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<nettime> Vector, Site, Event
McKenzie Wark on Thu, 7 Feb 2002 10:48:30 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Vector, Site, Event



Vector, Site and Event: An Intellectual Autobiography

McKenzie Wark
<mw35 {AT} nyu.edu>

Applying for jobs concentrates the mind. Here, in a
few thousand words, I've tried to sum up the past
15 years of my research, which produced the
concepts of vector, site and event as a way of
thinking in, and acting in, the emerging space I call
virtual geography.

There are two kinds of people: those who divide
people into two kinds and those who don't. The
dividers believe in categories, and are followers of
Parmenides and Plato. The other kind are
interested in dynamics, and are followers of
Heraclitus and Thucydides. I belong to this second
camp -- although as we shall see, I'm not
convinced there really are two camps.

There are two ways of understanding the media.
One way is to search for constants, for
regularities, in what happens. The other way is
quite different. It is the study of what doesn't
happen twice, the study of singular events.

Media understood via categories is the mainstay
of media studies as a social science. Media as the
study of events, is perhaps more commonly the
domain of the historian and of the humanities
more generally.

Studying media events is also a way of producing
knowledge that connects quite directly to our
everyday experience. We don't experience media,
in the first instance, in terms of categories. We
experience it as an immersion in a series of events,
both trivial and significant. People remember
where they were on the day JFK was assassinated,
or the space shuttle exploded, or on September
11th.

Media as memorable event might also describes
what is exciting about being a journalist. What
journalist doesn't want to be witness to some
spectacular event -- and get a scoop on it? The
memorable media event is what the artistry of
making imaginative media is all about. Not many
people aspire to make films or write books that are
merely part of a statistical average. A memorable
event like the Exxon Valdez oil spill is one on
which the media specialists of both the
environmental movement and the oil company
work overtime.

In short, the experience of media in everyday and
professional life has an element of coping with the
eventful, the singular, the unexpected. The
singular event is something for which one cannot
be prepared by an education solely in the constants
of the media. And, I would argue, a comprehensive
knowledge of the media also requires attention to
its capacity to introduce surprises into life.

Media may be nothing more than a magnifier of
the potential for surprise. While we may indeed
become weary of the media's noisy insistence on
the spectacularly different, the media keeps
coming up with new kinds of surprise, not merely
surprises of the same kind. As Heraclitus said: you
never step into the same river twice. The river,
thesedays, is media. This is what it means to say
that the media are 'virtual'. They are multipliers of
possibility.

For some 12 years now, most of my research has
studied this capacity of the media to produce the
unexpected. I want to share with you some of this
research. Given that I want to cover some 12 years
in the next ten minutes, I'm going to have to speak
awfully fast.

The stock market crash of 1987 was the first event
that drew my attention to the nature of the media
event. We have a wonderful guide, in Thucydides,
into thinking about eventful time. But when the
Athenians fought the Spartans, information
moved at the same speed as people or things. It
was a long, hot run from Marathon. What I
witnessed in the stock market crash of 1987 was
the instant, global marathon, in which information
could circle the planet, taking stock markets down
with it.

It was not just the event itself that interested me,
but the space in which it was possible. Stock
markets have crashed before, and the impact of
this has very often been international. But here
there were new elements in the event that
illuminated the shape of the space in which it
occurred. The way computerised program trading
fed into market fluctuations was also a new
element. It introduced new levels of automated
intelligence -- and stupidity -- into the virtual
space of the mediated market.

In my first book, Virtual Geography, I looked at
the Black Monday stock market crash, the
democracy movement in Tiananmen square, the
fall of the Berlin wall and the Gulf war. To me
these all contained instances of what I called
'weird global media events'. They were events in
having something singular and unprecedented
about them. They were media events in that the
space of the media, its virtual geography, shaped
the outcome of the event. They were global in that
they threaded national media spaces together in
unexpected ways. And they were weird in that
something about them eluded explanation in terms
of what we take to be the normal functioning of
the media.

For instance, I looked at the way reporting by
western media of the democracy movement in
Tiananmen square created a feedback loop.
Particularly after the imposition of martial law,
the demonstrators made frequent recourse to
foreign news about their own movement, and this
impacted upon the decisions that they made.

In general terms, what emerged from this work
was a picture of an emerging space of
communication that traversed national borders
and allowed events to emerge of a spectacular and
unprecedented kind. In the 7 years since the
publication of that work, events have confirmed its
general thrust. The new role for satellite television
that I discovered in the Tiananmen square events
was an uncanny forerunner of the role of Al
Jezira's broadcasts after September 11th. My
remarks on the rise of NASDAQ in relation to the
1987 stock market crash foreshadowed its
remarkable rise and fall in the late 90s.

