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What about Communication Guerrilla?

by Luther Blissett & Sonja Brünzels

This message is directed to those who are fed up with repressive politics at their doorsteps, who are not frustrated enough to give up a critical position and a perspective of political intervention, and who also refuse to believe that radical politics need to be straight, mostly boring and always very very serious. It also addresses those who are interested in artistic expression, using all kinds of materials and techniques such as wallpainting, woodcarving or the internet to bend the rules of normality.

It is sent by some provincial communication guerrillas as an invitation to participate, criticise, renew and develop a way of doing politics which expresses the bloody seriousness of reality in a form that doesn't send the more hedonistic parts of ourselves immediately to sleep. Of course, this is a contradiction in itself: How can you be witty in a situation of increasing racism, state-control and decline of the welfare state, to name only a few. On the other hand, even Karl Marx didn't postulate boredom as revolutionary.

The starting point for our reflections around guerrilla communication was a trivial insight from our own politics: information and political education are completely useless if nobody is interested. After years of distributing leaflets and brochures about all kinds of disgraces, of organising informative talks and publishing texts, we have come to question the common radical belief in the strength and glory of information. Does it really make sense to take on the attitude of a primary school-teacher while the kids have become skinheads, slackers or joined the rat race?

Traditional radical politics strongly rely on the persuasive power of the rational argument. The confidence that the simple presentation of information represents an effective form of political action is almost unshakeable. Critical content and the unimpeded spread of 'truth' are supposed to be sufficient to tear up the network of manipulating messages, with which the media influence the consciousness of the masses. Well, since the declaration of Postmodernism it has become a bit involved to insist on The One And Only Truth. But the main problem with traditional concepts of radical political communication is the acceptance of the idea: 'whomsoever possesses the senders can control the thoughts of humans.'

This hypothesis comes from a very simple communication model which only focuses on the 'sender' (in case of mass communication usually centrally and industrially organised), the 'channel' which transports the information, and the 'receiver.' The euphoria around information society as well as its pessimistic opposition - which worries about information overkill - do not face the crucial problem of citizens' representational democracies: facts and information, even if they become commonplace, do not trigger any consequences. Face it, even if stories of disasters, injustice, social and ecological scandals are being published, it has almost no consequences.

Everybody knows that the Ozone belt is fading away. Everybody knows that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer… To us, who believe in Communism, it is hard to understand why such knowledge doesn't lead to revolution and fundamental change - but it definitely doesn't ;-)

Reflections on the interrelations between the reception of information, knowledge and the options to act within a social context have tackled how information becomes meaningful and how it then becomes socially relevant. Information by itself has neither meaning nor consequences - both are created only through the active reception and through the scope of action of the audience. But this basic banality has far too rarely been taken into consideration within the framework of radical politics.

Guerrilla communication doesn't focus on arguments and facts like most leaflets, brochures, slogans or banners. In it's own way, it inhabits a militant political position, it is direct action in the space of social communication. But different from other militant positions (stone meets shop window), it doesn't aim to destroy the codes and signs of power and control, but to distort and disfigure their meanings as a means of counteracting the omnipotent prattling of power. Communication guerrillas do not intend to occupy, interrupt or destroy the dominant channels of communication, but to detourn and subvert the messages transported.

But what's new about all this? After all, there have been the Berlin Dadaists, the Italian Indiani Metropolitani, the Situationists. The roots of Communication Guerrilla can be traced back to legendary characters like the Hapsburgian soldier Svejk and Till Eulenspiegel, the wise fool. Walking in the footsteps of the avantgardes of earlier times, we do not attempt to boast about the invention of a new politics or the foundation of a new movement. Rather, guerrilla communication is an incessant exploration of the jungle of communication processes, of the devoured and unclear paths of senders, codes and recipients. The method of this exploration is to look not just at what's being said, but to focus on how it is being said. The aim is a practical, material critique of the very structures of communication as bases of power and rule.

The bourgeois system takes it's strength - beyond other things - from the ability to include critique. A government needs an opposition, every opinion needs to be balanced with another one, the concept of representative democracy relies on the fiction of equal exchange. Every criticism which doesn't fundamentally shatter the legitimacy of the ruling system, tends to become part of it. Guerilla communication is an attempt to intervene without getting absorbed by the dominant discourse. We are looking for ways to get involved in situations and at the same time to refuse any constructive participation.

Power relations have a tendency to appear normal, even natural and certainly inevitable. They are inscribed into the rules of everyday life. Communication guerrillas want to create those short and shimmering moments of confusion and distortion, moments that tell us that everything could be completely different: a fragmented utopia as a seed of change. Against a symbolic order of western capitalist societies which is built around discourses of rationality and rational conduct, guerrilla communication relies on the powerful possibility of expressing a fundamental critique through the non-verbal, paradoxical, mythical.

