Tuesday, November 3, 2009
RENEGADE ACADEMIA: THE Cybernetic Culture Research Unit
director’s cut of unpublished feature for Lingua Franca, 1999; short remix appeared in Springerin, 2000 – by Simon Reynolds
Since my knowledge of CCRU stems from its disorientating textual output–the journal Abstract Culture–plus a few wilfully opaque email communiques, I’ve scant idea what I’ll encounter after pressing the button marked ‘Central Computer’. Inside CCRU’s top-floor HQ above The Body Shop, I find three women and four men in their mid to late twenties, who all look reassuringly normal. The walls, though, are covered with peculiar diagrams and charts that hint at the breadth and bizareness of the unit’s research.
What CCRU are striving to achieve is a kind of nomadic thought that–to use the Deleuzian term– “deterritorializes” itself every which way: theory melded with fiction, philosophy cross-contaminated by natural sciences (neurology, bacteriology, thermodynamics, metallurgy, chaos and complexity theory, connectionism). It’s a project of monstrous ambition. And that’s before you take into account the the most daring deterritorialisation of all–crossing the thin line between reason and unreason. But as they say, later for that.
At the same time, Warwick was ahead of its time in terms of seeking corporate funding, such that by the mid-Eighties Margaret Thatcher could describe it as her favourite university. “Warwick University Inc.” (as E.P. Thompson titled a book) is financially buoyant compared with other British universities, and well prepared for any future withdrawal of government funding that may be up the current Labour administration’s sleeve.
– Sadie Plant + malfunctioning academic (Nick Land)
“CCRU sees itself as the academic equivalent of Kurtz, the general in Apocalypse Now who used unorthodox methods to achieve superior results than the tradition-bound US military.”
According to Benjamin, CCRU was originally set up for Dr Sadie Plant, freshly recruited from Birmingham University to be a Research Fellow attached to Warwick’s Faculty of Social Science. But the unit–organised around her interests in cyber-theory and involving a number of postgraduate students she’d brought over from Birmingham–was initially tied to the Philosophy Department, owing to Plant’s particular interests, like Deleuze & Guattari. The plan was for the unit to become an independent, freestanding entity, with the postgrads registered as CCRU rather than philosophy students. But Dr Plant unexpectedly quit her job March 1997, before the paperwork was completed. The university decided to wind CCRU down, with Plant’s main ally at Warwick, Nick Land, taking over her role as Director for the unit’s final year of official existence.
Birmingham University’s Seventies-Centre For Contemporary Cultural Studies, school of neo-Gramscian subcultural theory: Paul Willis, Dick Hebdige, Stuart Hall, et al.
Warwick was already a cyber-theory hotbed, what with its 1994 and ’95 Virtual Futures conferences.
Sadie Plant and Nick Land had actually been creative-and-sexual partners for a couple of years and remained close.
Guests–theorist Manuel De Landa, journalists Steve Beard and Mark Sinker, SF writer Pat Cadigan, and cyberfeminist Linda Dement, to name just a handful.
By the second year of its existence, tensions emerged between the CCRU-virus and its host, the Philosophy Department. Warwick had expected something closer to traditional notions of cyberculture: Internet studies, basically. But what actually took shape reflected Plant and Land’s interest in hooking up cybernetics in the original Norbert Wiener sense (information flows, dissolving the difference between living and non-living systems) to compatible elements of Deleuze & Guattari (schizo-analysis, machinic desire, the biomechanical continuum of material reality), plus chaos, complexity and connection theory. “Cyber”, as CCRU conceived it, also connoted “cyberpunk”: the theory-fiction goal of academic writing that rivalled the hallucinatory rush you got from Neuromancer and Blade Runner.
CCRU are less diplomatic, railing against “disciplinary templates” that obstruct “real research”. “You’re not allowed to follow these things where they want to go,” says Mark Fisher, a cleancut young man who speaks with an evangelical urgency and agitated hand gestures. “You’re not allowed to find anything out…. Because who would mark it?!”.
CCRU’s Suzanne Livingston, which was challenged by one Philosophy Department member on the grounds–“what’s neurology got to do with capitalism?”.
