Reciprocal Contradiction

Turning On the Eternal Network

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I’ve been trying to use twitter less. As this state’s on-again, off-again quasi-lockdowns slowly lumber through their eternal returns, boredom has translated into days spent simply scrolling, refreshing, hour after hour, day after day. It’s a cliched thing to say at this point, but my attention span is in shambles—a recent read-through of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying was a constant struggle between the difficulties of the text and the temptation to look at the phone. Long-form projects sink into infinite deferral. Oh well. A break from social media broke down after a few beers yesterday, but it’s alright; unlike the weeks prior, yesterday saw something actually interesting did happen. Aly unveiled an “Autodidact’s Guide to Accelerationism”, which instant became an object of minor controversy—it’s a reading list that, by and large, skips all the usual suspects (Marx, Deleuze, Guattari, Land, Fisher…).

Aly’s list can be seen from two angles. On the one hand, it is a deliberate attack on the ‘canon’, undermining what has often become a stifling, Oedipalized grid primed and ready for the reduction of thought and expression to a few standardized movements. On the other hand, it strives to get as near as possible to the “burning, living center of matter” by resurrecting what has become accelerationism’s blind spot: in particular, the buried lineage that begins with Luce Irigaray and culminates in Xenofeminism by way of Sadie Plant and other figures of 90s cyberfeminism. The striking from the record of this line has been puzzling: the CCRU did begin with Plant, and the introduction of people like Fisher to this milieu was through Switch, her pre-Warwick cultural studies unit. And take Fisher’s 2005 blog post ‘Continuous Contact’: it follows a circuitous route from Irigaray’s The Sex That Is Not One through Plant’s ‘The Future Looms’ and ‘Coming Across the Future’ to examine the ties that bind women and computers. Land’s Qwernomics is mentioned in order to subordinate it to this line—”the schizo-analysis of the impact upon primarily female typists of the arrival of the Qwerty keyboard in the nineteenth century”. Amy Ireland’s epic “Scrap Metal and Fabric” (listed in the Autodidact’s Guide) extends this tendency by carrying it further away from the shoreline’s safety, and recontextualizing Land’s take-up of Moldbuggian patchwork within this same context.

By working to drag this trajectory from the depths to the surface, Aly also brings accelerationism—now more a splinter of cyberfeminism than vice-versa—back to the (un)ground that gave rise to it in the first place: not the CCRU, but an overlapping web of political weirdos, mad-eyed cultural producers, hackers and undefinable dissidents… (I realize that by formalizing it in this ways conjures again the overcoding canon—but I’m a sucker for subcultural history). Consider Plant and Land’s 1994 text ‘Cyberpositive’, which is a far more puzzling and interesting text than later works like ‘Meltdown’ (I suspect, without much evidence, that ‘Cyberpositive’ is something of a schizophonic outline for Plant’s jettisoned text on the dissolution of the Situationist spectacle—pieces of which likely became Zeroes + Ones and Writing on Drugs)…

Europeans used to perish of diseases in the tropics, swathing their camps in mosquito nets as a defence against malaria. Now cyberpositive diseases are spreading strange tropics to the metropolis, and the screening systems are exploding out of control. The netting no longer filters out the invaders, they have learnt to infiltrate the networks. Now even the test programs are unreliable, the net itself is infected.

‘Cyberpositive’ first appeared in Unnatural: Techno-Theory for a Contaminated Culture, a sadly-forgotten slab of radioactive 90s freak-out compiled and edited by Matthew Fuller. There’s a close-knit web buried in these pages: Fuller at this time was a member of the “speculative software group” I/O/D. I/O/D’s first ‘issue’—their publications were something of downloadable ‘zines of experimental texts and softwares—included Stephen Metcalf’s text ‘Black Capital’. The ever-mysterious Metcalf (who also penned ‘Third Terminal’, found in the pages of Unnatural) was a student of Plant and a member of her Switch unit, before becoming affiliated with the CCRU after Plant’s relocation to Warwick; ‘Black Capital’ would be republished in the first issue of Mackay’s Collapse ‘zine, while his ‘Killing Time/Strife Kolony/NeoFuturism’ inagurated ‘swarm 2’ of CCRU’s Abstract Culture zine.

