Writing as Hacktivism: An Intervening Satire
"My reconcilement to the Yahoo-kind in general might not be so difficult, if they would be content with those vices and follies only which nature hath entitled them to." Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels
As I write this column, the TV is on, and the picture on the screen is a live shot of a clear blue sky with one object in it, a large multi-colored blimp with the words MONSTER.COM written across it. This is an advertisement during a football game that the TV now cuts to. For some reason, this immediately reminds of the opening to Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, where he begins:
A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.
My inclination is to sample and manipulate the Pynchon vocabulary and syntax while applying its rhetorical aura to the new media economy. To exagggerate (an extra g for good measure) the implications of a MONSTER.COM in the sky. To somehow defamiliarize the taken-for-granted context of what I see, for what I now know to be true about Internet capitalism and the dot.com mania that hypes the potential of e-commerce way out of proportion: "It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now."
This inclination to create a hyberbolic version of what I see happening in my time, is not at all unusual. The desire to satirize what is already a self-parody is a desire easily absorbed into the meta-ironic revolutions of everyday life we bring into the new millennium. The poet Ezra Pound, whose own hyperbole was distorted to suit the fascist regime in Italy during World War Two, was known throughout the 20th century for his simple, yet direct, proclamation to all emerging writers of the new world order: "Make it new," was his rallying cry, and so they have, continuously, just like the ad-gurus on Madison Avenue, and that is what we find ourselves buying into like never before.
But what about a sampled manipulation of that Pound dictum into something more disturbing? If we take the more uncertain step of the Russian Formalists and their practice of ostranenie, then perhaps we come up with something different, like: "Make it strange."
Making it strange is a challenge these days, especially given the high resolution strangeness being distributed by the captains of commercial consciousness, the ones with their blimps flying high above the football stadium on January 1, 2000. These strange pictures of blimps in the sky are being broadcast into millions of homes at the turn of the millennium. The problem for the contemporary writer who knows that the concept of the "literary" is now in more jeopardy than ever before, can be summed as follows: how does one make MONSTER.COM even more strange than it already is?
The home page of MONSTER.COM has numerous options, including the normal range of chats, polls, search engines, etc. But to me, the most interesting piece of rhetoric on the home page of this site says:
Explore the possibilities of the world's first auction-styled marketplace for independent professionals.
The phrase "explore the possibilities" is highlighted, and one click takes you to what amounts to an uppity slave market, where employers can hire top talent in real time. You would think that this sort of source material would be ripe for satirical ambush, especially given the nature of the site's domain name. I mean, who ARE the monsters of the new millennium?
But to satirize the real on its own terms means playing in the same environment that it operates in. A funny novel will no longer be enough, especially since most of your readers are spending more and more of their time online, surfing the web. And yet, operating in the Yahoo environment risks turning the writer into a Yahoo themselves. So what's a writer to do?
A new media writer, growing out of the rival tradition in literature, would need to reconfigure herself into a kind of network-provocateur who, among other things, uses satire as a political weapon. Neither a writer who composes biting critiques of new media culture for their next book, nor a glorified html-slinger for a hip, hypertextualized online zine, the new media writer entering the Y2K Twilight Zone needs to break away from the "literary" altogether, using rhetorically-charged language and the network-environment's syntax (protocol?) to create an interventionist art practice that defamiliarizes the Monster's all-too-dehumanizing status quo effects.
One subject that continually presents itself to the new media writer over and over again, is the commodification of people and their money. The spectacle of a MONSTER.COM in the sky is just one example. Another example would be the recent hoopla over the ETOYS vs. ETOY debacle. As many readers already know, the e-commerce giant ETOYS has recently filed suit against the European art site ETOY, forcing the artists to shut down their web site and leading the totalitarian Network Solutions to shut down the forwarded email ETOY depends on for their artistic livelihood. This last move by Network Solutions came after ETOY refused to accept a reported half a million dollars in cash and stock options from ETOYS in exchange for their domain name which is, after all, their identity.
The ETOY art group could be considered Hactivists, that is, activist art-hackers who use the web and other resources to create a kind of interventionist cybertheater (similar to political street theater) that finds its roots in the alternative writing pranks of Artaud, Lautremont, The Living Theater and Situationism, while embracing an Avant-Pop cultural aesthetic flaunted by rock bands like Devo. Other sites produce similar online theater. ETOYS, for example, also filed a restraining order against the Electronic Disturbance Theatre, cutting it off the Web and, meanwhile, changed their own site to resist the kinds of civil disobedience attacks that EDT is capable of generating.
Then there is the RTMARK site that has successfully used its cleverly designed web-satire as a political weapon to intervene in the mainstream corporate world. Their gwbush.com and gatt.org sites point to a new media writing practice that employs many of the principles elaborated on in this column, particularly the surf-sample-manipulate practice of sampling data from the mainstream sites surfed on the web and then manipulating that data to create exagggerated (always the extra g) satirical effects destined to disrupt our conventional viewing/surfing habits. A site like gatt.org and what it implicitly practices does not necessarily "make it new," but it does "make it strange," especially for those unsuspecting souls who inadvertently come upon it.
