A Mutation of the ‘Human Mic’ as a Radical New Type of Political Subjectivity
Something shocking has happened. While the use of ‘the human mic’ by the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests is innovative, there’s one particular video I want to look at that has something that’s really, radically new, a mutation of the ‘human mic.’ Before this, however, some context, both theoretical, and in forerunner communities in the digital realm. And then from there, to this new, perhaps unnoticed new form of political subjectivity (and feel free to skip down there if you want!).
Beyond the Individual: The Transvidual Subject
Much has been said about the post-human futures in store for us, that the time of the individual has passed. And much of this has been phrased in highly technical language, notions like networked subjectivity, or Deleuze’s notion of parts of subjects, ‘dividuals,’ which then link up to form supra-individual collectives. Felix Guattari often spoke of ‘transvidual’ aspects of groups, those new ways of thinking or acting that were in between the level of individual and group, like a new habit that emerges between people when they form groups together.
Theorists of affect, particularly in relation to politics, often speak of political affect as a sort of level between individual and group. The rage of the Tea Party, the fuzzy optimism of the Obama campaign, these affects exist somewhere between individual and group as transvidual currents which exceed the realm of individuals, but aren’t necessarily solely identical with the group itself either. We can imagine the Tea Party without its rage, and the Obama campaign without its optimism (likely what we will see in it’s second coming in 2012).
Certainly Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have argued in texts like Empire and Multitude that the individual is no longer the primary socio-political actor, but that groups in the traditional sense, like economic classes or nations, tied to specific types of people or territories, are also obsolete. In their place are complex new formations like multi-national corporations and NGO’s, supra-individual entities that keep changing and mutating, with indefinite borders and fuzzy parameters, defying localized notions of time and space, having their own nettimes and netspaces. This process of course began to radically increase with the weaving of our world together with the industrial revolution, first with railroads and steamships carrying people and goods, then the wiring of the globe together with telegraph, telephone, and television, carrying sounds and images from afar with incredible speed.
Building on the notion of a ‘meme,’ or cultural gene, first proposed by theoretical biologist Richard Dawkins, ideas now move through the globe, replicate, mutate, reproduce, and evolve, in many ways like virtual organisms which we sustain within us as their ‘meat machines.’ Language and images were the original memes, and the paper and the printing press the original mass medias, but after the industrial revolution, the distinct memescapes of the world began to knit themselves into the much more integrated differential networked global memescape that truly acquired criticla mass in the period after World War II.
This process has of course reached new terrain with the internet and its virtual places, subjects/avatars, sites, groups, rhythms (ie: download times, broadband rates, etc.). And the results have been felt in the physical world as well. Capitalist networks have certainly reworked traditional notions of time and space, using the internet to bring Hong-Kong closer in spacetime to New York than the rural Chinese countryside that may lack broadband. Terrorist cells can spring up anywhere and regenerate seemingly at will. Hardt and Negri argue that the political actors of the future are potentially multitudinous, fractal, aleatory, and have a structure fundamentally different from both the individuals and groups we’ve come to know.
The Distributed Web-Community as Organism: Daily Kos
Websites have also produced the possibility for new types of community that follow the more distributed nature of networks. For example, the liberal blog DailyKos, one of the most trafficked political blogs in the US, acts as a virtual community. Founded by a blogger who goes by the name of Kos, the site’s members refer to each other as Kossacks, and each year they have a convention which actually takes place in unified space and time. While virtual the rest of the year, DailyKos has mutated many of the aspects of more traditional political actors. Messages fly through the main Kos website to its various sub-communities, all of which keep track of each other with automated email updates of various sorts. Each post on the main page gives rise to a comment thread which can often take on a life of its own. Members can rate each other’s comments, and those who post frequently and get high rankings from their peers get ‘trusted user’ status on the site, an ability which needs to be perpetually renewed, which allows them to ‘hide’ the comments/posts of anyone considered to be ‘trolling’ the community, which is to say, trying to ruin its general ecology. Decision-making is in this sense distributed. While Kos has final say, he generally stays out, and lets his algorithm decide who gets ‘trusted user’ status, and from here, the community runs itself.
As someone who has for periods of time posted at DailyKos, and who briefly once had ‘trusted user status,’ I know quite well how this functions as a community. While it is a politics blog, it has spawned spin-off blogs (ie: mothers interested in liberal politics), sub-communities (ie: BlackKos, LatinoKos), and series of weekly articles that rise and fall in popularity (ie: Darksyde’s science posts). There are superstars, and ideas grow and decline in a virtual ecosystem.
What’s more, the community has eyes and ears everywhere. Anytime there’s a major political event which occurs, someone who’s part of the Kos community was generally there, and has a first hand account. That way, I know I can generally trust the viewpoint expressed will at least have, to some extent, a political worldview that syncs with that of the site in general. I can get an account, frequently with video, that’s often more trustworthy, at least for what I’m looking for, than that provided by major news corporations. I usually play the various sources off each other.