Something happened to me in the course of this
research. It was my practice to lecture on events as
they happened. So I was usually pretty well
informed about, say, the release from prison of
Nelson Mandela, or the attempted coup against
Boris Yeltsin. I was trying to take my students with
me into the unknown dimensions of media as lived
experience.  But I wanted to take a closer look at
the way media gatekeepers themselves reacted to
media events.

I started writing columns about these events for
The Australian, a national broadsheet newspaper.
For instance, I wrote about the death of North
Korean dictator Kim Il Sung. This was a news
editor's worst nightmare. Kim died in the middle
of serious tensions over North Korea's nuclear
and missile programs. What did his death mean? A
lot of people all over the world wanted to know.
Only there was no reliable information available
what so ever.

This is a feature one can often observe in weird
global media events. The desire to know is
inversely proportional to the reliability of the
information. What happens is that news media
plot stories based on past expectations, hoping
that the facts, when available will bear them out.
To go back to the Tiananmen square example, it is
sobering now to review the predictions of civil war
with which many news organisations filled the
fact vacuum created by the martial law media
blackout.

As you might guess by now, I did find some
constants in this world of weird global media
events. Those of us in the Heraclitus camp can also
produce a knowledge of regularities, but without
bracketing off the eventful character of media
experience. In particular, I developed a theory of
the role of the vector in the construction of a space
within which media events may occur. In
geometry, a vector is a line of fixed length but no
fixed position. This seems to me a good term for
describing media in general. Any media, telephone,
telegraph, television, has certain fixed technical
properties. These enable a media to move
information in certain definable ways.

For instance, twisted pair copper wire telephony is
a pretty good vector for moving audible signals
from one place to another. And as it turned out, it
was a good vector for moving any kind of data
from point to point, provided it could be
sufficiently compressed.

Nothing in the technical attributes of a given
technology determine where or how it will be
used, or what kinds of events may happen in the
space so created. The inventors of the fax machine
did not expect it to be used to send news reports
from Beijing to Washington and Sydney and right
back again.

Every vector comes with its specific potential, as
Harold Innis was trying to tell us. My interest is in
vectors with the property of telesthesia,
perception at a distance: telegraph, telephone,
television, radio, cellular telephony and the
internet. These I believe increasingly come
together to form spaces in which events occur with
a determining effect on everyday life lived in
physical space. This new space, this virtual
geography, increasingly passes beyond national
borders, on the one hand, and the boundaries of
the family and self, on the other.

When Saddam Hussein touched the head of a
young English boy, Stuart Lockwood, on Iraqi
television, he surely did not know how powerful
an image this would be in mobilising popular
support for a war against him. Here was an event
that happened in this virtual geography, starting
in a television studio in Baghdad, but resonating
around the world.

When the routines of communication break down,
how is one to act? I decided to find out first hand
by experimenting, by making stories and images
within the horizon of media events myself, and to
share the results of these experiments with my
students. Of course, I'm not Kofi Anan, so I could
hardly work in the space of weird global media
events. But I did have some standing as a public
intellectual, from writing all those columns in the
national newspaper.

So I decided to follow weird national media
events, particularly those to do with Australian
cultural and literary life, topics on which I could
get airtime. I'll never forget my first experience of
current affairs television via satellite. I was to look
at four talking heads on four separate monitors,
one of them, disconcertingly, my own head. The
sound technician popped a little case of flesh
coloured ear pieces, chose one for the shape of my
ear, and wiped it off before inserting it.

My second book, The Virtual Republic, arose
partly out of these experiments. It was an
excellent lesson in news value. Take the Helen
Demidenko case, for instance. Young Ukranian
writes a book about the Holocaust from a
Ukrainian perspective. It wins three major literary
awards. Scandal number one is that only after it
won three awards did anybody publicly noticed its
anti-Semitism. Scandal number two is that its
author turns out not to be the Ukrainian Helen
Demidenko, who is writing some kind of oral
history, but Helen Darville, an Anglo who made
up an author to go with a made up story.

The book was defended as being of literary value
but not really anti-Semitic. It was attacked as
being anti-Semitic and of no literary value. So I
argued that it was indeed, a work of literary
value, but which was clearly intended to be anti-
Semitic and which I condemned as such. This was
a minor scandal in itself, for I had broken the
unspoken assumption that what is aesthetically
good literature must also be morally redeeming.
But by invoking a position contrary to the
prevailing norm, I created position from which to
speak  in this literary-media event.

