McKenzie Wark

Whenever a term passes backwards and forwards a few times without much reflection, i'm inclined to look up its origins. And so: 'tactic' -- which seems to have a greek root, meaning to order or arrange. And 'stratagem', which Caxton took to mean 'artifice to surprise an enemy'. A device or trick. Its root is the word stratos, or army, modified with a suffix that means 'to lead'.

I find the idea of the device or trick more interesting than that of ordering or arranging. Trick media, ruse media, media strategems -- that sounds more encouraging. The problem is not so much escaping or staying ahead of meaning, as camouflaging one kind of sense in another. How can media vectors connect subjectitities together in such a way that they can conduct a conversation that might pass unnoticed, or remain misread, in the midst of all the others? Such a conversation, such a subjective endeavour, wouldmost likely not be spatially or economically autonomous, but might nevertheless have an aspect of itself that remains free from capture by the prevailing vectors of capital and media.

But lets face it, talk of strategy and tactics is boys' talk, part of a retrograde fantasy we can all live without. The language of 'mobilisation' is itself part of the problem, and a hold over from the cold war. Intellectuals, artists, media people are supposed to join the ranks of this or that 'movement' to fight agains this or that foe in this or that 'emergency'. Suspension of aesthetic, ethical and political freedom for all can then be legitimised in the name of a higher calling.

So its not a choice of tactics or strategy, but a choice of an authoritarian language for media practice or a democratic one. The mobilisation of 'forces' or escape from the grid of compliance, whether to the dominant power or its mirror image, the avante garde that would take its place.

Its more than a question of metaphors. Language doesn't represent anything. It connects things and people. It proliferates and reproduces itself in the process. The trick is to get the connecting and reproducing sides of language to work towards the production of plurality, difference, zones of liberty where meaning is neither led from the front nor punished at the margins.

Confrontation seems to me to usually involve the reproduction of the language of confrontation and authoritarian relations between people and things. Language becomes a matter of giving orders, announcing decrees, denouncing heretics, definig limits -- and pronouncing all of the above to be necessary in the name of this or that emergency.

Escape, on the other hand, is something else. It usually requires a ruse, a cover, a fold in the coding. It appears to be one thing, but it might also be something else.

A favourite example: 'burn baby burn' -- a slogan from the Watts riots, tucked in a fold in a disco song: "I heard somebody shout burn baby burn disco inferno burn the mother down!"

The virtual side of media is the ever present potential that some completely different subjective event will form out of what seemed like quite routine utterances. Its always threatening to vere towards flux. In the flow of media, as in the flow of water, order is always temporary. Its always on the verge of escaping towards pure difference.

Another example, from the endless riches of what Lester Bowie called the Great Black Music: Aretha Franklin, singing gospel as a teenager. Conventional words of piety. Suddenly she shrieking, 'Never gonna die! Never gonna die!' Her voice jumps straight into another realm, somewhere beyond meaning, into sense itself. Its as if the vibrations of her body transmit themselves, across space and time, across means of recording and distribution and reproduction, from her body to mine. An event outside meaning, or maybe inside it, hidden in the folds of it. Waiting to transmit.

There are any number of languages in which one might talk about media: aesthetic, ethical, political, but surely the military is the least necessary of them. And don't buy the old furphy about the 'military origins' of the internet. The internet has many origins. Its a hybrid of a whole bunch of technologies, pioneered in lots of different places and organisational contexts. There is no necessity embedded in its origins. The net is what it becomes. Do we know yet what the net can do? I don't think so. The collective experiments have only just started. We have some idea what you can do with a book or a song, they've been with us a long time. We've suffered from some pretty extreme experiments with the so-called mass media. We've had the telephone for years but nobody has bothered to think much about the democratic potential of this remarkably distributed kind of media. And the net... we're just starting, even though the technology goes back about 20 years now. That's nothing.

But the diversification of creativity on the net is still held back by a much older 'technology' -- language itself. Always the old terms! 'Tactical media', 'Net art' -- like calling a motor car a horseless carriage. It is waiting for a revolution in language to reveal what lies hidden in its virtual folds.

Sydney 22nd May, 1997, Netletter No. 13. First distributed via Nettime.

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