Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Liberalizing Ideology of the Internet

written for AGGRESSION conference, Small Press Traffic, 5/31

[for a recent example of the liberalizing ideology in action, see Kenneth Goldsmith's summary of Marjorie Perloff's talk here]

It is spring 2007. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis, perhaps as many as a million, have died in the US wars. My government tortures people—it always has, but now it tortures lots of them—and holds them in an extra-judicial space that, like the internet, does and does not exist. The Democrats are hateful because, like the internet, they are doing nothing to stop this. Americans are hateful, mostly, because they like the internet and are doing nothing to stop this. Poets are hateful too. They are like the internet and they like it.

Johannes Göransson asks me to write something for his magazine Action, Yes. At first, I think to write something about poetry in public space and my researches into the theory and practice of the Situationist International, but I’m feeling the hate, I’m liking the hate, I have all of this aggression that’s bottlenecked because it’s supposed to fit through these tiny pixel-sized perforations, and increasingly, what I find impossible to stomach is this idea that the internet is a democratic space, that the technology is democratizing, anti-hierarchical, equalizing, when it seems clear to me that alongside the surge of troops into Iraq, also under the pretenses of democracy, there is a surge of voltages into the space of the internet, and that, instead of one surge stopping the other surge, they are mutually enabling surges, they are pals, these surges, and contrary to predictions about new media enabling new forms of resistance, the internet has, mostly, become, like, a giant deterrence machine, virtualizing and disembodying resistance, it is something like the Free Speech zones set up at protests and on campuses, a merely formal space of freedom surrounded by massive unfreedom, and because I read a good number of books about capitalism, this seems like an old story, this one about freedom and unfreedom, and I want to tell it.

I begin to think about the internet and what it does and what it’s for and I have, at the end of the day, two or maybe three main arguments about it. They are not very original, these arguments, and anybody who reads the same books about capitalism, particularly the ones written by Karl Marx, who was a pretty sharp guy, could probably come up with the same arguments.

I. Information Wants to Be Free

The internet is a screen, a series of screens. It’s true: everyone can have their own blog, can publish their poems online so that the whole world can not read them, can peruse and produce the contents of the internet freely (in all senses of this word). But below this level of freedom, this level of leveling and equalization, the old exclusions and inequalities still obtain—differences in literacy and knowledge, differences in access to free time, differences in positionality with regard to social networks and cultural capital. This is a public that requires, paradoxically, an immobilizing and privatizing of individuated bodies: in rooms, in front of screens. And it is offered, I think, as compensation for the destruction of our cities, the privatization of social entitlement programs, the decay of our schools, infrastructure, etc. The freedom of the internet is, in this sense, the freedom of the marketplace. Its democracy the democracy of, well, the U.S. Its equality the equality of money, the general equivalent, through which equivalency buyers and sellers confront each other as equals. Every dollar is equal to every other dollar, stupid. A dollar is a dollar is a dollar.

In his notebooks from the 1850s, referred to as the Grundrisse, Marx, who encountered similarly vexing arguments about the democracy of the marketplace, decided that the best way to deal with such claims would be to create a mock-up of the market, of the “simple sphere of circulation,” taking at face value the claim that all participants were equals in order to demonstrate the contradictions and impossibilities of such a stance, and therefore force us to plunge into the noisy and highly unequal sphere of production—where capital and labor meet as antagonists—upon which the market rests. I find his analogy for this type of “equality” cheering. For the bourgeois economists, he says, it is “as if it were asserted that there is no difference, to say nothing of antithesis and contradiction, between natural bodies, because all of them, when looked at from e.g. the point of view of their weight, have weight, and are therefore equal; or are equal because all of them occupy three dimensions. . .” And he goes on: “In present bourgeois society as a whole this positing of prices and their circulation etc. appears as the surface process, beneath which, however, in the depths, entirely different processes go on, in which the apparent individual equality and liberty disappear” (Grundrisse, 247). Replace prices with information and you get the picture.

If you believe, then, that the equality and democracy of the internet floats in an emulsion of unfree and unequal social relations—let’s call it the difference between those who do and those do not own the means of production (whether knowledge, hardware, software, or data)—then the supposed freedom of the users resembles, in my view, two types of political subject. First, the nineteenth-century liberal subject endowed gradually with rights (able to vote, to own things, to appeal to the courts) and, secondly, the free and rightless proletarians of the transition to capitalism. This is by no means to suggest that the majority of the people who use the internet today are as brutalized as the lower classes during the transition to capitalism or during the nineteenth century, but merely that, and I owe this insight in part to Standard Schaefer, a similar dialectic is operating, that we should consider the spaces of the internet as ones of enfranchisement and access which sit next to, and cause/are caused by, some of the most extreme disenfranchisement, dispossession, atrocity and destruction in recent memory. That is, we should think of this in terms of Marx’s account of “so-called primitive accumulation,” the process whereby the European peasantry was dispossessed of the access to commonly-held land in order that they were forced to rely on the sale of their labor-power. The argument here, and the actual history, is rather complex, but you get the picture.

