have seen the things brought to the King from the new golden land: a sun wholly of gold, wide a whole fathom, also a moon, wholly of silver and just as big; also two chambers full of their implements, and two others full of their weapons, armor, shooting engines, marvelous shields, strange garments, bedspreads and all sorts of wondrous things for many uses, much more beautiful to behold than miracles.
(Albrecht Dürer, diary entry of August 27 1520, cited in Erwin Panofsky, The Art and Life of Albrecht Dürer, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1971: 209)
Marx once observed that the concrete is always the result of a collision of abstractions. A hundred and fifty years later, our concrete world is accused of immateriality. For some its characteristic form is the sublime, unnameable and incommunicable object of awed contemplation, ahistorical and informe. At such junctures, theory becomes the apologist for the end of communication. And yet, clearly, we are still communicative creatures. For information theory as for semiotics, the necessary condition of communication is difference, and it is this difference which appears to have diminished to to the point of evaporation. I want to enquire as to whether this real or virtual vanishing act concerns the loss of dimensionality. Far from witnessing the triumph of space over time, media productions of the last twenty years have evidenced the simultaneous loss of geography and history and their recreation as dimensionlessly ‘pure’ experience or event. The work of theory abandoned (or depoliticised) in loci of high cultural capital is now advanced in the ordinary processes of popular culture where, however, it obeys the materialist injunction to change the world. Oddly, the revolutionary task of the moment is to understand the world and the trajectories along which its processes are occurring. This presentation will draw on media and globalisation theory to suggest that ‘analysis’, as understood in revolutionary politics, is the key task of contemporary philosophy.
Nanoscopic dimensions, cosmochronic timescales, weapons that travel at the speed of information and bullet-time media. A 24/7 global finance capital market. Human relations far more inclusive than ever before yet far shallower and less ethically or aesthetically marked than ever before. Risks as never before, expertise and trust as never before, mutuality and exploitation as never before. At the moment the world becomes abstract, we are about to abandon theory? Where Marx wrote, a hundred and fifty years ago, that the concrete was the result of the collision of abstracts, in those days when a spectre haunted Europe and capitalism feasted on the blood of the living, today the collision of abstractions — freedom, peace, justice, revenge — results in the concrete. For Marx, dead capital — technologies of production fed on the cultural and technological skills of the unnamed millions of what Giedion called ‘anonymous history’ — merely threatened the massive productive power of the living. Today, that dead capital far outweighs the powers of the living. Lifted out of the realm of production, usufruct, wealth produced from dead wealth, absorbs and dominates the present. Sublimated as e-cash, the commodity form at its most abstract, dominates contemporary communication even as it enables its globalisation (Cubitt, 1999). If, as Virilio has argued, along with dozens of others, the human world has shrunk beneath the level at which description of it is possible, perhaps we have nothing left but abstraction, and the necessity to theorise, since we are incapable, as a species, of abandoning the task of situating ourselves in the world and among others.
Least of all in the age of digital media. Accumulated in the dead capital of the production era were the manual skills of generations. The bureaucratic management of information was begun by the Spanish and Portuguese imperial baroque. Formalised in the counting-houses and offices of Dickensian London, the organisational principle became concrete, stripping the already impoverished male clerks of their skills base, replacing copperplate with typewriting, archiving with filing cabinets, numeracy with cash registers and adding machines. Male breadwinners found themselves replaced by short-term, underskilled, disorganised and dispensible female workforces who, ideologically, could be cast out of work on the basis that they were not sole earners in their families. Those abstract apparatuses of management have become concrete devices of penury. The layout of desks in an airline booking office, or worse still the use of prisoners as call-centre labour, especially widespread in the USA, and beyond that the globalisation of call-centres and online helpdesks, the proletarianisation of chatline and chatforum hosts, the export of repetitive person-to-person consumer information and service to Third World labour, all point to the increasingly abstract nature of our social relations. In cyberspace, no-one knows how badly you’re paid. Today relations between people no longer appear in the fantastic guise of objects but of an object: the planet-spanning network of concretised dead labour. The dead weight of the past weighs once again like a nightmare on the lives of the living.
