Building a Progressive, Pragmatic Futurism

Date: Fri, 31 May 1996 10:22:27 -0700


Building a Progressive, Pragmatic Futurism

an e-mail Interview with

Mark Dery (Cyber-critic, New York)

by Geert Lovink

Geert Lovink: Your book, _Escape Velocity_, doesn't literally deal with the speed at which a body overcomes gravitation. In contrast, Virilio's latest book (which has the same title, ironically) _does_. For you, cyberculture is first and foremost a futuristic story we tell each other---myth, rhetoric, even an escapist movement. At the same time, your book is full of playful descriptions of what the "digital underground" has been tinkering with in the last decade. How does this obsessive praxis, in the margins of society, relate to the real powers of the state and the corporations? In the final analysis, do all these weird desires to build machines, programs, and networks just end up incorporated into the One Big Story of capitalism?

In your Open Magazine pamphlet _Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs_, you used the term "culture jamming" to critique what you've defined, elsewhere, as "a combination of information warfare, terror-art, and guerilla semiotics, directed against the information society in which we live---an ever more intrusive, instrumental technoculture whose operant mode is the manufacture of consent through the manipulation of symbols." There isn't much "cyber jamming" going on, and even the myth of subversion seems to be absent. Are the '90s really such a Dark Age when it comes to politics? And should we just wait until this naive technotopian storm is over?

Mark Dery: It seems a little premature to be performing Last Rites for the myth of subversion, which is alive and well in heady subcultural dreams of Temporary Autonomous Zones, Islands in the Net, and other anarchotopias, online and off. For example, _Wired_ conjures wild-and-crazy visions of "out- of-control" cybercapitalism to reassure the male, 30-something, 81k-a-year knowledge workers who are its typical readers---Robert Reich's symbolic analysts, by any other name---that they're still teenage mutant ninja hackers under the skin.

It speaks the language of managerial gurus like Tom Peters, who preaches a gospel of "atomized corporations" with spunky "subunits headed by disrespectful chiefs." _Wired_'s very design plays to Boomer fantasies of what an MTV slogan memorably called "revolution without all the mess," reconciling 21st century cybercapitalism and countercultural rebellion in Day-Glo graphics and Mighty Morphin typography that are equal parts corporate annual report and cyberdelic Spin Art. As Keith White noted in his _Baffler_ essay, "The Killer App," the idea that "being a corporation isn't dull and conformist anymore---it rocks!" is soothing music to the digerati, "aspiring members of a new, socially insecure elite." So the myth of subversion survives, albeit drenched in irony, in _Wired_'s turned-on, booted-up, jacked-in pseudorevolution for managerial professionals.

Of course, techno-bricoleurs like Mark Pauline of Survival Research Laboratories better embody what you probably mean by "the myth of subversion." The rogue technologist who wages guerrilla war on the military-industrial complex with robots made out of appropriated, re-animated techno-trash has been enshrined, through William Gibson characters like Slick Henry in _Mona Lisa Overdrive_, in the cyberpunk pantheon, alongside the outlaw hacker.

The problem with SRL-inspired fantasies of a techno-revolution by garbage pail kids is that they're underwritten by an incongruously Weathermen-esque faith in the power of a well-placed bomb to "strike at the heart of the state," as the Red Brigades put it. Obviously, it's a keystone assumption of postmodern analyses of the nonlinear dynamics of power, from Debord's _Society of the Spectacle_ to the Critical Art Ensemble's _Electronic Disturbance_, that power has etherealized---that control controls (to use a William S. Burroughsian turn of phrase) less by corporal punishment than by colonizing the mass imagination with media fictions that manufacture consent. Pauline is all too aware of this; SRL's theater of operations is founded on the assumption that even ritualized resistance to technocratic power produces tangible effects, if only in the minds of audience members. My critique of SRL in _Escape Velocity_ ends with Pauline saying, "I believe in the political potency of the symbolic gesture"---a quote that could easily do double duty as the battle cry of the cultural politics theorized by Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige, and their ilk.

Unfortunately, symbolic resistance is just that: symbolic. It cedes territory in the larger cultural arena in the name of micropolitical resistance (an Achilles Heel it shares with virtual communitarianism, incidentally) and unwittingly lends itself to easy appropriation by consumer capitalism, which guts, skins, stuffs, and mounts "symbolic gestures," no matter how politically potent, with alarming speed. To invert Gibson's cyberpunk shibboleth, the strip mall finds its own uses for things, too.