My position in that conversation addressed its
causes, and the causes of conversation in general -
- the incompatibility of the constructs from within
which the antagonists articulate their world. It
was a moment in which consensus had broken
down, when editors and producers were
struggling to make a story out of unexpected facts.
It revealed to me that what is at stake in many
such public events are things that are not
commensurable. There is no common measure for
weighing up aesthetic and ethical values. How is
conversation to proceed in the absence of common
ground? It was a practical demonstration of much
that is under discussion in theories of the public
sphere, and my students and I were able to
experience it 'live'.

The circumstances were different, but we touched
here on the kind of difficulties in public
conversation that derailed the negotiations
between the Chinese government and the
democracy movement. Even when power is less
overtly at work, it is a difficult thing to create a
conversation across differences. But conversations
across differences are exactly what the emerging
virtual geography of the media thrust upon us.
Virtual Geography has both a technical and a
rhetorical dimension. We need new rhetorics for
new situations. New ways of speaking outside
familiar media routines and spaces.

What I developed with my readership in the paper,
and my students in the class, was a line of inquiry
into the ethics of communication. The ethics of
how one speaks -- and listens -- in the middle of a
weird media event, when everyone has lost their
bearings, and sometimes their heads. The thing
about events is that we always find ourselves in
the middle of them. One learns the hard way how
to gather facts, how to exploit the dynamics of
conflict in media stories, what constitutes timely
and useful research. What relations hold or do not
hold between the rhetorical and the reasoned.

What I would still say is distinctive about The
Virtual Republic is that while it deals with a
common topic, the 'public sphere' and the role of
the 'public intellectual', it is a rare work in making
time a factor. Hannah Arendt points out, that the
Greek concept of applying reason to the republic is
not an abstract ideal, designed for the open ended
time of philosophical dispute, but an ethics of
applying reason to action in time. The Spartans
are coming! Discussion at some point has to yield
to action. This is the situation in which people who
must communicate find themselves, again and
again. Time is pressing, and yet there is no clear
precedent to guide one's action.

It may yet seem rather quaint to be talking about
reason and the public sphere in the age of
electronic media. Yet I think there is a mode of
reasoning appropriate to an age of the image. It
may indeed be closer to Athens than we think,
given that the agora was a verbal and visual
world more than it was a space of writing. This
question of a 'postmodern' public  sphere was my
next major research agenda, one that connects the
age of the sophists to the age of the cellphone.

The particular problem that was of interest to me
was this: how does a mainstream political party
make use of popular media to form a majority? I
was a member of the Australian Labor Party, and I
knew some of our parliamentarians, and they
sometimes asked questions along these lines.
Labor held office from 1983 to 1991. It modernised
the economy, opened it to international trade, but
at the same time extended the social safety net to
help those least able to make an unavoidable
adjustment. Labor also promoted a multicultural
policy. It lost power in 1991 to the mainstream
conservative parties, who exploited a rising tide of
xenophobia and 'white rage' that had appeared on
the rightward fringes of Australian life.

As a teacher, I'm a pluralist and try to get students
to identify their own interests and identities and
express them. As an intellectual, I have my
commitments. It is the idea of engagement that I
want to teach, not any particular allegiance. This
ethical dimension to knowledge is a hard one to
teach, but the other aspect of this research project,
popular media and culture, had an inbuilt in
appeal to students. So I embarked on what would
eventually become my third book, Celebrities,
Culture and Cyberspace.

The Labor party was much criticised, in office and
out, for its modernising policies. The critics usually
argued that the party had abandoned its principles
and traditions. But political leaders have to
answer to the demands of the present. I developed
a reading of Labor's record based on an
understanding of politics as a matter of
responding to events -- in this case some quite
serious economic crises. I put politics back into the
context of the media, for it is through the media
that politicians and the public alike experience
events. The former treasurer once described to me
in gripping detail the decision to cut budget
outlays, a decision he made while watching the
dollar plummet on a portable Reuters screen in the
cabinet room.

In short, I put media back into politics; but I also
wanted to put politics back into media. So my
students and I sat down to watch all of the major
Australian TV shows and movies of the 80s and 90s
together. Here I started to think about the media
event a bit differently. Up til now, the event has
been obvious -- the Gulf war seems to be a self
evident event. But maybe there are undetected
events that happen in virtual geography.

One thing that occurred to me, looking at
Australian entertainment media of two decades,
was that it was a slow, unfolding event in itself. At
a time when the Australian economy was being
significantly globalised, film and television created
an envelope of images and stories that talked
about this opening up of the economy -- in terms of
its impact on the culture. What I found was that
across a good many screen texts, the same spatial
construct was being discussed -- the space of
'suburbia'.

