Tactical Media and the End of the End of History

in (12.11.2006)

As a playful, do-it-yourself approach to media activism and new technologies, tactical media (TM) seemed to have some critical bite when it emerged in the mid-1990s. But is it still radical today?

Tactical media (TM) is one of the most inventive and productive streams of critical cultural practice to have emerged over the last decade and a half - and one that is now beginning to enjoy the approval and support of the institutionalized art world. However, things have changed in important ways since TM emerged in the early to mid-1990s. Assumptions shared at that time by many tactical media practitioners are now in doubt or have been refuted by recent events. Some practitioners have understood this and are now attempting to revisit and rethink some of their basic positions. So it is a timely moment for critical reflections. In fact, the paradox around which TM coalesced and that now determines the limitations of the tactical approach is historically precise and with the benefit of hindsight can be formulated concisely.

Critique of a Tendency

Tactical media names a stream of diverse critical cultural practices and theoretical perspectives that, while not monolithic, nevertheless share some general tendencies and assumptions. These include a refusal of the ideology of affirmative art and culture, as well as skepticism with regard to the art world. TM practitioners show an inclination to work collectively and to value ephemeral events and appearances over permanent works and monuments, and amateur versatility and experimentation over specialized professionalism. In these ways, TM tends to push beyond the traditional paradigm of bourgeois art - or to simply sidestep it through Aikido-like gestures. The inventive, do-it-yourself practices of TM tend to be aimed at localized, nomadic, or portable interventions that exhibit a special fondness for technical détournement and inversion, and sometimes deploy anonymity, camouflage, and even clandestinity to cover their tracks. TM practitioners are also self-consciously oppositional; primarily, they are opposed to authoritarian power structures and to hierarchical control of technologies and resources.

The collective Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) is emblematic of this stream and especially important as an example of a group that theorizes its own practice - in, to date, six books of influential essays. CAE does not pretend to speak for other tactical media groups or for the stream as a whole, and it would be unjust to assign such a role to the groupÂ’s self-theorizations. If certain of CAEÂ’s arguments and propositions are emphasized here, it is because they concisely express a tendency and because the groupÂ’s influence is by now generally acknowledged. CAEÂ’s short definition of tactical media usefully summarizes the description offered above:

"Tactical media is situational, ephemeral, and self-terminating. It encourages the use of any media that will engage a particular socio-political context in order to create molecular interventions and semiotic shocks that will contribute to the negation of the rising intensity of authoritarian culture."[1]

So the "tactical" in tactical media is meant to imply a flexible willingness to use "any media necessary" - as CAE, détourning Malcom X, puts it elsewhere - to resist the structures of authoritarian culture and perform local liberations of new media and technologies.[2]

TM coalesced as a distinct stream or direction of cultural practice around the Next Five Minutes (N5M) gatherings in Amsterdam beginning in 1993. Since then a number of groups have become well-known exemplars. Besides CAE, we could point to Electronic Disturbance Theater, 0100101110101101.org, RTMark, the Yes Men, Institute for Applied Autonomy, Bureau of Inverse Technologies, subRosa, Raqs Media Collective, and Adbusters, as well as the open and shifting network active under the "collective name" of Luther Blissett. There are literally dozens of other groups, with more appearing every year. Among the writers and theorists associated with TM are (again besides CAE) David Garcia, Brian Holmes, Kalle Lasn, Geert Lovink, Joanne Richardson, McKenzie Wark, and Peter Lamborn Wilson (aka Hakim Bey).

As this list-making exercise makes clear, gathering together such a diversity of practices and perspectives under a single name is bound to be problematic. The above characterization of TM emphasizes those groups and tendencies that have origins in the art world, in part because they now seem to be returning and coming to rest there. Placing the accents in this way results in some distortion and probably does not do justice to those groupings and tendencies that came, not from the art world, but directly from experiences of activism and autonomist counter-culture. A different account, for example, might include Indymedia and PeoplesÂ’ Global Action (PGA) in the tactical media stream or even give these networks a central and exemplary role. The critique offered here addresses what is, strictly conceived, a "tendency" - one that characterized the foundational moment of TM as a self-named and theorized cluster of practices. Not every tactical practitioner and theorist belonged to this tendency at that moment of the mid-1990s. Some no longer do, and some never did. The tendency does still exist, however, and exerts its pull. As far as I know, it has not been analyzed and critically addressed as such.

