A voice should be sensed as a whole. You have to have a chance to sense personality in order for language to have its full meaning. Personal Web pages do that, as do journals and books. Even Britannica has an editorial voice, which some people have criticized as being vaguely too “Dead White Men.”
– Jaron Lanier, May 27, 2006 (this and all further block quotes from “Digital Maoism” found at http://edge.org/3rd_culture/lanier06/lanier06_index.html)
(Dead White Men was not considered as an alternative to square white world, although, apart from courting inevitable comparison with the Encyclopaedia Britannica, why not?) Jaron Lanier says, whether able to be criticised for being vaguely too “Dead White Men” or not, there is a voice. It is not anonymous but as the project of a collection of named individuals it is yet, as Jorge Luis Borges once said of the dark, impenetrable night, unanimous. The voice and the night are of one soul. The individuals, comprising the project, whose contributions it collects in its pages, produce the unanimity, the wholeness of a complete, an encyclopaedic voice. They are then not wholly in the dark as to the editorial purpose and lend the authority arrogated to them as individual writers to the overall authority of the work. Its authors, however, they are not. You could say, for being “Dead White Men,” they perform the critical function of policing the limits, of placing a cordon sanitaire around her, and that this function is the sole condition of her possibility, of a possible Britannia; so that her voice, in the mute darkness of all closed books, precedes theirs and only later comes to be identified with theirs, dead, white and male. Their reputations are of course on the line when her authority is questioned. Their lives are indeed at stake, invested in the collective cause of her unanimous authority. Hers is also the cause of Empire and colonial expansion, born out of the unanimous night of European Enlightenment. But she depends for her authority and the force of her (editorial) decisions on their willingness to sacrifice themselves. There are no similar causes today, no similar projects, where the living are asked to assent to making that ‘impossible’ gesture; above all among White Men, resistance – and meaning – is futile.
For George Orwell’s generation, there was a dilemma. “The Writer’s Dilemma,” (the title of a review of George Woodcock’s The Writer and Politics, 1948) Orwell states thus: “In our own age a serious writer cannot ignore politics as he could in the nineteenth century. Political events affect him too nearly … He therefore attempts, as so many writers of the past twenty years have done, to take a direct path in politics, only to find that he has entered a world in which intellectual honesty is regarded as a crime. If he toes the line he destroys himself as a writer, while if he refuses to do so he is denounced as a renegade.” Orwell calls this “the insoluble problem of literature and society.” In the same review, to the answer proposed by George Woodcock, Libertarian Anarchism, Orwell writes, “all movements involving large groups of people tend to be alike in their intellectual atmosphere.” This generational dilemma may be extended to the insoluble problem of the individual and the collective, of which the -isms appear repeatedly in Orwell’s journalism: Individualism, Collectivism. From our current distance, Orwell’s euphemism, the denunciation of the renegade, ought perhaps to be revised. Since the price the renegade paid was often, if not always, detention and imprisonment, his forced exclusion from the collective. Those societies, adopting Collectivism in the form of Totalitarianism, with which Orwell was acquainted, had, to state the obvious, more extreme measures at their disposal. But Orwell, throughout his journalism (the years 1942-1949 collected in The Observer Years), remains open to the idea of a benign Collectivism, pointing out (in a review of Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle, 1945) “the error in assuming that a collectivist society would destroy human individuality … so-called collectivist systems now existing only try to wipe out the individual because they are not really collectivist.” Collectivism is, for George Orwell, egalitarian by definition. Although not existing in fact, it is not not existing by definition: Orwell praises Oscar Wilde’s “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” and makes the “painful” comparison with Real Existing Socialism (as Slavoj Zizek calls it), with authoritarian economic collectivism, in order to number the flaws in Wilde’s proposition, amongst which its Utopianism does not figure. Rather, Wilde is in error in his assumption that we are ‘starving in the midst of plenty’ and that machines will do the work. Orwell summarises by saying “Wilde’s version of Socialism could only be realised in a world not only far richer but also technically far more advanced than the present one.” These are not in themselves unfulfillable conditions.