It is with some impatience, then, that I encounter positions like that of Kenneth Goldsmith who, for all his salutary antihumanism, must surely be accounted one of the internet’s liberalizing ideologues. In a post on the Poetry Foundation’s
“Harriet” blog, he writes: “Now is the time of possibility we can be everyone and no one at all. With digital fragmentation any notions of authenticity and coherence have long been wiped. When we're everywhere and nowhere at once—pulling RSS feeds from one server, server-side includes from another, downloading distributed byte-size torrents from hundreds of other shifting identities—such naïve sentiments are even further from what it means to be a contemporary writer. Identity politics no longer have to do with the definition of a coherent self, rather it [sic] has to do with the reconstructed, distributed, fragmented, multiple and often anonymous selves that we are today. We're infinitely adaptable and changeable minute-to-minute. Shouldn't our notions of art expand once again to include these as well?” I think Marx already dealt with this quite well, don’t you? What Goldsmith can’t countenance is the thought that whether you get an identity of an infinitely malleable sort or a regulation issue identity has to do with, basically, class, race, gender. Indeed, despite his protestations, this is quintessential identity politics—it’s whitey’s identity politics.

Lest I seem like I don’t get the joke, I should say, at this point, that I’m not immune to Goldsmith’s charms. He has cool hats, and I find his works fascinating and even, if only for short periods of time, pleasurable. I admire his intelligence, however perverse it is, and I realize that he positions himself rather self-consciously as a gadfly. But irony is a great way to disavow things you actually believe. The value of Goldsmith, no doubt, is that he has a sense of humor and under no conditions, blessedly, does he claim that his version of conceptual poetry is in the slightest politically radical, or in the least threatening to the functioning of the political status quo. On the contrary, his is “a pro-consumer poetry,” and as we’ll see in the next section of my talk, his virtue is that he reminds poets how little the experiments of today are a threat to capitalism and imperialism—indeed, in his version, conceptual poetry, as we’ll see, works as advertising, product design, and job training for office managers.

Things are a bit trickier when claims are made for the liberalizing ideology of the internet being politically progressive. Stan Apps and Matthew Timmons, for instance, in their stimulating Editor’s Statement for Fold Magazine, have the virtue of being so clear about their own intentions, and often so accurate in their analysis but so disastrously wrong in the conclusions they draw from this analysis, that they make critique all the easier. I don’t even need Marx. One of their claims is that the new aesthetics of information enabled by the internet are anti-capitalist. “Capitalism,” they write, “has no understanding of what to do in a %100 saturated marketplace in which no significant profit is possible.” The poetries of cut-and-paste are virtuous because the “the romantic paradigm of replication remains gloriously immune to the marketplace—which is to say, these forms of self-expression are produced for selfless reasons.” But this demonstrates a particularly weak grasp of the nature of capitalism—assembly-line work, for instance, depends upon replication and automation. While they themselves note that “distribution is the new production,” this apparently does not lead them to conclude that distribution—the production of new information through consumption of that information—is capitalist. They write: “The primacy of distribution is the greatest lesson of capitalism; ultimately it will be understood that capitalism has nothing to do with money or profit at all: capitalism is simply the recognition that the connections between people are more important than the information or objects they exchange.” By now, such ideas should sound familiar. Ditto the response.

II. The Internet as Work

In what ways is the distribution of information on the internet capitalist? For me, answering this question involves demonstrating that the internet is, largely, work—unpaid work and unpaid job training, and that, similarly, in Goldsmith and in the Apps-Timmons tendency’s accounting, the work of art has become the art of work. I can’t cover much of this argument here, but I’ll do what I can.

The work of the internet is the dialectic counterpart to the primitive accumulation discussed above. Essentially, with the internet, capitalism gifts the masses with a false commons where people can work, off the clock, creating information and relationships that the ruling class can enclose, appropriate, commodify, and sell back to us at a later date. It’s a way of letting the process of primitive accumulation work as a perpetual, and because of the stagnation of the economies in the advanced capitalist countries, vital, supplement to the mechanism of exploitation, and one that should be seen alongside the other forms of primitive accumulation that are occurring right now and are, for sure, much more important: the direct seizure of Iraqi resources, the copyrighting and commodifying of the material of our bodies, and most obviously, the accumulation by dispossession that is occurring in Africa, in China, in Latin America, as capitalism pushes to its limits and attempts to expunge from the earth any trace of commonly-held land.

