Date: Sat, 22 Mar 1997 15:22:40 -0500
From: McKenzie Wark

an interview with McKenzie Wark

Connie Stanley

Keywords: aesthetics, america, art, avant garde, capital, class, critique, culture, cyberlibertarianism, cyberspace, east, europe, nettime, politics, social democracy, telesthesia, virtual, wired, west

So what’s so interesting about nettime?

To me, its a classic avant garde, part of a great European tradition. It comes about when parts of art, thought and politics fuse together. This fused matter is something separate from both institutions and everyday life. It makes its own time and space, but then it flows back into the institutions of art, politics, thought, and also into everyday life.

So do you think there is such a thing as

The art institution is finished. All it has left to do is record its own death throes and parade them around as art. that takes existing concepts of ‘art’ as a starting point won’t amount to much, as a consequence. The real project is not art, its aesthetics. How can we think about the singular properties of the experience of the form of culture when it flows along the new lines of the net? That’s the question. A lot of what art thinks of as its history will be of marginal interest to that, and a lot of stuff as yet unexplored, particularly in the aesthetics of media, is coming into focus.

What are the singular properties of experience on the net, then?

I think it belongs in a history of the experience of telesthesia, or ‘perception at a distance’. This is a history that begins with the telegraph, the first moment at which the flow of information can really move at a different speed to the movement of people or things. Then there’s the telephone, television — each of these is a more subtle and developed aspect of the vectors along which forms of experience might come to know themselves. Since the telegraph takes off in the 1840s, we can say that we have been living in cyberspace for 130 years, only we didn’t really know it. Now that this whole terrain of telesthesia is becoming a self-aware experience, it is ready for its aesthetic moment, for its aesthetic revolution.

But won’t the net simply be absorbed into capitalism?

The idea that the aesthetic is the *complete* antithesis of capitalism is a romantic idea, and a none too subtle one. In the spaces that modernity creates, several kinds of relation are always possible at once. As the vectors of telesthesia spread and grow in intensity, at least three kinds of relation happen. The first is the spread of the practice of relating things together across distances as if they were quantifiable resources, or ‘standing reserves’. The net makes it possible to see everything in the world in terms of its price, and to combine things together in productive relations on that basis. The question is not one of ‘overthrowing’ that practice — that too is romanticism — but of what can be *added* to it.

What are the other kinds of telesthesia?

In that first relation, what happens is that ‘relatedness’ gets new meaning, but things are only related according to a property of sameness. Everything has its price. In the second kind of relation, things appear as different, things have the quality of ‘otherness’, but we forget about this otherness being the product of a relation. So things appear as if they had a dividing line down the middle — you/me, east/west, etc. These kinds of relation are probably necessary for throwing back to us a sense of identity, but they also pit us against the other, against that which we define our selves in opposition to.

But there is a third kind of relation as well?

Yes, the third kind of relation that is happening in cyberspace are what I call virtual relations. Here others appear not as reduced to quantity, but in all their singularity, but at the same time, the qualities of relatedness don’t disappear. So we have differences that relate, that combine their properties into still more differences. So it is no longer ‘you/me’, but ‘this line of thought’, ‘that web of images’.

What’s an example of this kind of virtual relation?

When it works properly — Nettime itself. I think Pit and Geert were intuitively right not to be interested in ‘dialogue’ on Nettime. If you read the conversational style of thread, on the Well, for example, they are mostly about relations of otherness. Everyone sharpens themselves to a point against each other. That’s fine. But like Peggy Lee, I want to ask ‘is that all there is?’ ‘Dialogue’ just reinforces otherness as a simple dialectic. What happens on Nettime, when it works, is something else. Differences in thought, in feeling, are put in play that become different aspects of a trans-subjective moment. It works when something is posted, then something else is posted that intersects with it, then something intersects that again... aesthetics in motion.

How is this different from the cyberlibertarian vision of Wired and co.?

Cyberlibertarianism takes the first kind of relation to be the beginning and the end of telesthesia. Its mantra is ‘velocity has its price’. It gets into the second kind of relationship, those of otherness, in a pretty uninteresting way. Its assumed the unit of otherness is the ‘individual’. That it is precisely trans-individual experience that telesthesia is about seems to escape the cyberlib mind. Then there are crude kinds of otherness, like America = market = good / Europe = state = bad. Its really just too boring. When that culture gets around to thinking about the third kind of relation, it gets flattened out into something like the ‘digital nation’. In other words, whatever it is that is new (‘digital’) is immediately flattened out into something familiar (‘nation’). Nettime sometimes works as a line of escape from all that. Being closer to European traditions of a fused avant garde of politics, art and thought, the virtual side of Nettime is much more lively. Trans-human projects of self-making just pop out of the matrix.

Its a privileged community that gets to play with this, don’t you think?

Obviously. But I’m not going to feel guilty about it. Leave that to the priests and the politically correct (the new priests). Its another side to romanticism to assume that ‘our’ interests are identical to those of the most oppressed, of the manual working class. But I think we need another diagram of class. Class is about kinds of property. There are those who have property in physical form (landowning class). Those who have property as pure quantity (capital). Those who have neither this material nor immaterial property, but must sell themselves as property (workers). And then there’s another class — those who have property in the form of information. In the English world, this form of property was first established in the 18th century, in the Statute of Anne and in a series of common law cases, in which writers and engravers proved that they had ‘ownership’ of the words and pictures in books, quite distinct from the physical property of the book itself. This is the moment when the ‘independent intellect ual’ is born. Its no accident people like Samuel Johnson took a strong interest in this development. He is a prototype for the ‘digital intellectual class’.

