het masker van de anonimiteit–collectieve individualiteit ontwerpen

Posted: March 17, 2014 at 11:27 am  

Door Geert Lovink en Daniël de Zeeuw

(in Dutch, English version coming up soon)

(dit is laatste versie in het Nederlands van de auteurs, geschreven voor een special issue van het Vlaamse blad RektoVerso over individualisering, april 2014. de gedrukte versie, aangepast door de redaktie, is ietwat anders, maar wie zit daar nu over in? /geert)

‘De fluide reeks van vage, halfvoltooide gedaanteverwisselingen, waarvan elk natuurlijk mensengelaat de voortreffelijke uitdrukking is, mondt uit in het masker. Het masker is duidelijk, het drukt iets zeer bepaalds uit, niet meer en niet minder. Het masker is star; dit bepaalde iets verandert niet.’ (Elias Canetti, Massa & Macht)

Het taboe op schijnvormen

Individu en collectief staan per definitie op gespannen voet met elkaar, zo leren ons de moderne denktradities. Het vrijgevochten Westers individu koestert rechten die het tegen de bemoeizucht van de gemeenschap moet beschermen. De gemeenschapszin valt echter niet samen met de belangen van de Staat – deze vormt oorspronkelijk juist een alliantie met het individu, en is middels het sociaal contract gebonden aan de belofte te interveniëren waar het individu dreigt te verdrinken in de welgemeende Goedheid van de gemeenschap. Echter, de Staat moet daar wel toe in staat zijn; ze moet recht en onrecht kunnen scheiden en vervolgens opsporen, identificeren en rectificeren. Hiertoe dient het individu tot rechtspersoon te worden. Om de privileges van het recht te kunnen toekennen aan degenen die het toekomen, dienen individuen geidentificeerd te worden, met voor- en achternaam, en in het bezit van de juiste stempels. Zo ontstaat een administratief apparaat gericht op deze emancipatoire taak. Beambten leggen dossiers aan over iedere burger. Al doende wordt de oorspronkelijke alliantie tussen individu en Staat steeds ondoorgronderlijker. Incipit Kafka. Uiteindelijk, in een ironische wending, wordt de afgebrokkelde welvaarsstaat, bewapend met gekoppelde databestanden, voor het individu zelf tot die vijandige gemeenschapszin waartegen ze oorspronkelijk diende te beschermen. Van de teruggetrokken staat valt weinig meer te verwachten. Het individu, gemuteerd tot sociale media gebruiker, dient zich nogmaals te immuniseren, ditmaal tegen een overijverige maar gekrompen Staat, een ongeziene gast die overal recht wil brengen en haar oneindige goed- en rechtvaardigheid ongevraagd met een ieder deelt.

De bovengenoemde wending leidt tot een permanente schizofrenie in het denken over de verhouding tussen individu en collectief. Noch de traditionele gemeenschapszin noch de moderne natiestaat lijken nog als synthetisch principe te kunnen fungeren. Zijn er nog alternatieven? Twintigste eeuwse politiek-filosofische en avantgardistische kunstprojecten zagen het als hun taak zulke alternatieve principes te construeren maar deze drang wordt vandaag niet langer gevoeld. Het ‘postmodernisme’ was in dat opzicht geen uitzondering. Ze verschilt echter van eerdere pogingen – die de oplossing veelal in humanistische of rationeel-communicatieve hoek zochten – in dat ze juist het onmenselijke, onpersoonlijke en het oorspronkelijk anonieme in de mens als levend wezen benadrukt en als ‘posthumaan’ ethos doorontwikkelt. Mens en machine moeten elkaar beter kennen en intieme vrienden worden. Waar eerdere pogingen het samen-zijn rechtvaardigden middels een identiteit (het mens-zijn, nationaal-zijn of burger-zijn) fundeert postmodernisme het samen-zijn in het afwezig-zijn van een specifieke of universele identiteit. Dit omzeilen van de juridische problematiek van het rechtssubject (dat middels zulke identiteiten controleerbaar werd) maakt een alternatief samen-denken van individualiteit en collectiviteit mogelijk. Zodra de grenzen die het individuele zelf van de leefomgeving en andere individuen scheiden begrepen worden als plastisch, dynamisch en radikaal ‘open’, wordt het mogelijk het individu als tijdelijke gecondenseerd actiepotentieel binnen een sociaal aggregaat te begrijpen, zonder dat afzonderlijke actoren daarmee gelijk gebonden zijn aan van te voren vastgestelde regels. Immers, het postmodernisme leert ons: het proces zelf is het enige dat bestaat.

Het ‘dividu’ neemt steeds andere rollen op zich in de co-productie van het gemeenschappelijke. In plaats van een nihilistische, ascetische vorm van zelfopheffing is er sprake van een esthetische vermenigvuldiging van het immer afwezige zelf, een bodemloze stapeling en ruilhandel van maskers. De wederzijdse anonimiteit die zo ontstaat is dus radicaal publiek. In deze is ze diametraal tegengesteld aan de idee van privacy, zelf slechts een herhaling van het immuniseringsmechanisme dat het individu reeds is. De ethiek van de privacy stuit dus uiteindelijk steeds op dezelfde aporia van het moderne denken over de relatie tussen individu en collectief: het hoogst haalbare is een halfslachtig compromis dat bestemd is om telkens door nieuwe technologische ontwikkelingen ingehaald te worden. De ethiek van de wederzijdse anonimiteit daarentegen breekt met deze logica. Meervoudige namen zijn hier een voorbeeld van. Protestbewegingen zoals recentelijk Anonymous maken hier gebruik van. Maar reeds in de vroege 15e eeuw waren er rebellerende boeren die onder de naam “Armer Konrad” de aristocratische elite angst aanjaagden. En in het begin van de 19e eeuw tekenden de Britse luddieten ieder manifest met de naam “Ned Ludd” of “General Ludd”.

Ook in de conceptuele en performance kunst van de laatste decenia wordt er gebruik gemaakt van zulke personages, ditmaal wezens die alleen in de media leven. Het bekendste voorbeeld hiervan is het paneuropese Luther Blissett project. Als open personage kan Luther Blissett door iedere kunstenaar gebruikt worden. Het bekendste werk van dit personage is een roman genaamd “Q”. Hierin wordt ook het begrip ‘con-dividu’ voorgesteld:

‘Het is nodig om voor eens en altijd van het begrip In-dividu af te komen. Als begrip is ze diep reactionair, anthropocentrisch, en immer geassocieerd met begrippen als originaliteit en copyright. In plaats daarvan zouden we de idee van een Con-dividu moeten omarmen. Dat wil zeggen: een meervoudige singulariteit wiens ontwikkeling nieuwe definities van “verantwoordelijkheid” en “wil” met zich meebrengen waar advocaten en rechters geen raad mee weten’.

Ook in de latere Autonome a.f.r.i.k.a. Gruppe opereren meerdere anonieme kunstenaars onder dezelfde naam. Ook hier wordt deze taktiek als mediatie van individu en collectief gepresenteerd:

‘De meervoudige naam heft de scheiding tussen individu en collectief op. Op magische wijze stelt ze in staat deel te nemen aan de collectieve figuur van een denkbeeldige persoon, waarin de beweging en macht van een onzichtbare massa belichaamd zijn’.

Het is niet moeilijk om deze kleine geschiedenis van de anonimiteit in de kunst verder uit te breiden. Zo gebruikten de Yippies, mail artists, Black Mask, Against the Wall Motherfucker en de Neoisten reeds soortgelijke taktieken. Andere illustere voorgangers van Luther Blisett zijn Coleman Healy, Karen Eliot en Monty Cantsin (een ‘open pop star’ bedacht door Al Ackerman in 1978). Opvolgers van Luther zijn 0100101110101101.ORG, Wu Ming, Bilwet, en Sonja Bruenzels. Natuurlijkerwijs worden hier activisme en kunst steeds onafscheidelijker. Samen richten ze zich vooral op de werking van de mainstream media, door in plaats van morele principes of onhaalbare utopieën, manipulatie met manipulatie te beantwoorden. Zo is ook Subcomandante Marcos van de Zapatista beweging een meervoudige gebruikersnaam: ‘iedereen is Marcos’. Ook het Franse anonieme collectieve Tiqqun en The Invisible Committee exploreren de mogelijkheden van zulke nieuwe vormen van anonieme creatie, en roepen expliciet op tot navolging. In sommige gevallen gaat het hier om een collectieve identiteit waarvan de namen niet per se geheim zijn tot aan pseudoniemen, van Hakim Bey tot Tinkerbell. Het is belangrijk vast te houden dat anonimiteit draait om het spel van de verborgen identiteit op dat specifieke moment, in die context. Anonimiteit is hier bovenal een tijdelijke ervaring, een gammele constructie die werkt zolang ie werkt en zodra het verval inzet zo snel mogelijk weer mag verdwijnen. Dogmatisch vasthouden aan Tijdelijke Gemeenschappelijke Noemers is niet verstandig – het is beter om de namen door te geven.

Laten we een onderscheid te maken tussen de strategie van Luther Blissett en die van de Invisible Committee. De eerste is een imaginaire auteur terwijl de laatste een collectief is dat met één stem spreekt. Hoe belangrijk is visualisering en personificering? Luther Blissett is een masker, maar bij Anonymous is het masker zelf het masker. Wat kunnen we hieruit afleiden? Is het verstandig om zelf aan de slag te gaan en denkbeeldige entiteiten te ontwerpen of is het beter om je bij een groter collectief zelf aan te sluiten? Zijn we toe aan ontsnappingsroute voor het gecodificeerde subject of zijn we meer op zoek naar grotere eenheden? Iedereen kan optreden als Anonymous maar dat betekent nog niet dat alle handelingen binnen die context toegestaan zijn. Woordvoerders die zich het project toeeigenen worden al snel geexcommuniceerd. In die zin zijn deze gemeenschappelijke identiteiten zowel open als gesloten. Open personages zoals Monty Cantsin en Karen Eliot kunnen daarentegen overal en op ieder moment, door een ieder, worden ingezet, ook nog over 20 of 200 jaar.

Anonimiteit als spel

Niemand weet precies waar ze vandaan komen, wie ze dienen, of ze goede of slechte intenties hebben, of het slechts een grap is, een oppositie in leven gehouden door degenen tegen wie ze zich verzetten. Ze dragen maskers, verkleden zich als indianen, beroven postkoetsen en communiceren middels geheime tekens op afvalcontainers: WASTE (een acroniem voor “We Await Silent Trystero Empire”). Het blijft in het midden of deze schaduworganisatie echt bestaat of dat ze niet meer is dan een fantasme, een angstbeeld door de bestaande orde zelf geprojecteerd, altijd parallel, altijd ondergravend, omtrekkend, onbekend, verassend. Trystero: dit is de naam van ondergrondse communicatienetwerk van afvalligen in The Crying of Lot 49, product van het brein van Thomas Pynchon (zelf een mysterieus personage waarover vrijwel niets bekend is).