In “Digital Maoism,” Jaron Lanier proposes a critique of digital collectivism and suggests that there are good and bad uses for collective intelligence. The first implies the second, since digital Maoism is the observable expression of a prima facie bad use of collective intelligence, to which Jaron Lanier suggests making specific improvements. His critique relies for its impact on the reference to Maoism. His suggestion depends on the credulity with which you approach a largely utilitarian argument.
The collective is more likely to be smart when it isn’t defining its own questions, when the goodness of an answer can be evaluated by a simple result (such as a single numeric value,) and when the information system which informs the collective is filtered by a quality control mechanism that relies on individuals to a high degree. Under those circumstances, a collective can be smarter than a person. Break any one of those conditions and the collective becomes unreliable or worse.
The conflict here is between two possibly irreconcilable types of collectivism: Maoist=bad; Utilitarian=good. The first assumes exactly the wiping out of the individual. Therefore, following Orwell, you might say that what Jaron Lanier is talking about in this case cannot be Collectivism. The second, the suggested corrective to the first, reliant on “individuals to a high degree” to impose “a quality control mechanism” is nothing more nor less than the factory model of Taylorism. The Collective poses the problem to be corrected. It comprises rather a series of actions, here ‘answers,’ than it does individuals. Each answer must be able to be given a number, a numerical value.You could say, equally, that the individuals who constitute the collective must also have a number, in which their value is concentrated, so that they can, depending on utility, be wiped out. The same charge, following Orwell, could be brought, that this is not Collectivism.
In limiting himself to its utility, Jaron Lanier leaves unquestioned and unexplored the political and moral dimension, which his critique, “digital Maoism” clearly raises and on which it rests. He reduces to number, ratio, the individual’s relation to the worldwide web as a form of Collective. But “Digital Maoism” generates a problematic, an excess incommensurate with and irreducible to the surplus, “smarter than a person,” the value produced by the collective under digital utilitarianism. The factory suggested by Jaron Lanier, where of course the value is found in the ‘answer,’ does not produce the “goodness of an answer,” because it is, in an historic sense, the question. Western Communist and Marxist theory address the problematic. The commodification of value, alienation of the productive collective, proletarianisation, have as backdrop nineteenth century industrialisation, the rise of the factory and factory life. In Jaron Lanier’s reversal, politics and morality, the problems of “digital Maoism,” enter into exchange as metaphors for science, for techno-scientific utility, where,
bad old ideas look confusingly fresh when they are packaged as technology.
The second part of Jaron Lanier’s “Digital Maoism” assays certain ideas, some, like a “low pass filter,” openly metaphorical, to correct a trend, incorrectly identified though it may be, that displaces its effects from the ‘digital,’ from the techno-scientific realm, onto the ideological other of an equally metaphorised ‘Mao.’ The sleight of hand occludes the historically constituted partnership between science and industry, the latter with its own forms of collectivism, and the present collusion between techno-science and late capitalism, in terms of the convergence of their interests. The latter, again, has distinct forms of collectivism to which it doesn’t always want to own up.
only the best ideas have lasting value. Science is like that.
The fact that Maoism, as an historic configuration, is notable for its absence, apart from in his title, helpfully, compounds these problems. Jaron Lanier takes his terminological coordinates for the main part off a reading of Stalin’s Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and not Mao’s China. He writes of the Consumtariat, for example. Maoism is a synecdoche, a specific case enlarged in capacity to serve as ideological hold-all. “Digital Maoism” offers, therefore, the opportunity to diversify and consider equally the problem of the problem, the problem he has with digital collectivism and the variety of problems that come out of how he deals with it. Firstly, then, against the background of the foregoing, Jaron Lanier identifies Wikipedia as an instance in a www. trend.
This trend is one in which, for one thing, a unanimous project or purpose is compromised by the anonymity of those contributing to or participating in it. The reason for compromise is not just that contributors, participants, cannot be called to account for, for instance, having an agenda outside of Wikipedia and wielding it inside or, the example he gives, for calling him a film-maker, but is, he says, more subtle. It has to do with lacking contextual information to such extent that the author’s voice can no longer be heard and can no longer assign meaning. Writing becomes pure textuality. Language itself breaks down. But is the breakdown the result of the ideological endorsement of a technical process over the product of a collective? Jaron Lanier does not make this concession. It is instead a consequence of a general trend, the collectivist mentality, prefigured in Maoism, exemplified by Wikipedia.
