Jodi Dean 1 jan 2001

Multiple Reality 2

Part 2

So, if the Net is not the public sphere, what is it? Is it just a tool or a medium?

Not if by that one means to employ a model of technology that is not always already a materialization of particular ideologies, beliefs, aspirations. Is the Net better understood in terms of virtual reality. Absolutely not: not only is it real in the sense that real people use it, remaining within their bodies and retaining their physical capacities, but it is a very real component of the economic formation that now impacts the entire planet. To emphasize its virtuality displaces attention from its economic role. As the conference title states, the Net is clearly beyond fantasy.

Ok, a third try, perhaps the Net is best understood as a site at which multiple realities converge. Again, absolutely not. Indeed, it strikes me that the idea of multiple realities is one of the most pernicious today. There is one reality. It is a site of conflict. It is multiple to the extent that there are multiple approaches to it, but each of these approaches as political effects, effects that reach far beyond those that allegedly accept a particular reality. I'll consider this from a different angle: to claim that there are multiple realities is to fall in to traps similar to those that affect those who see the Net as a public sphere. It is to avoid acknowledging the conflicts and antagonisms manifest within, pervading, and structuring the Net. Instead of conflict, one just shifts or jumps from reality to reality-like Lola in Tom Tykwer's Run, Lola, Run.

Now, sometimes I err on the side of the claim that the Net is nothing at all-that all of contemporary society should be understood as cyberia, as awash in a sea of flows and links and networks such that to isolate one communicative infrastructure on the basis of technology alone makes no sense. I actually tend to think this. But, it is nevertheless the case that the Net generally and the Web more specifically play a key role in configuring the contemporary communicative capitalist imaginary. It is a site of conflict over the meaning, practice, and shape of the global. To that extent, how and what it represents is inseparable from what it does. Put somewhat differently, it is the architecture for communicative capitalism, both as an order establishing itself and as an order being resisted.

Consequently, I suggest that theoretically speaking we understand the Net as a 'zero institution.' This term comes from Levi-Strauss as explained by Slavoj Zizek. Levi-Strauss calls 'zero institution' that empty signifier that itself has no determinate meaning but that signifies the presence of meaning. It is an institution that has no positive function at all-its only function is to signal the actuality of social institutions as opposed to pre-institutional chaos. In political theory terms, I think of this as like Machiavelli's Prince or Rousseau's Legislator. As institutions they signify the beginning or founding of something, marking that instance of transformation from the chaotic period prior to the founding. They don't do anything in the government or figure in the constitution. Back to Levi Strauss, reference to the 'zero institution' enables all members of the tribe to think of themselves as members of the same tribe, even when they are radically split, even when their very representations of what the tribe is are radically antagonistic to one another. Zizek views the nation as a kind of zero-institution, adding that sexual difference should also be understood as a zero-institution. Whereas the nation is the zero-institution of society's unity, sexual difference is the zero institution of society's split or fundamental antagonism.

I think of the Web as a zero institution: it enables myriad conflicting constituencies to understand themselves as part of the same global structure even as they disagree over what the architecture of this structure should entail. Indeed, the Web is a particularly powerful form of zero institution insofar as its basic elements seem a paradoxical combination of singularity and collectivity, collision and convergence. It brings together both the unity and split, both the hope and the antagonism, the imaginary and the Real in one site. The fundamental constitutive antagonisms of communicative capitalism are alive and present, cursing through and structuring the Web in diverse, protean, and evolving networks. As the nation has collapsed as a zero institution capable of standing in symbolically for the possibility of social institutions (and we see this collapse all over the place, from the crisis of sovereignty engendered by the WTO, to the crises in the Balkans, to the conflicts over migration and immigration, to the dismantling of the welfare state) and as global economic structures have made their presence felt all the more strongly, the Web has emerged as that zero institution signifying institutionality as such. Likewise, as sexual difference has both been complicated by myriad other differences (sexuality, race, ethnicity, etc) and as experimentation and blurring and proliferation of sexual difference has thrown into disarray the very possibility of the term, the Web -precisely as a site where all these differences emerge, mutate, and link up into and through networks - seems to take on this aspect of the zero institution as well. Hence, conflict over configuring the Web is at the same time a conflict over the configuration of the world of unity and difference.

