McKenzie Wark on Sun, 3 Jan 1999 03:42:28 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Celebrity, Culture and Cyberspace

by McKenzie Wark

extract 001
Saturday, 2 January 1999

I thought I'd post a few short extracts from my next book on nettime, as a bit
of a preview, and perhaps seeking some feedback on where to go next with some
of the ideas in it. The book will be published by Pluto Press Australia in

>From Chapter 1: Thirty Years, Fifteen Minutes

"The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, towards the human spirit,
is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation." 
-- Walter Pater

"The real trouble with intellectuals is that they are cowards in the face of
the good." 
-- Martin Boyd

It's Time
As a dedicated watcher of news on television, I'm used to bad news. The paradox
of news is how constant an index it is of human folly. So there was a special
joy for me in the late 90s in watching television news reports of the electoral
success of social democratic parties in France, Germany and Britain. The
endlessly deferred demise of the conservative ethos of Helmut Kohl and Margaret
Thatcher gave me a feeling of modest optimism. 

It could be that I wait for these rare moments of hope amid the constant drone
of bad news because I was trained at early age to expect them. I was eleven
years old when Gough Whitlam won the 1972 Australian Federal election, and
became Prime Minister. I had to wait another eleven years for another moment
like it. Bob Hawke won the 1983 election for Labor when I was 22. 

There may be little anyone can do about human folly, but the incremental
overcoming of human misery seems to me, even in postmodern times of attenuated
scepticism, to be something for which one can still hope. The incremental
overcoming of human misery is the "light on the hill" of which another labour
movement hero used to speak. As the historian Jill Roe points out, Australian
Labor leader Ben Chifley probably borrowed that phrase from Matthew 5:14. "Ye
are the light of the world. A city which is set on a hill cannot be hid."1 

The light on the hill is a figure of fable in Australian labour movement
culture, but given its origins, I don't think its stretching things too much to
think of any and every social democratic government that achieves some small
step to overcoming avoidable human misery and suffering as an instance of the
light on the hill. It is hardly fashionable to think of Bob Hawke's Labor
government as a shining instance of the light on the hill. Maybe in the
postmodern ethos of the 80s, it was just the hill. There was a fair share of
human folly in Hawke's government. Perhaps that was inevitable, in that it
confronted a rapidly changing international strategic, economic and
communication environment. 

The rise of an optimistic rhetoric about a "third way" between market
capitalism and state socialism among European and American commentators comes
as no surprise to me. One of the few prophecies I ever made as a writer that
came true was that the collapse of communism would be a crisis for the right,
not the left. As I wrote when the Berlin wall fell: "Hard conservatism always
worked in a paranoid way, by drawing a line through reality, and putting
everyone to the left of Churchill on the other side. That other side was a
fearful thing, threatening, subversive, manipulative, indefatigable, a horrible
thing which must be resisted at all costs. Now that this paranoid fear has
revealed itself as a mirage, conservatism of this kind must enter into deep
crisis. So much the worse for them!"2 Without the cold war to hold it together,
the liberal and conservative compromise that so often kept social democracy out
of power unravelled. Old cold warriors looked for new scare-mongering c!
ampaigns to keep themselves gainfully employed.

One of the least discussed aspects of the third way is as a third way to follow
the first two vectors along which social democracy communicated and organised
itself as a culture. The light on the hill is about being an example to the
world, an instance of hope for the overcoming of misery for all to see.
Conservatism my flourish, as it did during the cold war, on fear and ignorance.
Social democracy can only flourish as a culture on the basis of the
communication of by example of what can be done to overcome misery. The first
way social democracy found to communicate itself was tied to the printed word
and the uses that could be made of it.3 The second way was via the electronic
media. The third way is about taking social democracy into the emerging
postbroadcast world. Fittingly, I've found a particularly succinct discussion
of the third way, not in dead tree format, but on a web site, called Nexus.4 

I'm not entirely convinced that social democracy fully understands the way that
it has been changed by the broadcast era, let alone how it can change in the
postbroadcast era of multi-channel broadcasting and the internet. That is why
in this book I want to look at the culture of the broadcast era, and see what a
study of the media within which postwar social democracy had to publicise
itself can tell us about the ongoing struggle to provide some light on the hill
in a postmodern world.

When Gough Whitlam won office in 1972, it felt a bit like Australia was finally
catching up with the world, and that the radical optimism of the 60s had
finally reached the colonies. But it is not always the case that the periphery
lags behind the centre. The Australian Labor Party formed the first minority
government led by the labour movement, and governed in its own right while most
of European social democracy was still struggling for power. Early in the
century, Australia was seen as a social laboratory for the world.

This is not because Australian Labor has displayed any more wisdom than other
labour movement parties, and it has certainly had more than its fair share of
human folly. Rather, Australian Labor's precocious achievements are more likely
just a symptom of the uneven costs that the globalisation of the capitalist
economy has extracted over the last century of its accelerated development.
'Globalisation' is not a new idea in the former colonies and peripheries.
Economic existence there has always been predicated on a sober grasp of the
centralisation of economic power -- elsewhere. 