Toch is hun plotselinge verschijning op het toneel tegelijkertijd ook een geruststelling: er is iets waarvan ze weten dat ze het niet wisten. Zo onderscheidde Donald Rumsfeld op een inmiddels beruchte persconferentie drie kenniscategorieën: zaken waarvan we weten dat we ze weten, waarvan we weten dat we ze niet weten, en waarvan we niet weten dat we ze niet weten. Dat op 11 september twee vliegtuigen het WTC zouden doorboren paste volgens Rumsfeld in de laatste categorie. Ze scheurde het gladde oppervlak van een opkomende ‘nieuwe wereld orde’ open. Tegelijkertijd vormde ze ook de perfecte aanleiding voor de Bush regering om deze nieuw orde verder uit te diepen. Het resultaat van deze doorontwikkeling – voor veel burgers juist een ‘unknown unknown’ – werd pas afgelopen jaar deels aan het licht gebracht door Edward Snowden en anderen.

Onder het motto ‘Total Information Awareness’ vormde 9/11 dus de aanleiding voor ’s werelds grootste data-verzamelcampagne, met als doel de ‘unknown unknown’ op het spoor te komen. De verzameling en analyse van persoonsgegevens door overheden en bedrijven maken nagenoeg onmogelijk wat ooit juist een van de kernwaarden en -beloftes van het internet was: anonimiteit. Westerse burgers zouden het recht hebben zich te beschermen tegen de bemoeizucht van de (potentieel) totalitaire staat en hun eigen communicatie via decentrale netwerken kunnen omleiden. De vroege internetcultuur bood een keur van mogelijkheden aan, van pseudoniemen, kunstmatige identiteiten tot anonieme remailers. Natuurlijk, absolute anonimiteit op bestaat niet… ook toen al niet, in laatste instantie is alles en iedereen te achterhalen. Anonimiteit werd in deze context dan ook niet gezien als een technisch gegeven maar als een sociaal contract dat je sloot met sys admin. Wat tot voor kort, voor Snowden, bestond was een techno-libertaire consensus dat gegevens welliswaar langskwamen en na anonimisatie werden geinterpreteerd, maar niet werden doorgegeven aan autoriteiten, vooral niet door commerciële partijen, maar ook niet door overheidsdiensten. Die relatie is nu aan duigen.

Te kunnen spreken en handelen zonder dat de anderen weten wie of wat je bent of representeert, of middels een pseudoniem een geheel nieuwe persoonlijkheid opbouwen – dit is wat veel mensen oorspronkelijk aansprak in het internet. De commercialisering en militarisering van het web leiden juist tot de aaneenschakeling van online en offline identiteit. De client-server architectuur maakte deze ontwikelling mede mogelijk. Ze wordt nog versterkt door het type kleinburgerlijke gevoeligheid dat het risicovolle en instabiele karakter van anonieme communicatie herkent, en op basis daarvan liever binnen de veilige muren van de Facebook gemeenschap de ‘echte’ persoonlijkheid cultiveert en representeert aan bekenden. Gevangen in een glazen huis, ziet de burger-gebruiker zich klemgezet. Is dit het einde van de online anonimiteit?

Ondanks alles zijn er in uithoeken van het internet toch nog plekken waar anonimiteit als waarde postvat. In de afgelopen jaren organiseerden ‘onbekenden’ zich en richtten hun pijlen op informatievrijheidsbeperkende maatregelen door overheden en bedrijven. De naamlozen noemden zich Anonymous en beheersten tussen 2008 en 2011 – tussen de Wikileaks schandalen door – voor korte periodes de mainstream berichtgeving. Guy Fawkes maskers in zwarte maatpakken werden door verscheidene media en veiligheidsdiensten structureel gerepresenteerd als een afgebakende groep: een verzameling van concrete individuen wiens eliminatie de groep automatisch zou opheffen. In hun misplaatste zelfverzekerdheid reageren beiden met de stompzinnigheid van iemand die de clou van de grap niet vat – het feit dat er helemaal geen groep is, maar slechts tijdelijke aggregaten van samengebundelde krachten die opereren onder dezelfde internet meme. Oftewel, het type ‘con-dividu’ dat eerder middel van verschillende kunstprojecten werd.

Anonymous zelf ontstond toen meerdere gebruikers op het populaire online image board 4chan – waar iedereen standaard de gebruikersnaam ‘anonymous’ krijgt toegewezen – besloten deze identiteit te cultiveren als geuzennaam die door iedereen kon worden gebruikt maar door niemand toegeigend (op straffe van zogeheten ‘doxing’ – het onthullen van iemands identiteit). De zogenaamde ‘leden’ zien Anonymous dus meer als een idee en een praktijk – het manipuleren van de pathologische informatiezin van media, overheden en bedrijven. Iedereen kan zich dus associeren met dit idee, en zo Anonymous worden – hoe meer hoe beter. De ene zwerm aan zogenaamde ‘trolls’ is nog niet verdwenen of de ander steekt zijn kop op. Zo is anonimiteit niet alleen een krampachtig verbergen maar bovenal een spel om de ander uit zijn tent te lokken en via een veelheid aan verschijningen en mogelijkheden te misleiden. Wijs geworden door langdurige blootstelling aan huichelachtige politici en lachwekkend simpele vormen van marketing, geeft Anonymous de veiligheids- en entertainmentindustrie terug wat zij zelf niet kan stoppen te geven: cynisme, opportunisme, angst, en leugens. Iedere overheid/bedrijf krijgt immers de burger/consument die ze verdient.

Darwinistische metaforen zoals natuurlijke selectie en het recht van de sterkste vindt dan ook doorgang in Anonymous kringen. Wie er niet tegen kan beschimpt of beledigd te worden valt vanzelf af – hij of zij is een ‘fag’ (een term die niet noodzakelijk homofoob is, daar homo’s onder de categorie ‘gay fags’ vallen). Deze regel wordt niet alleen op buitenstaanders maar vooral ook op de eigen gemeenschap toegepast. Dit heeft een rituele, reinigende functie met als schijnbaar doel het losweken van het online personage van de gevoeligheden, onzekerheden of arrogantie van het belichaamde zelf. Boos of verongelijkt worden doen alleen diegenen die de anonieme communicatie desondanks op hun ‘ware zelf’ blijven betrekken, in plaats van online agency als een autonoom en collectief wezen te begrijpen.

Valt er iets te leren van 4chan en Anonymous voor de beeldende kunsten? Het is leuk om een Anon video in elkaar te draaien en van een meme generator gebruik te maken, maar nog beter lijkt het om zulke platformen zelf te ontwikkelen. De kunstzinnige subversie zit ‘m niet in het popkulturele gebruik (of misbruik) van internet applicaties maar juist de voorwaarden die men schept voor open personages. Denk aan geautomatiseerde aanmaak van gebruikersprofielen, fictieve klokkenluiders, zoekmachines die ons de weg doen kwijtraken, varianten van Chatroulette, het automatisch aanmaken van miljoenen Facebook profielen, groepsgedrag binnen Second Life, collectieve identiteiten binnen computergames. Er is een wereld te ontdekken na het benarde self-management van Facebook. Het laatste dat moet gebeuren is dat we onze verbeeldingskracht laten afpakken door nog meer NSA onthullingen. Het spel met de identiteit kan de verstarring na Snowdon opheffen. Parallel daaraan kunnen serieuzere zielen echt gaan werken aan alternatieve infrastructuren en protocollen.

In een wereld die maar niet ophoudt Rechtvaardig en Goed te zijn, blijft de behoefte aan artistieke en activistische experimenten met zulke collectieve vormen van anonimiteit bestaan. Als zodanig ontsluit ze alternatieve mogelijkheden (inherent aan de menigvuldigheid aan beelden en peudo-identiteiten in de media geobsedeerde spektakelmaatschappij) die in pure vorm een enorme en gevaarlijke energie zouden vrijgeven, als ze niet door primitievere krachten ingekaderd werden: ‘De vraag is hoe we anonimiteit voor kunnen stellen, niet als een haalbare categorische toestand, maar als een manier om een energie van metamorfose te herstellen, het verlangen iemand anders te zijn’ (A. Broeckmann (ed.), Opaque Presence).

Deze krachten zijn dan ook het primaire doelwit voor zulke experimenten. Bewust van hun creatieve paranoia, dat ieder individu-dat-niets-te-verbergen-heeft wil beschermen tegen het terroristische individu (dat ieder onverborgen individu telkens zelf potentieel toch is en daarom alsnog in de gaten gehouden moeten worden) vlucht men naar voren in de anonimiteit, een politiek van de verdwijntruc, een sprong in het onbekende onbekende. Paranoia wordt hier een zwaktebod, voor altijd ondermijnd door het bestaan van ‘unknown unknowns’ en zodoende bestemd om onder het gewicht van haar eigen energieslurpende dataparken te bezwijken. De aangewezen taktiek om dit process te versnellen bestaat er niet in om de bestaande machten te ontmaskeren, maar om onszelf te maskeren, en dit niet volgens de wet van subtractie maar die van multiplicatie. Want hoe minder men ís, hoe meer men kán zijn. En hoe meer men iedereen kán zijn, hoe meer men niemand ís. Dat is het collectieve spel van verschijnen en verdwijnen. Wij zijn hier (niet meer): zichtbaar maar klaar om weer op te lossen in de massa. Klaar voor een episch spelletje Balletje-balletje?

California Tour in April

Posted: March 16, 2014 at 3:08 pm  

(in the second week of April I will visit California. First UC Santa Cruz, then UC Davis, ending up at UCLA. Here the post for the UCSC event. /geert)

ucsc-poster-for-geert-lovink

The Poverty of Twitter Inc.: Nick Bilton’s Thin Biography

Posted: January 24, 2014 at 5:03 pm  

In 2012, when Twitter was true and well established, and on its way to its IPO, one of the founders, Evan Williams, asked his partner “How can we raise our children to never act this way? How can we raise them to be honest and caring?” After having read  Twitter’s biography, it makes you wonder how this so-called digitally-native generation has become so sick, so immature, lacking even the most basic ideas, without any vision. Venturing for the sake of it. Accordingly, ‘Hatching Twitter’ by NYT reporter Nick Bilton is void of any idea. No debates, no concepts, no code philosophy, just clashing personalities. After 300 pages of Ego Theatre one can only conclude that the slogan of this (post-) dotcom scene will have to be: Make Bigger Mistakes Tomorrow.

For internet researchers this account is utterly worthless, unless you are interested into anthropological stories about so-called enterpreneurs that are caught up in some heroic Darwinistic struggle between mediocre existences. If you think Marc Zuckerberg is dull, then meet the board of directors of Twitter. They are not even geeks a la 4chan and Reddit.

