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<nettime> Howard Slater: post-media operators: "sovereign & vague"
Matthew Fuller on Thu, 26 Nov 1998 20:12:16 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Howard Slater: post-media operators: "sovereign & vague"


	(Why Theory?) We have to dispense with the idea
that theorising occurs after the creative event; that a
poem or a track or a text is made and then, as part of
its process of dissemination, there follows the
theorising of the piece. Such a theorising is normally
attributed to those known variously as critics,
reviewers and essayists. However, what actually occurs
is that theorising goes on at the same time as the
creative event is being worked upon. It is
complementary to the event and, more importantly, it is
the continuous precondition for the event. There is
always this theoretical supplement to any activity: a
carpenter fits cupboards into an alcove and there is
this ongoing process about the nature of the material,
a questioning of the next step, and how it is best to
overcome those obstacles, such as the unevenness of the
wall, that present themselves.  Similarly, when
producers make a track there is a similar theorisation
going on: what sounds to use, how they fit in to other
sounds, how they relate to expectation, how best to
structure the track. This theoretical component to any
activity is denied because theory is normally
attributed to a textual product, and like the role of
the critic, this comes to exercise the effect upon
creative producers that their activity is somehow
'below' this level of theoretical process. However, if
there wasn't this 'auto-theorisation', which always
includes context and recipocrity and which defies the
division of labour and its instating of various
dualities such as that between perception and
conception, then there could be no next creative event
as the process is always giving rise to tangents and
possible ideas for the next poem, text or track. There
is a thinking and an engaging with materials at the
same time. Praxis. Process. Bearings that, in the
slipstream of the creative event, offer an inkling of
objectives, limitations and, crucially, autonomy. To
deny this ever-present and constant theoretical
activity, these re-orientations that include memory,
interpretation and renewed possibility, is to conform
to a definition of theory that is imposed: "it is
forgotten that experience can inform theory, that
theory is in itself a form of experience, that there is
such a thing as a theoretical practice" (1). Perhaps a
theorising that neglects such aspects could be termed
'discourse' and that this form of theoretical activity
is so often hermetic, self-referencing and exclusory is
maybe because it seeks to resolve problems
'once-and-for-all' within a text rather than filtering
these through an activity that is constantly posing
these problems anew. Yet, to re-create  what is meant
by 'theorising', to refuse to differentiate it from
'everyday' activity, experience and experiment is to be
engaged in a process of de-conditioning. A process that
does not confine problems to discourse nor seek to
compress them within formal, specialised restraints is
one that is engaged in 'elucidation'. The former
approach is, in part, what the situationists meant by
'drifting': a reflective activity is not solely a
matter of a 'large table and piles of books' but is as
much a matter of the social-interaction of 'walking'
(2). This situationist take on auto-theorisation, which
relates to the Marxist sense of critique as opposed to
criticism, was partly employed to differentiate their
activity from academia and, if today this
auto-theoretical dimension has been supplanted by the
discursive, making this dimension invisible to
practitioners who in some senses deny its existence to
themselves, it is sadly sought and reconvened in the
pages and sites of the media, where it falls to
journalists to articulate our activity for us.

	(Media Pimps?)  But flight from the academic and
discursive towards the 'free space' of the reputedly
popular not only reveals the still "clinging folds of
the gown", but it does hardly anything to resuscitate
and encourage auto-theorisation. Disciplining
structures are still operative. The exchange of one set
of exigencies for another reveals that the choice
between academia and the media is one which requires,
at best, an acute negotiation between dissemination and
compromise and, at worst, a blind innocence bordering
on unconscious collusion. Yet the increasing merging of
these two markets (whose flagships currently seem to be
post-rave culture studies and cybermania) can be seen
in their cancelling each other out in a neutralising
blur of middle-ground and failed promise. As with
academic eulogies to creativity, when the mainstream
media discusses creative processes it is normally
couched in terms of what makes a poem, text or track
'better' than someone elses. That the 'Harvard System'
of annotation is replaced by the interview situation
does not diminish the degree of reverence. The
canonical and the popular still resound to the familiar
ring of 'genius' but in the media things are maybe
worse in that a premature acclaim or interest in a
creative producer can work to sap auto-theorisation by
making the processes that inform the creativity into
the motor of  a production line: famous for a product;
that product is replicated. Often creative producers
can almost be heard to be in the thrall of the
mediatised situation, where, with the interviewer
engaged in the techniques of ego-activation, he or she
is hardly going to take the opportunity to talk in
general terms that could offer encouragement to others.
If this does occur, if there is talk of context and an
interplay of relations, if there is a straying from the
specific subject at hand, then what occurs is the
journalistic editing process that selects statements or
maybe even, if the contents of the discussion are too
eclectic and tangential and hence veer towards the
'political', drops the feature altogether.  The most
successful manipulators of the media are those who know
that they are dealing with the promotion of their own
product (themselves) and, rather than preempt a
critic's review and move out from the unspoken confines
of the interview situation, they choose, in many ways,
to meet media censorship with self-censorship.

