MONDO 2000 Interview with Arthur Kroker

CODES OF PRIVILEGE

by Sharon Grace



MONDO 2000: You call our era the "Great Recline of Western Civilization," and virtual reality "the dream of liberal fascism." Who's in control here?

ARTHUR KROKER: In an age of what I call liberal fascism there are two key command groups. There are the owners - the kind of "creative" owners of the main conglomerates - and what motivates them is not merely the accumulation of profits or even power, but something much broader, and that's the ability to infuse the cultural landscape with their sense of historical destiny. They view themselves as having a historical mission and they work to imprint their vision of the "good" human experience on everyone else. And they are everywhere. I think John Sculley, who views himself as a Homer of digital reality, and when he moved from Pepsi to Apple, wrote himself as sort of the Caesar of the wilderness. He wrote the Odyssey - you know - An American Odyssey. And Bill Gates, of course - all these arbiters of culture. The owners of the computer orporations are all glamour junkies - they're all missionaries for a new historical destiny.

M2: And so what constitutes Real Privilege within the simulacra - within these kinds of technoforms of the recombinant body of the recombinant mind?

AK: [Unfazed] There are two distinct forms of privilege. For myself, the age in which we live - what I call "the Age under the Sign of the Will to Virtuality" - that's what VR is all about. It's about closing down the world in subordination to technical willing.

The most privileged in American society would be the technocratic specialists who do the day-to-day work, the real theorization, the real invention of digital reality. Their reward comes in terms of expanded choice within the social structures of the mediascape itself. They have expanded freedoms. These are kind of curious expanded freedoms because they're expanded technological freedoms and they view their freedom...

M2: When you say "They"???

AK: Well the "they" breaks down pretty fast. There are four main classes in society. There's the dispossessed, like the homeless people on the streets of S.F., who from the point of view of the system today, are absolute remainders, are human refuse. You just know that they're real sacrificial victims, right in front of you. Now that's the class outside of the system. Then there's the traditional working class, which is the physically majoritarian class. It's certainly not close to the levers of power. And this class is victimized as well. It's found in obsolescent industries and it's forced to go through these purges of reconsolidation and retraining. No one takes care of its interes in terms of the technocratic renewal of America. Their main value is "belongingness." Every advertiser knows that - beer comercials like "Here's George and the boys drinking beer together" - buddies, you know?

But the real power and privilege resides in two other classes. A class of specialists, technical specialists, who are the theorists of digital reality. There's no place where they congeal with greater ferocity and density than in a city like S.F., or in Silicon Valley, or Chiba City outside Tokyo, or around Toronto, or MIT. They are territorial, and they're into virtuoso display. But their main impetus is expansion of their sphere of freedom - technological freedom. They very happily view themselves as servomechanisms of digital reality. If you talk to these missionaries in their research labs, they'll say to your face "This new kind of monitoring device" - in, like, the new office of the future - "will make possible godlike surveillance techniques and will make it possible to get rid of ourselves, and who needs a self anyway, and who needs a body anyway, because your body will ultimately betray you and die. Furthermore, this technology can give you not just one self, or not just one body, it can give you a multiplicity of imagined selves. And if you're sitting in your office, you don't need office mates - you look on your TV screen and you can get perfect fractal flittering images of office mates in different offices, not just across the hallway or in the same office building, but [inflecting his voice] why not from other countries as well where the corporation will have other headquarters (cuz after all it's the happy corporate family)?!?"

To visit these labs is a singularly depressing experience. Singularly astonishing to realize how sophisticated the development of demonic power in the hands of the technocrats has become; and singularly depressing to realize that the technocrats are immensely pleased to abandon their selves, abandon their bodies, abandon any kind of individuation of emotion as quickly as possible. These are really Dead Souls. But at the same time they are dead souls with real missionary zeal - because they equate technology with religion and they call it freedom. The're in the vanguard but they're not really in command. They're the technocrats doing the basic theoretical and experimental work.

