The Metropolis as a Media Object and The Polarized Politics of Asymmetry

nevelsonThe reconfigured terrain of network culture frustrates many traditional modes of social engagement. Political power has both spread and concentrated – spreading as global corporations, international bodies, and private interests bypass the forces of traditional political institutions, and concentrating as information systems employed in government and industry enable the surveillance, registration, and control of populations.[i]

The common form of dissent in digital culture is rather the tactical use of media to signify “the intervention and disruption of a dominant semiotic regime, the temporary creation of a situation in which signs, messages, and narratives are set into play and critical thinking becomes possible.”[ii] Tactical media’s emphasis on symbolic disruption leads to a focus on artistic practices, from persuasive video games made to criticize immigration policy to chat-based interventions in the US Military’s controversial recruiting game America’s Army.[iii] The prevalence of cultural and artistic critique as the preferred style of political engagement should be expected, as it echoes a wider transformation in contemporary power whereby “the dissolution of an autonomous sphere of culture is rather to be imagined in terms of an explosion: a prodigious expansion of culture throughout the social realm, to the point at which everything in our social life – from economic value and state power to practices and to the very structure of the psyche itself – can be said to have become ‘cultural.’”[iv] The literary import of tactical media threatens to obscure potentials singular to media, however, as it focuses on the expression of and not the struggle within the “computational layer” or information itself – a slippage that threatens to ruin tactical media by “confusing tactics and strategy.”[v]

There is a way to cut through this confusion: if the urban space of the Metropolis is theorized as a media object, whereby “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium,” then culture and materiality intersect, which allows analysis to go from signs to signals and from semiotics to physics and back again.[vi] This principle is elegantly demonstrated by Austrian design studio mischer-traxler’s project “The Idea of a Tree,” an autonomous solar-powered production project that transduces the intensity of inconstant natural inputs to mechanically produce one object a day from sunrise to sunset. The product of process is a bench-like object that incorporates the sun conditions of the day by varying thread and glue color and thickness as it is wrapped around a mold to make a three-dimension representation of the day and place of production.[vii] The simultaneous transduction and transcoding of environmental energy into a material object exemplifies that multidimensional objects can be both technically diagrammed and studied according to their cultural expression. Generalizing from “The Idea of a Tree,” then every media object similarly contains both a diagram and an expression that make up its emergent environment.[viii] Media and literary studies have outlined theories for such a multi-dimensional analysis, demonstrating the different operations of speech, writing, and code.[ix] The Metropolis should then be described in similar terms to network culture not only by information, but the vectors of change that result from an abundance of information and an acceleration of informational character.[x] In particular, the Metropolis can be said to utilize information in three distinct ways: as “the relation of signal to noise,” “a measure of the uncertainty or entropy of a system,” and “a nonlinear and nondeterministic relationship between the microscopic and the macroscopic levels of a physical system” – all of which find corollaries in culture.[xi] Bringing together digital telecommunication flows and physical corporeal flows, urban geographers have conceptualized the contemporary process of urbanization through Internet eXchange points and MIDT airline traffic data[xii] It is through a similar combination of digital culture and informatization more generally that strategies common to struggles in the culture, technology, and environment of the Metropolis can be identified, analyzed, and enhanced.

Abstractly, the Metropolis connects through inclusive disjunction, a process that puts otherwise foreign elements into communication with one another and does not require its pieces to operate through a shared logic but unfolds their interiors through exposure.[xiii] Such inclusive disjunction is why many metropolitan spaces expand without what appears to be pre-given patterns or rules, such as The Third Italy or Australia’s Gold Coast.[xiv] Most acutely, escape is faced with the challenge of identifying antagonisms that have been evaporated by the Metropolis through inclusive disjunction.[xv] Within this system of inclusion, difference is not a threat but the means by which contemporary power maintains a hold on the perpetual present where historical time disappears as “contemporary events themselves retreat into a remote and fabulous realm of unverifiable stories, uncheckable statistics, unlikely explanations and untenable reasoning.”[xvi]

Inclusive disjunction gives the Metropolis a categorically different relationship to difference that impacts the representation of change and the function of time, which is used to outmaneuver that difference that might otherwise produce change. The accelerated speed of media increasingly makes networked media, such as the internet, a breeding ground for conspiracy and insinuation, as the sheer volume of participants and incredible speed of information accumulation means that in the time it takes to put one conspiratorial theory to bed, the raw material for many more will have already begun circulating.[xvii] Such a system of power cannot be escaped by simply celebrating the differences that grow out of life in the Metropolis, for inclusive disjunction allows the Metropolis to connect otherwise incommensurate subjects, flows, temporalities, and visibilities without suppressing their differences. In assembling them, the Metropolis does not leave those incommensurate things unperturbed. Rather, things are introduced into the Metropolis through a plane of positivities that unfolds secured elements, exposes them to risk, and eliminates their futurity. Evading the incredibly permissive form of capture, politics can only proceed by way of exclusive disjunction: the forced choice between two options. Such a forced choice is not the enemy of difference, however, as it does not reduce the world to a simple binary – difference flourishes in both incommensurate worlds – the distinction is that the Metropolis uses a dull repetition of difference to maintain a perpetual present while exclusive escape opens the door to a new world of difference where there is no going back. There are already instances of this divergence, as seen in various subcultures of glitch and noise, but they do not politicize incompatibility, which must be done if divergence is to be utilized in a strategy of intensive escape.