Fuller and another Unnatural contributor, Graham Harwood, spent the early 90s running the militantly left-wing, pro-DIY ‘zine Underground. In 1994—a moment that comes to look more and more as some kind of Year Zero—the two aided in organizing an event at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts called ‘Terminal Futures’. The event saw talks and interventions by outfits like I/O/D, Critical Art Ensemble, figures from the fringe world of Italian squatter and pirate radio networks, DIY techno labels, underground comic artists, etc—but the headliner of Terminal Futures was VNS Matrix, the notorious band of digital punks that “emerged from the cyberswamp during a Southern Australian summer circa 1991”. As their ‘founding myth’ recounts, the group was on a “mission to hijack the toys from technocowboys and remap cyberculture from a feminist bent”. This was a vision of cyberspace utterly foreign to the ‘Californian Ideology’, which saw the emergent digital future as the return to a kind of Jeffersonian pastoralism of yeomen and craftsmen. In its place was a rejiggered frontierism whose nature was intrinsically subversive: a (non)space where identities were eclipsed by the wild oscillation of disintegrating masks and rigid institutions were obsolesced by a dazzling cacophony of networks and counter-networks. Or, in Lacanian terms, the breakdown of the signifying chain that maintained the functionalism of the symbolic order.

From the VNS Matrix manifesto:

We are the virus of the new world disorder
Disrupting the symbolic from within
Saboteurs of big daddy mainframe
The clitoris is a direct line to the matrix
The VNS Matrix
Terminators of the moral code
Mercenaries of slime

VNS Matrix—Josephine Starrs, Julianne Pierce, Francesca da Rimini and Virginia Barratt—kicked off the Terminal Futures event with a self-history titled “Pathogenic Vectors”. A central piece was All New Gen, a video game that thrust the player into a war against the ‘Big Daddy Mainframe’ (described as a stand-in for the “military-industrial data environment” in one recent write-up). Other collaborations soon followed. In 1995, da Rimini joined forces with Fuller and Harwood (alongside with Gomma Guaneri of the Decoder collective in Italy and British DJ/sound artist Scanner) to launch VIROGENSIS, a series of talks and multi-media experiments across Australia. VIROGENESIS 2 would soon followed in 1996, and then Code Red, organized by Pierce. It is also worth pointing out that a piece by VNS also appears in Unnatural, alongside Plant and Land’s ‘Cyberpositive’.

There was a fundamental congruence between the cyberfeminism of VNS Matrix and that of Plant. Both ‘recuperated’ the history of technology that was coded by male, majoritarian orders (running from Charles Babbage through the military-industrial complex) by re-emphasizing the occult role played by women in its history. Going along with this excavation was a mutual emphasis on the materiality of the body. At a 1994 talk at ICA’s ‘Towards the Aesthetics of Future’ event (the immediate predecessor to Harwood and Fuller’s ‘Terminal Futures’), Plant outlined how depictions of cyberspace often heralded it to be a space of transcendence, a space-apart that allowed one to leave behind the junk of the human body. Her alternative vision, by contrast, emphasized the importance of the meat and the new powers (in the Spinozist-Deleuzian sense) that were unveiled through the rapid evolution of and interrelations between computer technology, drugs, and techno-culture.

Swimming through similar waters, VNS’s Josephine Starrs was declaring a full two years prior that “lots of computer technophiles… jack in the machine and forget about the body, to reject the meat of the body. In our work we’re not finished with the body…”

It is within these tangled coordinates that defied geographical distance, where cyberfeminism, DIY and ‘zine culture, the rave scene, disaffected academics and techno-culture mingled and blended together with a wild disregard for orthodoxy, canons, institutions, the state, capital, etc, that the CCRU—and mutating currents of ‘accelerationism’ that spiraled out from it—must, in my mind, be situated if one was to understand what was truly at stake in that moment.