Theoretical research should oppose this state of affairs. But much of the most generously funded research in the social and human sciences, and so much of the best of it, is empirical. But the task of gathering sociological data on the globalised communications industries, especially in the B2B and B2C, business to business and business to consumer sectors, is not contingently outdated: by definition it lags behind the actuality. The dimensionlessness of contemporaneity leaves empirical data-gathering locked into a perpetual past. Essential as it is, this kind of work is structured so that it always addresses the material detritus of what has already happened. Itself structured by the apparatuses of an organisational paradigm as old as the imperial bureaucracies, research currently faces the risk of becoming proletarianised and rendered into dead labour in the form of data-analysis software faster and more complete than human scholars. Such programmes, however swift, nonetheless still reference a world that is already historical. Worse still, the historical data trends they analyse then become the grounds for futurological planning, modelling what is to come on the basis of what has already come about. The problem is less a perpetual present than the annihilation of presence as a temporal option. Theory’s task is to extrapolate from this past-oriented research a research paradigm which is future-oriented.
And therein lies the rub. The whole attraction of theory as an activity is that it belongs to an ethically-driven demand that we produce, on behalf of the future, not merely new data, not merely an identification and removal of obstacles to their existence and life-chances, but that we bequeath to them other modes of thinking. We do we undertake theory? To produce new modes of knowing, conceptualising, cognition, yes. But why do we undertake it? Because we alone of all the generations whose working skills have become concrete are capable of abstraction, because we alone are alive and capable of making history. Because of all the activities we might undertake, making money, making love, making whoopee, only research permits us to live outside the present: to project ourselves into the future. To think otherwise is to make futurity.
Yet on every hand research as futurity is confounded. The laborious interjections of governments are concerned only to attract inward investment in a futile competition for places in the top league of colonisation by capital. The instrumental insistence that every act of research have a benefit now, measurable in the terms of a present intimately shaped by its absorption of the past, is meticulously uninterested in making the difference that makes a difference. Research changes things. Now that the avant-garde has abandoned its historic task of radical criticism, research alone undertakes Adorno’s programme: the unearthing of the grains of possibility among the wreckage of the present. But ranged against it, ranged against every struggle to re-imagine the world, from professional researchers to Chiapas peasants, there arrives the problem of the dimensionless. Where there is neither space nor time, there can be no change. In what follows I talk about digital media: be aware that for this discussion, all digital connectivities are media, and that means most of all today the management of people and resources and the global flows of finance capital which, from the point of view of the computer, are indistinguishable from images, text or data. The study of the media is the study of society. More formally, society as a concept has outlived its practical and theoretical usefulness. Today we inhabit media formations. Let that be my first theoretical statement.
While it remains to be seen how digital media will develop — beyond binary logic, beyond electricity — and while we need to recognise that the new media are as much symptoms as causes of change, still there are some things we can isolate. While humanities scholars still inquire into the possibility of escaping the stranglehold of narrative, digital media are already clearly working inside an equally powerful, equally dominant post-narrative paradigm: that of the spreadsheet and the database. The extraordinary success of the PC rests four-square on a single application, Lotus 1-2-3, the first spreadsheet. Without it, PCs would be an elite device already joining the phenakistoscope and the 8-track cassette in the museum of Jurassic technology. As it is, they are ubiquitous in business, where they advance the proletarianisation and feminisation of new areas of office work, accountancy and bookkeeping. The interface structures of key creative software applications like digital editing and CD-ROM/DVD authoring packages reflect this paradigm in some detail.