When the community decides to act on something, the effects can be felt far and wide. Activist campaigns. Donations to a cause. And people post sometimes on other things. They are having a nervous breakdown, and turn for help to their fellow Kossacks. They broke up with their spouse. Many have shared heartbreak and found solace on this site, from people they neither meet nor see, and maybe never will. Yet the community, and the virtual organism it has given rise to, interacts with us in a manner not dissimilar to that of people. The community desires, wills, decides, acts, feels, grows, and thinks. Surely this is some sort of collective intelligence which seems more like a hive of bees, a colony of ants, or even a human brain, than a simple group of the past. We are now neurons in a virtual brain which is an organism of its own. And like an organism, it was born, grows, gets old and stale, and will likely oneday die.
The Emergence of a New Transvidual Political Subject: The Distributed Version of the Human Mic
But perhaps we don’t need to go so far from the everyday to see the emergence of new transvidual, posthuman subjectivities. Occupy Wall Street has provided us with a low tech new way of speaking: the human microphone. For those new to this concept, it’s incredibly simple. Protesters in New York’s Zucotti Park had to organize, yet there was a ban on amplified speech in the park. The solution was simple, the human mic. Someone in the center of the group says ‘mic check!,’ and everyone says this that can hear it. This then goes further back, rippling in ‘generations’ to carry the speech as far as needed. At some points, there has been reported situations at these protests in which there were four generations of speech at play! For a single generation version, here’s a video clip of the always entertaining Slavoj Zizek:
Certainly this concept can’t be new, but a quick google search lists only it’s recent use during the ‘Occupy’ protest movements. But of course, people have had to amplify a speaker before these protests, and while the ancient Greeks had their amphitheaters, my guess is that Jesus and other religious teachers likely must have amplified their speech by some similar means. It’s interesting to note here that this seemingly relatively new formation was brought about by a limitation, namely, a restrictive law in New York. Here we see a crucial example of Foucault’s insight that power isn’t merely repressive. It can be productive, and usually is, despite seeming to the contrary.
Much of what’s being done at the ‘Occupy’ protests is influenced by anarchist organizing principles (a funny term, but think about it, it makes sense!), a legacy of many of the early organizers of these protests having had background in anarchist circles. The goal in anarchist organizing isn’t to have no organization, but non-hierarchical organization to the greatest degree possible. And that’s why when you go to an ‘Occupy’ protest, as I did, and ask a question like ‘who’s running things,’ you get a response like ‘we all are, we don’t have leaders.’ This gives new poignancy to the slogan ‘we are the 99%.’
This principle extends to the decision making used by the group.
Extensive use of hand signals allows listeners to express approval, disapproval, or put a ‘block’ on what’s going on. Anyone can put a block, and only consensus can oppose this. And in fact, all decision-making is consensus based. There’s no voting in the traditional sense, in which one vote can enforce the will of a majority over a substantial minority. Here there’s got to be much more than a majority, a change endorsed by the whole. And the results have been impressive. When I was there, there were carefully managed pathways for walking in the tiny park, a sacred space for reflection, medical tents, an organized library, media response centers, a children’s zone, a conflict resolution table for people trying to divide up the small amounts of remaining space, and a pretty substantial kitchen that was feeding tons of people, many of them homeless.
All of this pales in comparison, however, to what I saw happen during the now infamous video in which a campus poilceman brutally used pepper-spray on non-violent, seated student protesters at UC Davis.The start of the video below is the disgraceful act in question. But notice what happens later in the video:
Let’s examine the second half of the video. One protester calls out ‘Mic check!,’ and everyone knows what this means. This guy will speak for us, he has something to say. And if they disagree, they can simply stop passing this person’s words along. But in this case he speaks words of de-escalation. We will let you police leave. He’s teaching the police a lesson in non-violence. It’s amazing to see this at work.
This is the first time I’ve seen a transvidual subject turn into a subject, speak, and then dissolve in this way. Anyone can speak for the group, it’s a radically distributed, transvidual networked political subject. And yet it’s remarkably low-tech. While I’m sure that the human mic has existed before in history, likely invented and reinvented as need be, I’m not sure if has ever been distributed and spontaneous like this. Perhaps we needed the internet and today’s networked world to help us to see these potentials. But in a moment of crisis, this protester just said ‘mic check!,’ and in the age of crowdsourcing ideas and revolution-by-twitter, no-one had to say anything more, people just intuitively knew what to do.
Think of the implications. At any point in the future, anyone can call out ‘mic check!’ anywhere, with any group of people. And they will all know what to do. And then have a decision on whether or not to join, for that moment, and lend part of themselves to a transvidual subject that speaks, in a sense, through aspects of them. This is a very powerful, new, distributed form of political subjectivity.
And it keeps mutating. Recently I’ve also seen people begin to protest politicians with the ‘human mic.’ A politician has a microphone, but can’t drown out a crowd. And while this new form of mass heckling has started with activists on the left, I have little doubt the right will learn this technique. And with this, a new type of political subjectivity has been born.