The webs can be drawn out further, perhaps infinitely. Mention has been made of the Italian connection: Gomma’s Decoder collective, the squatters, the pirate radio technicians. Sometime in the middle of the 90s this brew spewed forth a group that called themselves the ‘Transmanics’, a small coterie of neo-Situationists who penned hallucinatory tracts on their psychogeographical wanderings through the postmodern capitalist metropole (the members of the Transmaniacs were, incidentally, some of the same figures that launched the better known Luther Blissett Project). The Transmaniac’s writings—which directly anticipated the fevered CCRU-style of hyper-compressed, fevered prose—were translated into English and published in Transgressions: A Journal of Urban ExplorationTransgression‘s editorial board included, in turn, Luther Blissett ‘himself’, Stewart Home, and Sadie Plant. Another common fixture in Transgressions was Tom Vague of the infamous Vague ‘zine; as Mark Fisher would later recount, “British cyberpunk was invented by pulp modernist bricoleur Mark Downham in the pages of Vague. Certainly there would have been no Ccru without Downham’s… treatsies” that appeared in the pages of that magazine.

Or take Stewart Home, the person who stood at the crossroads of Situationism and Neoism—at least until around 1985, when he came to Neoism as something of a dead end. It was at this point that he revived Gustav Metzger’s ideas of an ‘art strike’: “certain individuals will put down their tools and cease to make, distribute, sell, exhibit, or discuss their cultural work for a three year period beginning on 1 January 1990”. But here Plant would be found again, offering her reflections on the strike (which she linked in a thread going back to Dada; elsewhere, the line running from Dada would be taken to the rave culture that so informed the CCRU) in Here & Now (see The Art Strike Papers collection for more on this nexus).

Neoism and the subsequent Art Strike would form an important part of the discussion presented in her book on the Situationists, The Most Radical Gesture, and it was there that she identified a series of problems confronting both critical theorists (namely: Baudrillard) and these experimental artists in overcoming the Spectacle. These efforts predated the cyberfeminist ‘turn’; it’s telling, in my mind, that she ended up positioning the advent of cyberfeminism—and what can be regarded as (one of the many?) origin(s) of accelerationism—as limit-point of the Spectacle’s grasp. Compare The Most Radical Gesture, immediately following the discussion of the Art Strike:

…the recognition that even the most radical of gestures is implicated in this process cannot be allowed to lead to petrification and silence. It must, on the contrary, serve as a springboard for subversive strategies of interruption and provocation.

With both the situationists and the postmodernists, it is certainly true that we live in an age in which anything can be used for any purpose. But it is only in the absence of any purpose that the will to distinguish between plagiaristic détournements and recuperations disappears; only in a world with neither domination nor resistance can we give ourselves up to the endless ecstasies of purposeless communication. Meanwhile, détournements, subversions, and irreverent plagiarisms continue to match the assimilations, dissipations, and recuperations which strengthen and protect capitalist society.

with the vision of the Control Society’s liquidation, presented in the 1993 text “Beyond the Screens”:

Cyberfeminism is an information technology as fluid attack, an onslaught on human agency and the solidity of identity. Its flows breach the boundaries between man and machine, introducting systems of control whose complexity overwhelms the human masters of history. Secreted in culture, its future begins to come on the screen, downloaded virally into a present still striving, with increasing desperation, to live in the past. Cyberfeminism is simply the acknowledgement that the patriarchy is doomed. No one is making it happen: it is not a political project and has neither theory nor practice, no goals and no principles. It has nevertheless begun and manifests itself as an alien invasion: a program which is already running beyond the human.

Swap the words “cyberfeminism” with “accelerationism”, as defined in the CCRU lineage and the results are the same. For Plant, cyberfeminism was an “irresponsible” feminism that might “not really be a feminism at all”—it was tipping notions of complexity and self-organization, a series of exploratory programs at one time looked to as something potentially liberating, that were in that same moment being recoded by Silicon Valley capitalism as the new lingua franca of the ‘New Economy’ 90s. Modernity has moved slowly across the centuries, but now it began to speed up as machinery, data processing system, trade routes and telecommunication systems began ‘hack into themselves’. Cracks in the Spectacle, weird things leaking through.

