Wed, 11 Jun 1997
Review of Handbüch der Kommunikationsguerrilla
autonome a.f.r.i.k.a. gruppe, Luther Blissett,
Sonja Brünzels: Handbuch der Kommunikationsguerilla,
Verlag Libertäre Assoziation & Schwarze Risse / Rote Straße, 1997, 235 pages, ISBN 3-922611-64-8, DM 29 [$17]
"The undertaking of this book is paradoxical" says the preface. "Highly serious, it presents the dry theory of a practice that is not only supposed to be subversive, but also fun." And indeed, the authors of "Handbuch der Kommunikationsguerilla" outdo their critics. It's not just that they are unwilling to use in the book what it is supposedly about - subversion, pranks, frauds, fakes. One is quite surprised to find a "communication guerilla" that tidily separates "theory" and "practice", in the obvious belief that a theory of subversion wouldn't need to be subversive in itself, and against itself. Is the "communication guerilla" perhaps at odds with its lessons? Sometimes, that's not without charm, like in the next sentence where the authors bravely announce their intention, quote, "to depart from a political praxis which measures its own relevance according to the degree of abstraction or the gesture of seriousness of its resolutions." But the paradox seems rather helpless than refined. When the baroque rhetorician Emanuele Tesauro struggled with the same problem - explaining paradoxical acuteness in non paradoxical language -, he knew to top the contradiction and point it against itself: "You will however say that my treatise on the symbols is the very symbol of carelessness because it treats of the sophisticated conceits with little sophistication, and of acuteness without acumen. [...] So, if you would want to create an emblem for this book, you could paint an open book that teaches others what it doesn't know itself." ["Dirai tu pertanto, questo mio Trattato de' Simboli, esser il vero Simbolo della 'Temerità'; perché tratta de' Concetti' ngegnosi con poco igegno; & delle acutezze senza niuno acume [...]: talché, se tu volessi fabricare una Impresa sopra questo Libro, potresti pingere apunto un 'Libro aperto', che ad altri insegna quel ch' ei non sà."]
The authors of "Handbuch der Kommunikationsguerilla" have a solid background in semiotics, and they live in the college town Tübingen where Germany's only department of rhetoric just celebrated its 400th anniversary. But they are no language tricksters. While the book cover at least imitates a popular car repair guide, the inside remains surprisingly conventional. The London Psychogeographical Association, for example, is introduced to the German audience as a group that "plagiarizes esoteric texts and figures of argumentation". Similar procedure with Luther Blissett: Although the collective phantom is credited as a co-author of the book, there is no trace or continuation of his mytho-history as developed in the Italian books "Mind Invaders" and "Totò, Peppino e la guerra psichica". In their abstracting and objectifying gesture, the authors orient themselves towards another prototype, Stewart Home's underground art history "The Assault on Culture". In that book, Home was the first to historify fringe currents like "Neoism"; so it's no surprise that Neoism, along with the Situationist International, Gruppe Spur, Kommune 1, Provos and Yippies, re-appears with its own chapter in "Handbuch der Kommunikationsguerilla". There is, however, a difference. Stewart Home wasn't so naive as to sell his narrative as a do-it-yourself "handbook". He consciously employed historification to close chapters and rise with something new from the historified ashes. Despite the obvious carreerist motives behind "Handbuch der Kommunikationsguerilla" and the PR campaign surrounding it, such dead-historification is probably not what its authors intend. After all, they write about their own, ongoing project. But the naive imitation of Home's rhetoric may well backlash against them and other players of the Luther Blissett game.
One is tempted to trace such credulity to the radical milieu in which the "Handbook" originated, the notoriously uptight South-West German Autonomen left. Actionism against right-wing fraternities and the local Conservative Party has been the main exercise of their "communication guerilla". This all is carefully and tediously documented in the book. Nevertheless, the "Handbook" reads as an honorable attempt to break out of the dead-humored ghetto of the West German radical left. The "communication guerilla", as the authors describe it, takes up influences from neo-situationist and neo-lettrist, mostly Anglo-American and Italian currents, all the while attempting to bridge the gap to traditional agitprop fun guerillas. The further inclusion of graffiti sprayers, Swabian-dialect telephone pranksters, BILWET, Che Guevara ersatz idol El "Sub" Marcos, NSK/Laibach and the Berlin joke party KPD/RZ may be, perhaps, a compromise. But it's also telling of a eurocentric perspective. Anybody with a superficial knowledge of prank culture could have found better examples in the USA where irresponsible humour and militant sectarianism tend to produce more extreme results. But the authors would have had trouble domesticating them for their own political agenda.
