Media and Event (8/31)


Tactics is a military concept: it refers to maneuvers made on the ground against the enemy, following decisions taken on the spot amid the fog of war. Tactics, in all their uncertainty and plurality, are opposed to strategy, which is the larger view, the overall plan, the unified policy to which conflict itself is subordinated. “Tactics is the art of using troops in battle; strategy is the art of using battles to win the war,” writes Clausewitz. This tactics/strategy distinction was appropriated and reworked by French theorist Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life:

I call a “tactic,” on the other hand, a calculus which cannot count on a “proper” (a spatial or institutional localization), nor thus on a borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality. The place of a tactic belongs to the other. A tactic insinuates itself into the other's place, fragmentarily, without taking it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance. It has at its disposal no base where it can capitalize on its advantages, prepare its expansions, and secure independence with respect to circumstances. The “proper” is a victory of space over time. On the contrary, because it does not have a place, a tactic depends on time – it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized “on the wing.”

On this view, tactics itself has a kind of plan: through its impropriety and fleeting instability,  it aims to refuse and unseat a repressive reason founded on ownership, power, bureaucracy and control. This is a legacy of the Sixties, when people critiqued "the system." Undoubtedly Certeau himself is reworking the older notion of bricolage proposed by Claude Lévi-Strauss, who makes a distinction, in The Savage Mind, between the engineer with his purpose-built toolkit and materials, and the handyman who makes do with whatever he can find. For Lévi-Strauss, myth partakes of this make-do approach, treating any situation with the materials on board: “The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal.” For both of these theorists, the idea is to contrast a popular, grassroots, even primitive approach of spirited improvisation to an instrumental rationality that establishes both the playing field and the rules before even deigning to enter the game. At issue here is the problem of structure and agency – or rather, as we're going to see further on, of structure and event.

In the case of media, the strategic or engineering approach can be associated with propaganda, with Hollywood-style cinema and above all, with network television. That obviously leaves the tactical or bricolage approach for grassroots art and activism. In the early Nineties, tactical media was associated with the camcorder, which put something like TV – cheap, low-quality TV – into everyman and everywoman's hands. But the camcorder has to film something (visual art, political performance) and the images have to be distributed somehow (free software, improvised Internet platforms). So barely had it been defined before tactical media exploded to encompass every act of grassroots expression in a context of political confrontation, under asymmetrical conditions where the strategic Goliath dominates the field and the tactical David has something vitally important to win or lose.

This course will explore the recent history of tactical media art in networks and on urban grounds. We like it hot, so we'll foreground the confrontational stuff. We like it arty, so we'll go deep into the subtler things. And we think theory is an integral part of any human reality in complex societies. So we're gonna theorize. But to start, let's look at where we're at with the politics of tactical media, right now in the United States. One example is the work of an activist artist named Gan Golan.

Golan got his start in the counter-globalization movement of the early Noughties, then kept on going with the anti-Bush agitation of the mid-decade. He and his friends use what are by now the classic tactical media devices: pop-culture references, satirical narratives, amateur participation, an acute sense of context and timing, fearless interventionism, disarming humor, handheld video recording, Internet distribution, and finally, opportunistic incursions into the major media, so as to bring their messages to the widest public possible. Media populism meets Brecht and the Situationists on the nightly news. After the superhero stunts they launched another piece of street theater, “The Tax Dodgers,” which features an all-star team of corporate sharks avoiding their fiscal responsibilities, flanked by sexy cheerleaders holding hoola-loopholes. To see it on the street must be hilarious; and it's still pretty good when you stumble across it on the Internet. This kind of thing flourished during the Occupy movement, especially in New York, where artists and skilled videomakers abound. But nothing is perfect in any media paradise. The inclusion of this activist satire into a series of slickly produced shorts for “I Am Other,” the YouTube channel of hip-hop stylemaster Pharrell Williams, brings all the usual American questions right back into focus. The key word is cooptation. Have the movement's best creations already been fed back into the commercial-entertainment complex? Does the spectacle rule? Is the tail about to wag the dog again? Or is the mainstreaming of activism exactly what we need to create a mass movement in the USA?

To keep perspective we had better to look at something else from the year 2011, when social movements hit a peak around the world. For instance, a video by the German-Egyptian activist Philip Rizk, which was uploaded to his blog TabulaGaza at the very outset of the Egyptian insurrection.