The depressions caused by setbacks in global economic development in the 1880s
and 1930s were especially savage in Australia. What made it worse was the
realisation of the power that international capital held over a peripheral
economy. This experience of being always and already subject to global flows of
capital and information was a strong part of labour movement culture. 

Reading the summary on the Nexus web site of discussions among English
academics about the third way, I can't help thinking that, like earlier in the
century, Australian Labor has been there and done that. The project that
emerged for Australian Labor at the end of the 90s was how to have a second go
at the third way. At the 1996 election, the electorate punished Labor for
inflicting its brand of the third way on it during the previous thirteen years.
Australia swung right just as much of Europe and America swung more or less
left. When Australia elected a Labor government in 1972, it felt like lagging
behind the social trend in the rest of the 'over-developed' world. When
Australia elected a conservative government in 1996, it felt more like what may
come if the third way is not managed without as much attention to the cultural
fallout from economic change as to the reform of the economy. 

Perhaps another meaning of the third way is that besides paying attention to
economic and political matters, social democracy also has to understand
culture, for it is through culture the stress of economic reform is likely to
be expressed. Culture in a postmodern world means media culture. The culture of
everyday life has its ruses and guises for resisting or ignoring the media's
bad news, but for social democratic parties in the postmodern world, access to
everyday culture is mostly mediated by broadcast, and increasingly by
postbroadcast vectors. These days, social democratic parties often have quite
tenuous links to the culture of everyday life, and find themselves reliant on
their media profile to keep alight the light on the hill. 

In this book, I want to look in some detail at how a particular national space
of mediated, postmodern culture, actually works. Rather than trade in the
seemingly transnational jargon of social theory or cultural studies, this book
deals with the particulars of both media culture and everyday experience. One
little discussed aspect of globalisation is the rise of professional and
scholarly jargons that appear to abstract from particular national-cultural
spaces. Scholars develop concepts that can be applied anywhere, as a social
rationalist companion to the economic rationalist thought that provides the
legitimating rhetoric for economic globalisation. These placeless jargons may
suit the multinational publishing industry, but that does not mean they can
articulate the peculiarities of actual cultural space.5 Broadcasting, in
particular, still creates powerful national zones which are unlikely to be
dissipated by transnational media for some time yet.

While applicable, in theory, anywhere, abstract and placeless intellectual work
really seems to find the countries of the old imperial heartland more
congenial. These are the spaces from which the credentialling of scholarship,
the publishing of internationally distributed work and the legitimising of
rationalising ways of thought all emanate. While transnational social theory
and cultural studies often pay lip service to the unequal differences that
float across the surfaces of a postmodern world, in practice, these ways of
thinking and speaking still subsume them under concepts convivial to an
imperial practice of thinking from the centre outwards. 

But the 90s are a time when globalisation has come home to roost. The
populations of the old imperial centres are as subject to colonisation by flows
of information, and almost as vulnerable to the withdrawal of flows of capital,
as the populations of the periphery have always been. Even social democratic
governments can no longer rely on imperial privilege, and protect their
populations from global forces. In this they catch up with what the periphery
has experienced and had to manage for some time. 

This weakening of the capacity of social democracy in the "postimperial" world
to exploit for national populations the benefits of being host to centres of
capital and information is of course only partial. The European Community still
functions effectively to skew power in world trade to the advantage of European
populations. All the same, the weakening of this privilege may in the long run
be as significant as the end of the cold war to the future of social democracy.

The 60s seem to me to have been a time in which the light on the hill
communicated itself around the world via the images of social change. The 80s
seem to me to have been a time when many feared the candle snuffed and the
times unfavourable for the incremental overcoming of suffering. In this book, I
want to write about the 80s and the 90s as I experienced them in Australia, as
a time in which the economic impact of globalisation and the reform of social
democracy itself so that it might continue in such a context took place


1 Jill Roe, 'The Australian Way', inPaul Smyth and Bettina Cass (eds),
Contesting the Australian Way: States, Markets and Civil Society, Cambridge
University Press, Melbourne, 1998, pp. 69-80

2 McKenzie Wark, 'Europe's Masked Ball: East Meets West at the Wall, New
Formations, No, 12, Winter 1990, pp. 33-43, at p. 39

3 See, for example, Alex Hall, Scandal, Sensation and Social Democracy: The SDP
Press and Wilhelmine Germany, 1890-1914, Cambridge, London, 1977


5 See Mark Gibson, 'Richard Hoggart's Grandmother's Ironing: Some Questions
About 'Power' in International Cultural Studies, Journal of International
Cultural Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, April 1998, pp. 25-44

Celebrity, Culture and Cyberspace is published by Pluto Press Australia
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