Which role Twitter exactly has played in the 2011 uprisings? Zero information. Heated debated about Twitter’s relation with the US-news industry? Never heard of. The controversies over ‘trending topics’. On page 123 the two visions of Twitter, ego status updater vs. newswire are mentioned in one sentence. That’s it. Even the most-often raised question why tweets were, back then, limited to 140 characters remains unmentioned. I learned more about Twitter politics from the countless postings of Dave Winer on his Scripting blog than from this book. We all know that Silicon Valley is a deeply troubled place when it comes to human relationships. The devastating influence of the venture capital ideology is to blame here. This is the common belief system that all antagonists share.

We don’t need more Hollywood films on the topic of the Selfish Geek & His Social Media. One Facebook film will do. There must be more that can be said about the media philosophy behind Twitter: the real-time addiction of many, the updating mania, the retrograde return to old school news outlets and the role Twitter is playing in the struggle to survive by mainstream media, the role of the PR in pumping up Twitter, its political economy, the recommendation industry behind it all, the harvesting of data, and so on.

Unless you are interested in an average start-up tragedy, free of any background and bigger picture, forget Hatching Twitter.

Nick Bilton, Hatching Twitter, A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal, 2013.

Organized Networks: From Weak Ties to Strong Links (with Ned Rossiter)

Posted: November 20, 2013 at 4:29 pm  

(Ned Rossiter and I wrote a piece on ‘organized networks’ for the technology special of Occupied Times (#23). Here it is. The URL: http://theoccupiedtimes.org/?p=12547)

Organized Networks: From Weak Ties to Strong Links by Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter

Sloganism for late 2013: “I feel protected by unpublished Suite A algorithms.” (J. Sjerpstra) – “I am on an angry squirrel’s shitlist.” – Join the Object Oriented People – “When philosophy sucks—but you don’t.” ­– “See you in the Sinkhole of Stupid, at 5 pm.” – “I got my dating site profile rewritten by a ghost writer.” – “Meet the co-editor of the Idiocracy Constitution” – The Military-Entrepreneurial Complex: “They are bad enough to do it, but are they mad enough?” – “There really should be something like Anti-Kickstarter for the things you’d be willing to pay to have not happen.” (Gerry Canavan) – Waning of the Social Media: Ruin Aesthetics in Peer-to-Peer Enterprises (dissertation) – “Forget the Data Scientist, I need a Data Janitor.” (Big Data Borat)

If we look back at the upheavals from the past years (2011-2013) we see bursts of  ‘social media’ activity. From Tahir to Taksim, from Tel-Aviv to Madrid, from Sofia to Sao Paolo, what they have in common is communication peaks, which fade away soon after the initial excitement, much in line with the festival economy that drives the Society of the Event. Corporate social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are considered useful to spread rumors, forward pictures and reports and comment on established media (incl. the Web). But no matter how intense the street events may have been, they often do not go beyond ‘short ties’. As temporary autonomous spaces they feel like carnevalist ruptures of the everyday life. Revolts without consequences?

There is growing discontent over the event-centered movements. The question how to reach a critical mass is essential here. How can we get over the obvious statements about the weather and other meta fluctuations (from Zeitgeist to astrology).  Instead of contrasting the Leninist party model with the anarcho-horizontalist celebration of the general assembly, we propose to integrate the general network intellect into the organization debate. We’ve moved a good 150 years since the Marx-Bakunin debates. It is time to integrate technology into the social tissue and no longer reduce computers and smart phones to broadcasting devices. The organized networks model that we propose is first and foremost a communication tool to get things done. We are aware that this proposal runs into trouble once (tens of) thousands of users are getting involved. This is the state of exception when the Event takes over. What we need to focus in the years to come is time-in-between, the long intervals when there is time to build sustainable networks, exchange ideas, set up working groups and realize the impossible, on the spot.

Today’s uprisings no longer result from extensive organizational preparations in the background, neither do they produce new networks of ‘long ties’. What’s left is a shared feeling: the birth of yet another generation. Even though small groups have often worked on the issues for many years, their efforts are usually focused on advocacy work, designing campaigns, doing traditional media work or being focused on those who are immediately affected by the crisis on the ground. Important work, but not precisely about preparing for the Big Riot.

Is it wishing too much to long for sustainable forms of organization when the world seems to be in perpetual flux? Very little stability defines labor and life as we know it. Ideologies have been on the run for decades. So too are political networks amongst activists. At best we can speak of a blossoming of unexpected temporary coalitions.

We can complain about social media causing loneliness but without a thorough re-examination of social media architectures, such sociological observations can easily turn into forms of resentment. What presents itself as social media critique these days often leaves users with a feeling of guilt, with nowhere to go, except to return to the same old ‘friends’ on Facebook or ‘followers’ on Twitter.

The orgnet concept (short for organized networks) is clear and simple: instead of further exploiting the weak ties of the dominant social networking sites, orgnets emphasize intensive collaborations within a limited group of engaged users. The internet’s potential should not be limited to corporate platforms that are out to resell our private data in exchange for free use. That option gives you silos ripe for NSA raids.

Orgnets are neither avant-garde nor inward-looking cells. What’s emphasized is the word ‘organ’. With this we do not mean a New Age-gesture of a return to nature or a regression into the (societal) body. Neither is a reference to Aristocle’s six volume work called Organon. Even less is it refers to the tired notion of the ‘body without organs’ (or Zizek’s reversal, for that matter). The organ of orgnets is a social-technical device through which projects are developed, relations built and interventions made. Here, we are speaking of the conjunction between software cultures and social desires. Crucial to this relation is the question of algorithmic architectures, something largely overlooked by many activist movements who adopt – in what seems a carefree manner – commercially motivated and politically compromised social media software such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

As much as mainstream social media platforms come with an almost guaranteed capacity to scale as mass networking devices, they are not without serious problems that many are now familiar with: security of communication (infiltration, surveillance and a wilful disregard of privacy), logic or structure of communication (micro-chatting among friends coupled with broadcasting notices for the many subscribed to the cloud), and an economy of ‘free labour’ (user generated data, or ‘the social production of value’).

While there has been some blossoming of social media alternatives such as Lorea <lorea.org>, which is widely used among activists in Spain, other efforts such as Diaspora ended quite disastrously after successful raising $200,641 in development funds through Kickstarter but failing to gain widespread traction among activists, until an overall implosion of the project after one of its founders committed suicide. The increasing migration of youngsters to Instagram (a subsidiary of Facebook) and Snapchat was probably inevitable (irrespective of whether the NSA leak happened or not). But as April Glaser and Libby Reinish note in a recent Slate column, these social media alternatives “all use centralized servers that are incredibly easy to spy on.”[1]

Current social media architectures have a tendency to incite passive-aggressive behaviour. Users monitor, at a safe distance, what others are doing while constantly fine-tuning their envy levels. All we’re able to do easily is to update our profile and tell the world what we’re doing. In this ‘sharing’ culture all we can do is display our virtual empathy. ‘She really ain’t all that. Why does all the great stuff happen to her and not me?’ Organized networks radically break with the updating and monitoring logic and shift the attention away from watching and following diffuse networks to getting things done, together. There is more in this world than self-improvement and empowerment. What network architectures need to move away from is the user-centered approach and move towards a task-related design undertaken in protected mode.

Three months into the Edward Snowdon/NSA scandal Slavoj Žižek wrote in The Guardian “we need a new international network to organise the protection of whistleblowers and the dissemination of their message.”[2] Note that the two central concepts of our argument are utilized here: a network that organizes. Once we have all agreed on this task it is important to push the discussion further and zoom in on the organizational dimension of this timely effort. It can be an easy rhetorical move to emphasise what has already been tried, but we nonetheless need to do that.

One of the first observations we need to make is how Anonymous is the missing element in Žižek’s list of Assange, Maning and Snowdon. Despite several setbacks Anonymous remains an effective distributed effort to uncover secrets and publicize them, breaking with the neo-liberal assumption of the individual as hero who operates out of a subjective impulse to crack the code in order to make sensitive material public. The big advance of anonymous networks is that they depart from the old school logic of print and broadcasting media that needs to personalize their stories, thereby creating one celebrity after the other. Anonymous is many, not just Lulzsec.

We also need to look into the many (failed) clones of WikiLeaks and how specific ones, such as Balkan Leaks, manages to survive. There is GlobaLeaks and the outstanding technical debate about how to build functioning anonymous submission gateways. It has already sufficiently been described that WikiLeaks itself is a disastrous model because of the personality cult of its founder and editor-in-chief, Julian Assange, whose track record of failed collaborations and falling-outs is impressive. Apart from this ‘governance’ debate, we need to look further into the question of what the ‘network’ model, in this context, precisely entails. A step that WikiLeaks never dared to take is the one of national branches, based either in nation states or linguistic territories.

To run a virtual global advocacy network, as Žižek suggests, looks sexy because of its cost-effective, flexible nature but the small scale of these Single Person Organizations (SPOs) also makes it hard to lobby in various directions and create new coalitions. Existing networks of national digital civil rights organisations should play a role here, yet haven’t so far. And it is important to discuss first why the US-organization EFF, the European Digital Rights network or the Chaos Computer Club for that matter have not yet created an appealing campaign that makes it possible for artists, intellectuals, writers, journalists, designers, hackers and other irregulars to coordinate efforts, despite their differences. The same can be said of Transparency International and Journalist trade unions. The IT nature of the proponents seems to make it hard for existing bodies to take up the task to protect this new form of activism.

Networks are not goals in themselves and are made subordinate to the organizational purpose. Internet and smart-phone based communication was once new and exciting. This caused some distraction but that’s soon going to be over. Distraction itself is becoming boring. The positive side of networks (in comparison to the group) remains its open architecture. However, what networks need to ‘learn’ is how to split-off or ‘fork’ once they start getting too big. At this point networks typically enter the danger-zone of losing focus. Intelligent software can assist us to dissolve connections, close conversations and delete groups once their task is over. We should never be afraid to end the party.


[1] April Glaser and Libby Reinish, ‘How to Block the NSA from your Friends List’, Slate, 17 June, 2013, http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/06/17/identi_ca_diaspora_and_friendica_are_more_secure_alternatives_to_facebook.html

[2] Slavoj Žižek, ‘Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange: Our New Heroes’, The Guardian, 3 September, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/03/snowden-manning-assange-new-heroes#start-of-comments

Critique of the Creative Industries v. 3.14: We Are Neither

Posted: October 14, 2013 at 12:31 pm  

CI-meme

A Brazilian Internet? My Contribution to the Debate

Posted: September 25, 2013 at 9:02 pm  

I contributed to an article published by The Verge, written by Amar Toor, published on their website on September 25 2013. The story is called “Cutting the cord: Brazil’s bold plan to combat the NSA–President Dilma Rousseff wants to route internet traffic away from the US, but experts say it will do little to deter American espionage.” On Monday Amar Toor sent me some questions. Here you can read my quick answers, written in between lots of other stuff that was going on that day.

