by Brian Holmes
“Information is indeed ‘such stuff as dreams are made on.’ Yet it can be transmitted, recorded, analyzed and measured,” remarked Karl Deutsch in 1963, in his book The Nerves of Government. The Czech-American social scientist was the leading Cold War specialist in “models of political communication and control.” The latter half of the twentieth century saw a world-wide implementation of computerized social programming, aimed first at instilling order and paranoid regularity into the chaos that followed WWII, then increasingly, from the 1960s onward, at evoking febrile dreams from populations whose new mandate was not to labor, but to invent; not to produce, but to consume; not to fear, but to desire. By the late 1990s, after the massification of the Internet had begun in the wake of the integrated world spectacle of the First Gulf War, this condition was well known by at least some of those on the receiving end. Tactical reality hackers such as the Critical Art Ensemble, Arthur and Marielouise Kroker, Luther Blissett, the Yes Men, the Association of Autonomous Astronauts, Marko Peljhan and the Institute of Applied Autonomy arose to infiltrate the global information system and expose its (dys)functions with probes, pranks, parodies and satirical jokes. All of these groups and individuals operated in the tactical space of momentary incursion and instant retreat that had been mapped out by Peter Lamborn Wilson aka Hakim Bey, in his poetic anarchist pamphlet on the Temporary Autonomous Zone. The concerns of this slim volume are different. With his seventy-two keys, Konrad Becker aims to unlock the gates of strategic reality: its construction over centuries, its imposition through stealth and force, its dull and laborious maintenance, and its dissolution and destruction by those who can’t take it anymore.
The subjects treated here range widely, from Affective Images and Conspired Environments to Hyperreal Estate (a high-profile topic during the credit crunch of 2008), Phantom Induction, Reality Maps, Synthetic Fear etc. Impressed by the proliferation of antiquated spectacles and outmoded gadgetry that fills these pages – phantasmagorias, Tiki idols, polygraph devices, punch-card looms, galvanic stimulators, Tibetan tulpas, the “Soirées fantastiques” of Jean Eugènse Robert-Houdin, the videogame Pong, thirteenth-century humanoid automata, the elevation of the Host, steganography, ectoplasmic spirit photography, Muzak and the like – a casual reader might be tempted to compare this lexicon to a great collector’s passion of the preceding decade, namely Bruce Sterling’s “Dead Media Project.” With his usual sardonic humor, the cyberpunk writer sought to compile “a book detailing all the freakish and hideous media mistakes that we should know enough now not to repeat, a book about media that have died on the barbed wire of technological advance, media that didn’t make it, martyred media, dead media.” Closer inspection, however, reveals that Becker’s dictionary is really much more concerned with dead mediums: historical figures from the esoteric annals of cultural intelligence, who themselves “channeled” earlier inventors, spies, organizers or psychic wardens, and whose key concepts obstinately refuse to disappear, since new agents of deceit and domination are always there to pick up the torch and pursue the ancient ideal of reducing the popular mind to putty in the hands of whoever has the money or power to do what they want with it. Each of the seventy-two headings introduces the compact genealogy of an operational concept that continues to haunt us in the present. As it is written in the forty-fifth key: “The cyborg figure of hybrid identity, operating across the domain of flesh and machine, crossing systems of technology and gender, can be read in terms of a phantasmagoric virtual agency, deferring specification of status, form, and identity of the body in networked digital media. The self appears like a ghost, a virtual agent put in place by the mechanism of unconscious processes but having real consequences for the individual’s behavior and experience.”
Two of these haunting figures stand out in particular relief, to my eyes anyway. One is John Dee, the English Renaissance scholar, cartographer, spy and Neo-Platonic occultist who first used the term “British empire” as part of his ceaseless efforts to promote his country’s domination over the still-uncharted seas. As an agent of Queen Elizabeth’s court, he is said to have had the code name 007, which obviously becomes a link to the contemporary military-entertainment complex and more particularly to Walt Disney, the proto-Nazi founder of America’s “magic kingdom.” The other paradigmatic figure is Giordano Bruno, who is accorded “a special place of honor in the science of human manipulation.” A contemporary of Dee but without his high-level patronage, the rebellious Italian monk developed a general science of libidinal bonding far removed from Neo-Platonism, but prefiguring all subsequent research into the instrumentalization of the social tie. As he wrote in De Vinculis in Genere: “There are three gates through which the hunter of souls ventures to bind: vision, hearing, and mind or imagination.” The future nexus of audiovisual media and depth psychology leaps right off the page of the Renaissance incunable, and into the pdf manuals of contemporary PR firms and psychowarriors. Still Becker seems to have special sympathy for Giordano Bruno, undoubtedly because he was the greatest scholar-heretic of his time and was duly burnt at the stake for his troubles.
