Mapping (11/9)

Gouvernement Mondial.jpg

Bureau d'Etudes: "World Government"

Why map? What's the point?

Like it or not, the incessant transforms of global capital are inside our nervous systems. Maybe it's more interesting to see them on the outside, right there big as life, like a skyscraper or a cement factory or a stock exchange. Maybe it's useful and meaningful to map out the restructuring in ways both theoretical and aesthetic, rather than just taking each new jolt through the headlines, the fashions, the clashes in the street - or through the new management “tools,” the labor movements, the glimpsed oppression at the borders. That's what I've done since the counter-globalization movement launched me on a project of global mapping.

Since I was flexible (after all) and could ride the cultural air-ticket to a wide variety of destinations, I decided to Just Do It. By going to Edge Europe, to Argentina, to China, to the Midwest and the Middle East, I hoped to meet people who would open up their nervous systems, so that we could not only compare jolts, but better, explore other lengths and depths of time, share different kinds of aspirations, dreams and satirical ironies, replacing headlines with lifelines. I wanted to ask everyone I could meet: How has your existence changed since this whirligig of electrocapital came around? And I wanted to feel out what might have come before - not paradise, but historical experience on the intimate level, the kind that shapes a body and the tone of a voice, or the way families and lovers relate, the way people protest or laugh it off or complain or try to escape.

Of course, at the beginning there was a hope to pin it all down, to know how it works, to grasp the “system.” Neoliberalism appeared to have a logic operating not only on the extensive but also on the intensive level, which some of us had tried pretty successfully to understand in the 1990s and the early 2000s: how capital became cybernetic, biopolitical, the way that relations of accumulation and exploitation were transformed into language and reappeared as motivation in one’s own flesh. To understand that was liberating: it allowed probably hundreds of thousands of people to see a little more clearly through the strategies, to make different decisions about how to use their time and their attention, their love, their sex drive, their computers, their credit cards, their mobility, etc. This kind of mapping is not at all in vain, when you are under the sway of the immense, publicly sanctioned manipulation-machines called “capitalist democracies,” which tend increasingly to merge into one pulsing circuit of soft expropriation and micro-modulated spectacle. But does the intensive knowledge of capital and its limits have any validity (any “purchase” as the English phrase so ironically puts it) where the production system extends outside the centers of accumulation? And can such knowledge even be understood, or more importantly, made useful, inside the new, non-Western centers, where society meets psychology in ways that cannot be presumed on the basis of any shared canon of references or interpretational schemes?

These questions, far from being obstacles to the mapping impulse, now appear to me as fundamental, the very interest and meaningfulness of the whole thing. If there is a social unconscious of globalization — made brutally manifest in simmering national feuds, outbreaks of racism, wars and re-impositions of guarded borders — then that unconscious is founded at least partly on our own opacity to the flows that traverse us, on the way that embodied collectivities “cover up” the capital logic and its insane imperatives. Of course this is where it gets dicey: because what’s the difference between a “cover-up” and an alternative? If capitalism presses necessarily toward individualism — which I believe it does — then any kind of alternative, i.e. any kind of solidarity, necessarily has to involve some kind of community, whether ethnic, national or abstracted. Dogmatically rational leftists are quick to criticize the first two kinds of community, for one good reason: they are not egalitarian, they inevitably draw culturalized lines of inclusion/exclusion. Ethnic and national solidarities operate in denial of the fact that there are always people from the outside, right here among us, working more or less against their will for the system, and being doubly punished for it — that is, both economically (through exploitation) and culturally (through exclusion from whatever counts as “humanity” in a given space/time).

The answer is supposed to be abstract solidarity: in a well-organized society with strictly egalitarian laws, everyone should participate in the fruits of production. I believe this, but my belief itself is abstract, since nowhere do I see it being put into practice. Therefore I am willing to cut a little slack for the really-existing solidarity, to see how it is working on a case-by-case basis. How does peoples’ recognition of each other contribute to a better life? And how does it draw misplaced battle lines resulting in useless enmity and suffering? This is one of the ways I understand “culture” in the broadest sense of the word, and this is one of the multidimensional realities to be mapped out, in a kind of vague and always incomplete way, behind the accelerated pattern of capital flows. To do that kind of mapping is first of all to contribute to one’s “own” culture, that is, to try to share some understanding of the human paradox and hopefully to open up the idea that slowly, intimately, occasionally or maybe even sometimes structurally, social relations can be tipped over onto more convivial plateaus.