Thus, back to Kenneth Goldsmith, who writes: “How I navigate—rather than how I create—is what distinguishes me from another writer. I am an intelligent agent carving a unique path through this thicket of language; what distinguishes my practice from yours is the particular swath I carve.” The conceptual-processual poem that he champions, then, is a series of transportable techniques for the management of flows of information; it is a kind of aestheticized Google, one that promises the information consumer an endlessly protean and fungible identity. Despite his somewhat Kantian claim that his writing is purposeless, its consonance with information-management products does not escape me. It is poetry not only for information consumers but for the administrators and managers who work in the distribution of information. Tools for managing and mastering flow of data are also, in this sense, tools for managing and mastering populations—or, what’s better, as with viral marketing, letting populations manage and master themselves. It is a technocrat’s art. The nice thing, though, about Goldsmith’s attempt to aestheticize current working conditions is that he refuses to sex it up, to make it interesting. The mind-numbing boredom of the office job, of phonebank work, data entry, and proofreading, comes through crystal clear. You’ll never clock out, again. Goldsmith’s poetics of boredom is the revenge of work in postmodernity. If, as Adorno and Horkheimer claim, “Amusement under late capitalism is the extension of work,” in his poems the profound alienation of work can longer be covered over, eroticized, or made interesting. We’re dying of boredom and we know it. In this sense, given that the dominance of financialization over the last thirty years has been all about making distribution (of capital, of information) profitable, it seems, in response to Apps and Timmon’s remarks, that capital does, in fact, know what to do. Indeed, Apps, Timmons, Goldsmith and the ideas they present are what capital does—creating and prohibiting the conditions and types of access to information that will allow for the profitability that they claim, somewhat exaggeratedly, is lost by the free exchange of information. It’s true that, as they say, capitalism is all about the relations between people, that its fundamental truth is what Marx calls the relations of production, that political relations are, in a sense, capital’s ontology. But what Apps and Timmons don’t see is that the poetics of distribution is a way of altering, managing and directing those relations.

This is not a blanket critique of all processual writing—some flarf, for instance, does not seem to partake of this technocratic rationality and, instead, by a process akin to what Benjamin calls “profane illumination,” manages to manifest those material conditions and inequalities which subtend the supposedly symmetrical plane of the internet.

I’d like to see more writing like this, obviously, and I’d like to understand more about the effects that internet life does and does not have on the lives we live offscreen. Because you are all smart people, I’m sure you’ve noticed a contradiction in my account. On the one hand, I’m saying that the internet has no effects except indirectly: it’s a smokescreen. On the other hand, I’m saying it’s a tool for mastering and dominating people, for generating saleable information, for directly producing social relations. I think both of these things are true. Sometimes it’s a screen, and sometimes it’s domination, and these two effects are mutually enabling. I do think that there’s an uncanny timing to the arrival of the internet as a full-on social force directly after 9/11. In my view, in the last decade, people were essentially given this domain for experiment with alternate forms of communication and confederation and, in ways that served the interests of the ruling-class, an ideology developed which encouraged people to conflate manipulation of political symbols with the manipulation of political bodies. It’s an old ideology but it has come in handy over the last decade.

Sometimes symbolic freedom is just that, symbolic, and sometimes it’s something more. Symbols can be powerful, and the manipulation of them can have real effects that need not be technocratic and dominating. My piece in Action, Yes, finished with a call for a translation of poetic strategies into strategies for activism in the world at large. I still think that’s what’s needed. And I still think the question for us is how connections between symbols and bodies, languages and bodies can be consciously and effectively put in the service of, for lack of a less ambiguous term, equality.


Stan Apps said...

Hi Jasper.

Interesting. Your reading of my collaboration with Mat Timmons is, from my point of view, an unfortunate one, in that it eliminates the humor and indirections of that work, in order to turn it into a kind of simplistic piece of pro-internet propaganda. Whereas, in fact, its collage structure is meant to discourage such reductive interpretations. for example, you quote a reference to a "100% saturated marketplace" and read that as the internet, but the internet is actually an emerging marketplace as we all know; a classic example of a saturated marketplace is agriculture, and indeed capital doesn't know what to do to achieve significant profits in agriculture (other than destructive strategies such as hoarding and dumping of subsidizied product.) In other words, capital is good at making saturated marketplaces less effecient, to achive profit, but doesn't know how to interact with them at full efficiency.