But, then again, isn’t this breakdown, the silencing of the voice, the making dumb of the author, simply a dumbing down and not more subtle than that? After all, one man’s pure textuality is one woman’s dirty fairground dialogue, an ecstasy of yearnings, meanings and anonymous fumblings. The ‘information age’ is surely the place to go contextualising if you really want or need to. Dumbing down, too, would seem more likely to follow from collective decision-making than either ‘semiosis’ or ‘signifiance’, those twin diseases of language and meaning diagnosed by Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze in One Thousand Plateaux.
Of course, you could say the collective is just as much at fault here for ceding primacy to the technical process and so betraying an innate and ideological weakness (that of collectivism per se) for the dumbed down, for the people’s choice. On one hand, what this says about the digital, the technical process is that it is already a dumbed down expedient. On the other, the chains binding the people to the decisions of the people are only as strong as their weakest link in the people. So that this link, being the weakest, the dumbest, the most unfit, becomes the ideological rallying point par excellence of Collectivism. In New Zealand, we’ve long had a phrase for this: the ‘common denominator.’ The latter finds its dialectical opposite in the ‘tall poppy syndrome.’ Popularised in the New Zealand media, as if in reflexive demonstration, these terms describe a pincer movement, once again familiar from One Thousand Plateaux, selecting a class of cultural participants and designating the field or plane of the national collectivity.
You could say that the game of New Zealand cultural identity insists on the idealised ‘level playing field’ of an historic Flanders. Our tallest poppies are notoriously unlucky, which is why we wear their heads on our lapels, to commemorate symbolically our entry into the Symbolic. Since the national collectivity must be ‘world class’ in order to play, must in fact be a ‘dream team,’ the synthetic affirmation of these two terms – ‘common denominator’ and ‘tall poppy syndrome’ – comes in the form of an ‘opiate enumerator’ or, more simply, a ‘head count:’ the Census is the consensus.
Douglas Wright, in Ghost Dance, the best artist’s autobiography written in New Zealand (and national treasure that he is, thus, far away from being nationally treasured, given his head symbolically), has this perfect description of the global ‘head count.’ He is lying on a divan of some kind, in surroundings less salubrious for being adjacent to a golf course; more precisely, next to a small wooded area – imagine a stand of macrocarpa infested with magpies – itself adjacent to the golf course, where the golfers are habitually losing their balls. He lapses in and out of a dream-state brought about by meds for the treatment of HIV – and he’s a bit tired. The TV’s on. The recurrent phrase, from off the TV news, that registers on his consciousness is of the nature of “Now this will really put New Zealand on the map;” “This’ll put us on the map;” and so on. Meanwhile punted or lobbed balls go missing from the irons and woods that strike them and voices ring out under the macrocarpa: “Where is it?” “It’s over here!” “I’ve found it!” “No, I’ve got it!” And for Douglas Wright, one set of voices is interpellated into and answers the other: “New Zealand;” “Where is it?” “On the map;” “It’s over here!” “I’ve found it!” “No, I’ve got it!” “New Zealand!” A constellation not entirely by the by, when you consider New Zealand’s recent historic experience of soft socialism, although perhaps you have to be part of the national collectivity to appreciate the trenchant humour of this anecdote from the cutting edge of global culture (as Kevin Roberts would have it [http://www.nzedge.com/intro/kevin.html]).
“Digital Maoism,” like New Zealand, seems to be unsure of its place on the map. In both cases, this may be due to not having one. Jaron Lanier’s identification of the genus ‘digital-maoist,’ being of the species ‘ideologico-collectivist,’ for the features he attributes to it, is best taken off the map, since they are, as stated, predominantly Stalinist and only eponymously is there any link to Mao’s China. A better touchstone than Mao might, in fact, have been Orwell, who in helping to characterise a Digital Orwellianism would have added value to the critique by allowing it to leak out beyond its digital confines into the permutations of capitalist-communism, communist-capitalism. Like David Mitchell’s notion of ‘corpocracy’ in his novel Cloud Atlas, which like the acid of George Orwell’s 1984, seeps out of science fiction into fact.
