McKenzie Wark on Thu, 22 May 1997 11:13:54 +0200 (MET DST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> On the tactic of tactics

Whenever a term passes backwards and forwards a few
times without much reflection, i'm inclined to look
up its origins. And so: 'tactic' -- which seems to
have a greek root, meaning to order or arrange. And
'stratagem', which Caxton took to mean 'artifice to
surprise an enemy'. A device or trick. Its root is
the word stratos, or army, modified with a suffix
that means 'to lead'. 

I find the idea of the device or trick more interesting
than that of ordering or arranging. Trick media, ruse
media, media strategems -- that sounds more encouraging.
The problem is not so much escaping or staying ahead
of meaning, as camouflaging one kind of sense in another.
How can media vectors connect subjectitities together in
such a way that they can conduct a conversation that
might pass unnoticed, or remain misread, in the midst
of all the others? Such a conversation, such a subjective
endeavour, wouldmost likely not be spatially or economically
autonomous, but might nevertheless have an aspect of itself
that remains free from capture by the prevailing vectors
of capital and media.

But lets face it, talk of strategy and tactics is boys' talk,
part of a retrograde fantasy we can all live without. The
language of 'mobilisation' is itself part of the problem, and
a hold over from the cold war. Intellectuals, artists, media
people are supposed to join the ranks of this or that
'movement' to fight agains this or that foe in this or that
'emergency'. Suspension of aesthetic, ethical and political
freedom for all can then be legitimised in the name of a higher

So its not a choice of tactics or strategy, but a choice of 
an authoritarian language for media practice or a democratic
one. The mobilisation of 'forces' or escape from the grid of
compliance, whether to the dominant power or its mirror
image, the avante garde that would take its place. 

Its more than a question of metaphors. Language doesn't represent
anything. It connects things and people. It proliferates and
reproduces itself in the process. The trick is to get the connecting
and reproducing sides of language to work towards the production
of plurality, difference, zones of liberty where meaning is
neither led from the front nor punished at the margins. 

Confrontation seems to me to usually involve the reproduction of
the language of confrontation and authoritarian relations between
people and things. Language becomes a matter of giving orders, 
announcing decrees, denouncing heretics, definig limits -- and
pronouncing all of the above to be necessary in the name of this
or that emergency. 

Escape, on the other hand, is something else. It usually requires
a ruse, a cover, a fold in the coding. It appears to be one thing,
but it might also be something else. 

A favourite example: 'burn baby burn' -- a slogan from the Watts 
riots, tucked in a fold in a disco song: 
"I heard somebody shout
burn baby burn
disco inferno
burn the mother down!"

The virtual side of media is the ever present potential that some
completely different subjective event will form out of what seemed
like quite routine utterances. Its always threatening to vere
towards flux. In the flow of media, as in the flow of water, 
order is always temporary. Its always on the verge of escaping
towards pure difference. 

Another example, from the endless riches of what Lester Bowie called
the Great Black Music:
Aretha Franklin, singing gospel as a teenager. Conventional words of
piety. Suddenly she shrieking,
'Never gonna die! Never gonna die!'
Her voice jumps straight into another realm, somewhere beyond meaning,
into sense itself. Its as if the vibrations of her body transmit
themselves, across space and time, across means of recording and
distribution and reproduction, from her body to mine. An event outside
meaning, or maybe inside it, hidden in the folds of it. Waiting
to transmit.

There are any number of languages in which one might talk about
media: aesthetic, ethical, political, but surely the military is the
least necessary of them. And don't buy the old furphy about the
'military origins' of the internet. The internet has many origins.
Its a hybrid of a whole bunch of technologies, pioneered in lots
of different places and organisational contexts. There is no 
necessity embedded in its origins. The net is what it becomes. 
Do we know yet what the net can do? I don't think so. The collective
experiments have only just started. We have some idea what you can
do with a book or a song, they've been with us a long time. We've
suffered from some pretty extreme experiments with the so-called
mass media. We've had the telephone for years but nobody has
bothered to think much about the democratic potential of this 
remarkably distributed kind of media. And the net... we're just
starting, even though the technology goes back about 20 years now.
That's nothing. 

But the diversification of creativity on the net is still held
back by a much older 'technology' -- language itself. Always
the old terms! 'Tactical media', 'Net art' -- like calling a 
motor car a horseless carriage. It is waiting for a revolution in
language to reveal what lies hidden in its virtual folds.

McKenzie Wark
Sydney 22nd May, 1997
Netletter No. 13

"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
 -- McKenzie Wark 

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: