POST-MEDIA OPERATORS: "Sovereign and Vague"

Howard Slater @ Break/Flow

(Why Theory?)

We have to dispense with the idea that theorising occurs after the creative event; that a poem or a track or a text is made and then, as part of its process of dissemination, there follows the theorising of the piece. Such a theorising is normally attributed to those known variously as critics, reviewers and essayists. However, what actually occurs is that theorising goes on at the same time as the creative event is being worked upon. There is a thinking and an engaging with materials at the same time. Praxis. Process. It is complementary to the event and, more importantly, it is the continuous precondition for the event. Such a theoretical component to any activity is denied because theory is normally attributed to a textual product, and like the role of the critic, this comes to exercise the effect upon creative producers that their activity is somehow 'below' the level of theoretical process. This self-deprecation, actively instituted by the division of labour (a compartmentalisation of tasks that undoubtedly limits perception), serves to reinforce the divide between consciousness and activity, between thought and action; it severs the creative producer from the consciousness of his or her activity to the point that the theoretical component is occluded.

Perhaps a theorising that neglects such auto-theoretical aspects could be termed 'discourse' and that this latter form of theoretical activity is so often hermetic, self-referencing and exclusory is maybe because it seeks to resolve problems 'once-and-for-all' within a text rather than filtering these through an activity that is constantly posing these problems anew as a part of daily practice. In this way, by coralling theory into servicing their own renewal, academics do not confront the division of labour (the provisos of their knowledge) and instead reproduce the hierarchisation that not only occludes but occults the shared auto-theoretical component. Such hermetic academic discursivity ­ seen in the proliferation of secondary texts that veil and seek to possess the primary text ­ serves as a means of formalising the 'right' to theory; specialising it as a work of discipline that it divorced from 'practical energies'.

Yet, to re-create what is meant by 'theorising', to refuse to differentiate it from 'everyday' activity, experience and experiment is to be engaged in a process of de-conditioning; a translating and de-translating of the "inexhaustible stores of material" that, by means of memory and conscience, make of everyone an auto-theorist. Such a process, in not confining problems to discourse nor in seeking to compress them within formal, dispassionate and conclusive restraints, is a process of social engagement. Not knowing of boundaries, not even knowing of taught techniques of cross-over, the sui generis sites of communication proliferate and as they do it becomes clearer that, beyond the models offered by the media and the academy, it becomes a matter of re-appropriating the means of written, visual and aural expression. This approach is, in part, what those conspicuous outsiders, the situationists, meant by 'drifting': a reflective activity is not solely a matter of a 'large table and piles of books' but is as much a matter of the social-interaction of 'walking': a non-discursive sense of the environment. This situationist take on auto-theorisation, which relates to the Marxist sense of critique as opposed to criticism, was partly employed to differentiate their activity from academia and, if, today, this auto-theoretical dimension has been supplanted by the discursive, making this dimension invisible to practitioners who self-deprecatingly deny its existence to themselves, it is sadly sought and reconvened in the pages and sites of the media where, not only does it fall to journalists to articulate our activity for us, it is, as a result of such voluntary delegation, a matter of creative producers searching for a 'scene' anywhere other than in their own auto-theoretical potential to be engaged.

(Media Pimps?)

However, such flight from the academic and discursive towards the 'free space' of the reputedly popular does hardly anything to resuscitate and encourage auto-theorisation. The exchange of one set of exigencies for another reveals that the choice between academia and the media (the false choice of rigour versus hedonism, earnestness versus noncommittalism) is one which posits, at best, an acute negotiation between dissemination and compromise and, at worst, a blind innocence bordering on unconscious collusion; an innocence that is in part an innocence of seeking after the legitimating word of arbiters but which is also a naivety undercut by an unsureness of motive ­ a lack of any other social context other than that of hermetic careerism (one slot becomes the advert for another slot).

