On the Poverty of Internet Life: a Call for Poets
by Jasper Bernes
1 The entire life of those societies in which the modern mode of production prevails presents itself as “an immense accumulation” of connections, of links, of networks, of people become roadside motels for fugitive information.
2 In this, the funhouse mirror of the commodity, in which things appear to be more real than the social relations that produce them, in which commodities appear, in fact, to produce those relations—in this, the primary inversion of the commodity fetish that Marx described is itself inverted in the pseudo-emancipatory fetish of de-fetishization that is the user-generated internet. Opposed to relationships, here products and objects seem, in fact, the mere effluvia of an immense, acephalous process in which one futilely stakes out a section of the common and calls it “mine” or, more colloquially, “my shit.”
2.1 Relationships, then, are the commodities here (along with tones, desires, ideas). They are what is produced and what is consumed. Or perhaps it is more fitting that we call these produced relationships para-commodities, since they obey the law of circulation without achieving a direct, clear, material form of value.
2.1.1 What we took for society, for company turns out to be unpaid job training for the company, unpaid work. And so, it appears, now we are all deputy market analysts at Google and Microsoft, producing value whose redemption is scheduled for a future to which we will not be invited.
2.2 In this, the course of capitalism, in which relations of production between people ossify into commodities, and the commodities themselves, massified into slow-moving glaciers, seem to give value to and promote things that are, at base, an immaterial angst kerneled around a social need, just air, thinner, this logic in its final stage seems to have returned to its very feudal beginnings, where the social relationships between classes and races and sexes and sexualities are totally transparent in their absurd, unabashed brutality.
2.3 In the internet, the commodity appears to have committed suicide. This is the “communism of capital.” The abundance of the developed world, those final fruits of a half millennium of exploitation, are delivered right to your living room, as form, as conform, annealed in the hard light of corporate standards. They are manipulable, plastic; they have a history that recedes into the future. But they are also completely purged of all substance. An equality without qualia. Everyone gets their fifteen embarrassing minutes of fame, yes, but everyone is always someone else.
2.4 That is, everything arrives “just in time,” a synonym for never. Without the ideological enemy of communism, without opportunities for fixed capital investment, and with an increasingly de-physicalized, exploited work force, it seemed that, in the 90s, social unrest would be the order of the day. The internet gives this unrest an arena. Riot on the discussion boards, not the streets. So, too, were the rise of “alternative” and “indie” and “non-mainstream” forms of cultural production a means of capturing truly anti-capitalist sentiment at the end of the American era. The methadone maintenance of the masses. Pseudo-satisfactions for real needs. The sitemeter, the bodycount.
3 Information is the new body armor. The internet is not separated from the real geography of the world by a continuous border. Rather it is folded intensively into this geography. It lives in the pores of the real geography of the world. With our assistance it has walled, sectioned, cantonized and infiltrated at multiple levels the space of extension. When a real geographical space is enveloped on all sides, without egress, alternate temporalities, too slow or too fast, begin to form. These can spread and are, in other terms, what is known as revolution. Hence the changing of calendars that accompanied the French and Russian revolutions. If Fredric Jameson’s important call for a cartography of the totality of postmodern space, which he later admits means “class consciousness,” may, ultimately, require percepts and concepts beyond the capacities of any one person, given the manner in which the structure itself, responsive to the observer, is subjected to the shuffle play of capitalism’s unconscious and so, on its own, as map might merely allow one to wander in ellipses inside the lung-sac of its breathing, sweaty folds; if this is true, then perhaps we can call for, rather, a kind of proprioception of the collective, a form of class hatred, hatred of classes, of capital, a compass that blinks, brightly, beside the red, suburban light of TINA the green light of EXIT.
[tina meth crystal ice tweak glass methamphetamine tweak crank shard sketch]
3.1 The internet, then, is a Green Zone, a distribution of autonomies and dollarforms, templates and tempers, in which the miseries of the world arrive shorn of all their burdensome material accumulates. The “internet,” finally, is formed through the constant purging of the letters “m” and “n” in order that they not spell out internment or interment.