Finally, pockets of resistance that can't be malled beyond recognition may be allowed to function as petri dishes, culturing strange new memes in the consumer capitalist equivalent of a vaccine against more virulent political infestations. As Andrew Ross notes in _Strange Weather_, the cyberdelic counterculture championed by _Mondo 2000_, like the illicit enclave of Chiba City's Ninsei in _Neuromancer_, serves as an "experimental sounding board for legitimate industrial developers." Which brings us full circle to _Wired_, and its role as a cultural airlock for cyberlumpen in transit to Microserfdom.

As political tactics these rituals of resistance---"myths of subversion," to use your term--- stand in relation to the raw power of nation-states and the multinational megaconglomerates fast rendering them obsolete as the Japanese stratagem of trying to start forest fires in the U.S. with incendiary devices made of paper and bamboo, floated over on the jet stream, stood in relation to the American atom bombs simultaneously falling on Japan.

Does that mean that "all these weird desires just end up incorporated into the One Big Story of capitalism," and that we should "just wait until this naive technotopian storm is over?" Not at all.

While I'm leery of romanticizing postmodern primitivism, transgender activism, _Star Trek_ pornography, or the Abject (tm) as our last, best hopes for micropolitical resistance, I'm equally wary of the doomy tendency, inherited from the Frankfurt Marxists, to envision cyberculture as a panoptical nightmare of unrelieved domination. And I'm deeply suspicious of the dizzy dysphoria Arthur Kroker inherits from Baudrillard---a profoundly dystopian vision that offers no way out of the socioeconomic and environmental problems all around us, but couches its pessimism in sci-fi jargon that turns those problems into a giddy apocalypse in an academic theme park. This is what Walter Benjamin was talking about when he warned us that mankind's "self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order."

The _last_ thing we should do is hunker down in our bunkers and wait for the increasingly Hobbes-ian reality of our two-tiered social reality to have the "naive technotopians" and their New Age dreams of Gaian groktopia for dinner (an admittedly appetizing prospect). The first step toward finding a way out of this place begins when we take a flamethrower to Gingrichian-Tofflerian laissez-faire futurism, which entrusts our collective fate to the tender mercies of the marketplace, or New Age cyberbole that would have us pin our hopes to a millennial blastoff. We have to relocate our cultural conversation about the promise of technology in the noisy, dirty here and now and begin to build a progressive, pragmatic futurism.

GL: Referring to Vinge, Drexler, and Moravec, you see science spawning a techno-eschatology of its own, what you call "a theology of the ejector seat." For these prophets of Tomorrowland, technology seems to have religious aspects. "The Sacred is alive and well inside the machine" is the conclusion of your chapter on Northern Californian cyberdelic culture and its techno-transcendentalist fantasies.

Apparently, cyberculture isn't criticizing its own religious aspirations. Feuerbach, Marx and Nietzsche all wrote critiques on religion and its institutions, but there's no "Anti-McKenna." The New Age seems to be so deeply imbedded in technoculture that hardly anyone is questioning this unspoken consensus. Of course, one cannot expect the postmodern thinkers to do so. Could you imagine a radical, digital atheism that will counter these current belief-systems? Or is the cool, modernist version of cyberspace so unbearable that metaphysical ingredients are necessary for us to accept it?

MD: Well, I'm hardly the equal of Feuerbach, Marx, or Nietzsche, but I'll happily cross swords with McKenna (who strikes me as vastly more original, and infinitely more eloquent, than other, better known bearded prophets of millennial cyberhype). In fact, I do just that in a story for the Australian cyberzine _21.C_, where I theorize McKenna's cyberdelic visions as bedtime stories for cyborgs, spun from Arthur C. Clarke-ian sci-fi mysticism, New Age millenarianism, and the Dionysian "expressive politics" of the '60s (specifically, of Norman O. Brown). Taking his theories literally, as his more credulous fans seem to, does McKenna a disservice, since his ideas so obviously fall into the category I've defined as techno-eschatology---a theology of the ejector seat. Understood as theology, his speculations assume almost conventional contours, with the emergence of language in primeval humans through the catalytic spark of hallucinogenic mushrooms as the Story of the Fall; McKenna's visionary experience in "fractal geometric spaces made of light" as Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus; and his teleological strange attractor---the "transcendental object at the end of time"---as the Eschaton foretold in the Revelation.

