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<nettime> Hakim Bey : The Obelisk 2/2
diana {AT} mrf.hu on Mon, 1 Dec 1997 01:18:47 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Hakim Bey : The Obelisk 2/2

To illustrate Capital as its own medium, and as our second example, we
can look at bioengineering. There is no force that can prevent
pancapitalism from acquiring patents to every identifiable gene. This
means that farmers are now being asked to pay "rents" on certain
genetic strains that they themselves developed, because the "rights"
to those strains were acquired by the zaibatsus. The dubious triumph
of cloning is supposed to compensate for the profit-driven ravaging of
Nature's last remnants. Moreover, the human genome project, which has
"solved" the production of life as a biochemical machine, allows
"evolution" itself to be coopted and absorbed into Capital. As the
market envisions the future, the human itself will become humanity's
final commodity and into this "value" the human will disappear.
Capital's self defacement implies humanity's self-effacement. Acting
as a purely spiritual substance money Capital will attain the
ownership of lifeís becoming, and thus the power to shape the very
protoplasm of the material world as pure exchange.

Our essential question then concerns the possibility of the
re-appearance of the unseen as opposition. Finally it would seem that
a tactical refusal of all strategic systemization may be inadequate to
bring about this desired re-appearance. A positive proposal is
required to balance the gestures of refusal. We must hope that an
organic strategy of victory will emerge as "spontaneous ordering" from
the driftwork of tactics. Any attempt to impose this strategic unity
from "above" must be renounced as (at best) nostalgia for the lost
utopia of ideology or as "bad religion" of some sort.

But just as the Image has its spectre and its form, so we might play
with the notion that the Idea, too, has a spectral and a formal
manifestation. As a "spook in the head" the idea remains nothing but a
semantic trap disguised for example as a moral imperative. But as a
"form" in the Blakean sense the idea itself may take on organicity as
a production of the body and the "creative intellect", just as the
image may be turned toward realization by the body and the "creative
imagination". Perhaps in some sense it is the idea that has remained
unseen till now, and thus retains all its power, having never fallen
away into representation. Neglected all along having never been given
a price and perhaps remaining inexpressible even in its
manifestation this idea may "give meaning to revolt." And it may be
written ambiguously in hieroglyphs whose meaning is uncertain, but
whose "magical" effect is nevertheless potent it may be written even
on a hidden obelisk. But it will have been written by us.

6. Platonic Nets

It seems as if there should exist two possible kinds of network (or
even of communication technology)  one aristotelian, text-based,
linear the other platonic, image-based, non-linear. Language, for
example, as viewed from this perspective might appear more platonic,
since words are based on "inner pictures" and thus cannot be limited
by pure lexicality or one-to-one "translation"; while by contrast a
network of computers, using digital text-based programming, might
appear as a perfect aristotelian system.

But this neat dualism dissolves into paradox and conundrum. Text
itself is picture-based (hence "non-linear") in Sumer, Egypt, China.
Even our alphabet is picture-based; the letter "p", for example, is
simply an upside-down foot, since Indo-European words for "foot"
almost always begin with "p" (or "f"). Text, which is supposed to be
linear, is "language-based" and partakes of language's non-linearity.
When "speech genres" are textualized they become in some senses more
linear (because stripped of contextual depth formerly provided by the
extra dimensions of speech such as tone, gesture, performance,
etc.) but in some other ways this stripping of language to produce
text results in further ambiguities, since the context of the text now
consists largely of the reader and the reader's inner world.

Thus the fact that computers are digital (simple on/off switches in
massive array) and text-based does not make them genuine aristotelian
machines, since image is already embedded in language, and even more
because the screen itself is also already an image, whether it
displays image, text, or both at once. If programming could be based
directly on images rather than text as some savants believe
possible the computer could easily be seen as a platonic machine. The
platonizing effect of the computer is already present not only in its
screenal display of images but also in the psychological reality of
the screen as image. In effect, the computer is a hieroglyphic
machine, an interface mode of text and image; hence its magic
appearance to the unconscious.

