Radical media, politics and culture.

Nick Thoburn, "Proud Flesh and Its Discontents"

Proud Flesh and Its Discontents Nick Thoburn From New Formations

Proud to be Flesh may appear a somewhat incongruous title for a volume explicitly positioned in relation to the net, but in Mute magazine’s critical interrogation of contemporary developments in technoculture, it has always worked at a tangent to the common visions of the net, not least the dreams of immateriality that have populated this field. Flesh, here, is sensate matter, an association of bodies, needs, affects - not an ontological opposition to digital technology but a plane with which the latter is irrevocably enmeshed. The cover art to this rather beautiful book suggests as much, with its highly mediated image of a map of the world rendered in marbled raw red meat.

At this edge of flesh and technoculture, Mute magazine has constituted a publishing field of extraordinary versatility and breadth. In its pages one may equally find an investigation of the aesthetics of the favela, net art, eco-capital, or a left critique of multiculturalism. This eclecticism is in itself most appealing and rather unique, but it is infused with a consistently critical bent. Moreover, it is a criticality that Mute turns back upon itself and its media form, as the magazine is subject to problematisation and change in relation to a range of ongoing technological, political, and aesthetic concerns. It is indicative of this attitude that Mute has morphed from salmon pink broadsheet, to glossy magazine, coffee table book, and the current ‘hybrid’ of web-journal and ‘print on demand’ (POD) quarterly booklet. The aggregate of these features, the magazine’s style, comes through strongly in the introductory essay to this volume, ‘Disgruntled Addicts - Mute Magazine and its History’, by the current editor, Josephine Berry Slater, who speculates that Mute’s eclecticism and criticality is a trace of the art school origins of its founders. Yet it is not a conventional art magazine - established to explore the conjunction of art and new digital technologies, Mute has come to orient itself toward neoliberal culture as a whole, across a spectrum of disciplinary orbits and empirical fields. Art, then, is here an orientation, what Berry Slater describes as a ‘concerted battle against the dominant logic of specialization or static identity’.

Given Mute’s critical attention to media form it is no surprise that the editors of this volume are conscious of its status as an ‘anthology’. In distilling fifteen years of the magazine’s content they have provided a most valuable resource. Still, is something of Mute’s vitality and expressive singularity lost in this act of assembly, as texts that were produced in particular circumstances and distributed and consumed in varied mediums are bound in one volume? A negative answer is assured by the fact that this collection is fully part of Mute’s field of publishing practice and, as such, something of a purposeful entity in its own right. As the founders Pauline van Mourik Broekman and Simon Worthington stress in the Forward, the book is not a conventional anthology, a ‘Best of Mute’, but a critical working on the magazine itself. It ‘treats the entire back catalogue of Mute as its critical arena’ to investigate the distinct themes that have ‘crystallised’ from the multiple voices, ideas, and interventions that have comprised the magazine since its foundation in 1994, both reflecting back upon Mute and its time, and projecting possible modalities of future inquiry. With this crystallising aim, it is fitting that Proud to be Flesh takes the form of a dense and compact book, a media object tangential to the magazine itself.

Organised into nine thematic chapters, each assembles eight or so individual articles with lively and accessible introductions by Berry Slater, and presents the material in the order of its appearance in the magazine, so complementing the thematic aspects of the book with a strong temporal dynamic. This is most apparent in the first chapter, ‘Direct Democracy and its Demons: Web 1.0 to Web 2.0’, which addresses the move from the web’s early tentative years to its mature, interactive and increasingly capitalized form. Like all the chapters it is framed as a political problematic, in this case one established on the web’s fault-line of the ‘direct democratic potential of many- to-many communication’ and its capacity for perfecting the marketisation of social relations. On this fault-line, the chapter pits itself against the ‘hype of the “digerati” prospectors’, disinterring the neoliberal economic assumptions and technological determinism that so often lie behind the leading edge of technoculture. In this sense, Mute is indeed well-characterised by Berry Slater as the ‘European anti-Wired’. And the ‘Californian Ideology’ of Wired and its ilk, as Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron describe it here, is taken apart in this volume with much aplomb and some mirth. The inclusion of a reply piece by Wired co-founder, Louis Rossetto, only serves to confirm Mute’s critique, with his attempts to rally around such free-market clichés as European ‘social welfare policies [that] reward parasitical living rather than risk taking’.