	But, crucially, one of the primary elements of
auto-theorisation is the fact that it is dependent on
being flawed and tentative. It is a space where
mistakes play a vital role. The media space is,
however, by and large, one of celebration, one where
'success' and the finalisation of product are reified
into something that is unchanging. It is at this point,
when the creative producer is immersed in 'promotional
time', that the media comes to exercise its seductive
and its parasitical prowess. The media has itself
created this 'promotional time' and in conformity to it
the creative producer comes to take time out, has a
vacation in the media, so to speak, and discusses and
pontificates on his latest book, album or exhibition.
This media space requires that its subjects, obedient
and pliable in the  flush of acclaim and attention,
suspend the self-critical faculties to the point that
enthusiasm can be wrought into unadulterated jubilance.
This celebratory context of promotion, censored and
certain,  can make most people who enter this framework
come across  as no less arrogant and self-contained
than the discursive products of the academy. However,
if the latter have citations and references to instil
an idea of collaboration the media has very little time
for 'movements' or the tracing of nebulous and
enigmatic social networks and because alot of creative
producers are in a state of 'denial' about the
immediate influences of their peer group (scene) what
is normally cited are the standardised historic
reference points that best express the ambition of
their particular situation. As all this creative
activity is based on self-theorisation and is informed
by the daily exchange of practice, concepts and
techniques as a means of testing these theories amongst
those developed by the self-theoristation of others, it
is this component that the media is quick to edit-out
and it is aided in this by the creative producer who,
even if he or she wants to, doesn't get the time to
broach this aspect. The elementary social factor
becomes off-limits. This media censorship of mistakes,
its obfuscation of  the frustrations of the
auto-theorising process and its sacrifice of  the
collective aspect of creativity is what makes it
function to deny the existence of struggle, uncertainty
and collaboration: "Origin in something else counts as
an objection, as casting a doubt on value" (3). For the
media everything has to be unique and complete and its
casting of the creative producer as "the first" is
achieved by denying the presence of precursors or
allies. Instantaneity creates its own value.