As for the "primacy of distribution," who can doubt that now? If you want a political or economic alternative to work out, it has to be as adept as capital at moving things around to the people who want them. Ideally, it should be better at moving products around than capital is--to me, indeed, the internet is moving in the direction of finding better ways than capital to move value around.

More on this later, when I have more time. . .

Jasper Bernes said...

Well, I’m a bit perplexed, Stan. Elsewhere in the piece you seem to indicate that overabundance of cultural products makes them immune to commodification—something you identify with the internet—so I assumed that the “Capitalism has no understanding of what to do. . .” quote referred to that kind of saturation. If you meant something like the commodities markets, then I apologize for misreading. But why follow the sentence with “Writers do [know what what to do in conditions of overcapacity]. Writers know what to do with the overproduction of foodstuffs? Really? I’d like to know what this means. . .

A profit is a profit for capital—those strategies (subsidies, futures speculation, etc.) are the way that it’s done now, and you’re right to note that it has more to do with gaming the market than in investment in production, Perhaps this wasn’t clear from the paper, but I agree that distribution is primary now. My point is that these strategies are plenty adequate for capital. The internet is one of these strategies, and the poetics of distribution, far from being anti-capitalist or “operating with systems at full efficiency” (whatever that might mean), bears an uncanny resemblance to these strategies of distribution. Not to mention that the internet is also the world’s best advertising vehicle, which helps keep up effective demand. For instance, the scam known as biofuel that is currently helping to starve the world’s poor to death? Where did that catch on?

The main thing, though, that’s wrong with your argument is that you seem to imply that economic justice can be had if we find a better way to distribute goods. But this is what liberals say and think, and it was (and still is) the ideology behind neo-liberalism (the spectral twin of the “information wants to be free” people). It’s true that capitalism is massively inefficient and wasteful. Its contradictions are legendary and almost any other system could distribute goods in a better manner. But the problem is with the hierarchical and uneven relations of production that happen outside of the realm of circulation (even for the people who work in circulation). Any alternatives need to aim there, and not just at the marketplace. In this sense, I probably disagree about what the primacy of distribution means. Most people on this planet still work producing food and goods. Capital may need fancy ways to export capital/goods, to gamble on future surplus-extraction, but ultimately those forms of distribution are still counting on some exploitation happening in the real economy of production somewhere—in the future, in other countries. The fake gift economy of the internet rests upon the people who lay the cables and build the chips and service the machines and program the codes. And that shit ain’t free.

And you still oppose the internet to capitalism! It’s unbelievable.

Joseph said...

Jasper, I think you're seriously misreading Stan and Matt's text. You write that they have "the virtue of being so clear about their own intentions." Really? There are at least a dozen contradictions deliberately written into the text. You're reading it as an attempt by Stan and Matt to argue a specific point; there are many points, some of them in opposition to one another, hence your exasperation with the text when it doesn't seem to add up. It's a collage poem, not an expository essay, and to that extent it contains various voices and points of view (some of which Stan and Matt may be in agreement with, others they may be in disagreement with). I'm sure a large part of it is appropriated. Obviously you've picked up on a point about distribution that you and Stan do disagree on; it's an interesting conversation to have, but appealing to their essay is not going to clarify the arguments. And since the essay under discussion is online, shouldn't we link to it so people unfamiliar with it can read it?

jane said...

I too am puzzled by the phrase “operating with systems at full efficiency,” not least because I can't tell what "full efficiency" might mean in a non-capitalist situation, and so the term seems to presume the very condition it claims to challenge.

But mostly I am puzzled by the idea that distribution is primary now. This can no more be true or false than the claim that "consumption is the new production" — i.e., these are simply thought experiments for examining from different perspectives the complete process of production>>distribution>>consumption.
Distribution, as Jasper notes, has been developed as a way of converting labor into capital when that labor is distant in space or, largely, time. It isn't isolable from the production chain in any way whatsoever. It is, among other things, exactly one of capital's solutions for a crisis of over-accumulation, when capital can't take the necessary profit via reinvestment in production materials. But it always stands in relation to production and consumption; it has no independent meaning, and thus no independent possibility, whether involving the internet or not.

Stan Apps said...

The distribution of good and resources is not only a capitalist activity; it is a problem for human society in general. Capitalism, as we all know, is good at distribution, and particularly good at inequitable distribution. My "thought experiment," as Jane called it, was to emphasize capitalism's distributive efficacy as its worthwhile element, the element worth imitating, albeit differently. Ie. getting everyone what they want, rather than only getting specific subjects what they want. Experiments in micro-finance are trying to do this at a starter level.