The importance of the spreadsheet as symptom and effector of contemporary culture lies in its dimensionality. Like any accounting system since the development of double-entry bookkeeping, the spreadsheet organises a temporal process — transactions — into a spatial form. Database software acts in similar ways, perhaps most recognisably in the form of geographic information systems. GIS systems are notable too for the use they can make of another geographical technology, earth-observation satellite imaging. These complex digital artefacts must reduce the range of spectra visible to electronic sensors to the human sensorium’s Red-Green-Blue vision. Not only are radar, infrared and ultra-violet deconvolved to produce RGB images, but changes over time can be logged into a still image for earthside analysis. Something similar can be said of certain practices used in magnetic resonance imaging of the brain and any number of other temporal mapping techniques used in scientific measurement and observation, from global weather systems to the momentary flight of quantum events. In all of these applications, time is reassembled as fields or planes: as space. There is some research to do here on the history and deployment of graphical representations of time as maps in pie-charts and bar diagrams. The usage is not new, but it is increasingly integral to the reading and understanding, not only of these specialist practices but of a wide range of cultural and communicative activities.
And of the opposite, far more widely recognised reconfiguration of space, Jérôme Bindé offers a succinct and powerful summary:
Modern societies suffer from a distorted relationship to time. It is as if the short term were the impassable horizon, whether it be the activities of the stock exchange, the date of the next elections, or the influence of the media. From communication to finance, transactions are now conducted at the speed of light. Real time, the absolute zero of temporal distance, is both a sign and an element of an exclusive preoccupation with the present. From the short term to what is immediate, from a restricted horizon to the absence of any horizon, such is the time scale which has underlain the closing years of the twentieth century. (Bindé 2000: 31)
Transport and communication technologies, the virtualisation of the economy and the conversion of the military to the doctrine of C3i are nodal points in the transition from a culture of distance to a culture of co-temporality that is so frequently held to herald the abolition of history.
This twin process of the spatialisation of time and the reduction of spatial distance to temporal immediacy is both the enabling condition and an immediate consequence of the globalisation process; so much so that it is difficult to distinguish the three. Like the coincidence of clocks, telegraphy and the railways, co-temporaneous media are a prerequisite of global finance. Places that retain their status as places do so only by removing themselves from this shared present, either as hideaways for the rich, or as the excluded zones of the poor. In a similar fashion, spatialisation serves the needs of globalisation by emphasising the stasis of the grid over the dynamics of movement within and between cells. ‘Research’, as it is conducted in the humanities and social sciences as much as in the technological and pure sciences, confronts the demand of governments, foundations and corporate partners that there be an application within a measurable time-frame, but also (as is proper to geographically organised polities) to the benefit of geographically-defined populations. Even critical work prying into the foundations of the research paradigm tends to operate in geographically circumscribed modes. The most fervent of post-colonial critiques of Eurocentrism, for example, tend to deploy European concepts. How many who have read Said have also read the Koran? Eurocentric anti-Eurocentrism is symptomatic of a closed shop, a definitional attitude that demands of the rest of the world that it demonstrate its abilities in European modes of theoretical and practical research before its own contributions can be voiced legitimately. Theory is itself a centred discourse, although we deny that there is a core discipline to which we must adhere. A brief check of the scholarly apparatus confirms: Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Fred Jameson’s ‘Postmodernism’, Donna Harraway’s ‘Manifesto for Cyborgs’ and a handful of other texts, largely the work of white intellectuals of the North Atlantic axis, are the required reading for anyone entering our field. Everything else is gravy.
So we look to such a maître à penser, David Harvey:
I use the word ‘compression’ because a strong case can be made that the history of capitalism has been characterised by a speed-up in the pace of life, while so overcoming spatial barriers that that the world sometimes seems to collapse inwards upon us… As space appears to shrink to a ‘global village’ of telecommunications and a ‘spaceship Earth’ of economic and ecological interdependencies — to use just two familiar and everyday images — and as time horizons shorten to the point where the present is all there is (the world of the schizophrenic), so we have to learn how to cope with an overwhelming sense of compression of our spatial and temporal worlds (Harvey 1990: 240)
This is a convincing description of the emergent properties of a decade ago. It is no longer a theoretical statement, however, but a historical one. The canonisation of texts as ‘theory’ is a further enemy of research, and one that arises from within the media formation of humanities and cultural studies research itself, like the dead hands of anti-narrative and representation-simulation theory. There is no point going over the old research: it no longer holds. We say we are stopping our students from re-inventing the wheel, while we painstakingly explain the wheelwright’s craft. Perhaps we are stopping them from inventing the interstellar ramjet.