Rizk takes his camera to the heat of the streets, filming one day, editing that night and uploading the next morning. In the first two minutes of this piece he has translated the rhythm of the crowd into a visual montage that takes you to the beating heart of a process of social change. The media artifact echoes and amplifies the grounded reality that gave it birth. That's a deliberate crossover effect -- positive social feedback -- produced by someone who knows exactly what he's doing. But lots of this type of work was also done during Occupy, and Rizk might be closer to your own life than you think. He studied at Wheaton College in Illinois, then at the American University in Cairo. Now he's working with the Mosireen video collective -- to which we'll return at the end of this tactical media odyssey, in the concluding section on the global "movements of the squares." For the moment his impressive piece of activist documentary can serve as a spur for a crucial question. Namely, how did the Egyptian revolution defy an entrenched system of social control, then reach all the way around the world to help spark popular movement in both Spain (Real Democracia Ya) and the United States (OWS)? How do ordinary people give shape to events that can transform their own existence?

Generative Matrix

Tactical media can be treated as a slogan, a campaign tool, an artistic genre, a hackers' playground or most likely as a brand: TM. But the upsurges of social and cultural change that make media experimentation so interesting are broader, multilayered processes whose times, spaces and actors are not the same, and not necessarily subordinated to a unified intention. Instead we could look for something like a generative matrix where heterogeneous elements, including media and art, come momentarily together in a social movement, which itself produces events. Then we might also see how these dynamic processes called movements fall back into their separate human components, each with its intrinsic characteristics and destinies.

It seems to me -- building on some insights of Félix Guattari -- that an event is shaped by the confluence of at least four different dimensions or fields of experience. The first is an existential territory, inhabited by individuals and intimate groups. The territory is a familiar place, a cruising ground, a known environment, an urban scene. Often it's so well known that it disappears into pure habit, blind repetition. Yet the difference that makes this territory perceptible to those who live it is in a certain sense self-produced: it is an aesthetic intensity, which could be visual or verbal or acoustic or even sexual, but which always appears as an expression and coheres as a remembered and repeated pattern, shared between bodies, resonating in a personal or collective sensorium. The formal content might come from elsewhere, but it is only intense when it is appropriated, made one's own (territorialized). Existential territories and aesthetic intensities come together to form the emergent self-awareness of the individual and of the group.

Now let's go a step further, and try to imagine how the encounter between an inhabited territory and an aesthetic intensity can stimulate the desire and the active engagement of an individual or a group. By engagement I mean the constructive or conflictual confrontation with a wider social surround, traversed by others whose aims and desires are radically different from your own. It's only when you begin to have something to say -- a goal, a sense of purpose, but also a style of expression and cooperation -- that you can experiment with other people, seek new alliances, resist adversity and propose alternatives. The crucial vectors of engagement with society are acts of formalization, both in deed and in language. One one level I'm talking about physical things that are created and brought into circulation, efforts that are deliberately channeled and orchestrated, organizations that are formed, programs that are established. These are fully objectified expressions, tangible projects, material and energetic flows whose contours and trajectories can be more or less clearly grasped or traced. But what does that mean, to grasp or trace? On another level -- the fourth dimension of experience -- what's at stake are not things but concepts, ideas to guide the actions, codes to make them repeatable, analyses and syntheses that provide some kind of map or compass for people on the move. Concepts and organizational forms interact, they depend on each other, yet still they are not the same. Just as art, or any form of aesthetic intensity, is inseparable from the embodied experience of a territory, yet irreducible to it.


Social movements continually present us with the confluence of these four dimensions. Behind their public manifestations there is always the experience of a shared territory, a workplace, a neighborhood, a region, a set of more or less similar pathways and circumstances that come together concretely and immediately in the street. A social movement also has its aesthetics: its signs, its songs, its styles, its body languages. The intermingling of these pleasurable aesthetic components is what smoothes the gaps between the different territories, as they are displaced out into the public space street (deterritorialized). At this point the contribution of art becomes obvious: it's the music, the images, the dancing and the poetry that accompanies every outburst of protest and call for change. Today such contributions can be stranger and wilder: electronic media and conceptual as well as performance art have become part of the aesthetic tooolkit. And we could look for more intricate and intimate contributions of art, in the mind/bodies of the people making up the crowd on the street.

Yet a social movement is never just spontaneously expressive, even when its emergence comes as an unpredictable cry and an exhilarating leap into the unknown. To survive in time and to press its objectives, a movement has to give itself material supports, organizational structures, communicational patterns, a kind of proto-institutional form. The products of networked media technology can appear as aesthetic intensities, but media is also a crucial communicational and organizational tool for structuring the survival and viability of a movement, as we've seen again and again since the Zapatista uprising way back in 1994. Finally, to shape those material resources and organizational elements, a movement needs something of a quite different order: an expanding set of ethical principles, a philosophy, a capacity for analysis and for synthesis, a principle of hope. Both critical  and utopian theory are fundamental to all contemporary movements.