Tarot (del presente-por-venir) de Barcelona

All of this sounds great, and also very idealistic. On the one hand there is the risk of superficiality: project a few abstract ideas in your head onto a few glimpses of ways that people live. The only thing I can say is that being called on your superficiality is one of the most productive things in life, it means that your attempt to perceive, learn, communicate and share something is being taken seriously. One of the real obstacles to the multitude of mapping projects — and to the constitution of a “multitude” in all its potential — is the lack of confrontation, of expressed disagreement, of spaces where the superficiality of your own skin is placed at the risk of others, their gazes, their words, their accusations, their potential violence. How to create those spaces and make them productive of greater understanding across the societal divides? That’s another definition of culture, an alternative one. Let's map that too.

posted by BH

The Roads to Detroit

Workshop proposal, Compass Group


Compass Group

Driven by the pressures of corporate competition, Midwestern capital elites envision a network of high-speed trains linking the scattered cities of flyover land into a dense urban grid. Oblivious to territories, histories, and peoples, you whisk your way from center to center like a roulette ball spinning through the global casino. What gets lost in these dreams of power are the connections between the city and the country, the earth and the sky, the past and the future.

What kinds of worlds are installed on the ground by the neoliberal planning processes developed in the technocratic universities? Why do these projects fail even before they begin? How to start building a cultural and intellectual commons that can seep into the fabric of everyday existence?

The Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor is a call for longer, slower, deeper connections between the territories where we live. It’s a cartography of shared experience, built up by those who nourish lasting ties between critical groups, political projects, radical communities and experiments in alternative living. Why not help build the commons by overflowing your usual daily routines? Why not make the journey to the US Social Forum into a chance to discover the worlds we can create right here in our own region?

This workshop draws from the inspiration of Grace Lee Boggs and the travels of the Compass Group on our Continental Drift through the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor. The idea is to propose an act of collective discovery and creation, to be carried out by anyone who’s heading to the Social Forum. Multiple caravans each chart their particular pathways and organize their own activist campaigns, artistic exchanges, skill-sharing sessions, solidarity dinners or whatever else they desire on the roads to Detroit, then converge at the Allied Media conference and the US Social Forum to share stories, images, and artifacts from their detours through the Midwestern labyrinth. Meanwhile, those with different priorities can invent their own forms of travel and exchange, explore diverging temporalities, set up “stationary drifts” in the neighborhoods they inhabit and continue the projects they’re pursuing, while the moving worlds pass through them.

By taking the time for a conscious experience of the territories we are continually traversing, we can build up what Stephen Shukaitis calls an “imaginal machine”: a many-headed hydra telling tales of solidarity and struggle, daily life, and outlandish dreams in the places that power forgets, leaving their inhabitants free to remember living histories and work toward better tomorrows. The Compass Group will present images, narratives, and documents from our Continental Drift in 2008, then open up the concept to input and debate. With the help of anyone who’s interested, we hope to lay the basis for a collaborative process of self-organization and convergence at the Social Forum in Detroit and to sow the seeds of future meetings and projects.

Outline of the Session

We begin by tacking up an instant exhibition of maps, diagrams, art works, and projected photographs to give a glimpse of the MRCC as a reality and a potential. Group members briefly narrate the 2008 drift through Illinois and Wisconsin, introducing the desire and the concept of a radical Midwest along with a few scattered touch points along the open corridor. Our key idea: “Another critique of the university is possible.” An embodied critique that reverses the imperative to accumulate and master knowledge into a situated practice of perception/imagination/expression within inhabited social spaces.