The Australian Labor party convinced the
electorate that people could keep their suburban
way of life, safe behind its suburban picket fences,
if they acquiesced to the opening up of the
economy. But what people discovered was that the
economic opening was also a cultural and
demographic opening, an opening not just to flows
of trade and investment but also to flows of
information and immigration.

The spatial principle of suburbia is the fence.
Differences are tolerated but kept separate. The
spatial principle of an open economy and society is
the crossroads, where differences are in direct
contact. What I found, again and again, in film and
television, was the expression of an anxiety about
suburban space, its viability in an emerging world
of commerce and communication. Out of this
developed a more explicit rhetoric of rural and
suburban populist reaction to "urban elites" and
their values.

Unlike in the United States, suburbia is a construct
that is positively valued by intellectuals as well as
by ordinary folks in Australia. So a critique of
suburbia was, once again, going to be a
'controversial' position I could take into the public
debate. What I called for was a cultural
modernisation to complement the economic one.

Underlying the rhetoric of suburban identity was a
politics of the vector. It is along media vectors that
identities form and dissolve. The tensions over
identity in Australian politics were an expression
of something else -- anxiety about the vector. A
certain clinging to the myth of white suburbia was
the cultural event that the conservative forces
were able to orchestrate. In place of a moderate
opening up of the economy and the culture, what
Australia ended up with was a forced march
toward economic globalisation, counterbalanced
by a 'fortress Australia' approach to migration,
education and culture.

While I am proud of the work I did on Australian
media and culture, as research, pedagogy and
public service, I decided to move on. The 80s and
90s were a time when the globalisation of media
vectors was actually undermining the national
media envelope in which I was working.

So I want to move on from looking at the national
media space as defined by broadcasting and look
at an emerging postbroadcast world. The book I
co-edited called Readme! is a first expression of
this new research focus. It is a collection of papers
from the Nettime internet mailing list, which
brings together theorists, activists, programmers
and artists from around the world. I am currently
using it as an undergraduate textbook.

An event that illustrates what can happen in this
new space, which was documented on Nettime,
was the campaign to keep Belgrade radio station
B92 on the air. This alternative media source was
shut down by the Milosevic government. Dutch
media activists put it on the internet, as streaming
media. The BBC and other shortwave
broadcasters took the signal off the web and
broadcast it into Serbia, where some of the
regional stations controlled by the opposition
made use of it.

So my interest now is in the intersection between
media vectors that work outside of national
borders, such as the internet, and the problem of
human rights, which is a political and ethical
movement that also works outside the national
border. For any particular communicative goal
there is both a technical and rhetorical solution.
My interest is in working out what technical and
rhetorical solutions work best for human rights
agendas.

We no longer have roots, we have aerials. We no
longer have origins, we have terminals. As we
move further into what I would call the
postbroadcast world, the vectoral approach to
media studies will I think prove more and more
useful. It draws attention to the relational and
temporal aspect of media, and it does not reduce
media to an epiphenomenon of another process.
Not everything about the media is explained by its
political economy or its social construction.

The vectoral approach is not a technological
determinist one, but it does see the technical form
of the vector as opening up a space of possibility.
The dimensions of that space are more clearly
revealed by exceptional events and crises than by
the normal functioning of the media.

I came to media studies via the Birmingham school
of cultural studies, and the other bodies of mostly
British, Australian and Canadian thought with
which it was in dialogue. This was a field divided
between those who studied media as a social
relation, and those who studied media as text. The
qualitative study of audiences and a focus on the
institutions of discourse influenced by Michel
Foucault later emerged as alternative positions.

To my mind, all of these positions bracketed off
media form, and were slow to react to the new
period of instability in media technology that I
think we are now in. What I have offered in my
work is a way of thinking about what lies in
between the audience, the text and the institution.

I have no quarrel with these other branches of the
critical media and cultural studies field to which I
broadly belong. I take a pluralist view of media
scholarship in general. I am ethically committed to
pluralism in any and every communicative sphere.
But my experience, as both a researcher and
teacher of critical media and cultural studies, is
that the field doesn't deal effectively with the way
technologies create new possibilities for media
spaces, and hence for events that may happen
within those spaces.

Attention to the media events that befall us, and
the technologies that create these accidents of the
virtual, seems to me to be an aspect of the study of
media that has a particular usefulness. It can form
an intertext between the experience of students
coming into media studies, of media professionals
in the outside world, and more specialised bodies
of knowledge within media studies and indeed
other branches of the university.





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                   ... we no longer have roots, we have aerials ...
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