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nettime: Electronic Civil Disobedience - Critical Art Ensemble - 2/2
Pit Schultz on Thu, 20 Jun 96 00:42 MDT


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nettime: Electronic Civil Disobedience - Critical Art Ensemble - 2/2


Do centralized programs still have a role in this resistance? 
Centralized organizations have three functions. The first is to 
distribute information. Consciousness raising and spectacle 
production should be carried out by centralized counter-
bureaucracies. Cash and labor pools are needed in order to 
research, construct, design, and distribute information 
contrary to the aims of the state. The second function is for 
recruitment and training. It cannot be emphasized enough that 
there must be more bases for training technologically literate 
people. To rely only on the chance that enough people will have 
the right inclination and aptitude to become technically-
literate resisters means that there will be a shortage of 
resistant technocrats to fill the cellular ranks, and that the 
sociological base for the technocratic resistance will not be 
broad enough. (If technical education continues to be 
distributed as it is today, the attack on authority will be 
horribly skewed in favor of a select group of issues). Finally, 
centralized organizations can act as consultants on the off 
chance that an authoritarian institution has decided to reform 
itself in some way. This can happen in a realistic sense, not 
because of an corporate-military ideological shift, but because 
it would be cheaper to reform than to continue the battle. The 
authoritarian fetish for efficiency is an ally that cannot be 
underestimated.

All that centralized organizations must do-in a negative sense-
is to stay out of direct action. Leave confrontation to the 
cells. Infiltrating cellular activity is very difficult, unlike 
infiltrating centralized structures. (This is not to say that 
cellular activities are difficult to monitor, although the 
degree of difficulty does rise as more cells proliferate). If 
the cells are working in double blind activities in a large 
enough number, and are effective in and of themselves, 
authority can be challenged. The fundamental strategy for 
resistance remains the same-appropriate authoritarian means and 
turn them against themselves. However, for this strategy to 
take on meaning, resistance-like power-must withdraw from the 
street. Cyberspace as a location and apparatus for resistance 
has yet to be realized. Now is the time to bring a new model of 
resistant practice into action. 

Addendum: The New Avant-Garde
CAE fears that some of our readers might be getting a bit 
squeamish about the use of the term "avant-garde" in the above 
essay. After all, an avalanche of literature from very fine 
postmodern critics has for the past two decades consistently 
told us that the avant-garde is dead and has been placed in a 
suitable resting plot in the Modernist cemetery alongside its 
siblings, originality and the author. In the case of the avant-
garde, however, perhaps a magic elixir exists that can 
reanimate this corpse. The notion has decayed quite a bit, so 
one would not expect this zombie to look as it once did, but it 
may still have a place in the world of the living.

The avant-garde today cannot be the mythic entity it once was. 
No longer can we believe that artists, revolutionaries, and 
visionaries are able to step outside of culture to catch a 
glimpse of the necessities of history as well as the future. 
Nor would it be realistic to think that a party of individuals 
of enlightened social consciousness (beyond ideology) has 
arrived to lead the people into a glorious tomorrow. However, a 
less appealing (in the utopian sense) form of the avant-garde 
does exist. To simplify the matter, let us assume that within 
the present social context, there are individuals who object to 
various authoritarian institutions, and each has allied 
h/erself with other individuals based on identification 
solidarity (race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, gender, 
religion, political beliefs, etc.) to form groups/organizations 
to combat the mechanisms and institutions that are deemed 
oppressive, repressive, exploitive, and so on. From a 
theoretical perspective, each of these alliances has a 
contestational role to play that should be respected and 
appreciated; however, in terms of practice, there is no basis 
to view them all as equals. Unquestionably, some groups will 
have greater resource power than others; that is, some will 
have greater access to wealth, prestige, hardware, education, 
and technical skills.  Typically, the greater the resources, 
the greater the effect the group can have. However, the 
configuration of access in conjunction with the groups' 
placement along political, numerical, and spatial/geographic 
continuums will also greatly alter the effectiveness of the 
group. (A full catalogue of possibilities cannot be listed 
within the parameters of this discussion). For example, a 
large, very visible group that is on the radical fringe, which 
works to change national policy, and which has reasonably good 
access to resources will also receive stiff counter-resistance 
from the state, thereby neutralizing its potential power. The 
rapid destruction of the Black Panther Party by the FBI is an 
example of this vulnerability. A relatively large liberal group 
with strong resources that acts locally will receive less 
counter-resistance. (Hence the misguided belief that if 
everyone acts locally for reform, policy will change globally 
and peacefully. Unfortunately local action does not affect 
global or national policies, since the sum of local issues does 
not equal national issues). For example, an alliance of various 
green groups in North Florida has been very successful at 
keeping oil companies off the Gulf coast line and protecting 
the local national forests and preserves from logging companies 
and land speculators; however, such success is by no means 
representative of the national or international situation in 
regard to the Green movement. 