	The media can't celebrate process or becoming. That
would be to begin to suppress itself and, at the end of
that fine day, it would return the creative product to
its prosaic reality, bring it down from the reified air
of its planned future posterity. And so, an air of
unreality ensues. Everyone begins to expect a
non-existent perfection and, awaiting their turn in the
spotlight,  are unable to address each other without
the glare of this fictive mirror. Comparison, the
benchmark of  media quality control, begins to infect a
scene and, abandoning its idiosyncratic drive it begins
to compare and then to reproduce the norm only to find
it is too early or too late. For this  divisive
simulation to catch us in its thrall it is necessary
for the "invisible structures" of the media to remain
absent. Journalistic construction is dependent on many
elements, processes, that do not find their way into
finalised articles or reviews. There is the selection
of subjects, which elevates some at the expense of
others (reinforcing hierarchy, individualism and
competitiveness) and  which is, more often than not,
carried out in relation to readership-expectation: a
fictive, self-perpetuating and generalising factor,
that itself continually passes through discussions with
editors and sub-editors. Perhaps at this stage there is
consideration of factors such as the ease of access to
subjects; the discussion of what is currently being
supplied to pose as demand; the need for exclusivity,
to be the first. These are factors that establish a
media mind-set where, above all, a kind of narcissistic
investment in 'profession' is mistaken for objectivity:
the media not only 'constructs' the popular, as if the
'popular' pre-existed its journalistic mediation, but
it then adheres to this definition of the 'popular' and
thus perpetuates it. Access to the media then becomes a
slow trickle because introjection of the 'new' has to
be couched in terms of the already pre-existing. That
there is a constant obedience to these exigencies of
the profession via editors and that this obedience
effects a journalist's modes of perception and
communication  means that even when research is carried
out it cannot  be turned into a 'processual' endeavour,
a means of extending self-theorisation, but must be
directed towards the final piece whose outcome is,
before even being written, somehow already expected.
This relates to the journalistic trade in "symbolic
capital" where, in order to increase assignments (and
assignments vary in prestige), there is a sense that
whatever is said in an interview situation is subject
to its being filtered via the journalists own agenda:
an agenda that may encompass... subservience to an
editor to ensure the status of regular contributor...
to the seeking-out  of subjects and material that fits
neatly into the tenor of a long-term approach which
aims at a book contract. In this instance, the pay-off
is that the journalist enters into an exchange with the
subject whereby the latter is offered the promise of
diffusion because the journalist is structurally placed
as a gatekeeper permitting access to a means of mass
distribution and potential popularity. This latter
point is itself problematic. Not only do journalists
promise more than their actual access can deliver but,
the whole idea of the popular becomes a fear of being
unpopular and, like a child who seeks approval, we are
witness to one means by which the media induces
infantilism: there is a rush to conform to the
proscribed limits of behaviour and thought, to seek not
to be marked out, to never say or encourage anything
contentious.But, there is another aspect of these
"invisible structures" that are left unspoken and
edited-out: cronyism. Here a meeting between a creative
producer and a journalist is one that is mutually
complimentary rather than one that constitutes an
interrogative opposition. Both know the score and both
use each other. Like any professionalism, adaptation to
such "invisible structures" is an easily acquired
virtue, because quite simply, conformity is dependent
on the continuing acceptance of what is (4). They are
seen as 'virtues' because, in relying on the suspension
of auto-theorising and adhering to the job
specification, they are socially-adaptive.

	(Media Whores?) Everyone knows a media-whore when
they see one. It's pointless making a list because most
people have their own. They're the ones that crop up
everywhere and at every available opportunity. It's not
so much that they are acclaimed by many or that their
persisting visibility is a mark of 'quality'. No. The
media whore is a grafter in more ways than one. A
grifter and a grafter. It is a question of
professionalism meeting  professionalism, of slotting
into the requirements with all the smoothness of a
pixel-splicer. Deadlines can be met. Appointments
adhered to. Soundbites well rehearsed. There will be no
time wasting debates.  The media whore won't rock the
boat by complaining about how s/he is to be represented
because representation itself is all that is wanted and
the more prisms of representation to refract through
then the more the hall of mirrors reflects, rather than
distorts, the  face of the media-whore. This is the
"circularity of circulation"  in which the media whore
is caught. But it's a nice trap. For  being visible
attracts more visibility because visibility is not seen
as the empty modus operandi of the media but as a mark
of commendation. Not knowing, as no-one can, the full
extent of an activity the media-whore springs to mind
as the delegate of that activity and is endlessly
invited to appear, perform and contribute by people
hoping to attract enough of an audience to justify the
grant. The media-whore, as a onetime creative producer,
has seen through one process of auto theorisation and
has now stopped to historify himself; for the more the
product is seen and reported, the more it becomes
increasingly predictable and, being repeatable, the
academics come to view the output as having the
necessary consistency to merit coverage in overviews.
Having  become generalised through the never ending
circulation of a manufactured repute, the media-whore
then generalises those who are deemed to be proximate
and contaminates them in turn.

