Machinic Modulations: New Cultural Theory & Technopolitics,
Editor: John Armitage
Publisher: London, UK: Taylor & Francis, 1999
Review Published: August 2000
Patrick Crogan's interrogation of the "speed of critical theory today" (146) in his contribution to the special theme issue of Angelaki titled "Machinic Modulations" touches on one of the volume's central themes: how can cultural theory keep up with the digitally enhanced acceleration of the technoculture? The question seems to be a particularly pertinent one for a journal like Angelaki, which describes itself as "an international forum for vanguard work in the theoretical humanities." It is perhaps further testimony to the various pressures and determinations within which such work takes place that an active portion of this vanguard is working upon many of the same questions that have attracted the attention of the mainstream media and the business world: namely, the social and economic role of new technologies. Thankfully, the theoretical approaches outlined in the twenty short pieces assembled by editor John Armitage provide several interesting, challenging, and critical approaches to the celebratory rhetoric which characterizes much of the popular reception of new information and communication technologies. Armitage's selections, which are evenly divided between a section on "new cultural theory" and one on "technopolitics" also provide a useful sampling of approaches, ranging from Paul Virilio- and Deleuze-inspired reflections on the role of technologically-enhanced information acceleration to debates about the political implications of cyberfeminism. The intent of the volume is to provide a selective survey of emerging debates and theories, rather than to offer an exhaustive exposition of any one set of arguments. The result is that readers will likely find perspectives both to ally themselves with and to critique in "Machinic Modulations."
Most readers sympathetic to a critical approach will find it hard to dispute Armitage's premise that the role of new cultural and political theory is to "explain and debate not simply cybernetic machines and computers, but the collective arrangements off which they are just one -- often contentious -- component" (1). Eschewing the stasis of ahistorical approaches, Armitage suggests that the rapid development of social uses of new technology in the condition of "hypermodernity" requires an equally nimble theoretical approach. The apparent drawback of traditional theory from this perspective is that its pace can seem ponderously slow. Armitage suggests that streamlining theory means dispensing with the "totalising and uniform academic ground plans" (5) that characterize more mechanical varieties of critical interpretation. In their place he offers the model of "machinic modulations" which, borrowing a term from Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, adopt a "recombinant" approach by "foraging among the fragments of cultural doctrines and debates" (3). Clearly this approach guided the selection of the pieces that comprise "Machinic Modulations." What unites the various contributions is a critical perspective which recognizes change isn't, as some would seem to have it, the only constant these days. Rather, as Armitage, quoting Deleuze, puts it, "One thing it's true, hasn't changed - capitalism still keeps three quarters of humanity in extreme poverty" (11). The pressing, perennial question remains how and to what extent the so-called digital revolution will affect the persistence of this state of affairs.
The journal format is well suited to a recombinant and, ultimately, open-ended answer to such a question, insofar as it allows for the rapid deployment of several disparate shards of theory, some of which fit together in an interesting and perhaps productive pattern, while others collide head on. The net effect, in keeping with the critical sensibility that informs Armitage's introduction, is one of culture as a site of struggle. The role of critical theory in such a struggle is to provide interpretations that challenge the dominant discourse of technological determinism, which offers but one choice: that between complacent optimism and complacent pessimism. A recurring theme of "Machinic Modulations" is that apocalyptic and utopian complacency remain the enemies of political engagement in both theory and practice. As the Krokers put it in their conversation with Armitage, "it's politically naive today to speak of an easy division between optimism and pessimism" (73). Nevertheless, the hope put forth on behalf of recombinant theory seems to be that it can direct the critique of totalizing theories against the totalizing logic of global capitalism. However, capitalism has demonstrated that it is by no means incompatible with a recombinant logic. The critical purchase of such theory then, seems to rest upon the possibility that it can mutate rapidly enough to avoid assimilation to that which it critiques.
