The Innocence of Media

The US anarchosyndicalist group Recomposition published an article, that is well worth reading, on the same day (uncannily) that I published my last post on black blocs. My last post dealt with the black blocs but a large part of its real scope lay in a discussion of media and communication in the age of the integrated spectacle. I’ve just finished reading the Recomposition piece I think it is a good beginning to theorising what I have been calling a “post-spectacular media strategy”, especially in its insistence that media isn’t just a tool for transmission but is itself a form of tactical political organising. In this post, I want to contribute to that effort by focussing in on media ontology and media’s own affectivity.

Lately I’ve been writing a bit about the need to develop a “post-spectacular media strategy” in revolutionary politics. In part this is a call for such a development and a reflection on the fact that such a tendency already exists on the revolutionary left. This tendency is born out of a recognition that we have become dispersed, lacking the kinds of centres for organisation that Fordist industrial labour afforded us, and that the media has become a new kind of public space. This is especially the case in an age where more and more of us are coupling our nervous systems to the disembodied space of the internet. The last generations prior to real time’s conquest of lived time and the generation of digital natives that are growing up around us, we are constantly wired in.Whatever other effects this might have, it means that social media is often our most authentic experience of social space.

In previous posts (here and here), and in the comments to a post on the libcom website, I have been trying to argue for a need to recognise the crucial importance of harnessing the spectacle as a weapon for revolutionary politics. One of the strongest points of the Recomposition piece is the fact that it also highlights the non-spectacular affect of this weaponisation:

If we take a political approach to any media, the paper presents the potential to engage workers who create its content, and opportunities to dialogue with others through the act of distributing it. If our goals are to do capacitation work through generating content and working around it, then IWWs could rethink how they want the paper to function within the organization beyond professionalism or the attraction of a good publication. Additionally, if the paper is thought of less as a physical thing and more as a node of content and interaction, a robust online publication could offer a field of activity that could engage potentially hundreds of IWWs and the people they work with. The General Organizing Bulletin likewise is another place where debate, dialogue, and discussion could give chances for IWWs to grow beyond local contexts which can wax and wane with the ups and downs that inevitably come with workplace and community organizing.

What is at stake in the above is an understanding of the materiality of networks of communication and how they themselves act as modes of organising bodies. In this way media becomes more than just a tool for the broadcast of information- it becomes a mode for producing an affective resonance between bodies in such a way as to engender new affective assemblages, and it provides means for physically connecting bodies, as a kind of vanishing intermediary, and therefore of affecting a material redistribution of the sensible. As such, it can make us aware of our connections via a shared situation whilst providing a way for bodies to come both physical and nonphysical contact.

One of the weakest parts of the Recomposition piece comes from their underdeveloped media ontology. This is expressed in phrases such as

Communication, which media is built out of, is a form of interaction and relationship between people.Communication is action, and one that demonstrates and potentially changes relationships in society.

While it is important to realise that Recomposition isn’t an organisation attempting to produce ontologies it is nonetheless expressing or operating with a kind of unarticulated ontology. The presupposition here is that media is made up of bits of communication and that communication is an action. I’d agree that communication is an embodied mode of acting in the world- it produces affects on other bodies- but to claim that media are built out of such action neglects it’s own specific corporeality.

To be fair to Recomposition, the obliteration of materiality that is presupposed here is pretty rampant throughout a lot of Marxist and Marxian inspired theory (cf. almost everything written about immaterial production). Yet media isn’t immaterial- it is not its own separate “semiosphere” as Bifo likes to claim. The cloud-based internet that first appears so immaterial is dependent on very material bodies. First of all, there have to be computers or laptops or smartphones. For the internet to work these must be networked, and this requires the existence of cables, sockets, routers, processors, date centres, internet exchanges, cable and fibre-optic street boxes (the ones you sometimes see technicians fiddling with- so we can include those technicians and their tools, their van and the roads that take them there).

