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<nettime> Strategic Reality

[Konrad Becker's new "Strategic Reality Dictionary" will be launched on
September 29 at Eyebeam in New York - a good occasion to freely distribute
the preface. As I page through an old tome from the annals of strategic
subversion, Marcuse's "Eros and Civilization," the closing lines of this
short text ring truer than ever. -- best, BH]

Phantasmagoric Systems

"Information is indeed 'such stuff as a dreams are made on.' Yet it can be
transmitted, recorded, analyzed and measured," remarked Karl Deutsch in his
1963 book The Nerves of Government. The Czech-American social scientist was
the leading Cold War specialist in "models of political communication and
control." The latter half of the twentieth century saw a world-wide
implementation of computerized social programming, aimed first at
instilling order and paranoid regularity into the chaos that followed WWII,
then increasingly, from the 1960s onward, at evoking febrile dreams from
populations whose new mandate was not to labor, but to invent; not to
produce, but to consume; not to fear, but to desire. By the late 1990s,
after the massification of the Internet had begun in the wake of the
integrated world spectacle of the First Gulf War, this condition was well
known by at least some of  those on the receiving end. Tactical reality
hackers such as the Critical Art Ensemble, Arthur and Marielouise Kroker,
Luther Blissett, the Yes Men, the Association of Autonomous Astronauts,
Marko Peljhan and the Bureau of Applied Autonomy arose to infiltrate the
global information system and expose its (dys)functions with probes,
pranks, parodies and satirical jokes. All of these groups and individuals
operated in the tactical space of momentary incursion and instant retreat
that had been mapped out by Peter Lamborn Wilson aka Hakim Bey, in his
poetic anarchist pamphlet on the Temporary Autonomous Zone. The concerns of
this slim volume are different. With his seventy-two keys, Konrad Becker
aims to unlock the gates of strategic reality: its construction over
centuries, its imposition through stealth and force, its dull and laborious
maintenance, and its dissolution and destruction by those who can't take it

The subjects treated here range widely, from Affective Images and Conspired
Environments to Hyperreal Estate (a high-profile topic during the credit
crunch of 2008), Phantom Induction, Reality Maps, Synthetic Fear etc.
Impressed by the proliferation of antiquated spectacles and outmoded
gadgetry that fills these pages - phantasmagorias, Tiki idols, polygraph
devices, punch-card looms, galvanic stimulators, Tibetan tulpas, the
"Soirees fantastiques" of Harry Houdini, the videogame Pong,
thirteenth-century humanoid automata, the elevation of the Host,
steganography, ectoplasmic spirit photography, Muzak and the like - a
casual reader might be tempted to compare this lexicon to a great
collector's passion of the preceding decade, namely Bruce Sterling's "Dead
Media Project." With his usual sardonic humor, the cyberpunk writer sought
to compile "a book detailing all the freakish and hideous media mistakes
that we should know enough now not to repeat, a book about media that have
died on the barbed wire of technological advance, media that didn't make
it, martyred media, dead media." Closer inspection, however, reveals that
Becker's dictionary is really much more concerned with dead mediums:
historical figures from the esoteric annals of cultural intelligence, who
themselves "channeled" earlier inventors, spies, organizers or psychic
wardens, and whose key concepts obstinately refuse to disappear, since new
agents of deceit and domination are always there to pick up the torch and
pursue the ancient ideal of reducing the popular mind to putty in the hands
of whoever has the money or power to do what they want with it. Each of the
seventy-two headings introduces the compact genealogy of an operational
concept that continues to haunt us in the present. As it is written in the
forty-fifth key: "The cyborg figure of hybrid identity, operating across
the domain of flesh and machine, crossing systems of technology and gender,
can be read in terms of a phantasmagoric virtual agency, deferring
specification of status, form, and identity of the body in networked
digital media. The self appears like a ghost, a virtual agent put in place
by the mechanism of unconscious processes but having real consequences for
the individual's behavior and experience."