The technocratic disciplines of the knowledge factory are imperial strategies of scale, imposing instrumental flex-connections between the spheres of economic circulation (global, national, regional) and the target-sites of production/consumption (cities, towns, institutions, businesses, demographic groups, families, individuals). These disciplines come together in the process of “corridor planning” for multimodal transportation networks, first conceived for the megalopolis region of the Northeastern Seaboard in the US and subsequently developed across the world (Trans-European Networks in the EU, the Golden Quadrilateral in India, the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America, Plan Puebla Panama, and the Trans-Texas Corridor in North America). What the fractured and instrumentalized structure of knowledge-work in the corporate university barely allows us to conceive, let alone resist and transform, is this integrated production of technological “flowspace” for global capitalism.

At the heart of our proposal is an ethics of scale that can respond to the modular accelerations of the “Petroleum Space-Time Continuum.” This is not about localism or even the finely demarcated ecotopias of bio-regionalism, but instead about inventing ways to traverse the really existing scales while remembering the lived horizons and temporalities of bodily experience. At best, the encounter with other groups opens up territories of mutual self-recognition.

The trans- or extra-disciplinary connections at stake here include contemporary art and geography. One important reference is the Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute (DGEI), an anti-racist, anti-capitalist collaborative research project initiated in 1969 by a group of Michigan geographers and African-American residents of Detroit. Another is the Timescapes project by Angela Melitopoulos exploring Corridor X through Southeastern Eastern Europe as part of the B-Zone exhibition in Berlin in 2005. Like Don Mitchell, one of the founders of the People’s Geography Project, we want to “radicalize popular geography and popularize radical geography.”

The motif of “drifting” evokes Situationist psychogeography and dozens of contemporary projects, many of them developed in the wake of social movements. But the desire and the need to cross boundaries of class and culture leads to a focus on stabilities as well as movements, and suggests practices of the “stationary drift” used by the Counter Cartographies Collective to begin mapping university labor relations at UNC in 2005.

By presenting these and other elements we want to open up the discussion about possible practices of research, expression, collaboration, and intervention, departing from the sophisticated languages of the university to open up permeable territorial spaces of dialogue, dissent, and alternative living. These, in turn, can connect, not to the university disciplines as such, but to the commons that lie beneath them and make them meaningful.

Right now our contacts with the Boggs Center are pointing toward the possibility of collaborations with local residents in Detroit, as well as possible spaces or contexts to welcome those who take the time to travel through the territory on the road to the Social Forum. Hopefully some ideas for future projects will arise from this meeting – not necessarily with us, and not necessarily in the USSF context, but definitely in the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor as an “imaginal machine” that belongs to those who live it.


The Compass group held this workshop on April 11, 2010, in Minneapolis at the West Bank Social Center, for a conference entitled “Beneath the University, the Commons” ( The conference was great – exactly the kind of breakaway politics that interests us – but the proposal was something more, a way of exploring, communicating, gathering inspirations. In late June, many paths came together at a three-story house we rented in the surreal decay of Highland Park, a residential city nested within the sprawling ruins of Detroit. We held a similar workshop at the US Social Forum, took part in dozens of others, and later on we offered an outdoor picnic for whoever might come, near the old King Solomon’s Church and a beautiful community center called the Hush House. Thanks to everyone who participated, in Minneapolis, in Detroit, and on the roads in between.



Drifting Through the Grid

Psychogeography and Imperial Infrastructure


Constant-Nieuwenhuys_New-Babylon_Amsterdam-1963.jpgGreat social movements leave the content of their critical politics behind, in the forms of a new dominion. This was the destiny of the revolt against bureaucratic rationalism in the Sixties. The Situationists, with the practice of the dérive and the program of unitary urbanism, aimed to subvert the functionalist grids of modernist city planning. They tried to lose themselves in the urban labyrinth, while calling for the total fusion of artistic and scientific resources in "complete decors": "another city for another life," as the radical architect Constant proclaimed. With the worldwide implementation of a digital media architecture – and the early signs of a move toward cinematic buildings – we are now seeing the transformation of the urban framework into total decor (Lev Manovich: "In the longer term every object may become a screen connected to the Net, with the whole of built space becoming a set of display surfaces"). What kind of life can be lived in the media architecture? And how to explain the continuing prestige of Situationist aesthetics, in a period which has changed so dramatically since the early 1960s?