The opposition of the dumb and the vocal – even “Dead White Men” have a voice, while dumbness remains the demesne of anonymous Wikipedian drones – has more to do with Maoism than most of it. In our global, www. embrace of this trend towards Collectivism, we run the risk of being made idiots of and the reason for this, naturally enough, is that we are idiots. Mao’s model for the ‘common denominator’ was the village and his ‘tall poppy syndrome’ worked on the principle of the temporary reversal of status, the paradox of the natural and the nominated, wherein Master swaps with Slave for a day and Teacher with Student and Worker with Boss, a paradoxical reversal with a long history in the writings of the Chinese sages, according to Jonathan Spence (in Mao, cited at length in Slavoj Zizek’s Organs without Bodies). However, Mao Ze Dong’s innovation in building his collective-forming pincer-machine, the Cultural Revolution, is that the reversal is not temporary, it’s permanent. We are idiots in the eyes of the village, then, in the consensus of the census. Specifically, we are the idiots who were teachers, professors, academics, thinkers, artists and critics, the cultural authoritarians, we who put on superior airs. And we must now be cut down to size. We must be humiliated, rendered dumb, poked fun at. We are Mao’s idiots.
Seen from this aspect, Jaron Lanier’s “Digital Maoism,” is too specific not to be taken at face-value, regardless of his intention and regardless of the Cold War America haunting it. So what are the ramifications? Where does the misplaced metaphor lead? Is the ‘digital’ the revolution? Is Second Life the revolution dramatising the revolution, giving it the appearance of permanence in its real-time re-enactment? Just as the dramatic re-enactment of the Storming of the Winter Palace on the third anniversary of the October Revolution, in Russia, in 1920, and not in China, consolidated, but only temporarily, what it would have made permanent? Does Web 3.0 promise, even in its prolepsis and its theatricalisation, the People’s Revolution? Or a repeat of the sorts of ‘successes’ – that Jaron Lanier condemns as failures, insofar as the trend towards Communism, tout court, is concerned – of Webs 1.0 and 2.0? Another victory for the ‘spectacular technoculture of everyday life’? (This last phrase gives the subtitle to Geoff Waite’s essential Nietzsche’s Corps/e, Duke Uni. Press, North Carolina, 1996.)
The Cultural Revolution short-circuited in China what had been for Europe prefigured, as it occurred, in pre-European Russia, in a delirious Bakhtinian orgy of prefiguration, that sacrificed the best minds, along with any appearance of permanence. As Orwell wrote in 1944: “Every successful revolution has its June Purge. A moment always comes when the party which has seized power crushes its own Left wing and then proceeds to disappoint the hopes with which the revolution started out.” The permanent revolution, of the Cultural Revolution, in that red figurative land, in the ham fist of the digital, becomes, if it is to be called Maoist, what sort of Maoist reality? Jaron Lanier does not go far enough. Unless there is a Realpolitik at its end, which you can imagine – as the present. The clearest legatee of Collectivisim in the present, conspicuously, suspiciously even, absent from Jaron Lanier’s critique is the Corporation.
The Wikipedia is far from being the only online fetish site for foolish collectivism. There’s a frantic race taking place online to become the most “Meta” site, to be the highest level aggregator, subsuming the identity of all other sites.
Is there a better example of ‘collective intelligence’ than aggregators of the web on the net, like Wikipedia? You could call it something other than collective intelligence. Collective stupidity suggests itself. But, already, from its associations with security and the military, ‘intelligence’ means its opposite. Just like information. Think of the pre-invasion intelligence of the existence of WMD’s in Iraq. Think of Claude Shannon’s ‘bits’ of digital information.