Creativity, the free-flow of desire, becomes channelled into a playful and distracted entertainment but it is still a creativity that is eulogised with an overload of super-superlatives. And so, as with academic eulogies to creativity, when the mainstream media discusses creative processes it is normally couched in terms of what makes a poem, text or track 'better' than someone elses. That the 'Harvard System' of annotation is replaced by the interview situation does not diminish the degree of reverence. The canonical and the popular still resound to the familiar ring of 'genius' but in the media things are maybe worse in that a premature acclaim or interest in a creative producer can work to sap auto-theorisation by making the processes that inform the creativity into the motor of a production line: famous for a product, that product is replicated; famous for being misrepresented,the misrepresentation is promulgated. Often creative producers can almost be heard to be in the thrall of the mediatised situation, where, with the interviewer engaged in the dynamics of ego-activation, the interviewee is less likely to take the opportunity to talk in more general terms that could offer encouragement to others. The most successful manipulators of the media are those who know that they are dealing with the promotion of their own product (themselves) and, rather than pre-empt a critic's review and move out from the 'silent' confines of the interview situation, they choose, in many ways, to meet media censorship with self-censorship.This is the price of their pleasure: that their desire, which becomes ours, is a stopped-flow called entertainment.

But, crucially, one of the primary elements of auto-theorisation is the fact that it is dependent on being flawed and tentative. It is a space where mistakes and meconnaissance play a vital role. The media space is, however, by and large, one of celebration, one where 'success' and the finalisation of product are reified into something that is unchanging. This media space requires that its subjects, obedient and pliable in the long sought-after first-flush of acclaim, suspend their self-critical faculties to the point that enthusiasm can be wrought into the unadulterated jubilance of publicity (every opportunity to speak becomes a re-trenchment).

The media can't celebrate process or becoming. That would be to begin to suppress itself and, at the end of that fine day, it would be possible for us to return the creative product to its prosaic reality, bring it down from the reified air of its presupposed future posterity and install it as a social product. But in the meantime an air of unreality ensues. Everyone begins to expect a non-existent perfection and, awaiting their turn in the spotlight, are unable to address each other without the glare of this fictive mirror. Comparison, the bench mark of media quality control, equivalises value and begins to infect a scene which, abandoning its idiosyncratic drive, begins to compete and then, exhausted, it reproduces the norm only to find it is too early or too late. For this divisive simulation to catch us in its thrall it is necessary for the "invisible structures" of the media to remain unillumined.

Journalistic construction is dependent on many elements, processes, that do not find their way into finalised articles or reviews. There is the selection of subjects, which elevates some at the expense of others (reinforcing hierarchy, individualism and competitiveness) and which is, more often than not, carried out in relation to readership-expectation: a fictive, self-perpetuating and generalising factor, that itself continually passes through discussions with editors, sub-editors, circulation-managers and financiers. Perhaps at this stage there is consideration of factors such as the ease of access to subjects; the discussion of what is currently being supplied to pose as demand; the need for exclusivity, to be the first, to set trends. These are factors that establish a media mind-set where, above all, a kind of narcissistic investment in 'profession' is mistaken for objectivity: the media not only 'constructs' the popular, as if the 'popular' pre-existed its journalistic mediation, but it then adheres to this definition of the 'popular' and thus perpetuates it. This mythic shading of the media would be quite interesting if it wasn't, as with all blind faith, so insidious, so in touch with the unconscious, so much a built 'drive' that modelises people.

But as with 'heaven' access to the media is a fraught and self-immolating path. Not just anyone can get in, for access to the media becomes a slow trickle because introjection of the 'new' has to be couched in terms of the already pre-existing and discovery of the contemporaneous is overshadowed by the preparation of the 'new'! That there is a constant obedience to these exigencies of the profession via editors and that this obedience effects a journalist's modes of perception and communication means that even when research is carried out it cannot be turned into a 'processual' endeavour, a means of extending self-theorisation, but must be directed towards the final piece whose outcome is, before even being written, somehow already expected (its syntax and superlatives are already capitalistic). In the journalistic trade in 'symbolic capital, whatever is said in an interview situation is subject to its being filtered via the journalist's own agenda: an agenda that may encompass... subservience to an editor to ensure the status of regular contributor... to the seeking-out of subjects and material that fits neatly into the tenor of a long-term approach (the thesis). The pay-off is that creative practitioner is offered the promise of diffusion because the journalist is structurally placed as a gatekeeper permitting access to a means of mass distribution and potential popularity. The unconscious dynamic which pervades such an exchange is one of censorship where the whole mythic idea of the popular (saved by visibility/made subject) becomes a fear of being unpopular (dammed by invisibility/ made abject) and, like a child who seeks approval, we are witness to one means by which the media induces infantilism: there is a rush to conform to the proscribed limits of behaviour and thought, to seek not to be marked out, to never say or encourage anything politically contentious, to agree with that which flatters.

