Mark Dery on Sat, 14 Jun 1997 19:12:57 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Declaration of the Obsolescence of Cyberhype

From: Mark Dery

Re: <nettime> Barlow

I give you...

A Declaration of the Obsolescence of Cyberhype.

Barlow writes:

> What I meant to say is that nature is itself a free market

system. A rain

forest is an unplanned economy, as is a coral reef. The difference


an economy that sorts the information and energy in photons and one


sorts the information and energy in dollars is a slight one in my


Economy *is* ecology.

     This is pure neo-biological cant, tediously familiar from

Kevin Kelly's _Out of Control_, the fist-banging fulminations of

Louis Rossetto, and a growing stampede of managerial gurus, among

them Michael Rothschild, who argues in _Bionomics: The

Inevitability of Capitalism_ that "what we call capitalism (or

free-market economics) is not an ism at all but a naturally

occurring phenomenon" (and therefore presumably beyond reproach). 

The global marketplace is increasingly conceived of in Darwinian

terms, with the social and environmental depredations of

multinationals rationalized as corporate life forms' struggle for

survival in an economic ecosystem.  In essence, it's a

philosophical bait-and-switch that gives power relations the

irrevocable force of natural law by casting them in metaphors drawn

from nature (or, increasingly, Artificial Life or the sciences of

chaos and complexity).  

     To begin, the analogy fails on logical grounds: What, in

precise, literal terms, does it really mean to say that nature is

"a free market system?"  This is the sort of glib McLuhanism that

vaporizes on contact with serious scrutiny.  To the best of our

knowledge, coral reefs aren't composed of conscious individuals

with inalienable rights, among them a voice in their individual

destinies and collective governance.  Moreover, coral reefs,

untouched by human meddling, are homeostatic entities that will

not, under any circumstances, knowingly engage in self-destructive

behavior.  (Again, to the best of my knowledge---marine biology

isn't my bailiwick.)  By contrast, the postwar history of America's

"free"-market economy---which as Byfield helpfully reminds us is

far from "free," having been engineered by government intervention

and underwritten by a "permanent war economy" (Seymour Melman) that

only recently downsized from World War II levels---is not pretty to

look at; GE is only one of many corporations that has widened its

individual profit margin at the expense of flagrant environmental

violations and worker abuses---suicidal behavior in a coral reef,

but the Hobbesian order of the day under a multinational capitalism

unrestrained by even the flimsy environmental and labor laws

erected, in a more progressive moment, by that much-reviled relic

of bygone times, the nation-state.     

     More importantly, as mentioned above, neo-biological metaphors

draw a picturesque scrim---who can argue with a rain forest or a

coral reef?---across the ugly face of raw power and brute force. 

But somewhere, up in the attic, the portrait of Dorian Gray waits

to be exposed, in all its grisly glory.  As I argued in my essay

for Ars Electronica's _Memetics_ anthology, "the costs of turning

culture into Nature, transforming it from social construction into

elemental force, are merely hidden, buried in Western history.  A

little spadework reveals that the indisputable authority of natural

"law" has been invoked, throughout European history, to legitimate

the subjugation or extermination of women, non-whites, and other

lesser ethers, as well the exploitation of nature itself.  A single

example speaks volumes: In _Nature's Body: Gender in the Making of

Modern Science_, Londa Schiebinger reveals how 18th century

anatomists, anthropologists, and natural historians, "working under

the banner of scientific neutrality," cited the supposedly simian

anatomy of Africans to account for their location near the bottom

of the great chain of being.  Similarly, the childlike "compressed

crania" of women of all races were adduced as evidence of

impulsive, emotional, and generally inferior intellectual


     The free-market ecology of the digerati is only the latest

example of nature used as a ventriloquist's dummy in the service of

social agendas, few if any of which are pretty to look at: Herbert

Spencer's Social Darwinism (as popular in its day with monopoly-

builders like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie as Kevin

Kelly's neo-biological capitalism is with Tom Peters and his

corporate flock); the American eugenics movement of the 1920s,

which resulted in the passage of laws that legalized the forced

sterilization, in more than two dozen states, of anyone deemed

"socially defective"; and, more recently, the voodoo sociology of

Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray's _The Bell Curve:

Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life_.  

     Andrew Ross contends that we are witnessing "a wholesale

revival of appeals to the authority of nature and

biology...nature's laws are invoked once again as the ground of

judgement and the basis of policy...biologism and Social Darwinism

have returned with a vengeance, and are a driving force behind the

sweeping new world view engineered by biotechnology and genetic

medicine."  Roland Barthes warned us about this nearly 40 years ago

when he argued, in _Mythologies_, that one of ideology's most

insidious aspects was that it converts constructed social reality,

and the power relations embedded in it, into innocent, immutable

"nature."  Ideology, he noted, "has the task of giving an

historical intention a natural justification, and making

contingency appear eternal."  Neo-biological metaphors are

pernicious because they do just that, forestalling debate by

camouflaging the man-made as the god-given.   

> I'm not sure that anything humans do is unnatural.In a sense,

it's all

nature. But some our efforts are so mechanistic as to be

counter-productive. I would assert that planned economies have been


as successful as many planned ecologies: tree farms, drained

wetlands, etc.

Mother Nature is cruel, but she can be far kinder than the


results of our best intentions.

(A minor point: The term "Mother Nature" is unfortunate, and best

consigned to the scrapheap of sexist essentialisms.)  

     Again, the invocation of a slippery term like "nature" should

trip alarms everywhere.  Nature, for naked apes, is an object of

knowledge, mediated by language.  There's a Heisenbergian logic at

work, here: no sooner do we encounter nature than we alter it,

often irreversibly; science has revealed that more than a few of

the plants and animals that we take to be untainted nature are in

fact the product of meddlesome human engineering.  Tribal

societies, far from being poster children for some Rousseau-ian

idyll, pollute and exterminate whole species (though obviously on

a vastly less devastating scale than industrial or post-industrial

societies).  In short, the term "nature" is fraught with cracks; if

we're going to use it legitimate economic systems that affect

millions, it would behoove us to take a philosophical hammer to it

and see what sense we can make of the fragments.  

     Frankly, I think any _democratic_ argument founded on an

appeal to "Nature" is built on quicksand, since nothing could be

more _unnatural_, to my mind, than an ethics whose cornerstone is

the concept of "inalienable rights," a mystical vision for which

there's no correlative in the natural world, where might makes

right and survival is the only game in town---a state of affairs,

come to think of it, not unlike the prevailing conditions among

multinational corporations, red in tooth and claw and seemingly

unburdened by concern for human rights or the environment (nature,

by any other name).

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