I'm not sure that a "digital atheism" is required to counter the neo-gnostic or New Age techno-transcendentalism percolating into cyberculture; the razor of logic, stropped on the whetstone of engaged, embodied politics, should work just fine. Frankly, I'm flabbergasted that _anyone_ would possess the unblinking credulity required to swallow John Perry Barlow's belief that the Gaian mind will "come alive" (whatever that means) when the on-line population equals the number of neurons in the human brain or Douglas Rushkoff's assertion, in _Cyberia_, that "any individual being, through feedback and iteration, has the ability to redesign reality at large." Don't be fooled by the sleek new DataSuit: this is the same '60s Oh-Wowism that P.J. O'Rourke memorably described as the notion that there is "a throbbing web of psychic mucus and we are all part of it somehow."

GL: In your genealogy of cyberpunk, you state that this (mainly literary) phenomenon is rooted in pop music, specifically punk. But historically, there seems to be no relationship between '70s punk and technology. Also, punk seemed to lack the narcissistic individualism of cyberpunk.

MD: I make my case for the cultural DNA shared by punk and cyberpunk more convincingly in _Escape Velocity_ than I can in the limited space allotted here, so I'll simply refer anyone interested in tracing these genealogies to my book. Briefly, though, punk and cyberpunk share a romanticization of urban decay and scabrous lowlife, a flattened affect that is equal parts existential ennui and future shock, and most importantly a tacit faith in the politics of appropriation and the subversive use of refunctioned rubbish---the kitsch flotsam of consumer culture, the broken-down detritus of science and industry. In my chapter, "Metal Machine Music," I quote a former writer for the legendary New York magazine _Punk_, who says that punk rock "was about saying yes to the modern world. Punk, like Warhol, embraced everything that cultured people detested: plastic, junk food, B-movies, advertising, making money." This particular strain in the punk aesthetic---the robopathic blankness (reminiscent of _Mondo_ icon Andy Warhol's expressed desire to be a robot), the smirking embrace of Stepford-ian suburbia, with its Tupperware consumerism and Space Age optimism--- harmonizes with cyberpunk's dystopianism, mocking the promised Tomorrowland that never arrived. There's a deadpan, mordant humor to it that reminds me of "The Gernsback Continuum," William Gibson's affectionate immolation of the technocratic fantasies of pulp SF. This sensibility, which also overlaps with the jaundiced modernism and fondness for junk culture of the Independent Group (whose 1956 ICA exhibition, "This is Tomorrow," was pure proto-cyberpunk), pop artists like Richard Hamilton, and New Wave visionaries like J.G. Ballard, reaches its apotheosis in bands like the Normal and Flying Lizards. No Futurism is still a form of Futurism.

GL: After reading your critique of Survival Research Laboratories (SRL), it occurred to me that you didn't frame them in terms of the much larger "industrial" movement (which is also rooted into music).

The industrial aesthetic has a complex relationship with digital technology, which is typical of the '80s. In anticipation of the coming of the immaterial, it celebrates the darkness of abandoned factories, the extreme circumstances of squatting and rioting, the material aspect of redundant, metal objects. Although it could also be seen as a Dionysian answer to the unbearable lightness of being yuppie (the dominant class of the '80s), you accuse SRL of "macchinismo" and talk about their "repressed male sexuality." Perhaps their audience is attracted by the darkness and dirtiness of SRL's "lower class" spectacles in an age of political correctness and overall transparency.

MD: I'll plead guilty as charged to the accusation that I didn't situate SRL in the art-historical context of the industrial aesthetic, although in my defense I assumed that most of my readers would have read Re/Search's seminal _Industrial Culture Handbook_, which locates SRL at cultural ground zero for that aesthetic. There's no denying that the mythopoesis of cyberculture---SRL's mechanical mayhem, the cyber-body performance art of D.A. Therrien's Comfort/Control, industrial dance music, and SF cinema from _Tetsuo_ to _The Terminator_---uses mechanical iconography as an ironic metaphor for an information society whose technological totem, the computer, resists representation. Its smooth, generic casing is too inscrutable and its inner workings too complex, too changeable for the imagination to gain purchase on them; only when it is imaged in the heavy metal of the Machine Age can this post-industrial engine be grasped.

To my mind, only the liquid metal T-1000 in _Terminator 2_ (a sliding signifier, if ever there was one!) refutes this logic, and thereby holds a truer mirror up to our moment: liquefying into a featureless silver mannequin, it hardens into a flawless copy of anything it touches, bodying forth the disconcertingly fluid future promised by the computer. The T-1000 offers an uncanny incarnation of a cyberculture characterized by the dematerialization, via digitization, of labor, commodities, even the genetic code of living organisms.