(Media Whores?)

Everyone knows a media-whore when they see one. It's pointless making a list because most people have their own. They're the ones that crop up everywhere and at every available opportunity. It's not so much that they are acclaimed by many or that their persisting visibility is a mark of 'quality'. No. The media-whore is one on their own. One of a kind. A grafter in more ways than one. A grifter and a grafter. A convenient success-symbol for the ongoing pliable acceptance of the non-guaranteed freelance culture of 'creative' self-exploitation. It is a question of professionalism meeting professionalism, of slotting into the requirements with all the smooth politeness of a parasite.Thus the media-whore is trusted. Deadlines can be met.Appointments adhered to. Soundbites well rehearsed. There will be no time wasting. No arguments about context because the media-whore is the context. A one-man-band; a one-man-context. So, not knowing the full extent of an activity the media-whore springs to mind as the delegate of that activity and is endlessly invited to appear, perform and contribute by people hoping to attract enough of an audience to justify the grant. For the more the person-product is seen and reported, the more it becomes increasingly predictable the more its repetition attracts the hip-academics who come to view the output as having the necessary consistency to merit coverage in overviews.

In this way the already mediatised is further mediated but this mediation doesn't stop because the media-whore, being under contractual pressure to produce, will never complain about how s/he is to be represented because representation (the marketing of the 'self') is all that is wanted and the more prisms of representation (advertisements) there are to refract through, then the more the hall of mirrors reflects, rather than distorts, the face of the media-whore. This, then, is the "circularity of circulation" in which the media-whore is caught: the same always proclaimed from a slightly different perspective (the tempered idiosyncrasy of a new journalist on the team), the same softened by academic attention (the researcher looking for thesis-matter). But it's a nice trap. For being visible attracts more visibility because visibility is not seen as the empty modus operandi of the media but as a mark of legitimation, a site, even, for the barely avowed projection of envy.

(Recuperating The Media?)

The episode of the media-whore reveals one major facet of the media: its selection of subjects and its continual presentation of them allows people to be witness to the way that the media constructs the narrow dimensions of its ever-expanding circle. If one of the functions of the media has been the elevation of certain subjects that are supposed to merit attention, then, in a post-media scene the effect is reversed. Here, the need to avoid being overloaded by options and choices, comes to be filtered via the media in that the choices and options it offers are, on the whole, rejected. But, a post-media attitude is not an anti-media attitude. We are begrudgingly attentive to the media because, living in a nuance of the same world, its effects cannot be escaped from and, more positively, it is through the media that capitalism articulates itself. The media, a negative injunction, instates the social with an updated set of contradictions that are always in the process of being played-out and if these processes are not highlighted by the media they can be covered and articulated in post-media contexts. Jean Baudrillard expresses a facet of this contradiction when he asks "Are the mass media on the side of power in the manipulation of the masses, or are they on the side of the masses in the liquidation of meaning, in the violence done to meaning?"

Baudrillard's playful question points to the question of subjective agency and whether this should speak for itself or have others speak for it; whether it should seize the media apparatus or rejoice in the "devolution" of choice and responsibility. This points to contrasting political strategies that can, in a post-media context, exist side by side. There is the recognisably 'political' position of constituting ourselves as "subjects, to liberate, to express ourselves at any price" and the position of the obstinate and truculent 'mass', the object at which the media messages are aimed and which involves "the refusal of meaning and the refusal of speech... the hyperconformist simulation of the very mechanisms of the system, which is another form of refusal by overacceptance". Whereas Baudrillard is trying to refute the thesis that the 'mass' is manipulated by the media and that it requires 'enlightened' intellectuals to show it the way towards liberation he is maybe, by adhering to the cumbersome and undifferentiated concept of 'mass', not going far enough in imbricating these two positions.