Today, the sensory qualities of the dérive are mimicked by hyperlinked voyages through the datascapes of the World Wide Web. The decades-old imaginaries of the Silver Surfer still permeate our computer-assisted fantasies. Within this commercialized flux, the proponents of "locative media" – like Ben Russel, the developer of, or Marc Tuters, of – propose to add a personalized sense of place, a computerized science of global ambiances, using satellite positioning technology. In this way, the "geograffiti" of GPS waypoint marking seeks to promote a new kind of locational humanism, tailored to the worldwide wanderer. "Know your place" is the ironic HeadMap motto. But what would it really take to lose yourself in the abstract spaces of global circulation?

Not long ago, utopian maps portrayed the Internet as an organic space of interconnected neurons, like the synapses of a planetary mind. Data-sharing and open-source software production have effectively pointed a path to a cooperative economy. But a contemporary mapping project like Minitasking depicts the Gnutella network as a seductive arcade, bubbling over with pirated pop tunes and porno clips. The revolutionary aspirations of the Situationist drift are hard to pinpoint on the new cartographies.

In the wake of September 11, the Internet's inventors – DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – conceived a new objective: Total Information Awareness, a program to exploit every possible control function that can be grafted onto the new communications technology. Here's where the innovation lies: in "Evidence Extraction and Link Discovery," "Human ID at a Distance," "Translingual Information Detection," etc. Fortunately for American civil liberties, Congress still had the constitutional power to quash this distorted brainchild of a convicted political criminal, the retired admiral John Poindexter. But the Pentagon has clearly caught up to the commercial surveillance packages that took the initiative in the late nineties: workstation monitors, radio tracking badges, telephone service recording, remote vehicle monitoring (advertising blurb: "From the privacy of your own computer, you can now watch a vehicle's path LIVE using the new ProTrak GPS vehicle tracking device"). Military strategist Thomas Barnett has learned the lesson of the freewheeling 1990s, when individual autonomy developed at the speed of high technology: "In my mind, we fight fire with fire," he says. "If we live in a world increasingly populated by Super-Empowered Individuals, then we field an army of Super-Empowered Individuals."


In The Flexible Personality I tried to show how networked culture emerged as a synthesis of two contradictory elements: a communicative opportunism, bringing labor and leisure together in a dream of disalienation that stretches back to the 1960s; and an underlying architecture of surveillance and control, made possible by the spread of cutting-edge technologies. The contemporary manager expresses the creativity and liberation of a nomadic lifestyle, while at the same time controlling flexible work teams for just-in-time production. The Yes Men have made this figure unforgettable: impersonating the WTO at a textile industry conference in Finland, they unveiled a tailor-made solution for monitoring a remote labor force, what they called the Management Leisure Suit. The glittering lycra garment might have recalled what NY Times pundit Thomas Friedman once called the "golden straitjacket," forcing national governments into the adoption of a neoliberal policy mix; but the yard-long, hip-mounted phallus with its inset viewing screen is just a little too enthusiastic for private-sector discipline! Transmitting pleasurable sensations when everything is going well on the production floor, it allows the modern manager to survey distant employees while relaxing on a tropical beach. The conclusion of the whole charade is that with today's technology, democracy is guaranteed by Darwinian principles: there's no reason for a reasonable businessman to own a slave in an expensive country like Finland, when you can have a free employee for much less, in whatever country you chose.

What happens when the freedmen revolt? Today all eyes are on the soldier. Thomas Barnett has drawn up a new world map for the Pentagon: it divides the "functioning core" of globalization, "thick with network connectivity," from the "non-integrating gap" of the equatorial regions, "plagued by politically repressive regimes." The gap is where the majority of American military interventions have taken place since the end of the Cold War. It's also where a great deal of the world's oil reserves are located. And it's mainly inhabited by indigenous peoples (in Latin America) or by Muslims (in North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, Indonesia). Barnett's solution: "Shrink the gap." Integrate those people, by force if necessary.

