Strategies for Tactical Media

Conscious of the growing involvement of artists in political protest through their art and the utilisation of conventional and digital media technologies, RealTime's editors approached media theorist McKenzie Wark to comment on where he sees Tactical Media fitting in the bigger picture of power and media.

For there to be such a thing as tactical media implies that there are also strategic and logistic media. These terms go together, and describe 3 different levels at which contestation can take place. If the tactical is local and contingent, the strategic involves planning and coordination. The logistic would then refer to systematic, global and long range organisations of forces.  
Paul Virilio argues that in military affairs conflict has passed from dominance of the tactical to the strategic and on to the logistic. These days the whole planet is organised on the basis of a logistical ordering of production and communication. The casual way in which a war against Iraq can be talked up on the global stage, in a way convenient for the Republican Party in the United States in an election year, points to the underlying logistical militarisation of the whole of society. It is simply taken for granted that there is a force ever at the ready. 
As Friedrich Kittler argues, the design and layout of the silicon chip bears the imprint of its military origins. The logistical principles of organisation can be found just as readily in the communication and media spinoffs from military organisation as in the war machine per se. We might speak of this society as a military entertainment complex, in which the same logistics apply to the traversing of the sky by bombs and by data. 
The principles of this logistics are not complex, although their effects may be. Information has, since the telegraph, moved faster than people or things. The telephone, television, telecommunications, not to mention the radio, the internet and the cellphone, are all part of the unfolding of the key logistical principle - telesthesia, or perception at a distance. 
Telesthesia makes it possible for information to move faster than people or things, and thus to become the means of organising the movement of people and things. This is what separates the American logistical empire of the air from its great predecesssor, the English strategic empire of the sea of the 18th century. The latter was not able to organise all that effectively at the logistical level, as it lacked the means of communication to marshal resources in depth and monitor events on a global scale in realtime. 
The organisation of power is increasingly logistic, and yet the current rhetoric about alternative responses is about 'tactical media'. This seems a strange state of affairs. Surely we should be talking about strategic media, even logistic media. It may be somewhat self defeating to think only on one of the possible levels of organisation for counter power. 
It's worth taking a look at what the rhetoric of tactical media is meant to achieve. It has become a popular term. Ironically, it is even mobilising strategic resources. Institutions are putting resources into it, supporting the beginnings of what could be a coordinated network of resources with some depth and continuity. From talking to people at various foundations here in New York, I get the impression that Tactical Media is turning into a handy way of classifying programs of experimental media that otherwise cut across accepted categories of activity. 
One of the richest sources for the rhetorics of tactical media is Geert Lovink's new book, Dark Fiber (MIT Press). As one of the original promoters of the term, Lovink has a subtle sense of just how it can be deployed to mobilise resources. It's interesting just how much semantic freight  Lovink tries to get this term to carry. Tactical media, he writes, is to "combine radical pragmatism and media activism with pleasurable forms of nihilism." But it is also "into questioning every single aspect of life, with the most radical gesture." 
Tactical media plays with "the ambiguity of more or less isolated groups or individuals, caught in the liberal-democratic consensus, working outside the safety of the Party or Movement, in a multi- disciplinary environment full of mixed backgrounds and expectations." It is also "about the art of getting access, hacking the power and disappearing at the right moment." While "tactical media are opposition channels, finding their way to break out of the subcultural ghetto" it is also "a deliberately slippery term, a tool for creating "temporary consensus zones" based on unexpected alliances." 
What counts with tactical media "are temporary connections between old and new, practice and theory, alternative and mainstream." But it is also "a question of scale. How does a phrase on a wall turn into a global revolt?" Tactical media may intervene within a movement, but it may also link a movement to social groups. Or perhaps it is even a virtual movement?, with no existence outside of its network expression. Then again, perhaps we are just a diverse collection of weirdos, off topic by nature." 
What I find interesting about this collection of quotes from Dark Fiber is that the most tactical thing about tactical media is the rhetorical tactic of calling it tactical. It's a way of short-circuiting the theoretical debates of the 70s and 80s, which put enormous emphasis on getting the theory of representation aspect of alternative media together, to the point that the practice of creating media was often strangled at birth by wranglings over the signifier. 
Tactical media is a rhetoric for bypassing the theory of representation, if only to sneak up on it from behind. By claiming no strategic leverage for a particular subject doing the representing, or a certain methodology for doing the representing, or even any particular veracity for the representation, tactical media unblocks the flow of practice. But it does so at the expense, not so much of issues of representational strategy, as issues of communicational logistics. 

At best, we could think of tactical media as a tactic of compromise on representation. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Try lots of different tactics. Borrow from art history, from media theory, think of it as a temporary activity which need not make overarching claims or defend its legitimacy. See what works. But the unresolved problem is how to resource such a field of practice. How are resources to be allocated? How are networks to be sustained? 
For all their diversity, rhetorics of tactical media tend to assume much the same analysis of the overall situation of what I am calling the military entertainment complex. There's a background image of it as monolithic and pervasive. The tactical appeals as a way of getting into the cracks. The tactical is a 'rhizome', a 'temporary autonomous zone', an instance of the 'multitude'. In other words, it seems to fit with the popular theories of the day. 
The problem is that the popular theories of the day are not media theories. A media practice is being deduced from theories that for all their sophistication in other respects, tend to have somewhat simplistic views of media. Worse, they tend to see media as a mere add-on, rather than as a central object of concern. If we are indeed living in the shadow of the military entertainment complex, then the technics and techniques of telesthesia need to be organising principle of the theory. 
I am not suggesting, however, that we need to get the theory right before anybody starts trying to make media. That would be to return to the old arguments about 'representation' that still haunt the more atavistic corners of the cultural studies establishment. Rather, it's a question of doing theory and practice together. Perhaps we need tactical theories to go with the tactical media practices. Tactical media may derive some of its energy from simplistic theories of media, but it gets a lot more from immersion in issues, in working with technologies, in creating competences and skills among people, and so on. It's a question of turning theoretical attention toward what tactical media workers are doing. An excellent example would be Graham Meikle's new book, Future Active (Pluto Press), which does exactly that. 
Some may object that in even speaking of media in these terms, I am buying into a militarised rhetoric. (I remember a book reviewer who objected to my use of the terms culture wars and declared an intention to sit those wars out in the coffee shop.) The objection has some force. However, I don't think one can so easily exempt oneself from what may be a systematic mobilisation of forces. I have certainly been more struck by this since moving to the United States. Even if one wanted to work in a way that refused the rhetorics and practices of conflict, one would need to think through just how such a practice might work in a militarised environment. 
Tactical media has been a productive rhetoric, stimulating a lot of interesting new work. But like all rhetorics, eventually its coherence will blur, its energy will dissipate. There's a job to do to make sure that it leaves something behind, in the archive, embedded in institutions, for those who come after.

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. 10