All of these are physical bodies that imply other physical bodies: raw materials, tools, factories, plants, refineries and, of course, workers. It also requires our bodies, the consumers and producers of communication: it requires the skeletal-muscular system, the eyes, the ears, the postures of human bodies- and it requires an entire range of embodied cognitive virtuosity.

To follow the full ecology of the internet would obviously require us to see where the raw materials for processing chips (for example) come from; we’d quickly find ourselves tracing one of the internet’s necessary physical components to minerals found in extremely impoverished parts of the world, where access to those minerals can often fuel violence tantamount to civil war. And even more than this, we should remember that so much of our media objects- or at least their synthetic components- will exist in the Earth’s crust far longer than the internet is likely to exist.

Without wishing to belabour the point any further, media are certainly composed of communicative acts but they can’t be reduced to those actions. They imply a full ecologistical reality.  

I would also point out that communicative agents can’t be limited to humans alone. Media themselves are communicative, as are all kinds of other non-human bodies (viruses and DNA might be perfect examples). I have attempted to give an outline of what constitutes a communicative agent elsewhere so I won’t go on here.

These ontological points aside, I think that Recomposition‘s article is an excellent place to begin thinking about a post-spectacular media strategy.My reason for stresses the materiality of media, it’s very physical manifestation, is to focus in on just how it is that communication and organisation “manifest”, in the article’s terms. Rather than trying to show up Recomposition, I am hopefully contributing to their desire to move away from thinking of media as merely message. Of utmost importance in considering how to use media for revolutionary ends is Marshall McLuhan’s insistence that the medium is the message. For McLuhan, a medium is essentially an extension of the body, a prosthetic that enhances our potency to act, opening up new capacities whilst closing down others (what he calls “amputation”). The content, or message, of a given media is thus never only what information is being communicated, nor is it only the materiality of that medium, but it is always some other materiality. Mediums are composed of- and communicate to us- what they are not:

This fact, characteristic of all media, means that the “content” of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph.

This forces us to consider what in being extended is also being hidden or amputated. The integrated spectacle is the becoming-image of capital- it’s attempt to render the world as immateriality- and as such we have to be mindful that it can make us lose contact with one another, even as it puts us into electronic proximity. Whenever we attempt to harness media and communication we must pay attention to their own specific materialities and to how they order the sensible realm, what proximities and distances they enact, what capacities they open and which they foreclose. We must be careful that in making use of media, the media is not also making use of us.

In other words, to have a post-spectacular use of media we must be attentive to the danger of falling for the spectacle’s most seductive illusion: the innocence of media. From an anarchosyndicalist perspective this question is crucial. Will a worker-managed autonomous media infrastructure be capable of resisting that innocence?

4 responses to “The Innocence of Media

  1. …..and there is the darkness because your head is up your axx. The socialist narrative is dead, and its ghost dance follows the same predictable pattern of all cargo cult utopias that are the by product of cultural death. Fear, accusation, purification and promise……over and over and over. Try reading outside your little world every now and then…..anything…..the back of a shampoo bottle… may shake you out of your glossolalia into some language pattern that makes legitimate use of words…..otherwise… are just another soialist shill……preterite.

    • I genuinely have no idea what you’re talking about. Socialist narrative? Mate…where? Socialist shill? This is a post about media ontology…. the being of media objects and what defines objects as mediums… it has almost nothing to do with socialism.

      That it is in response to a political text is true- and that I’m trying to sharpen a political position is also true. But as the first few WORDS make clear, it’s an anarchosyndicalist position- not a socialist one.

      As to the “Fear, accusation, purification and promise……” bollocks, I think you might like to try re-reading what I’ve written because none of those moves are made in this piece.