The Commanders are in fact the presidents of the corporations, the legions of CEOs - you know, all the "creative leadership" of digital reality. They're beyond money, power, and social interest. These are people whose one interest lies in the possibility of fusing their individual identity with the historical sprit of the times. So when they think of digital reality or virtual reality, they think of their own kind of internal private affecrt, or internal dreams about technology, about the possibility of publicizing those dreams and in fact making those dreams the collective consciousness of the population as a whole. They view themselves as the Caesars of the digital wilderness.

Now the only two problems with this are just what Nietzsche said long ago - the spirit of the times is that of two forms of nihilism. The technocrats are passive nihilists with one outstanding characteristic - they have never learned to think deeply about themselves. They just look at their TV sets, or they look at their computer screens, and they burp. They just want entertainment for the day, energized by periodic bursts of missionary zeal on behalf of continuously ever-expanding digital consciousness. They become technological fetishists addicted to technological euphoria. They cannot think outside the limits of their own consciousness. And they are the growing majority of American today. Particularly under Clinton who went to Silicon Graphics and said "This is an expressive nation, this is the nation that created CNN and MTV, this is a jazzy nation - thank goodness for my sake - this is an information age and we're all going to be hardwired for realtime." Which is, of course, Marvin Minsky's version of America, which is that the perfect body will have the soft matter of its skull scooped out and you'll be hardwired into digital reality itself. These are the passive nihilists.

The elite who occupy the commanding heights of digital reality are suicidal nihilists. Suicidal nihilists know that there is no longer any substantive purpose to their willing. But they would always prefer to go on willing than not to act at all. They can very happily ally themselves with a notion of nuclear holocaust or perfect exterminism. There's a suffocating smugness and a kind of self-certainty about this class of technocrats that is quite astonishing. And I think that those occupying the heights of digital reality have precisely this mentality. They're creating again and again the exterminism of human memory, the exterminism of human sensibility, the exterminism of individuated human intelligence, the exterminism of human morality itself.

M2: What about the world banking community - the financiers above the rank of CEO pulling the strings?

AK: Yeah, well all those I would put in the same camp. You could speak of a financial elite, a political elite, a digital elite, a media elite, but I think their common vocation is the creation of historical destinies. They are truly the cycloids of our culture. They're the dark occult priests of the real operations of power in American society. The more you go into conspiracy theory, the more you realize that in some ways all conspiracy theories are true. That in fact the projection of private consciousness onto the mass consciousness as the historical dream for the age, releases monsters. It's what Blake said long ago - the sleep of reason begets monsters. Nietzsche added to that - he said watch out for the day when the feelings of pity, nausea, and self-lothing mix together - you'll have true monstrous consciousness.

Morally, the elite are really profoundly perverse. They are like what Baudrillard says: the great priests and the cardinals and the monks of the age who have realized that power is cynical, that technology is cynical, and are prepared to operate on that basis of perfect cynicism. And it's people like this who allow the mediations to happen, but the price to be paid for it is that our culture becomes a culture of exterminism. When Paul Virilio talks about the War Machine, he says the War Machine is never about making war against an external enemy. The War Machine is really about using an external enemy as a sacrifical kind of scapegoat for the endocolonization of your own population, for the creation of a domestic bestiary. So the logic then - the threefold war logic of tactics, strategy, and logistics - is to invade against your own domestic population.

The only basis for doing any critical politics today is to understand the dicey situation we live in; to have some glimmering of the cruelty of despotic powers that operate today. Powers that operate not through the language of coercion but through the language of seduction.

M2: So what's your strategy for treading that fine line?

AK: I have a very clear strategy which I call "crash aesthetics." Crash aesthetics operates on a kind of doubling principle. It's partly ironic immersion - full ironic immersion in a medium of communication, in the very fonts of culture. I write about excremental culture - Excremental TV, TV as image effluence. And I can talk about it pretty vividly. I do a lot of writing on television. I do a lot of writing on camcorders. I do a lot of investigations of Silicon Valley research labs. I do most of my writing at McDonald's. I run through a whole gamut of experience. I don't write about anything I haven't already experienced.

At the same time, the double strategy is that I practice critical distancing from this because, rather than assent meekly to the notion of technological freedom, I also hold that technology not only contains possibilities of freedom but...

M2: Aren't we veering toward dangerous shoals here? I mean, can anyone watch television and remain a truly sentient being?