To be quite clear: guerrilla communication isn't meant to replace a rational critique of dominant politics and hegemonic culture. It doesn't substitute counter-information, but creates additional possibilities for intervention. But also, it shouldn't be misunderstood as the topping on the cake, a mere addition to the hard work of 'real' politics and direct, material action.

In its search for seeds of subversion, guerrilla communication tries to take up contradictions which are hidden in seemingly normal, everyday situations. It attempts to distort normality by addressing those unspoken desires that are usually silenced by omnipresent rules of conduct, rules that define the socially acceptable modes of behaviour as well as the 'normal' ways of communication and interpretation.

To give just a simple example: Most people will say that it is not okay to dodge paying the fare, even if there is a widespread feeling that public transport is over-expensive. If, however, some communication guerrillas at the occasion of an important public event like the funeral of Lady Di manage to distribute fake announcements announcing that for the purpose of participating, public transport will be free, the possibility of reducing today's expenses may tempt even those who doubt the authenticity of the announcement.

Communication guerrillas attack the power-relations that are inscribed into the social organisation of space and time, into rules and manners, into the order of public conduct and discourse. Everywhere in this 'Cultural Grammar' of a society there are legitimations and naturalisations of economic, political and cultural power and inequality. Communication guerrillas use the knowledge of 'Cultural Grammar' accessible to everybody in order to cause irritations by distorting the rules of normality

It is precisely these kind of irritations that put into question seemingly natural aspects of social life by making the hidden power relations visible and offering the possibility to deconstruct them. Using a term coined by Pierre Bourdieu, one might say that guerrilla communication aims at a temporary expropriation of Cultural Capital, at a disturbance of the symbolic economy of social relations.

Go Internet, experience the Future!

Many communication guerrillas feel strange affection towards living in the backwoods of late capitalist society. In the field of communication, this causes an inclination towards the use and abuse of Outdated Media, such as billboards, printed books and newspapers, face-to-face, messages-in-a-bottle, official announcements, etc. (Even the fabulous Hakim Bey has recently advocated the use of Outdated Media as media of subversion: Hakim Bey, Outdated Media, In: Running Idle, New York 1995?. Unfortunately, there is no German translation yet, while the English original is difficult to get. As reference, we have only an Italian edition: A Ruota Libera, Castelvecchi, Rome 1996.) Thus it is hardly astonishing that communication guerrillas are sceptical towards the many hypes in and around the internet.

Of course, we appreciate ideas like the absolute absence of state control, no-copyright, the free production of ideas and goods, the free flow of information and people across all borders, as they have ben expressed by the Californian net-ideology of freedom-and-adventure: Liberalism leading us directly into hyperspace. But we also know that real neo-liberalism is not exactly like this, but rather: freedom for the markets, control for the rest. It has become obvious that also the internet is no virtual space of freedom beyond state and corporate control. We are afraid that the still existing opportunities of free interchange, the lines of information transmission beyond police control, and the corners of the Net which are governed by potlach economy and not by commercialism, will fade away. The æsthetics of the internet will not be dictated by cyberpunks but by corporate self-presentation with a background of myriads of middle-class wankers exhibiting on corporate-sponsored homepages their home-sweet-homes, their sweet-little-darlings and garden gnomes.

The structures and problems of communication in the Net do not differ fundamentally from those encountered elsewhere, at least not as much as the Net hype wants to make believe. A product of Net thought like Michael Goldhaber's “Economy of Attention” starts out from a quite trivial point: The potential recipients are free to filter and discard messages. (They may do even much more with them!). And they do this not mainly according to content, but using criteria which may be conceived in terms of Cultural Grammar and Cultural Capital. This is completely evident to anybody (except SWP militants) who has ever distributed leaflets to people in the street, though media hacks seem to have discovered this fact only since the Net offers everybody the possibility to widely distribute all kinds of information. In simple words: the basic problems of communication are just the same on both sides of the electronic frontier.

Focusing on the influence of the social and cultural settings on the communication process, communication guerrillas are sceptical towards versions of Net politics and Net criticism which hold an uncritical belief in the strength and glory of information. 'Access for all,' 'Bandwidth for all:' these are legitimate demands if the Net is to be more than an elitist playground of the middle classes. In the future, access to adequate means of communication may even become a vital necessity of everyday life.