Jaron Lanier uses the term ‘hive mind’ for the sort of thinking that takes over when a collective is pursuing some goal or is set to achieve some task, that is, when Orwell’s ‘insect men’ take over from the rational individualists. This locates the source of his discomfiture: the American antipathy, mass-paranoid, and exactly hive-minded in the case of McCarthyism, towards forms of social organisation that place the collective above the individual. The heroic individual has such a hold on the American imaginary as to make it seem a founding myth. But you’ve only to look at the late last remnants of the founding forms of social organisation, the societies of the Amish, Shakers, the Quakers, to see unanimous aggregators subsuming the identity of individual souls, anonymous friends. And in the mirror, mirror on the wall, in its self-representation as the sole remaining Superpower, it’s the United States which wants to be the most ‘Meta’ of them all. But isn’t – not in this story…
These Web-based designs assumed that value would flow from people. It was still clear, in all such designs, that the Web was made of people, and that ultimately value always came from connecting with real humans.
Don DeLillo writes in Mao II: “He puts down the glass and looks into the camera.
“He says, “Mao believed in the process of thought reform. It is possible to make history by changing the basic nature of a people.” [Penguin, New York, 1992, pp. 235-236] The question needs to be asked: Is the Web the confluence of interests out of which Jaron Lanier’s ‘Maoism’ arises or is it a copy, simulating another web of connections, ‘with real humans,’ and now dissimulating in “Digital Maoism” as the source of a ‘Maoist’ trend?
In the last year or two the trend has been to remove the scent of people, so as to come as close as possible to simulating the appearance of content emerging out of the Web as if it were speaking to us as a supernatural oracle.
Don DeLillo’s Mao has the same totemic function as Jaron Lanier’s. The Chairman is a place holder, occupying the emptiness. Almost supernatural but, unlike Uncle Joe or Uncle Sam, however, he is not supernaturally oracular. He is naturally oracular. He doesn’t speak the ‘content’ of the people or the truth or the unconscious. His sayings are collected and mass-produced in order to be inculcated into the people. He has a proprietary relation to his voice, which is given the power of insistence, of copy right. Rather than it emerging out of the collectivity, or it being made to appear so, it is placed upon the collectivity, who learn it by rote as the condition of their inclusion. Mao’s voice is capital. It owns itself and in owning itself also returns to itself the surplus of the sweat, the scent, the labour of the people, whose repetition it is. Because The Chairman’s is the voice the people repeat, he coins the thoughts they use, and by doing so puts them into circulation. So that there is no redundancy: neither that which Orwell called the June Purge, revolution following the law of thermodynamics into entropy; nor the tautology that, according to Slavoj Zizek (Organs without Bodies, p. 211), persists in Soviet Communist books and articles to, he suggests, point to the betrayal of a revolution which hadn’t revolutionised its own starting presuppositions, the Russian, unlike the Maoist, which has and does. Mao’s revolution is permanent in the same sense that Capital’s deterritorialisation is the permanent deterritorialisation of Capitalism.
The monologic of Maoism, in an identical way to that of capital, subsumes both the originality of the Web – its locus as being one of origin and not of repetition – and its difference – its Collectivism, in the Orwellian sense. The trend Jaron Lanier identifies with this monologic cannot emerge out of the Web at the same time as the Web simulates the appearance of speaking to us as a supernatural oracle. On the contrary, it is as consequence of the Web’s increasing corporatisation and not of its collectivisation – the opposition lies in the nature of ownership and on the ground of capital – that the Web repeats what it has first been told by a web of ‘real humans,’ who are in turn repeating the sayings of the prevailing monologic. And in that repetition you get a ‘trend,’ since the trend comprises repetitions: a ‘simulation’ of an ‘appearance’ of an ’emerging’ ‘as if’ – but clearly not – speaking ‘super- (meta-, hyper-, cyber-) natural’ ‘oracle.’ (‘Contrariwise,’ and ‘clearly not,’ because, as Gilles Deleuze points out, the opposite of existence is insistence.)
We now are reading what a collectivity algorithm derives from what other collectivity algorithms derived from what collectives chose from what a population of mostly amateur writers wrote anonymously.