Distribution is primary because there is already enough stuff in the world to supply everyone; production was primary in an earlier era of scarcity.

Another issue I have with Jasper's thesis is: the internet is a technology, something that works. It is more than merely a manifestation of an economic ideology, and more than an outreach of any particular effort at hegemony. While capitalist practices are articulated through the internet, the technology is not limited by that, and can be used in ways that are anti-capitalist, acapitalist or post-capitalist. I mean, are you seriously arguing that there's something intrinsically bad about instantaneous communication? Is there something intrinsically bad about fire too?

Last, I resent being characterized as a naive idealist by someone who reads an appropriated collage text as an expository essay. The Editors Statement for Fold is at least 95% copied, and many of the idealisms expressed are no more than the idealisms that are "in the air" at this moment. Many of the sentences are not things I agree with; the piece is intended to provoke thought. I am sad that in this case, rather than enabling speculation, the piece has been foreclosed upon and made to seem so simplistic. Thanks to Joseph for helping to clarify this.

brian salchert said...

Mr. Bernes,

This topic is highly complex, and I
am not sure anyone knows what future
awaits us, but for me thoughts about
it go back to at least 1976 and these
lines from my "July: Year-day 202":
Soon Machina sapiens, crying loud,
may demand more praise than we now expect.
Bill Knott has had similar thoughts
and Kenneth Goldsmith, unless he is
fibbing, thinks humans will be superseded by (or morphed into) machines.

I did what Joseph suggested, and read
The Editors Statement for Fold. I
also read Stan's last comment as it
wasn't here when I was last here.
With that in mind, these quotes:
"Distribution is the new production."
" . . . capitalism is simply the
recognition that the connections
between people are more important
than the information or objects
they exchange."
"The model of the writer as 'transmitter'
will invalidate the concerns of a
culture of commodity fetishists."
And about K G: " . . . that play is
the most economically efficient
mode of creative work."

I know you and Jane here addressed
the distribution issue, but Apps
and Timmons also say more about it.

Back to me, and then again to K G:
Capitalism is a worrisome thing in
that it cannot exist without consumers
and yet it strives to co-opt whatever
would seek to destroy it and in so
doing tends to destroy all that it
needs for its survival. However, I
am not confident it can be replaced.

In Silliman's May 31, 2008 links is
one to "The Young Hate Us {3}" by
Donato Mancini in which among
many thought-provoking statements
is that publication is a power stance. Another link (also in
Joseph Hutchison's blog) is to an
interview by Radhika Jones of Mr.
Kenneth Goldsmith. Of interest
to me there is: 1) Goldsmith is a
collector of certain literary,
musical, and other works.
2) He is a family man.
3) He favors "texts that court their
readers least".

Is the Internet liberating or
imprisoning? Both. Will the
Internet survive? Only if those
entities which rule and support it
have the tools required. What
about nanotechnology? Read today
that research on long-chain carbon
nanotubes has revealed they pose a
danger similar to asbestos. You
are right about the biofuel scam.
Also read today there is a 1 in 10
chance of Earth being hit by an
asteroid in the comparatively near
future. Good inventions occur
daily, but one mishap could wipe
out humanity.

About the author: Until that point
at which humans as biological entities
no longer exist, the author will
continue to exist, and so will the
ego, and so will the drive to be read
and remembered. Yes we are all
complicit in the evils of capitalism, but unless we find ways
to modifiy ourselves away from it,
it will ever be part of our DNA.

Again the quotes from The Editors
Statement for Fold.
" . . . the connections between people"
are essential, and this is (if it
is allowed to be) the greatest good
of the Internet
" . . . the writer as 'transmitter'" is problematical
but may be inevitable
" . . . play . . ." is not a new
thought since all art is a kind of
play, but it is a vital thought if
it undermines self-importance - I
don't think it has - further, I
think those who make the most of
being at a distance from the "I"
are often those who are most "I-
full". But such is the human

Jasper Bernes said...

Hi Stan, Hi Joseph—

In a longer essay, I would have had more time to devote to the statement’s (or non-statement’s) complexity, and if I do something with the piece, I plan on that. I apologize for not having had the space to account for its many-facetedness. In an earlier draft, I looked at some of the remarks you’ve made at your blog, Stan, particularly those re: hegemony and eclecticism, which I think will bear out my sense of the position of the statement. Because, in the end, I do think that in the aggregate there is something like a position there (and lots of positions are excluded from it). This is substantiated by the fact that you’re taking this exact same position here. If you and Joseph agree that we disagree about the meaningfulness of the internet and distribution, then that’s all that needs to be said, really, since it was the main point of my piece. Have we reached the point at which noting that something was written via collage is like saying it was written in words?

