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Touching an elephant

BY MCKENZIE WARK

Lovink and Schneider ask the right question in 'A Virtual World is Possible'. What is to be done? Unfortunately, they have not done it. Yes, there is a need for a political position outside of the dialectic of the street and cyberspace. Yes, there is a need for a new position for new media outside of the dialectic of the media market and the art market. And yes, the place to look is in deconstructing the techno-libertarian ideologies of the 90s. But what is required at this juncture is a tool with which to prise it open to discover how it worked.

He was wrong about a lot of things, but Marx did enjoin us to ask what he called "the property question", and insisted that it was where the critical spirit begins and ends. And what if we ask the "property question" of the jumble of symptoms with which Lovink & Schneider confront us? The network of power starts to reveal itself more clearly.

Did the new movements arise out of thin air? Or did they arise out of a new stage in the development of the commodity economy? At both the level of the tools it had at its disposal, and the range of issues it confronted, the new movement confronts a new class power. Only rarely is this class power named and identified at an abstract level. The symptoms of its (mis)rule have been charted by brave advocates and actvists. But we are all merely blind folks touching different parts of an elephant and trying to describe the totality from the detail we sense before us, in our fragment of everyday life.

So let's ask the property question of all the fragments of resistance that appear to us in everyday life. Start in the underdeveloped world. How is it possible that the productive engines of commodity society find themselves shipped, by and large, out of the overdeveloped world and into the under- dveloped world? What new power makes it possible to consign the manufacturing level of production to places deprived of technical and knowledge infrastructure? A new division of labour makes it possible to cut the mere making of things off from all of their other properties. The research, design and marketing will remain, on the whole, in the over- developed world, and will be protected by a new and increasingly global regime of property, intellectual property. As for the rest, whole continents can compete for dubious honour of mere manufacturing.

What makes this separation possible is at one and the same time a legal and a technical distinction. Information emerges as a separate realm, a world apart as Lovink has perceptively argued for some time. But he has not stopped to inquire is to how or why, and without first asking how or why we cannot get far with the big question,: what is to be done. So let's look closely at the way the development of a *vectoral* technology has made possible a relative separation from its materiality. Which is not to say that information is immaterial. Rather, it has an *abstract* relation to the material. It no longer matters to its integrity as information whether it is embodied in this cd-rom or that flashcard or that stack of paper.

A virtual world is indeed possible, precisely because of this coming into existence of abstract information. But what is information? The product of a labor of encoding and decoding. Just as the commodity economy made manual labor abstract in the machine age, so too it has made intellectual labor abstract in the information age.

But the virtual world finds itself constrained by a form of property alien to it. No longer confine to a particular materiality, information really does yearn to be free. But it is not free, it is everywhere in chains. It is forced into the constraint of a very new creation -- intellectual property. On the ruins of the commons that copyright and patent were once supposed to guarrantee arises an absolute privatisation of information as property.

And so, with a whole new -- virtual -- continent to claim as its own, class power finds a new basis, and remakes that other world, the everyday world, in its image. The abstraction of information from materiality as a legal and technical possibility becomes the shape of the world. A world in which the mere embodiment of a concept in a commodity can be consigned to bidding wars between the desperate.

This bifurcation affects both the agricultural and the manufacturing economies. The patents on seed stocks are of a piece with the copyrights on designer logos. Both are a means by which a new class power asserts its place in the world, based not on the ownership of land or of physical maunfacturing plant, but in the concepts and designs on which the world will be set to labour.

In the overdeveloped world, one discovers symptoms of the same emerging totality. Workers in manufacturing struggle to hang on to jobs in an economy that they alone are no longer the only ones equipped to do. So called 'state monopoly capital' is a mere husk of its former self. The emerging class interest has a very different relation to the state.

Meanwhile, there are the various phenomena of the 'new economy'. While the bubble may have burst, there is a risk in too low an evaluation of the significance of the media and communication revolution as an over reaction to the excessive optimism of the 90s. Just as railways and the telegraph created a boom and bust, but also created an enduring geography of economic and strategic power, so too has the latest, digital, phase in the development of the vector.

One should not right off the military dimension to the new class power quite as readily as Lovink and Schneider do, either. On the one hand it is the old oil-power politics. But there is a new dimension, a new confidence in the ability to use the new vectoral military technologies as a cheap and efficient way of achieving global redistirbutions of power. The same abstraction of information from materiality that happens in technology and is sanctioned by intellectual property law is happening in military technology. The military wing of the new class interest wants a 'new' new world order to ratify its exercise.

This is not your grandparents ruling class we are confronting here. It is a new entity, or a new entity in formation. Perhaps it is a new fraction of capital. Perhaps it is a new kind of ruling class altogether. Remember, there have been two, not one but two, phases to rule in the commodity econmy era. It has already passed through an agricultural and a manufacturing phase. In each case it developed out of the a distictive step in the abstraction of property law. First came the privatisation of land, and out of it a landlord class. Then came the privatisation of productive resources, a more mobile, labile kind of property, and a new ruling class -- the capitalist class proper. And perhaps, with the emergence of the new global regime of intellectual property, we witness the emergence of a new ruling class, what I would call the vectoralist class.

As each ruling class is based on a more abstract form of property, and a more flexible kind of vector, than its predecessor, its mode of ruling also becomes more abstract, more intangible. Its ideologues would love to persuade us that the ruling class no longer even exists. And yet its handiwork are everywhere, in the subordination of the underdeveloped world to new regimes of slavery, to the slow motion implosion of maunfacturing economy in the overdeveloped world, to the deployment of ever faster, ever sleeker vectors along which ever more abstract flows of information shuttle, making the world over in the abstract image of the commodity.

And what is to be done? One does not confront the new abstract totality with rhetorics of multiplicity alone. Rather, one looks for the abstraction at work in the world that is capable of producing such a multiplicity of everyday experiences of frustration, boredom and suffering. One asks the property question, and in asking it is lef toward a practice that constitutes the answer.

This is where so-called new media art has proven to be both so useful at times, but so willing to cooperate in its own cooptation. When artists explore not just the technology, but its property dimension as well, then they create work that has the capacity to point beyond the privatisation of information that forms the basis of the power of the vectoral class. The new media art that matters is counter-vectoral. It offers itself as a tool for prising open the privatisation of information.

"Information merely circles in a parallel world of its own", as Lovink and Schneider say, precisely because of the abstraction it undergoes when it becomes vectoral. The counter-vectoral reconnects information to the multiplicity by freeing it from the straightjacket of private property. Indeed, there can be no talk of 'multitude' until this aspect of its existence is properly understood. Multitudes do not exist independently of their means of communication. The freeing of that means of communication from the abstraction of the commodity form is the necessary step towards realising the counter-abstraction that is latent in the formal concept of the multitude. A virtual world -- virtual in the true sense -- is indeed possible. It is what is to be done.

McKenzie Wark see also: A hacker manifesto http://subsol.c3.hu/subsol_2/contributors0/warktext.html