We have known, since Lévi-Strauss first drew our attention to the consanguinity of society and language, that no social order can be imagined that is not also immediately a communicative order. Language however has lost its right to claim the throne of the humanities. Linguistic models do not enable a better understanding of audiovisual communication, information flows or haptic interactions. The literary is losing its grasp on theory. The specificity of other mediations impresses itself on us, even as we accept the coincidence of corporate synergy with a supposed convergence of distinctive media. A small example: the script is no longer the central tool for budgeting a film: that role has been usurped by storyboards, albeit linked to scriptwriting software in bundles like MovieMagic. Logos take over from log-lines in movie marketing. Linear narrative begins to diverge into assemblages of narratemes whose fascination lies in their patterning: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
It is necessary here to make a distinction. Though critical of the residual centrality of language to much of the discourse concerning human communication, I am nonetheless a practitioner of it, and love its subtle, passionate, lowdown ways. This is perhaps the justification for my profound distrust of the concept of the sublime. Sublimity is proposed as a movement in human communication beyond the realm of reason and language. In Burke it clearly refers onward to a posthuman nature, a divine order beyond the comprehension of mortals that irrupts into the world in mighty landscapes and terrible weather. Burke’s and Kant’s conceptions are worthy of study and especially of typology. What concerns me more is the expropriation of this near-instinctual awe we might feel in the presence of, say, the night sky. Of itself, it is as innocent as sex or hunger. Taken up by Hollywood, it becomes the ideological construction of the incommunicable as both extra-historical and extra-social, for the sublime, even the secular sublime, is by definition removed from human capacities to speak and act. Sublimity — the triumphal moment of fifty science-fiction and fantasy films of the last decade — is only the obverse of a Manichean Hollywood’s support for a peculiar remnant of North America’s puritan past: the belief in absolute Evil. Personalised (name your villain), depersonalised (name your alien) or impersonalised (Twister, The Perfect Storm, Dante’s Peak), Evil stalks as implacably as the candied imaginings of supernal loveliness from the Star Child sequence in Kubrick’s 2001 to the gawky effects of de Palma’s Mission to Mars or Zemeckis’ Contact. There is of course a contradiction in the representation of the sublime, as there is in the depiction of Evil. Sentiment — enjoyment without incurred responsibility — scarcely masks the evacuation of language from spectacle. This is not a triumph for the audiovisual: it is an abuse of them to arrive at a numb point in which no mental activity or history-making, is possible. The purpose of mass media depictions of the sublime is to overpower, like a baroque Jesuit church. The critique of the sublime is then not a critique of language. Language is vital, unavoidable in any case, despite the slack-jawed and inarticulate gasp elicited by Hollywood’s spectacular expropriation of awe in the form of the sublime. It is only and simply the case that language no longer offers us a unique and total model for the description of what it is that humans do.
A broader term than language (or linguistic metaphors like ‘dialogue’) is needed: the term I propose is ‘mediation’.
All humans communicate, willingly or not, and all communication is mediated, unless you believe in telepathy. In a period characterised by the multiple mediations, from genotext to negotiated meaning, mediation describes the material as the condition of communication.
Society is mediation. The opposite is only the case in the looser sense of the adjective, when we say ‘mediation is social’. Mediation is the material form in which the vast, now global discourse of humanity takes place. Society is merely one aspect, a name for one mode of apprehending, that communicative web. Mediation embraces all the interpretive and explanatory frameworks — power, desire, economics, culture — that the social sciences have brought forward to describe and analyse the human world. As a species we inhabit media formations, and today, especially in the industrialised world, are ourselves both thoroughly permeated by mediations, and mediated. We are mediated in the form of data-images in surveillant and corporate memory cores, for example. As the commodity exchanged in the sale of audiences to advertisers, we are mediated in an especially brutal way, subjects of the proletarianisation of consumption undertaken in the years since Keynesian consumption-driven expansion in the wake of the Great Depression. Today, we are as subject to consumer discipline as the 19th century factory hand was to the disciplines of work-discipline.