1) President Rousseff has called for the creation of a new fiber-optic undersea network that would span from South America to Europe and Africa, as part of an attempt to avoid routing Brazilian web traffic through the US. Do you think this plan represents a viable way for Brazil to “break away” from a US-dominated internet? What are the major hurdles (e.g., technological, economic, political) that stand in its way?

Geert Lovink: This is potentially a major step of Brazil and hopefully more countries will follow. From a post-colonial perspective we need to break open the multi-stakeholder consensus of the old boys networks that so far have ‘governed’ the internet. The dotcom-NGO-libertarian argument, of trying to minimize state influence, has resulted precisely into the situation that we find ourselves in. Governing bodies such as IETF and ICANN are under scrutiny right now. Both the dotcoms and the telecoms have actively compromised themselves. It is correct that the engineering class should feel the heat. They should take responsibility for the mess that we find ourselves in. It is too easy to blame the NSA for everything. Can they please answer the question why, for instance, most of Brazil’s internet traffic is routed through the US. That’s clearly a mistake in the network architecture.

Do we need more local Internet Exchange Points? Where are the solutions? Brazil needs to invest more in the architecture they desire (cables to Africa, Europe and Asia), but right now we also need a critical investigation how we got here. There are NSA spies inside the IETF and they need to be identified during the next meeting in Vancouver, this November. But that can only be a first step. What we need is a radical reform of the internet architecture itself–also in the light how to accommodate the next one billion users. Many of us have lost confince in the ‘global cloud’ solutions. So how can we disarm, or dismantle such IT facilities? The good thing is that big companies are now also ready to pull out. Rightly they do not trust the cloud anymore. We all know that solutions won’t come from the USA or Europe. Let’s see if the Brazilians will take these ideas further.

2) Security experts I’ve spoken with say that Rousseff’s plan will likely do little to stop NSA surveillance, but do her actions carry any sort of symbolic significance? I know that Iran has made moves to wall itself off and create its own domestic private network, but it seems notable to me that a democratic emerging economic power would call for somewhat similar regulations.

GL: That’s true. The NSA has multiple ways to enter personal conversations. But in the case of Brazil it is very clear that the current architecture is making it very easy for them to filter and store the traffic of entire countries, on their own territory. Exceptionalism is not going to work on the long run, unless you believe that is it inevitable that the internet is going to fall apart anyway. I am not one of those. All states can and will spy on their citizens and on other states and will keep an eye on global telecom traffic. Some states will try to insulate themselves. True, but does this somewhat banal insight really help us in the current fight over standards and protocols of global communications? The Brazilian move to become less dependent of the USA was and will be necessary, regardless of Snowdon scandal.

3) Do you foresee a situation where the internet will ever be *not* centered around American companies (or, for the sake of argument, around a handful of private companies with overwhelming market power?)

GL: The internet in China is currently not centred around American companies, or am I wrong? It is not hard to imagine that the entire world will depend on Chinese hardware (chips, routers, smart phones etc.). I am enough of a materialist not only to focus on software and internet platforms such as social media. US-firms dominate some markets, at some point. In terms of cell phones the US was well behind but has picked up rapidly in recent years. Smart phones are not “Made in the USA”, we all know that, and the iPhone only has a tiny share if you look at global statistics. But yes, you are right. The question of the inevitable monopolies is out there, we can’t run away from it.

4) What would a “decentralized” internet look like, and what implications/risks would it have for civil liberties, politics, communication, etc.?

GL: Lately many of us not believe that decentralization alone is the solution. The debate has moved on. Yes, there can be autonomous nodes but what really matters is how they are talking to each other. Let’s discuss how the ‘federated web’ could look like and how horizon and vertical connections can be brought together. Please all read the Accelerationist Manifesto in which these matters are discussed in details. It is no longer the local romantic offline versus the centralist option of scaling up. We all want strong ties in the locality whilst having the possibility to communicate on global level with our peers, family and friends elsewhere on the globe.

5) To what extent can Brazil’s actions be seen as a reflection of larger economic trends? (i.e., the emergence of the BRIC countries, shifting power from US-Euro to China, India, et al.) Could the emergence of these countries pose a new counterweight to the US/Euro dominated internet, as projects such as the BRICs Cable purport to do — an internet divided along North-South lines?

GL: If countries such as Brazil build their own social networking sites, apps culture and informal chatting, dating sites, search and so on, then yes. It is not hard to see such a happening. Japan is a good example of a loose and somewhat isolated net culture, so is China (but for other reasons). If this is going to be played out on the level of platforms, I doubt. Not right now. It is even the question whether the opposition of  President Rousseff against Washington is politics driven by sentiments. Are there really plans to build out the international infrastructure of Brazil? Let’s hope so. If you look on all the bandwidth maps of the world you can indeed easily become depressed (and outraged). There is a great urge to act. With the exception of China it is certainly too early to speak of a counterweight. That could change in a decade.

Aesthetics of Dispersed Attention: Interview with German Media Theorist Petra Löffler

Posted: September 21, 2013 at 10:55 pm  

By Geert Lovink

When I met Petra Löffler in the summer of 2012 in Weimar I was amazed to find out about her habilitation topic. She had just finished a study on the history of distraction from a media theory perspective. After I read the manuscript (in German) we decided to do an email interview in English so that more people could find out about her research. The study will appear late 2013 (in German) with Diaphanes Verlag under the title “Verteilte Aufmerksamkeit. Eine Mediengeschichte der Zerstreuung” (Distributed Attention, a Media History of Distraction). Since October 2011 Petra Löffler has replaced Lorenz Engell as media philosophy professor at Bauhaus University in Weimar. Before this appointment she worked in Regensburg, Vienna and Siegen. Her main research areas are affect theory, media archaeology, early cinema, visual culture and digital archives.

With the hyper growth of internet, video, mobile phones, games, txt messaging, the new media debate gets narrowed down to this one question: what do you think of attention? The supposed decline in concentration and today’s inability to read longer, complicated texts is starting to affect the future of research as such. Social media only make things worse. Human kind is, once again, on the way down hill, this time busy multitasking on their smart phones. Like any issue this one must have a genealogy too, but if we look at the current literature, from Bernard Stiegler to Nicolas Carr and Frank Schirrmacher, from Sherry Turkle to Franco Berardi, and Andrew Keen to Jaron Lanier, including my own contribution, the long view is entirely missing. Bernard Stiegler digs into Greek philosophy, yes, but also leaves out the historical media theory angle. This also counts for those who stress solutions such as training and abstinence (a field ranging from Peter Sloterdijk to Howard Rheingold). But can a contemporary critique of attention really do without proper historical foundations?

While the education sector and the IT industry promote the use of tablets in classrooms (with MOOCs as the most current hype), there is only a hand full of experts that warn against the long-term consequences. The absence of a serious discussion and policy then gives way to a range of popular myths. Quickly the debate gets polarized and any unease is reduced to generational issues and technophobia. Deceases amongst millions of computer workers vary from damaged eyesight, ADHD and related medication problems (Retalin), Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, RSI and bad postures due to badly designed peripherals, leading to widespread spinal disk problems. There is talk of mutations in the brain (see for instance the work of the German psychiatrist Manfred Spitzer). Within this worrying spread of postmodern deceases, who would talk about the ‘healing effects of daydreaming’? Petra Löffler does, and she refers to Michel de Montaigne, who, already many centuries ago, recommended diversion as a comfort against suffering of the souls. Why can’t we acknowledge the distribution of attention as an art form, a gift, in fact a high skill?

Geert Lovink: How did you come up with the idea to write the history of distraction? When you told me about your work and I read your habilitation (a major study in German speaking countries after your PhD if you want to become professor) it occurred to me how obvious this intellectual undertaken was from a media theory perspective—and yet I wondered why it wasn’t done before. Would you call its history a classic black spot? You didn’t go along the institutional knowledge road a la Foucault, nor do you use the hermeneutical method, the Latourian history of science approach or mentality history, for that matter. How did you come up with your angle?

Petra Löffler: That’s a long story. Around 2000, with my colleague Albert Kümmel, I was working at an anthology about ephemeral discourses dealing with media dating back to the second half of the nineteenth century. We found a lot of interesting stuff in scientific journals from very different disciplines. Out of this rich material we developed a classification system consisting of discourse-relevant terms we found in the articles, and published a book representing our research results (Albert Kümmel and Petra Löffler, Medientheorie 1888-1933, Texte und Kommentare, 2002). One of the topics was ‘Aufmerksamkeit’ (attention). Later I reviewed the material, much of it was unpublished, and came across a collection of related texts, which focussed on ‘Zerstreuung’ (distraction). Like you now, I then was wondering why, in media theory, a conceptualization of distraction was missing up to date, although important early theoreticians such as Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin, in the 1920s and the 1930s, have formulated powerful concepts of mass entertainment, cinema and the political role of distraction that were quoted regularly. That’s why I wanted to know more about the ‘roots’, the background of their thinking of distraction in other discourses.

Another motivation was that in the tradition of the Frankfurter Schule, which is very influential until now (not only in Germany), distraction has a bad reputation. So, I wanted to analyse the schools of knowledge that support that bad reputation and through this way reveal the ‘other’ side of distraction, its positive meaning and its necessity. For this project I had to go back to the early reflections on modernity in the 18th century and to cross very different discourses from philosophy and pedagogy to psychiatry and physiology to optics and aesthetics. There was not a single constant discourse, but various discontinuous propositions that could not easy be summarized into a respectable object of knowledge. I owe Foucault’s discourse analysis and archaeology of knowledge a lot, but for my research object stable systems of propositions didn’t exist, and the gaps between discourses were evident. May be that’s why, for a long time, distraction seems to be only an ephemeral side product of discourses on attention––or better a bastard, that has to be hide.

GL: You don’t seem to be bothered by distraction, is that true?

PL: It depends on my temper. I really hate to get up in the middle of the night by a terrible noise. I guess nobody wants that. But I have been living in big cities for decades and I accept a certain level of noise as normal—just because I also estimate the various leisure time distractions every metropolis has to offer. Following philosophers like Kant or psychologists like Ribot I belief that a certain level of distraction is not only necessary for a life balance, but also a common state of body and mind.

GL: You got a fascinating chapter in your habilitation about early cinema and the scattering of attention it would be responsible for. The figure of the nosy parker that gawks interests you and you contrast it to the street roaming flaneur.

PL: Yes, the gawker is a fascinating figure, because according to my research results it is the corporation of the modern spectator who is also a member of a mass audience––the flaneur never was part of it. The gawker or gazer, like the flaneur, appeared at first in the modern metropolis with its multi-sensorial sensations and attractions. According to Walter Benjamin the flaneur disappeared at the moment, when the famous passages were broken down. They had to make room for greater boulevards that were able to steer the advanced traffic in the French metropolis. Always being part of the mass of passers-by the gawker looks at the same time for diversions, for accidents and incidents in the streets. This is to say his attention is always distracted between an awareness of what happens on the streets and navigating between people and vehicles. No wonder movie theatres were often opened at locations with a high level of traffic inviting passers-by to go inside and, for a certain period of time, becoming part of an audience. Furthermore many films of the period of Early Cinema were actualities showing the modern city-life. In these films the movie-camera was positioned at busy streets or corners in order to record movements of human and non-human agents. Gawkers often went into the view of the camera gesticulating or grimacing in front of it. That’s why the gawker has become a very popular figure mirroring the modern mass audience on the screen.