So, representationally, the Web is a zero institution. It provides an all-encompassing space in which social antagonism is simultaneously expressed and obliterated. It is a global space in which everyone can recognize themselves as connected to everyone else, as linked to everything that matters. At the same time, it is a space of conflicting networks and networks of conflict so deep and fundamental that even to speak of consensus or convergence seems an act of violence. So, the Web is communicative capitalism's imaginary of uncontested, yet competitive, global flow. And, it is the Real of communicative capitalism, configuring the networks and flows and markets and gambles of the global market. All this is naturalized on, rendered as the nature of, the Web.

I want to anticipate an objection at this point: someone might be thinking that my argument up to this point is to pessimistic, that I'm overplaying the whole communicative capitalism card and underplaying the importance of non-commercial forms of networked interaction. After all, not just corporations are on the Web. All sorts of activists use the Web-as WTO protest organizing makes perfectly clear. And, aren't we in the midst of a dotcom meltdown? Haven't the commercial applications of the Web been proven not just economically but also ideationally bankrupt?

My response is that the dotcom meltdown in no way should be read in terms of the demise of communicative capitalism. The introduction of commericially viable new technologies is always accompanied by phases of proliferation and meltdown as the new technology establishes itself. At points in the early to mid 80s, as Commodore, Atari and other early pc companies collapsed, many thought that the personal computer was going the way of the 8 track player. But, instead, it was a period of consolidation that relied on the efforts of precisely those companies that died in the struggle, that fought the good fight. In a more cynical vein, one might speculate that the consumer oriented period of the late nineties was really part of a strategy to naturalize the Web, to make it a part of everyday life, like banking, even as the real beneficiary was global capital. Importantly, though, the presence of activists proves my point: the Web is a site of conflict. And, I think it is important to emphasize this conflictual, contested dimension of the Web.

Now, I have recently been totally inspired in this regard by some fabulous empirical work by Richard Rogers and Noorjes Marres. Their research opens-up new ways of thinking about democratic politics post-public. Rogers and Marres have developed a set of software tools in conjunction with a research project on 'issue-fication' on the Web. In effect, these tools provide new imaginings of democracy as they enable material practices that navigate differently through cyberia, practices that do not follow, reproduce, or presuppose the architecture of the public sphere. By following the movement of issues on the Web, Rogers and Marres have been able to identify 'issue networks' that are neither publics nor actors. Networks are the flows of communication and contestation that turn matters into issues. For example, using their 'netlocator' software to check the Web for information presented by television media as a spectacle regarding French farmers in the streets, they discover a radically different political configuration: the farmers are absent. What the Web tells them, Rogers and Marres write, is that the farmers are not farmers, but an organizational figuration that moves from the national to the global and from the political-ideological to the issue-activist. It is quite an organized picture, whereby neither farmers, nor 'phoney farmers,' nor 'a bunch of disorganized anarchists' make up the protests, but a professional national-international network.

As they follow issues on the Web, rather than in more massified media, Rogers and Marres avoid some of the major problems of publicity in technoculture. They are not in the business of trying to decide which actors are worthy, which actors count as actors. They don't decide which knowledge has authority - they let the Web decide. They don't presume a public or an audience in advance. Contestation, argument over issues, is at the center of their analysis - not some fantasy of unity or dream of consensus. Furthermore, although Rogers and Marres treat the Web as a communications medium, they don't romanticize the connections it enables - they politicize them, investigating and challenging the practices of linking employed in issue networks. In fact, their research on the influence of .coms and .govs in 'issue-fication' clarifies the ways in which all links are not equal. The configurations of networks change as various players enter or leave the network, as they strategically link to specific sites within the network, and as certain sites lose or gain in prominence. Additionally, Rogers and Marres demonstrate the difference in attention cycles between issues on the Web and news in the media. I find this a powerful challenge to an idea of 'real time' that has become limited to the time it takes to type a sentence, refresh a screen, or write and email before AOL cuts off the connection. (So, you can tell, I'm a fan.)