The Renaissance magi (especially Athanasius Kircher) believed that the
Egyptian hieroglyphs were purely platonic ( in this, they followed
Plotinus and lamblichus) that is, that each image was an ideal form,
and that their deployment could not only indicate meaning but also
create and project it. Thus the hieroglyphs were seen as an ideal
amalgam of text and image an emblematic form of writing. Now when
Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone, it was discovered that
hieroglyphs were already used quasi-alphabetically (on the model of
"[picture] foot = [phoneme] p"), although there were also cases where
single images or imageclusters represented the objects depicted as
words. This discovery relegated the unsuccessful translation attempts
of the old magi to complete oblivion. Their theories are now only
mentioned in passing as examples of "false" hermetic science and bad
Egyptology. But as Couliano noted, these discarded theories have great
secret heuristic power, because they describe empirically some of the
ways in which text, image, and mind interact. Once the neo-platonic
metaphysics and crude magical fantasies have been discarded,
hieroglyphic theory can be used to understand the mode of operation of
text/image complexes that is, emblems.

The emblem books were Renaissance experiments in the "projective
semiotics" of hieroglyph-theory. Allegorical pictures accompanied by
texts (often one text in prose and one in poetry) and in a few cases
even by music (the great Atalanta Fugiens of Michael Maier, for
example) were collected in sequences, published as books, and intended
for the magical edification of readers. The "morals" of the emblems
were thus conveyed on more than one level at once. Each emblem was

  a) a picture accompanied by words;

  b) a picture "translated" from words. That is, the pictures' real
 values are not purely formal but also allegorical, so that
 Hercules stands for "strength", Cupid for "desire", and the emblem
 itself can be read as a "sentence" composed of these "words";

  c) a hieroglyphic "coding" in which certain images not only
 represent words but also "express the essence" of those words, and
 project them in a "magical" manner, whether or not the reader is
 consciously aware of this process.

Our working hypothesis is that the world's image of itself not only
defines its possibilities but also its limits. The world's
representation of itself to itself (its "macrocosmic" image) is no
more and no less than the selfís "microcosmic" image of itself "writ
large" so to speak, on the level or mentalitÈ and the imaginaire. This
is part of our "secularized" hermetic theory; it explains, for
instance, why emblems have influences on multiple levels of cognition.

The radical magi encountered a world wherein one world-image was
locked in place not just the geocentric cosmos but the whole Christian
orthodox value system that went with it. Their subversive purpose
revolved around the project of a free circulation of imagery, a
breaking-up of the stasis and the creation of a more responsive model.
The single world-view of orthodoxy was seen as stifling, tyrannical,
oppressive. Inasmuch as the self interiorized this view it reproduced
the oppression on the level of the subjective. The hermeticists
opposed the very singleness of this worldview with a contradictory
multiplicity, a critical form of "paganism" based on difference.

Analogously, since 1989-91 we have entered a new "dark age" in which
one worldview (and its imaginaire) claims hegemony over all
difference. Not only is "pancapitalism" a global system, it has also
become its own medium, so to speak, in that it proposes a universal
stasis of imagery. The free circulation of the image is blocked when
one image of the world structures the world's self-image. True
difference is leached away toward disappearance and replaced by an
obsessive re-cycling and sifting-through of "permitted" imagery within
the single system of discourse (like the medieval theologians who
supposedly quarreled over the gender of angels as the Turks besieged
Byzantium). Pancapitalism "permits" any imagery that enhances
profit hence in theory it might permit any imagery but in practice, it
cannot. This is the crisis of "postmodernism" crisis as a form of
stasis, of infinite re-circulation of the same the impossibility of

Within the crisis of stasis all manner of imagery can be allowed or
even encouraged when it tends toward the depiction of relation as
exchange even the imagery of terror, murder, crime even the extinction
of Nature and the Human all this can be turned (as imagery at least!)
into profit. What cannot be allowed (except perhaps as nostalgia) is
the imagery of relations other than exchange. Nostalgia can be
contained and marketed but actual difference would threaten the
hegemony of the one worldview. The "Gift Economy" of some
nearly-extinguished "primitive tribe" makes excellent TV; our mourning
for its disappearance can only boost the sales of whatever commodity
might soothe our sense of loss. Mourning itself can become fetishized,
as in the victorian era of onyx and jet and black-plumed graveyard
horses. Death is good for Capital, because money is the sexuality of
the dead. Corpses have already appeared in advertising "real" corpses.