Which raises, once again, the question of speed. Several of the contributions to "Machinic Modulations" demonstrate ways in which particular uses and understandings of technologically enhanced acceleration are complicit with the proliferation of capitalist forms of domination. Others attempt to discern how digital acceleration might challenge the proliferation of the logic of domination. In both cases the goal seems to be to keep one step ahead of the dominant discourses of the technoculture, and thereby to open up possibilities for challenging them. However, it is perhaps accurate testimony to the contradictions of recombinant capital, and to the indeterminacy which accompanies the acceleration of theory, that no single strategy unites the contributions to "Machinic Modulations." Instead, what emerges are digital-era reincarnations of some of the central questions and debates of critical theory: does the development of on-line communities promise to strengthen or undermine democratic practice? does the acceleration of information reinforce or undermine relations of domination, control and patriarchy? is the role of the artistic avant-garde progressive or regressive?
To set the stage for a consideration of these questions, Armitage introduces some of the central critical concerns of "new cultural theory" in the first half of the volume. This section presents, on the whole, a rather ominous assessment of the homogenizing and dehistoricizing tendencies of information acceleration. Roy Boyne's discussion of David Cronenberg's Crash, for example, argues that "the crash is not an accident, but the essential expression of an epoch" (41). This epoch, for Boyne, represents the point at which acceleration culminates in stasis. As he puts it, "the crash is the very image in all its contemporary perversity, of continuation. As the archetype of stalled movement, it expresses the infinite extension of the present into an absolutely repetitive future" (ibid). The consequence of such acceleration is what Paul Virilio terms "a new kind of specific accident" (82), in which a "new uniformity is being implanted in a masked form" (84). The information revolution, in this sense, is only revolutionary insofar as it heralds a hyper-efficient reincarnation of the same. In keeping with the cautionary tone of such assessments, James Der Derien's discussion of the deployment of information and communication technologies, or ICTs, in "mimetic warfare" highlights the potential of new technologies to perfect the crimes of humanity. Similarly, in a nod to the military origins of current ICT technologies, Virilio proposes the metaphor of the "information bomb" that threatens to eradicate history and to subsume local, disparate times into the "real time" of the global network. Such arguments certainly resonate with the contemporary experience of the appropriation and development of ICTs by multi-national capital in the guise of what Der Derien terms the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment complex (61).
However, one of the hallmarks of the recombinant approach outlined by Armitage is the attempt to discern the potential for struggle in the shadow of the apocalypse. Alastair Bonnett's discussion of the contemporary adaptation of Situationist strategies, for example, highlights the (admittedly modest) political potential of detournement as a means of re-appropriating technological forms and exposing "the socio-economic conditions which enabled such forms to come into existence and/or limited their social use" (26). In keeping with this project of resistance, most of the more critical pieces in "Machinic Modulations" close with a nod toward a possible alternative to the threat of globalitarianism. Der Derian, for example concludes with a call to forswear the repetitiveness of technological mimesis in favor of "the poesis of making new" (64). Similarly, Virilio sounds a note of qualified optimism in his closing words with an appeal to human memory as an antidote to the "dead memory of the computer hard drive" (90) and Manuel Castells suggests that the only source of resistance to "global instrumental networks" is the attempt to develop "autonomously defined cultural identities" (36). For the most part, however, these closing flourishes are much less developed than the critiques to which they are appended.
The second section of the book answers the call to oppose technological determinism with political struggle by considering the potential of several possible sites for a revitalized politics, including the realms of cyberdemocracy, cyberfeminism, and art. The occasional moments of political optimism in this section have a hard time shaking off the critiques of technological determinism outlined in the first half of the volume. It is certainly plausible that new technologies offer the potential for new forms of political resistance. But what is the basis for the hope that, given the social relations which determine who gets to develop and deploy these technologies that they will provide the basis for effective forms of resistance? Despite the ostensible autonomization of the information landscape highlighted by McKenzie Wark (21), in other words, it is important to bear in mind that the interactive and decentralizing capabilities of new ICTs are currently being developed and exploited much more effectively by the agents of recombinant capitalism than by the recombinant resistance.