Jordan Crandall seems to grapple with this question of integration in one of his installations, "Heat Seeking." The piece is full of menacing violence; but one scene shows a passive, unconscious woman being fed, apparently under the influence of a radio transmission. This disturbing image gets under the skin of the new media architecture, exploring its relations to psychic intimacy. What kind of subjectivity emerges from exposure to the contemporary networks?


I think we should conceive the worldwide communications technologies as Imperial infrastructure. These are systems with strictly military origins, but which have been rapidly liberalized, so that broad sectors of civil society are integrated into the basic architecture. Everything depends on the liberalization. The strong argument of Empire was to show that democratic legitimacy is necessary for the spread of a reticular governance, whose inseparably military and economic power cannot simply be equated with its point of origin in the United States. Imperial dimension is gained when infrastructures become accessible to a new category of world citizens. The effect of legitimacy goes along with integration to the "thick connectivity" of which Barnett speaks.

What happens, for example, when a private individual buys a GPS device, made by any of dozens of manufacturers? You're connecting to the results of a rocket-launch campaign which has put a constellation of 24 satellites into orbit, at least four of which are constantly in your line-of-sight, broadcasting the radio signals that will allow your device to calculate its position. The satellites themselves are fine-tuned by US Air Force monitor stations installed on islands across the earth, on either side of the equator. Since Clinton lifted the encryption of GPS signals in the year 2000, the infrastructure has functioned as a global public service: its extraordinary precision (down to the centimeter with various correction systems) is now open to any user, except in those cases where unencrypted access is selectively denied (as in Iraq during the last war). With fixed data from the World Geodetic System – a planetary mapping program initiated by the US Department of Defense in 1984 – you can locate your own nomadic trajectory on a three-dimensional Cartesian grid, anytime and anywhere on Earth (Defense department dogma: "Modern maps, navigation systems and geodetic applications require a single accessible, global, 3-dimensional reference frame. It is important for global operations and interoperability that DoD systems implement and operate as much as possible on WGS 84").


Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this satellite infrastructure is that in order for one's location to be pinpointed, the clock in each personal receiver has to be exactly synchronized with the atomic clocks in orbit. So you have an integration to Imperial time. The computer-coded radio waves interpellate you in the sense of Althusser, they hail you with an electromagnetic "hey you!" When you use the locating device you respond to the call: you are interpellated into Imperial ideology. The message is that integration equals security, as exemplified in the advertising for the Digital Angel, a personal locative device pitched to medical surveillance and senior care. It's a logical development for anyone who takes seriously the concept of the "surgical strike": give yourself over to the care of the machines, target yourself for safety.

In light of all this, one can wonder about the limits of the concept of conversion, developed extensively by Marko Peljhan in quite brilliant projects for the civilian reappropriation of military technology. Can we still make any distinction between a planetary civil society articulated by global infrastructure, and the military perspective that Crandall calls "armed vision"? The urgency is social subversion, psychic deconditioning, an aesthetics of dissident experience. Most of the alternative projects or artworks using the GPS system are premised on the idea that it permits an inscription of the individual, a geodetic tracery of individual difference. The most beautiful example to date is Esther Polak's Amsterdam RealTime project, where GPS-equipped pedestrians gradually sketch out the city plan of Amsterdam, as a record of their everyday itineraries. But the work is a fragile gesture, fraught with ambiguity: the individual's wavering life-line appears at once as testimony of human singularity in time, and proof of infallible performance by the satellite mapping system.

All too often in contemporary society, aesthetics is politics as decor. Which is why the Situationists themselves soon abandoned Constant's elaborate representations of unitary urbanism. "Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence," wrote Althusser. It's what makes you walk the line, to use his image. Has the ideology of our time not become an erratic, wavering pattern of crisscrossing footsteps, traced in secure metric points on an abstract field? The aesthetic form of the dérive is everywhere. But so is the hyper-rationalist grid of Imperial infrastructure. And the questions of social subversion and psychic deconditioning are wide open, unanswered, seemingly lost to our minds, in an era when civil society has been integrated to the military architecture of digital media.

BH, orignally published here