_____________

The small countercultural nebula sketched above—really just an all-too-brief cross section of a vast universe—marked the moment when George Brecht and Robert Filliou, writing in the heady atmosphere of 1968, described as the “Eternal Network”. Brecht and Filliou were both artists associated with various tendencies swirling about under the label of ‘Fluxus’, and the Eternal Network was a coinage that attempted to take the art movement global by tying together individuals and projects in an unending spiral of creation. It was with the mail artists—most commonly associated with particular individuals affiliated with Fluxus and Ray Johnson’s Correspondance School, but moving far beyond the confines of those living in North America—that the term became most identified. Mail art hijacked the postal systems of the world to transmute communication itself, already then becoming a commodity in its own right through processes of informationalization, into aesthetic objects. In micro-form this was something of the realization of the great dreams of the avant-garde: art into the everyday, and every individual an artist (it’s by no mistake that mail art planted its roots in the wildier and woolier dimensions of the proletarian fringe—bottom-up pop modernism).

Mail art’s eternal network formed the basis of a mad array of strange cultural configurations that emerged across the seventies and eighties and well into the wired nineties: both the aforementioned Neoism and Luther Blissett Project found were seeded in the ties that were being forged. Neoism itself had been initiated in 1979 by Istvan Kantor while operating under the name ‘Monty Cantsin’—an open-name strategy that directly preceded the perhaps more-popular Karen Eliots and Luther Blissetts of the world (going further down this line: it’s my strong suspicion that the CCRU’s hyperstitional ‘carriers’ were informed by the open-name practice). Monty Cantsin, in turn, had been ‘invented’ by David Zack, one of the most famous pranksters operating in the mail art world and himself a friend of Kantor.

What does the twists and turns of these marginal experiment art movements have to do with ‘accelerationism’? Three things, in my mind. The first one is an exercise in intellectual history: there’s a line that runs from mail art to Neoism to the Art Strike to the CCRU, with Plant acting as a key mediator in the final move, contextualized within the problematic space posed by Debord’s theory of the Spectacle (it’s interesting in this sense that when it came to Situationism, the figures involved in projects like the Luther Blissett Project and the Transmaniacs opted for the trail blazed by the ‘Second Situationist International’, the lineage of Asger Jorn resulting from his excommunication from the ‘main’ group by Debord).

The second revolves around the question of technology and communication. In Plant’s schizo-history (i.e. a story of immanence that evades capital-H History) of women and technology, women’s role as a means of communication is brought to the fore—think of the typist or the secretary or other forms of rather anonymous clerical work. To quote Amy Ireland quoting Plant quoting Irigaray:

…Plant emphasises the connection between material, auto-catalytic, self-organising, positive feedback processes and the coding of the female sex by history, psychoanalysis, biology, genetics, economics and the emergent field of computer science.. .Othered in advance, it is this corrupt, feminised, systematicity that patriarchal systems of control and identification are premised on, and yet it is always repressed and subordinated in its role as facilitator, lubricant, or medium for the masculine sociality and parameters of exchange that rely on it for infrastructure. Women and machines, Plant argues, have historically shared the ghostlike position of the intermediary. They are nonetheless ‘the very “possibility of mediation, transaction, transition, transference”.

The functional isomorphism of women and machines highlights, for Plant, a hidden and profound affinity between the two. The woman is not a mere metaphor for the machine or the machine a metaphor for the woman: at their basis they are the same, and in the unfolding developmental processes verging on auto-catalytic runaway their status as means to an end are becoming ends in themselves. But does the experimentalism of the mail artists fit into this framework? Plant never shied away from emphasizing the relationship between the delirial processes that she was tracing and the emergent excesses of cultural production. Runaway processes irradiated culture, hijacking their codes as much as experimental voyagers of all types were hijacking the codes of the Reality Studio or the Spectacle. An odd doodle on a postcard or a bizarre collage showing up in your mailbox or even artists scattered to the corners of the earth chattering in strange, impenetrable languages to one another might seem meager compared the wider tendencies of informationalization and automation, but it’s telling that as an expression of popular modernism the same ends/means inversion is carried out: the medium of circulation becoming something else entirely. Read from this position, the line running straight from 70s mail art to 90s cyberculture becomes completely intelligible.