AK: But the dominant form of consciousness in the world today is television.

M2: Yes... but I wonder if we aren't becoming kind of theorofascist?

AK: As Les Brown says, criticizing television is second only in popularity to watching it. But there is no one in technological culture who's a truly sentient human being. Everyone's become in some way like a recombinant being. This technology is not something that we hold outside ourselves. It's, in fact, the animating sprit of our bodies. Television creates technologies of subjectivity. It creates real televisual citizens. I mean, I'm really serious when I say that we've undergone a big evolutionary shift. I think that technology has genuinely come alive as a living species existence. It's acquired organicity which is recombinant in character. It has its own forms of intelligence, its own forms of feelings, its own principles of dynamic growth, which are closely described as those recombinant genetics. So, in that culture then, those old "sentient human beings" that you want to talk about, are at least two things. They are simultaneously televisual - they've been incorporated into the technology and imprinted by the technpologies as televisual subjects, or as digitized subjects. At the same time, when you're thrown outside the technosystem, your body is remaindered. Everyone lives schizophrenically today. We're all human beings on our way to death, oscillating between our bodies being a pleasure chamber or a torture chamber. You know, we're all sort of like zooming down the highway on the way to intensive care.

We're living a technological reality that has really come alive with a kind of glittering seduction. So, to talk about TV today is to talk about Excremental TV. And Excremental TV means that television functions today exactly like an image effluent system, for processing a society that is no longer about accumulation and coherency, but operates according to the opposite principle - which we put a premium on today - which is about self-cancellation and self-exterminism. Technology's great appeal is, in fact, that it allows you to get rid of your memories, to get rid of your minds. And in exchange it gives you in fact many other memories, and many other minds and many other selves - you know, our televisual selves.

TV is about resequencing the human cultural code. In recombinant genetics, the gene operates according to threefold logic of cloning, transcription, and resequencing. TV uses an analogous language. TV is also about preparing televisual subjects for living in a culture where everyone's happy to get rid of their memories. Ready to get rid of their bodies; happy and seduced by getting rid of their bodies. I view television now as almost a preliminary phase in preparing the masses of humanity for virtual reality. And that's just the beginning of critical thinking about television, just the beginning of an understanding of what it means to be a sentient human being living at the end of the twentieth century. To really understand it we have to talk about things like disciplinary television, surveillance television - you know, the camcorder - sacrificial television, and "crash" television.

M2: You went to that conference in Holland - "The Next Five Minutes." How was it?

AK: It was fabulous. It brought together media practitioners and people politically involved in the medium, both in production and distribution, from all over the world. They consder themselves "tactical practitioners." In fact, the basic theme of the conference was the opposition between strategic TV - corporatively owned TV - and tactical TV. People talked about the notion of using the medium for really liberatory political objectives. So you had African American media groups, Romanian liberation media practitioners, and the whole spectrum fo Central and Eastern Europe, including Siberians with their own independent TV studios. And Americans, Canadians, and Latin Americans. It was phenomenal. There were practical hands-on demonstrations and intensely deep theoretical political discussions - discussions on technical innovations, the use of cabling systems, satellite TV (like Buffalo Witness Program), etc.

Marilouise and I took apart strategic TV into its four dimensions of sacrificial TV, crash TV, disciplinary TV and surveillance TV, and critiqued them from the perspectives of different cultures. In Japan you have a sophisticated corporate perspective on digital reality, and at the same time there are a lot of thinkers who are marginal to the culture, but who think. They're typically workers, poets, and philosophers. We recently published an issue of CTHEORY on Japanese critiques of technology. These perspectives are not allowed to be published in Japan, and we have a lot of Japanese students coming to us to read this stuff. In Europe the form of critique varies radically from country to country. One of the most creative places in Europe is Amsterdam. And the various research groups like V2, Nox, Andere Sinema, and the brilliant magazine, MediaMatic, are rethinking technology. They've got a highly nuanced explanation of the ways in which tech enters and exits the body - quite an original contribution to technoculture. That's why Geert Lovink, a Dutch theorist, says the European contribution to global technoculture is that of wetware. America is software, and Japan is hardware. Europe is aestheticizing the technostructure by scouring the universal media archive of European culture for ways in which it can be reappropriated. Technology is the global aesthetic and the global aesthetic consists of this kind of triangulation - Japanese hardware, North American software, and European wetware. In Europe, I found a much greater welcome for people thinking critically about technology, from the creative research labs like V2 in Holland and IKON TV and private Radio Pattapoe in Amsterdam to the new art and technology centres at Karlsruhe in Germany. These are really important centers of thought.

