Networks, Resistance, and the Enemies of our State

Radars and Fences: an NYU Project

In an otherwise hip and interesting project on control and networks, one claim tripped me up and left me somewhat miffed. The authors imply that the US is networked, therefore has a will to transparency, while backward nations lie mired in uncontested control. I say “imply” because I am extrapolating here. The more specific claim is, I think, even more peculiar – China and Iran are singled out as “authoritarian states” within which there is no contestation of discipline and control ideologies. Here’s a quote:
Radars & Fences: Rationale

.. if in authoritarian states such as China and Iran such
integration of discipline and control needs little justification in
ideological terms (at least on the inside), in the West such a
co-existence is not frictionless ..

On the other hand, it is the very structure of the network society, with its
decentralization of tasks and constant multiplication of electronic eyes
that threatens the opacity of physical and immaterial bunkers. By
looking at the grey areas where control and discipline, transparency and
secrecy, democracy and the state of exception overlap and collide,
Radars and Fences provide a cross-disciplinary and experimental platform
whereby researchers, artists, journalists, and activists can negotiate
new and critical positions.

I’m curious about several aspects of this phrasing. First, the asserted opposition between societies with internal contestation (“friction”) and those supposedly without: clearly an untenable assumption. If there’s anything that the last 50 years of anthropology and cultural studies have taught us, it’s that no society is monolithically anything. There is always contestation – to deny it would be to assume the truth of propagandistic stereotypes such as the faceless grey masses of the USSR which were a staple of US Cold War rhetoric and imagery.

Second, while trying to provide evidence for such a spurious assertion, why chose two states that have been at odds with US foreign policy interventions: China a rising economic “tiger,” targetted for its Human Rights policy at a time when the US was running secret prisons and rendition programs; and Iran, long sterotyped by the US media and more recently threatened with George Bush’s threats of invasion? The authors come across as simplistic parrots of US foreign policy. It is especially jarring reading this after a euphoric election in which we finally are given license to be internationalists again, and it’s finally not embarrassing to have experiences of the world which don’t match right wing stereotypes. In that sense this sketch seems almost Palinesque – the bad people who are our enemies are so grey and dominated by discipline and control, they can’t even contest it. This is all sounding more like Solzhenitsyn than Foucault.

There are a ton of good histories of China and Iran that could offer the authors evidence of their erroneous assumption. Both China and Iran have long histories of peoples’ movements contesting dominating states and imperial ideologies; internal debates among supposedly homogenizing rhetorics, etc. If the authors are too hip to read boring old histories, they could try Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, it comes in easy-to-read comic form and even in an approved-for-US-audiences animated film. Even as a child Satrapi had more of a sense of history than these authors exhibit. And while the US media hailed Satrapi’s book as an unveiling of Iran’s scary past, I read it as evidence of a rich multicultural society of Marjane’s parents (interrupted by deeply contested global and local politics), while the really shocking intolerances were visited upon her by good Christians and cool bohemians during her sojourn in the hip European art schools.

In addition to being upset by the casual xenophobia of the digital cognoscenti, I am also worried about the creeping technological determinism in this manifesto. Because the west is networked, it is believed to offer friction to the forces of domination and control. So, in other words, hook up to the digital domain and you can escape the forces of evil who threaten to control us. In those other societies, their brains arent built like networks, so they can’t do this cool multi-directional non-linear stuff we do, and so they could never dream of contesting the forces of ideological domination.

There is so much new work to be done, but when I read this sort of thing I get tired because first we need to rewrite and re-argue everything already done at least since Edward Said wrote Orientalism.

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2 Responses
  1. Lilly says:

    Wow. Thanks for posting this. It is frighteningly naive, but also pervasive because it reminds me stuff I read in Chris Kelty’s work about the perception that the internet can “heal itself” through its fundamental architecture and “route around damage” (where censorship is damage). Does Wendy Chun talk about this as well?

    Also, “casual xenophobia of the digital cognoscenti” is I think my new favorite phrase.

    To start with resistance in Iran, how about the prominence of Iranian bloggers, which is so obvious as to have a wikipedia entry? And if there wasn’t resistance, why would the government shut down newspapers?
    I guess this protester is an outlier wacko.

    This radars and fences project has a pretty clear structure of ideology/false consciousness revealed by the panoptic, plural network. The panopticon as ensuring good, watchdogged government echoes David Brin’s Transparent Society.

    In terms of rearguing everything since Said, that only works if they’ll listen, but I’m not sure they will since all they need is a convenient foil that makes them sound smart and interesting. Am I so cynical? Can the subaltern speak?

    How did you come across this? What is their project?

  2. zelda says:

    Two further observations:

    To say that “integration of discipline and control needs little justification in ideological terms” by regimes deemed authoritarian is a pretty broad claim. It seems to me that many such regimes have quite elaborate and well-defined justifications (or sets of principles, to speak more neutrally)– unacceptable as those arguments may be in other value systems.

    Also, I was struck by this phrase: “constant multiplication of electronic eyes that threatens the opacity of physical and immaterial bunkers.” It’s a mistake to think in terms of one-way technologies of threat. We are ALL threatened by the multiplication of those eyes of surveillance, bunker dwellers and surface dwellers alike. Plus, weapons and other tools eventually flow, leap, migrate, leak, and drift out of their original niches, and as they do so, the likelihood is high that they’ll change targets in the process. (“Weapons want to be free”?)