In any case:

>My "thought experiment," as Jane >called it, was to emphasize >capitalism's distributive efficacy >as its worthwhile element, the >element worth imitating, albeit >differently. Ie. >getting everyone >what they want, rather than only >getting specific subjects what >they want. Experiments in micro- >finance are trying to do this at a >starter level.

See, Stan, this is why you’re much closer to someone like Thomas Friedman, and the bourgeois economists with whom Marx is arguing in the Grundrisse, than you are to me or to any anticapitalist who hasn’t, basically, thrown in the towel. Capitalism doesn’t have any distributive efficacy; distribution is actually where it’s weakest, its virtues being its unleashing of powerful productive forces; capitalism, by its very nature (the contradiction between use-value and exchange-value, broadly) requires that there will be massive waste, overproduction, needless competition, and lots of iPhones but much less medicine for things like malaria that can be wiped out for pennies on the Iraq war.

I don’t have any position toward technology as a whole. I’m friendly toward fire, wheels, vibrators and the electric guitar. My problem is with the social relations that the internet supports and is supported by. In a different world, the internet would be a different thing. However, I think I address the claim you make for the a-capitalist activities that occur on the internet—that is, they are a-capitalist activities that are, mostly, in the last instance, in the service of capitalism. Will this always be true? Perhaps not. Is it necessarily true? Certainly not. But it is today, and to the extent that people offer aesthetic and philosophical positions that deny this, they are contributing to a profoundly destructive lie. I’m not saying to stop using the internet. I’m telling people to stop harboring illusions about it. Paolo Virno is actually good on this point when he talks about the “communism of capitalism,” as is Zizek in his book on Deleuze.

Because here’s the thing, Stan, and this gets back to point about the internet being better than capitalism at moving values around, the big secret is that the internet doesn’t really move things around. We do. What the internet moves around is representations. And then people move around the things that are represented. These representations don’t become values until they can compel certain forms of behavior.

Joseph said...

I'm sure Stan and I disagree about many things besides, say, the merits of Flarf and importance of Fassbinder; so I'm not sure why you assume we agree about the meaningfulness of the internet and distribution. I was simply making a point about the nature of the text he and Matt Timmons wrote.

I don't think anyone harbors any illusions about the democratic nature of the internet; I've read my Zizek, thank you very much. I am aware that the internet, as currently configured, is a marketplace, that it was "supposed to bring us all together into a Global Village" and what we have instead is "particular identifications at our choice" -- those choices primarily being an ever-expanding array of consumer products. What I object to is the broad generalization that "the spaces of the internet [should be considered as] ones of enfranchisement and access which sit next to, and cause/are caused by, some of the most extreme disenfranchisement, dispossession, atrocity and destruction in recent memory." As the engineers at work say, "Show me the data."

I actually agree with your point about the internet as work; sure, these very words I'm typing may be read by an Adwords bot resulting in an ad for "wholesale distributors" being placed at the top of the page; three years from now, when this blog is defunct, these words might be chopped up and boiled down into spam text that will be sent to the inbox of a Clinton intern. That likelihood doesn't negate the value of the conversation we're having right now. Nor does it render useless the community organizing that is possible through blogs and email. The point, as even you concede (and Zizek too, in his book on Totalitarianism where he asks us not to retreat but rather to fight for the "socialization of cyberspace") is the potentiality of the internet. The operational structure here is similar to the potentiality of Marxism, isn't it? Even during the worst atrocities committed in its name there was still something of value in its critique.

Further, it's a bit disingenuous and condescending of you to lecture Stan about waste, overconsumption and "lots of iPhones [and] much less medicine for things like malaria" when you quote him at length but fail to include the phrase Stan uses immediately preceding your selection: "inequitable distribution." I can't speak for Stan, but I suspect that the key words in relation to his notion of distributive efficacy here are "imitation" and "differently," as in not the same as the current conditions of neo-liberalism.

Incidentally, it's strange that you lump Stan in with conceptual writers like Kenny Goldsmith when Stan is closer in temperament to the Flarfists; in fact he's read at at least one of their festivals and is a member of their listserv, and has written at least one chapbook that might be described as Flarf. If anyone can be said to partake in profane illumination it is the man who wrote the poem "The Christmas Party."

Jasper Bernes said...

Hey Joseph,

Sorry, that was messy pronoun use in my comment. By "we disagree" in that sentence I meant Stan and me, not all three of us. I didn't mean to imply that you held the same views as Stan (nor, by the way, that you hadn't read Zizek; just pointing to something similar for corroboration).