3.2 Social software: the porous, osmotic hyper-sensitized softness of which masks the rigidity of its regulative supports . . .; it feels like consumption, but it’s really production. Anywhere a price is prominently missing, it’s production: of false needs, of distraction, and most importantly a production of social relations vital to the precarities of the present. I will not say, like some, that the largely working-class and lower-middle-class content-producers of blogs and listservs and magazines, laboring in purgatorial cubicles, have become a revolutionary class. Such that they are, our hopes for revolution must lie, to some large degree, from and with the poor here and in the underdeveloped world: the massively displaced peasantry of China, the orbits of dispossession and immiseration ringing Sao Paolo, Mumbai, Lagos and Mexico City. But laboratorial leisure, leisure made labor, provides a crucial supplement, a clean distribution of experience necessary for the functioning of capital today. When, as seems likely, these information workers become, if they are not already, coextensive with the American underclass, as the teaching adjuncts and clerks and executive assistants who provide much of the content of the internet get forced below and further from a living wage, and then lower again, such tertiary or quaternary production will become more and more necessary for capital’s maximization of value. As much as the mode of production seems designed to prevent this, or at the very least allow for the recording of each and every interaction, these groups need organization as well.
3.2.1 Those who would controvert the analysis above, by pointing to the absence of internet commodities produced for exchange and assigning to web denizens the role, rather, of mere cultural reproduction, misunderstand the nature of the post-Fordist economy. What is being produced on the web is not a product but sociality itself; the process whereby unequal and unfair relations between people are naturalized through their conversion to “things” has skipped a step; no things here, just the uneven relations, under a screen of collaboration or collectivity. What gets sold and produced here is a kind of thingless sociality that is being leveraged—and every ad that pops up on a Google Search testifies to this—against a future profit. For now, though, what we see is a false symmetrization of asymmetrical relations; we all pull our weight evenly reproducing this unevenness.
3.2.2 This is depressing, because it means that the unconcealing of the social nature of any good or service is not necessarily emancipatory. In the shift from having to seeming, in the vibrations of hype and gossip, the provisions of affect, a kind of objectless mediator seems to insinuate itself.
3.3 The internet marks the absolute divorce of extensive and intensive relations. Atop an organization of everyday life marked by increasing inter-subjective isolation, cubicle-ization of individuals, sits an intensive network of proximity which, of course, never quite reaches zero. Neither an exit, nor, technically speaking, an entrance, is produced. The world of extension threads through that of intensity and vice-versa. No one, ultimately, farther from you than you or yourself.
4. The becoming-screen (wordscreen, picturescreen) of the world, where relations between subjects are merely contemplative or, when practical, resemble the insulated activities of workers at nuclear reactors who, standing behind thick transparent plates, insert their hands through slots in the wall and into heavy, lead-lined gloves in order to manipulate the toxic materials inside the enclosure—this process of fitting the world to a common measure, a plane, a monetary standard, has been largely completed in the developed world. If modernity depended upon spatial strategies of cellular isolation and segmentation, if it depended upon the concentration and distillation of surplus labor into easily extractable “pills,” it also had to deal with the ways in which the densities and viscosities of these kinds of social orders provided for, in moments of critical breach, a rapid collectivization of consciousness. The factory, the school and the apartment concentrate populations while segmenting them.
4.1. The internets are, on the other hand, a form of social diffusion that masquerades as a be-commoning or concentration of people and that designates and encloses this collectivity and allows for its recording, recoding, management, and regulation. They are the photonegative of primitive accumulation. While the automobile had, to some extent, distributed the everyday lives of Americans across the wide spaces of cities, allowing for an inverted image of social life, requiring the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois classes to collect or gather together aspects of the fragmented, damaged existence which real-estate speculators had planned for them, the internet accomplishes this while managing to provide an image of delirious immediacy, fingertips away. The signs themselves are elastic; they stretch their codes across the whole world. The materials they index, the actual values in labor, in feeling, in restructuration, all of this slides under the signs and is pulverized into a dust which, rising up in a cloud, settles like ash over the world. The atomization of the collective becomes an intra-subjective atomization. Each action has its own personality, its own algorithm.
4.1.1 In this, these screens represent the final saturation of notions of collectivity and individuality, public and private space. These concepts emerge as ugly encystments of a field of quivering substance. Intensive space is submitted to the same standardization regimes as extensive space. “The society which suppresses geographic distance recollects it as interior distance, as spectacular separation.”
4.2 The internets are a public without a place; a palace of placelessness; they are a mutant privacy. Or rather, they are the attempt to create a public sphere in its complete absence. They are, in their guarantee of a thin scrim of representativity, the inverse or mirror image of the industrial park’s precaritization of labor, the stripmall’s banalization of space, the refugee camp’s bare life, the tent city, the billion uncounted lives of the informal economy of the megacities of the global south.
4.2.1 “And if the death of Puig and Négus, the death of the captain of Boieldieu, the death of the little rabbit were inaudible, it’s because life never gave back to the films what it had stolen from them. Because the forgetting of extermination was a part of the extermination.”