Then what kind of group configuration *will* gain the most far-
ranging results, in terms of disturbing the political/cultural 
landscape? This is the question that CAE tried to answer in 
this essay. To repeat: cellular constructions aimed at 
information disruption in cyberspace. The problem is access. 
The education and technical skills needed are not widely 
distributed, and moreover are monopolized (though not through 
individual intentionality) by a very specific group (young 
white men). Education activists should be and in many cases are 
working as hard as possible to correct this problem of access, 
even though it does seem almost insurmountable. At the same 
time, contestational forces cannot wait to act until this 
access problem is corrected. Only in theory can we live by what 
ought to be; in practice we must work in terms of what is. 
Those who are trained and ready now need to start building the 
model of electronic resistance. Those who are ready and willing 
to begin to form the models of electronic resistance in the new 
frontier of cyberspace are the ones CAE views as a new avant-
garde. 

The technocratic avant-garde offers one slim hope of effective 
resistance on a national and international scale; and, in its 
favor, in terms of efficiency, and unlike its Modernist 
predecessors, the intelligentsia, this group does not have to 
organize "the people." Much like the problems of resource 
access, this necessity or desire has always bothered the forces 
of democracy. Avant-gardism is grounded in the dangerous notion 
that there exists an elite class possessing enlightened 
consciousness. The fear that one tyrant will simply be replaced 
by another is what makes avant-gardism so suspect among 
egalitarians, who in turn always return to more inclusive local 
strategies. While CAE does not want to discourage or disparage 
the many possible configurations of (democratic) resistance, 
the only groups that will successfully confront power are those 
that locate the arena of contestation in cyberspace, and hence 
an elite force seems to be the best possibility. The increased 
success of local and regional resistant configurations, in 
part, depends upon the success of the avant-garde in the causal 
domain of the virtual. As for "enlightened consciousness," CAE 
believes blind groping is a more accurate description. Avant-
gardism is a gamble, and the odds are not good, but at present, 
it's the only game in town.

Addendum II:
A Note on Absence, Terror, and Nomadic Resistance

In *The Electronic Disturbance*, CAE argued that a major change 
in the representation of power had occurred over the past 
twenty years. Power once represented itself as a visible 
sedentary force through various types of spectacle (media, 
architecture, etc.), but it has instead retreated into 
cyberspace where it  can nomadically wander the globe, always 
absent to counterforces, always present whenever and wherever 
opportunity knocks. In "Electronic Civil Disobedience," CAE 
notes that for every strategy there is a counter-strategy. 
Since cyberspace is accessible to all of the technocratic 
class, the resistant within this class can also use nomadic 
strategies and tactics. Indeed, the primary concern among the 
military/corporate cyber police  (Computer Emergency Response 
Team, the Secret Service, and the FBI's National Computer Crime 
Squad) is that nomadic strategy and tactics are being employed 
at this very moment by contestational groups and individuals 
(in the words of authority, "criminal" groups). The cyberpolice 
and their elite masters are living under the sign of virtual 
catastrophe (that is, anticipating the electronic disaster that 
*could* happen) in much the same way that the oppressed have 
lived under the signs of virtual war (the war that we are 
forever preparing for but never comes) and virtual surveillance 
(the knowledge that we may be watched by the eye of authority). 

