Rene — Wark – Escape from the Dual Empire

Topic(s): Resistance? | Comments Off on Rene — Wark – Escape from the Dual Empire

Finding this text by Ken useful recently, thought that others may feel the same. Retort and others have made an attempt to outline what we may imagine as antagonisms within globalization, within neoliberalism and militarism, within the information/knowledge economy and the lessig version of neoliberalism. This text reminds me of Ken’s basic positions and his attempts to work through those contradictions through his theorization in Hacker’s Manifesto. -rg
Escape from the Dual Empire
McKenzie Wark
001. Every now and then someone invents a move that not only breaks the rules, but reveals those rules for what they are: arbitrary, weightless, incapable of containing the naked play of forces. To hijack jet liners and crash them into buildings is such a move. To hide corporate losses in entities hidden off the balance sheet is such a move. Al Queda and Enron: the terrorist cell and the rogue corporation. Both are players out of bounds, and yet who reveal the presence of a world beyond a boundary. Al Queda and Enron: players beyond the law, who call into being the desire to reinstate the rules of the game of strategic and economic order. Beyond the moral condemnation of fraud and terror, another challenge beckons: accounting for the possibility of play that is indifferent to the rules of the game, and that can threaten, from within or from without, the empire that umpires those rules.
002. Al Queda’s attack on the World Trade Center and Enron’s corporate subversion of world trade are instances of transformative play. When transformative play occurs, “it can overflow and overwhelm the more rigid structure in which it is taking place, generating emergent, unpredictable results.”i Suddenly, as if without warning, a player overturns the Great Game of geopolitics, or the Level Playing Field of the market economy, with a move that transforms the rules of the gamespace. To an empire that seeks security and prosperity by bringing every local and contingent – topical – space within the order of its empire of gamespace, the transformative play is a triple threat. It challenges not just security, not just prosperity, but the very idea of an empire that can make all of space answerable to the rules of the game.
003. Transformative play always begins in the middle. Something happens which breaches or subverts the rules that hold among adversaries. If only for a few moments, the commentators have to present the troubling images while casting about for a story. In transformative play what happens is always contrary to expectation. A new rule has to be created to accommodate its singularity, after it happens. But in the moment when it happens, transformative play can announce the presence of an unstable, ineffable world — a world immune to organization as a game. For an instant, we gape and gasp, confronted with the inexplicable play of particulars.
004. How are we to avoid being stupefied by these transformative moves that appear contrary to what we thought were the natural rules of the game? By being prepared, in the event, not to be fascinated by the video replay of the moment, nor by the post-hoc rationalizations of the commentators, but to look beyond the bounds of the game itself, to look for its topos, for its very space of possibility. Look beyond the instant replay of the twin towers exploding, and beyond the preening of journalists narrating the fall of corrupt corporations. In the moment of transformation, one can see the outline of a topology made of weapons of mass destruction and mass distraction – the military entertainment complex – that create the illusion of a gamespace within which any and every play should unfold along its lines and according to its rules. One can see besides the outline of this military entertainment complex the residue of previous topos, on the ruins of which it has constructed itself. Ruins to which it may in turn be consigned by the same logic of development that brought it into existence.
005. In the beginning there is the topical, the local and contingent spaces, each with their own form. Then comes the topographic, in which the topical is mapped and described, acquiring a textual double that traces its outlines in space and time, and according to which the topical is redrawn and rewritten as a continuous and homogenous plane. The continent opens to its ‘manifest destiny’, and every topical feature that resists inscription as a continuous space is erased and replaced. The topographic emerges as a double empire, in which topical space is made over along the lines of topographic space, which becomes richer and more detailed as more and more of the topical is annexed and filled in. History is a story and geography an image of this topographical empire, in which the boundaries are forever being expanded and redrawn.
