Shockwave Riders Talk

I delivered the text for the following paper at Ed Keller’s Shockwave Riders Symposium
Parsons, 14 November 2009

Hunting for Precipice: An Introduction to Network Culture


Kazys Varnelis

During the course of the past year, my time has been consumed by the task of writing a history of the immediate present. Think for a moment of the postmodern condition. This is the last historical period that we can agree on. But how is it possible that we still live under it, some two decades after it was first identified? Empirically speaking, there’s no question in my mind that the condition of postmodernism has intensified to the point that it has produced a phase shift in history, that culture, economics, politics, technology, and society have become something quite other. Thus my charge, which I do not undertake lightly, is to do for the present what theorists like Fredric Jameson and David Harvey did for their day. This is the last thing that a historian is supposed to do today, but we’ll get to this later.

I call our new condition “network culture” for four reasons. The first is that I witnessed the wars between supporters of postmodernism and modernism and wish no repeat of that debate, which I believe ultimately consumed more energy than it was worth. Second, we’ve already had supermodernism, second modernity, the altermodern, digimodernism, transmodernity, neomodernism, and post-postmodernism. Such attempts at nomenclature have had little traction. Moreover, and this is my third point, basic aspects of la longue durée of modernity are shutting down or transforming: the nation-state, the media, the public, even subjectivity. Fourth, if the machine was the cultural dominant under modernity and if the market was the cultural dominant under postmodernity, our own is the network. All this, then, leads me to the term network culture.

Today, I want to talk critically about this condition. To begin, I want to enter another list of points into the discussion.

First, the role of technology, which the symposium frames as a key topic. There’s little argument that technological advancements have returned to our lives in force. Where the postmodern condition was marked by a deep skepticism of technology, this is far from our experience; skepticism about technology seems unimaginable today.

But this leads to my second point. Network culture not only intensifies postmodernity, it also intensifies salient aspects of modernity. We are, in some respects, more modern than postmodern. 
Network culture abandons aspects of postmodernity and modernity alike.

My third point is that technology is not all there is. This is crucial. We need to understand that network culture has deeper underlying conditions, the most intense of which is the networking of capital. If digitization served the abstracting, reifying tendencies of earlier forms of capital, the network corresponds to capital’s contemporary needs, allowing a new form of trade, the trade in pure information. Well over a decade ago, Manuel Castells observed that it was the network, not the corporation, that determined the economy. The technological changes that we are witness too today are as much technological as sociological. To take one example, look at politics on the net. Yes, there’s a proliferation of alternative sources of information on politics. Yes, democratic mobilization can now take place more rapidly and effectively than ever before. A Jeffersonian democracy is, on paper, made possible by the net. And yet, we are more polarized than ever. The latter is perhaps to some degree a statistical effect of power laws, but it also fits the nature of society itself. Or take social networks. Would these sites exist at all if it were not for the research into social network theory undertaken in the 1990s? And would that research have taken place if it there were not a social need for it? If technology affects some social forces, it concretizes others. This is a fundamental point. Network culture is as much a product of globalization and overcapitalization as it is of any technological forces. It is, however, plausible to say that the relationship between culture and capital than Jameson identified in his work on postmodernism is now replayed in the relationship between information and capital, only at a new level of intensity. The primary industry in developed countries is no longer production, nor is it service, it is financialization. This must, however, be the matter for another talk.

On to my fourth and, I suspect, most contentious point: I need to make very clear that I am not talking about a Zeitgeist or new wave to surf. Rather, network culture is not a happy turn. It as much a condition to take up critical arms against as a state to endorse. My goal is to dissect it in order to understand, as Karl Marx did in his day, what is vital and what is fatal in it.
Still, network culture conspires against us in our effort to grasp it. It does so through its atemporal nature. Some fifteen years ago, Baudrillard suggested that the countdown to the millennium was a countdown to the end of the end, to the end of any sense of temporality. It seems that his prophecy was fulfilled as today, we can’t even identify our decade with a proper name.

In this decade marked by zeros, we inhabit an unprecedented historical void. Jameson observes that postmodernism was marked by the waning of historicity and Lyotard concludes that the postmodern was marked by the end of grand narratives. Our condition is intensified to an utter lack of temporal grounding. We have not only no concept of, or interest in, our own position in history, we have no ability to structure experience temporally. Where postmodernism relentlessly defined itself, we do not. Where postmodernism operated in the traumatic caesura after the modern, network culture hasn’t so much celebrated or witnessed the end of the postmodernism, it has forgotten about it. The past itself is less pastiche and more simulation, not Gravity’s Rainbow so much as Mad Men.

Or take the future, for that matter. Our obsession seems to be with the proximate future, made possible by already patented technologies. It’s no accident that William Gibson sets Pattern Recognition and Spook Country in the immediate past. The future, it seems, is now.

Just as the obsolescence of historical practice is the first way that network culture conspires against us, so does the end of criticism. Again, the lack of critical distance that theorists observed under postmodernism is now cemented by its evacuation. Critical thinking is replaced by the coolhunt, by ideological smoothness, or rather slickness. Let’s not mistake the message of Obama here. It’s not to give hope, not to promise change, rather its to be cool.  