The post-media operators, as those that function in a space-between 'media' and 'academy', do not identify as being either intellectual or mass, and being both authors and punters, composers and listeners, artists and spectators, their position, informed by the diffuse energies of desire, is constantly shifting. This is what makes it an autonomous practice and being one that is unrestricted by the paradigms of 'feature' and 'thesis' it can be free to articulate the findings of its own transversality. For instance, if an increase in information marks the present times and if this increase is producing "uncertainty", a confusing array of choices and strategies, then this uncertainty can be recuperated by post-media operators to effect each pole of Baudrillard's playful dichotomy: we are no longer certain of being political subjects identified as working class or communist, but we are also no longer resting assured in our refusal to speak and answer back. We are no longer cadre or mass, 'contacts' or consumers, and this is where the auto-theorising component comes into it, for, as post-media operators, we are continually engaged in elucidating the nuances of context and situation and the theorising, in many ways a non-verbal theorising in that it includes gesture, image and sound, is propelled by the particular exigencies of varying situations (it is a resistance to legitimatising models in favour of a 'method' of desire; an opening up of micro-political dimensions; an instinctual transversalism). If we are always working class and militant then our reactions come to be predictable but, even so, we cannot allow this dimension to disappear completely, implying as it does a resistance to the monopoly of the means of distribution by means of becoming expressed by a misuse of the increasingly available means of production. Yet, if in a situation we remain silent our silence is read as a legitimating compliance and, yet, this same silence can maybe make a supposed quietude pregnant with obstinate incredulity whilst also allowing 'transference' to take place: the media, in the rush to say anything, reveals itself and draws our prognosis. This chameleon-like activity is maybe a post-media recuperation of journalistic practice but, unlike the bounded and professionally sanctioned dissimulation of journalists, we inadvertently merge Baudrillard's two strategies, and make theory and practice become co-incidental. This form of becoming, of never having remained, of being a "lingering residuum", may in fact have been spurred-on by the media's collusion with the constant overproduction of an acculturating capitalism, but a further post-media recuperation of it allows us to be dispersed rather than localisable, just as power is itself dispersed and not present in any one space or molecule. Beyond the pleasure principle lies auto-theorisation.

The media is recuperated at every turn. From the aping of a record review that imbues this promotional form with an intensity and a social meaning to the establishment of web-sites as nodes of research that are independent from the media and the academy, the post-media practice learns from what Foucault called "the exteriority of its vicinity." Both connected to and autonomous from the media, it is like Marx's proletariat who, on the receiving end of the capitalist mode of production in the factories and workspaces, know instinctively the meaning of the methods that are employed on it: manipulation may be met with silence but it casts back a disgust at the barefacedness of the manipulator, a disgust that accumulates and, thus intensified, draws others into the orbit of conflict (in this case a conflict over the prevailing culture of compliance). Whereas a workforce, organised into unions, may too often have fought sectional battles, the creative producers of a post-media scene are disorganised to the extent that their sectional interests, becoming increasingly transversal, see points of contact and unification in their shared dismay of the inhibiting methods, form and content of the media

Just as a vicinity to the media makes for an over familiarisation that effects a withdrawal of interest and the establishment of alternative media spaces, the media's persisting misrepresentation of activity leads to the recuperation of misrepresentation as a device to manipulate the media. Just as an increasing exposure to exploitation at the workplace provokes the development of means to subvert the contractual obligations of the workplace by means of petty theft, absenteeism, brewing-up, ridiculous union demands etc., so too are media messages recuperated by a choosing and filtering of messages: Throbbing Gristle used to recommend turning the sound of the TV down and playing music as its soundtrack but there are a myriad of other possible detournements that can range from consciously using the media's banalities as a way of 'switching-off' through to using it as a means to activate the energy of disgust. What occurs throughout is that the media's power is negotiated and post-media operators are, in a sense, manipulating their own manipulation; becoming conscious of the fact that social manipulation is instituted. Not only does this reveal the role of the media in this manipulation ­ its homogeneity assured by the editorial diktat, the elevation of central signifiers and models of perception ­ it also brings into focus the receptive power of the post-media operators themselves, a power that, because it has diversified the levels at which it can place itself, achieves an imperviousness to a further conductance of those censorious and mediating powers of the media: it makes meaning doable. By means of the "exteriority of its vicinity" it is empowered enough to be overpowered and, as a result, is sensitized to the dispersion of power which is not solely conducted through the channels of the media. Crucially, then, it comes to 'recognise these powers as its own' and, in so doing, the post-media operators, absconding from the quietism of the workplace, come to effect an expropriation of the means of expression.

(Towards Self-Institution?)

