Dan Wang on Thu, 12 Dec 2002 05:46:01 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> re wark's crit of CAE

> Last week, I was made privy to a grievance brought forth by a renowned
> anatomist who had been the victim of a defamation campaign by the molecular
> biologists in charge of his department who had denied him recognition and
> proper benefits for over a decade and mis-characterized his work .

And just a day or two ago many of us in the US were made aware of the naming of
a Rhodes Scholar whose natural parents happen to be imprisoned former Weather
Underground radicals. They named their son, this newly minted Rhodes Scholar,
Chesa--as widely reported in the papers, that's Swahili for 'dancing feet.' The
parents are white. And the boy (now young man)? From the Chicago Sun-Times:
'[Chesa] Boudin, 22, said he had advantages most other children of prisoners
lack: a stable, loving home, money for tutors, counseling and the private
University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, plus "the fact that I had white

This bit of headline news is worth noting because it reminds us that there are
in fact many white North Americans--probably more than ever, numerically
speaking--who are very aware of their racial privilege. And that this awareness
has a history, embodied in the personal histories of Chesa Boudin and his

In the Sixties many young white radicals identified strongly with the
burgeoning Third World movements--a term which then often included internally
colonized populations like the black Americans. Even accounting for the
posturing and insincerities, the fact remains that lots of young white people
put their own well-being at risk in performing various acts of solidarity. In
anycase, way more white people demonstrated this solidarity than one might have
expected from such a conservative society. In fact, for an entire generation of
white activists, the struggle for basic human rights for black Americans became
inseparably linked to all other political analyses. And to this day, if asked,
someone like former Weather Underground radical Bernardine Dohrn (Boudin's
adoptive mother) will sum up the difference between the price paid by white and
black radicals this way: "I'm still alive." They see themselves as the living
proof of there being concrete gradations of privilege, and far from forgetting
this, frequently make it a point to verbalize this fact.

So what does this have to do with tactical media? The short answer is, not

It seems to me that radicals of all color and stripe have had to recalculate
their willingness to take risk. A very natural development considering the
harsh penalties suffered by activists and radicals under the global
counterstrike initiated by Reagan/Thatcher and continuing today, not to mention
the earlier FBI and police state counterattacks. For black activists this
change in calculus has resulted in an extreme political moderation, and for
white activists this has meant disengaging from the riskiest kind of solidarity
once available to a white person: throwing one's lot in with the black folks,
as far as allowable.

I'm with Coco--this isn't just paranoia. CAE themselves are very clear about
having kept their writings fairly inaccessible as a defensive posture. They
liken their textual tactics to the Frankfurt School, and follow the model of
producing dense writing in order to keep their work from attracting too much
attention from the reactionary society-at-large. Similarly, they talk about
finding niches within institutions like museums and universities from which
they can practice their work while drawing on institutional resources,
including a measure of political cover.

All well and good--very reasonable and smart, in fact. BUT, what then happens
to one's work, or even better the field as a whole, when the institutions that
allow for such tactical parasitism have been for their entire history to begin
with white supremacist in nature and result? When there is only either silence
or defensive critiques of postcolonial work in answer to this question, it is
not far-fetched at all for the field of work now named tactical media to be
characterized as racist when that term is used in light of the former and very
real solidarities expressed and concrete risks assumed by an earlier generation
of white activists.

Okay, you might say, but the institutions themselves have begun to change, are
undoing their decades and even centuries-long legacies of racist exclusion. To
a degree, that's true. There are many scholars and academics of color working
today who a generation ago would not even have made it past the outer gates of
a given campus. But please recognize that this vaunted 'inclusion' remains at
best provisional. So long as the 'diversity' behave themselves, they can stay.
As soon as they get a little too down home, well, watch out. Recall that
Harvard's president scolded Cornel West (whose scholarly writings go back more
than 25 years) for making work in the hip hop idiom, while net.art digirati
Barlow (whose academic credentials, for all his social contributions and weird
experiences, pale by comparison) took up residence at the same institution
after having made a minor career of penning bad songs for the Dead. One can
only conclude that the culture of what rock critic Jim DeRogatis calls the
'white person wiggle' doesn't threaten in nearly the same way beats and rhymes
do. Gee, I wonder why.

In former days, there would have been a few white people ready to stand with
the coloreds. Today, there are many, but not from the net.art world, and few
from tactical media. This is sad because tactical media is, more than just
about any previous political and cultural current, self-consciously writing its
own history, through books, conferences, and lists like nettime. The
unwillingness of many tactical media practitioners to prioritize solidarities
with activists of color will be clearly documented for the people who come

To use CAE's theory of the wager, in which every course of action is a gamble,
I must say that to neglect avowed anti-racist work is, under the present
conditions of universal racism, a sure bet with little payoff. Time for white
tactical media practitioners--who up to the present moment have been so good at
measuring their risks--to wager a whole lot more.

Dan w.

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