The media formations in which we find ourselves conjoined are disparate and layered across professional, local, diasporan, elective, familial and many other scapes, to borrow Appadurai’s term, each itself a geological puzzle of residual, dominant and emergent morphologies. In the wake of 20th century modernism, we can describe some unusual characteristics of several of them.
- Firstly, the self-reflexive nature of popular as well as high culture emphasises the materiality of the mediation in forms as dispersed as analytical cubism’s work on the transition from three to two dimensions at one extreme, and the production of spectacle or of soundscape in contemporary cinema and dance music. A few years ago, we referred to this aspect of mediation as the signifier, whose autonomy in the communicative process counterbalanced, alongside McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’, the transparency of medium in first-wave information theory.
- Secondly, from Vertov to the telerobotic art of Ken Goldberg and the biogenetic art of Eduardo Kac, modernism assimilated an understanding of the autonomy of machines, their capacity for other perceptions, their ability to organise, reframe, author, differently. From the jammed camera of Méliès to the AI engines driving PlayStation 2, popular culture has revelled in the autonomy of the mechanical phylum. Katherine Hayles’ exemplary work on Cold War paranoia as ideological root of Shannon and Weaver’s engineering theses as generalised by Wiener, backed up by Abbate and Edwards meticulous historical scholarship, suggest, on the contrary, that cybernetics of the 40s was a last ditch struggle over the soul of the new machine, an attempt to ensure that the digital paradigm at the moment of its birth bear the hallmarks of triumphant productive capital rather than the emergent properties of a then uncontrollable because unforeseeable globalisation process. The hybrid devices that we now have, with their individualised industrial design, their interface modelled on the corporate systems of the second office revolution, and their characteristic database and spreadsheet structures, bear the scars of that epoch. Nonetheless, we experience them as in some sense autonomous devices, capable of surprising, even resisting us. We spend a long time getting to know our computers.
- Thirdly, in anthropology and ethnographic cultural studies, in contemporary art practice, and to a limited extent in the mass media, notably among market researchers, the autonomy of the observed has become increasingly apparent. It is no longer appropriate to use informational models from the 1940s as the gospel of communication. We know that ‘messages’ do not reach ‘receivers’, but that a complex set of negotiations takes place across the communicative net irreducible to the concepts of signal and feedback in homeostatic loops. I would only add that the current vocabulary of ‘resistance’ and ‘subversion’ does not do justice to what has been emergent since the introduction of the box brownie, as counter-current to the simultaneous emergence of mass consumerism in the 1880s and 1890s: the active production of countercultures and ideolects of the dominant. The desire to express yourself, and publicly, belongs to that same shift from object status that characterises the scholarly researcher’s discovery that the other of their investigation has an agenda of their own.
These three autonomies — of signifier, of device and of audience/receiver — add themselves to 19th century discoveries, not least that extraordinary convergence of Darwin and Freud that brought us sharply to the realisation that our motives are not our own, and that in authoring a communication, I am not necessarily in total, rational command of my own communiqué. The idea that information might be systemic and probabilistic rather than individualised, localised and determinable allies itself to this complex interweaving of agencies, each mutually interdependent, each also however carrying what we can imagine as its own motivation. The apparatus of mediation, as it appears in the early years of the third millennium, presents itself less as a lacework of fixed nodes and connectors, and more as an ecology. The media formations in which we live are more like clouds than bounded states, They are not places but territories, in the sense that de Certeau gives the term: the effect produced by operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it and make it function as a polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities… In contradistinction to the place, it has none of the univocity or stability of a proper’ (de Certeau 1984: 208).
