Exit Archive

Spring 2006 | v.02 n.02 |

[<] Table of Contents ... [PDF] Print Version

Electricity plus Soviets: What is new about new media
Chris Gilbert

Co-Curator of the "Latin America" section
of the “Last Chapter,” 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

I want to begin this paper with a disclaimer and an observation. The disclaimer is that I have never really been at all interested in what is called “new media” in art. On the other hand—and this is the observation—there is an area, sometimes called media activism, or independent media, that interests me a great deal and is never discussed as new media let alone discussed in the art context. So a lot of what I want to do is fight over the term “new media,” for better or for worse. I say for better or for worse, since I’m not sure that this latter category “wants to be discussed” or more important benefits from discussion in this context.

This paper has two claims to make on the level of theory. The first, in more familiar territory than the second, is aimed at exorcising the ghost of technodeterminism. It may seem as if that ghost had already been thoroughly exorcised, but in fact in not very subtle ways technodeterminism continues to inform much of what flies under the new media flag. Here, in my view, the key theorist is Armand Mattelart who has charted a history of how since the French Revolution people have invested hopes in the idea that technology, a technological device of some kind or other, would bring about positive social change.1 During the French Revolution, for example, great hopes were invested in the semiphore telegraph; the Saint-Simonians, on the other hand, cast their lot with the railroads.

I refer you to Armand Mattelart’s work for a more thorough analysis. However, cutting to the chase, one may instead go to V. I. Lenin’s famous equation: "Electricity plus soviets equals socialism.” Somehow, by a logic that I sometimes call "anything but politics" and has a particular tenacity in the context of new media, it is always the soviets — meaning the councils, the new social relations— that get left out of the equation these days. That is, in the field of new media we have only electricity. Or for electricity one may substitute microprocessors, fiber-optics, pixels. The revolution, or the kinds of revolution new media people have in mind, will not only be televised, television will produce it.

Now some may feel inclined to defend technology’s progressive agency by pointing out that for Marx a new field of productive relations characterizes any given historical epoch. This is an important observation. However, one should remember that a field of productive relations is not just technological but also includes a set of social relations. Technology is just one component of the field of productive relations that takes shape in any epoch, and these are vastly underdetermined by technology.

So much for the first theoretical point; the second, in less familiar territory, will be my truly last foray into the theorization of new media. Here I pursue a different if related direction in thought, and ask non-rhetorically: What do we mean by technology? Of course, there is a vast body of speculative thinking on this subject in which the towering figure, even if toweringly problematic for some, is Martin Heidegger. His TheQuestion Concerning Technology is important, of course, but questions concerning technology haunt much of his later writing.

The possibility that this second direction of thought allows for is that, rather than simply reject technodeterminism, we might deconstruct or broaden the concept of technology. I think we should go into this area gingerly and should draw very selectively for our purposes from Heidegger’s questioning of technology, focusing on his deconstruction of assumed or anthropological notions of what technology is. For Heidegger the beginning point for his inquiry is the everyday understanding of technology as the instrumental, as a means to an end.2

Let us then follow Heidegger into the treacherous area of the Ancient Greek language. For the Greeks on the one side physis (nature) is a showing forth or coming into presence, an aletheia or revealing. He calls this revealing poiesis, inasmuch as it is a bringing forth. Techne properly understood, far from being the opposite of physis, is likewise a showing forth or a revealing. Technology and nature are thus both forms of poiesis, bringing forth.

In later times, disturbingly, technology becomes a form of setting-upon or challenging of nature. Nature is “set upon” by man of course, but when Heidegger wishes to stand back from this process he refers to a gathering of man into this mode of setting upon nature that he calls enframing. Enframing (Ge-stell) involves the human, though it is not a human decision. Or, it is a way humans are in the world. Thus, the ontological essence of technology is a way of being in the world. On enframing, Heidegger writes:

Thus when man, investigating, observing, ensnares nature as an area of his own conceiving, he has already been claimed by a way of revealing that challenges him to approach nature as an object of research, until even the object disappears into the objectlessness of standing-reserve.3

Since enframing concerns all of the human (inclusive of social and political organization and government) we might wonder now how technology came to be constricted to referring only to machines or devices. Again, Heidegger writes:

The assembly itself [Heidegger is referring to a machine], however, together with the aforementioned stockparts, falls within the sphere of technological activity; and this activity always merely responds to the challenge of Enframing, but it never comprises Enframing itself or brings it about.4

Under this deconstructed version — ontological understanding rather than anthropological in Heidegger’s terminology— our understanding of techne and the technological would include both of Lenin's components for revolution, both sides of the field of productive relations that drives or shapes history.