Is the Web the container or the contained? As the receptacle for the hopes of Left-wing digerati, should it be confronted with the fact of its too close resemblance to the necessary outcome of those hopes? Or as their betrayal? Interpretation may travel in either direction, the collectivist or the corporatist, the materialist or the techno-scientific, to the Left or the Right, towards ‘Mao’ or the ‘Digital,’ without evading a monologic that doesn’t so much set its terms and the coordinates, or coordinate, or prescribe the horizon of an arc, the curvature of a space-time, as make provision for movement itself. Interpretation arrives at pretty much the same place whichever direction is taken, a commonplace, the terminus, a point of arrival at which you can neither see Capital nor hear Mao clearly. The passage of the journey, the object of interpretation, has changed through the action of some sort of verticality, of repetition, it has not taken into account. The Net woven, in the narrow, national interest of the military machine has caught, on the main, an altogether different school of thought, swimming out in international waters. The Web, being the same for both spiders and flies, anaesthetic, has fascinated, because it’s become endlessly productive. It is productive to the point of paralysis, of repetition. “To create was always something else than to communicate,” said Gilles Deleuze.
The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people. The value is in the other people. If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we’re devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots.
Beauty is of the essence, whether it’s the beauty of our tools, or the beauty of our Utopian dreams, to which we hope our tools will avail us in reaching, Utopias among which must be included the dream of an Internet that really does connect people in the exalted sphere of Juergen Habermas’s transparency of communication: those like us are, as Leonard Cohen sang, “oppressed by the figures of beauty.” We are amateurs of beauty, like the beauty of John Ralston Saul’s positive nationalism, George Orwell’s and Oscar Wilde’s vision of a benign Collectivism. For beauty we will apparently make ourselves into idiots and be, unlike Igor Stravinsky who averred he was not, mirror-struck by our own mental process, in which we will recognise the promise of beauty, because until we reach beauty, we have only aesthetics.
Geoff Waite writes: “Even utopian visions – especially utopian visions – are no longer readily informed by the possibility of transforming the repressive economic structures of global capital, whose self-representation becomes the ultimate “utopian” vision; rather, they become mere fantasies continuously recoded by, and into, the deformed but considerable pleasures of free-market consumerism and its concomitant cultures” (in Nietzsche’s Corps/e, pp. 4-5).
What this calls to mind is the unanimity of a swarm rather than the anonymity of a hive. Its interpretation requires not so much a sociology as a plaguology – in counterpoint to Paul Virilio’s dromology. The distinction may be clarified by referring to the attitude of China’s erstwhile Maoist Communist Party towards the the deterritorialisation of Capital and notably towards the Internet. It is a strategy of containment. China is doing what the West says can’t be done. However, change is happening, so runs the cliche, too fast in China. That is, not fast enough for the West: hence, a dromology. In contrast, liberal democratic States employ a tactic of giving the WWW. its head as merely another function of Capital, a concomitant sphere of consumerist culture, allowing, liberating, encouraging the acceleration and morbid intensification of its ‘natural’ drive towards absolute deterritorialisation. The Net effects consist in a tendency towards internal and external repetition – via redundancy and tautology, a vacillation. The wholesale plaguological effect insists that it arrive at its limits ever faster so as exactly to internalise, to incorporate those limits into itself – via spatial and temporal bi-location, a quantization. The beauty of its speed is one thing. Called ‘productivity’ or ‘creativity,’ it may also be called replicating the deterritorialising flows of capital and is sometimes called by the name of Globalisation. But speed is really of no concern beneath a certain classical threshold. That the WWW. eats itself is, therefore, quite another thing, a “terrible beauty,” a swarm effect, sometimes called, in the post-Internet world, Neocolonisation (with the emphasis on colon), eating itself once over, 1.0, twice over, 2.0, thrice.
Plaguology, with tongue simultaneously in both cheeks, does and doesn’t let the cat out of the box. At once, it doesn’t have insufficient reason. Not that there’s any vacillation, only uncertainty – and the double negative. For example, Andy Warhol shows you his screenprints of Mao. Into the colouristically brilliant flatness of their ground, the historic figure has disappeared, in the very repetitions of his black monochrome portrait. That’s really something, you say, admiring the beautiful colours behind Mao – at the same level as Mao’s portrait, that is, on the surface – and reading celebrity into their lack of depth. Then, Chinese importers discover, or invent, a market in the West for Maoist memorabilia: a plague of miniaturised images and portraits. Here and now, Mao’s historic absence disappears – but into what?