TM is an admirable contemporary mutation of the contestational cultural project of the historical avant-gardes. In some of its foundational assumptions and practices, however, it is clearly and crucially marked by the neo-liberal hegemony that characterized its moment of emergence. Its oppositional political motivation has already been noted: TM was developed to be the kind of anti-authoritarian culture its practitioners believed still to be possible under conditions of "pancapitalism." Emerging and developing around a series of gatherings and workshops held between 1993 and 1999, TM is exactly contemporaneous with the heyday of triumphalist post-Cold War neo-liberalism, a gloating ideology the tonalities of which are still well evoked in the phrase of the right-liberal Hegelian Francis Fukuyama: with the fall of the Wall and the implosion of capitalismÂ’s dialectical other, we are told, we have finally entered the "end of history."[3] No more major political conflicts or struggles, no more radical critique or revolution: history has ended, by popular consensus, in the formula "capitalism plus liberal democracy."

And indeed, this ideology held sway through the 1990s. ItÂ’s only in retrospect, after Seattle at the end of 1999 and the whole cycle of protests that culminated in massive demonstrations against the G-8 in Genoa in 2001, that we can recognize continuous systemic challenges even in this decade: in the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas; in the general strike launched by South Korean workers in December 1996; or in the DIY anti-capitalism behind the fierce anti-road campaigns in England. As that decade began, however, the contestation and systemic critique of capitalism seemed to have collapsed in confusion and despair. Basically unopposed in the early 1990s, neo-liberals in power were able to organize, through the new institutions of the World Trade Organization and the World Economic Forum, a major intensification of global exploitation along North-South lines. "Privatization," "structural adjustment," and the "Washington consensus" were the euphemisms for the coordinated coercions of the global debtors prison, for the pulverization of local labor and environmental protections, and for the breaking open of all markets to the uncontrolled operations of finance capital.

Against this grim backdrop, TM emerges as a refusal of political despair and cultural paralysis in the face of the evident defeat, everywhere, of radical aspirations. The diverse practices of TM were animated by a resolve to remain critical of post-Cold War realities and to survive without surrendering the possibility of inventive and playful practices of contestation. In retrospect, however, we can see that in certain of its assumptions, TM ceded too much to the neo-liberal triumphalists. In the absence of a visible anti-systemic movement, TM practitioners tended to accept that radical systemic change - revolution - was no longer a real or desirable possibility. In doing so, they mistook neo-liberal wish projections for actual historical reality. One can read this quite legibly in the texts of CAE from this period. They advocate "molecular" interventions because, as the group put it in 1994, "revolution is no longer a viable option."[4] This text continues: "After two centuries of revolution and near-revolution, one historical lesson continually appears - authoritarian structure cannot be smashed; it can only be resisted."[5] Giving up the project of radical systemic critique and transformation, of destroying capitalism as a global system of exploitation and control, obviously has enormous consequences for TM practices.

Looking at the situation today, especially in light of the current acceptance and even enthusiastic approval of TM by the institutionalized art world, some problems and paradoxes emerge as inescapable. First, it is obvious that triumphalist announcements of the end of history were premature, to put it mildly. Neo-liberal hegemony provoked serious opposition and rebellions that have coalesced into new and global forms - the so-called rhizomes of anti-capitalism. And certain clustered contradictions of neo-liberal globalization exploded spectacularly on September 11, 2001, goading capitalismÂ’s world-enforcer to declare a planetary state of emergency and resort to the dubious coercions of a perpetual, preemptive "war on terror." This is not to equate global anti-capitalism with al-Qaeda-style jihadism, of course: the performance of this reduction belongs to the strategy of Empire itself.[6] It is undeniable, however, that both contemporary phenomena are responses to a neo-liberal globalism worked out in the 1970s and 80s and recklessly implemented in the 90s.