As mentioned previously, conflicts in the Metropolis are overdetermined by the aestheticization of power, which gives them an added cultural dimension; yet older forms such as the wide appeal of mass movement or the asymmetric power of guerrilla operations are not overcome but leave residual traces that inform the strategic principles that dominate this new terrain.[xviii] What remains primary in the Metropolis is the process of polarization – the motor of capitalist urban development.[xix] This polarization drives the politics of digital culture, what Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker call the “politics of asymmetry,” which appears when conflict becomes a struggle between opposing networks and their effects.[xx] In these conflicts, each side is opposed, yet they do not meet on equal footing, as they exist through an unequal distribution of forces – “it is not simply that feminism is opposed to patriarchy, but that they are asymmetrically opposed” – a polarization whereby the incommensurability of the two sets of force is not only the source of antagonism but the root of their conflict.[xxi] What makes the Metropolis a significantly different strategic environment, then, is not only this polarized asymmetry but the forces of digital culture and urbanization that would not otherwise be present. The Red Army Faction notes, for instance, that “neither Marx nor Lenin nor Rosa Luxemburg nor Mao had to deal with Bild readers, television viewers, car drivers, the psychological conditioning of young students, high school reforms, advertising, the radio, mail order sales, loan contracts, ‘quality of life,’ etc.”[xxii] As a result, struggles do no emerge in the Metropolis against “an openly fascist” enemy but as a “system in the metropole” that “reproduces itself through an ongoing offensive against the people’s psyche.”[xxiii] Moreover, the cause behind the problems that people face is increasingly non-human – from the algorithms governing Wall Street financial transactions to the Obama Campaign’s voter prediction models, material objects are interpreted like information on the internet: inhuman movements “recorded in a myriad of different locations (log files, server statistics, email boxes)” treated as “the clustering of descriptive information around a specific user” and devoid of a real identity.[xxiv] Once fully rendered within this new strategic environment, escape reappears as a struggle over information theory’s concept of communication: the accurate reproduction of an encoded signal across a media channel (telephony, radio, computing) – which reintroduces basic material questions over the production, transmission, and disruption of power.


[i] Jan van Dijk, The Network Society, Second Edition (London: Sage, 2006), 30-53; Jan van Dijk, “Models of Democracy and Concepts of Communication,” in Digital Democracy, Issues of Theory and Practice, ed. Ken Hacker and Jan van Dijk (London: Sage, 2000), 30-53.

[ii] Rita Raley, Tactical Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 6.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Jameson, Postmodernism, 48.

[v] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press), 45-48; Abraham Guillén, Philosophy of the Urban Guerrilla, trans. Donald C Hodges (New York: Morrow, 1973).

[vi] McLuhan, Understanding Media, 8; Wolfgang Ernst, “Between Real Time and Memory on Demand: Reflections on/of Television” The South Atlantic Quarterly 101, no. 3 (2002): 627-628.

[vii] Raul Pereira Pinto, Teresa Franqueira, Ana Afonso, Rui Mendonça, and Inês Laranjeira, “Bees: New Creative Agents,” Proceedings of the 2011 Conference on Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces (2011).

[viii] Jussi Parikka, “Operative Media Archaeology: Wolfgang Ernst’s Materialist Media Diagrammatics”
Theory Culture Society 28 (2011): 52-74, especially 61-67.

[ix] Friedrich Kittler, “There is No Software,” Ctheory, 1995, http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=74 (accessed October 15, 2013); Espen Aarseth Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge,” Grey Room 18 (2004): 26–51; and N. Katherine Hayles, My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[x] Tiziana Terranova, Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age (London: Pluto Press, 2004); Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)).

[xi] Ibid, 9.

[xii] Devriendt et al, “Conceptualizing Connectivity.”

[xiii] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R Lane (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1983).

[xiv] Manuel DeLanda, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Zone Books, 2000); Patricia Wise, “Australia’s Gold Coast: A City Producing Itself,” in Urban Space and Cityscapes: Perspectives from Modern and Contemporary Culture, ed. Christoph Lindner (New York: Routledge, 2006), 95-120.

[xv] In Anti-Oedipus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari arguing that the unconscious is composed of desiring-machines that operate according to three syntheses, one of which is disjunction.

[xvi] Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, trans. Malcolm Imrie (New York: Verso, 1990), 16.

[xvii] Esther Dyson, “End of the Official Story,” Executive Excellence 175 (2000).

[xviii] Jameson, Postmodernism.

[xix] Sassen, Global Cities; John Friedmann, and Goetz Wolff, “World City Formation: An Agenda for Research and Action,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Studies 6, no. 3  (1982): 309-343.

[xx] Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 14.

[xxi] Ibid, 14.

[xxii] Red Army Faction (2009) “The Black September Action in Munich,” in The Red Army Faction: A Documentary History, Volume 1: Projectiles for the People, ed. André Moncourt and J Smith (Oakland: PM Press, 2009), 223.

[xxiii] Ibid, 223.

[xxiv] Alexander R. Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 69.

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