But information and communication are not ends in themselves; first of all, they constitute an increasingly important terrain of social, political and cultural struggle. Inside and outside the Net, communication guerrillas seek to attack power relations inscribed into the structure of communication processes. In the dawn of informational capitalism, such attacks become more than just a method, more than merely a technology of political activism: When informations become commodities and Cultural Capital a most important asset, the distortion and devaluation of both is a direct attack against the capitalist system. Say it the swanky way: This is Class War.

Increasing attempts to police the net, to establish state and corporate control will, paradoxically, increase its attractivity as a field of operation of communication guerrillas: Possibly, even those of us who until now not even own a PC will get Wired then. Fakes and false rumours inside and outside the Net may help to counteract commodification and state control - after all, the internet is an ideal area for producing rumours and fakes. And, of course, where technological knowledge is available there are innumerable opportunities to fake or hijack domains and homepages, to spoil and distort the flux of information.

Guerrilla communication relies upon the hypertextual nature of communication processes. (Also a newspaper or a traffic sign has plenty of cross-links to other fragments of 'social text'; a medium transporting plain text and nothing else cannot exist.) Communication guerrillas consciously distort such cross-links with the aim of re-contextualising, criticizing or disfiguring the original messages. In the Net, hypertextual aspects of communication have for the first time come to the foreground, and the Net hypertext offers fascinating possibilities for all kinds of pranks. (Imagine a Hacker leaving on a homepage of, say, the CIA not a blunt 'Central Stupidity Agency ' (see http://www.2600.com/cia/p_2.html) but simply modifying some of the links while leaving everything else as before. There are terrible things one could do in this manner…)

But the fascination of those possibilities should not lead to a technocentric narrowing of the field of vision. The mythical figure of the Hacker represents a guerrilla directed towards the manipulation of technology - but to which end? The Hacker gets temporary control of a line of communication - but most hackers are mainly interested in leaving Web Graffitti or simply 'doing it' (see the Hacker Museum, http://www.2600.com). Others, however, rediscover guerrilla communication practices of the ancient: Recently in: nettime net-artist Heath Bunting slated himself in a fake review (“Heath Bunting: Wired or Tired?” http://www.desk.nl/~nettime/), thus re-inventing a method which already Marx and Engels had used when they faked damning reviews by first-rank economists to draw attention on 'The Capital'.

Communication Guerrillas are fascinated by possibilities offered by the internet also in a quite diferent sense: Beyond its reality, THE NET is an urban myth, and perhaps the strongest and most vital of all. Social discourse conceives THE NET as the location where the people, the pleasures, the sex and the crimes of tomorrow already take place. Go Internet, learn the Future! Fears and desires are projected onto THE NET: this is the mythical place where we can see the future of our society. Paradoxically, the gift of prophecy attributed to the net gives credibility to any informations circulated there. The “real world” believes in them because they come from the realm of virtuality, and not in spite of this.

In the German backwoods, there has been a long-lasting game called The Invention of CHAOS Days. It was, in fact, rather simple: Someone put a note in the Net telling that, on day D, all the punks of Germany would unite in the town of XY to transform it into a heap of rubble. The announcement was made, a few leaflets (let's say a dozen) were distributed to the usual suspects. That very day, processions of media hacks of all kinds encountered hosts of riot squads from all over Germany on their way to XY: Once again the forces of public order were on their way to protect our civilisation against the powers of the dark. The most astonishing about this little game is that it worked several times: Obviously for the guardians of public order and public discourse THE NET is a source of secret knowledge too fascinating to be ignored.

We do not mention in detail the innumerable occasions when journalists, state officials, secret services etc. were taken in by false rumours circulating in the net - for example, the major german press agency dpa who fell for the homepage of a fake corporation offering human clones, including replicas of Claudia Schiffer and Sylvester Stallone. Also this effect can be reproduced: the next time it was the prank about 'ourfirsttime.com' (http://www.ourfirsttime.com). There is little danger that media hacks will learn.

The net is a nice playground for Communication Guerrillas. But we, out there in the backwoods, are telling those living in the netscapes of electronic communication: don't forget to walk and talk your way through the jungle of the streets, to visit the devastated landscapes of outdated media, to see and feel the space and the power and the rule of capitalism. Such that you shall never forget what the hell all prankstering is good for.

“Communication guerrillas do not intend to occupy, interrupt or destroy the dominant channels of communication, but to detourn and subvert the messages transported.”



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On This Day in SniggleryAugust 31, 2000: Mark Jakob is arrested for posting a fake press-release about the Emulex Corporation on-line and then raking in $200,000 by cashing in on the resulting stock volatility. (See Scams for more stock & trade)