As for your contention that SRL spectacles countervale "the unbearable lightness of being yuppie" by giving vent to chthonic or "Dionysian" impulses, an interpretation which would certainly cast them in a more liberatory light than accusations of heavy metal macho would suggest, I should say, first of all, that the charges you've quoted were levelled not by myself, but by SRL's feminist critics. I merely quoted them in the context of a critical analysis of the gender politics of SRL's avant-garde demo derbies.

The actual passage, as it appears in _Escape Velocity_, is: "For some, however, Pauline's aesthetic, equal parts machismo and macchinismo, affirms the very technology-worship he insists his work rejects. One feminist critic decried SRL's orgies of violence as 'repressed male sexuality enacted through the mode of destruction.'" As I argue in my book, I think SRL is a polyvalent phenomenon that wriggles out of ideological straitjackets: the group's performances enact the cyberpunk fantasy of techno-revolution and a black comedy about the arms race and the apocalyptic doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction _even as_ they play to the adolescent, putatively "male" desire (a charge whose essentialism frankly annoys me) to revel in orgies of destruction. In the BBC documentary on machine art, _Pandemonium_, I called SRL a cross between Peter Pan's Lost Boys and the Baader-Meinhof Gang.

To be honest, I find SRL's unalloyed joy in wanton machine carnage exhilarating---a bracing corrective to the frumpy, middlebrow morality of the mainstream art world. The politically correct, bourgeois mind insists that our guilty cultural pleasures be validated by "redeeming qualities"; it cannot countenance abject art that delights in the irredeemability of its subject and hence of itself. I wouldn't call SRL "dionysian," a word that reverberates with unfortunate _Mondo 2000_, Jim Morrison Fan Club resonances in my mind; "adolescent" seems more apt. And as R. Crumb, Robert Williams, and John Belushi in _Animal House_ have shown us, the adolescent, at his most transgressive, embodies Kristeva's definition of the abject with a vengeance.

GL: You take Stelarc's notion of the "obsolete body" very seriously.

You quote a neuropsychiatrist who says, "I look upon Stelarc's fantasies as pathological; they're in the general genre of world destruction fantasies---extreme, narcissistic fantasies of complete isolation." Why psychoanalyze his philosophies? It's clear that the internalization of technology and power is the theme of his work; one doesn't need a psychoanalysis to see that. If Stelarc embodies "Foucault's ideal subject of power, the analyzable, manipulable 'docile body,'" as you suggest, then he's only showing us an aspect of our reality. What you're actually questioning is the role of the artist in our society. Is technology art like Stelarc's encouraging cynical, anti-social tendencies and if so, should it be attacked for that?

MD: Actually, my main intention in quoting Dr. Richard Restak, a neuropsychiatrist and professor of neurology at George Washington University, had less to do with unearthing the psychological roots of Stelarc's posthuman rhapsodies than examining the nuts-and-bolts feasibility of the cyborg upgrades he proposes, which no critic has ever done (to the best of my knowledge). Although Restak takes issue with Stelarc's postevolutionary scenario on psychological and philosophical grounds, it is on _technical, medical_ grounds that he rebuts it.

As for your suggestion that "the internalization of technology and power" is self-evidently Stelarc's abiding theme, and that I've somehow turned him into a whipping boy for the postmodern pathologies, or "cynical, anti-social tendencies," cultured by our ever more electronically cocooned, prosthetically enhanced existences, I couldn't disagree more. As I argue in my book, such points seem to be lost on Stelarc, who staunchly resists the mythographic or semiotic mining of his work, insisting that his cyber-body events be taken literally, as R&D for "post-evolutionary" human-machine synergy. He legitimates his posthumanist pronouncements in technical terminology and invokes a "context-free" scientific objectivity intended to foreclose social or political readings of his work. But the very notion of ideation unperturbed by ideology, of a social space in which the collision of bodies and machines takes place outside "the politics of power," is science fiction. The idea that truth is as much constructed as discovered---that is, that even avowedly value-neutral discourses are colored by cultural assumptions---is a keynote of recent critiques of science.

