Issue 3/2004 - Welt Provinzen

Drifting Through the Grid:

Psychogeography and Imperial Infrastructure

Brian Holmes

Great social movements leave the content of their critical politics behind, in the forms of a new dominion. This was the destiny of the revolt against bureaucratic rationalism in the sixties. The Situationists, with the practice of the dérive and the program of unitary urbanism, aimed to subvert the functionalist grids of modernist city planning. They tried to lose themselves in the urban labyrinth, while calling for the total fusion of artistic and scientific resources in »complete decors« –»another city for another life«, as the radical architect Constant proclaimed. With the worldwide implementation of a digital media architecture – and the early signs of a move toward cinematic buildings – we are now seeing the transformation of the urban framework into total decor (Lev Manovich: »In the longer term every object may become a screen connected to the Net, with the whole of built space becoming a set of display surfaces«. What kind of life can be lived in the media architecture? And how to explain the continuing prestige of Situationist aesthetics, in a period which has changed so dramatically since the early 1960s?
Today, the sensory qualities of the dérive are mimicked by hyperlinked voyages through the datascapes of the World Wide Web. The decades-old imaginaries of the Silver Surfer still permeate our computer-assisted fantasies. Within this commercialized flux, the proponents of »locative media« – like Ben Russel, the developer of, or Marc Tuters, of – propose to add a personalized sense of place, a computerized science of global ambiances, using satellite positioning technology. In this way, the »geograffiti« of GPS waypoint marking seeks to promote a new kind of locational humanism, tailored to the worldwide wanderer. »Know your place« is the ironic HeadMap motto. But what would it really take to lose yourself in the abstract spaces of global circulation?
Not long ago, utopian maps portrayed the Internet as an organic space of interconnected neurons, like the synapses of a planetary mind. Data-sharing and open-source software production have effectively pointed a path to a cooperative economy. But a contemporary mapping project like »Minitasking« depicts the Gnutella network as a seductive arcade, bubbling over with pirated pop tunes and porno clips. The revolutionary aspirations of the Situationist drift are hard to pinpoint on the new cartographies.
In the wake of September 11, the Internet's inventors – DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – conceived a new objective: »Total Information Awareness«, a program to exploit every possible control function that can be grafted onto the new communications technology. Here's where the innovation lies: in »Evidence Extraction and Link Discovery«, »Human ID at a Distance«, »Translingual Information Detection«, etc. Fortunately for American civil liberties, Congress still had the constitutional power to quash this distorted brainchild of a convicted political criminal, the retired admiral John Poindexter. But the Pentagon has clearly caught up to the commercial surveillance packages that took the initiative in the late nineties: workstation monitors, radio tracking badges, telephone service recording, remote vehicle monitoring (advertising blurb: »From the privacy of your own computer, you can now watch a vehicle's path LIVE using the new ProTrak GPS vehicle tracking device«). Military strategist Thomas Barnett has learned the lesson of the freewheeling 1990s, when individual autonomy developed at the speed of high technology: »In my mind, we fight fire with fire«, he says. »If we live in a world increasingly populated by Super-Empowered Individuals, then we field an army of Super-Empowered Individuals.«
In »The Flexible Personality« I tried to show how networked culture emerged as a synthesis of two contradictory elements: a communicative opportunism, bringing labor and leisure together in a dream of disalienation that stretches back to the 1960s; and an underlying architecture of surveillance and control, made possible by the spread of cutting-edge technologies. The contemporary manager expresses the creativity and liberation of a nomadic lifestyle, while at the same time controlling flexible work teams for just-in-time production. The Yes Men have made this figure unforgettable: impersonating the WTO at a textile industry conference in Finland, they unveiled a tailor-made solution for monitoring a remote labor force, what they called the Management Leisure Suit. The glittering lycra garment might have recalled what NY Times pundit Thomas Friedman once called the »golden straitjacket«, forcing national governments into the adoption of a neoliberal policy mix; but the yard-long, hip-mounted phallus with its inset viewing screen is just a little too enthusiastic for private-sector discipline! Transmitting pleasurable sensations when everything is going well on the production floor, it allows the modern manager to survey distant employees while relaxing on a tropical beach. The conclusion of the whole charade is that with today's technology, democracy is guaranteed by Darwinian principles: there's no reason for a reasonable businessman to own a slave in an expensive country like Finland, when you can have a free employee for much less, in whatever country you chose.
What happens when the freedmen revolt? Today all eyes are on the soldier. Thomas Barnett has drawn up a new world map for the Pentagon: it divides the »functioning core« of globalization, »thick with network connectivity,« from the »non-integrating gap« of the equatorial regions, »plagued by politically repressive regimes«. The gap is where the majority of American military interventions have taken place since the end of the Cold War. It's also where a great deal of the world's oil reserves are located. And it's mainly inhabited by indigenous peoples (in Latin America) or by Muslims (in North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, Indonesia). Barnett's solution: »Shrink the gap«. Integrate those people, by force if necessary.
