In an age of surveillance capitalism is it no longer viable to put hope in the creative possibilities Walter Benjamin believed were opened to humanity through technological advances in media? –Or can a new poetics of infrastructure disrupt the sinister operations of corporate power? Ravi Sundaram surveys the will in the media.
The affordances of digital infrastructures have been widely mobilized by right wing populist movements worldwide today. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro ran his successful election campaign almost entirely on WhatsApp, ignoring mainstream media infrastructures. In the Philippines, President Duterte has been using a vast network of internet influencers to circulate his aggressive slogans. The Narendra Modi regime in India combines a vast WhatsApp network along with near-total control over mainstream media to circulate Hindu nationalist campaigns. Jair Bolsonaro regularly uses homophobic, sexist language against his opponents, racial taunts and direct threats. Combinations of incitement, Islamophobia, and violence routinely emerge in the speeches of right-wing Indian MPs, ministers, and smaller vigilante groups. Like Trump and Duterte’s routine references to fake news forwards by troll networks, Indian ruling party members engage in similar acts.
The sensory infrastructure of the contemporary is built around a distinct media condition. ‘Media’ now suggests a larger ontological condition rather than the medium-specific systems of television or radio. This generalisation of the media creates new combinations of aesthetics and politics, albeit with radical departures. Digital infrastructures today offer a platform for the articulation of this new politics. The design of the new information economy after 2005 provided techniques for the manipulation of political messaging and the targeting of unsuspecting users on platforms like Facebook with fake information. Personalisation is integral to the economy of experience on the Web since 2005, transforming the way information is gathered and shared. Three elements are integrated in personalisation: the search, user-generated media, and a model of surveillance that is the new normal. The dynamic production of networked agglomerations is central to digital infrastructure, something new populist networks are increasingly mobilising. Manipulation of sentiment, once associated with the persuasion economy of advertising are now managed by internet giants through complex algorithms – which have become increasingly opaque, and hidden from public view. The Harvard academic Shoshana Zuboff has called this system ‘surveillance capitalism,’ where the extraction of value from human experience becomes the main driver of the system (2019).
This shift suggests a radical departure from the early twentieth century utopian hopes in media technologies, articulated by the historical avant-garde and writers associated with them. Walter Benjamin’s “Artwork” essay widely hailed media, notably cinema. In Benjamin’s well-known argument, mechanical reproduction destroyed the aura around artworks, and media emerged as a democratic engine of circulation ‘optical unconscious’ where techniques of film montage fragment as a radical disorienting tool. The optical unconscious suggested a two-way encounter with technology. The late Miriam Hansen wrote about Benjamin’s “gamble” with technology, where utopian possibilities of play and “innervation” were released by new technologies through “mixing”, thus exceeding its original capitalist purpose. Before Benjamin, media was seen as playing a central role in the formation of liberal citizenship. Gabriel Tarde had suggested that the rise of print offered a way out from the dangerous proximity of street crowds, a form of ‘contagion without contact.’ Thus for Tarde, the imitative connections afforded by print contrasted with the dangerous proximity of crowds. For Tarde, print publics offered the possibility of rational discussion and deliberation – all hallmarks of the Enlightenment individual. We now know that Benjamin’s “gamble” with technology was buried by Auschwitz; post war populations were tamed by mass television and Fordist capitalism. Guy Debord’s classic polemic The Society of the Spectacle, laid bare the edifice of the post-war boom. In 1985, Jean Baudrillard published his landmark essay, ‘The Masses: The implosion of the Social in the Media.’ Caught in the vortex of permanent (informational) participation, the public was no longer constituted by contingent political speech but absorbed by ‘transparency’.
In this context, the rise of new media in the 1990s was a distinct breakthrough, bypassing both older culture industry models and classic avant-garde debates. New networks of independent collaboration emerged, creatively bypassing corporate networks. Across the South this was a real breakthrough. The notable infrastructural moment was the rise of audio and video cassette culture, which disrupted monopoly regimes of the state and multinational capital. Following the cassette boom of the 1980s, in the post-colonial world, media infrastructures expanded rapidly within the context of a large informal economy (Larkin 2008; Sundaram 2009). Across the South, we saw the endless profusion of personalized media gadgets, from expensive smart- phones to low-cost models used by the poor. This transformation of postcolonial life after 2000 into a dynamic technological culture affected all sections of the population. Video emerged in this period as a larger than life force, shaping informal networks and rearranging existing modes of power. Video moved from VHS players in small neighbourhoods to low-cost phones and players, creating new opportunities for new sections of the population. Notably, video significantly challenged the design of postcolonial governance, which was indexed to a stable arrangement of people and things. After video a dynamic loop emerged: wherein media objects moved in and out of political-aesthetic action and multiple space-times. The video and audio cassette era were defined by pirate practices, producing an aesthetics of poor images(Steyerl,2012), jagged audioscapes, and overinformationalised surfaces. Steyerl wrote of the “countless transfers and reformattings,” that marked pirate aesthetics. As I argued in my own Pirate Modernity, “Replication is not more of the same, but a giant difference engine, experimenting with possible openings in the city and becoming another. Each reproduction – of non-legal economic practices, media objects, software – creates a different form, and so on”(2009,12.) Michael Warner calls our attention to the “fruitful perversity” of all media forms and their potential for overflow – something inherent in any act of publicity.