Am I "questioning is the role of the artist in our society?" Absolutely, in the sense that I'm challenging Stelarc to consider the stealth politics of cyberculture that are flying just under radar cover in his art. What's needed here, as I've said before, is a politics of posthumanism. Stelarc's art and thought do not exist, as he would have it, in the value-free cultural vacuum traditionally reserved for science. His SF vision of a body that is no longer "a site for the social" is hemmed in on all sides by feminist body criticism, the ongoing debate over the ethics of human biotechnology, and green critiques of capitalism's litanies of technological progress and unchecked expansion.

GL: _Escape Velocity_'s last and longest chapter is devoted to "Cyborging the Body Politic." You write, "In cyberculture, the body is a permeable membrane, its integrity violated and its sanctity challenged." You note that the body has become a "combat zone for ideological skirmishes over abortion rights, fetal tissue use, AIDS treatment," and so forth. Cyborg enthusiasts, in your opinion, seem to be missing the vital issues: Orlan and the Krokers forget that there are "real bodies at stake," as Scott Bukatman puts it. Is it no longer possible to dream about strange, new body-techno connections?

MD: This touches on a question Howard Rheingold asked me, in a _Salon_ interview, about "the fun side of posthumanism." The seductions of posthumanism, which we can never remind ourselves enough is an altogether science-fictional notion (at least for the moment), are its promise of bodiless kinesis and info-vertigo, its Marvel Comics vision of massively parallel brainpower and cyborgian brawn. Who hasn't dreamed of disembodied barrel rolls over the fractal geographies of cyberspace, reincarnated as one of the infomorphs envisioned by Charles Platt is his unforgettable novel, _The Silicon Man_? And what writer isn't seduced by the idea of a cybernetically enhanced mind so vast that it sweeps the entirety of human knowledge into its compass, and can leap, in a picosecond, from the secret sex lives of Cheng and Eng to the diameter of JFK's cranial exit wound to the number of glial cells in Einstein's brain. I'm particularly taken by O.B. Hardison's sublime, magnificently lonely vision, at the end of _Disappearing Through the Skylight_, of a human consciousness "downloaded" into a deep space probe, gliding past the rim of infinity on solar sails. But what price this sublimity? Platt's achingly painful evocation of the man, "downloaded" against his will, who realizes he is a cloud of electrons in computer memory who will never hold his wife and child in arms of flesh again has never stopped haunting me. (Leftist intellectuals can find a cloud for every silver lining, can't we?)

GL: Perhaps the first phase of rumors and seductive imagery is coming to a close, in cyberculture. Still, we need to understand the underlying laws of seduction and try not to deny the economy of desire. Perhaps the problem lies in cyberculture's unclear social and economic position, neither part of mass culture nor in clear political opposition to the ruling class. This leaves space for an overheated economy of fantasies, the production of signs without referents. You seem unsure, yourself, whether to take the cyberdelic daydreams of Californian techno-transcendentalists like the Extropians seriously. On the other hand, how seriously do you take the _Wired_ visions of a Third Wave economy that form the basis of so many cyber predictions?

MD: I take the New Age prophets of noetic rapture and the trickledown cybercapitalists we've been talking about in this interview as seriously as they're taken by those who move the joysticks of power.

I'm one of those unreconstructed eggheads who actually believe that ideas matter, and that the laissez-faire futurists fawningly profiled in _Wired_ should be taken seriously to the extent that corporate power takes their Gingrichian-Tofflerian rhetoric seriously and plots its strategies accordingly. As policy is made, more and more, by corporate lobbyists (some of whom have literally been asked to _write_ the legislation their slush funds---er, campaign contributions---bought, in recent years), the question of who's whispering in the ear of corporate power is hardly irrelevant to those of us who'd rather not entrust our futures to the paternalistic benevolence of multinationals, unrestrained by the token regulations of that inconvenient Second Wave nuisance, the nation-state. Do I think _Wired_ is a Murdochian MechaGodzilla? Hardly. But the managerial guru Tom Peters is singing _Wired_ editor and memetic philosopher Kevin Kelly's tune these days, as is George Gilder (though in a different key), and their jaw-dropping lecture fees suggest that corporate culture takes Peters and Gilder _very_ seriously. Clearly, _Wired_'s laissez-faire visions of a nation-state downsized right out of existence have captured some ears inside the boardroom and the beltway. That, to my mind, makes such ideas worth taking seriously---as seriously as a retrovirus on the body politic, to use the genetic metaphor of the moment.

Mark Dery, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century (US: Grove, February 1996; UK: Hodder & Stoughton, April, 1996).