The relevant fact is this: radical systemic critique has returned with a vengeance. The question of capitalism is back on the table, and with it comes again the question of revolution. The revolutionary tradition, critically appropriated, and revolutionary theory, critically rethought, are now enjoying a revival and expansion in much of the world that was unthinkable ten years ago, and we have only begun to glimpse the implications.

The implications for TM are profound. The shared assumption that revolution was a dead letter clearly informed and determined the move away from structure and system to the "molecules" of micro-politics. In military discourse, the tactical is the local implementation of a general strategy. But in the case of tactical media - and the quoted example from CAE makes this perfectly clear - there is no strategy behind the tactics, other than the refusal of the strategic as such: "Authoritarian structure canÂ’t be smashed; it can only be resisted." CAE seems to reflect the tendency - common sense in the 1990s - to extract the maximum possible resignation from post-structuralist theory. FoucaultÂ’s conception of power does yield such readings, but it can also be inflected in anti-systemic directions, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri and others have recently shown. And if "molecular" in this context is an invocation of Deleuze and Guattari, then it is a distorting one. These French theorists never repudiated the aim of anti-capitalist revolution and did not deploy their concepts "molecular" and "micropolitics" in order to renounce or avoid the macro-level of global systems. In the 1990s, however, such distortions were well established in the American reception of French theory.

So now that we have witnessed the astonishing return of systemic contestation and strategic thinking, where does that leave TM? The short answer is: in crisis. In so far as the tendency described above is central and constitutive of tactical media as a discrete stream, it marks a limitation that subsequent history has thrown into view. If this is right, the historical over-determinations of its foundational moment now appear as a limit in need of an overcoming leap or mutation. Some TM practitioners are legibly struggling with this question, even if there is not yet anything close to a consensual response or emerging position. And given the diverse character of this stream from the beginning, one wonders whether a consensus or common position that jettisons a foundational assumption is at all likely - or is even possible without dissolving the impetus from which tactical media came in the first place.

Second, we can note that this foundational crisis of TM, triggered by a real return of the repressed, is exactly contemporaneous with TMÂ’s new institutional success. An indication of the latter would be the 2004 exhibition "The Interventionists," curated by Nato Thompson at MASS MoCA. Without exaggerating or oversimplifying the situation, it seems clear that some kind of corner was turned with this exhibition. Indisputably, TM now enjoys a place and a certain official approval within the art world. The institutionalized art system is still far from being crudely identical with the Empire it serves, as can be seen clearly in the Bush governmentÂ’s persistence in its legal harassment of CAE member Steve Kurtz; it does so against the opposition of the official and academic art world, which has been unusually united in its response and show of solidarity and support in the face of his indictment.[7] Still, the problem of cooptation has raised its ugly head and has now become an object of discussion among TM practitioners and theorists, including most recently David Garcia, a co-initiator of N5M, and critic and theorist Brian Holmes.[8] One doesnÂ’t need paranoid conspiracy scenarios to note that, from the perspective of the systemic given and its logic, it is now, just as it always was, in the interest of capital and power to block art practices from attaining strategic consciousness and developing capacities for anti-capitalist agency. There are good reasons, in other words, for institutions to reach for TM with their smiling and neutralizing embrace.