Two of these haunting figures stand out in particular relief, to my eyes
anyway. One is John Dee, the English Renaissance scholar, cartographer, spy
and Neo-Platonic occultist who first used the term "British empire" as part
of his ceaseless efforts to promote his country's domination over the
still-uncharted seas. As an agent of Queen Elizabeth's court, he is said to
have had the code name 007, which obviously becomes a link to the
contemporary military-entertainment complex and more particularly to Walt
Disney, the proto-Nazi founder of America's "magic kingdom." The other
paradigmatic figure is Giordano Bruno, who is accorded "a special place of
honor in the science of human manipulation." A contemporary of Dee but
without his high-level patronage, the rebellious Italian monk developed a
general science of libidinal bonding far removed from Neo-Platonism, but
prefiguring all subsequent research into the instrumentalization of the
social tie. As he wrote in De Vinculis in Genere: "There are three gates
through which the hunter of souls ventures to bind: vision, hearing, and
mind or imagination." The future nexus of audiovisual media and depth
psychology leaps right off the page of the Renaissance incunable, and into
the PDF manuals of contemporary advertisers and psychowarriors. Still
Becker seems to have special sympathy for Bruno, undoubtedly because he was
the greatest scholar-heretic of his time and was duly burnt at the stake
for his troubles.

One might wonder who, in our time, takes the trouble to speak a cryptic
truth to the powers that conjure up strategic reality? Becker hails from
Old Vienna, where he is warmly loved by only part of the city's population;
and one senses a few unnamed local targets for his slings and arrows. If I
may use my own imagination, an excellent candidate in the art world would
be the highly active foundation of the Erste Bank, which in recent years
has seemed veritably possessed by a desire to fund, support and generally
buy up cultural activities in all the countries lying south and east of
Austria, as if investing in the "hyperreal estate" of the former Hapsburg
Empire (though one now has to wonder what the credit-crunch will do to its
purchasing power of belief). Adopting a slightly wider perspective -
nothing less than the entire Northern Hemisphere - one can see the keen
interest that any specialist in strategic reality would inevitably bring to
the activities of another Vienna-based institution, the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which includes the United
States, Canada and Russia. Here we have the epitome of "cultural
peacekeeping" in a 56-member organization whose operations have expanded
dramatically in the wake of Europe's failure to do anything whatsoever
about the Bosnian wars of the mid-1990s. It is not certain that subsequent
conflicts in Chechnya, Georgia, Iraq or Afghanistan have benefited from the
OSCE's efforts; but certainly the European Union has been able to go on
negotiating its territorial interests and strategic alliances under an
appropriate cover. This is also an example of how rarely the key concepts
of strategic reality ever disappear, despite the endless transitions and
translations that mark the modern experience. For it was long ago and far
away, during the Cold War in 1950s America, that the cybernetician and
former citizen of the Double Monarchy, Karl Deutsch, invented the
operational concept of "security communities." As today's experts say in
nuptial vows that seem expressly made for the endless honeymoons of the
State and the War on Terror: "Many seasoned policymakers and hardened
defense officials are marrying security to community in new and
unanticipated ways: they identify the existence of common values as the
wellspring for close security cooperation, and, conversely, anticipate that
security cooperation will deepen these shared values and transnational
linkages. Security is becoming a condition and quality of these
communities: who is inside, and who is outside, matters most" (Emmanuel
Adler and Michael Barnett, Security Communities, 1998). The compass-needles
that orient our subjective reality maps in the wake of the Cold War are
swinging back, alas, to the frigid north of synthetic fear.

The Strategic Reality Dictionary offers seventy-two keys to the
construction, imposition and maintenance of contemporary systems of
inclusion and exclusion, which only function for two principle reasons:
because of stealth, and because they are able to engineer our own
unconscious beliefs. Implicit throughout this book - and clearly stated at
critical junctures - is the notion that autonomous cultural agents can
devise counter-systems that act to reveal, question and disrupt the
fictional communities that continue to bind us in unwanted unions, some
four hundred years after the time of Giordano Bruno. I would propose, in
conclusion, that these keys are communicational models of phantasmagoric
systems, which unlock and display, for brief moments, the operations of the
complex machinery that stealthily attempts to recreate our own perceptions,
affects and expressions. Yet unlike the other systems which they so
expertly mimic and reduplicate, these have the grace of immediately
dissolving into thin air, while durably revealing the smoke and mirrors
that appeared to give them substance. Could we now hope for a sustained
effect of such stratagems in a period of evident systemic collapse? As it
is written in the twentieth key: "Cognitive capitalism, the diseas' for
which it pretends to be the cure, is a transcendental thanatology of
egotistic paranoid self-interest that drives a closed self-referential
system to defoliate the flowering of life." And as we read just a few lines
later: "Voluptas, Latin for pleasure and bliss, was born from the union of
Cupid and Psyche. The Roman equivalent of Hedone, the beautiful daughter of
Eros in Greek mythology, stands witness to a critical hedonism at the heart
of political relevance."

Brian Holmes

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