Cierre y renuncia de Nick Land:
Every couple of years, the staff of university departments make an assessment of the publications the department has produced. Since the kind of work Land and his proteges were producing was not considered philosophy, and therefore not counted in any departmental assessment, Land felt obliged to resign, effective the end of the academic year.
Academia como algo secundario:
While CCRU members continue to finish their PhD’s and teach, they regard these activities as ” lower-order intensity”; the real action takes place at the Leamington HQ. “There’s nothing more unproductive than engaging in this lifelong struggle to get intensity into the academy,” says an exasperated Fisher.
Nick Land is the kind of “vortical machine” (to use a fave CCRU trope) around which swirl all manner of outlandish and possibly apocryphal stories. Didya hear about the phase Nick went through only talking in numbers? Or the time he was taken over by three distinct entities?
The diagram was a gift from “Professor Barker”. Inspired by Professor Challenger–the Conan-Doyle anti-hero reinvented by Deleuze & Guattari in “The Geology of Morals” section of A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia–Barker appears to be a sort of imaginary mentor who hips the CCRU to various cosmic secrets. “But we’d be a bit reluctant to say ‘imaginary’ now, wouldn’t we?,” cautions Land with a mischievous glint in his eye. “We’ve learned as much–well, vastly more from Professor Barker –than supposedly ‘real’ pedagogues!”. As CCRU’s “avatar”, Barker has revealed the “Geo-Cosmic Theory of Trauma”. Following the materialist lead of Deleuze & Guattari, human culture is analysed as just another set of strata on a geocosmic continuum. From the chemistry of metals to the non-linear dynamics of the ocean, from the cycles of capitalism to the hyper-syncopated breakbeat rhythms of jungle, the cosmos is an “unfolding traumascape” governed by self-similar patterns and fundamental processes that recur on every scale.
Gothic Materialism, ferro-vampiric” cultural activity,
Anna Greenspan, O[rphan] D[frift>] (theory-fiction collective==Maggie Roberts and Ranu Mukherjee),
B-w-O is the Deleuzian utopia, an inchoate flux of deterritorialised energy
Land y la física:
“Before CCRU started at Warwick, Nick latched onto us very intensively for a while,” says Roberts. “We fed him image experience, tactile readings of the stuff he was buried in theoretically. He wanted his writing to kick in a much more experiential way. For us, there was something wonderful about having a man you could ring up and ask: ‘what’s radiation?’, ‘what’s a black hole?'”.
“It was pretty obvious that a theoretically Left-leaning critique could be maintained quite happily but it wasn’t ever going to get anywhere,” says Plant. “If there was going to be scope for any kind of….not ‘resistance’, but any kind of discrepancy in the global consensus, then it was going to have to come from somewhere else.” That elsewhere was certain passages in A Thousand Plateaus where Deleuze & Guattari suggest that, in Plant’s words, “you don’t try and slow things down, you encourage them to go fast as possible. Which was interestingly connected to Marx’s ideas about capitalism sweeping away the past. So we got into this stance of ‘oh well, let it sweep away! Maybe it should sweep away faster’.” Other crucial influences were neo-Deleuzian theorist Manuel De Landa’s idea of “capitalism as the system of antimarkets”, and, says Plant, historian-of-everyday-life Fernand Braudel’s conception of capitalism as “an amalgam of would-be free market forces and state/corporate/centralised control functions. So there isn’t really any such thing called ‘capitalism’, it’s just a coincidence of those two really extreme and opposed tendencies.”
Plant and the CCRU enthuse about bottom-up, grass-roots, self-organising activity: street markets, “the frontier zones of capitalism”, what De Landa calls “meshwork”, as opposed to corporate, top-down capitalism. It all sounds quite jovial, the way they describe it now–a bustling bazaar culture of trade and “cutting deals”. But “Cyberpositive” actually reads like a nihilistic paean to the “cyberpathology of markets”, celebrating capitalism as “a viral contagion” and declaring “everything cyberpositive is an enemy of mankind”. In Nick Land solo essays like “Machinic Desire” and “Meltdown”, the tone of morbid glee is intensified to an apocalyptic pitch. There seems to be a perverse and literally anti-humanist identification with the “dark will” of capital and technology, as it “rips up political cultures, deletes traditions, dissolves subjectivities”. In “Meltdown”, Land declares: “Man is something for it to overcome: a problem, drag”.