To sum up: TM now finds itself in a world that it did not foresee and that directly undoes some of its founding assumptions. Mutations of thought, beyond anything so far produced, are needed to adjust theory and practice to the new realities of global anti-capitalism and permanent war - and to avoid the neutralizations of official approval. This should not be taken as a condemnation of TM: to repeat, it was a hopeful gesture in a basically hopeless historical moment. Moreover in the 1990s I and many others made the same mistake of accepting too quickly the idea that revolution had become unthinkable. The point is that today, given renewed anti-capitalist struggles and the revival of radical systemic critique, this "unthinkability" is itself "no longer viable." Hindsight sees better, and if in 1994 CAE declared the streets "dead capital" and called for an exodus to cyberspace, well few people were in the streets at that time anyway. However, the current "success" of TM carries the risk of a wave of new imitators wishing to replicate that success without asking any critical questions about what this kind of success can possibly mean. Those who are now taking up TM as a practice should be aware of this tendency and be able to think it, critically and historically, as a limitation. To formulate it most provocatively, either TM now works out its relations to global anti-capitalist strategy and the inherited problems of revolutionary agency, or it ends here, returns to the art system, and goes into the museum-mausoleum. It would be ironic, not to say uninstructive, if TM were "killed by success" (converted to cultural capital) at the very moment popular, global resistance has put history back into motion.

An Intervention

An example will make the critique more concrete. In the summer of 2004, the colorful silhouettes of Apple computerÂ’s poster campaign for its popular iPod digital music players were subjected to some provocative alterations. These poster ads show cleanly rendered silhouettes of hip and sleek iPod-plugged young people bumping, grinding, leaning, swaying, hip-hopping, and raving their way through the urban landscape in perfectly solipsistic bubbles of bliss. The striking black silhouettes against bold monochromatic backgrounds were deployed in grids or linear series on the walls of major US cities and quickly became a ubiquitous urban presence. They were also made to order for tactical media hijacking.

Simultaneously, posters produced in perfect mimicry of the iPod poster-style began appearing in Los Angeles and New York City. In LA, an anonymous pair of artists going by the name of Forkscrew Graphics produced a set of four posters and infiltrated them seamlessly into the iPod grids on walls and billboards around the city.[9] In three of the spoof posters, the iPods have been replaced by weapons, the silhouettes of which have become all-too familiar in recent years. One figure, leaning back against a magenta background with all the cool of the hipsters in the iPod ads, carries a rocket propelled grenade, or RPG, on one shoulder. Another, on a field of blue, hefts an AK-47 assault rifle over his head with both arms in a triumphant gesture. A third figure on a green ground has thrown his weight back onto one foot in preparation for throwing what, if it is not an iPod, by implication is an IED or improvised explosive devise. The silhouette of this figure, which otherwise is not particularly militarized, evokes timeless images of popular protest. The figure forms the very template of the protester hurling a paving stone or Molotov cocktail and precisely echoes that humorous stencil painting by British graffiti artist Banksy, in which the flaming Molotov has been replaced by a bouquet of flowers. In the fourth parodic poster, the well-known and now iconic hooded and blanketed figure from Abu Ghraib prison floats on an orange ground. In all four posters, the white iPod wires are wittily re-functioned as shoulder straps, fuse, or conduits of simulated electrocution. The iPod logo has been redone as a grenade icon, followed by the word "iRaq." A line of text across the bottom of each gives the death counts for Iraqis (in fact massively underestimated) and US soldiers (at that time roughly a third of what it is at this writing).

Meanwhile in New York City, posters were appearing showing the Abu Ghraib silhouette on magenta and green grounds, with a text slug reading "10,000 volts in your pocket, guilty or innocent."[10] These were reportedly the work of a media activist going by the pseudonym "Copper Greene." Two months earlier, in the May 24, 2004, issue of the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh had published an exposé entitled "The Gray Zone." In it, he exposed a secret US Pentagon interrogation program authorized by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and overseen by Deputy Undersecretary Stephen Cambone. A so-called SAP (Special Access Program), the project assembled a mobile unit of soldiers drawn from elite military forces for the secret abduction and interrogation of suspects in the "war on terror." In the words of one of HershÂ’s sources, an anonymous "former intelligence official": "The rules are Grab whom you must. Do what you want."[11] As Hersh reported, one of the code names for this "black ops" program was "Copper Green." (Different spelling: the poster spoofer has added an "e.")

