The facts of the net, like the facts of the new world, are
not enough. They require conceptualisation if their potential usefulness
is to be realised. 

Cultural studies has known for some time now that even broadcast media
were complex. There were subtle and differentiated relations going on
between the mass of the audience and the mass media message. Break it down
into its constituent relations -- a good empiricist technique -- and you
find people resisting and negotiating meaning. You discover the chaotic,
plural, differentiated world of the everyday. And it is nothing like the
ideal of the public sphere. And there is nothing much to be gained by
talking only about what actual popular culture and media lack. So while
cultural studies worked its way through critical and negative concepts of
the media, it worked its way through -- almost -- to a positive and
virtual media theory. That, I think, is the next step. 

Of course, empiricism was the original object of critique. Kantian
critique responds, in the canonic history of western thought at least, to
the empiricism of Hume. I thought this was a closed chapter in western
thought until I read Deleuze's first book, _Empiricism and Subjectivity_,
in which that veteran anti-Platonist and anti-Kantian revisits the scene
of that conflict. His task in that book is firstly to restate empiricism
as a philosophy of difference, one that fashion concepts to match the flux
of perceptions. His second task is to show the ethical import of such an
affirmation. 

Practical empiricism has its uses, from running an imperial state to
running a global media empire like News Corporation. Conceptual
empiricism, the path Deleuze opens up, seems to me to have a different
import. Its an alternative to both the transcendent ideal of cyberhype and
also to the metaphysical ideal of critique. Ironically enough, I feel like
I need the authority of a metropolitan intellectual to state it, but there
is another way to think about media theory, and in particular media theory
in the age of the internet. The flux and difference of experience of the
media can no longer hide behind critique, as it did in the mass media age.
It has to be central to the theory. 

In particular, it means moving from a theory of representation to one of
expression. What cyberhype and netcritique have in common is a critique of
appearances that finds them wanting in relation to the idea. The solution
in cyberhype is transcendent. The rude differences and misunderstandings
of bad communication will be superseded by better technology, which will
merge all differences into one. An imperial idea if ever there was one.
Critique works differently. It wants to insist that there are certain
conditions under which the jarring differences of false representation can
be eliminated, and communication can be perfected according to a social
rather than a technological ideal. But the question to ask is what and who
is to be excluded. 

A theory of expression, on the other hand, would see noise, difference,
irrationality, as integral parts of communication. The goal would not be
to try and eliminate difference, but propagate it. The image would not be
critiqued in terms of what it lacks, for its failure to be an authentic
representation of the real. Rather, the difference it introduces, its
inevitable falseness, would be the starting point of the possibility of
the virtual. The imperfection of communication is the ethical basis of the
potential for the world to be otherwise. 

It seems to me that virtuality is already alive and well in the actual
practice of media theory as it occurs on the internet. On nettime, for
example. There are occasional, high profile attempts to see netcritique as
a binary or dialectical process, as the negation of cyberhype,
transcendence, the "California ideology." This is critiqued as a false
representation, and found wanting according to a true ideal. But it seems
to me that this is the least useful aspect of emergent net-based media
theory. It seems to me to be the aspect of it still tied most uncritically
to imperial desires, no matter how unconscious. I oscillate between
indifference and annoyance about them. 

But what flows through the cracks in netcritique is something else. A new,
positive, productive and connective creativity. New perceptions and new
conceptions of those perceptions. An improvised discourse. Just as the
18th century enlightenment was shaped by the milieu of inter-European
trade and communication, so too a new milieu struggles to emerge, and one
which is potentially even more spatially and temporally diverse. There are
not only new spaces, but new speeds. But they struggle to escape from the
unthought part of a past enlightenment, and in particular the unthought
participation in imperial power of the information vector and the
discourses that legitimate it. 

I started by suggesting there was something specific about a milieu that
lacks an imperial confidence, and that working and thinking in Australia
was just such a milieu. But I am sure there are many others. The potential
is with us now to start breaking up the massified blocks into which
specific milieux had congealed, particularly in the broadcast age. But
this has to be seen from the peripheral as well as the imperial and
metropolitan point of view. The desire on the part of News Corporation to
break down national spaces is clear, Its about getting in behind the
partition and extracting value out of putting a vector into such spaces
from without. But from the peripheral point of view, the desire is quite
different. Its rather to break open imperial milieux and expose the
differences lurking within them. 

Strange as it may seem, I agree with the analysis of both Richard Barbrook
and 'Luther Blissett', as incompatible as they may seem. Barbrook has
attacked versions of Deleuze's thought that would read it as a restatement
of critical idealism, where the rhizome occupies the same place as an
ideal concept that the public sphere occupies in a more classical
formulation of media-metaphysical desire. Luther Blissert has thought its
way out of the Marxist version of critique, into a more productive concept
of the virtuality of communication. Of course the language Barbrook and
Blissert use are poles apart, but nothing much of a productive nature
emerges from trying to read them as occupying the same milieu, some kind
of pan-European theory-wonderland. They are local and contingent
expressions of a way out of critique that operate in different milieu, but
as yet have little to say to each other -- or perhaps to anyone else,
other than as instances of a virtuality of media theory, tow ! coordinates
of an unknown map of possible ways of making a difference. I suspect that
there might be a way to go back and more creatively reread some of the
American work here too. Not as the big bad other of critique, but as local
and contingent strategies within an particular milieu. 

So this is my 'southern oscillation index', my sense of ambivalence about
a project of constructing a new space for net theory, but which I think
has to look also at the skew of the old spaces, out of which it might
potentially grow. The southern oscillation index, for those from the
north, is the weather pattern over the Pacific which determines which side
of the South Pacific the rain will fall on -- South America or
Australasia. But I think its a nice image of peripheral sensibility,
wavering between participation and indifference to the remaking of the
media metaphysics of the North. 

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