When you think about it, even an artistic or literary movement needs all these things. So it can be said that the four dimensions of social experience continually interact at different scales, in the context of different projects and expressive urges. What's necessary for movements to make their mark, however, is some kind of event, or series of events, where the different aspects cohere in people's lives and go beyond them. The event produces consistency in the present and memory for the future -- sometimes resonating for hundreds or even thousands of years, in the case of major revolutions or the foundation of great religions. The generative matrix of the movement is the event, as you can see in the occupations of Tahrir Square in Cairo, or on a smaller scale, of Zuccotti Park in New York. So we have to get closer to this central pulse, and understand what gives it such an important role in contemporary grassroots politics.

Programmed Societies

The struggle to generate, mediate, interpret and historicize events is one of the great contested zones of modern societies, whose body rhythms and affective tones are largely given by the upsurge of crises (disasters, financial collapses, crime waves, elections, wars). Even while they are presented as nautral phenomena and accidents of fate, they are intensively worked over by competing fractions of the dominant media, in order to shape the public's perception of and reaction to them. Since these kinds of crises recurr relatively frequently -- and to some extent are deliberately produced -- there are also more or less regular patterns of response which lend their structure to society. We were all able to see (unfortunately) that the great financial crisis of 2008, or Hurricane Katrina two years before, unleashed very little social change, even though both revealed that such change ws sorely needed. Instead, the normal things went on: a crescendo of short-term reporting, a longer process of ineffective political and legislative posturing, and a rapid return to corporate speculation and profit-seeking, both on the ground and in the financial networks. If contemporary society has a structure, which appears as an all-encompassing and all-determinant destiny, it is because this structure is imposed up on it by those with the power to manipulate the reaction to events, particularly through the electoral system and the mass media. Echoing Clausewitz, one could say that in the United States, this power was consolidated through  the institutional and informational systems that emerged from WWII, and whose imposition on the world and on ourselves constituted the essential "victory" of that war. The history of popular contestational movements since Second World War could be the history of more or less confused, more or less conscious reactions to the installation and gradual evolution of those systems.

In a fascinating lecture delivered at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany (linked and excerpted in the sidebar above) the critical theorist Bruno Bosteels talks about postwar French structuralism as a response to the rise of systems theory and cybernetics, with their application of mathematical formalism to human behavior. Referring to Etienne Balibar (whose text is also linked here) Bosteels remarks that the leading structuralists always focused not only on structure as a patterned regularity, and therefore as a determinant force, but also on the way that the structure "seems to harbor within itself a form of inner excess that it cannot control." This paradoxical tendency within the disciplines of structuralism became the predominant concern of the post-structuralists after the "events" of 1968, which shook both society and philosophy to the core. One might equally recall that sociologists of the time, such as Alain Touraine, spoke of the '68 movements as a refusal of what he called "the programmed society." As Touraine observed, "All the domains of social life -- education, consumption, information, etc. -- are being more and more integrated into what used to be called production factors." This basically means that the agenda of capitalism is to structuralize your most intimate existence. The events of the Sixties can be read as the social equivalents of a philosophical search for what makes the structure break down, for its secret principle of dysfunction, its propensity for derailing. To seek this breakdown in socially generated events whose authors and causes are multiple and. to some extent, always enigmatic, is not to reinstate any privileged agent who could occpy a position of strategic remove and domination. It is, instead, to focus on social multiplicity as a potential. The great attraction to tactics over strategy has it origins and its reasons here. And as Bosteels hints, these events had their consequences in the lives of millions of people, not only in France but around the world. They must have asked themselves: What pushed us to act as we did? What potentials did our actions reveal? How could we go further -- when what's done is done? (Chris Marker asks all those questions, in the excerpt from the film Sunless posted in the sidebar above).

It's clear that the movements of the Nineties sought explicitly to go beyond the impasses of the Sixties and Seventies. For many, emerging network technologies offered a glimmer of new expressive and communicational possibilities, or what Guattari saw as the dawn of a "post-media era." As Guattari wrote in his final text, "Remaking Social Practices," in 1992:

Technological evolution will introduce new possibilities for interaction between the medium and its user, and between users themselves. The junction of the audiovisual screen, the telematic screen and the computer screen could lead to a real reactivation of collective sensibility and intelligence. The current equation (media = passivity) will perhaps disappear more quickly than one would think.