What sort of democracy is without publics? If we take Rogers and Marres' advice and 'follow the issues,' we get, not exactly a set of democratic norms and procedures, not a democratic public sphere, but more or less democratic configurations that we might think of as 'neo-democracies.' Neo-democracies are configured through contestation and conflict. They reject the fantasy of a public and instead work from the antagonisms that animate political life.

Public Sphere, Neo-democracies,
Site Nation, Web as zero-institution,
Goal Consenus (Legitimation), Contestation,
Means Procedures (legal, rational), Networked conflict,
Norms Inclusivity, Duration,
Equality, Hegemony,
Transparency, Decisiveness,
Rationality, Credibility,
Vehicle Actors, Issues

The public sphere was a formation tied to the nation. Given the challenges to national sovereignty under globally communicative capitalism, this spatiality limits our political imagination as it fails to acknowledge the new conditions of politics, knowledge, and affiliation today. As a beginning point, then, neo-democracies should be understood as situated in a different zero-institution, the Web. Just like the nation, the Web is a zero-institution that posits the possibility of institutionality over chaos. Unlike the nation and like sexual difference, the Web uses the very presence of conflict and antagonism to signify institutionality. Paradoxically perhaps, contestation itself signifies collectivity. And this is what thinking about the Web in terms of a public overlooks.

As theorized by Habermas, the public sphere has been the site of political legitimation, that locus of discussion and debate over matters of common concern. But, as a sphere the telos of which is consensus, the public posits a fantasy of unity that covers over the fundamental antagonisms dividing social and political life. In contrast, neo-democratic networks are contestatory networks, networks of engagement around issues of vital concern to their constituents. These networks accept that democracy is animated by a split: they thrive on this split, acknowledging the committed endeavors of those engaged in struggle. By focusing on contestation instead of legitimation, then, neo-democracy acknowledges the unavoidable antagonisms of political life. This is especially important today as Third Wave advocates seek to obscure the reality of the fundamental cleavages wrought by the new economy and as the ideology of publicity tells us that communicative capitalism is really about competition - not conflict.

I fully acknowledge that some may find this emphasis on conflict obscene when millions around the world are victims of various forms of military, state, economic, and domestic violence. But, precisely this perception of 'distant violence' has to be rejected: power is always accompanied by an obscene, excessive supplement. Disavowing the ways that privilege enables some of us to inhabit zones of protection while violence remains 'elsewhere,' then, distorts and limits democratic politics even as it contributes to the production of spectacles for communicative capitalism's media machine. As Aida Hozic argues: ''Perhaps the most important aspect of the construction of war zones by and through the media is their de-contextualization from other, global, political and economic trends. There are no economic crises in war zones, only humanitarian. There is no politics in war zones, only the perennial struggle of good and evil. War zones are zones precisely because they are cut-off from the rest of the world, internally homogenized and externally policed. Violence is thus fetishized, turned into an object separate from 'body politic' and, as such, voyeuristically adored.'''

Clearly, then, neo-democratic politics will not be a politics rooted in figuring out the best sorts of procedures and decision rules for political deliberation. Instead, it acknowledges in advance the endless morphing variety of political tools and tactics. What is crucial to these tactics, however, is whether they open up opportunities for contestation. Not all tactics are equal - those that are part of a neo-democratic arsenal are those that challenge rather than reinforce communicative capitalism.

The norms articulated together by the notion of the public were important to utopian imaginings of democracy. Unfortunately, they have been coopted by a communicative capitalism that has turned them into their opposite. For this reason, it may well be necessary to abandon them - if only to realize them. Hence, instead of prioritizing inclusivity, equality, transparency, and rationality, neo-democratic politics emphasizes duration, hegemony, decisiveness, and credibility.

Any transformative politics today will have to grapple with the speed of global telecommunications and the concomitant problems of data glut and information dumping. Instead of giving into the drive for spectacle and immediacy that plagues an audience oriented news cycle, the issue networks of neo-democracy work to maintain links among those specifically engaged with a matter of concern. This is not, needless to say, a return to the technocratic rule of the experts. Rather, it builds from the extensions of access, information, and know-how enabled by networked communications and uses them to value various strengths, perspectives, and knowledges developed by people of varying degrees of interest and expertise. Put somewhat differently, the valuation of duration as opposed to inclusion prioritizes the interest and engagement brought to bear on an issue rather than inclusion for its own sake. Not everyone knows. Not every opinion matters. What does matter is commitment and engagement by people and organizations networked around contested issues.