Today to view one’s own face on a screen is an everyday experience. Not only CCTV-cameras at public spaces record passers-by, often without their notice. Also popular TV-shows that require life-participation such as casting shows once more offer members of the audience the opportunity to see themselves on a screen. At the same time many people post their portraits on websites of social networks. They want to be seen by others because they want to be part of a greater audience––the network community. This is what Jean Baudrillard has called connectivity. The alliance between the drive to see and to being seen establishes a new order of seeing which differs significantly from Foucault’s panoptical vision: Today no more the few see the many (panopticon) or the many see the few (popular stars)––today, because of the multiplication and connectivity of screens in public and private spaces, the many see the many. Insofar, one can conclude, the gawker or gazer is an overall-phenomenon, a non-specific subjectivity of a distributed publicity.

GL: In your study you show that, like in so many other instances, the ‘birth’ of attention as a modern problem, comes up during the late 18th century. I am joking, but Kant seems the first and the last philosopher who is praising distraction. What is it with this period around 1800? You studied at least two centuries of material. Which period did you think is the most interesting?

PL: From the perspective of a media archaeologist I would say, of course, the period around 1800––just because things look different from a distance. I was really surprised by regimes of distraction arising around 1800 in psychiatry, where people suffering from a mental breakdown were cured with the help of sensual shocks and spectacular performances. At the same time the need to distribute one’s attention, to react on different stimuli almost simultaneously, was more and more regarded as necessary. This formulation of a distributed or distracted attention can be considered as an effect of the dynamics of modernity, its drive to economize every part of living, even the human body. What we used to declare as phenomena of our time such as multi-tasking can be already found in discussions about distraction two hundred years ago. So it seems that changes in our media environments regularly provoke discussions about regimes of attention and questions the role of distraction.

Today, with the ubiquitous use of information technologies, discussions about distraction or distributed attention, the balance between stress and relaxation arises again, and philosophers like Richard Shusterman again consider the body’s role for that purpose. For me, Kant’s quest for distraction as an art of living is resonated much by such accounts.

GL: I can imagine that debates during the rise of mass education, the invention of film are different from ours. But is that the case? It is all pedagogy, so it seems. We never seem to leave the classroom.

PL: The question is, leaving where? Entering the other side (likewise amusement sites or absorbing fantasies)? Why not? Changing perspectives? Yes, that’s what we have to do. But for that purpose we don’t have to leave the classroom necessarily. Rather, we should rebuilt it as a room of testing modes of thinking in very concrete ways. I’m thinking of Jacques Rancière’s suggestions, in his essay Le partage du sensible, about the power relation between teachers and pupils. Maybe today teachers can learn more (for instance soft skills) from their pupils than the other way around. We need other regimes of distribution of power, also in the classroom, a differentiation of tasks, of velocities and singularities—in short: we need micropolitics.

More seriously, your question indicates a strong relationship between pedagogy and media. There’s a reason why media theorists like Friedrich Kittler had pointed to media’s affinity to propaganda and institutions of power. I think of his important book Discourse Networks, where he has revealed the relevance of mediated writing techniques for the formation of educational institutions and for subjectivation. That’s why the question is, what are the tasks we have to learn in order to exist in the world of electronic mass media? What means ‘Bildung’ for us nowadays?

GL: There is an ‘attention war’ going on, with debates across traditional print and broadcast media about the rise in distraction, in schools, at home. On the street we see people hooked on their smart phones, multitasking, everywhere they go. What do you make of this? This is just a heightened sensibility, a fashion, or is there really something at stake? Would you classify it as petit-bourgeois anxieties? Loss of attention as a metaphor for threatening poverty and status loss of the traditional middle class in the West? How do you read the use of brain research by Nicholas Carr, Frank Schirrmacher and more recently also the German psychiatrist Manfred Spitzer who came up with a few bold statement concerning the devastating consequences of computer use for the (young) human brain. Having read your study one could say: don’t worry, nothing new under the sun. But is this the right answer?

PL: Your description addresses severe debates. Nothing less than the future of our Western culture seems to be at stake. Institutions like the educational systems are under permanent critique, concerning all levels from primary schools to universities. That’s why the Pisa studies have revealed a lot of deficits and have provoked debates on what kind of education is necessary for our children. On the one hand it’s a debate on cultural values, but on the other it’s a struggle on power relations. We are living in a society of control, and how to become a subject and how this subject is related to other subjects in mediated environments are important questions.

A great uncertainty is emerged. That’s why formulas that promise easy solutions are highly welcomed. Neurological concepts are often based on one-sided models concerning the relationship between body and mind, and they often leave out the role of social and environmental factors. From historians of science such as Canguilhem and Foucault one can learn that psychiatrist models of brain defects and mental anomalies not only mirror social anxieties, but also produce knowledge about what is defined as normal. And it is up to us as observers of such discourses to name those anxieties today. Nonetheless, I would not signify distraction as a metaphor. It is in fact a concrete phase of the body, a state of the mind. It’s real. You cannot deal with it when you call it a disability or a disease and just pop pills or switch off your electronic devices.

GL: Building on Simondon, Bernard Stiegler develops a theory of attention that might be different from the US-American mainstream polarity between dotcom utopians and social media pessimists. His ‘pharmacological’ approach is different, less polemic, in search of new concepts in order to leave behind the known clichés and dichotomies. His book Taking Care of Youth and the Generations from 2008 contains pretty strong warnings about our loss of concentration to read longer, complicated texts. What do you make of this?

PL: Bernard Stiegler’s approach combines different arguments––the clash of generations, the rise of marketing and entertainment industries. I’m always wondering how easy philosophers like Stiegler or Christoph Türcke in Germany jump from ancient cultures (the Greeks, the Romans or—to name another popular example—Stone Age populations) to modern cultures of the 21st century. I take this as suspicious. Reading as well as writing were, of course, important cultural techniques over a long period of time––but, both are techniques that have undertaken several heavy changes in their long taking history, long before media such as cinema or television have entered the scene. Think only of the invention of printing, the development of the mass press in the 18th century or the invention of the typewriter one century later. It’s hard to imagine that these epochal events should not have had any influence on how to learn reading and writing. You read the columns of a newspaper or a picture book in a different way than the pages of a printed book filled with characters only. This was common knowledge even then.

Techniques such as a quickly scan and scroll through a text (‘Querlesen’) had become widespread, and newspaper layouts support this kind of reading. The actual hype of a deep-attention-reading is, seen from a media-archaeological perspective, not simply nostalgic. It forgets its ‘dark side’ as it was seen in the civil cultures of the 18th and 19th century, when especially bored middle-class women were accused of being addicted reading novels and were condemned because of escaping in exciting dream worlds. Deep concentration was then regarded as dangerous, because it leads to absentmindedness and even mental confusion making individuals unusable especially for a capitalist economy. Civil cultures have an interest to control their populations, their bodies and desires, for the sake of normalization. In this perspective, a ‘too much’, of what quality ever that can destabilize the public order has to be refused.

My sneaking suspicion is that Stiegler or Türcke are focussing only to small cuttings of media history, because their interest is to construct almost apocalyptic scenarios of a great divide. Not surprisingly Türcke, in his actual book on hyperactivity, criticizes newspapers for having reduced the length of articles and at the same time having advanced number and size of pictures. But other changes are more important––unnoticed by these philosophers. With the rise of personal computers and multi-media devices using touch-screens tactility has become again a major human faculty. Media based on haptic operations change the interplay of the senses and create new habits—and insofar writing and reading have to amplify their dimensions.

GL: There is (the New Age cult of) mindfulness. And there is Peter Sloterdijk. What do you make of such calls to exercise, to save attention through training? It all boils down to dosage. Do you believe there is a ‘will to entropy’? Altered states that invite us to enter unknown spaces? Would it make sense to study another side of the so-called loss of attention in the drug experiences as described from Baudelaire and Benjamin to Huxley and Jünger?

PL: I guess, the training of our senses and the experiments of losing self-control belong to the same regime of taking care of oneself. It occurs to me that one major difference between the self-experiments you name and what I’ve analyzed is the isolation of the persons experimenting with drugs to enter altered states of body and mind. One reason why I’ve studied not only discourses, but also practices of distraction was the fact that most of the diversions of urban culture were built on (and for) a mass audience. To be with unfamiliar others at the same place and at the same time was an experience, a thrill people were addicted to. Today other mass entertainments have emerged such as multiplex-cinemas, public viewings or big sports events, which are, of course, unthinkable without the rise of mass communication and mass media like television. That’s why I’m not sure if the description made for instance by Nicholas Carr and Frank Schirrmacher we are living nowadays under a brutal regime of a cannibalistic monster-machine nourished by our attention witch is known as personal computer is telling the whole story.

GL: How would you situate your own work inside what is known as German media theory? History of ideas meets archaeology of knowledge? You have a strong interest in the medical discourse (which is, again, very strong these days). Would you say that media steer our perception?

PL: Maybe I’m not the right person answering that question, but I would like to describe my work as a combination of archaeology of knowledge and media archaeology. In German media studies the epistemology and history of media has played a crucial role. Friedrich Kittler, in the 1980s, has inaugurated a discourse analysis of media that highlights the importance of the materiality of media, the a priori of technique and the power of institutions. The main question thereby is how media constitute what can be known and how media influence the ways we consider the world. Scholars like Siegfried Zielinski or Wolfgang Ernst have developed the field of media archaeology further. Recently interdependencies between media techniques and infrastructures at the one hand and cultural or body techniques at the other are an important topic of research, namely by scholars such as Bernhard Siegert (Weimar) or Erhard Schüttpelz (Siegen). At the same time media philosophers not only in Germany rethink mediation in terms of triangular relations. In recent debates questions of media ecology and ontology respectively mediated modes of existence have gained much attention.

My strong interest in the medical discourse derives from the role it plays for formulations of normality. This is, of course, a Foucaultian perspective. The distinction between what is regarded as normal or abnormal behaviour or sane or insane is always a result of cultural negotiations. I’m interested in the role mass media play in these negotiations. Perception, in my point of view, is a relay, and media can intensify the permeability of it. No more, no less.

GL: Seen from other countries and continents Germany is still the country of Schiller and Goethe, high literature and philosophy. Students still read tons of thick and complex books, so it seems. You teach in Weimar and that must certainly be a strange one-off museum experience. Is there something we can learn from the German education system or are you as pessimistic as everyone else when it comes to the lack of books that young people read these days, the decline of the shared canon and the long-term implications this has for the intellectual life and the level of thinking and critical reflection? Do you see already see long-term impacts of the computer and Internet on German theory production?