006. Between the topical and the topographic there is always a disjuncture. Rumney: “The map is not the territory.”ii The story unfolds at the line between what is charted and what is uncharted. America dwelled in between the autonomy of the topical and the authority of the topographical, always lagging behind. What closed the gap is the emergence of the topological. There is topology when the topical ceases to have autonomy, when the line along which communication flows closes the gap between map and territory. The open frontier is enclosed in a field of calculation. History and geography cease to dwell in the storyspace between the topical and the topographical, always rushing to keep up. History and geography become a gamespace in which the world is enclosed as a continuous field of equivalent and exchangeable values. Where the topical was once bounded within the lines of the topographical, it is now connected along the lines of the topological. The storyspace of outward movement is complete; the gamespace of interior play commences. After the last chapter comes the first level.
007. The transformation of space and time, from topic to topography to topology, is an effect of the development of the lines with which to mark and manage it. At first the line moves objects, subjects and information at the same pace, in the same way. The line forms through the repetition of movement, and the topic emerges as the trace marked on the world by the line. Then the line splits, into one that moves objects and subjects, and another, faster one that moves information, the line of telesthesia, or perception at a distance. Telesthesia allows the speeding up and coordination of the other line, setting the railway timetables by which vast armies may be mobilized. Telesthesia makes possible topographic space, where vast territories are coordinated within the bounds of the line. As telesthesia develops, from telegraph to telephone to television to telecommunications, topographic space deepens and hardens, but always with gaps and exclusions. And then the line changes again. The telegraph is a line that connects, but it is also a code, a line that makes distinctions, chopping information up into digital bits. The digital extends and expands to the whole of telesthesia. This combination of the speed of telesthesia, its perpetual advantage in its war against objects and subjects, with the digital code that divides all information and makes it malleable, is the principle that is extended to the whole of space as topology. Topology is a space and time within which all the possibilities for the organization of other spaces come together. It is where objects are brought together with subjects, and where the categories of object and subject come to exist as real, yet abstract entities. Digital telesthesia produces the topology of gamespace where the topics and topographies ‘on the ground’ are held together by the scorecards and intelligence reports, the pep talks and commentaries that populate telesthesia
008. Topology does not emerge as a rational and transparent space, with a homogenous and continuous time. It emerges as a chaotic space, an event space, a space pulsing with the disrhythmia of play. To the chaos of the topical, America responded by building a topography, in which to dwell. To the chaos of topography, America responded with a topology, which in turn is producing yet more disturbance. Manifest destiny, in which space allegedly belongs to those who make fairest use of it, reveals its sinister side, its latent destiny. Latent destiny appears when the ever-intensifying enclosure of space reveals that disturbance can arise from within this very space of topology, even as a consequence of this topology, rather than merely as a remainder outside the border. When the global positioning satellites make of the whole surface of the world a Monopoly board, or a first-person shooter, then attention shifts to any latent disturbance within this empire of gamespace, rather than being perpetually deflected outside the borders of a topographic storyspace.
009. Transformative play throws the topology of gamespace into relief, revealing it. In the light of the Enron crash, one sees a gamespace in which power operates by traversing territories, marking and valuing them, assigning every opportunity a value and a locus, calculating the potential of any and every interaction, commanding the movements of objects, timing their interactions, and evaluating the results. In the light of September 11, one sees a space in which power operates by gathering intelligence, by intervening in territories, breaching their integrity, assigning every threat a value and a locus, calculating the potential of any and every interaction, commanding the movements of objects, timing their interactions, and evaluating the results. In a world enclosed within the topology of this double gamespace, where every move comes from within, transformative play reveals the aporias between the lines of a rule governed world.
010. The power that is revealed by Enron and Al Queda is in both cases topological. When called upon by digital telesthesia, there are two games every object thus identified may be called upon to play. One is the game of the commodity. In this topology, everything is proximate to everything else, thus multiplying exponentially the possible combinations. The other gamespace is that of strategy. Here proximity is still a value that counts in the game. What matters is the locus of an object relative to the border that encloses it. In the gamespace of commodities, the line makes every object property and all property proximate in an emergent space of the world market. In the gamespace of strategies digital telesthesia aggregates objects as territories in the emerging space of the world battlefield. The commodity gamespace makes all topics tokens in play; the strategy gamespace makes all topographies tokens in play.
