Who’d have thunk it that I’d be writing on Christmas Eve about Wikileaks!
Thanks to Dougald Hine for his tweet on Bruce Sterling’s essay.
I hate to try to out-finesse a master, but I’m not sure the point of his essay on Wikileaks is that breaking the diplomatic corp’s business as usual is a “bad thing.”
It reminds me of the whole university riots situation – that’s police riots aimed at students, the way all modern riots have been police riots; but that’s not what I want to say about it! The university disturbances over rising fees is on the surface a good cause rebelling against the venal and shortsighted antics of an incompetent elite making hash of things on an ever grander scale. The problem is, the university system – including all the memories you and I might have of the transformative possibilities it exposed us to – is profoundly broken. That’s what unschooling is all about, isn’t it? The Academy is a failed institution without even having to back out to a scale where all of civilization is failed. If people, young and older, get caught up defending what they at least have some inkling that it is broken; instead of letting go, and moving on, to work on something that has potential; then they remain caught in a dualistic duel with authoritarianism that authoritarianism cannot lose.
I think this is the undercurrent in Sterling’s essay too. I don’t think I’m just reading that into it. It’s why I kept on to the end.
The key phrases that pop out are things like him saying that Assange is unlike any “leader.” That this breaks the old ways in a way that was unexpected and that isn’t really defendable against. It’s the whole murkiness and insubstantiality, the inability of anyone to have anything concrete to say about it that isn’t obviously – and even to the most reactionary clod saying it, bull shite and a lie.
When we talk about the need to imagine that things will get worse, that there is a paralyzing futility in holding onto the wish that, “It can’t get any worse!” Then it’s important not to get caught up inadvertently bolstering that kind of outlook.
It’s so easy to go tactical. The bad guys raise fees, or start a war, or maintain an increasingly oppressive oligarchic state hell-bent on ecocidal destruction. So in response we decry their deeds and we protest and we get Kettled for our troubles or marched off to Camp Freedom somewhere.
Engagement has to be chosen not simply taken upon as a reaction. To engage in reaction is to go tactical and to go tactical we leave ourselves defenseless against the ones who have invested everything on their tactical abilities, who have no qualms to “take it to the next level,” they will, and in so doing they will have captured us; if not our bodies, then our attention and our engagement. That is the purpose for the spectacle! It captures our attention and engagement either in our acceptance of its existence and its importance through co-option, or by our reaction against it.
The only thing we have any “control” over is our attention, our engagement. Reagan’s old “vote with your feet” wasn’t far off the mark. It’s vote with your attention.
I’ve been wondering how to bring this up. It’s hard to rain on the parade when the dudgeon’s been raised in a good cause! But wasn’t that how they populated the trenches? Wasn’t that what drove the enlistment either to “Undo Versailles!” or to “Remember Pearl Harbor!”? It kept the lights on to bring the Manhattan project in on time, and on and on.
This isn’t going to be a time for “leaders.” It’s not that the old leaders are wrong so let’s bring in a new crop of charismatic sociopaths to take their place because they’ve “mobilized us!” You know what the mobile meant. No one ever intended it as anything but a brute force to be manipulated. Ideological movements have all been impositions, attempting to use the modern reductivist impulse to bear on how we interact with each other, how we decide what is and what isn’t a society.
It’s time to back off a little I think. The call to do what is hard is not the same as the call to do what will only bring us the traps of futility in exchange for the luxury of feeling “expressed.”
Unless we are completely mistaken we will be living through a series of stumbles and falls. It’s easy to remain reactive and let each one of them throw us and scar our psyches and undermine ability to continue. Boot camp and Outward Bound, its positive counterpart, were attempts to inure their participants to hardship, and allow them to find the strength to proceed when the untoughened psyche would falter and collapse. Dark Mountain as I see it, is an attempt at that kind of endeavor, an Outward Bound for the soul in a time of disaster.
One thought on “Happy Christmas!”
There’s nothing for it – I’m just going to have to write the essay on Wikileaks that I’ve been putting off for weeks. (The trouble is, it also needs to take in Assange’s opposite number – Mark Zuckerberg – not to mention The Daily Telegraph, and certain events during the 1790s and 1910s, on which I need to refresh my memory.)
What came as such a relief reading Sterling’s piece was to find someone else who is thoroughly attuned to the new realities of a networked society, but not interested in being a cheerleader for Assange. I’ve been disturbed by the Manichean simplicity of the responses of many of my regular Twitter buddies.
Like Sterling, a large part of me views this with a detached awareness that history is unfolding, that Wikileaks is a genuinely new kind of historical force (albeit echoing certain mistakes which have been made before), and that we are – to a greater or lesser extent – in a new era as a result. As someone who’s spent years trying to understand how change happens, how history is made, this is fascinating. (Like I said on Twitter the night it broke, “Wikileaks is the most interesting new Non-State Actor since Al Qaeda.”)
There were two lines in particular that made me nod vigorously in Sterling’s piece:
“Discretion is why diplomats do not say transparent things to foreigners. When diplomats tell foreigners what they really think, war results.”
“The chances of [this] ending well are about ten thousand to one.”
I’ll come back to these when I write that essay.
In the mean time, I’d like to add to your thoughts on the protests. I agree that protesting to defend the status quo is no answer to anything – but from those I’ve met who are involved, it’s clear that there are more interesting things going on than this. The resistance to the cuts is opening up richer conversations about reimagining learning. (In the Book Bloc – who make giant book-shaped shields to defend themselves against the police – one friend told me her shield was painted as a copy of ‘Deschooling Society’.)
Just as the intentions of Assange are not that relevant to the change which Wikileaks is making to reality, so the initial cause of a protest may be less important than the tear it makes in the fabric of “how things are”. At the simplest level, large numbers of people coming together and occupying city streets as something other than consumers or producers makes a rip in that fabric. Through it comes the energy and sense of possibility which infects those involved in protests like these. (This should be distinguished from the dead reenactment of protest by “the usual suspects”.) You feel a moment of opportunity, in which the contingency of history is clearer than usual.
Enough for now!
Waes hael! And see you in 2011.