Which is not to say that resistance is either non-existent or futile. Armitage, for example, points to the example of the Zapatistas' use of the Internet in their struggle against the Mexican government and Douglas Kellner cites labor unions' use of the Internet as an organizing tool. Furthermore, both Kellner and Verena Andermatt Conley suggest (albeit in very different contexts) ways in which digital interactivity can be modulated to contest forms of domination. For Kellner, the Internet heralds the potential for an interactive on-line democratic practice within which "Gramsci's dictum that anyone could be a public intellectual" (109) can be realized. Andermatt Conley describes "computer-aided subjectivities" as one possible alternative to the passive subjectivity promoted by a consumerist-oriented mass media. Both approaches seem to create a binary opposition between the "one-way" flow of the mass media toward a passive audience on the one hand, and the interactivity of the Internet on the other. Such an opposition clearly falls short of a recombinant approach, which would recognize that the opposition between passive consumption and active citizenship is outdated. Indeed, as the emerging business literature on e-commerce suggests, one of the potentials of the Internet that helped spark the recent start-up frenzy is the possibility of promoting interactive, participatory consumption. Indeed, the commercial appropriation of the Internet suggests there is no inherent reason that participation is inherently socially or politically progressive.
All of which is not to suggest that "Machinic Modulations" even comes close to succumbing to the temptations of the technological fix. Several of the contributors to the latter half of the volume offer trenchant critiques of some of the more celebratory invocations of technopolitics. Armitage provides an interesting discussion of the liberterian tendency of Hakim Bey's anarchism to sideline questions of class struggle and Kevin Robins offers a welcome challenge to the collapse of distance advocated by the politics of virtual community. In a piece that resonates with the critique of digital homogenization offered in the first half of the volume, Robins suggests that virtual community represents a stultifying and suffocating subsumption of difference to "the parochial dimensions of what is known and familiar and predictable" (168). The result, he argues, is "an absolutely anti-social and anti-political vision" (169). In its place, he calls for a rehabilitation of difference and distance as the basis for a democratic politics that enacts a "'coming together which can only occur in conflict'" (Jacques Ranciere, as quoted by Robins, 170).
If Robins is skeptical of the ideals of cybercommunity, Mark Dery challenges the Sadie Plant-inspired cyberfeminism which celebrates the Digital Age as "inherently feminine" (150). The determinist tone of such approaches, he argues, recapitulates the subsumption of humanity to an autonomous technology and "cedes the off-line world in which we still live to the status quo" (150). T. Hugh Crawford's juxtaposition of the work of Virilio and Bruno Latour also calls into question the binary split between humanity and the machine, suggesting with Latour that "there is no essence to the human or to the object outside of the socio-technical situation of living and acting" (174). The welcome consequence of such approaches is that they counter the autonomization of technology that too often accompanies the purification of "humans of all forms of technological contamination" (179). They thus point toward a politics that reinscribes the uses of technology within social relations of power. Such is the politics espoused by members of the Critical Art Ensemble, whose critique of the deployment of new technology in the service of "pancapitalism" concludes the volume. The micro-strategies adopted by CAE neatly reflect the non-totalizing tactics of recombinant theory: "Activism now seems to be more about boundary shift or perforation, rather than the macro-utopian urge to erase boundaries by beginning anew" (195). In the era of the digital "revolution," the notion of revolution itself becomes suspect.
The CAE's qualified critique of computer art in which "the technology itself becomes the content" also offers a cautionary parallel to the practice of new cultural theory. If cultural theory has become as caught up in the examination of the digital age as the mainstream media, it is certainly worth considering the extent to which this fascination, despite its ostensibly critical focus, retains a certain complicity with the logic it calls into question. "Machinic Modulations" offers several productive starting points for such an examination. Its net effect is to challenge a passive approach -- either theoretically or politically -- to technological development. However, the question as to what form of activity, or interactivity, might prove effective in averting the crash of the information bomb remains, thankfully, ominously, open.
Mark Andrejevic is a doctoral candidate in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His interests include digital aesthetics, new media, and critical theory, and he is currently attempting to draw on aspects of Adorno's aesthetic theory to outline a critique of the "aesthetic" of digital commerce. <Mark.Andrejevic@Colorado.EDU>
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