Auto-theorisation allows us to inhabit such contradictory spaces without having to synthesise them or choose between them. It is dependent on being flawed and tentative and relies upon mistakes as the tangential material of its own engagement; a material that places in relief the overproduced and hermetic products so feted by the media. Thus post-media activity is not the outcome of a discursive resolution, which would only lead to another discourse, but is the process that allows contradictions to be pushed in the direction of enigmas and provocative alloys. It allows for experimental positions without co-ordinates, it drifts off the map, flees from forced identification (and forced subjectivisation) and takes with it the masks and tools that would enslave it. And so, auto-theorisation is a constant vigilance, a controlled loss, a permutability of the rational and the unconscious. A processing of the self revealing social process.

Being both screen and projector, receiver and sender, silent and voluble, being the margins of a centre that doesn't exist it occupies a liminal position that, in continually being dispersed, coincides and overlaps with a post-media practice whose overall rhythms are broader (a breadth that can turn to history and precursors). Being a no-space, being illegitimate, means that the academy can be plundered and the media copied, but rather than ape these and look for a 'new' that fits into the criteria, post-media operations, by claiming back the auto-theoretical dimension, affirm those subjects and projects that are omitted: there is a place for history as opposed to nostalgia, for autobiography rather than biography, for militancy rather than quietism, for continuity rather than immediacy, for dirty timbre rather than slickness, for abnormal rather than normalising forms.

The post-media operators, being attracted to process via auto-theorisation, are drawn to those cultural products that are conducive to propelling the process of discovery they are already engaged in. In brief these are products that are critical of consensus and which draw attention to the determining "invisible structures": the selection and editing techniques that act to overcode and delimit the powers of reception; they are, to a certain degree, free of being overencumbered by prior interpretation and in this way can function as sites for a "practice of freedom": a freedom of thought, a freedom of language and a freedom of sound. Practices that could not be pursued through the media or the academy. This thumbnail description may sound reminiscent of the avant-garde, yet just as there is a definite coincidence, fuelled by a historical inquisitiveness denied them in the media, the post-media operators, not being aligned to the strictures of categorisation nor to the traps of visibility, would enter into the same relation to the avant-garde as it does the media: one of "exterior vicinity".

A common objection to post-media practice is that by not following the 'popular' route, by not conforming to an expectation of boundaries, it is not only difficult to locate but, in theorising its own paradigm, it is difficult to understand. Such accusations are themselves indicative of a desire to maintain the status quo for if a cultural product becomes too easily digestible, if it is too readily understood, then any thought of participating in the production of its meaning is left to those cognoscenti for whom meaning is a currency that defines what is. By accepting what is already present, by becoming overawed or enervated by it, we are closing down the possible areas where the "social can be enacted", as it is the nuances of our own positions, their idiosyncrasies, that can, in creating meaning through combining meanings, be a spur towards action. This is precisely what the media denies. Its immediacy, the instantaneity of its communication, creates what Bordieu called "a climate hostile to action whose effect is only visible over time." Such generalised conditions of impatience that the media induces throughout society becomes translatable as a reluctance to take the time to understand and participate in anything. This in turn, in another turn of "circular circulation", another conformity to the rhythms of the media, becomes the reason that familiar forms, familiar sounds and familiar language are always invoked. They save time, save us from the implications of our own 'doing', and, in providing the cushion of digestibility, come to form a bulwark against auto-theorisation.

Thus it is maybe a case that we 'understand' too much and in 'understanding' we replicate what is. What the post-media operators are intent on providing is a sense of 'radical imagination', a transversal engagement, that is spurred on by using desire as the method: being free to go anywhere, free to draw on anything, free to say anything, unmoored and without vested interest is, after Castoriadis, to bring another mode of Being into existence, a Being that is self-instituting and is its own mode of "self-alteration, its own temporality." Yet, whether this results in the institution of a 'new class' whose freedom is the freedom of working "outside the sphere of material production proper" or whether it is the opportunity for a social fiction entitled Post-Media Operators - Sovereign and Vague to be written, is, so the media have taught us, by the by, for it has been said now and said is as good as read and read is as good as real and, so the media have taught us, to write is to recuperate hype.

Title is drawn from two chapter headings in Adilkno's book "Media Archive" [Autonomedia,1998]. Text spurred on by Pierre Bordieu's "On Television and the Media" [Pluto,1998] This version re-mixed for subsol. Other versions of this text have appeared in Infotainment No.5, Datacide and on Nettime.

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