NOTES ON SOVEREIGN MEDIA
Geert Lovink & Joanne Richardson
In this age of media overproduction, information immunity is a question of life or death. Data are no longer stimuli to interest, but an inimical barrage constituting a physical threat. From exchange to effacement: communication is preying on naked existence. This condition takes the shape of the catastrophe while simultaneously embodying a promise of liberation. Sovereign media do not criticize the baroque data environments or experience them as threats, but consider them material, to use as they please. They operate beyond clean and dirty, in the garbage system ruled by chaos pur sang. Their carefree rummaging in the universal media archive is not a management strategy for jogging jammed creativity. Sovereign media refuse to be positively defined and are good for nothing. They demand no attention and constitute no enrichment of the existing media landscape. Once detached from every meaningful context, they switch over in fits and starts from one audio-video collection to the next. The autonomously multiplying connections generate a sensory space, which is relaxing as well as nerve racking. This tangle can never be exploited as a trend-sensitive genre again. All the data in the world alternately make up one lovely big amusement park and a five star survival trek in the paranoid category, where humor descends on awkward moments like an angel of salvation and lifts the program up out of the muck.
From the calculating perspective of the mainstream, media are intermediaries, conduits for communication, communicators of information. Media mediate information and carry it from A to B. They are presented as the condition of possibility for the exchange of information in its commodity form. The most useful media efface their presence; they disseminate the information in the most condensed form in the shortest possible time to the largest audience. Economy ultimately reduces itself to the economy of time--Marx said somewhere. And vice versa, time reduces itself to economy--to measurement and circulation for profit. The clock is necessary for the calculation and the organization of life under the rules of business. At the dawn of capitalism, merchants discovered the price of time as a consequence of the calculability of space. The exchange of commodities entailed movement from a point to its destination, and the time taken up by movement through space became subordinated to the money-form.
Media signify mastery over time under the rule of profit. Sovereign media are instances of mastery over nothingness … free of motivation, without purpose, they let themselves go, driven by the winds of data. Sovereign media are fundamentally disinterested, they don't care about the extraction of value or a surplus of meaning, they are beyond the demand for information and the utilization principle of the network. Sovereign media lack any comprehensive idea of its customer base. They cannot comprehend the language of mass media, a language militarized by the clock, reduced to sharp words that carry blunt concepts. They do not pay attention to the attention economy. Sovereign media are self-exponential. What they communicate is something other than information. They communicate themselves, liberated from the most oppressive category around: the audience. Casting beyond "the public" is the ultimate form of media freedom.
Sovereign media insulate themselves against hyperculture. They seek no connection; they disconnect. This is their point of departure--we have a liftoff. They leave the media surface and orbit the multimedia network as satellites. These do-it-yourselfers shut themselves up inside a selfbuilt monad, an "indivisible unit" of introverted technologies which, like a room without doors or windows, wishes to deny the existence of the manifest world. Sovereign media are not individual monads, rather, the world they inhabit is a monad, a parallel universe… beyond (or beside) the universe of the mainstream media and its demand for representation, reality and truth.
Sovereign media have not abolished the desire for connection and communication; they communicate with each possible node within their parallel universe. But their communication act is a denial of the maxim "I am networked, therefore I am." The atmosphere inside the sealed cabin conflicts with the ideology of networking, which subordinates the process of making links and connections to a practical goal, a concrete project, the promise of a future gain. Networking is never fully in the present nor fully in-itself, it is endured for the sake of something always just out of immediate reach. Sovereign media have severed the ties to utility, the weight of time, the labor of the project, the measurement of profit. Freed from the demand for information, communication becomes gregariousness, a gracious form of sociability. It becomes what in fact it always was--a process of forging social relations that are not subject to exchange (giving something for the purpose of extracting a return). The public is freed of its obligation to show off its interest and can finally stop paying attention. The desire to connect is determined by the pleasure of communication rather than the imperative to exchange information or establish a (political) agenda.