There are, however, activists in America who might have been better allies for a.f.r.i.k.a. and Company. Just like the authors, they operate in the midlands between traditional radical politics and post-situationist pranking. Bob Black and John Zerzan should be mentioned here, the Shizflux group, Dreamtime Village, the Internet publisher Jean A. Heriot and finally the editors of the British paper Here & Now. Oddly enough, a.f.r.i.k.a. don't seem to know any of them. Instead, they take great pains using anti-humanist propaganda of the Stewart Home or even Laibach brands for the good of their upright "communication guerilla". At least, that helps to break down ideological barriers. The authors explicitly include groups which don't fit their political schemes. Yet they leave out everything that could shake the "guerilla" metaphor. Like, for instance, the phantom diplomat and godfather of Luther Blissett, Edmund F. Dräcker. In 1937, he was launched in the German embassy at Rome and subsequently kept alive in the West-German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The "Handbook" neither mentions literary fakes and pseudoepigraphies like the Corpus Hermeticum, the poems of Ossian, the fiction puzzles of Borges and Pynchon, 'concept art' simulations like Ingold Airlines or chiliastic chimeras like the Rosicrucian Brotherhood (which, after all, was coined in a.f.r.i.k.a.'s hometown). Knowing little or nothing about this tradition, the authors give only a superficial picture of psychogeographical esoterics. The entire complex of intelligence disinformation might have seemed too delicate for them. Finally, trash media like "Weekly World News" or "Weltreport" are silenced in favor of the properly counter-cultural and non-pornographic "Il Male". Thanks to their selective perception, the authors get rid of some annoying questions: Whether their allegedly subversive communication is per se subversive, whether it is per se underground and per se, to quote a term of the book, "emancipatory".
There are twenty-seven groups and currents which "Handbuch der Kommunikationsguerilla" portrays in extra chapters. It would be interesting to know whether they all would call themselves "emancipatory". If not, what is then their common denominator? What is it that would justify their summarization under the buzzword "communication guerilla"? The authors prove smart enough to come up with a crucial question here: "Why does nobody doubt the conditions", or, to put it in other words, why consensus reality is being believed. But does the word "communication guerilla" fit that question? And does the book actually embark on it?
The word "communication" seems hairy enough in the first place. Literally, it reads as "production of community". Communication then would be a key factor in binding [Latin: "munia"] consensus reality. The "Handbook" quotes the well-known statement that one "cannot not communicate". If that is really the case, it would negatively imply that community has no stable existence. Community, as dependent upon communication, would then be a construct, a fiction. From this background, the term "communication guerilla" could mean two entirely different things. It could either describe "subversion of communication", and hence an agency which seeks to disrupt communication itself as the production of consensus reality. Or it could simply stand for "subversive communication", or, hegemonial interventions into consensus reality in order to regain a piece of community- and reality-making for the self-appointed "guerilla".
Not surprisingly, a.f.r.i.k.a. go for the second option. Pseudo-"subversive communication" is the classical left-wing choice. It's also convenient for selling oneself through "Der Spiegel" in non-prankish fashion. The choice is obvious in the programme of the "communication guerilla": Step one, "deconstruction of ruling codes", step two, "spreading our own, alternative/emancipatory codes". Indeed a simplistic notion of 'deconstruction', a word that sounds almost as hip and subversive as "Neoism". Beyond such semantics, deconstruction might first of all be an activity of the code itself. The deconstructionist would only point at the ruptures and maybe hammer a few strikes to speed things up. It's a difficult job as her activity undermines itself and herself as well. Not having a code outside the ruling one, she can't simply put an "alternative" code in its place. The mere attempt, she says, would only substitute the one metaphysics with the other and end up reproducing the ideology of the system.