	(Recuperating The Media?) The episode of the
media-whore reveals one major facet of the media: its
selection of subjects and its continual presentation of
them allows people to be witness to the way that the
media constructs the narrow dimensions of its
ever-expanding circle. Whatsmore, if one of the
functions of the media has been a kind of A&R, the
elevation of certain subjects that are supposed to
merit attention, then, in a post-media scene the effect
is reversed. Here, the need to avoid being overloaded
by options and choices, comes to be filtered via the
media in that the choices and options it offers are, on
the whole, rejected. The media is used as a guide of
what to avoid for, if a subject has successfully passed
through the filter mechanisms, then it is probable that
the product, sharing or overlapping with the media
mind-set, is similarly charged with the consensus
inducing properties of the well adjusted. But, a
post-media attitude is not an anti-media attitude. We
are begrudgingly attentive to the media because, living
in the real world, its effects cannot be escaped from
and, more positively, it is through the media that
capitalism articulates itself. The media, a negative
injunction, instates  the social with an updated set of
contradictions that are always in the process of being
played out and if these processes are not highlighted
by the media they can be covered and articulated in
post media contexts. Jean Baudrillard expresses a facet
of this contradiction when he asks "Are the mass media
on the side of power in the manipulation of the masses,
or are they on the side of the masses in the
liquidation of meaning, in the violence done to
meaning?" (5). Baudrillard's playful question points to
the question of subjective agency and whether this
should speak for itself or have others speak for it;
whether it should seize the media apparatus or rejoice
in the "devolution" of choice and responsibility. This
points to contrasting political strategies that can, in
a post-media context, exist side by side. There is the
recognisably 'political' position of constituting
ourselves as "subjects, to liberate, to express
ourselves at any price" and the position of the
obstinate and truculent 'mass', the object to which the
media messages are aimed and which involves "the
refusal of meaning and the refusal of speech... the
hyperconformist simulation of the very mechanisms of
the system, which is another form of refusal by
overacceptance". Whereas Baudrillard is trying to
refute the thesis that the 'mass' is manipulated by the
media and that it requires 'enlightened' intellectuals
to show it the way towards liberation he is maybe, by
adhering to the cumbersome and undifferentiated concept
of 'mass', not going far enough in imbricating these
two positions. The post-media operators, as those that
function in the space-between 'media' and 'academy', do
not identify as being either intellectual or mass, and
being both authors and punters, composers and
listeners, artists and spectators their position is
constantly shifting. This is what makes it an
autonomous practice and being one that is unrestricted
by the paradigms of 'feature' and 'thesis' it can be
free to articulate the findings of its own
transversality.  For instance, if an increase in
information marks the present times and if this
increase is producing "uncertainty", a confusing array
of choices and strategies, then this uncertainty can be
recuperated by post-media operators to effect each pole
of Baudrillard's playful dichotomy: we are no longer
certain of being political subjects identified as
working class or communist, but we are also no longer
resting assured in our refusal to speak and answer
back. We are no longer cadre or mass, and this is where
the auto-theorising component comes into it, for, as
post-media practitioners, we are continually engaged in
elucidating the nuances of context and situation and
the theorising, in many ways a nonverbal theorising in
that it includes gesture, image and sound, is propelled
by the particular exigencies of varying situations. If
we are always working class and militant then our
reactions come to be predictable but, even so, we
cannot allow this dimension to disappear completely,
implying as it does a resistance to the monopoly of the
means of distribution. If in a situation we remain
silent our silence is read as a legitimating compliance
and, yet, this same silence can maybe make a supposed
quietude pregnant with obstinate incredulity whilst
also allowing 'transference' to take place: the media,
in the rush to say anything, reveals itself and draws
our prognosis. This chameleon-like activity is maybe a
post-media recuperation of journalistic practice but
unlike the bounded professionalism of journalists that
demands hypocrisy, by becoming de-subjectified and
replete, a personality and a cipher at the same time,
we inadvertently merge Baudrillard's two strategies,
and make theory and practice become co-incidental. This
form of becoming, of never having remained, of being a
"lingering residuum", may in fact have been spurred-on
by the media's collusion with the constant
overproduction of an acculturating capitalism, but a
further post-media recuperation of it, allows us to be
dispersed rather than localisable, just as power is
itself dispersed and not present in any one space.