Having set up these two options — either we reject technodeterminism or broaden the notion of technology to include, centrally, social relations— I want to return to the question of what should count as new media. In particular, I want to look at a selection of activist media groups and ask why the reworking of social relations through media activism that these groups practice is consistently called "independent" or “alternative,” while a chimerical new media is bestowed the epithet “new” in light of its merely machinic developments. In my view this conception of the new, which is aligned with the technodeterminism of new media, is basically counter-revolutionary. It says on some level: there will be no new society. (This is, by the way, the dilemma of Disney’s Tomorrowland where we have been told the “imagineers” had great difficulty imagining a very futuristic future based on new machines.)

Consider the media collective Aru in El Alto, Bolivia, or the community television station Catia TVe [ www.catiatve.org.ve ] operating out of western Caracas. Such initiatives did not come into being because someone—with new equipment—thought they would be exciting or self-aggrandizing to operate. Rather these initiatives were produced as a new set of social relations, out of a fundamental social and political struggle. In both the cases of Catia TVe and Aru, a kind of popular power that was emergent, and that essentially involved a reworking of political and social relations, needed its own "new" vehicle for communication. In the case of ViVe [www.vive.gob.ve], another channel in Venezuela, this social-political dimension is especially explicit since it was born following the 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela, out of the recognition that the media channels tied to the social formation of the bourgeoisie were basically and deeply counterrevolutionary. (In Venezuela the four principal TV channels are popularly known as the four riders of the apocalypse.) Like Catia TVe, ViVe has a central social dimension to its practice. This practice is tied integrally to a vision of class struggle inasmuch as both channels propose to shift participation and access to the media to the Venezuelan people.

Regarding the Bolivian situation, I refer you to the writing of Claudia Espinoza Iturri.5 The situation is in some ways quite similar to the Venezuelan one. Here the indigenous social movements in El Alto and Cochabamba were deeply and fundamentally opposed to the social formations in league with transnational corporations that controlled the media. Espinoza Iturri points out how this real-world opposition operated bi-directionally: On the one hand, the bourgeois media for the most part could not see the Aymara organization taking shape at all; when the Aymara activists’ practices did enter the media’s focus the journalists systematically and violently misrepresented them. On the other hand, the Aymara activists were aware of this and prevented mainstream journalists — sometimes by force— from covering and misrepresenting their struggles.

The differences in the Bolivian and Venezuelan situations are important, but the important point is that in both cases a class struggle, a popular reworking of social relations on the part of an emergent group, produces a "new" mediatic device. This new mediatic device is as much of these new social relations as it involves any “exciting” technology. In fact, the technology is always secondary and merely instrumental.

Now one can see how — in a way many involved in these initiatives are completely aware of— it very much downplays the role of these media groups to call them independent or alternative. Are new chapters in class struggle simply "alternatives”? Is a shift of power into the hands of people and media organs that restore people’s voices merely “independent”?6 That seems to be the suggestion.

As against this suggestion, it seems to me clear that the mediatic and intellectual channels of the still empowered bourgeoisie are wholly devoid of intellectual and moral authority (this is what the Zapatistas have so effectively shown and played on). A rguably, it is these bourgeois channels that should be called “alternative”— in the sense of secondary— or something less than an alternative. Further one could say that they are independent in the sense of wayward or irresponsible. Of course, to say that a class has lost its intellectual and moral authority— since this is only half of hegemony— is not to say that it does not still need to be removed by force, or curtailed through revolutionary legislative measures as the Venezuelans have done.7

By way of an arbitrary conclusion, since one could go on discussing militant media — the number of active groups is enormous and the phenomenon is global— I want to reemphasize that in the cases of Aru, Catia TVe, and ViVe what is new is the access, the participation, and the ownership of the means of production on a popular level that constitutes the organization’s “newness.” This is a notion of progress that is about a social and political program and quite fully in opposition to the isolation of people on the other ends of video-cell phones or Nintendo machines or their regimentation in front of plasma screens that corporations in league with control societies would seem to promote. The relevant technology here, and I believe our work in the direction of Heidegger’s line of thought helps us to say this, is the new set of social relations itself. This latter— that is, the “technology” of social and political organization—i s the only productive kind of technological advance.