PL: Weimar is not only the city of Goethe and Schiller. Nietzsche lived here, and the Bauhaus had its first residence here. And there is Buchenwald, a concentration camp of the Nazi regime, too. Before I came to Weimar I was teaching in Vienna. From your point of view it seems I’m collecting strange one-off museum experiences. But, one mayor difference between these university cities (and, by the way, to many other universities in Germany) is the fact that the Bauhaus-University of Weimar is a very young university, founded shortly after Germany’s reunification. It’s not a classical alma mater: there is no faculty of humanities, but faculties of engineering, architecture, design, and media. The idea is, that theoretical and practical education goes hand in hand. The curriculum offers students courses where they can train their skills in photography, film, design or programming. The ability to develop own solutions is regarded as very important. At the same time Weimar is a place where a lot of research is going on, where scientists meet and theoretical debates are initiated. That’s the intellectual climate around here.

German theory production has an affinity to media archaeology and the history and philosophy of cultural practices. Friedrich Kittler was among the first media theorists who thought about the role of the computer as a super-medium, which is able to incorporate all other media. Claus Pias and Martin Warnke have just lanced a research group locating in Lüneburg investigating the media cultures of computer simulations and their input for knowledge production. I think the faculties of reading and writing will be important skills also in the future, but they have to be advanced by others such as working with data and their different representations for instance as pictures or circulating information of any format in order to manage the interplay of senses in computer-based environments.

GL: I want to come back to the Frankfurt School. Did you say that Adorno is moralistic in his rejection of the media as a light form of dispersed entertainment? If he would still be alive, do you think he would say the same of the Internet? I always wondered if there would be more sarcastic forms of critique, in the tradition of Adorno and others that is less elitist, less traditional?

PL: For Adorno’s thinking of negativity and the Frankfurt School art is an autonomous and alternative sphere of society. And it’s art’s alterity and autonomy that is the condition for its power to undermine the capitalistic order. That’s why, for these thinkers, it’s not a question of morality to reject popular mass media of entertainment, it’s, I would say an ‚ontological’ question, because these media give not room for reflecting the mode of existence in capitalist society. But Adorno’s position is not so much definite as it seems at first sight. I was surprised reading in Dialectics of Enlightment that, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, a total excess of distraction comes, in its extremity, close to art. This thought, it occurs to me, resonates Siegfried Kracauer’s utopia of distraction of the 1920s dealing with modern mass media, especially cinema. In this passage of their book, Adorno and Horkheimer are saying, and that is revolutionary for me, nothing less than that an accumulation and intensification of distraction is able to fulfil the task of negation that was originally dedicated to art, because it alters the state of the subject in the world completely. With this thought in mind it would be really funny and, at the end much less elitist, to speculate about what Adorno would say of the Internet.

Psycultures: The Globalization of Goatrance

Posted: August 30, 2013 at 11:35 am  

Interview with Graham St John
By Geert Lovink

Australian cultural critic Graham St John has written a groundbreaking study on the way the electronic dance music (EDM) genre called Goatrance globalized itself as a movement. In Global Tribe: Technology, Spirituality and Psytrance (Equinox, 2012), he describes Goatrance not merely as a subcategory of EDM. Psytrance, as it is also called, is first and foremost a culture that is celebrated through events such as parties and festivals. The emphasis here is not on regular clubs or labels but on personal transformation which is celebrated in a collective fashion. Music has a supportive role here, it is literally a medium, a transportative vehicle to carry us into another realm of consciousness. As Graham points out in the intro, “Enabling departures from dominant codes of practice and arrivals at alternative modes of being, the dance floor and the community proliferating around its verges, are built according to the design of a radical utopian imagination.” The traveller-scholar St John has given himself the task to articulate, theorize and popularize that imagination. Because of the ‘serving’ task of the music, music criticism plays less of a role in this case.

screenshot_21If anything, Graham St John is a Critic of the Cosmic Event. I’d love to see him as a contemporary organic intellectual (as Gramsci defined it) of the psytrance movement. His intimate knowledge of the festivals and their ‘architechtonics of transition’ has put Graham St John at odds with traditional (Anglo-Saxon) academia that has a hard time understanding underground cultures which position themselves outside of the pop mainstream. Although he is passionate about music, Graham St John is not a musicologist. He is a chronologist of the movement that records and reflects on spiritual cultures. He shies away from taking up the role of the ideologist. He is not the type of guy who describes what is on the other side of the ‘doors of perception’ such as Kesey, Leary, McKenna and others. In 2003 we were colleagues at the Brisbane Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies under Graeme Turner. In the years after we managed to meet up several times and stayed in contact, for instance over the Dancecult journal and list that Graham co-founded. The launch of this major chronology of the movement seemed the right moment to do an interview.

After an introduction that maps out transnational psycultures, Global Tribe takes us back to the unruly 1970s and 1980s when hippies the world over embarked for Goa (India) to camp out on Anjuna Beach, make music and dance. It was around the mid-80s that a distinct DJ-led dance culture emerged in Goa, produced by travelling DJs who brought cassettes, DAT tapes and later CDs. In the mid section of the book Graham looks at the darker sides of the psytrance experience, the ‘spiritual technologies’ and describes the technoshamanism, in part induced by psychedelic drugs. A third part describes the ‘carnival’ aspect of psychedelic festivals and related visionary arts. We then dig into case studies of festival scenes in Israel and Australia (where the events are called ‘doofs’). Throughout the study St John comes back to his visits to Boom, one of Europe’s largest festivals in Portugal, visited by tens of thousands, prompting the central question of Global Tribe: what is the sociality and sensuality of dance?

Geert Lovink: In the book there are traces of your own experience, but not all that many. You struggle to get recognition as an academic scholar while at the same time you are also clearly part of this spiritual trance movement. Do you also keep a diary? Are there things you hesitate to write about? Global Tribe attempts to be an official history of the exodus of the movement, post-Goa, becoming a planetary phenomenon.

Graham St John: Global Tribe is layered with my own experience in a style that I believe is accessible, certainly by comparison to most academic books. I’ve tried to produce a book that is accessible to those outside academia. This is not an easy task, especially given that those trained within the social sciences do not normally possess advanced literary skills. And also, many of those within the wider movement population (the “global tribe”) are from non-English backgrounds. And besides, it is notoriously difficult to write about the vibe from a “scientific” angle without coming across as a massive douche nozzle.

I’m not as preoccupied with being recognised within academia as you seem to infer. Most academics are politicians and administrators working in environments rewarding the greatest competitors and charlatans. I’ve sought to avoid this. Most of my current work is in fact part of an effort to move beyond the confines and limitations of academia. At this stage, I may not publish another academic book, as continuing exploitation by the academic publishing industry is not a relationship I’ve grown fond of.

My writing method is like the zone report technique. Given that the experience of events is relatively temporary and not uncommonly intense, when I emerge from an event (party, festival, gathering…) it has usually been the case that I immerse myself in writing. This has most often been in the form of blogging, so my “diary” as such becomes rather public and also a great way of soliciting feedback and ensuring accuracy. These blog reports have often been the basis for later articles and book chapters. I haven’t done much lately, but a keep a blog.

At Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture we encourage authors to write “zone” style reports with experimental stylistic and experiential angles submitted to our From the Floor section.

There are things I hesitate to write about. This cultural movement is permeated with ambiguity with relation to the law. Electronic dance music cultures are by their very nature outside or between the law, which can be observed from a variety of angles – e.g. unpermitted events, the use of prohibited substances or the unlicensed mixing of controlled media content, an experimentalism in consumption and production practices that challenge laws, regulations and codes. Any researcher needs to be careful in order to protect not only themselves but also their interlocutors and the events they write about. That said, self-censoring everything one does and says is anathema to cutting edge research and writing. Finding artful techniques of representation is a challenge, which can be rewarding. In my own experience, blog reports and subsequent articles and chapters are among efforts to push the boundaries of writing as method. See my recent article in Dancecult on “writing the vibe” for instance, which remixed what I call nanomedia – fragments of popular culture and media sources re-mediated and programmed by EDM producers in music – as one way to represent the vibe, i.e. perform the impossible (http://dj.dancecult.net/index.php/journal/article/view/164/188).

GL: Do you do prefer live pieces or can’t we speak of a distinction between live and pre-recorded? Do you believe in the perfect sample?  In your book you describe the importance of live music that started off with the hours-long sessions of bands like the Grateful Dead. The schism you describe around the late seventies, between the analogue, acoustic live jamming session on the Goa beach and the update of consumer electronics such as cassettes and DAT recording I find very interesting in this respect.

GS: Liveness is a thoroughly contentious issue in EDM performance and its study. I broached this in the book, but it’s covered more comprehensively elsewhere. There will be those who argue for the genuine or authentic nature of “live” performance, by which is often meant bands or fusion bands, using traditional instruments, e.g. a drum kit, but as has long been recognised, technics, from mixing desks to DJ performance software manipulated on screen, from turntables to DAT, are instruments “played” by musicians (i.e. DJ/producers). Of course, artists will establish varying degrees of competence and skilfulness in techniques of production and performance, but it has long been recognised that production and performance are inseparable in EDM. Ultimately DJ/producers are playing an organic instrument that is you – i.e. your body on the dance floor, and dancers are responding to an assemblage of factors, associated with a range of sensory technologies optimised for a live experience. But DJs aren’t working alone, which is one of the reasons why the question of liveness is often wrongfooted. DJs collaborate with a network of engineers and technicians, visual artists, stage designers in any standard dance party or festival environment, and how well they do this is subject to ongoing internal debate and discussion within scenes which seek to optimise and re-optimise these relationships integral to EDM event-cultures.

GL: Can you also imagine a psytrance that would have gone in a completely different direction, not electronic (techno) but for instance more influenced by world music? Can we say that the electronic element is essential or is it rather accidental, a vehicle for trance? In your book you emphasize the centrality of  dance. Dance comes first, it brings you in the desired mood, the trance (induced by drugs). The music style comes second. What counts is the rhythm.

GS: For some of those involved in the early full moon party scene in Goa, which was a cosmic rock scene, they anticipated a movement that for them was thoroughly ruined by electronic music by the early 1980s. One of the founders of the trance dance music scene in Anjuna, Steve Devas, who brought the first sound system to Anjuna in 1974, was enthusiastic at that time about what he called the “Cosmo Rock” style which, as he stated to me and is reproduced in the book, was “a potentially dynamic and inspiring style of music to follow seventies UK and California rock into an Indo-Hybrid new wave of rock music, that was to be high, lyrical and drivey with ethno world funk baselines to make for subtle and sophisticated dance movements. In other words, music for beach, sun and palm trees and not cars, factories and mechanical big city urban landscapes”.