The book does not counter neoliberal agendas with glib appeals to direct democracy and distributed networks. If there is a unifying impulse in Mute it is to excavate the radically transformative potentials of digital media, not least in its capacity to breach the producer/consumer divide in dispersing the creative function across populations. But this impulse is alloyed with a sober attention to the ways that interactive mechanisms, horizontal networks, and open creativity have become integral to advanced commercial practice. In seeking a definition of ‘Web 2.0’, Dmytri Kleiner and Brian Wyrick argue in this chapter that the best approximation is less as a novel technical form than as the principle post-dotcom business model. It is ‘the private capture of [the] community created value’ of social networking and collaboration, as content is created, modified and shared by users for free and monetised in its routing through commercial portals (a development that, against previous peer-to-peer models, actually marks a centralisation of service provision and technological resource). In another chapter, ‘Of Commoners and Criminals’, the open source ‘default orthodoxy’ of the Creative Commons license is unpacked and an early interview with one of its creators, James Boyle, reveals that while some of us may impute the digital commons with a ‘proto- communist phase of development’, it is being formulated by others as a ‘necessary adjunct to the market’ in establishing an anti-monopoly mechanism for market competition (to quote from Berry Slater’s chapter introduction). This chapter is typical of Mute’s grounded attention to specific objects and processes, approaching the complexity and political stakes of ‘the common’ through such entities as the Charter of the Forest, Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS), Security Systems Standards and Certification Acts (SSSCA), and BitTorrent trackers.

In politics, too, horizontality has become a contemporary doxa. It has certainly had its remarkable effects, and the anthology makes apparent that Mute has been influenced by the concerns and organizational styles of the wave of anti-capitalist activity that was so prominent for at least part of the temporal arc of this anthology. The short texts on the ‘starburst’ J18 action in the City of London in 1999 and the somewhat less successful guerrilla gardening May Day a year later provide a flavour of this, with both pieces attending to the tactical dynamics and constraints of these events. However, the chapter on ‘Organising Horizontally’ also charts an increasing awareness of the problems with flat networks and ‘open’ organisational forms, most notably in J.J. King’s ‘The Packet Gang: Openness and its Discontents’, which details how open organisational forms can cloak and nurture informal hierarchies, as they leave untouched the ‘predicating inequities of the wider environment in which [an organisation] is situated’.

Given Mute’s close association with art worlds, it has been intriguing to observe the magazine move away from the lavish production and design values of its integrated image/text page layouts to the stripped-down concentration on text in its current POD quarterly. It is no doubt a response to constraints of time and money, as the introductory comments on Mute’s publishing political economy indicate, but it is not without a strong aesthetic of its own. Indeed, as Mute pushes at the potential of POD technology and the possibilities of a hybrid print/web media ecology, it may now be handling a more experimental aesthetic; certainly, the artifact of the POD booklet has a rather singular material quality, a strange conjunction of the disposable and the seductive. There are signs of this exploratory publishing aesthetic in Proud to be Flesh, and like the current magazine it concentrates on textual content. But it is also a rather luxurious object and has retained aspects of Mute’s earlier visual style, with three blocs of sixteen-page glossy inserts comprised of diagrams, artworks, issue covers, and page-layouts from the magazine.

As to the content itself, there are three chapters devoted to art practice: ‘Net Art to Conceptual Art and Back’, ‘Assuming the Position: Art and/Against Business’, and ‘The Open Work’. The latter chapter investigates the contemporary mutations of the avant-garde theme of open composition and its promise of the suppression of the author-function, providing critical assessments of Jacques Attali, spam email, Ghédalia Tazartès, Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics, Detroit techno, Char Davies’ Osmose, among other heterogeneous entities. The material complexity and potential of collective production across the boundaries of author, audience and machine comes through in this chapter as the still vital aesthetic promise of technoculture. For instance, Howard Slater’s ‘Guttural Cultural’ on Tazartès is a wonderfully evocative encounter with the timbres, local affects, temporal thickness, and ‘lessness’ of this musician who invites the listener into a dislocation of the unified self with ‘personified emotions made dissemblingly sonorous’. Yet the chapter also remains alert to the clichés and dangers of a fixation on the anti- author. A piece by Keston Sutherland on recent interest in the poetic capacities of spam in the tradition of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics suggests that it may, for all its subtraction of authorial authority, be less an evisceration of ‘English qua capitalism-logos’ than a smug consumerist rejection of an offending African other.

Such concern with art’s relation to wider political and economic environments runs throughout the chapter ‘Assuming the Position: Art and/Against Business’. Anthony Davies and Simon Ford analyse the ‘surge to merge’ culture and economy, as art becomes one element along with music, fashion, design, club and political scenes that can be ‘brought together, mediated and repackaged in a range of formats’ conducive to entrepreneurial capital. This commercial articulation of culture has its new organizational forms, and Davies and Ford approach one of these, the phenomenon of ‘Culture Clubs’: networking associations - like First Tuesday, the Fourth Room and the ICA’s The Club - of culture brokers, venture capitalists, educationalists, arts administrators, television executives, business consultants, that act as informal ‘convergence zones for corporate and creative networks’. With these polymorphous agencies actively soliciting the margins and counter-discourses, Davies and Ford offer an important insight that in this networked commercial culture the topographical model of inside/outside upon which much critical art practice has been founded is now not only untenable, but a constitutive part of these new arrangements, providing the ‘artificially constructed’ ‘outside’, ‘marginal’, and ‘socially engaged’ practice upon which culture industries thrive. It is the straining to excavate and imagine new modes of critical art in relief from post-Fordist entrepreneurial strategies that makes the articles here on specific art practice so challenging, from Gustav Metzger’s early computer art, the genre specificity of net art, or the Artist Placement Group, to musique concrète, and the appropriation of ‘free’ sound.