As for the logic of causation you flag, well, it's probably not articulated correctly there. These kinds of determination are difficult to prove. In any case, it has to do with the argument about political immobilization, if you buy that, and then also the fact that the internet is a big advertisement, and the destructiveness of that, etc.

Some day, perhaps, I'll write something about this with "facts."

jane said...

Quoting Joe, responding to Jasper: What I object to is the broad generalization that "the spaces of the internet [should be considered as] ones of enfranchisement and access which sit next to, and cause/are caused by, some of the most extreme disenfranchisement, dispossession, atrocity and destruction in recent memory." As the engineers at work say, "Show me the data."

Well, I suppose one might start with the inextricable twinings of Chinese "modernization," the "capitalist road" wherein the rise of internet access is part of a singular process which has at its absolute core the separation of people from their means of production, various forms of enclosure, real subsumption of labor, and so forth. The insistence on seeing these as separate facts is exactly the mistake of seeing "distribution" as something that can be discussed (and modified) independent of the relations of production with which it shares a mutual determination.

But why not just mention the glaring fact that "the internet" (and the larger complex of information technologies ascendant in the last decades) isn't really a distribution network, anyway? It is a literal space of work, and not just in the representational or incidental ways that Jasper mentions. It's a set of technologies for allowing the extension of the workday in space and time — telecommuting, editing, designing, conferencing, and on and on (for Thomas Friedman, this is the tech's greatest achievement: the equal access to market competition it brings to all peoples. Yeay!) And the forces that drive us into these new work spaces are not forces of distribution at all; they're forces of labor markets.

Sure, in our decreasing off hours we might hope to do some cool parasitic stuff on this new spine that work has grown, but imagining it as resolving capitalism's contradictions without imagining first the destruction of the spine...that's just already old-fashioned cyberpunk stuff, yeah?

Anonymous said...

The internet is in the service of capitalism not least because you need a computer and various kinds of networks to access and use it. Computers and networking require, create, and fuel a consumer economy. Computer equipment is made by the hands of people very far removed from the end products, and when obsolete, returns to them on very unequal terms (that is: it poisons poor people in particular and the environment in general). It also presumes literacy, which is expensive and unequal. There is no such thing as equal access.

brian salchert said...

Thank you for allowing anonymous
comments. Comment #11 should be
seriously pondered.

mark wallace said...

I'm trying to see if I can boil this down.

Stan and Joseph believe Jasper missed the ironies, ambiguities and contradictions of the piece in question, and perhaps he did. But perhaps that's because he doesn't think of those kinds of literary twists as important enough to the issues he's raising. I'm not sure about his stance on that.

Then the question comes up of whether the internet is developed in the context of, and supports, the hegemonic functions of capitalism. And yes, everyone seems to agree that it does, although there are a few differences and questions of information regarding in what way specifically it does.

Then the question is raised of whether despite that fact, some activities on the internet can work against its capitalist uses, and if so, how that might work. That is, can capitalist technologies be used in ways that resist capitalism or not? I would think yes, as can radio and television also, but not necessarily obviously, and to what degree and in what ways of course remains speculation until it happens.

I would add that resistance and especially large scale resistance seldom operates on a singular theory about what it's up to, and by no means requires being right in any pure sense, in which case there may be room for all you guys on the boat.

Stan Apps said...

Mark's right that there's a lot of unacknowledged common ground here; in fact, a lot of my frustration stems from the fact that Jasper is ignoring elements of the "Editor's Statement" that reflect positions similar to his own. This makes me feel that Mat and I are being made straw men, because Jasper is so eager to set himself up as the wise man chastising us for worshiping the internet and (by extension) being "neo-liberal." But the truth is I've written an extended critique of Thomas Friedman and am alarmed and angered by the hypocrisies of the neoliberal stance. And the truth is that I use the internet as a mimetic tool, a device to hold up a mirror to our culture, but I don't idolize the mirror. Also, the text in question isn't about the internet at all; it's about appropriative writing strategies--plagiarism and copying. These are excellent mimetic strategies for use in exploring and satirizing the culture. And if the internet is a workspace that alienates my labor, then I'm using it because I want to bring that alienation into my writing. . . we live in an alienating society, so literary work can express that alienation as part of a critical stance.

