The meaning of network culture (2)

In this series of articles Kazys Varnelis explores the meaning of network culture
Kazys Varnelis
11 February 2010

This article is the second part of a series of articles on the topic, Network Culture. To read the other aticles, see The meaning of network culture part one, three and four.

If digital culture flourished during late capitalism, then it should not be surprising that Jameson observed that in that period, everything became interchangeable, quantified and exchangeable. With the gold standard done away with, capital would be valued purely for its own sake, no longer a stand-in for something else, but pure value. The result was the disappearance of any exterior to capital and with it the elimination of any place from which to critique or observe capital. As a consequence, postmodern culture lost any existential ground or deeper meaning. Depth, and with it emotion, vanished, to be replaced by surface effects and intensities. In this condition, even alienation was no longer possible. The subject became schizophrenic, lost in the hyperspace of late capital.

As capital colonized art under late capitalism, Jameson suggested, even art lost its capacity to be a form of resistance. The result was cross-contamination, as art became not just an industry but an investment market, and artists, fascinated by the market, began to freely intermingle high and low. With the art market calling for easy reproducibility and marketing, and with authenticity no longer a viable place of resistance, some artists began to play with simulation and reproduction. Others, finding themselves unable to reflect directly on the condition of late capital but still wanting to comment upon it, turned to allegory, foregrounding its fragmentary and incomplete nature.

History, too, lost its meaning and purpose, both in culture and in academia. In the former, history was recapitulated as nostalgia, thoroughly exchangeable and made popular in the obsession with antiques as well as through retro films such as Chinatown, American Graffiti, Grease, or Animal House. In academia, a spatialized theory replaced historical explanation as a means of analysis.

Modernism's obsession with its place in history was inverted by postmodernism, which, as Jameson points out, was marked by a waning of historicity, a general historical amnesia. But if postmodernism undid its ties to history to an even greater extent than modernism, it still grounded itself in history, both in name – which referred to its historical succession of the prior movement – and in its delight in poaching from both the premodern past and the more historically distant periods of modernism itself (e.g. Art Nouveau, Russian revolutionary art, Expressionism, Dada).

Today, network culture succeeds postmodernism. It does so in a more subtle way. No new "ism" has emerged: that would lay claim to the familiar territory of manifestos, symposia, museum exhibits, and so on. Instead, network culture is a more emergent phenomenon.

Evidence that we have moved beyond postmodernism can be found in economic cycles. If late capitalism is still the economic regime of our day, it would be the longest lasting of all the Kondratieff cycles. Assuming the Kondratieff cycles are accurate, Jameson's theorization would come in a downswing on the cycle that began after World War II. Indeed, given the protracted economic downturn of post-Fordist restructuring during the 1970s and 1980s, this seems entirely reasonable. A critical break took place in 1989 with the fall of the Soviet Union and the integration of China into the world market, instantiating the "new" world order of globalization. In turn, the commercialization of the Internet during the early 1990s set the stage for massive investment in the crucial new technology necessary for the new, fresh cycle. New Kondratieff cycles are marked by spectacular booms and bust – the delirious dot-com boom and the subsequent real estate boom are hence legible as the first and second booms of a Kondratieff cycle on the upswing. It is this second upswing, then, in which network culture can be observed as a distinct phenomenon.

Even if we abandon Kondratieff cycles as overly determinist, no cultural movement since the turn of the twentieth century has lasted more than twenty-five years. It would require special dispensation to argue that we are still in the same moment as Jameson when he first formulated his thesis.

The closest thing we have to a synthetic understanding of this era is the political theory laid out in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire. In their analysis, the old world order based on the imperialist division of the globe into spheres of influence has been superseded by "Empire", a diffuse power emanating not from any one place but, rather, from the network itself. Empire's economy is immaterial, but its power stems not only from the economic force of capital, it is also constructed by juridical means. As nation-states fade away under globalization, to ensure mobility and flexibility of capital across borders, Empire turns to transnational governing bodies such as the United Nations to establish a universal global order. In doing so, however, Empire re-inscribes existing hierarchies and, as the wars in the Middle East show, must resort to violence. Hardt and Negri identify networked publics, which they call the multitude, as a counterforce. For them, the multitude is a swarm intelligence, able to work within Empire to demand the rights of global workers. The networking of individuals worldwide gives them new links and new tools with which to challenge the system, but whether networked publics can come together to make decisions democratically is still unclear (see Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).

If Empire is a political theory, my goal here is to sketch out a cultural theory of this networked age. Although postmodernism anticipated many of the key innovations of network culture, our time is distinctly different (see Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: Avant-garde at the end of the century, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996). In the case of art and architecture, Jameson suggests, a widespread reaction to the elitism of the modern movement and the new closeness between capital and culture led to the rise of aesthetic populism. Network culture exacerbates this condition, replacing the populist projection of the audience's desires onto art with the production of art by the audience and the blurring of boundaries between media and public. If appropriation was a key aspect of postmodernism, network culture almost absentmindedly uses remix as its dominant process. A generation after photographer Sherri Levine reappropriated earlier photographs by Walker Evans, dragging images from the Internet into Photoshop is an everyday occurrence, and it is hard to remember how radical Levine's work was in its redefinition of the Enlightenment notions of the author and originality (see See Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985).