Yet at the same time, the experience of the postwar cybernetic control technologies and the understanding of the programmed society led almost everyone to realize that the upcoming struggles would concern the ongoing and increasingly sophisticated attempts to channel expression, to neutralize events and to stifle what Michel de Certeau had called "the taking of speech." Half of and/or tactical media is a sophisticated critical and satirical discourse aimed at deflating the "promissory rhetoric" of technology, while revealing the hidden agendas of corporate power. Like this kind of art, critical theory can be scandalously divorced from any basis in concrete practice and general sociability -- and it's a good thing. In a similar way, the realm of everyday life can split off from the artifically imposed rhythms of the mediated event, and find some degree of autonomy from the deamnds of capitalist society. For the philosophies of difference and multiplicity that have emerged over the past forty years, the aftermath of the event is not necessarily unity, but instead, a self-aware sense of the necessities and virtues of dispersal.

What this whole discourse is pointing at is therefore something like a counter-program. We'll be looking, not only at specific works of tactical media art and activist communications, but also at the ways they are rooted into existential territories, englobed into social movements and dissolved into acid critique. We'll try to construct narratives that treat the heterogeneous dimensions of experience as realities in their own right - where art can be art, activism can be activism, and theory can be theory. We'll interrogate the notion that there can be something like a strategy or anti-strategy of tactics -- and see whether that paradoxical idea holds up in the second decade of the twenty-first century. And we'll look for the people and situations that bring the separate strands together, practicing what I and others have called "eventwork." How is it carried out? What consequences does it have? How to pursue them when things fall apart? And what does all this have to do with a life that I might want to lead?



posted by BH




World Historical Events

“History is mind clothing itself with the form of events.” - Hegel in  Philosophy of Right (p.346)

After our discussion of “The Event” last week, I was compelled to better understand where this concept came from and to find specific examples of how it has been applied. I was reminded of the reference to 1968 as a “World Historical Event” and upon asking folks at the incredible local resource known as the Alternative Press Center, I was taken back to the French Revolution as the origins that inspired GWF Hegel to supposedly coin the term. While I could never find the exact quotation attributed to Hegel, I came across a piece by Immanuel Wallerstein (amazingly lucid considering how big of a picture he is painting with his “world systems theory”) that explains the significance of 1789 in terms of the unique qualities that made it a world-historical event that had reverberations from Egypt to Haiti. The other distinquishing aspect of this “event” was that it represented the first wide-spread agknowledgement that change was a regular and recurring part of the new “modern” world.

“This widespread acceptance of the normality of change represented a fundamental cultural transformation of the capitalist world-economy. It meant that one was recognizing publicly, that is expressively, the structural realities that had in fact prevailed for several centuries already: that the world-system was a capitalist system, that the world-economy's division of labor was bounded and framed by an interstate system composed of hypothetically sovereign states. Once this recognition became widespread, which seems to me to have occurred more or less in the period 1789–1815, once this discourse prevailed, three new institutions emerged as expressions of and responses to this "normality of change." These three "institutions" were the ideologies, the social sciences, and the movements. These three institutions comprise the great intellectual/cultural synthesis of the "long" nineteenth century, the institutional underpinnings of what is sometimes inaptly called ‘modernity’.”

Immanuel Wallerstein, The French Revolution as a World-Historical Event (p. 124)

Towards the end of the Wallerstein piece he concludes by focusing on the year 1968 as the next incarnation of a “World Historical Event” (not 1917 as many would argue) and so to shed light on that period I will share another extensive quotation by the historian George Katsiaficas who has significantly informed by understanding of the events of 1968:

“To be sure, if there is any chance of the aesthetic transformation of the established world system, such a possibility does not rest entirely on any organization. The self-activity of popular movements, the spontaneous emergence of an escalating spiral of strikes, sit-ins, and insurrectionary councils (what I have referred to as the eros effect), cannot be brought into existence by any conspiracy or act of will. Neither can these forms of struggle be predicted in advance of their appearance, resting as they do upon the accumulation of political experiences and the needs of millions of people as shaped by the changing constellation of historical conditions. The unpredictable power of the eros effect as a weapon in the class struggle should not be underestimated, particularly in the aftermath of the world-historical events in 1968.”

George Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 (p.173)

Looking forward to our discussions of Debord, Godard, Miéville and Patten in the next section, I am reminded that much of the celebration of the significance of 1968 did not happen until years later (many of the historical overviews did not come out until 20-30 years ago with significant spikes in memoir and analysis in 1989 and on the 40th anniversary in 2008). Looking forward to the arc of Tactical Media Generation to the present, I wonder if 2011 or this moment in time could constitute another World Historical Event? Is it possible to know an event when it occurs, or can it only be known in retrospect?

posted by Daniel Tucker