News of the visual parodies spread quickly through the antiwar networks and the images popped up all over the Internet. Printable image files of ForkscrewÂ’s four posters were soon (and are still) available for download from www.bloodforoil.org and other activist web sites. The spoofed images made it into mainstream media reports all over the world, were widely praised by commentators opposed to the war and occupation of Iraq, and were cited approvingly by Milton Glaser and Mirko Ilic in their 2005 book Design of Dissent. In the more rarified art world, the parodies were discussed in Art in America and Art Journal, among other art magazines.[12]

By the criteria of TM, this was an elegant, effective, and emblematic intervention: images of dissent had been introduced into the spectacle machine and had multiplied like a virus. Many of the hallmarks of the TM approach are here on display. Using technology across media to multiply the reach and effectiveness of the dependable avant-garde technique of situationist détournement - or "culture jamming," as Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters, dubs it - the practitioners fashioned an irresistible "counter-meme" that could be quickly appropriated by do-it-yourselfers anywhere and that inspires similar gestures of dissent and defacement.

This is perhaps as successful as this kind of TM intervention can be. But admirable as it is, it also reveals the basic limitation of the tactical approach. Appearing in a US election year a month or so before the Republican National Convention in New York City, against which American antiwar networks chose to focus their energy, these images were sucked into the maw of US electoral politics and its exclusively liberal discourse. For structural reasons that are well understood and can be summarized in a dollar sign, US representative "democracy" is incapable of generating or acknowledging a systemic critique of neo-liberal globalization and its necessary wars of enforcement. Its liberal and legalistic ideological filters necessarily exclude the problem of underlying social structures and relations, forcing all issues into the reduction of a lobodomized and consumerist either/or: Bush or Kerry, asses or elephants. So instead of actually disrupting, blocking, and shutting down the war machine, weÂ’ll cast our vote for the party of pseudo-opposition or at most blow a gasket begging those in power for reforms and accountability. In the absence of real choice, militarized capital always wins, and iPod went on to become an incredibly popular product, much beloved by consumers.

This is not to suggest that TM can be held responsible for that, of course. But the example shows all too clearly what the suppression of radical critique means in an American context. The US public has been dismayingly slow to disillusion itself about the occupation of Iraq. Even at this late date, after the exposure of blatant official lies, of programmatic torture, and of a chilling expansion of state surveillance, there is nothing like the widespread rage and active disobedience that would signal that a majority of Americans has understood what was done to them and in their name. What opposition there is to the "war on terror" in the US public media-sphere tends to blame everything on Bush, the Republicans, the Neo-cons, and the oil barons, with the implication that if the others were running the state, things would be acceptably different. Radical, systemic critique that uncovers and renders understandable the functions of this war as an enforcement of a capitalist world system is effectively absent from the mainstream media and public debate.

In this context, interventions aimed at the US public need to burst the frame of liberal discourse and find a way to integrate and activate in its very forms and practices a more radical and ambitious critique. They need to go beyond merely feeding feelings of dissatisfaction and anxiety, to locate those systemic vulnerabilities in which the whole capitalist machine of global control comes into view as the transformable social construction it is. If renewed struggles have once again made revolution the object of serious and urgent theoretical work, the American public has not heard about it. From deep in the shimmering digital fogs of neo-liberal ideology, revolution still appears as an absolute impossibility. This being the case, interventions aimed at creating "cognitive dissonance" within and around the official rhetoric of war need at the same time to de-reify the dogmatic mantra of "There is no alternative."