This gloating delight in capital’s deterritorialising virulence is the CCRU’s reaction to the stuffy complacency of Left-wing academic thought; a sort of rubbing salt in the wounds (as when Land jibes at the “senile spectre” of Socialism, an allusion to The Communist Manifesto). “There’s definitely a strong alliance in the academy between anti-market ideas and completely schleroticised, institutionalised thought,” says Mark Fisher. “Marx has been outdated by cybernetic theory. It’s obvious that capitalism isn’t going to be brought down by its contradictions. Nothing ever died of contradictions!”. Exulting in capitalism’s permanent “crisis mode”, CCRU believe in the strategic application of pressure to accelerate the tendencies towards chaos. The real struggle, says Fisher in fluent Deleuzian, is within capitalism and between “homogenisation processes and nomadic distribution.“.
Capitalismo como ‘invasión desde el futuro’ + cultura de la dependencia:
What feels from any everyday human perspective like catastrophic change is really anastrophe: not the past coming apart, but “the future coming together”. Where Land gives this idea a millenial spin (he’s described capitalism as “an invasion from the future”, a virus retrochronically triggered by some kind of artificial intelligence to create the conditions for its own assembling–an idea that reads like it was spawned by watching Terminator on acid), Plant’s attitude is more humanely ambivalent. In the mid-Eighties, for instance, she supported the Coal Miner’s strike, a revolt against Thatcherite modernising policies and an attempt to preserve a traditional working class culture. Since then, she has come to believe that the privatisation and anti-welfare policies pursued by the Conservative goverment in the 1980s really did constitute “a revolution”. She talks approvingly of the end of “the dependency culture”, arguing that this helped catalyse the Nineties upsurge of British pop culture, fashion and art.
“All these excitingly eroticised ideas about the flows of capital absolve one from morality,” she says. “Most of capitalism’s flows are deeply pernicious.” The trouble with inevitablism is that it removes human agency from the picture, complains Williamson. “But human will is not nothing — there have been these huge acts of courage and altruism throughout history.” As neo-Deleuzians devoutly committed to impersonality, agency is precisely what Plant and the CCRU demote. “Nothing takes the credit–or the blame–for either the runaway tendencies at work or the attempts to regulate them,” argues Plant in Zeros + Ones. “Political struggles and ideologies have not been incidental to these shifts, but cultures and the changes they undergo are far too complex to be attributed to attempts to make them happen or hold them back”.
Recalling a famous spat in the bar of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, she recalls finding it “spooky that Nick Land and all these people spoke as one. You could not get 20 of my postgrad students in a room and have them agree with me. I find that scary–that messianic quality, like they’ve got the message”…A lot of what they say reminds me of tripping experiences, where you have that feeling that everything coheres and makes sense.”
Metáfora, desconstrucción, escalas:
Another Williamson accusation–that CCRU lift ideas from chaos and complexity that describe material process but “apply them in a metaphorical way… as if using a concrete thing for a metaphor makes it not be a metaphor”–would especiallly infuriate CCRU. Metaphor, figurative language, the whole realm of representation and ideology: these are the enemy, as far as CCRU are concerned. “Our analysis is materialist, rather than ideological,” says Goodman, “Whether the scale is geological, oceanic, socio-cultural, there are parallels going on at every scale”. Despite drawing a lot from post-structuralism’s assault upon the sovereign ego, CCRU detest deconstruction, precisely because of its treatment of the text as a cosmology and everything as metaphor. “The only thing that’s powerful about books–their ability to plug into other machines outside themselves– is completely destroyed by treating them as this macro-interiority that spreads over everything,” spits Fisher, co-author of the hilarious and coruscating Abstract Culture rant “Pomophobia”.