Sovereign media differ from the post '68 concept of alternative media (and its most recent metamorphosis into "Indy" media) as well as from 1990s tactical media. Alternative media work on the principle of counter propaganda and mirror the mainstream media, which they feel needs to be corrected and supplemented. Their strategic aim is a changed consciousness--making individuals aware of their behavior and opinions. These little media work with a positive variant of the cancer (or virus) model, which assumes that in the long term everyone, whether indirectly or through the big media, will become informed about the problem being broached. They presuppose a tight network stretched around and through society, so that in the end the activism of a few will unleash a chain reaction by the many. Alternative media have to appropriate Truth in order to operate. For sovereign media there is no Truth, only data which can be taken apart and reassembled in trillions of bytes.
The post-68 alternative media universe took shape as a swarm of little grassroots initiatives, self-organized by the "radicals" and militants--media from below in the form of community newspapers, radio, and television, which were only locally available, but untroubled by their local constraints. This changed during the 1990s when the internet made it possible for do-it-yourself media to transcend their local boundaries, and become transnational, like their uni-directional global counterpart, the mainstream media. The Independent media of the 1990s is the globalization of the alternative media (due to the democratization of technology) and the universalizability of the principle of grassrootedness.
Indy media, as the most recent legacy of the alternative media model, seek to supplant the old media universe. These counter media constitute an internal, dialectical negation, an immanent critique that can never get out from the presuppositions of the system it challenges. (We need only think of Marxism's dialectical negation of capitalism, which preserved the imperative of productivity, the utility of instrumental technology, the repressive apparatus of the State, police and standing army, as a necessary "first stage.") The mass media universe purports to be a true, genuine, democratic form of representation. Indy media critique these pretensions from the inside, wanting to expose the ideological shell behind them. But they want to preserve the rational kernel, to offer a form of media that is a true, genuine, democratic form of representation. Indy media aspire to become the dialectical supersession of mass media, and dream of a future when media itself will be transcended, insofar as media implies a separation between sender and receiver. With the democratization of information, as the receivers can become, potentially, the senders, such a separation is abolished, and information becomes a free-floating field, a pure transparency. The truth of Indy media is the post-medial universe of unmediated relationships.
Indy media work by deploying counter-propaganda. They oppose the false, ideological shell of the mass media with counter-statements made from a counter-perspective. Independent media are dependent on the image of the mass media, which they seek to reverse--they need to bounce off this shell, often borrowing the same strategies. Propaganda is putting forward a position without being aware of its construction, taking it for something natural or inevitable, disarticulating the ideology it shelters and preserves. The counter media do not question the position from which they speak. It is self-evident. And like mainstream media, they are deadly serious, they fight, militantly, to defend their position. They have a mission, a supreme Cause--the revolution in ruins--and, perpetually, they wait. Caught in the web of journalistic discourse, they too calculate time. Still not actual, they invest their energy toward some future beyond that legitimates their existence. Showing off their militancy, they are often blind to internal contradictions, closed off to the possibility of criticism, and devoid of the principle of pleasure. Propaganda and reflection do not always make good friends. And pleasure can become a danger to the Cause, it can throw it off-track, it can drown its unaware victims in a sea of forgetfulness. And above all, the counter media need to remember, to measure offenses, to accuse, to seek retribution.
Tactical media, by contrast, do not take themselves that seriously. They don't need to take the moral high ground and instead look for cracks in the media system. They know how to laugh, occasionally, even at themselves. Urged by their desire to form new coalitions they are capable of taking risks, even if this means they might self-destruct in the process. Clever tricks, the hunter's cunning, maneuvers, polymorphous situations, joyful discoveries, poetic as well as warlike. The tacticals are rebellious users of the mass media universe, whose messages they jam and hijack. As happy negatives, they are determined by their enemy. A fake GWBush page by RTMark cannot exist without the "authentic" one, which it parodies without reserve. Culture jammers do not exist without corporate billboards. Tactical media use what is handy, what can be improvised in the moment. They do not deploy the same strategies as the inside, they shy away from solemnity, and the claims to truthful representation. Tactical media create a system of disinformation, which implicitly questions the power and status of signs. Information becomes laughable, it is exposed as a sham. The truth is not a hardcore database full of "facts" but only appears as a brief moment of revelation, popping up out of the (collective) unconscious.