A comparison will clarify the point. In 1966, in the midst of the scandal at Strasbourg University surrounding the use of student union funds to print and distribute 10,000 copies of the situationist pamphlet "On the Poverty of Student Life," André Bertrand created the now-famous poster called The Return of the Durutti Column. Wheat pasted on the walls of the campus but also formatted as a four-page newspaper insert, it was translated and disseminated in Europe and North America. This poster constructed of détourned cartoons and photographs expressed a radical refusal of the systemic given. It gave voice to demands and desires that were simply unanswerable within the discourse of liberal capitalism. The most famous panel depicts a bit of conversation between two "cowboys." The dialogue comes from situationist Michèle BernsteinÂ’s 1960 détourned novel, Tous les chevaux du roi. The exchange, as translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith and T.J. Clark for the English-language pamphlet "Ten Days that Shook the University" (1967), reads:

First cowboy: "WhatÂ’s your scene, man?"
Second cowboy: "Reification."
First: "I guess that means pretty hard work with big books and. . ."
Second: "Nope. I drift. Mostly, I just drift."[13]

So here is a radical assertion of autonomy and a categorical refusal to be plugged into the capitalist economy. The exchange links up to the rejection of wage-labor expressed in the old dada and surrealist slogan "Never Work," elaborated by the situationists into a critique of the structuring division of everyday life into work-time and so-called leisure, or programmed consumption. Neither the whole nor the parts of this critique are reconcilable with the liberal given. This is an example of what a tactical media intervention with living links to radical critique and revolutionary strategy might look like. And its effectiveness is a matter of record. This Strasbourg episode was an important prelude to the campus eruptions of May, two years later.

By contrast, the iPod poster parodies were easily accommodated and absorbed by liberal, legalist, and electoral discursive frames that have always already excluded any possibility of systemic change. It would be ridiculous to single out this intervention and make it stand for everything TM is or does. But it does exemplify the weakness of the tactical approach when it lacks adequate strategic aim. To fail to activate a radical and systemic critique in the forms of intervention is to settle for a truly ephemeral frisson that will quickly be overwhelmed by the liberal given; to attempt such activations would already move us beyond the assumptions of TM, as it emerged in the mid-1990s.

Articulations of Theory

Tactical media now needs to make a qualitative leap if it is to maintain living and effective relations to theory, practice, and history. This qualitative leap or mutation could result from the pressure of a return to the problems of revolutionary form, agency, and temporality: How does systemic transformation happen? What kind of events could produce radical change today? What organizational forms, what cultural and political strategies, what kind of actions and interventions are needed? The pressure building around these problems could lead TM to rethink and adjust its assumptions and to discover or invent practices that take more ambitious aim at capitalism as a global and totalizing system of exploitation and control.

There is no question that already by the end of the 1960s traditional revolutionary theory was in crisis. Leninist vanguard partyism, geared for struggle with the capitalist state and aiming for seizure of state power as the condition for reorganizing social relations, has proved to be the vehicle for new forms of bureaucratic exploitation and control. The defeats and disappointments of attempts at Leninist-style revolutions over the course of the twentieth century led to aporia and paralysis. The risks of violence appear too great and too clear, and the prospects too unclear and wishful: better not to take such a chance, better to play it safe. But under the neo-liberal war of all against all, even playing it safe is becoming untenable. Globally, people have rejected the Leninist model. Without yet knowing what can replace it, but fighting for their identities and their very existence, they have begun once more to revolt and rebel. Nobody, then, is calling for a repetition of disastrous defeat. The open question is: What might revolution now become, in order to get us beyond the ruinous cycles of capitalism?

In this regard it is a great liberation and no disaster at all finally to be free of the Soviet empire and its "really existing socialism." Good riddance to this counter-revolutionary machine that for seven decades violently monopolized anti-capitalist language and thought while doing its best to freeze and kill revolutionary theory and practice. As we put this destructive ruse of history behind us, we can see more clearly than ever what still blocks our way: capitalism as world system (aka "society of the spectacle," "biopower," "Empire"), today trying in the most panicked way to hide behind the pulp fiction of a "war on terror."