a.f.r.i.k.a. don't share these views, as obvious in their discussion of multiple names. The "Handbook" chiefly describes them as a resolution of the individual into the collective. Except in the Luther Blissett chapter, it pays little attention to the self-perpetuating paradox of multiple identities, their contradictory contraction of subjectivity. The mythology of such phantoms emerges from the everyday exploration of their inconsistence. In their chapter on multiple names, a.f.r.i.k.a. however suggest to read multiple names as creation of consistent myths, of community. Once again, a proof that the "communication guerilla" does not intend to subvert or criticize the notion of communication. The authors even miss the opportunity of a solid materialist critique of the multiple name business. First of all, they don't differentiate collective myths and phantoms like Luther Blissett, public domain pen-names like Karen Eliot and simultaneous multiple identities like Monty Cantsin. One could argue that collective phantoms, the most apocalyptic of the three, may easily be recuperated into totalitarian narratives: legends of saints, fuehrer cult or advertising. In Nike's latest TV spot, a number of little boys say "I am Tiger Woods" as if to prove that the corporate mainstream can seize a terrain for the successful golf player which subculture had paved for the unsuccessful soccer player Luther Blissett.
Which brings us to the central term of the "Handbook", "cultural grammar".
The authors rather seem to mean a "grammar of culture", the rule book of norms and values which the "communication guerilla" seeks to subvert. But how can the "communication guerilla" trick out "cultural grammar" when its own handbook doesn't have any revolutionary or "alternative" grammar and rhetoric, and not even a subversive or ironical one? When the authors write on page seventeen "grammar is...", they already employ a vulgar- and deep-grammatical predication that establishes a truth, applies linguistic power and creates consensus reality. Are these the "alternative codes"? Or rather, the revenge of "cultural grammar"?
Despite its attempts at overcoming dogmas, the "Handbook" remains largely committed to a black-and-white Autonomen ideology which, sometimes, seems not less uptight than its counterpart, the wealthy petty bourgeoisie of South-West Germany. Reading about a.f.r.i.k.a.'s obsessive fights against its pillars -the church, the Conservative Party and particularly the fraternities-, we are relieved to hear that some things have remained intact and evil at least in this part of the world. a.f.r.i.k.a.'s own contribution to the "communication guerilla", satirical agitprop carnival against the right, would, if they could read German, safely alienate many people whose activities were incorporated into the "Handbook". With their too-well-behaving enemies, the authors don't have to bother with an important issue - whether an ethics of subversion doesn't require self-subversion as well, and in the first place. The "Handbook" passes on this question. It remains stuck in a p.c. leftism that seems, to use a metaphor, closer to Larry O'Hara and the Green Anarchists than to the London Psychogeographical Association or the Neoist Alliance.
a.f.r.i.k.a. clearly relate to a German 'art', 'politics' and 'theory' discourse which is virulent since the early '90s and seeks to bridge the gap between 'critical art' and the radical left. Its chief exponents are 'conceptual' groups like Minimal Club, Büro Bert, free classes at several artschools and such affiliated papers as "ANYP", "Die Beute", the pop music magazine "Spex" and the arts journal "Texte zur Kunst", to name only a few. To date, 'the discourse', as it likes to call itself, remains the only one in Germany which straightly adapted Anglo-American cultural studies and their debate of multiculturalism and political correctness. a.f.r.i.k.a. not only refer to the respective theorists in their "Handbook". Following the model of p.c. activists in several German cities, they also founded a "Welfare Committee" in Tübingen; it still serves a platform for their "guerilla" actionism. [The "Welfare Committees" were founded by German leftists and 'discourse' exponents in the early 1990s as meta platforms for 'artistic' and 'political' activism against racism and the neo-right. Located within "the discourse", they were heavily pushed by "Spex" and related media.] In its typography, the "Handbuch" imitates, more thoroughly than car repair guides, the "Büro Bert" readers of Edition I.D. Archiv, major "discourse" sourcebooks. Next to providing less obstinate tactics for the radical left, one obvious function of "Handbuch der Kommunikationsguerilla" is to introduce "Neoism", psychogeography and multiple names to the German "discourse" and establish the authors as theorists therein. While a.f.r.i.k.a. is certainly less uncritical in its appropriation of critical theory than Minimal Club and Company, there still seems to be an enormous gap between their own satirical agitprop and the playfare irritainment of, say, tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE. Although much older than the "Handbook", his concept of a "fun guerilla" delivers the most comprehensive critique of a.f.r.i.k.a.- style "communication guerilla":
IN SUPPORT OF FUN & AGAINST POLARIZING "AUTHORITIES" VS
the idea of revolutionary guerrillas creating situations intended to bring into overtness the intrinsic nazism of legalised power. : polarizing "authorities" vs.. - vs what/whom? [...] the idea of the fun guerrilla as possibly more revolutionarily effective insofar as it presents the happiness potential of revolution & insofar as it relaxes people from the tension of serious decision making by presenting them w/ the possibility of playful roles which are flexible (unbinding) enough not to involve life & death polarization. "Police/criminals" catalyzed to laughter by a person facing possible "victimization" from them might perceive the person & the situation in a changed enough way to disarm the rigidity of the roles [...] fun guerrilla not as ridicule (contrary to popular opinion) - ridicule just perpetuates the polarizing, the rigidity, the tension, & the victimization..