M2: What's the most radical action or behavior a citizen can manifest in late techoculture?

AK: The philosopher Karl Jaspers once said that the limits of technological domination are reached when a human being says "No" ethically to the notion of technology as freedom. So I would say the most radical action is saying "No" while saying "Yes" to technology - or in critically distancing yourself while drowning your body in high tech. Cruising the electronic frontier at hyper-speed with a copy of Nietzsche's Will to Power in your virtual hands.

M2: What is the poerfect body for the age of ultra technology for the 1990's?

AK: The perfect body fo rthe 90's is what the scientists gathered in Paris said - a body fit for exiting gravitational pull, a kind of floating body withpout legs that becomes a purely expanding and contracting memorex mind. And it needs a lot of ports so that you can be accessed by data via the Net - that's the body that's fit for the 1990s. That's not cynical - it's hyperrealistic.

M2: There is a lot of eschatological thinking going on right now. Technoculture embraces catastrophe the way it embraces VR. Isn't this cooption of millenarian consciousness a way of avoiding responsibility.

AK: One of the symptomologies of our age is panic, and panic millenarianism is not about catastrophe but a kind of desirable historical destiny. And the unfolding has a kind of enchantment principle about it. So a lot of millenarianism today operates under the sign of seduction and it has about it a kind of escape theme. Then there's panic finance - with the techo-elite in banking - another symptomology of the times. Panic finance is when, in the financial exchange markets, they move from blue to red shift bandwidths - they move with a kind of hypervelocity and they seek to escape the materiality of money. They move into credit and then they move into electronic bytes. We live in a genuinely post-capitalistic age in which the image of capitalism is sort of kept alive and has life breathed into it by a technostructure that has in fact eaten capitalism. So to talk about anonymous banking is to talk about the complete technification of the economy and the liquidation of capitalism. Like the language of common genetics, it's a language of sequencing and transcription and cloning. It's profoundly enlightening to transcribe how human genetic code is indexed and reindexed into an analysis of contemporary culture.
   Heidegger's old notion that technology is about the dynamic will, about the ever expanding momentum of technological society is just completely incorrect. The will to technology now flips into its opposite form, the will to virtuality. It's about a great slowing down and a great recline and a great easing of things. And that's the age we have entered very deeply. It's the recline of Western Civilization - not even the decline. It means that everything you think of as dynamic and active really means its opposite. The growth of fantastic transportation systems with enormous vectors of speed have about them a great form of inertia. Cities with the creation of traffic grids and the immobility of the population itself. The gridlocking of communications technologies. The great inertial drag on what we usually mean by mobility itself or the notion of speed in contemporary culture. You may get great algorithmic speed but you get a shutting down and a recline of other forms - a great atrophication of important traditional sensibilities. Like the ability to link an aesthetic sense with a political judgement. Or the ability for memory to have some relationship to human history.

M2: So it's kind of like amputations that occur with the embrace of each new technology?

AK: That's exactly true - and simultaniously the retrieval of other sensibilities. So it's never really static. That's an old McLuhan idea. McLuhan for me is really an important thinker. His notion of the Tetrad is really pretty crucial and it's basically under-utilized as a way of analyzing contemporary culture. Most people read McLuhan and see in him a kind of technological fetishist who thinks about the medium as the culture-processed world. It has never been the way I've read McLuhan. If you go back to McLuhan's earliest writings when he was a Catholic writer in Teachers College, he had an insistent ethical question which for him meant that technology promises possible epiphanies of experience, but usually delivers a fantastic kind of exterminism of human potentialities. The McLuhan I read is kind of double-edged. So I see myself as a Canadian successor to McLuhan in many ways, but as a McLuhan for the 1990's.