The third point proceeds directly from here: the ‘eternal network’ as a spectral prefiguration of what cyberspace seemed capable of becoming. This is the central thesis of Tatiana Bazzichelli’s book Networking: The Net as Artwork (absolutely required reading for those wishing to untangle these threads further, particularly with regards to strange collisions of Autonomist Marxism, mail art and cyberpunk in Italy). Bazzichelli shows how in these subcultures, the ‘artist’ is at once a ‘networker’, but it’s the kind of networker completely alien to de-subjectified self as mere conduit for relays that Baudrillard warned about in The Ecstasy of Communication. This networker, by contrast, is embedded within a matrix that constitutes the rich, twisting fabric of an open-ended processes through which the dominant codes are exploded from the inside-out. Plant uses the term ‘matrix’ to refer to plane of immanence where matter itself begins to ‘turn on’; these zones—later mythologized by the CCRU as the ‘Crypt’ where the K-Goths dwell—are the cultural fall-out, where the eternal network gets wired and weird.

Go deeper: part of the allure of the web in its earlier days—and central to the recoding taking place in post-Star Wars (the Reagan program, not the films) California of the 1990s—was not only the fact that it had yet to be colonized by the state and corporate capital. It was dominated by an odd degree of anonymity, reinforced by the sparse design of BBS systems, forums, and the like. The web, in other words, appeared as radically depersonalizing, and it was through this mechanism that it rapidly became the soft-underbelly of a society joyfully reclining into the end of history. Depersonalization, likewise, cuts across the trajectory being sketched above. Take the open-name strategy: be it Monty Cantsin, Karen Eliot or Luther Blissett, what was made possible was a means of writing and acting without a face. Likewise, Plant emphasized how the complex storm of systems and subsystems colliding and mutating was cutting around from rigid forms of subjecthood and identity—what Deleuze and Guattari called a ‘molar’ system.

The ‘Faciality’ plateau:

 Beyond the face lies an altogether different inhumanity: no longer that of the primitive head, but of “probe-heads”; here, cutting edges of deterritorialization becomes operatives and lines of deterritorialization positive and absolute, forming strange new becomings, new polyvocalities. Become clandestine, make rhizome everywhere, for the wonder of a nonhuman life to be created. Face, my love, you have finally become a probe-head… Year Zen, year omega, year ω…

The web now has lost its depersonalizing edge; the face had reconcentrated itself everywhere in the dual form of, on the one hand, the prioritization of the visual regime over the textual, and on the other, data mining, analysis, and targetting systems that personalize and modulate. It is by no coincidence that the deeper the web moves into a machinery for the revolving circuit of commodified pathology, Narcissus, that identitarian forms of politics have reached their fevered pitch. “Whether its by reality tv or social networks”, wrote Mark Fisher, “people have been captured/captivated by their own reflections. Its all done with mirrors. The various attacks on the subject in theory have done nothing to resist super-personalization of contemporary culture. Identitarianism rules”.

The Xenofeminists, for their part, take a glance backward to heyday of Plant and VNS Matrix before re-asserting the materiality obscured by the dance of screens and mirrors:

The potential of early, text-based internet culture for countering repressive gender regimes, generating solidarity among marginalised groups, and creating new spaces for experimentation that ignited cyberfeminism in the nineties has clearly waned in the twenty-first century… Digital technologies are not separable from the material realities that underwrite them; they are connected so that each can be used to alter the other towards different ends. Rather than arguing for the primacy of the virtual over the material, or the material over the virtual, xenofeminism grasps points of power and powerlessness in both, to unfold this knowledge as effective interventions in our jointly composed reality.

 

 

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