To sum up, I think it might be useful to draw up a typology of the new media. New media as it is usually understood gives great play to the technological, instantiating a form of techno-determinism while embodying regressive forms of social organization, in particular by subsuming “work” under the name of a protagonistic artist. By contrast, the other practices, namely the misnamed practices of independent media, instrumentalize technology, understood as the machinic, to a set of new or oppositional social relations. Through the technology of their social relations, these media groups signal a new chapter in class struggle and a new day characterized by the emergence of a multitude that speaks for itself.



1 Cf. Armand Mattelart, “Las utopias de la red,” Geopolitica de la cultura (Bogata: Ediciones desde abajo, 2003), pp. 105-120.

2 Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), trans. William Lovitt, pp. 2-35.

3 Ibid, p. 19.

4 Ibid, p. 21.

5 Claudia Espinoza Iturri, “De Achacachi a Nayaf: Los Mitos de la Mentira Mediatica,” De Enteros y Medios de Comuncacion: Tendencias en la Oferta y el Consumo Mediatico en Bolivia, ed. Adalid Contreras Baspineiro ( La Paz: CEDLA, 2005)

6 “Responsible” is a better description of such media groups. Here we may take our cue from the Venezuelan example—both the use of the idea of social responsibility in the case of the factories under cogestion and the laws describing a socially responsible media in the Ley de Repsonsibilidad Social en Radio y Television (2004).

7 Lukács located a robust era of bourgeois letters in the 19 th century around figures such as Balzac and Stendhal. Similarly, we may consider the possibility that a robust bourgeois-liberal media, the era when it was at least convincing, was the era of investigative reporting of the kind pursued by Bob Woodward and Seymour Hirsh, to take two representative examples. While it is too large a topic for this paper, I would argue that there are clear signs that this period—the period of the bourgeois mediatic hegemony (meaning its ability to represent itself as authoritative)—is definitively over. The emergence of a robust, effective, and massive militant media movement as well as the disconnect, even bafflement, of the mainstream media when faced with the social movements are important signs. At the same time and also telling, we can perceive how the liberal-bourgeois media is no longer even able to live up to its own purported virtues, such as “independence,” “integrity,” and “balance.” Upholding these ideals has become actually impossible for liberal advocates in the era of “embeddedness,” and of de facto alignment in all camps. While it is inevitable that many in the liberal bourgeois camp hope for a return to these virtues, the positions are no longer tenable. These terms operated during an era of bourgeois hegemony as reified universals and at that time they already, in spite of their claims to universality, instrumentalized for bourgeois aims: primarily that of preserving the status quo, but also fending off “corruption” dangerous to the bourgeois state. In the collapse of this hegemonic position—at least from the standpoint of intellectual authority if not yet from the standpoint of actual power—the terms have become once and for all impossible to uphold. Now the case of Aljazeera [english.aljazeera.net] is interesting in this regard since the station does—in spite of how it is represented in the US press—successfully operate within the liberal mandate of multi-sidedness and balance. Perhaps it is the last media organ to do so. Indeed a study should be made of the special conditions that allow the emergence of this last and quite convincing blooming of the liberal ideal.


Chris Gilbert
is MATRIX curator at the University of California’s Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive. With Cira Pascual Marquina, he is currently co-curator of the Latin America section of the Gwangju Biennale 2006. A more complete version of “Electricity plus Soviets,” including of a discussion of Korean media activism, will appear in a publication of the Biennale.

Copyright © New Media Caucus. All rights reserved.
[ www.newmediacaucus.org ]