Assuming that our hypothesis holds so far, we might well ask from
"whence" there could appear any image of true difference in such a
situation. The obvious answer is that it would have to come from
"outside" the stasis.

This means war, obviously. At the very least, it means "Image War".

But how can we even begin to define what might lie "outside" the
stasis? Are we not precisely engaged in a situation where all
circulating images become part of the crisis of circulation? This is
the "malign hermeticism" of the totality of mediation its spectral
metastasis, so to speak ontology as oncology. Everything that enters
the discourse, all that which is "seen", is subverted by the very fact
that there is only one discourse, one exchange. "Image War" might be
just as productive for exchange as other forms of "pure war", since it
would at least offer an "illusion of choice". This, then, is the
hermetic crisis of the tactical media.

7. Tactical Media

The unseen lies at least potentially outside the space of the
represented totality. Thus it becomes for tactical media a subject of
great theoretical interest. But as media the tactical media must still
mediate, and therefore the unseen remains "mysterious" in the precise
sense of the term. Since only the seen can be described, the pure
unseen cannot be written about or represented although it can be
communicated, at least in "Zen" terms.

However the unseen is not necessarily "pure". If it were pure, it
would interest us a great deal less that it does, sinee it would
thereby share in a characteristic we associate with ideology and
stasis. In fact the unseen attracts us because of its impurity.

In effect there appear to exist degrees of the unseen. The unseen can
paradoxically appear even within the locked circularity of the
mediated totality, either inadvertently or else by subversion. For
example the TV show about the primitive tribe, and the melancholy of
the disappearance of the Gift, cannot touch the unseen actuality of
the Gift and its meaning for the people who know it. But sometimes the
spoken text or the editing of the film will create potent cognitive
dissonanes with certain images that suggest the presence of the
unseen, at least for a few viewers who are prepared for such
irruptions of the mysterious, its "guerrilla" raids on consensus

Moreover, the "intimate media" remain relatively invisible to the
totality because they are so "poor". The petty extent to which such
media participate in market economics, much less consensus aesthetics,
makes them so insignificant as to render them meaningless for all
practical purposes. Of course as soon as any energy and originality is
seen to emanate from such media they are at once absorbed into
Capital and the unseen must retreat, drift on, evade definition, move
elsewhere. But this process takes time, and time makes opportunities.

Thus tactical media could make use either of "guerrilla" operations
within the media totality, or of intimate media that remain (in some
impure manner) outside that totality. But in either case tactical
integrity would demand that such "appearances" take place only where
they can be effective in military terms: where they can damage the
totality without being absorbed into its "spectacle of dissidence" and
permitted rebelliousness. Tactical media will retreat from any such
englobement, and in such moments of tactical withdrawal tactical media
may have to engage in violence and sacrifice (at least on a conceptual
level). Tactical media will make mistakes all the more so because of
its improvisational nature, the absence of any overall strategy.
Because tactical media refuses purity, it will engage and it will be
defeated, very often by its own "success".

The purpose and intention of tactical media is precisely not to
rejuvenate the consensus by allowing itself to be vampirized of its
creative energies by the imaginaire of the UnDead and its "natural
laws" of exchange. But we cannot say therefore that the purpose of
tactical media "is" the destruction of the totality. This statement of
identity would define an ideology or source of authority for tactical
media, and limit it to the role of opposition in effect, to its
"spectral" appearance. We certainly don't wish long life and success
to the totality, but by defining ourselves (or our techniques) solely
as "destructive" we are simply inviting our own recuperation into the
pattern of oppression. Tatical media, I suggest, should be about
something and for something this would constitute its "formal"
appearance.It should be for the unseen even for a seduction into the

Does this mean that the tactics of tactical media can only be defined
"situationally"? Even if we reject all ideologizing of intentionality
can we still say anything descriptive about specific goals? If we
refuse strategy, can we nevertheless articulate something about a
tendency or movement or unifying imaginaire of presence (a "myth"
perhaps) that might underlie and inform our tactical mediations?