I’ve heard many accounts of people just going to these ‘Occupy’ protests to ‘see what’s going on,’ and next thing these people know they are getting arrested, making decisions, impacting what’s going on. Unlike traditional collectives, in which one joins a party, perhaps has a membership card, of can tell if one belongs by an identity like race, gender, sexuality (the ‘identity politics’ which began to have an impact after the 1960’s), we see communities with porous borders. We see momentary congealings of subjects that speak for aspects of the fuzzy group, yet not others. People can join and fall away from such subjective formations, and it still continues until it has run its course. Then new networks form.
Many of the philosophers writing on post-human formations predicted things like this. Hardt and Negri in ‘Multitude’ call this a multitude, that which is between a traditional group and an individual. A ‘something in common’ that is site specific, that allows for the redressing of a wrong, for political change, without feeling the need to last forever, be based on eternal principles, get candidates elected, etc. Aleatory, distributed communities that can respond nimbly to the more static, top-down forces that seek to control everything. Like police networks.
Not that all distributed networks are necessarily good, and all centralized ones bad. Terrorist networks are often incredibly distributed. But generally speaking, distributed networks, leaderless collectives, are more egalitarian in their structure. While they may still pursue evil aims, their structure predisposes them to a more open relation to themselves and the world around them. Terrorist networks are perhaps the exception rather than the rule, one which needs to be understood, nearly as much as the way in which capitalist formations make use of radically distributed structures as well. In both cases, we see distributed forms of network organization used towards ultimately centralizing, paranoid ends.
Networked Politics: Learning from the Human Brain
As is likely evident, there are many parallels between what we’re describing here and the contemporary study of networks. Most scientists working in the field today recognize two primary poles of network organization, namely, distributed networks and centralized networks. The first are messy, inefficient, yet adaptable, able to tolerate difference and change, while the second type are hierarchical, organized, efficient, yet rigid. Nature makes use of both for different situations, and yet it leans strongly to the more distributed side, particularly as organization gets more complex. In situations of extreme hardship and privation, organization and paranoia keeps organisms alive. But in times of plenty, surplus allows for creativity, and its only creativity that can help a species survive when it’s environment changes. Evolution requires both systems, in varying combinations, to preapre for an unpredictable world.
The human brain is perhaps the most complex system on the planet today. And while many of its basic support structures are centralized, the part of the brain that does the ‘thinking,’ known as the ‘neocortex,’ is radically distributed. In fact, it’s organized in a manner not unlike ‘Occupy Wall Street.’ According to artificial intelligence researcher Jeff Hawkins, what the neocortex does is perhaps best described as ‘memory prediction.’ One part of the brain tries to predict what another part is going to ‘say next,’ and those connected to the outside world try to predict what sensory organs are going to ‘say next’ (often described in the more technical language of (re)efference/afference copies, for more see, for example, The Quest for Consciousness, by Christoff Koch). When these mini-agents disagree, they examine the situation more closely, and when they agree, they pass on their findings to others. Decentralized voting ripples through ever larger parts of the brain, recruiting ever larger groups to come to a consensus. It’s for this reason that many researchers have called this a ‘recruitment’ model of the mind.
And when finally consensus is reached, it ties into the largest ‘dynamic core’ within the brain, which is what many researchers think makes something conscious. And then even if an insight was picked up originally by a relatively insignificant part of the brain, it is amplified by the collective in a string of echoes, coordinated by the organ known as the thalmus (the brain’s ‘traffic cop’ and microphone), until the insight that wins the voting is carried like anyone who says ‘mic check!’ and is able to convince others to repeat their words.
DailyKos and the human-mic are two examples of the new transvidual, supra-individual forms of subjectivity that are forming today, both via technology, as well as by means of the new eyes that have been given to us by this technology to re-envision the technologies that always existed. But perhaps we are only now catching up to the fact that as the internet grows, it begins to look more an more like a living organism, and in fact, like the human mind. While it has choke points, the internet grows and evolves because of its distributedness.
It seems that political subjectivity is shifting with the age of the internet, and it’s imperative that we understand these new networked formations. Certainly they seem to be understanding us, for as quasi-living organisms, like memes, they speak, think, act, and feel in and through us. And it seems to me that if our society tends to want to push these towards centralized, paranoid formations, the world might be a less scary place if we could help push in the other direction, towards more distributed forms of subjectivity.
None of which is to say that distributed formations can’t be devious. Certainly the self-surveillance of ‘if you see something say something’, training all New Yorkers in the subway to be perpetually paranoid of each other, is a paranoid yet distributed formation. And yet, its distributed from the center down, it’s not distributed enough. Truly distributed systems, like what we see with the human mic, require consensus to work, are messy, have multiple versions of things that disagree about the details, and have a rotating speaker. Deviously distributed systems are simply not distributed enough.