Aren’t this class ‘entrepreneurs’?

We don’t risk capital, we risk our ‘reputation’, and so we are not entrepreneurs. From Johnson to Sartre to us today, the main thing is that we are people who don’t own much land and don’t have much capital, but we don’t have to sell our bodies. We sell ‘information’. But there is no ‘natural’ marketplace for information, or for anything for that matter. An institution had to be invented for it. New institutions are being negotiated right now, incidentally, for an international trade in information. That’s the class struggle of our time.

Does this information class exist in the east was well as the west?

Its existence is more secure in the west, because forms of intellectual property are institutionally protected. That provides a measure of independence from both the market and the state. Capital would love to reduce our influence by limiting our property rights. The state likes us exclusively in its service, as mouthpieces for its various campaigns against its enemies. That we find ourselves confronting different sides of this dilemma in the east than in the west ought not to get in the way of a basic solidarity, and beyond that, to creating virtual relations that cross the east/west divide.

How can Nettime cross such a divide?

That’s a hard question, particularly for me. I’m an Australian, so all that appears very differently. What I can add here can only be as an idea from the margin. It seems to me that Nettime does have a certain ‘cryptomarxist’ flavour. That’s inevitable, given that its the lingua franca of avant garde movements on the continent from surrealism to the situationists. That plays in a very ambivalent way in the east, I suspect. It confuses Americans, which amuses Nettimers! But all the same, I think its time to do a bit of what Marx called the ‘ruthless criticism of all that exists’ — including Nettime’s own cryptomarxism. However, its important also not to slip back into the ‘great otherness’ of the cold war. My own ‘northwest passage’ out of all that has always been social democracy in politics and the radical avant garde in aesthetics.

Why social democracy? Isn’t that a bankrupt old ‘second wave’ idea?

Social democracy matters as the maintenance of a plurality of forms of relation in society between the market and the state. It was always about vectors of information, actually. The European (and Australian) social democrats were great innovators in forms of media practice and cultural solidarity. In particular, social democracy tries to pluralise the forms of information property. It adds forms of community and social ownership. It is through participating in the creation of these wider forms of ownership of information that the information class forms a broad range of tactical alliances, with the state, with workers, and of course with capital too. Just as the plurality of forms of information secures democracy, so the plurality of forms of alliance it can enter secures the place of the information class.

And the radical avant gardes?

I see these as operating as a radical edge within social democracy. As much as I love the situationists, I’m actually quite relieved that May 68 did not succeed in overthrowing the state! In his later writings, Guy Debord speaks about a permanent imminent critique of the ‘society of the spectacle’, one that will erupt to the surface for its moment of festival every now and then. That is an aspect of what I call the virtual. In this case, the virtual in politics. The virtual aspect of politics, everyday life, art, media — fusing those potentials together — that’s the radical avant garde. But its important not to see that avant garde in a relationship of otherness to the status quo. Its not the negation of all that exists — another romantic fantasy. Its something in *addition* to what exists. The imminent possibility of difference that proliferates, self-organises, defining itself out of itself, without reference to an other.

So no more ‘critique’?

I tried suggesting that in one of my Netletters to Nettime, but it didn’t go over too well. Perhaps I’d rephrase that now. I think we have to do ‘netkritik’ differently. Its not a critical negation of the false appearances of the world in favour of a revolutionary truth. Its a critical addition of a new kind of false appearance in the name of a ‘radical falseness’. We have to get criticism out of Plato’s cave. In that world, false appearances are criticised in the name of true representations of the ideal, of the good. The beginnings of authoritarian culture and politics are in that cave, when some people pretend to be leaders who can see beyond the cave of false appearances. The ‘most radical gesture’ is no longer the most thorough negation of false appearances, but the most creative embrace of them. Particularly since we are the class that makes a living my making up the spectacle of appearances! Our ‘critique’ is to show, imminent in any appearance, the multiplicity of appearances, their virtual dimension . Our demand is for a world in which this kind of relation has space alongside the purely quantitative accumulation of value and the mundane negotiation of identity through the manufacture of simple otherness.

This net criticism seems to be rather more classical than contemporary!

We are at a moment in history in which more and more people shout out, with joy or lamentation: ‘we no longer have roots, we have aerials’, ‘we no longer have origins we have terminals’. And so, in the Eurocentric world, one of the ways of thinking about this proliferating world of appearances is to go back into the western tradition, which is from beginning to end a critique of appearances. Or rather, several critiques. Perhaps now its time to choose a different kind of critique. In both eastern and western Europe, a lot of people understand these things. Its in the culture in a way that it is not in the new world. The European contribution to the net is, for me at least, the ability to think about the new features of cyberspace in a historical way.

And what of the rest of the world?

Europe thinks in terms of centuries, but centuries no longer think in terms of Europe. The centres of gravity shifted away years ago. And in many ways that’s a good thing. Its time for Europeans and Americans to learn the kind of provincial internationalism the rest of the world already practices. European and American cultures tend to confuse the international with the universal, by projecting an empire of their own peculiarities. Wired-speak does this — sometimes its very funny. The trick is to see the international, the global, through one’s own particularity, and to find ways of combining and relating among particularities. That’s the virtual side of globalisation. Its what I was trying to write about in _Virtual Geography_. Its not just about the ‘media imperialism’ of capital and the ‘cultural imperialism’ of the American way of life. The third kind of global relation is virtual — the proliferation of assemblages of difference that escape from value and otherness. You can see a sublime little glimpse into this on Nettime sometimes. A peripheral glimpse of an impending virtual world.

Interview conducted by Connie Stanley at New York University, 22nd March 1997.