The idea, says Fisher, comes from a mix-and-blend of Lyotard and Blade Runner–“the proletariat as this synthetic class, of a revolution that’s on the side of the synthetic and artificial. The concept of ‘alienation’ depends on the notion that there’s some authentic essence lost through the development of capitalism. But according to Barker’s Geo-Cosmic theory of trauma, everything’s already synthetic.” If reality really is a bio-mechanical continuum, there’s no reason to resist capitalism’s escalating dynamic of anti-naturalism: addiction to hyper-stimulus, the creation of artificial desires.
Música, negocios, drogas:
Not only do the CCRU derive a lot of their energy from music–specifically, the British rave genre of jungle a/k/a drum & bass–but popular culture is where their ideas seem most persuasive. Right from its late Eighties beginnings, rave culture’s motor has been anarcho-capitalist and entrepreneurial: from promoters throwing illegal parties in warehouses and fields, to drug dealing. Even after its co-optation by the record and clubbing industries, rave music’s cutting edge comes from the grass-roots: small labels, cottage-industry producers with home studios, specialist record stores, pirate radio. // Sadie Plant attributes these bottom-up economic networks to the end of dependency culture, forcing people “to get real and find some ways of surviving” but also to invent “new forms of collectivity” (the micro-utopian communality of the rave).
Despite being rave theorists and “sub-bass materialists”, CCRU are surprisingly cagey when the topic of drugs is introduced. Acknowledging the cyborgizing, viral usefulness of drugs–as anorganic elements that enter the nervous system and engineer precise changes in consciousness–Land nonetheless resists the “relapse into a biographical narrative”. Anna Greenspan talks of the negative “crash-and-burn” syndrome caused by drug abuse, and says the CCRU are more interested in building sustained plateaus of intensity. One outcrop of this is Suzanne Livingston’s research into “long term rewiring of perception”–techniques of flash and flicker that restructure the brain, as already used by advertising, MTV, and rave promoters (lights, lazers and strobes).
Pensador vs. Ingeniero conceptual:
Eshun describes himself and the CCRU as “concept-engineers”, as opposed to thinkers. Critique, he argues, is a rhetorical mode that puts the heavy burden of History on your shoulders, whereas the concept-engineer is into speculation. “Most theory contextualises, historicizes and cautions; the concept-engineer uses theory to excite and ignite,” Eshun proclaims. Where “thinker” evokes an effete and impotent ivory-tower detachment, “engineer” suggests someone who gets down-and-dirty with the material word (in Deleuzian terms, someone who operates and maintains desiring machines). Like a DJ or jungle producer, the concept-engineer is “a sample-finder“: s/he’s free to suspend belief in the ultimate truth-value of a theory and simply use the bits that work, in the spirit of Deleuze & Guattari’s offering up of A Thousand Plateaus as tool-kit rather than gospel.
“Concept-engineer” is a good tag for the outerzone of “independent researchers” and amateur autodidacts to which CCRU is connected. Renegade theorists like Howard Slater, a Deleuze-freak whose techno-zine Break/Flow brilliantly analyses rave music in terms of “nonconceptual thought” and “impulsional exchanges”, and celebrates the techno underground as a rhizomatic, insubordinate, post-media economy. And like Matthew Fuller, a media theorist/activist with a background in anarchist politics and links to the hacker underground. Fuller’s CV of cultural dissidence includes flypostering, pirate radio, a non-Internet bulletin board called Fast Breeder, the scabrous freesheet Underground, and a series of anarcho-seminars like “Seizing The Media” dedicated to the theory and praxis of media terrorism. Fuller also put out the anthology Unnatural: Techno-Theory For A Contaminated Culture, which included Plant/Land’s “Cyberpositive” and an essay by CCRU member Steve Metcalf.
Weary of such sports, Plant, Land and CCRU have all enthusiastically embraced the idea of escaping “institutional lockdown” by going freelance. In addition to her drugs book, Plant is working on a film screenplay and says she can’t imagine ever returning to academia. The CCRU hope to become a kind of independent think-tank, selling “commodities” on the intellectual free market–like their strikingly designed Abstact Culture (each “swarm” consists of five separate monographs bundled together) and, in the future, CD’s, CD-ROM’s and books. “The whole saga of the first phase of the CCRU was to do with negotiating bureaucratic space,” says Fisher. “But we quickly realised that the institution didn’t depend on university space itself , but on the collectivity.”