A corporeal zone
The rise of video as a technological artefact in Asia was based significantly on informal networks and low cost media. The scholar Ina Blom has shown how media technologies are not simply the technical infrastructures of a familiar cultural layer, they effect a transformation in memory. Video must be seen in its capacities to act, and the mode of memory it articulates is based on genuinely creative or indeterminate elements. Video is an actant but an unstable and disjointed one, bringing out as Blom says, a capacity for connection and association across a broad range of phenomena. (2016) This played out quite radically in the post 1995 era in India, if not across Asia. In India, China, and Africa, video’s effects shaped an overimaged, corporeal zone, attracting populations across various social classes. A host of independent cultural producers and artists in the South emerged from this disjunctive moment, yet the effect was worldwide. This moment stood out for me most clearly when I visited Documenta 11 in 2002. Curated by Okwui Enwezor, Documenta 11 is mostly spoken about as a post-colonial moment in art, and a focus on documentary. In retrospect it is clear that Documenta 11 gave expression to a whole new conversation about art and its generative infrastructure. This infrastructure was makeshift and profound, sharply conceptual and innovative, and refreshingly international. Infrastructures are institutional networks as well as affective environments, becoming vehicles of power and resistance at the same time. All infrastructures have a poetics, they can implode and leap suddenly and make possible radical forms of transmission (Larkin, 2013). The wildly innovative infrastructure of Documenta 11 anticipated whole generations of artists and intellectuals who drew from the expanding media infrastructure of the South. This was equally a global moment, not restricted to the geographical South. One of the great interventions in Documenta 11 was “Solid Sea 01: the Ghost Ship” by the research collective Multiplicity. The collective used various data memories from a 1996 tragedy in the Mediterranean, where a South Asian migrant ship sank on the way to Italy. Set up as a powerful video installation in a dark room, Multiplicity used media archaeological techniques to summon memory traces:
Using distinct techniques of observation (from within the context of analysis, using a point of view which allows their comparison), different forms of representation -maps, photographs, videos, narratives- and multiple research formats (interviews, reportages, statistics, shadowings) Solid Sea reveals the identities and trajectories that flow through the Mediterranean(Boeri, 2002).
By recalling past tragedies and making connections, unknown at that time with the tragedies and cruelties of the migrant exodus fifteen years later in the Mediterranean, Multiplicity’s Solid Sea was well beyond its time. If the Solid Sea summoned a media uncanny of migrant mobility, a decade later the Mumbai collective CAMP followed a local ship of sailors from Kutch in Western India across the region. The project video From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf tracked the movement of commodities, local ships, and sailors across the contemporary turbulent geographies of the Indian Ocean: Somalia, Aden, Sharjah, Iran, Pakistan, and Western India. In From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf, the sailors’ mobile phone videos are the poetic everyday archive of the sea. The videos produced by the sailors in From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf summon a video and audio cassette dreamtime: the grainy texture of analog video music was mixed on a low-cost feature phone. The sailors used a particular Nokia phone model with a powerful Bluetooth signal and removable memory cards, useful for sharing videos and music. Despite being produced in the Web 2.0 social media era, the sailor’s media was shared almost entirely off-network through Bluetooth connections.
The radical disjunctions of the decade between Documenta 11 and From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf suggest a period of creative overflow enabled by the video era. Many of the informal networks built in this period in the South risk incorporation by new media industries, yet the situation is more complex. Some of the informal video practices built a decade ago have found their way in diverse circulations: migrant archives of 2016-20, movements in Chile, Hong Kong, India. To be sure, new app interfaces (Whatsapp, Tik Tok, Telegram) manage these circulations, but the use of video as a political-aesthetic tool in the South goes back 20 years. Not unlike Benjamin’s ‘gamble’ with technology, the challenge for political aesthetics in the coming decades is to critically confront the widespread technicity of the world we now inhabit, enabling a new poetics of infrastructure.
Anand, Shaina, and Ashok Sukumaran. From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf. Documentary, History, Music, 2013.
Baudrillard, Jean. ‘The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media’. Translated by Marie Maclean. New Literary History 16, no. 3 (1985): 577–89. https://doi.org/10.2307/468841.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.
Blom, Ina, Trond Lundemo, and Eivind Røssaak, eds. Memory in Motion: Archives, Technology, and the Social. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016.
Boeri, Stefano. ‘Multiplicity: Liquid Europe and Solid Sea’, 13 September 2002. https://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0209/msg00054.html.
Enwezor, Okwui, Documenta, and Ausstellung ‘Documenta 11-Plattform5: Ausstellung’. Documenta II the Short Guide. Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2002.
Hansen, Miriam Bratu. Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno. Vol. 44. University of California Press, 2012.
Larkin, Brian. Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.
———. ‘The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure’. Annual Review of Anthropology 42, no. 1 (2013): 327–43. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-092412-155522.
Steyerl, Hito. The Wretched of the Screen. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012.
Sundaram, Ravi. Pirate Modernity : Delhi’s Media Urbanism. Routledge Studies in Asia’s Transformation. New York: Routledge, 2009.
Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. 1 edition. New York: PublicAffairs, 2019.