De Certeau slips, of course. The first part of the quotation specifies ‘a polyvalent unity’, while the latter distinguishes it from place’s ‘univocity’. Media formations are not units but multiplicities, following that mathematical logic which understands that the distinction between zero and one which establishes counting demands the consequent distinctions two, three, four, five… A society still has the conceptual possibility of seeing itself as unified, whole, discrete: that is the background of Howard’s racist immigration policy, and the reason for Beasley’s weak acceptance of it. Likewise, it explains the centrality for nation-states to promote ‘national identity’ and ‘cultural values’: the state has abandoned almost all its other legitimating functions: now its last creative role, the last rationale for it continuing to exist apart from mitigating the depredations of globalisation and jostling for crumbs from the corporate table, is to promote the imaginary, ‘society’. Some people — very probably John Howard among them — still inhabit that older world. But for most of us — of us in this room, for example — the ability to enter into, perform and consume, in any number of mutually interpenetrating media formations is as natural as breathing.
Toshiya Ueno calls it ‘tactical syncretism, the shifting reconstitution of community through changeable and nomadic micro-tribalisms in Asian rave culture. Gerardo Mosquera, in the aptly named essay ‘Goodbye Identity, Hello Difference’, argues a related case for the redundancy of the term ‘Latin American Art’ in a period in which California and Florida promise to become the largest Hispanic populations of the hemisphere (he cites a Miami storefront sign: ‘English Spoken Here’). Both large and small-scale identity-configuring structures seem no longer to hold us in thrall. Something has happened to society.
It’s shocking for a Brit to discover that they agree with Margaret Thatcher. When she said ‘There is no such thing as society’, however, she implied that there were only individuals. Of course, the two categories are entirely mutually dependent. For too long the task set for social theory has been to reconcile the irreconcilable binary at the heart of the construction of Western civilisation: the opposition and co-dependence of individual and society. In media formations, this mutual construction is entirely apparent and open to agency. Temporary autonomous zones of dance culture, protest, diasporan musics, the conference circuit, all provide models of self-directed mediation constructed out of the available forms. I take Zizek’s point, that
Multiculturalism is a racism which empties its own position of all positive content … but nevertheless retains this position as the privileged empty point of universality from which one is able to appreciate (and depreciate) properly other particular cultures — the multiculturalist respect for the Other’s specificity is the very form of asserting one’s own superiority.
Against the smorgasbord of the corporate cosmopolitan ready to enjoy and ingest the local as a flavour of the global, expecting the corroborree alongside the Opera House, Zizek reads multiculturalism as integral to the process of annihilating difference. I part company however with the mystical evocation of an Hegelian universal that should direct all human ethics. Levinas already undertook the defusing of that particular time-bomb in his distinction of infinity from totality. Research, theoretical research, is ethical because it is infinite, and it is infinite only on the premise that it is not and can never be universal.
For Larry Grossberg, the problem is philosophical. In the introduction to Bringing It All Back Home he lays the blame at the door of the Sage of Königsberg. The problematic of representation (Grossberg calls it mediation) derives from Kant’s distinction between noumena and phenomena, the problem of otherness derives from the interiority-exteriority boundary, and at the heart of the troika,
by separating space and time as the two a priori forms Kant instituted a logic of dimensions. This separation and the subsequent privileging of time over space, ensures that culture and subjectivity — since the unity of the subject depends upon the unity of time — are identified with temporality and history, and that space largely disappears as a theoretical or analytical category. Even reality itself, at least insofar as it is available to human beings, (which excludes purely speculative and metaphysical discourses) is itself temporal. (Grossberg 1997: 20)
It is not just a question of righting the balance, restoring space to its proper equilibrium with time. Kant’s separation of the two was not a project but a prophecy, which has become the ground for understanding the real division of time from space in the media formations of the Enlightenment and its successors. Clearly what is required is, as Grossberg argues, a non-Kantian philosophical ground. The first stage has been the synthesis of the two into a space time which, since Einstein, has pursued an intellectual trajectory towards the ‘black hole’ of meaning — the Freudian overtones of Baudrillard’s formulation are of course too manifest to be unconscious. Synthesis has been the ally rather than the critic, still less the opponent, of a globalisation that relies upon, as it promotes, the extinction of space and time as a unified field.
