Fillip 17 — Fall 2012

Open Call Art, Democracy, and the Culture of Consensus
David Geers

Consensus: (noun) general or widespread agreement (esp. in the phrase consensus of opinion). [from Latin, from consentīre to feel together, agree]1

Imagine a typical day of online activity. You may, for instance, communicate with strangers and friends; share media via a number of sites and platforms; conduct research on Wikipedia (and, if ambitious enough, add to an entry); read articles and comment on them; shop for products that (once customized to personal tastes) arrive at your doorstep just a few days later; or play video games with others miles away. The same interactivity that contours this consumer information experience increasingly governs relations in the field of culture and knowledge production as well. More and more, we are asked for our input and our vote, whether in a collaboratively produced encyclopedic database (such as Wikipedia), in our shopping practices, or in electoral entertainment programs such as American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.

While much of this communication has had transformative social and cultural effects, it is more convenient than intrinsically good. For instance, with the unavoidable advent of “truthiness” in mass-circulated news channels, Internet buzz, and online commentary, we enter an epistemological space where information is evaluated less through critical analysis than by ritualized circulation, repetition, and consensus. Increasingly, we submit to the rule of the aggregate, to a faceless mass of “likes,” ratings, comments, and silent approval that involves us without directly involving us and represents us without ever actually touching us. Are we constructing, however passively, a culture of consensus—a culture predicated on interactivity that promotes an atmosphere of democracy while it, in fact, subdues us with the illusion of choice and collective agreement? How does this interactive society manifest in politics, nascent social movements, popular culture, and art? From Occupy Wall Street to open-source technology to museum exhibitions, there is a call for direct participation that is transforming our expectations as stakeholders and spectators, citizens and consumers. Yet, while new technological developments (online platforms, social media, etc.) open things up culturally and politically, cross-stitching the public and private spheres as never before, they also usher in a narrowing of politics and culture through isolationism, groupthink, and the re-inscription of class affinity and social segregation. These are the two faces of interactivity that I would like to explore: the open network and the gated community.

The Social and the Network

For those of us involved in new movements facilitated by social media like Occupy Wall Street (OWS), their rhizomatic social formations, swarming and recombining constituencies, and efforts at horizontality offer a liberating immersion into a progressively organized collectivity. With its promise of direct democracy, non-hierarchical participation, and innumerable access points into a hive-like community, it is difficult not to see in the Occupy movement a social and physical embodiment of the Internet itself. Indeed, some protesters and commentators have referred to OWS as an “open source” movement, citing its “wiki” mentality and its complete openness to outside contributions and problem solving. At least superficially, it has also been associated with the hacker/online-activist group Anonymous, whose smiling Guy Fawkes mask has become one of the most recognized faces of the movement. But can the social and the network be mapped onto each other?2 How can we articulate the continuum between direct and online political engagement? Furthermore, how does one coalesce into the other, and what channels does it use to take form?

Consider these questions in light of Michel de Certeau’s conceptualization of everyday practices that reroute, reuse, détourne, and, in short, “occupy” imposed structures, spaces, and established social scripts. In his 1980 book The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau articulates these tactics as invisible, aleatory forces that infiltrate and alter an imposed, static, and totalitarian architecture. As if writing about the Internet and new social formations like OWS, de Certeau contrasts these invisible practices to the mapped and visible strategies of the dominant social and political order that serve as their counterpart: Although they use as their material the vocabularies of established languages (those of television, newspapers, the supermarket or city planning), although they remain within the framework of prescribed syntaxes (the temporal modes of schedules, paradigmatic organizations of places, etc.), these “traverses” remain heterogeneous to the system they infiltrate and in which they sketch out the guileful ruses of different interests and desires. They circulate, come and go, overflow and drift over an imposed terrain, like the snowy waves of the sea slipping in among the rocks and defiles of an established order.3

While de Certeau located these swarm-like everyday practices in language, cooking, reading, or walking, he could not have anticipated that the most commonplace daily practice today would involve some version of online activity. Drawing on this analogy, media theorist Lev Manovich points out that unlike de Certeau’s invisible tactics, our everyday online practice is in fact often highly visible and narcissistic.4 We share information and online content, often reusing and remixing the products of consumer culture on many of the platforms that profit—via advertising—from such display. Moreover, companies, such as video game manufacturers, often eagerly supply consumers with the tools to remix, adapt, and customize their technologies, understanding that this inspires greater investment of time and energy in the product in the form of customizable features such as maps and characters. Tactics in this sense have become indistinguishable from strategies and those imposed have become intertwined with those adapted.5 Additionally, both are now raised to a point of transparent visibility where one advertises and promotes the other; supply seamlessly merges with demand.

While this exchange between producer and consumer alters traditional top-down marketing, it also hermetically seals the consumer in an insidious circuit where desire is continuously placated and fanned through potentially endless customization. From build-your-own sneakers to app-fuelled tablets, customized consumption generates its own silent consent as it contours the highly adaptable product to seamlessly express uniquely personal tastes.6 At the same time, while this merger of tactics and strategies in the product sphere and in online marketing closes the circle of consumption, I would nonetheless insist that there remains a kind of immanent invisibility—a hiding in plain sight, a relationship of parts to wholes—that has allowed certain practices, especially insurgent political thinking, to foment within the very spotlight of consumer culture and then to explode in the past year’s revolutionary fervour. Manovich, writing in 2009, already anticipates this possibility in citing the ambiguity of many online gestures—posts, gifts, clips, etc.—that cannot be associated with their explicit content in any straightforward way.7 As an example, Gabriella Coleman traces the emergence of Anonymous from a disorganized group of Internet “trolls” or pranksters on the controversial site 4Chan to an activist force waging campaigns against the Church of Scientology and NATO while in support of the OWS movement.8 Oppositional, “tactical” energies thus incubate within and through the most banal, fragmentary practices and in the most seemingly unrelated forums. These energies travel and live within channels of consumption and political complacency, waiting to be activated in order to coalesce. The image might be that of a swarm or fragments of discourse coded and embedded in so many banal conversations that suddenly combine into directed political consciousness; the same online tools that were devoted to narcissistic self-display become nodes for agitational streaming, unreported news, and political organization.9 How else to explain this global revolution’s sudden eruption? #OccupyWallStreet, a hashtag spread virally around the world, ignited energies that were as visible as they were unacknowledged.10

Furthermore, it is the same commercially motivated tools that now recast the very basic terms of production and consumption, realizing, however unevenly, Walter Benjamin’s model of the author as producer—and this producer as activist. Foreshadowing today’s profusion of bloggers, remixers, and fan culture “pro-ams” (professional-amateurs), Benjamin writes: The determinant factor is the exemplary character of a production that enables it, first, to lead other producers to this production, and secondly to present them with an improved apparatus for their use. And this apparatus is better to the degree that it leads consumers to production, in short that it is capable of making co-workers out of readers or spectators.11

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About the Author

David Geers is a freelance writer based in New York. In addition to writing, he frequently collaborates with artists. Since 2011, he has worked closely with groups affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

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