22.214.171.124 In this, the lines of flight of the great engines of desire attaching, here and there, to and in revolution, are turned to so many pretty pictures.
5 Only by a revelation of the privation which masquerades—with its massacres, massages, messages—under the name of privacy, only by a revelation of the actual existing relations between people, between the producers of information and consumers of isolation, the relations that are naturalized in code, can the internet begin to foster a common space without the stifling protocols of the para-corporate public.
5.01 “The mirror is, after all, an utopia, because it is a place without place. In the mirror, I am there where I am not, in an unreal space which opens virtually behind the surface; I am down there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives myself over to my own visibility, that permits me to see myself in my absence—utopia of the mirror. But, in the same manner, it is a heterotopia, in the sense that the mirror really exists and there it has, in the place that I occupy, a kind of countereffect; it is on account of the mirror that I find myself missing in the place where I see myself; it is on account of this gaze that, in some way is brought toward me, from the depth of this virtual space that is on the other side of the glass, I return toward myself and I begin to train my eyes on myself and to reconstitute myself. . .”
5.1 The point, then, is that to the extent that the internet fails to thrust me back onto my own lap, to the extent that it fails to render crystal clear the ugliness and smallness of the life I lead in all its terrible complicities, and to the extent that it fails to fail to escape these conditions, it is a vicious augmentation of the spectacular aerosolization of all that’s solid, a burp in the calculator. We must build a here there, and a there here. To the extent that it fails to remind us of this need, and that it pretends to satisfy it, it is a gorgeous, bourgeois lie. It may be the best bourgeois lie ever, but it is a lie nonetheless.
5.2 At the same time, of course, the internet manifests certain things about the conditions—only almost insuperable— of contemporary capitalism. First, it reminds us that experience is now a distribution-of-points, rather than a gathering-in-a-place. The subject of the internet is nowhere and everywhere, it is a processor without a locus. It is the Isis to the Osiris of our dailiness. The epic poem which requires us, everyday, to assemble ourselves from a mass of data and non-events.
6.1 Although the counter-public in which poetry is exchanged is witnessing an incredible Rennaissance, not surprisingly, at the same time, the general public sphere has, in the last twenty years, become increasingly sterile, homogeneous, auto-imitative and contentless—the great American strip mall, the longue durée of visionless subdivision. The conclusions are obvious. Surplus here, lack there.
6.2 While the list-servs and blogs, low overhead internet magazines, desktop publishing and the falling cost of print publications have done much to vent some of the excessive energy among poets, and to create multiple, overlapping models of distribution in which work that otherwise might never have been seen finds readers, and in some cases, finds many, many readers, although this has been a fortuitous and powerful occurrence, two things must be kept in mind: 1) it will not last 2) no-one but poets care or know.
6.3 As for the first conclusion, it is useful to refer to Marx’s chapter on primitive accumulation. Since capitalism’s very origins, moments of political instability and liberatory change have been accompanied by, or followed by, moments of re-appropriation of such liberatory energies, moments of re-accumulation, restabilizing, consolidation, which turn the original revolutionary or liberatory moment not into an escape from power and exploitation, but a deeper penetration of power and exploitation: “Hence the historical movement which changes the producers into wage-laborers appears, on the one hand, as their emancipation from serfdom and from the fetters of the guilds, and it is this aspect of the movement which alone exists for our bourgeois historians. But, on the other hand, these newly freed men became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And this history, the history of their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of fire.”
6.3.1 The ease by which information can be distributed has not, it would seem, helped resistance to the current U.S. wars in which, by credible estimates, just under one million persons have been killed. One million people. Those who do survive do so after having been maimed, bombed, shot at, scared to death, humiliated, starved, arrested, searched and forced to live without clean water, hospitals or electricity. No doubt, there is much narcissism online. But the narcissists would likely not be much help anywhere. Instead, we must consider the fact that it is plainly difficult to do certain things online: like blocking traffic, burning police vehicles or vandalizing state property. Unless you’re playing an inspired video game, that is. On the other hand, the internet has made it possible for US soldiers to distribute appalling snuff films in which the idiot-chorus at the business of murdering “hajis” by remote control takes its place of honor among the videos of last year’s family vacation.
6.3.2 This is what we can expect from humanity’s liberation from the tiresome Newtonian mechanics of the everyday, which, in migrating more and more information, exchange and experience to the world wide web, in fact allows for the mainstreaming, big boxing, hyper-regulation and sterilization of the public space—the erstwhile street or neighborhood—in which these things used to take place. The franchise and the pixel, two forms of technological reproduction.