Having gotten the common ground out of the way, I don't necessarily agree with the kind of Marxism Jasper and Jane are espousing. . . Marxism is historical and its argument that violence is the only authentic tool for social change is alarming. . . Plenty of socialists before Marx understood the limits of violence as a liberatory tool, and when we look at, say, the outcome of (failed) Marxist revolutions in the 80s in Central America, we see an immense waste of human potential and effort. Violence radicalizes and produces sectarian extremity; sectarian extremity is a paranoid mindset not conducive to empathetic communication. Of course, I think violence is justified in lots of situations, but the implication in Jane's most recent comment that only violence is an authentic approach ("imagining [the internet] as resolving capitalism's contradictions without imagining first the destruction of the spine...that's just already old-fashioned cyberpunk stuff, yeah?")--that is just ridiculous. No one can destroy the spine of capitalism; we're all going to be, as Jane puts it, "parasitic" on that infrastructure. Whatever future is coming down the pipe is going to be developing upon that infrastructure. And, since imagining the resolution of present contradictions is the goal of dialectic reasoning, the effort to do that is exactly the kind of mental work we should be trying out, the kind that never goes out of style. I guess for you, Jane, people's mental work isn't valid unless it has some sort of fantasy appeal to violence as a, what, a genre marker? Since I think your allusions to violence are strictly rhetorical, I find you to be an unconvincing writer in this genre, i.e. your use of Marxism is escapist, as or more escapist as the stances Jaspar incorrectly believes me to be holding.

superbunker said...

"The Internet" is not a unitary entity. It is, in all senses, a collection of substrates and forces. To refer to The Internet as a singular object is a naive but sadly common fallacy. "The Internet" is in fact a metonymy for "some techno thingy about I really have no idea but feel something, i guess, whatever, lol."

To clarify your discussion, I suggest replacing every reference to "The Internet" with "Language." Or if your prefer to express your solidarity with the Worker, you might try replacing it with "people talkin' bout stuff." This replacement of your ill-chosen referent should help untangle your ideology from the mirror trap of commercialized lingo.

Regarding Marx on the nature of electronic reproduction, I refer to his famous quote upon first experiencing the cinemaograph:


TT said...

To jump in late on this thread, I have a lot of doubts about holding up the Internet as a mirroring of culture; this strikes me as being about the same as holding up one's hand as a mirroring of embodiment.

It's not a question of one's particular opinion about the 'mirror,' but rather one's decision to see these things as separate (even if reflective) images. My position is closer to the idea that contemporary culture and/or the Internet do similar work in terms of orienting folks towards certain positions in terms of social relations, divisions of being, economic habits, etc.

Different strokes, of course, but my thought is that satirizing and exploring a culture that, in our moment, perpetuates itself through self-satirizing and self-exploratory (culture as 'limitless' database and constant feedback and commentary on itself) norms doesn't do much in the way of critique. I think the language and gestures of critique can be the material for interesting poetry, but I also have my doubts as to the extent that poetry can be, in and of itself, an effective tool of critique (though it can occasion powerful critique in response).


Joseph said...

Responding to Jane & Anonymous before this thread peters out....

In answer to my question, Jane wrote: Well, I suppose one might start with the inextricable twinings of Chinese "modernization," the "capitalist road" wherein the rise of internet access is part of a singular process which has at its absolute core the separation of people from their means of production, various forms of enclosure, real subsumption of labor, and so forth.

And Anonymous wrote: Computers and networking require, create, and fuel a consumer economy. Computer equipment is made by the hands of people very far removed from the end products, and when obsolete, returns to them on very unequal terms...

Isn't this a rather banal point about the "capitalist road" as such? One could very well say the same thing about any aspect of our societies, any of our consumer, shoes, etc. How, specifically, does the internet differ? (I'm sure it does, but I'm still asking.) And yet, we're all still using the internet. To return to Zizek, I'm reminded of his oft-repeated formula of the Kantian fetishistic disavowal: I know very well that the [internet, cars we drive, shoes we wear] sustain and support a system of exploitation and atrocity; nevertheless I continue to [use the internet, drive my car to work, buy Nikes].

What I want to know, specifically, is how this "space of the internet," the one we are using right now, "causes some of the most extreme disenfranchisement, dispossession, atrocity and destruction in recent memory." And if it does, why are we still using it?

brian salchert said...

In spite of the Internet's negatives, I'm still using it because of its positives. Linh Dinh over at his Detainees has for some while been linking to articles and speeches by writers more powerful and perhaps more committed than any of us. As it does for us, the Internet provides a stage as it were for them to share their thoughts about present crises. If you don't wish to go to Linh's blog, but haven't yet read the May 28th speech given at Furman by Pulitzer-prize journalist Chris Hedges, here's a link to his entire "America's Democratic Collapse". Hedges, Tom Engelhardt, Mike Whitney, James Howard Kunstler, Richard Heinberg, and others are also on the boat Mark Wallace has imagined.

the unreliable narrator said...

O anonymous, come back! I love you! Can I have your number? Or your URL?