Art critic Nicholas Bourriaud states that this lack of regard for originality is precisely what makes art based on what he calls postproduction appropriate to network culture. Works like Levine's still relied on notions of authorship and originality for the source of their meaning. More recently, Bourriaud explains, artists like Pierre Huyghe, Douglas Gordon, or Rirkrit Tiravanija no longer question originality but rather instinctively understand artworks as objects constituted within networks, their meaning given by their position in relation to others and their use (see Bourriaud, Postproduction, New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002). Bourriad observes that, like DJs or programmers, these artists "don't really 'create' anymore, they reorganize".

The elements that artists choose to remix, however, tend to be contemporary (see Arthur Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History, Washington DC: National Gallery of Art, 1997). The nostalgia culture so endemic to postmodernism has been undone and a world in the throes of modernization is long gone. Unable to periodize, network culture disregards both modern and premodern equally, as well as the interest in allegory (On nostalgia in postmodernism, see Jameson, "Postmodernism," On allegory see Craig Owens, "The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism," parts 1 and 2, Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. On periodization and network culture see Kazys Varnelis, "Network Culture and Periodization") As T. J. Clark describes it, modernism is our antiquity, the unintelligible ruins of a vanished civilization. For Clark, like Jameson, modernism was rendered anachronistic once the process of modernization was complete.

Instead of nostalgia and allegory, network culture delivers remix, shuffling together the diverse elements of present-day culture, blithely conflating high and low – if such terms can even be drawn anymore in the long tail of networked micropublics – while poaching its as-found contents from the world. Correspondingly, reality increasingly dominates forms of cultural production: reality television shows are common, film documentaries such as Supersize Me, An Inconvenient Truth, and Fahrenheit 911 proliferate, popular sites Web such as eBaum's World or YouTube are filled with videos that claim to be true. In The Office, the sitcom is reconfigured into a pseudo-documentary. When fiction is deployed on Internet video sites, it poses as reality for viral marketing methods (e.g. Lonelygirl15 or Little Loca). The vision William Gibson had in Pattern Recognition of an exquisite movie released cut-by-cut on the Internet is replaced by low-quality clips of snarky teenagers in front of webcams or low-quality clips of actors playing snarky teenagers in front of webcams (see Gibson, Pattern Recognition, New York: Putnam, 2003).

Video games are the dominant form of fiction today. By 2004 they generated more revenue than Hollywood made in box-office receipts. If the novel simulated the internal voice of the subject, video games produce a new sort of fiction and affirm the networked self through a virtual reality in which the player can shape his or her own story. In MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft – which earns some $1 billion a year in subscription fees, compared that with the $600 million earned by Hollywood's most successful product, Titanic – the ability to play with thousands of other individuals in immense landscapes thoroughly blurs the boundaries of reality and fiction and the boundaries of player and avatar (see Ronald Grover and Cliff Edwards with Ian Rowley, "Game Wars", Business Week, Feb 28, 2005, 60. On games, see McKenzie Wark, Gamer Theory, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007; Alexander R. Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, Minnesota: University of Minneapolis Press, 2006).

To be clear, the tactics of remix and the rapt fascination with reality are not just found in GarageBand and YouTube, they form an emerging logic in the museum and the academy as well. Art itself, long the bastion of expression, is now dominated by straightforward photography (like Andreas Gursky), and some of the most interesting work can be found in research endeavours that could easily take place in Silicon Valley rather than in the gallery (like locative media), by (sometimes carefully faked) studies of the real (like the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Andrea Fraser, Christoph Büchel, etc.). Other works, such as Ólafur Elíasson's ambient forms or Andrea Zittel's environments, clothing, restaurants, and High Desert Test Sites, suggest another strategy of new realism in which art becomes a background to life. Similarly, architecture has abandoned utopian projections, nostalgic laments, and critical practice alike for a fascination with the world. Rem Koolhaas, arguably the world's foremost practitioner, produces book after book, matter-of-factly announcing his fascination with shopping, the Pearl River Delta, or Lagos, Nigeria.

What of the subject in networked culture? Under modernism, for the most part, the subject is autonomous, or at least subscribes to a fantasy of autonomy, even if experiencing pressures and deformations from the simultaneity generated by that era's technologies of communication and by increasing encounters with the Other. In postmodernism, Jameson explains, these pressures couple with a final unmooring of the self from any ground as well as the undoing of any coherent temporal sequence, forcing the subject to schizophrenically fragment. With network culture, these shards of the subject take flight, disappearing into the network itself. Less an autonomous individual and more of a construct of the relations it has with others, the contemporary subject is constituted within the network. This is a development of the condition that Castells observes in The Rise of the Network Society, when he concludes that contemporary society is driven by a fundamental division between the self and the net. To support his argument, Castells turns to Alain Touraine: "In a post-industrial society, in which cultural services have replaced material goods at the core of its production, it is the defence of the subject, in its personality and in its culture, against the logic of apparatuses and markets, that replaces the idea of class struggle.".

But the defence of the subject has dwindled in the time since Castells and Touraine formulated their critique. Instead, it is Gilles Deleuze's "Postscript on Societies of Control" that seems more appropriate to network culture. Here Deleuze suggests that the contemporary self is constituted not so much by any notion of identity, but rather of "dividuals".[20] Instead of whole individuals, we are made up of multiple micro-publics, inhabiting simultaneously overlapping telecocoons, sharing telepresence with intimates with whom we are in near-constant contact, classified into one of the sixty-four clustered demographics units described by the Claritas corporation's PRIZM system.

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