If contestation and antagonism are at the core of democratic politics, then not every view or way of living is equal. What I mean is that the very notion of a fundamental antagonism involves a political claim on behalf of some modes of living and against others. These other views, then, are in no way equal - calling them that makes no sense; it basically misses the point of contestation, namely, winning. Usually, in a contested matter, one doesn't want the other view to coexist happily somewhere, one wants to defeat it. (Examples from US politics might be guns or prayer in public schools. Each side wants to prevent the other side from practicing what it believes or values.) Accordingly, neo-democratic politics are struggles for hegemony. They are partisan, fought for the sake of people's most fundamental beliefs, identities, and practices. Admittedly, at one level my emphasis on hegemony seems simply a description of politics in technoculture - yes, that's what's going on, a struggle for hegemony. I emphasize it, though, out of a conviction that the democratic left has so emphasized plurality, inclusivity, and equality, that it has lost the partisan will to name and fight against an enemy.

The replacing of transparency by decisiveness follows from the critique of publicity as ideology. The politics of the public sphere has been based on the idea that power is always hidden and secret. But clearly this is not the case today. We know full well that corporations are destroying the environment, employing slave labor, holding populations hostage to their threats to move their operations to locales with cheaper labor. All sorts of horrible political processes are perfectly transparent today. The problem is that people don't seem to mind, that they are so enthralled by transparency - look the chemical corporation really is trying, look they have totally explained what happened - that we have lost our will to fight. With this in mind them, neo-democracy emphasizes the importance of affecting outcomes. Thus, fully aware that there is always more information available and that this availability is ultimately depoliticizing, neo-democratic politics prioritizes decisiveness. Of course, the outcomes of decisions cannot be predicted in advance. Of course, they can be rearticulated in all sorts of perverse and unexpected way. But the only way out of communicative capitalism's endless
reflexive circuits of discussion is through decisive action. For many, the ever increasing protests against the World Bank and the G8 have been remarkable precisely as these instances of decisive action that momentarily disrupt the flow of things and hint at the possibility of alternatives to communicative capitalism.

Similarly, the neo-democratic politics mapped by issue networks highlights the contemporary priority of credibility over rationality. The ideal of rationality linked to the public sphere highlighted a single set of particular attributes and competences, raising them to the category of the universal. That native knowledges, feminine strengths, and folk remedies, say, were occluded from this rationality has been well documented in recent decades. What we see on the Web, moreover, is the clash of these different levels and styles of knowledge production. What the issue networks show us is how credibility is managed, who is credible to whom, in what articulations, and under what circumstances.

Finally, the key to this imagining of neo-democracy is focusing on issues, not actors. Given the wide acceptance of the critique of the subject, the proliferation of cites to Nietzsche's dictum, 'there is no doer behind the deed,' the ongoing experiments with identity and subjectivity throughout technoculture, and the recognition that decisions and actors are always already embedded in networks and systems, it makes sense for critical democratic theory to 'follow the issues.' Although this may not seem like such a radical move - after all, don't all the 'concerned citizens' interviewed on television during presidential elections complain that the candidates don't talk enough about the issues - given the emphasis on identity that has been so prominent in work inspired by the new social movements, it is not an insignificant one. Indeed, it seems to me that a democratic theory built around the notion of issue networks could avoid the fantasy of unity that has rendered publicity in technoculture so profoundly depoliticizing. It recognizes that fissures, antagonism, is what gives democracy its political strength (something Machiavelli recognized long ago). Democracy, then, may well be a secondary quality that emerges as an effect or a result of other practices, but that can never be achieved when aimed at directly.

Reimagining democracy under conditions of global technoculture is a project that is just beginning. The repercussions of the challenge global financial markets pose to state sovereignty as well as the broader crisis of representation occassioned by the proliferation and expansion of global networks are only now starting to be addressed. One vision, that of communicative capitalism, should not be allowed to provide the matrix through which this reimagining occurs. For the sake of democracy, it's time to abandon the public.

for more information on Jodi Dean