One might wonder who, in our time, takes the trouble to speak a cryptic truth to the powers that conjure up strategic reality? Becker hails from Old Vienna, where he is warmly loved by only part of the city’s population; and one senses a few unnamed local targets for his slings and arrows. If I may use my own imagination, an excellent candidate in the art world would be the highly active foundation of the Erste Bank, which in recent years has been veritably possessed by a desire to fund, support and generally buy up cultural activities in all the countries lying south and east of Austria, as if investing in the “hyperreal estate” of the former Hapsburg Empire (though one now has to wonder what the credit-crunch will do to its purchasing power of belief). Adopting a slightly wider perspective – nothing less than the entire Northern Hemisphere – one can see the keen interest that any specialist in strategic reality would inevitably bring to the activities of another Vienna-based institution, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which includes the United States, Canada and Russia. Here we have the epitome of “cultural peacekeeping” in a 56-member organization whose operations have expanded dramatically in the wake of Europe’s failure to do anything whatsoever about the Bosnian wars of the mid-1990s. It is not certain that subsequent conflicts in Chechnya, Georgia, Iraq or Afghanistan have benefited from the OSCE’s efforts; but certainly the European Union has been able to go on negotiating its territorial interests and strategic alliances under an appropriate cover. This is also an example of how rarely the key concepts of strategic reality ever disappear, despite the endless transitions and translations that mark the modern experience. For it was long ago and far away from Vienna, in 1950s Cold War America, that the cybernetician and former citizen of the Double Monarchy, Karl Deutsch, invented the operational concept of “security communities.” The idea appears destined to a tremendous future. As a recent crop of experts declare, in nuptial vows befitting the endless honeymoon of the State and the War on Terror: “Many seasoned policymakers and hardened defense officials are marrying security to community in new and unanticipated ways: they identify the existence of common values as the wellspring for close security cooperation, and, conversely, anticipate that security cooperation will deepen these shared values and transnational linkages. Security is becoming a condition and quality of these communities: who is inside, and who is outside, matters most” (Emmanuel Adler and Michael Barnett, Security Communities, 1998). The compass-needles that orient our subjective reality maps in the wake of the Cold War are swinging back, alas, to the frigid north of synthetic fear.
The Strategic Reality Dictionary offers seventy-two keys to the construction, imposition and maintenance of contemporary systems of inclusion and exclusion, which only function for two principle reasons: because of stealth, and because they are able to engineer our own unconscious beliefs. Implicit throughout this book – and clearly stated at critical junctures – is the notion that autonomous cultural agents can devise counter-systems that act to reveal, question and disrupt the fictional communities that continue to bind us in unwanted unions, some four hundred years after the time of Giordano Bruno. I would propose, in conclusion, that these keys are communicational models of phantasmagoric systems, which unlock and display, for brief moments, the operations of the complex machinery that stealthily attempts to recreate our own perceptions, affects and expressions. Yet unlike the other systems which they so expertly mimic and reduplicate, these have the grace of immediately dissolving into thin air, while durably revealing the smoke and mirrors that appeared to give them substance. Could we now hope for a sustained effect of such stratagems, in a period of evident systemic collapse? As it is written in the twentieth key: “Cognitive capitalism, the disease for which it pretends to be the cure, is a transcendental thanatology of egotistic paranoid self-interest that drives a closed self-referential system to defoliate the flowering of life.” And as we read just a few lines later: “Voluptas, Latin for pleasure and bliss, was born from the union of Cupid and Psyche. The Roman equivalent of Hedone, the beautiful daughter of Eros in Greek mythology, stands witness to a critical hedonism at the heart of political relevance.”