011. There is a tension between the two dimensions of topology, between its strategy and commodity gamespaces. Topology does not just develop by extending along the line of the commodity. It also develops by enclosing territories within the line. Topology is a plane upon which both kinds of power develop and both become more concentrated. Topology heightens the significance of both the topical nodes and topographic boundaries that become enclosed within the topographic gamespace. Digital telesthesia affirms both the power of the topical to exceed its topographic bounds and the power of the topographic boundary to project its power over topics it values as resources in the game. But the more the topical and the topographic have recourse to the power of the digital, the more they empower the digital, and the frightening new world of the topological that digital telesthesia calls into being.
012. The United States passed through a period under Clinton in which the topology of the commodity gamespace dominated; and then through a period under Bush Jr in which the topology of the strategy gamespace rules. Both are developments of the same topological forces. In both cases, power resides more and more in control of telesthesia. The conflict between these two developments is less important than the fact that they stem from the same alignment of power – the emergence and enrichment of topology, through which not just the topical but also the topographic appear as standing reserves, as objects cut from the scene and put in play. Harvey: “The only difference between the Clinton years and now is that the mask has come off…”.iii
013. In the United States, the ruling class may no longer even be described as a military industrial complex. Seizing the power of the digital and ruling over the topology it creates is a military entertainment complex. The power of the military entertainment complex resides in the command of intellectual property, which defines information as real property, and intelligence, which defines the properties of the real. It controls the research and development from which new intellectual property arises. Above all it controls the lines of command and promotion by which production and consumption are regulated. It controls the capacities to project the digital across the gamespace.
014. This military entertainment complex was a major backer of Clinton, and got much of what it wanted from his administration, from a liberal trade agenda to strict new intellectual property laws and the deregulation of media and communication industries. Clinton presided over the hollowing out of the Democratic Party for the shell game of topological politics, where it stands for those interests within the military entertainment complex that favor the commodity gamespace, within which it reaps the benefits of its ownership and control of the stocks, flows and lines of information. This faction readily abandons any topographical investment and desires nothing but an abstract topology, from which to extract the most value for the lowest cost.
015. The military entertainment complex has another faction, less interested in a liberal trade agenda, more dependent on a statist economy of military procurement. The mass-produced armed forces of the military industrial complex, built to dominate topographic space, give way to the information war of the topological era. This is the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs, which the Bush Jr administration struggles to impose on the Pentagon. The strategy of overwhelming force gives way to the gamespace of information war – no less deadly, but more reliant on surveillance, remote controlled weapon systems, intelligence management. The project of the military entertainment complex is “to replace the shared fear of nuclear firepower… with the administration of multiple intimate and quotidian terrors.”iv
016. The liberal wing of the military entertainment complex uses the digital to command the resources of the topical. Anything that can be objectified, classified, brought into potential relation with other objects, is what it seizes through its control of digital telesthesia. The statist wing, on the other hand, uses the digital to command the resources of the topographic. Anything that can be treated as a resource, but which remains bounded within topographic borders, it seizes through its control of the digital.