At Mao and at the digital, the monologic cancels surface difference. We arrive at the same point in interpretation while traveling towards both. But internal repetition seems to give height, verticality, to a path which, for considering what Jaron Lanier calls the ‘hive mind,’ could have a swarm function, above the ground of capital and property: a plaguological horizon of replication. At this point – of enlightened bewilderment, says T.S. Eliot; of distinct obscurity, says Gilles Deleuze – we are rendered not quite dumb, almost blind to Capital and nearly deaf to Mao – plague-ridden. The proximity is there but another No has been said to the voided meaning of difference: an anaesthetic degree of fascination, a zero degree, has inserted itself between the mirror’s fascination and us, oppressing us, the mirror-struck and giving rise, precisely, to an aesthetics – of confused clarity, says Gilles Deleuze. (Requiescat in pace, Jean Baudrillard: Simulation becomes Sublime.) In order to reach zero and zero in on the ground, have we not to be released from what oppresses? The answer given by Jacques Lacan, according to Slavoj Zizek, is a resounding No: traverse the fantasy.
Jaron Lanier’s “Digital Maoism” – to pursue the poetic logic of the double negative – does not exclude the possibility that either ‘Maoism’ or the ‘digital’ is an other. To define the things that are by excluding the things that are not (after the logos Anne Carson ascribes to Simonides in her Economy of the Unlost), Mao certainly doesn’t not stand for corpocracy, neither does the WWW. not simply represent capital. Why not?
It’s safer to be the aggregator of the collective.
Corporations, particularly media aggregators, have learnt emotion and the safety culture – qua culture, or cultural ecology. They have humanised, since the Taylorism and Fordism of the early twentieth century. But what this evolution does not exclude and in fact insists on is that they have evolved the human as media for asserting their dominance. In turn, they have themselves evolved as meta-sites for the accumulation of capital. This is no process of greater and greater abstraction but finds its exact analogon – its mirror – in Jaron Lanier’s ‘algorithmic derivation:’
what a collectivity algorithm derives from what other collectivity algorithms derived from what collectives chose from
Because it is a process which seeks transformation, innovation, revolution, in its means, the “meaningless murk,” Jaron Lanier points to as the end product of this derivation becomes its opposite. There are no negative values in exchange, so flip the bit and look on the bright side: “meaningless murk” is at once the primordial mud-pool, from which life itself makes its quantum leap, from the inanimate to the animate. “Meaningless murk,” the source of life, the fountain of youth, performs the ordinary and workaday miracle of making shit into gold.
It is the an-aesthetic par excellence and from its positively cancelled difference, in the interstices of creation and imagination, at every point on the way, comes the new, evolutions and images. Corporations, therefore, do not unnaturally select the human as subliminal media. By simply arrogating to themselves what individuals and collectives aggregate, they claim an environmental advantage. You might also call it genetic, or, with Antonin Artaud, genital. It is anyway generative – of the swarm. If we, as what Jaron Lanier calls the Consumtariat, the swarm-mind of illimitable appetites, eat our own, it has, in the meantime, become theirs.
The aggregator is richer than the aggregated.
The speed at which image-commodities enter and leave the sphere of our interactivity with them increases relative to techno-scientific progress in processing-power. Paul Virilio repeatedly confirms, time is money but speed is power. The element missing from this formulation is the means of reproduction, what Walter Benjamin called its mechanics, by which we can’t tell, he further claimed, that it’s there. The image inures us to the invisibility of its means of production – it administers an anaesthetic, the effects of which may not be total but are on the way, imminent and totalising, immanent.