As we know, by the mid 1980s, the performance of electronic music (by DJs) had come to dominate these same full moon events and their subsequent developments. Electrosonic technics became integral to psychedelic trance as it was to all other EDM developments, from house to techno. What became Goatrance and psychedelic trance, which is as much a culture as it is music, is a phenomenon that was enabled by developments in electronic music production and performance. As key producers, label heads and event management in this movement will tell you, sound frequencies and scales were being produced by synthesisers that were not available with traditional instruments. Besides this, it has been much easier and cheaper to organise and reproduce events in remote regions like Goa or in many of the out of the way places in which festivals and parties are held using DJs in the place of bands. In Goa, one DJ like DJ Laurent using a DAT player could be responsible for an 8-10 hour set that was mind blowing, as opposed to a series of bands with a lot of equipment requiring more effort, money, energy and resources. Today’s festivals are downstream from this efficiency and resourcefulness, although they have become increasingly optimised with very high production values, and diversified. For instance, Portugal’s Boom Festival features a fusion band stage/dance floor, in conjunction with several other dancefloors, returning us in a way to the earlier fusional environment of Goa, which is certainly a success for Boom, since it emerged as an effort to reproduce the Goa seasonal party experience outside of Goa.

GL: Culturally you position the post-Goa Trance movement across the globe as part of the 1990s post-Cold War movements defined by their cyberoptimism, spiritual renaissance and the collective rituals of transition and consciousness experiences. Do you think that this New Age style of events has come to an end after the global financial crisis and the growth of (youth) unemployment? After all, visiting global festival does cost money, in particular the travelling. You could estimate that the post-Goa-movement would become more regional or even local.

GS: Today’s events are diverse, which is a theme implicit to the book, as it’s a diversity that was there from the inception, and which remains, despite industry and aesthetic formulas. I wouldn’t characterise psychedelic trance or its event culture as New Age, certainly not by any standard measurements of “New Age”.  For one thing, that term has grown empty of meaning in the present, especially in relation so events in which transpersonal experiences may be occasioned within social contexts, i.e. that are participatory and relational. Studies which perceive spirituality as private and internalised, don’t tend to account for this. What’s more, in studies of New Age phenomena there is little accounting for the alteration of consciousness using psychoactivating or psychointegrating compounds from MDMA to LSD or DMT, etc. This is largely because the academic study of what became identified as New Age was overseen by public funded intellectuals who avoided anything to do with illicit substances given the moratorium on research associated with prohibition. But it’s also simply the case that most participants in this movement won’t identify as New Agers. As mentioned, it’s a complex development. Since the early 2000s we’ve seen the development of “dark” styles of trance which now dominate the nightscapes of festivals and which now even have exclusive festivals. Sometimes rather brutal in aesthetic, these styles are rooted in gothic sensibilities some of which steer a great distance from the progressive and holistic pretentions of Goatrance.

Psychedelic trance is first and foremost localised – around the world scenes have developed and thrived in local regions. There is no question of it becoming regional – it already is. The recent re-emergence of the scene publication Trancers Guide the Galaxy reflects this, as the publication features scene reports from a couple dozen countries where psychedelic trance thrives, 20 years after its initial development. This is despite the global financial crisis in recent years. A focused study of psychedelic traveller-tourism might offer some insights on this, but perhaps it is the case that times of crisis are followed by a common desire to be together, which in the case of psytrance as well as other EDM scenes, is an ecstatic desire to be altered together, using a variety of shared sensory technologies. This is close to the argument made by Peter Shapiro in Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco. EDM movements have arisen in history and have exploded across the world, maintaining form or mutating, in response to present conditions of crisis. These dance movements take a variety of forms, from the more legitimised with a corporatized style of communitas to the more experimental and alternative. The greatest obstacle to these developments remains state intervention, onerous permit requirements, police interventions, and ultimately I would argue, normalisation. Event-cultures of this kind seek a delicate balance between retaining exclusivity and opening the doors.

GL: Can you imagine that next movement will focus more on the economics of the festivals and have a more egalitarian approach in terms of the redistribution of income? Can you tell us more about the controversies that happen now and then between mainstream organisers that ask entry fees for festival and the more autonomous free events? The last one sounds more idealistic but in fact works contrary if you want to set up a more sustainable economy. Can you imagine that you will paid, one day, to be the movement’s organic intellectual? I see an urgency here.

GS: Well, I don’t know about organic intellectual, but I have been speaking at events for the last few years. There are a growing number of festivals that feature cultural programs with workshop and lecture programs which have become rather professional downstream from developments at the Boom Festival in particular which features an excellent and formative area called the Liminal Village which has daily programs for a week including lectures and films on a host of themes of importance to the population of an event that now averages about 25K. This is clearly more than just a dance music event and psytrance is clearly more than just about music. And Boom also hosts music styles outside of psytrance. This is why I prefer to use the term psyculture.

The 2013 Ozora Festival in Hungary is another example of a major festival, identifying as a “psychedelic tribal gathering”, which features a cultural program (in which I participated) and is striving to be more than a dance festival. For instance, like Boom, and Burning Man, it features a daily newspaper. For the record, since you mentioned it, while some of these events might pay, it’s rarely even enough to cover my own transport expenses.

There is a great deal of debate internal to this movement over a range of developments, including the price of event tickets. But there is no simplified way to look at it, because there are many angles. A great many people earn their livelihood trading their services, arts, labours at these events, offering their services and technical support to event management, as well as trade goods and services at festivals, some travelling in circuits all year round. Others will volunteer their labour at events in exchange for entry and perhaps earn meal tickets. Others are given the opportunity to experiment with new techniques or methods, for instance, within healing arts or waste management (e.g. bio-toilets and showers). Commercial festivals are diverse and large scale industries upon which many travellers and those living largely “off the grid” are able to survive. Within the psychedelic movement, the nature of this commercialism is subject to constant scrutiny. For instance, corporate sponsorship of events is generally roundly criticised.

GL: There is the critique of the ‘mob-driven, hedonistic numbness’ of certain participants during big festivals. The massive mainstream character of the festivals is certainly something that is the case here in the Netherlands. Is the trend towards smaller, more secretive happenings inevitable? And do you find the critique of big festivals as spiritual spectacles justified? Has the commercialism around 2007-2008 undermined Psytrance?

GS: Commercialism has not killed psytrance, nor psyculture. Scenes rely on commercialism to sustain a variety of industries upon which a vast network of people and communities rely for their survival. Most of all, the musicians – i.e. the people who produce the music upon which this industry relies – need to make a return for their efforts which in a world of file-sharing means live appearances at ticketed events. The reality is complex, and always more complicated than any one person can know. I do not claim to hold a commanding view over the heights of psyculture. It is a massive and constantly shifting movement, with elements leading in different directions and new scenes and regional scenes emerging and changing all the time. I have attempted to document something of this diversity in the book. Single events are characteristic of this diversity. There are also many free or by donation parties that happen in most cosmopolitan centres and their hinterlands like around Melbourne. Large festivals that charge for entrance, like Boom, offer freedoms to experiment, express and explore alternatives in ways that small events that may be free of charge do not. Are such events not also free cultural spaces, since they are cultural spaces that promote freedoms?

All that said I recently saw how psytrance is getting showcased at multi-genre events like the Boomtown Fair in the UK, where those who can afford the 170 quid ticket become exposed to a condensed simulacra of the scene. In this contrivance, mega and crossover events, like Boomtown, appear to host EDM spaces as relatively self-contained stylistic worlds. Perhaps the promo for such an event could be “Have we got Psytrance for you!” I’m playing with the phrase “Have we got a vacation for you!”, the slogan from Delos, the promoters of themed worlds for high-end customers, including Westworld, in Michael Crichton’s Sci Fi novel by that name, adapted for the 1973 MGM film…  But then it might be really cool to oscillate between Psyworld and Dubworld.

GL: Over the years, many have tried to politicise the movement. In retrospect, can we say that this is failed project because the participants were more interested in their private transitional experience? In many cultures spiritual border experiences through music, dance and drugs is controversial enough. Wouldn’t it make more sense to emphasize the underground aspect of Psytrance? To politicise the movement, to make it more public, and democratize its intentions, always runs the risk of instrumentalization—and eventually disappointment.

GS: You may hold to a narrow version of “politics” that I don’t share. In my previous book Technomad: Global Raving Countercultures, I tried to outline a theory of resistance that grew out of studies of EDM cultures which I called “hyper-responsibility”. That is, I saw that techno-tribes across EDM genres mount vibes (socio-sonic aesthetics) that are characterised by a spectrum of responses to the conditions of the present among its practitioners. Events are vehicles for differential freedoms from a range of conditions experienced by participants. They may be opportunities for transgression, or personal liberations, and they may be platforms for reactionary or progressive movements whose goals lie beyond the dancefloor. Psychedelic trance possesses this hyper-responsiveness. In some cases, the simple act of holding a party within repressive social and political climates is a definite political accomplishment. Expressing one’s commitment towards cognitive freedom in a global climate of repressive drug legislation are actions that should be recognised as political. In other cases holding events in times of social transformation – early Goa parties in Germany for example – furnishes events with a revolutionary sensibility.

GL: In Global Tribe you have not focused on an analysis of the music. Can you do that for us and describe, in detail, one of your favourite tracks of psytrance? What’s the sound, the vibe, of psytrance? What do you hear that we do not experience?

GS: Yes, the music does not receive analysis in the fashion that would be treated, for instance, by a musicologist or a music historian. But then again, musicologists have a habit of squeezing the life from cultural experience in overly technical analyses. What you’re getting is what is stated on the tin – i.e. the book is not music history or music criticism.

I provide here, however, a basic description of the Goa Trance sound from which psychedelic trance and its various subgenre developments are indebted. This description was put together with the help of Toni Aittoniemi who recently completed an MA on the “Cultural and Musical Dimensions of Goa Trance and Early Psychedelic Trance in Finland” (this description could be expanded and music criticism applied to this and subsequent developments).

Although the sound, which emerged by 1994 as a marketable genre, received great variation according to stylistic influences, fusional developments, and regional aesthetics, there emerged a ‘classic’ Goa Trance style led by a strong four quarter-note kick drum pattern in 4/4, with a more or less constant accentuation of the 16th-note layer at bpm’s between 130–150. Prominent early artists experimented with analogue sound sources, digital and hybrid synthesizers, samplers and digital drum machines to build evolving patterns with layered synth sounds and sub-bass frequencies in hypnotic arrangements. Artists used MIDI (Multiple Instrument Digital Interface), computers, and software.

Among the most familiar sounds were the fast arpeggio-patterns and strong sawtooth-wave leads running through a resonant band-pass or high-pass filter, such as found in the work of Astral Projection and Etnica. Early works employed additive rhythmic characteristics in the bassline, like the Latin-American tresillo (the duple-pulse rhythmic cell) or variations of “oriental patterns.” While syncopation receded in later developments, intricate triple-meter accenting embedded in a “straight” duple-framework persisted in the higher frequency layers, arpeggios, percussive elements and leads. These embedded alternative signatures combined with the frequent use of the Phrygian Major scale to give Goa Trance an “Eastern” feel. The tracks were programmed into 8-10 minute long pieces.