This may indeed be possible, if only because the imaginal values in
the process of emergence in tactical media seem to concern those
empirical freedoms expressed not only in immemorial "rights and
customs" but also in the most radical politics of desire. In other
words, an "organic" substitute for strategy/ideology arises from a
shared imaginaire based on such traditional yet radical perspectives.
It is in this way that tactical media can be seen as an aspect of a
possible effective opposition to exchange itself, to the post
ideological ideology of Capital an opposition that cannot be englobed,
and therefore can contemplate the possibility of victory.

All this is pure hypothesis, so it would be pointless and perhaps even
counter-productive to engage in any attempt to prescribe or predict or
even to influence the tactical media. The historical movement
envisioned here (which even faces thc challenge of the very "End of
History") can make nothing out of any outmoded vanguardism or
"unacknowledged legislator''-ism of a discredited intelligentsia,
artists, etc., etc. It does, however, seem possible lo adopt an
''experimental" approach. Who can foretell succcss or failure? An
inherent weakness for narrativity, however, and a desire to work on
some sort ol "emblematic" structure leads me to an "aimless wandering"
or taoist theorizing around certain themes considered here notably the
notions of hermeticism in both its "formal" and "spectral" aspects.
For instance: since money is "imaginal" it is susceptible to hermetic
manipulation even to the "intuition" discussed by such strange
billionaires as George Soros. It seems theoretically possible to
"hack" money at the level of its representationality all the more so
now that most of it is pure representation. Money that can be
manipulated imagistically because money itself is image, however, can
also be "downloaded" from its CyberGnostic numisphere and manifested
on the earthly plane as hard cash, goods, production. Thus it would
appear feasible to redirect capital as wealth, away from areas where
pancapitalism has "decreed" its (symbolic) presence, into areas where
it has "forbidden" its (real) presence.

"Decree" and "forbid" are enclosed by quotation marks because in truth
the situation is so complex that "legality" has become an extremely
ambiguous category. Money as medium is engulfed in the same crisis of
definition as all the other media. Into this space of uncertainty,
hermetic operations could be directed (in perfectly legal ways) such
as to interfere with the circulation of Capital. The space of
uncertainty the crack in the monolith of representation has its deep
origin in the intense anxiety of the crisis of stasis. The image of
the imaginaire as a labyrinth with no exit induces a kind of
claustrophobia akin to that experienced by the Renaissance occultists
in relation to the cosmic stasis of doctrine: escape panic. We are
after all still "in transition" toward a perfect global market the
cosmos of economy is not yet fully and flawlessly enclosed.

Hence for instance the sudden obsession with "content". What are we
going to do with all the data what use is it? And who shall create in
order that others (all others) may consume? A real puzzle.

Certain elements within political structures still retain a
half-hearted sentimentality about the "Social" state; they still want
to help program the "content". They are opposed by the zaibatsus that
demand "pure" content, measurable only by price rather than value. But
what do "the people" want? Into the tactical spaces left vacant by
this clash of bewildered titans, certain mediations might be effected.
The old magic power of the scribe, the hermetic initiate, might
constitute a counter-force to the magic power of the manipulation of
content, the monopoly of meaning and interpretation claimed by the
totality (which suddenly doesn't look quite so total...).

As we are discussing media, the evocation of the word "magic" seems
somehow permissible. How relevant these musings might prove to
situations encountered in unmediated reality perhaps that is another
kettle of fish. For now, however, we are simply exercising our

Hakim Bey
May 1, 1997

[ this text was delivered a the nettime meeting in Ljubljana 1997
it will be *exclusivly* printed in an upcoming nettime publication,
you can also find it in the excellent Hakim Bey archive:
http://www.t0.or.at/hakimbey/obelisk.htm ]

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