Tactical media may be art, but they are not, however, "disinterested"--ultimately, they have some long-term political aim, they labor for a future cause, even though they may know how to enjoy the moment. They have given up the masses, but they seek to change the consciousness of a minority, by conducting a politics by other means, a politics that has surpassed itself and become an art form. They wage not counter-propaganda, but propaganda of the hoax. The toolbox of tactical media is sometimes borrowed from the basement of the avant-gardes, who although not "militant" in the strict political sense, made a fetish out of the metaphors warfare and terrorism. And metaphors are not always innocent. The avant-gardes began decomposing a long time ago, as the militarism concealed in their names, gestures, and mode of organization came increasingly under disrepute. But sometimes they can still be heard gasping for life, somewhere beyond the grave of history, having since metamorphosed into "communication guerrillas."
Unlike the media of opposition, which are based on a radical critique of capitalist (art) production, sovereign media have alienated themselves from the entire business of media politics and the contemporary arts scene. An advanced mutual disinterest hampers any interaction. They move in parallel worlds which do not interfere with each other. No counter information or criticism of politics or art is given in order to start up a dialogue with the authorities. Sovereign media have cut all surviving imaginary ties with truth, reality and representation. They no longer concentrate on the wishes of a specific target group, as the alternative and tactical media still do. They have emancipated themselves from any potential audience, and thus they do not approach their audience as a moldable market segment, but offer it the "royal space" the other deserves.
The royal Other is not a receiver of information, but a partner in a communication without purpose. Sovereign media are media without the message, the dialectic of media at a standstill. They are stalled at the intermediary step of making connections, without moving toward an aim, without the finality of exchange. Sovereign media lift up the media as an end in-itself. This should not be understood as a desire for the "purification" of the medium, a desire that has accompanied every old and new media revolution. On the day film was born, for instance, the conceptualists of purity wanted to eliminate from its realm everything that did not belong to it--narrative, representation, metaphors--and which had been imported from other media, like literature. The sovereignty of media is not a phenomenological reduction or purification of a language specific to "media as such." Sovereignty is not a conceptual project, but an aesthetic wandering. Communication ceases to be a general equivalent through which something is quantified and squeezed; it becomes an end in itself, narcissistic, ecstatic, and free.
If Indy media labor to become the supersession (Aufhebung) of media into Truth, sovereign media are its total dispersion. The counter media seek to abolish the separation between sender and receiver, between medium and the message, thereby completing the internal development of media. Sovereign media inhabit a universe which is post-medial in another sense. There is no sender and receiver because there is no broadcast and no message. Sovereign media do not surpass the sender-receiver regime by bringing it to its completion, they take no interest in it, they annihilate the problem, and with it, the desire for a solution.
Without being otherwise secretive about their own existence, the sovereigns remain unnoticed, since they stay in the blind spot that the bright media radiation creates in the eye. And that's the reason they need not be noticed as an avant-garde trend and expected to provide art with a new impetus. The reason sovereign media are difficult to distinguish as a separate category is because the shape in which they appear can never shine in its full lustre. The program producers don't show themselves; we see only their masks, in the formats familiar to us. Every successful experiment that can possibly be pointed to as an artistic or political statement is immediately exposed to contamination. The mixers inherently do not provoke, but infect chance passersby with corrupted banalities which present themselves in all their friendly triviality. An inextricable tangle of meaning and irony makes it impossible for the experienced media reader to make sense of this.
So what are sovereign media? The form of the question might be incorrect. Sovereign media are. In the pleasure of Being Media, sure of themselves and lacking nothing, they embark on a journey to shape the data universe.
November 2001, Sydney/Zagreb. This is a revision/update of the earlier text "Theory of the Sovereign Media" by BILWET (a.k.a. ADILKNO - Foundation for the Advancement of Illegal Knowledge). Published in English for the first time in Adilkno, The Media Archive, Autonomedia, 1998. Original version can be found on-line at http://www.thing.desk.nl/bilwet/adilkno/TheMediaArchive/02.