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nettime: Wired discovers Kant
McKenzie Wark on Fri, 10 Jan 97 02:20 MET

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nettime: Wired discovers Kant

Browsing around for the morning's news, I discover
the lead story under 'Politics' on the Wired
page at the moment is about the Enlightenment.
Jan Katz proposes the Enlightenment as the
precursor to digital Libertarianism. He seems to
have come across one of Peter Gay's books on 
the Enlightenment, as Gay appears to be the only
contemporary author cited.

What's truly funny is that Katz' example of the
Enlightenment philosophe is Immanuel Kant. Now,
it has to be said, there are worse choices. That
irrasible old publicist Rousseau, fo example --
more of a communitarian than a libertarian, one
would have thought. David Hume would also be a
bit troublesome -- a lowlander not in the least
bothered by the forced suppression of highland
culture by the English after the '45 jacobite
rebellion. Montesquiou, perhaps? Who, like most
enlightenment thinkers, was concerned with the
ideal form of the state, not with its abolition.

But Kant seems to me a very unlikely candidate.
For one thing, Kant thought of Enlightenment as
something it was not possible for any individual
to achieve. It was, and remains, a collective
project, stretching into the future. We have a
duty to get as far as we can, and pass on our
modest achievements towards enlightenment to the
future. Hardly a doctrine convivial to the
belief that Microsoft Encarta is enlightenment
in a can.

Also somewhat difficult for the Libertarian
appropriation of Kant is Kant's understanding of
liberty. Liberty, for Kant, is obedience to the
law. Kant was interested in the actions appropriate
to the free society, not with the actions of
free individuals. Kant split the model of the good
subject into a thinking being and an acting being.
The acting being obeys the law. The thinking being
can think whatever it likes, in accordance with its
own reason, and ought to be able to express those
thoughts. Thus Kant thought even a military officer
ought to able to criticise the king, provided his
obedience to his orders was complete. 

One could go on. What's striking is ability of
'Calideology', or digital libertarianism, to
eat its own past and present, digest it and shit
it out as more of the same -- evidence for
itself. Take a few key signifiers that float around
the back of memory -- Kant, Enlightenment. 
Empty them of content. Make them emblems of one's
ideology -- and then as an afterthought, add a 
link to Microsoft's Encarta. (This, incidentally,
gives a perfectly competent explanation of
Kantian epistemology, but is a bit behind the
times in its downplaying of Kant's political
thought. Kant's political essays have only been
available in English for a short time.)

The speed with which this anti-intelellectual
rape of the past, in the service of the present
can work its way through the key signifiers of
cultural and intellectual history is remarkable.
Its getting to the stage where there is barely
enough past to support the market for it in the
present. And so, the most utterly implausible 
material will have to serve -- like Kant, for
example. Next we'll discover that Ghengis
Kahn was a Libertarian.

For all its talk about individuality, Calideology
is really about the reduction of everything to
the same. Everything is about individuality. But
this individuality only produces itself in 
relation to the bad other of statism. It is not
something that produces itself for itself. And
so, the endless repetition of operation, where
everything is appropriated and made to stand on
one side or other of the state/individual divide.
The exercise is of course arbitrary -- how else
can one account for Kant ending up on the 
libertarian side of the divide? 

In one thing, Wired really is the inheritor of
the Enlightenment. Its endless hubris. The
sheer unreflective confidence with which, having
mastered a few things, it assumes it can master
anything and everything. The world exists only
to be subjected to the relentless process of
makig it over in the image of Calideology.

McKenzie Wark
netletter #7
10th January 1997

"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
 -- McKenzie Wark 

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