What is being satirized at both ETOY and RTMARK is the "corporate body" -- the corpo-real -- and what is being celebrated is the artist or hactivist collective as a disembodied "intelligentsia" sabotaging the corpo-world's rampant commercialization of the web (the profits of the material vs. the prophets of the mind). The anonymity of the personnel building these two sites further distorts our idea of what a new media writer is or can be. As is always the case with hyberbolic writing that risks its life AS a practice struggling to survive in a hostile environment, new media artists today must serve up what Raymond Federman, in his classic postmodern novel, Double or Nothing, calls "a real fictitious discourse." In order to survive, this discourse must engage itself in a pseudo-utopian theme park dominated by e-commerce sites in search of eyeballs. Most of these sites are be populated by monstrous figures with fatbrains and hotbots always on the ready to try and seduce you into their trademarked domain.
Immediately, other questions arise: is there a story here? If so, whose story is it and who is writing it?
The "real fictitious discourse" is now a web-in-process, one open to an interevening satire that can, at various times, manifest itself as an RTMARK mutual fund, a FAKESHOP performance art spectacle, the issuing of phony ETOY stock certificates, ersatz emails, or a perfectly well-written press release. For example, here is an excerpt from a recent RTMARK press release after ETOYS publicly announced that it would stop aggressively pursuing its case against ETOY:
As of Dec. 29, ETOYS, the giant online toy company, is still suing ETOY, the most important Internet art group, to prevent ETOY from using etoy.com, a URL that the artists were using long before the toy company came into being. ETOYS has, however, agreed to temporarily "move away" from the lawsuit (without dropping it), according to Wired.
"It's good that ETOYS is now being shamed into lying to the press that its 'intent was never to silence free artistic expression,'" said RTMARK spokesperson Ernest Lucha. "But 'moving away' from the suit now that their shopping season is over, without anything even resembling an apology, let alone compensation to ETOY for their financial and emotional nightmare, is just pathetic and will not fly with a lot of people."
The press release also mentions an online game "whose aim is to lower the ETOYS stock price to $0.00."
In this new media writing scenario, the fictional Ernest Lucha has a very real discourse he is releasing to the press. This discourse, if contextualized properly, can then become its own meme or media virus, taking on the mainstream host in a way that alters the autopoietic environment the web thrives in. For example, the influential Bloomberg.Com financial news site virtually republished the entire RTMARK press release and ETOYS stock price did indeed keep going down. This is not to suggest that the ETOY debacle or the RTMARK assault is solely responsible for ETOYS recent slide in the market, but the information in their press release is skewed in a way that essentially mimics the way corporate press releases are skewed, complete with sound-bite blurbs, website addresses for further information, and self-reflexive advertisements for RTMARK art products (projects). This representation of corporate culture is subtley made strange and, as a result, RTMARK ends up having more of an effect than if they were to write a satirical novel about the out-of-control economic practices of most multi-national corporate monsters.
In other words, this is serious business.
The press release continues, letting its viewers know that "Activists' anti-ETOYS efforts will continue at least until there is substance to ETOYS ' withdrawal," while emphasizing the "online game" whose aim, besides lowering the ETOYS stock price to $0.00 is to get "ETOYS employees to quit the company" while urging ETOYS stockholders to call for ETOYS CEO Toby Lenk's dismissal.
How does Toby Lenk, CEO of ETOYS and target of RTMARK's counter-campaign, become part of this "real fictitious discourse"? As with much political theater, Lenk is cast as a villain, one who must be gotten rid of, so that the free-wheeling artists who never picked a fight in the first place, can carry on with the business of making corporate culture strange.
This "business of making corporate culture strange" is a particularly difficult task these days, considering that the corporate culture is already strange, in a totally humorless sort of way, and the attempt to satirize it is perhaps more complex than ever before. One wonders what a Swift or Rabelais would have done in this situation. It's one thing to surf-sample-manipulate corporate web sites or corporate "auras," and quite another thing to use your web sites and in-person performances to create an interventionist net art practice that temporarily derails the high-stakes games being played in the world of e-commerce.
And how long will it be before the rabble-rousers are simply bought out via hostile takeover? This brings new meaning to the term "market censorship" and showcases the potential dangers of an e-commerce oligarchy that soon turns everyone, net artists included, into Yahoos ("I had hitherto concealed the secret of my dress, in order to distinguish myself as much as possible from that cursed race of Yahoos; but now I found it in vain to do so any longer," again from Gulliver's Travels).
RTMARK and ETOYS may not be as over-the-top as Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel or the Swift of Gulliver's Travels, but they do set up a model for a network-distributed disturbance theater programmed to turn emerging new media writing practices into more than just a game. (Mark Amerika)