TOWARD A REVOLUTIONARY THEORY (& SENSE) OF HUMOR
The "Handbook" however prefers to employ a humor which seems less revolutionary than thoroughly German, just as the rest of the book. Subversive proposals include turning the ministry of health slogan "NO POWER TO DRUGS" into "NO POWER - ONLY DRUGS" or "United Colors of Benetton" into "United Bullshit of Advertising". At least, we may breathe the authentic tongue-in-cheek spirit of Gruppe Spur and Subversive Aktion here, and the aura of their similarly flat-witted "Gaudi" manifestos. It seems as if Kommune 1, another group presented in the "Handbook", had a better judgement of its revolutionary potential. Rainer Langhans, a founding member of the tenant's collective, just declared that the break-down of private and public spheres in the TV talk shows of the '90s was exactly what he and his comrades had fought for. So, once again, we end up with communication, community-making.
In all that partly homemade, partly historified mess, the authors of the "Handbook" bravely cling to the humanist utopia of a domination-free discourse. So they even resist the post-marxist cold-bloodedness of cultural studies and their hegemonial forerunners Gramsci, Foucault, Raymond Williams and Stephen Greenblatt. Yet the "Handbook" remains a top-notch demonstration object for the hegemony-obsessed: Claiming to fight for a non-authoritarian discourse, the authors willingly pick out currents and tactics to incorporate them into their own project and bolster their own brandname, the "communication guerilla". Discursive power, applied.
The "Handbook" nevertheless succeeds in subverting itself, particularly where it attempts to launch fakes. Whether it's the made-up press citations or the psychogeographical relabelling of an esoteric party, they all undermine themselves through obviousness. The book arrives at more enjoyable contradictions where its discursive command crumbles and the authors become victims of their own tactics. One chapter feeds from disinformation about "Neoism" and its ties to the radical right, while another really believes that the role of the band Laibach in Slowenian nationalism was a purely postmodernist and parodistic one. The book is full of such slippages, and, a nice detail, faulty bibliographical entries.
At the end of the millenium and at the end of history, the left is caught in hopeless contradictions. With the fall of the bureaucratic curators of the dream, it seems as if the dream itself lost its power. The left helplessly faces this insight. Their activists have ended up in a no man's land which, clinging to the revolutionary dogma, they had always tried to avoid. When they believe to act in the name of universal values, they only do the dirty work of imperialists. When they hope to fight for the oppressed in the peripheries, they will only fight for the sound right of the oppressed to become oppressors themselves. So what is left?
Luther Blissett is neither here, nor there. Her body is many bodies. Her nature is subtle and not easy to grasp. Her name is an enigma. Some say that everybody can be Luther Blissett, but they conclude that, if Luther Blissett fits everybody, it has no proper meaning. Luther Blissett navigates between all signs and languages to dance with and within them. But she provides no shelter from control. One may only grasp her in the tension of her paradox. Luther Blissett stands for a comprehensive strategy, which is non-strategy. He has an identity, which is non-identity. He lives at a safe place, which is no place. It is Luther's praxis to act out of paradoxes. Where the old left gets stuck in its contradictions, Luther Blissett remains firm in the eye of the storm. She is the storm.