7 No amount of outrage at this moment would be an exaggeration. But outrage, it seems, doesn’t travel well in these circuits. Nor can it meet the ever-growing expectation of a bland, abiding comfortableness. Outrage needs the proximity of bodies. Furthermore, what faces us in theorizing the impediments to resistance, then, is a situation in which many of the chief critical or negative concepts of the post-’68 left have become part and parcel not only of left political thought but imperial capital’s own reconceptualization of itself. Some of the strongest readings of Deleuze and Guattari’s chapter on “The War Machine” appear to have come not from, as I might have expected, radical Italian interpreters like Antonio Negri, but the Israeli Defense Forces [Eyal Weizman, “The Art of War,” http://www.frieze.com/feature_single.asp? f=1165]. Conceiving of urban space as a fluid with variable viscosities, a product of the activities contained therein, the IDF in their attacks in the Palestinian territories mark the conservative-liberal negation of space, its “deterritorialization,” unfixing notions of outside and inside, public and private, by blasting their way through and inside the houses of civilians (who often, subsequently, spend days locked in closets without food, water, or toilets, if they survive). We must stop conceiving of the negative, of détournement, transgression, subversion, as an inherent good. Freedom, as its use in free market discourse and justification for the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere have shown, is not an inherent good. Indeed, the breaking up or smoothing of social space—as theoretically illumined by the psychogeographic theorizing of Guy Debord and the SI—such planing to an even consistency via dérive or the molecular carbonation of the war machine is not inherently anti-hegemonic; it is, indeed, quite often, the revolutionary aspect of counterrevolutionary forces. Once made smooth, this space can be manipulated, redistributed, consolidated, or penetrated by capillarial networks of power and exploitation. We must reconceive criticality, negativity and notions of subversion and transgression; we must negate the negation before it becomes the site of operation for a hegemonic positivity.
7.1 It is in this light that we might reflect on the internet’s origin as a military application, and the extent to which militaristic or hegemonic notions of diffusion, dispersion and displacement still regulate the internet as a structure for everyday life.
7.2 To my disgusted and enraged fellow poets who seek, like me, to confront the blood-soaked juggernaut of capitalism in its delirium tremens of addiction to surplus value, I say this: let’s continue doing what we are doing now—writing, posting to blogs, giving readings, publishing books. But let’s also devote some small portion of our energy to using our creative skillz for the injection of radical content into the public sphere at large—that is, the land-based public sphere. Perhaps this work would not be poetry qua poetry, since it is obvious to me at least that poems, frequently belonging to a different temporal order than politics, often do their most powerful political work (at least at the level of producing politicized knowledge) precisely by refusing the demand that they be political. I suspect, too, that to call something like this poetry or art from the outset often might limit its effectivity, and capitulate without struggle to the hardening effects of the commodity. But it would be words, something that poetry knows much about. It would be an improvement of, or de-sterilization, or re-politicization of public language. At one level, this might involve something as simple as the public service of improving the quality of bathroom, bus or subway graffiti. Or artfully replacing all of the newspapers at the newspaper stand. Or improving the nearest, and most painfully offensive, billboard. Credit card ads and military recruitment posters are good. The creative uses of yellow caution tape remain to be explored, in the constuction of detours leading to a sort of car-wash of the mind. Or campaigns for non-existent or dead people. Or for corporations. Home Depot for President, for instance.
7.3 Further than this, I shall not go, since, for the activities imagined above to hold my interest, they would need to be both anonymous and collective, as highly visible as their making and organization is invisible. Their definitions and procedures should develop from the spontaneity of group discussion rather than the discipline or sterile command of manifesto. Its manifestos would be retrospective. And, at a certain point, it must go offline. Perhaps this is already happening. In any case, it is happening hardly enough.
7.4 I continue to believe in the imagination of my fellow writers, many of whom, I know, remain faithful to a world that is otherwise, and who will not succumb to the nauseating pieties which hold that any anti-capitalist movement leads, inevitably, to the terror. By rights, the complacency of such thinking is itself “the terror.” Among the poets who know this, I am sure there are few abler propagandists now alive. Action, yes.
JASPER BERNES is the author of Starsdown (in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni). Recent projects include an guest editorship for Counterpath Online and a longish poem, "Desequencer," taking its form from the human genome, about which he will talk at this year's meeting of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts. An excerpt can be found in the Spring '07issue of Seneca Review. He lives in Albany, CA, just down the street from Small Press Distribution.