      Also, if you’re going to accuse people of having unnecessarily verbose lexicography you might want to abstain from using words like “glossolalia”- performative contradictions and all that 🙂

  2. As I think about your post and questions, one question that strikes me is that of the task/function of an autonomous media in the present moment. Perhaps one key task is to produce ‘glitches in the matrix’ of the spectacular media. If the spectacle is the becoming-image of capital then there is a clear need to organise a couter-media in such a way that it punctures that image and gradually tears it to shreds. I realise that all communication relies on a medium, but there must necessarily be a big difference between forms that try to get information ‘out there’ (e.g. mass media, online newspapers, a large proportion of blogs, etc.), and forms that are concerned with communication as organising. So, while on the one hand engagement with the spectacular media should (I would venture) be oriented to what I like to call ‘amplifying the cracks’ – (i.e. systematically identifying/showing – and then prising/keeping open – the fracture-lines/interstices, not only in society’s functioning – fracking, corruption, exploitation, etc., – but in the media itself), a post-spectacular media is one that must emerge from concrete requirements of communication for situated (political) organising (within and against the media as well as within and against every other front of revolutionary struggle). Perhaps this line brings us back to a fairly classical media/counter-media divide but I am trying to suggest here a sharper attack against spectacular media coupled with a highly action-oriented (and therefore situated, embodied) counter-media (that is aware of its material dimensions and their implications precisely because it is driven primarily by the need to address these factors as part of successful political practice).

    Perhaps the trickiest terrain is the middle ground between the two poles I have mentioned – particularly regarding the question of: (a) how an autonomous media can challenge corporate media without becoming reduced to mere fodder for the spectacle; and (b) how an autonomous media can circulate news/information that is not oriented primarily toward communication for political organising but rather to the more traditional function of providing ‘news’. I am not sure that there is much that can be done (that isn’t already being done) in either of these cases besides damage mitigation and trying to make the most of the opportunities for subversion that each brings. We are somewhat blessed at the moment (when it comes to puncturing the spectacle-image) with the all-around crisis of capitalism (and all that is contingent on it) which is leaving a rapidly growing number of disenfranchised people in its wake. The cracks are already appearing in the facade (the dream would be to make them leap up through the television screen and shake the specators into action rather than that floaty feeling that all this is all just a surreal kind of entertainment). I guess, at the end, I am left with the slogan: communication for organisation. Obviously it’s not a simple matter of picking up this slogan and marching off as though everything else follows… But taking, for example, the question of what media will work for communicating with and sustaining revolutionary action by fired industrial workers in the automotive industry in the industrial belt south of Delhi, or what media will work for slum-dwelling women involved in home-based work stitching thousands of buttons onto shirts every day, or what media will work for keeping a global network of supporters abreast of the trials and tribulations of a global anti-mining movement (versus, the kind of media that would work for keeping the local activists and communities in the same movement on the ground informed and engaged)… perhaps we can think through some concrete examples; consider the kinds of constraints under which the required media infrastructures get established. Here, it seems to me, we must also always deal with the fact that more often than not, one is operating on infrastructures that one does not own (e.g. the internet, road networks, mobile networks, etc.)…

    Not sure if I’m really responding to your questions but these are some of the thoughts provoked…

  3. No, absolutely. You raise some brilliant observations, some real challenges. There is something to all of this. The Russell Brand moment is perhaps the perfect example of a glitch in the matrix……..whatever the particulars of the very genuine needs to critique him as a man, Brand’s performance was nonetheless A GLITCH- something went wrong, something new was introduced…and that newness was a piece of authentic affective communication that couldn’t be recuperated ahead of time and that still hasn’t really been recuperated fully.

    On autonomous media I’ve pointed to NovaraFM and NovaraTV as solid examples, alongside the Deterritorial Support Groups and others. But yes, absolutely, we need the onto-specifics of each situation, and to trace out the various infrastructural materialities going on.

    The question of targetting is also crucial- who are these media for? Yes- I’ve been reading a book on Occupy Wall Street by one of their Press Group organisers. Although Occupy and the book are frustrating as hell, it’s interesting how they chose to actively separate various layers of identifiction & rhetoric… I think here an appreciation of say, Irving Goffman could be important.

    But your post goes further and gives me material to think on. I’m planning a longer post on all this drawing my thoughts together.

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