The attention to cultural entrepreneurialism might remain a touch rarefied if it were not interlaced in this book with an attention to the motions and stratifications of exploitation, or ‘class’. This is tracked across two related modalities: the differential composition and valuation of global labour; and the fragmentation and recomposition of territorial boundaries. The chapter ‘Reality Check: Class and Immaterial Labour’ engages with the wealth of conceptual figures that have emerged in the wake of new media theory and post-autonomist thought on contemporary class formations, from the ‘virtual class’ to the ‘cognitariat’. Though the intricate production of ‘precariousness’, not transcendent ‘immateriality’, is the abiding figure here. Steve Wright (‘Reality Check - Are We Living in an Immaterial World?’) takes apart post-autonomist claims that labour has overcome the value form, and Angela Mitropoulos (‘Precari-Us?’) assesses the recent political problematic of ‘precarity’, warning against its assumption as a vanguard point of political aggregation under the impetus of a newly precarious middle class. Fordist temporal order and wage security was an historical exception, and then only for a minority, but we need careful assessment of the segmentations and particular dynamics of the field of precarious labour, not fictitious ‘unities’ whose procedures can replicate the hierarchical violence of capital.

Turning to the territorial patterns of class, the emphasis in the chapter ‘Under the Net: the City and the Camp’ is on the return of the internment camp and the proliferation of the border as agents of both the global fragmentation of labour and populations, and the differential ordering of people and wealth in one and the same territory. Processes of racialisation are integrated with this territorial control, as is apparent from John Barker’s piece on the economies and brutalities of undocumented Chinese labour in the UK (‘Cheap Chinese’), Matthew Hyland’s analysis of the 2001 Bradford riots (‘History Has Failed and Will Continue to Fail’), and Mitropoulos’s essay (‘Under the Beach the Barbed Wire’) on the immanence to the social contract of the border and its racialised outside. These pieces bring into focus a theme that peppers the volume as a whole: the disintegration of the racialised and gendered privilege of Fordism is not a cause for lament but an opportunity to found an expanded politics on the multiple antagonisms newly revealed. It is a bold position to hold amidst the breakdown of the received political wisdoms and organisational structures of social democracy, yet it is also what makes the anthology’s explorations so vibrant and contemporary.

The territorial modalities of class are also present in the thematic of the city. Delhi, Durban, New Orleans, and the new patterns of global urbanism feature here, though London has a particular, even intimate, presence in this volume. That the anthology is published in association with Autonomedia lends it a nice symmetry; if Autonomedia, along with its one-time stable mate Semiotext(e), has articulated something of a uniquely New York style of culture and politics, Mute is woven into, and has come to generate, a critical fabric specific to London. The Forward remarks that the magazine’s history could ‘quite easily be made to fit a certain clichéd image of a ’90s creative project’, but rather than riding a wave of new media bombast in the ‘cool Britannia’ mode, Mute has been immersed in the complexity of London’s cultural and economic transformations and antagonisms over this period, as the Forward dramatizes in remarking upon the punctuated movement of Mute’s office Eastwards as it tracked the displacement of working class communities by the ‘creative economy’. This is a London of facets and fragments. It emerges, for example, as the ‘vitrification of place…into planned “ambience”’ in Benedict Seymour and David Panos’s assault on the regeneration of central Hackney (‘Fear Death by Water’), or through an eco audio tour of the City (in Anthony Iles’s ‘Heavy Opera’), or in a critique of London Development Agency’s ‘Creative London’ programme (‘Create Creative Clusters!’ by David Panos).

In this immersive relation to the city one can detect the workings of a distinct model of political publishing. Ranging from interviews and review pieces to extended works of analysis, the texts in this anthology are highly varied in style and form. The authorship of the book is as multiple; comprised of sixty plus artists, new media practitioners, academics, activists, and independent researchers solicited from various locales and all, it appears, with situated investment in their subject of inquiry. This variability in content, style, and authorship cannot produce a set of refined truths or a political subject in the classical mode of radical media (as set out, for example, in Lenin’s What Is to be Done?). Proud to be Flesh indicates a different practice, what we might call a topological media model, one that is founded on a distributed and immersed tracking of cultural and economic antagonisms and events. Less the communication of a message, the political product here is precisely the intensive field of collective problematisation that is brought into being. This anthology is a sampling of that field, and a projection back into it.