Michael Hardt and Antonio NegriÂ’s two books Empire and Multitude amount to an ambitious reworking of revolutionary theory.[14] They directly address the crisis of traditional theory and, in light of the history of struggles and the evolution of organizational forms over the course of the twentieth century, show why anti-capitalist resistance to Empire now tends to self-organize into rhizomes, or open, fully-distributed networks and transversal rhizomes. Their analysis of so-called post-Fordist transformations in the modes of production holds open the possibility of a revolutionary passage beyond capitalism and Empire. While they donÂ’t pretend to solve all the problems of form, agency, and temporality that we have inherited, Hardt and Negri demonstrate that in fact these are the problems we need to be working on. They have done us the theoretical service of giving us a powerful text to work from, to criticize and supersede, to put to the test of practice. And they are not the authors of a revival so much as the hopeful observers and reflectors of actual struggle: as they acknowledge, they are merely trying to keep pace with the new cycle of struggles that has already broken out.

With respect to tactical media, another text we would need to bring into this critical constellation is Guy DebordÂ’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967), and indeed the whole body of situationist theory.[15] Debord and the situationists did not lack a radical systemic critique or cultural strategies and practices developed from it. They worked intensely on the problems of organizational form and the structures of hierarchical control and enforced passivity. Rejecting capitalism in its liberal forms (what they called "diffuse spectacle") and bureaucratic socialism with its police states and ridiculous leader cults ("concentrated spectacle"), they pointed to the need for a revolution without centralized, top-down parties and "leaders." And this analysis, shared by Socialisme ou Barbarie and the March 22nd Movement, was confirmed in May and June of 1968. In an astonishing sequence of events that led rapidly from campus disturbances to the brink of social revolution, the French Communist Party and its trade union, the CGT (Confédération générale du travail), acted as perfect agents of counter-revolution, accomplishing what de Gaulle could not: the breaking of the factory occupation movement by gradually coaxing, deceiving, coercing and demoralizing ten million workers on general strike back to wage-slavery.

The situationists must be read critically as well, of course. They tended, in advancing workersÂ’ councils and the occupation movement as the magic bullets of revolutionary strategy, to underestimate the practical problems of survival and durability in fully democratic and participatory revolutionary organizational forms. As the experience of Argentina following the December 2001 insurrection has confirmed, the challenges involved in producing basic needs without hierarchical divisions of labor are not going to be solved spontaneously - at least not if we want revolutionary processes to be durable and not condemned in advance to be merely short-lived assertions of collective autonomy or fleeting moments of festive potlatch. And the problems of defending a revolutionary process in its vulnerable early period requires a commitment to real democracy and a rigorous ethics of struggle that cannot be reduced to a mere calculus of force. But these blockages remain points for qualitative leaps to come, and it is the actualization of situational events that reactivates them as urgent problems.

This is not to say that the project of "constructing situations" can be unproblematically appropriated today, let alone simply repeated. The moment of the Situationist International was one of (Fordist-Keynesian) economic expansion, rising standards of living, low unemployment, and functioning structures of social security in the capitalist core. In the wake of the uprisings of 1968, the systemic managers concluded that increased consumption and leisure time did not make the under-classes more docile and pliable, but rather encouraged rising demands. In the infamous words of Samuel Huntington in a 1975 report commissioned by the Trilateral Commission, the problem is an "excess of democracy." And so today we have to think and act in a context shaped by three decades of neo-liberal structural adjustment and class war. The revival of an ugly politics of hate and openly fascistic tendencies of governance is in large part attributable, directly or indirectly, to a generalized existential insecurity in the wake of neo-liberal policies, now exacerbated by a war on terror that displaces global class conflicts onto a dubious "clash of civilizations" and which functions as a machine of racism, fear, and hysteria. So while capitalism remains the global systemic given, the problems have shifted and are in some respects more challenging.