The current wave of paranoia began in early 1994 with the 
discovery of "sniffer" programs. Apparently some adept crackers 
are collecting  passwords for unknown purposes. The reaction of 
the cyberpolice was predictable: They are convinced that this 
could only be done for criminal intent. Of prime concern is the 
development of the tactic of data hostaging, where criminals 
hold precious research data for ransom. Motivations for such an 
activity are construed  solely as criminal. (This is typical of  
US policy-criminalize alternative political action, arrest the 
guilty, and then claim with a clear conscience that the US has 
no political prisoners). CERT, the FBI, and the SS seem 
convinced that teen crackers have matured and are evolving past 
information curiosity into information criminality. But 
something else of greater interest is beginning to occur. The 
terror of nomadic power is being exposed. The global elite are 
having to look into the mirror and see their strategies turned 
against them-terror reflecting back on itself. The threat is a 
virtual one. There could be cells of crackers hovering unseen, 
yet poised for a coordinated attack on the net-not to attack a 
particular institution, but to attack the net itself (which is 
to say, the world). A coordinated attack on the routers could 
bring down the whole electronic power apparatus. The 
vulnerability of the cyber apparatus is known, and now the sign 
of virtual catastrophe tortures those who created it. As James 
C. Settle, founder and head of the FBI's National Computer 
Crime Squad, has said: "I don't think the stuff we are *seeing* 
is the stuff we need to be worried about. What that activity we 
do see is indicative of, however, is that we have a really big 
problem.... Something is cooking but no one really knows what."  
The motto of the sight machine reverberates out of Settle's 
rhetoric: "If I can see it, it's already dead." At the same 
time, the opposite-what Settle calls "the dark side"-is out 
there, planning and scheming. Nomadic power has created its own 
nemesis-its own image. This brings up the possibility that as a 
tactic for exposing the nature of nomadic power, ECD is already 
outdated without having ever been tried. No real "illegal" 
action needs to be taken. From the point of view of traditional 
terrorism, action that can reveal the cruelty of nomadic power 
need only exist in hyperreality, that is, as activities that 
merely indicate a possibility of electronic disaster. From this 
moment forward, strategies of the hyperreal will have to be 
downgraded into the real, meaning the technocratic class (those 
with the skill to mount a powerful resistance) will have to 
*act* on behalf of liberation from electronic control under the 
nomadic elite. The reason: They are not going to have a choice. 
Since the individuals in this class are the agents of 
vulnerability within the realm of cyberspace, repression in 
this class will be formidable. Since "the dark side" has no 
image, the police state will have no problem inscribing it with 
its own paranoid projections, thus doubling the amounts of 
repression, and pushing the situation into a McCarthyist 
frenzy. To be sure, each technocrat will be paid well to sell 
h/er sovereignty, but CAE finds it hard to believe that all 
will live happily under the microscope of repression and 
accusation. There will always be a healthy contingent who will 
want to die free rather than live constrained and controlled in 
a golden prison.

A second problem for nomadic power, as it finds itself  
suddenly caught in the predicament of sedentary visibility and 
geographic space, is that not only could an attack on 
cyberspace bring about the collapse of the apparatus of power, 
but the possibility also exists for attacking particular 
domains. This means that ECD could be used effectively. Even 
though nomadic power has avoided the possibility of a theater 
of operations emerging contrary to its needs and goals in 
physical space, once a resistant group enters cyberspace, elite 
domains can be found and placed under siege. 

Whether or not the barbarian hordes-the true nomads of 
cyberspace-are ready to sweep through the orderly domains of 
electronic civilization remains to be seen. (If the hordes do 
their jobs well, they never *will* be seen. The domains will 
not report them, as they cannot expose their own insecurity, in 
much the same way a failing bank will not make its debts 
public). The hordes do have one advantage: They are without a 
domain, completely deterritorialized, and invisible. In the 
realm of the invisible what's real and what's hyperreal? Not 
even the police state knows for sure.

_______________________________________________________________


*"Electronic Civil Disobedience" was originally written as part 
of a window installation for the *Anti-work Show* at Printed 
Matter at Dia in the Spring of 1994. It was then reprinted by 
Threadwaxing Space in *Crash: Nostalgia for the Absence of 
Cyberspace.*  The version presented here is the original form 
with only a few modifications. The addendums were written the 
following summer before the article was presented at the 
*Terminal Futures* conference at the Institute of Contemporary 
Art in London.


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