	The media is recuperated at every turn. From the
aping of a record review that imbues this promotional
form with an intensity and a social meaning to the
establishment of web-sites as  nodes of research that
are independent from the media and the academy, the
post-media practice learns from "the exteriority of its
vicinity" (6). Both connected to and autonomous from
the media, it is like Marx's proletariat who, on the
receiving end of the capitalist mode of production in
the factories and workspaces, know instinctively the
meaning of the methods that are employed on it:
manipulation may be met with silence but it casts back
a disgust at the barefacedness of the manipulator, a
disgust that accumulates and draws others into the
orbit of conflict. Whereas a workforce, organised into
unions, may too often have fought sectional battles,
the creative producers of the post-media scene are
disorganised to the extent that their sectional
interests, becoming transversal, see points of contact
and unification in their shared dismay of the methods,
form and content of the media (7).  So just as a
vicinity to the media makes for an over familiarisation
that effects a withdrawal of interest  and the
establishment of alternative media spaces, the media's
persisting misrepresentation of activity leads to the
recuperation of misrepresentation as a device to
manipulate the media. In all cases vicinity breeds a
contempt that increases to the degree that, as with
wage-labour, a connectedness lays the grounds of an
ever threatened disconnectedness. Just as an increasing
exposure to exploitation at the workplace provokes the
development of means to subvert the exigencies of the
workplace by means of petty theft, absenteeism,
brewing-up etc. so too are media messages recuperated
by a choosing and filtering these messages: Throbbing
Gristle used to recommend turning the sound of the TV
down and playing music but there are a myriad of other
possible detournements that can range from consciously
using the media's banalities as a way of
'switching-off' through to using it as a means to
activate the energy of disgust.  What occurs throughout
is that the media's power is negotiated and post-media
operators are, in a sense, manipulating their own
manipulation. Not only does this reveal the power of
the media it also brings into focus the power of the
post-media operators themselves, a power that, because
it has diversified the levels at which it can place
itself, achieves an imperviousness to power: by means
of the "exteriority of its vicinity" it is empowered
enough to be overpowered and, as a result, is
sensitized to the dispersion of power which is not
solely conducted through the channels of the media.

	(Pure & Elitist?) Auto-theorisation allows us to
inhabit such contradictory spaces without having to
synthesise them or choose between them. Activity is not
the outcome of a discursive resolution, which would
only lead to another discourse, but is the process that
allows contradictions to be pushed in the direction of
enigmas and provocative alloys. It allows for
experimental positions without co-ordinates, it drifts
off the map, flees from forced identification and takes
with it the masks and tools that would enslave it. And
so, auto-theorisation is a constant vigilance, a
controlled loss, a permutability of the rational and
the unconscious. Being both screen and projector, being
the margins of a centre that doesn't exist it occupies
a liminal  position that, in continually being
dispersed, coincides and overlaps with a post-media
practice whose rhythms are broader. Being a no-space,
being illegitimate, means that the academy can be
plundered and the media copied, but rather than ape
these and look for a 'new' that fits into the criteria,
post-media operations, by reclaiming the
auto-theoretical dimension, affirm those subjects and
projects that are omitted: there is a place for history
as opposed to nostalgia, for autobiography rather than
biography, for militancy rather than quietism, for
continuity rather than immediacy, for dirty timbre
rather than slickness. And yet, the barbed response to
these activities in the media, with its accusations of
"purity" and "elitism", are begrudgingly and
revealingly reticent when it comes to the question of
its own static position of compromise. Ignoring the
elitism of their own selection process they uphold a
notion of the 'popular', itself determined in
concordance with the owners of the media apparatus and
provoked  by manufactured demand,  as the only
criterion of 'worth' and value. This media craving
after the 'popular' not only functions as a
crutch-come-yardstick, it also  reveals its adherents
to be made-up of those who have never been in a crowd.
And so, having been cushioned by a middle-class
upbringing and  by higher education they throw their
lot in with this mythic 'popular', and by keeping
abreast of the latest fads are made to feel that they
belong. Of course, they then feel that everyone else
wants to belong to the same club too and when they see
this meeting with incredulity and dismay they bandy
about their accusations of elitism rather than realise
that there are people who do not want to belong with
them and be judged by their criteria. Post-media
operators intuit  that this form of the 'popular'
functions as a norm and that their refusal to follow
such a consensus will be seen as anything varying from
vanity through to elitism, but they also know that this
is a risk that it is most necessary to take. Bearing-up
under the common accusations, influenced by the media,
of pretentiousness and wilful obscurity the post-media
operators, being attracted to process via
auto-theorisation, are drawn to those cultural products
that are conducive to propelling the process of
discovery they are already engaged in. In brief these
are products that are critical of consensus and which
draw attention to the determining "invisible
structures"; they are, to a certain degree, free of
being overencumbered by prior interpretation and in
this way can function as sites for a "practice of
freedom": a freedom of thought, a freedom of language
and a freedom of sound. Practices that could not be
pursued through the media or the academy. This
thumbnail description may sound reminiscent of the
avant-garde, yet just as there is a definite
coincidence, fuelled by a historical inquisitiveness
denied them in the media, the post-media operators, not
being aligned to any strict categories, would enter
into the same relation to the avant-garde as it does
the media: one of "exterior vicinity".