017. What confronts the world now is a dual empire, not a unitary empire. The military-industrial complex of the cold war era has been replaced, not by a juridical empire of global law and trade, but by a new duality, a military-entertainment complex. The two topologies of this empire, its commodity gamespace and strategy gamespace, overlap and contradict one another. Both are driven by the same imperative – the digitalizing of the world. Digital telesthesia is what produces the world as such, as a space of property and strategy, a plane upon which things are identified, evaluated, commanded, as resources for the game. Baudrillard: “”The media promotes the war, the war promotes the media…”v
018. Both empires emanate from the United States, but are not identical to it. They are, if anything, what are tearing the United States apart. The stress of this dual empire upon the fabric of American democracy and society is what prevents it from becoming a ‘normal’ state. Manifest destiny meant the enclosure of an ever expanding realm of topics within the topographic, but also the projection of turbulence as beyond the border. From the Indian Wars to the Cold War, the bad adversary dwelled without and troubled the border. The topological undermines this structure from both sides. Everything is included within a topological gamespace, and yet nothing is. The boundary provides no homeland security. One’s job and livelihood can flee to sweatshops beyond the borders, and yet those borders offer no protection against any force that would deploy the more subtle forms of the movement against it. For those not in the club, one plays more and more with a leaden handicap: the boundaries of the United States can repel no threat and capture no value.
019. The imposition of gamespace on the world channels any and every desire along the lines of the digital, and into the terms of one or other type of game. Every desire, every anxiety, every resistance becomes the catalyst for a move within the game. Even the desire to overthrow the dual empire of the game becomes a transformative move within the game which calls into being yet more refinements in the lines of its topography. The code word for every desire, every anxiety, every resistance that finds itself trapped and channeled within the commodity gamespace or the strategy gamespace is ‘America’. America stands in for the very spaces within which the subject comes to apprehend itself as a player. At the very moment when its former ruling class abandons it as a topographic space, quietly leaving the peoples bound within its borders to their own devices, at the very moment when it ceases to exist as a topographic force, it becomes the name of a topological force that exceeds its bounds and imposes its gamespace both within and without its former borders.
020. Those forces that would oppose not only both aspects of the dual empire of the military entertainment complex but also the transformative play of its more violent or venal adversaries also finds themselves within the topography of the game. The search for a counter strategy to ‘globalization’, if it does not look backwards to the reinstatement of the topographic boundaries of a lost age, looks forward instead to a new topography, in which the topical might hold the power of the digital, rather than being held within its thrall. The challenge is to conceive of a topology not of gamespace but of playtime, a topology in which the rule might emerge from the play, where transformative play is not a cheat, but extends the possible relations between topics of their own accord.
021. One cannot confront a topological power by renouncing the use of the digital, or by claiming to escape the gamespace it creates. There is nothing outside the line. Where the topographic always left some frontier, some margin of the uncharted, the topological encloses all of space. In the topological, politics is a question of using the digital otherwise. It is a question of using digital telesthesia as a trajectory for the creation of an open plane upon which difference is possible on its own terms, rather than as an equivalence based in calculations of strategy or property.
022. The manifest destiny of the United States was to expand from topic to topic, incorporating the topical within a topography that ruled by virtue of its own integrity and efficiency. This very gesture of enclosure ends by enclosing itself, and transforms a topographic space bounded at the frontier into a topological space in which the whole world becomes limned and gridded as a field in which all objects and subjects appear as values in a gamespace. The storyspace of the frontier comes to an end, and the gamespace takes its place. The latent destiny of the United States appears as the hollowing out of its integrity as a space bounded at the frontier, of its enclosure in the very topology it sponsored, as just another sector of the gamespace.
023. Within the topologies of the strategy and commodity gamespace, transformative play emerges as a double threat, producing both the trifler and the cheater. Suits: “Triflers recognize rules but not goals, cheaters recognize goals but not rules.”vi Enron and Al Queda, for all their violation and violence against the rules, desire goals proscribed by one or other gamespace: a strategic jackpot, a commodified coup. The other kind of transformative play might abide by rules, but renounce the goals of gamespace. These still obscure, still minor league ludic crews might play within the game but not against it, seeking the paths by which play can be detached from the gamespace from within.
i Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2003, p305
ii Alan Woods, The Map is Not the Territory, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2000
iii David Harvey, The New Imperialism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993, p22
iv Paul Virilio, Strategy of Deception, Verso, London, 2000, p72
v Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Power Publications, Sydney, 1995, p31
vi Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1980, p47