The absence of means, or media, to which, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out, we are as blind as fish in water, and as unconscious as locusts, disappears into presence, a presence which is no simulation but dissimulation: production. This production does not exclude the human as subliminal media but plays out human reproduction on an aesthetic plane, as an aesthetics, from which the generation of surplus value is also not excluded. In turn, the making of something out of nothing – but air, breath or its very virtuality – may be called a modernist poetics, the value of which we cannot attest to by its cost. Although the cost is not immeasurable it lies in close proximity to an almost total inhumanity.
Anne Carson, writing in Economy of the Unlost of another but not unaligned poetics or economy, sums up: “You might see it as a transcendent example of what Marx calls “surplus value,” when a poet decides to double the negative and say “No” to oblivion. Or you might call it a waste of words.” [p. 108] (On page 3, she writes: “money is just a mediator for our greed.” What if what that greed amounts to is Richard Dawkins’s selfish gene? And what if money’s mediation is imposed to advantage that gene? So there might be genetic copyright issues?)
Don’t the Chairman and the Party, for “Digital Maoism,” cease to resemble anything other than a corporation, indeed, the corporation, as its chairman and board of directors, corpocracy? And, for not being him, mightn’t Mao Ze Dong’s improper nomination here have to devolve upon Rupert Murdoch? Or any of the many other chairmen, not to speak of their boards, in the many other boardrooms?
The answer of these last aggregators, of these corpocrats, to the visionaries of the www., to the digital revolutionaries, might then be the same as that given by Jacques Lacan to the swarming student body at Vincennes in 1969: “What you as a revolutionary aspire to is a master. You will have one.” Jaron Lanier’s nomination of Mao for mastery, as the titular head of the ‘hive-mind’ must be countered with a double negative, must not be discounted. But if it is to count and retain any value, should it not be appraised in this ironic light as ‘the lie that tells the truth,’ a truth over which it gains no control and by which it is unmastered? What then provides for the circularity of this argument? Or how is provision made for history – that long journey of interpretation?
in the fairly near future enough communication and education will take place through anonymous Internet aggregation that we could become vulnerable to a sudden dangerous empowering of the hive mind. History has shown us again and again that a hive mind is a cruel idiot when it runs on autopilot. Nasty hive mind outbursts have been flavored Maoist, Fascist, and religious, and these are only a small sampling. I don’t see why there couldn’t be future social disasters that appear suddenly under the cover of technological utopianism.
The striking inclusion in this “‘small sampling” of “nasty hive mind outbursts” is that of the religious “flavor.” But notice how Jaron Lanier couches his revelation of a potentially disastrous, if not, finally, catastrophic, futurity in terms borrowed from an ice-cream vendor, that is, in choices of consumption. A plaguology does have a religious ‘flavour.’ But it is not, after all, a matter of taste, such as that constructing history here and provisioning it with ice-cream. Where you saw there was beauty before, now there is but one choice: the technological utopianism inherent in Jaron Lanier’s view of the Internet.
The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people.
Social disasters, political catastrophes, moral abdications and historical blind-spots, do appear suddenly, neither under-cover, nor in the future, but according to appearance. According to what can presently be seen, each constitutes an horizon, a “minor apocalypse,” says Tadeusz Konwicki, which taken all together inform – to limit the example to that shown in this discourse – the individual’s relation to the world wide web, rather than form the apocalypse on the absolute horizon of the eschatological.
Aesthetics became the highest principle of political and moral choice in New Zealand in 1984. This, at least, was how it represented itself, as the sudden appearance of many flavours and colours, where before there had only been the light grey of our soft socialist past. The fourth Labour government chose to follow Milton Friedman’s free-market policies and force our entry into and allow our cooption by the Globalized corpocratic world. The end of this modernisation is not in sight.
A final note: a modernist poetics has haunted these thoughts on “Digital Maoism” and limited its responsibility to complete clarity. Plaguology is of the same coinage as the poetics of a “terrible beauty.” The latter need not only describe the beauty of terror. It is indeed in excess. It might also figure the displacement of beauty onto terror and prefigure the way in which capital may in turn displace or may already have displaced onto terror in the circulation of fear: the overturn of capitalism into worldwide terrorism and the concomitant culture and currency of fear. These remain questions of aesthetics. As Michel Foucault enjoins, know how what is made was made so that it can be unmade.