How to address all this? For critical inspiration, I want to turn to one of the last crucial texts of the postmodern moment, a text that all but announced itself as a moment of closure, Hal Foster’s 1996 The Return of the Real. Here, Foster suggests that the neo-avant-garde set out to “reconnect with a lost practice in order to disconnect from a present way of working felt to be outmoded, misguided, or otherwise oppressive.”(3)

The lost practice I am pursuing then, is critical history, the historical demystification of the present. My goal then, for which this talk is something of a manifesto, is to become cognizant of the network as an ideological apparatus.

Unquestionably, the era of the mass (or the People) is behind us. Identified, or rather, interpellated by ideologists on the right (let’s think of Edward Bernays and the development of public relations) and on the left (here Marxist-Leninism), the mass was the great historical agent of the twentieth century. Today, it’s atomized, dispersed into networked publics, into micro-constituencies. Now it seems to be receiving a new level of interpellation, identified as “the multitude,” Hardt and Negri’s “irreducable multiplicity.” 

As the conference topic suggests, we are witness to “emergence of crowd-sourced collective intelligence, global swarm urbanisms, new disruptive economics [‘wikinomics’] and ultimately the formation of a global political ‘multitude’-with commensurate revolutions catalyzed by these changes cascading across all cultural and political domains.”

Much as this new spirit attracts me, much as I wish to have hope, it’s precisely here that we need to exercise caution. What could be a better ruse for global capital in its quest to align the world with its most recent financial order? I’d like to recall that in a recent lecture at Columbia, Michael Hardt suggested that a co-op board might be a familiar New York analogy to the multitude. This is something that I, like many of you, will never have experience of due to the permeation of the city’s real estate by the forces of global capital and the marginalization of the hard-working people who live here.

In our excitement about the possibilities of the swarm, we need to remember that thus far the multitude has accomplished little. It’s been a decade since Empire and if Obama is the best the multitude can do, then it seems to have failed us. Couldn’t we at least have a flash mob against torture? Or to close Guantanamo Bay? Instead, we are further from political action than we have been before, more separate and more atomized. If the days of critical theory are somehow repugnant to the academy, is it really better for us to serve as the R+D wing of business? Is academic success to be measured by the startup funds one receives? 

What is the multitude and its significance? History suggests that capital has a need for an avant-garde to grow our sensorium. If Warren Neidich was here, I think we might have had further insight into just what a matter of hard wiring our brains this is. Thus, I want to caution that the multitude is very much a Californian Ideology for our day, a matter of suggesting that the only way forward for political action is to acknowledge the lack of an alternative to the very forces proclaiming it ineffectual. Thus, when we speak of the virtues of open source and nonmarket production, I have to ask, is this because we see a Utopian virtue in which nonmarket production offers an alternative to capital or is it because nonmarket production allows capital to extract ever more labor from us, thoroughly colonizing our everyday life?   

I’d like to bring this talk to a close by adding another dimension to the equation, one that has concerned me greatly during the last year. Economic indicators suggest that we are entering into a long term period of stasis. In part, the brief growth in productivity spurred by the adoption of network technologies seems to be coming to an end. Now such productivity was in great part the result of eliminating newly redundant jobs. This month, the New York Times reports that unemployment and underemployment now stands at 17.5%, its highest level since the Great Depression. If the restructuring of the 1980s destroyed manufacturing, this decade’s recession has mowed down the creative class and the financial sectors. In the latest New Left Review, Gopal Balakrishnan suggests that we have entered into a stationary state, a long period of systemic stagnation. As he points out, Adam Smith never expected the wealth of nations to improve perpetually but rather expected it would come to an end in the nineteenth century as resources were exhausted. Capital’s perpetual growth would have been a mystery to him.

Network culture faces another threat, one that might be understood as an opportunity by revolutionaries both left and right. During the last year I’ve been reading and re-reading archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Civilizations, in which he suggests that complexity is a product of advanced civilizations, that it is something that civilizations produce as they grow and specialize. Our civilization is, if nothing else, hyper-complex. Complexity offers diminishing returns to the energy invested as it advances. Tainter observes that at a certain point, the energy invested is insufficient and people simply walk away from the civilization. Massive layers of complexity are shed as the state declines. As he points out, if population declines, the lifestyle of the survivors is not necessarily worse. Someone in 8th century Europe almost certainly would have lived a life under better conditions than someone in 19th century Europe. 

If we face a stationary state, we face an increasingly complex one, the course of empire may inevitably be collapse. We need to be wary, for there is one way to cut through the collapse and that is evil. Not only did Hitler build the autobahns, Mussolini, so the saying goes, made the trains run on time. The stationary state is the perfect milieu for the shock doctrine. Against an over-complex condition, what better than a state that can cut through the crap, a state informed by the project for a new american century? A state to which, under network culture, we have willingly given more information about than George Orwell could have imagined?

I’m going to close with these words: Brunner’s Shockwave Rider is a dystopian vision of the now. But perhaps not dystopian enough to predict our day accurately or how willingly we embrace it. How, then, do we, like the novel’s protagonist Nick Haflinger find our Precipice?

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