In A Hacker Manifesto, media theorist McKenzie Wark offers a stimulating attempt to constellate Marx, Debord and Deleuze-Guattari.[16] In WarkÂ’s re-periodization of the history of commodification and exploitation, the capitalist class is now challenged by the emergence of what he calls the "vectoralists." Whereas the capitalists exploited the laboring and producing classes by imposing the property relation on all fields of scarcity, the vectoralists are cutting-edge cognitive capitalists who use the concept of "intellectual property" to capture and structure the field of immaterial labor - a field that actually is not characterized by scarcity. In other words, they exploit the hackers, who have yet to become conscious of themselves as a new class in the history of class struggle. With class consciousness comes the possibility of making common cause with other exploited classes, liberating information from imposed scarcity, overthrowing the politics of representation and initiating the "gift economies" of the hacker ethic. WarkÂ’s "manifesto" fails to propose convincing solutions to the problems of agency. But it at least performs a bold return to systemic critique and revolutionary theory and to that extent is contributing to debates that prepare the ground for the needed qualitative leaps.

I am not arguing that we await some master theory that will finally and with no remainder solve all the inherited aporias of practice. But if such a totalizing theoretical system is impossible, it doesnÂ’t follow that we should abandon all attempts to understand the systemic enemy as a "totality." The "movement of movements" is undoubtedly right: we will need a multiplicity of theories and approaches to reach and transform the layered structures and operations of systemic power. The point, to repeat, is that we need to accept the pressure of these problems and blockages and work on them. Proclaiming revolution a dead letter got us nowhere, and to continue to do so now is condemn in advance all those who have renewed anti-capitalist struggle.

TM theorists have begun to acknowledge these new urgencies. Global anti-capitalism and permanent war loom large in the published papers from the fourth N5M festival of tactical media in September 2003. There, CAE acknowledges the need for strategy, though the group worryingly continues to insist that TM gatherings are not the forum for strategic thinking and debates.[17] So far, the needed leap or mutation has yet to appear. We can hope this inventive stream will find a way to renew itself - and keep its distance from the art institutions. Imagining the events that lead beyond a ruinous capitalism will need all of tactical mediaÂ’s critical cultural energies - and much more.


[1] This definition is from the groupÂ’s web site: . It condenses a longer discussion in the "Introduction" in Critical Art Ensemble (hereafter CAE) Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media (Brooklyn, New York: Autonomedia, 2001), pp. 3-11. This and all other cited CAE books can be accessed in digital form on the groupÂ’s web site.

[2] CAE, Tactical Media, pp. 2, 8.

[3] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993).

[4] "Electronic Civil Disobedience"[1994], in CAE, Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas (Brooklyn, New York: Autonomedia, 1996), p. 24.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See chapter one, part IV, above.

[7] See .

[8] See David Garcia, "Learning the Right Lessons," January 25, 2006; and Brian HolmesÂ’s reply, "LetÂ’s Have a Discussion," February 1, 2006, both posted at . Nato Thompson replies to critics of "The Interventionists" in "Please donÂ’t ruin the integrity of political art!", at .

[9] See .

[10] See .

[11] Seymour M. Hersh, "The Gray Zone: How a Secret Pentagon Program Came to Abu Ghraib," The New Yorker, May 24, 2004; archived online at .

[12] Dora Apel, "Torture Culture: Lynching Photographs and the Images of Abu Ghraib," Art Journal, vol. 64, no. 2 (Summer 2005), p. 97; and Faye Hirsch, "Graphic Art in the Summer of Discontent," Art in America, October 2004.

[13] Greil Marcus analyzes BertrandÂ’s poster and this panel in context in "The Cowboy Philosopher," Artforum, March 1986, pp. 85-91 and in Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989), pp. 413-25. The translations for the dialogue in bubbles is as quoted by Marcus in the latter.

[14] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000); and Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004).

[15] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone, 1994).

[16] McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004).

[17] CAE, "Framing Tactical Media," in Next 5 Minutes Reader, International Festival for Tactical Media, September 11-14, 2003, Amsterdam, online at .

This is a slightly amplified version of an essay published in Afterimage, vol. 34, nos. 1/2 (2006). Thanks to Rozalinda Borcila, Gaye Chan, Brian Holmes, Karen van Meenen, and Gregory Sholette for their critical responses and support.