Nor do we have the option of appeal to tradition, for tradition itself is merely the result of modernisation, just as the local is an effect of the global. No-one lived either locally or traditionally until the alternatives became available. The question for theory is: what alternatives are there to space-time, to tradition-modernity, society-individual, local-global? And to reach into that problematic we need to undertake a couple of tasks.
- We must recognise the nature of the event in which the older binaries are collapsed, firstly into one another, and thence into indifference. At a certain extreme, this is the moment of the sublime, and it is experienced as event, a moment in which the subject-object relation is extinguished, but which is deployed neither for its own sake nor as a channel for worship, but as the self-revelation of the intoxicating vacuity of the entire system: the void at the heart of the commodity fetish
- We have to comprehend that the synthetic drive of post-theory (postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism, posthumanism) is no longer ahead of the game. In the same way that Adorno’s negative dialectics have become the familiar currency of contemporary mainstreams in art, cinema, pop and fashion, so the synthetic radicalism of Bataille or Barthes has become the common currency of syncretic fashions, pop, cinema and art. Neither synthesis nor negativity any longer offer us a radicalism, because each has become a tool of domination.
Theory’s task has to be, like that of the special effects industry, to keep ahead, on the cutting edge. Nothing else will do, nothing less than the most shocking, brutal, head-bashing, or the most lubricious, sensuous insinuations. Each of these will, in any case, soon enough be corrupted. The maw of the machinery of dominance will also subsume the labour of theory into its concretising of the living in the form of the dead. But in the meantime, we can do something more than feed the advertising industry with concepts. The price of living in the future is that you can never settle. There are no gains for theory, which must always move ahead of the game or cease to claim the title. The reward is only infinity, and that perhaps the bad infinity of Sysiphus. The alternative is not to roll the stone. We can entrust that task to our politicians.
Right now, the job is what used to be called, as I grew up in the political school of the 4th International, analysis. The more enchanting both the synthetic and the negative dimensions of contemporary global culture become, the more insistent we must be on analytical categories. Disenchantment is the initial condition, today, for theoretical work. At the same time, undisciplined as theory must always be, there is the necessity to deny the premise underlying Deleuze and Guattari’s proliferation of concepts: that was the job; now it has changed, and we have to be the Ockham’s razor gang. Not sublime, but temporary, beautiful only in the eyes of those who like their instant spare, classical, atomic. Another generation can swim in the oceans of complexity: ours has to look out at the shores, ‘we for whom to write about trees was a crime’. Theory’s job is to do what knowledge cannot: to leave the present, to shun home. Peripatetic theory then, but also a theory which can no longer afford the luxury of the negative, after Baudrillard and Heidegger have become coffee-table reading, and Eminem dominates the charts. Even in these islands — writing in Aotearoa, reading in Tasmania — where, despite all our strictures (cf FutureNature) nature still splashes her green into the human universe, the evil of consumer capitalism also washes over and through us, melanoma. Until the Universal Declaration of Human Obligations ends the rule of Bush’s oil barons and their global cronies, the world is going to hell in a Ford Mondeo. And theory’s task is to derive from all this the hope that enables us to do more than survive, to imagine, and to create the possibility of, a world otherwise.
We cannot go back, and we cannot stand still. The collapsing dimensions of the contemporary acceleration of modernity belong to the concretisation of the past. Analysis has to make futurity. What that means I do not know, only that we have to dissolve ourselves into the rock of the dimensionless event if the event itself is to dissolve, so that sublimity may become possibility. Some other quality, which from my experience of the last twelve months I would call distance, will take theory beyond the impassive, indifferent event. The analysis of the media formations is a necessary first step. Immaterialism is the paradigm of neo-liberalism. Materialism itself has yet to emerge, and will only emerge in the process of changing the world.
- Sean Cubitt is Director of the Program in Media and Communications at the University of Melbourne. His publications include Timeshift, Videography, Digital Aesthetics, Simulation and Social Theory, The Cinema Effect and EcoMedia. He is series editor for Leonardo Books at MIT Press.
- Paper presented at the ‘what’s left of theory?’ conference of the Australian cultural studies association, University of Tasmania, Hobart 8-10 December 2001