GL: Is some of this music online? Can you give some pointers? Compilations are important, I understood. The album was never the right format for this type of music. Can you mention a few more ‘classic’ tracks that you like? We’re now 20-30 years later. How would you describe the style and the ‘feel’ of the music?

GS: Netlabels have grown popular here as in other EDM developments. One chief portal (and label) is Ektoplazm, founded by Alexander Synaptic (Basilisk). That site incidentally features a spectrum of psychedelic electronic music, where the term “psytrance” holds much less explanatory power than it once did. A “one stop shop” (it’s a free download) can land you the epic Ektoplazm’s Greatest Trips, 50 tracks from 2008-2012 compiled by Basilisk showcasing “the immense diversity and creative vitality of the global psychedelic trance, techno, and downtempo movements”.

Albums and EPs (in digital files) continue to be a chief means by which artists will make a name for themselves, alongside Soundcloud, and there is prestige to being selected on label compilations, and ultimately selected by touring DJs. Expressing artistic vision in concept albums appears retained in this development, inheriting much from psychedelic forebears, although the “vision” is somewhat distributed as artists can take on a variety of personas and be involved with numerous acts, in response to changing styles and tastes. In many cases, the overall vision seems to be retained, as with the prodigious output of Jake Stephenson (aka Shamanic Tribes on Acid – i.e. STONA) who was involved in, from the last count at Discogs, some 58 named production projects. The industry characteristics of this development deserve greater attention, including how many DJ/producer names in the psychedelic tradition are more than just names, but invented personas.

“Classic” covers quite some territory for me and I could go on for pages, but from a mid-1990s era perspective I’ll be mercifully brief – besides Hallucinogen (Simon Posford) who was responsible for shaping the sound of psychedelic trance with many classic tracks like anything from The Lone Deranger, as well as tracks like “Space Pussy” and “LSD” (Posford is also the chief engineer behind chief act in the psychedelic diaspora Sphongle (with Raja Ram), I like early X-Dream, Earth Nation, Total Eclipse, Astral Projection, Etnica, Eat Static, System 7, Third Eye, Human Blue, Synchro (on the psybreaks edge), and UX, especially “Master of the Universe” which was dark and brooding and thunderous psychedelic opera, and ahead of its time (their album Ultimate Experience (1997) was recently remastered to superb effect). Ultimately I cannot nail it down to any one sound. But as far as the music is concerned, it’s all about the context – i.e. the dancefloor and the event itself. You cannot understand this music, nor indeed most EDM sounds, through your headphones at home or in the car. It’s truly experienced as shared vibrating rhythms in fully optimised social dance contexts. In my experience, the most optimised environment for this experience is the Dance Temple (i.e the main dancefloor) at the Boom Festival.

GL: What do you make of Simon Reynolds’ retromania thesis? Psytrance is not precisely retro. If anything it could be labelled as ‘1990s music’. Still, all the retrogarde aspect of the contemporary recording industry affect psytrance as well.

GS: I haven’t read Retromania. I agree that there remains a core Goa sensibility motoring this development across generations, a whole gestalt and marketable format that was crafted in the 1990s to simulate the seasonal DJ-led full moon beach party interzone of the 1980s, which itself built upon the cosmic throw downs of the 1970s – and which were originally and over 25 seasons subject to the influx of styles and techniques from scenes all over the world. The bandwidth of this stylistic profusion may have been narrowed at the advent of a music marketed as Goa Trance (e.g. care of Dragonfly Records) but today’s events, especially the larger festivals downstream from this heritage are diverse, partly because they continue to be influenced by new trends, including as mentioned, the dark sensibility, but also dubstep, and progressive developments. And yet, when I entered the chill space on the Thursday night at the 2013 edition of the Ozora festival in Hungary, I might have been transported back to Anjuna beach in 1974 at the height of the full moon. This is among the most impressive chill spaces anywhere, and Solar Fields was coming on – good timing as I joined the buzz inside a giant beehive. Over the next 2 hours a convulsive crowd orgasm achieved peak after peak. Ambient electronica has remained integral to psyculture and has been a chief aesthetic in the psychedelic continuum, since the early Goa period and highly optimised chill spaces carry the event-cultural heritage as much as main floors.

GL: Is it possible to compare or to contrast the Psytrance with the Global Justice Movement (Seattle, Genova) and the recent occupations such as in Tel Aviv, Tahir, Occupy Wall Street and Taksim, also known as the Movements of the Squares? The aspect of gathering seems very important, you stress this time and again.

GS: Very different kinds of events, and my return question to you would be: is a favourable comparison required for psyculture events to be considered worthy of attention? Based on narrow perceptions of political behaviour, possibly not. But then I do not hold to a narrow perception of the “political”. It could be argued that psyculture and visionary arts events represent the pinnacle achievement of freedom at the other end of the revolution, enabled by liberal democracies with a healthy middle class and high standards of living. Over time, the experience filters through to those populations who do not match the privileged status of their forebears.

Can psyculture events be the means of revolution? Possibly not in terms of being confrontational or ‘protestival’ events, but this has not stopped events like Boom from adopting radical social and cultural agendas. In fact, like Burning Man, Boom and other events have developed as platforms for change by hosting spaces in which a range of ecological, alter-globalization and wellbeing causes are showcased, modelled by and transmitted to its participating populations and regional communities. The way an event is organised, or indeed self-organised as in the case of Burning Man, which holds to a set of principles that highlight participation, gifting, self–reliance etc., is itself the revolution in action. But I want to come back to something that is overlooked constantly in these kinds of comparisons and by people who insist on measuring the value of psycultural and visionary arts events against the Occupy movement and more recent revolutionary protest movements. Being altered together in dance, either with your neighbours in small gatherings close to home, or in an experience shared with thousands from a hundred different countries (as is the case at Boom’s Dance Temple) is significant on its own and does not need to be measured against other forms of gathering.

GL: What are you working on right now? Is my desire for a comprehensive history of Goa-trance (as you have described in chapter one) justified? I seem to recall that you have not been to Goa yourself.

No, I haven’t been to Goa. Global Tribe is a post Goa project, addressing the emergence and culture of festivals that arose in the slipstream of Goa. I would also point out that, as far as I am aware, researchers of Goa music scenes haven’t been to Goa either, at least not Goa pre-1993 which is the year that key participants argue marked the end of the momentous seasonal and experimental trance dance era before the whole thing imploded and exploded (i.e. was transposed internationally in the form of music aesthetics and event-cultures). A comprehensive history of Goatrance is not unjustified – I’m waiting to see it myself; possibly produced by someone involved in that music scene through its development. In addition to that, it would be great to read a history of Goa seasonal party culture, pre Goatrance (i.e 1960s-1980s). A history of the DAT and how the beach found its own uses for technology would also be fascinating.

One of the projects I’m involved in at present is a study of the Burning Man diaspora in Europe and elsewhere, a project which retains my interest in global event-cultural movements. With a global network of burners forming their own events in regions worldwide, the world’s largest temporary city, Black Rock City, now has considerable reach and appeal worldwide, with regional events all over the world. It’s a phenomenon warranting attention.

Graham St John, Global Tribe, Technology, Spirituality and Psytrance, Equinox, Sheffield, 2012.

From Brasil with Love: We Left Facebook

Posted: June 19, 2013 at 12:30 pm  

From our correspondent in Rio de Janeiro:

“There are many posters held up saying similar things like this one, “we left Facebook” or “get out of Facebook and take to the streets”, etc. The FB, Twitter, Instagram activity is intense in helping to coordinate the manifestations quite effectively. There are simultaneous manifestations in tens of cities everyday, manifestos and Youtube videos accusing the violence and claiming rights abound. Such a national movement has never happened before.”

we_left_facebook

 

Review of Benoît Peeters, Derrida–A Biography

Posted: May 14, 2013 at 3:32 pm  

Benoît Peeters’ Derrida biography, just out in English and German translations, is a must-read for everyone interested in late 20th century philosophy. Over the years I must have read 4-5 books of Jacques Derrida–not much in comparison to his phenomenal output. As the cover already announces, Peeters has written a broad, human-interest biography in a Anglo-Saxon style. That may sound unusual for Paris–and maybe it is. A sign of times? Intellectual versions of Derridadology already exist and no doubt more will appear in this genre. The inevitable coming biography by Avital Ronell will no doubt be a unique mix between the two genres. I myself knew little or nothing about the Werdegang of the good man, so it is not up to me to complain about personal details. I do not feel like pointing at the bias of the biographer or complain about the lack of larger psycho-cultural and socio-political frameworks (which is no doubt true). The fact is, in a few decades, despite all the Derrida archives, a book like this can no longer be written because the contemporaries that Peeters interviewed (100 or so) will no longer be alive.

What tires you out as a reader are the sheer endless fights between Parisian (and European) writers and thinkers from the 1960s to the recent present. This personality got into trouble with that genius etc. etc. A concept was no good. A discussion got out of hand. With the distance in time growing this is a mystery that will need a proper explanation: Why all this fractionalism? What the hell was at stake here? Money? Media coverage? Research money? None of that seems to apply in the Parisian context. Power? Truth? Reputation? Honor? Maybe. Amongst orthodox Marxists and inside social movements there are and always have been strategic debates, but in this case? Why this enormous anxiety and polarization? Was it only about power position inside institutions? Or perhaps in general the position of the intellectual in society? (a joke from today’s perspective) A play of characters comparable to the dramas on the ape rock? (celebrities gossiping about each other). Or indirect political and ideological struggles? (preferred reading but most likely an overdetermination).

Peeters’ Derrida biography can be read as one of possibly many parallel stories that can be told about French Theory going Global. The historical contribution of the most widely travelled proponent of this diverse movement seems to be one of deconstruction. I prefer the German term Abbau (Heidegger writes about Destruktion). Working in the long shadow of Second World War, Cold War, economic restructuring, decolonization and new social movements (in particular feminism), Derrida has led the project to take apart the old European metaphysical concepts–albeit in a playful, positive manner. He comes over as a careful and modest person, neither a radical nor a fan of negative dialectics. Deconstruction as a cultural practices comes over a gentle project to take apart the Western supremacy, in a time when Europe was divided and defeated. Engaged and political in his own way, his main audience remained inside academia. His aim was to blow up the traditional discipline of philosophy (while remaining inside its walls). For today’s generation this would be a difficult task (Derrida’s failed attempts to get a respectable position inside French academia reads as a real tragedy). Anyone writing in the style of Derrida today wouldn’t even get a PhD and his or her contributions to journals would be straight out rejected because of incomprehensive language, lack of quotes and absent argument. We are not supposed to fool around with literature, theory and philosophy. What was, and still is so radical about Derrida is his poetic experimental style. That’s the real scandal. Just read the comments below Terry Eagleton’s review of the book in The Guardian.


Benoît Peeters, Derrida, A Biography, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2013 (translated by Andrew Brown, org. published by Flammarion in 2010).