M2: And McLuhan's "vanishing point" is Virilio's disappearance of the human into the machine.

AK: Well, the whole French pomo critical establishment has had a field day with American culture. America is like the culmination of the Enlightenment Project. They track us with endless fascination.
   Baudrillard writes about the simulacrum. Barthes writes about rhetoric coming alive, like living rhetoric machines by which one can analyze Barthes. Foucault talks about technology as having a life force and coming alive - which strikes me as an early anticipation of the notion of technology acquireing organicity and operating under the sign of seduction and not under the sign of coercion. And Virilio writes brilliantly on the aesthetics of disappearance - the sight machine - and he's talking about the language of the movement of war beyond strategy, tactics, and logistics into logistical control, or the policing of the logistics of perception. All of those French thinkers I wrote about in The Possessed Individual are really providing a theoretical vocabulary for uderstanding technoculture. If you haven't armed yourself with that vocabulary, it's very hard to be master of your situation. But, As McLuhan says, what are you to say to people when they put their heads in the teeth of technogy's buzzsaw and call it freedom?

M2: You say we're in danger of becoming servomechanisms of virtual reality. That's provocative. Is VR the 90's definition of "getting a life"?

AK: Getting a life is really about choosing your memory - you know, is it memory or Memorex? We live in a really recombinant culture in which the principles of recombinant genetics are lived out on a daily basis in everyone's lives. If you live in the mediascape - and who does not? - it's got ways to clone, splice, retranscribe and resequence memory itself. So in that sense, the notion of getting a life is: getting another kind of corporative way of moving through media itself. And you can't have one life, you in fact have a variety of styles. That's the basis of the notion - "Are we having fun yet?"

M2: What is subjectivity in technoculture?

AK: Subjectivity is always schizophrenic in tecchnoculture. Speaking subjectively of subjectivity, of course! It's always lived in a double sense. On the one hand your body is a processed world, processed as in sampler music - the language of aliasing, of condensation, of syncopation, of displacement, of speed-up and slow-down, all pretty much digitally recorded. That's the normal language by which we live in TV culture, in consumer culture, in our jobs and our music. Subjectivity now is fully ironic, fully ambivalent, fully paradoxical and contradictory. The technocratic specialist practices mechanical forgetfulness. that is, they manage to so engross themselves in data work that they lose sight of the ability to think deeply about what it means to be a human being and to engage in social relationships outside the imperatives of the technostructure. That's pure mechanical forgetfulness. Or the corporative elite engage in suicidal nihilism which is to say that they make of their bodies what Nietzsche called a site of conscious experimentation, and they make of their minds a site of experimental cruelty, creating ribald games of mindfucking cruelty. As a teacher I have found that many of my students lack those options and in fact refuse those options and they're caught in these cruel situations. Some commit sucicide, and others become slackers. The mood was caught very accurately in the film Slacker. They live in this kind of interzone. The "Vague Generation" is what the Montreal writer Michael Boyce calls them. They live ambivalently with a kind of passionate commitment to politics - yet in many ways, with a kind of indifference. They view themselves as powerless, but also try to create interesting froms of art, at the same time dealing with the inner reality of having their options close down.

M2: Better Vague than Vogue.

AK: Vaguers really combine ambivalence, indifference, paradox and ironic immersion as a life ethic. They're bored but fascinated; anxious, but pretty well at peace with themselves. Montreal, where I come from, has the highest suicide rate in the Western world. A lot of students throw themselves onto train tracks. There is a suicide a week on the Montreal subways. Typically, it's young people that commit suicide and that bespeaks a sense of phenomenal depression - a sense of bleakness and closed-downness of experience. It's almost unimaginable. And there is no one helping because the technostructure just moves ahead. The powers that be just turn with complete indifference to this. Montreal is ahead of Germany. Germany used to be ahead.

M2: Ahead in the race to suicide?

AK: Ahead in the race to Virtuality.


Sharon Grace has straddled the art and electronic media worlds for two decades. She teaches at San Francisco Art Institute where her turf is the power of the Gaze, high-tech military imaging systems, and the reading of cyphers as a source of transcendence.