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McLuhan

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?