	A common objection to post-media practice is that
by not following the 'popular' route, by not conforming
to an expectation of boundaries, it  is not only
difficult to locate but it is difficult to understand.
Such accusations are themselves indicative of a desire
to maintain the status quo for if a cultural product
becomes too easily digestible, if it is too readily
understood, then any thought of participating in the
production of meaning is left on the shelf. By
accepting what is already present, by becoming overawed
or enervated by it, we are closing down the possible
areas where the "social can be enacted", as it is the
nuances of our own positions, their idiosyncrasies,
that can be a spur towards action. This is precisely
what the media denies. Its immediacy, the instantaneity
of its communication, creates "a climate hostile to
action whose effect is only visible over time" (8).
Such generalised conditions of impatience that the
media induces throughout  society becomes translatable
as a reluctance to take the time to understand and
participate in anything. This in turn, in another turn
of "circular circulation", becomes the reason that
familiar forms, familiar sounds and familiar language
are always invoked. However, it is maybe a case that we
'understand' too much and that really what is absent,
and what the post-media operators are intent on
providing, is a sense of radical imagination that is
spurred on by using desire as the method. Free to go
anywhere. Free to draw on anything. Free to say
anything. Unmoored and without vested interest. Howard
Slater Break/Flow (October 1998) 89 Vernon Road
Stratford London E15 4DQ

	Notes. Title draws from two chapter headings in
Adilkno's book "Media Archive" [Autonomedia, 1998].
Text spurred on by Bordieu's "On Television and the
Media" [Pluto, 1998].

(1) Jean Laplanche: New Foundations of
Psychoanalysis [Blackwell, 1989].
(2) Nietzsche, in retorting to Gustave Flaubert's contention that "one
can only think and write when sitting 	down",
replies by saying "only ideas won by walking  have any
(3) Nietzsche: Twilight of the Idols
[Penguin Classics, 1974].
(4) c.f. Nietzsche: "What is, does not become; what becomes, is  not... Now
they all believe... in that which is".
(5) Jean Baudrillard: 'The Masses' in Baudrillard Reader
[Blackwell, 1988].
(6) Foucault: The Archeology of Knowledge [Routledge,1995].
(7)Each 'scene' seems
to be served by its 'own' media - music, art, cyberart,
literature, film etc - and whilst this isn't the place
to go into this ghettoization that results from the
division of labour expressed in the form of
specialisation it is worth pointing out that post-media
is a practice that cuts across the ghettos and rejects
such such categorical divisions of knowledge and
vocabulary. Interestingly the renewed attention to the
'conceptual art' of the late 60s and early 70s can
itself be seen as part of a post-media awareness. The
practice of artists like Kosuth, Baldessari, Buren,
Latham etc with their "acceptance of the multiplicity
of non-art subject matter" and their de-materialisation
of art was indicative of an auto-theorising dimension
that segues into that of the early Situationists and
Fluxus. Autonomous publishing was an important  facet
of all these groups and took in such activities  as the
production of journals as well as the making of
conceptual artworks that were dependent on buying space
in the media. Praxis makes imperfect.
(8) Pierre Bordieu: On Television and the Media [Pluto, 1998].

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