Jordan Crandall seems to grapple with this question of integration in one of his installations, »Heat Seeking«. The piece is full of menacing violence; but one scene shows a passive, unconscious woman being fed, apparently under the influence of a radio transmission. This disturbing image gets under the skin of the new media architecture, exploring its relations to psychic intimacy. What kind of subjectivity emerges from exposure to the contemporary networks?
I think we should conceive the worldwide communications technologies as Imperial infrastructure. These are systems with strictly military origins, but which have been rapidly liberalized, so that broad sectors of civil society are integrated into the basic architecture. Everything depends on the liberalization. The strong argument of Empire was to show that democratic legitimacy is necessary for the spread of a reticular governance, whose inseparably military and economic power cannot simply be equated with its point of origin in the United States. Imperial dimension is gained when infrastructures become accessible to a new category of world citizens. The effect of legitimacy goes along with integration to the »thick connectivity« of which Barnett speaks.
What happens, for example, when a private individual buys a GPS device, made by any of dozens of manufacturers? You're connecting to the results of a rocket-launch campaign which has put a constellation of 24 satellites into orbit, at least four of which are constantly in your line-of-sight, broadcasting the radio signals that will allow your device to calculate its position. The satellites themselves are fine-tuned by US Air Force monitor stations installed on islands across the earth, on either side of the equator. Since Clinton lifted the encryption of GPS signals in the year 2000, the infrastructure has functioned as a global public service: its extraordinary precision (down to the centimeter with various correction systems) is now open to any user, except in those cases where unencrypted access is selectively denied (as in Iraq during the last war). With fixed data from the World Geodetic System – a planetary mapping program initiated by the US Department of Defense in 1984 – you can locate your own nomadic trajectory on a three-dimensional Cartesian grid, anytime and anywhere on Earth (Defense department dogma: »Modern maps, navigation systems and geodetic applications require a single accessible, global, 3-dimensional reference frame. It is important for global operations and interoperability that DoD systems implement and operate as much as possible on WGS 84«).
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this satellite infrastructure is that in order for one's location to be pinpointed, the clock in each personal receiver has to be exactly synchronized with the atomic clocks in orbit. So you have an integration to Imperial time. The computer-coded radio waves interpellate you in the sense of Althusser, they hail you with an electromagnetic »hey you!« When you use the locating device you respond to the call: you are interpellated into Imperial ideology. The message is that integration equals security, as exemplified in the advertising for the Digital Angel, a personal locative device pitched to medical surveillance and senior care. It's a logical development for anyone who takes seriously the concept of the »surgical strike«: give yourself over to the care of the machines, target yourself for safety.
In light of all this, one can wonder about the limits of the concept of conversion, developed extensively by Marko Peljhan in quite brilliant projects for the civilian reappropriation of military technology. Can we still make any distinction between a planetary civil society articulated by global infrastructure, and the military perspective that Crandall calls »armed vision«? The urgency is social subversion, psychic deconditioning, an aesthetics of dissident experience. Most of the alternative projects or artworks using the GPS system are premised on the idea that it permits an inscription of the individual, a geodetic tracery of individual difference. The most beautiful example to date is Esther Polak's »RealTime« project, where GPS-equipped pedestrians gradually sketch out the city plan of Amsterdam, as a record of their everyday itineraries. But the work is a fragile gesture, fraught with ambiguity: the individual's wavering life-line appears at once as testimony of human singularity in time, and proof of infallible performance by the satellite mapping system.
All too often in contemporary society, aesthetics is politics as decor. Which is why the Situationists themselves soon abandoned Constant's elaborate representations of unitary urbanism. »Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence«, wrote Althusser. It's what makes you walk the line, to use his image. Has the ideology of our time not become an erratic, wavering pattern of crisscrossing footsteps, traced in secure metric points on an abstract field? The aesthetic form of the dérive is everywhere. But so is the hyper-rationalist grid of Imperial infrastructure. And the questions of social subversion and psychic deconditioning are wide open, unanswered, seemingly lost to our minds, in an era when civil society has been integrated to the military architecture of digital media.

An initial version of this text was presented at the RIXC »Media Architecture« conference in Riga, May 16-17, 2003.



-Constant, »Another City for Another Life«:
-Lev Manovich:
-»Utopian maps...«:
-Total Information Awareness:
-The Yes Men, »Management Leisure Suit«: (click first link at the top)
-Thomas Barnett:; also see the book, The Pentagon's New Map (Putnam, 2004)
-»The Flexible Personality«:
-»Heat Seeking«: (Stills: colonia.01)
-World Geodetic System:
-Marko Peljhan:
-Esther Polak and Den Waag, »Amsterdam RealTime«:
-Louis Althusser: Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), p. 119; pirate version of the paper on »Ideological State Apparatuses«: