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Virtual biopolitical parliament

Bojana Kunst

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I. Introduction

Over the last decade, numerous reflections have dealt with the political potentiality of cyberspace: with the direct participation it enables, cyberspace establishes a different form of contemporary community. Pierre Levy talks about the contemporary "virtual agora"; he views cyberspace as a field characterized by a different way of activity, a parallel collective intelligence of some sort, an ’inclusive society’ born online. The net enables one to be active directly because a different field of the public is involved: in order to enter, one is not necessarily represented by another, but everyone can make a direct contribution to society. With their new ways of connecting, online communities are supposed to embody the ideals of the sixties student revolutions and establish forms of parallel direct democracy. Levy’s definition of the virtual agora thus echoes some of the findings of the revolutionary movements in the sixties of the twentieth century; a direct way of activity is thereby not understood as an acclamation of direct voice, but as a unique demand for the transfer of the private into the public, with this transfer constantly putting the public sphere under the question mark. The demand for the transfer of the private into the public can be understood not only from the perspective of private pleasure (as this, for example, is dealt with by Kristeva), but also from the materialistic perspective. This demand namely represents the multitude which incessantly thwarts and contests the public sphere with its unstoppable productivity, realized through contemporary connections and multilayered participation. This direct participation, however, with its numerous interactive connections, turns into a grave threat in the science fiction novel Noir by the American author K.W. Jeter. The word "connection" is used as a swearword, with people cursing at each other with expressions like "connect-you, mother-connector", "get the connect outta here". In short, you are fucked, when connected. [1]

Soon after the initial wave of optimism, the ideal of direct and multiplying connections is turning out to be the worst of nightmares. There is, of course, a variety of reasons for this disappointment, ranging from the commercialization of both the private field of the sixties and the cyberspace of the nineties, to paranoid contemporaneity, where everybody can be controlled / observed / basically dislocated by everybody over that connection. In my opinion, today’s disappointment and pessimism are especially generated by the emptiness of contemporary democratic procedures. Despite the civil initiatives resulting from the utopian demands at the end of the sixties (and included by the cyberspace of the nineties), despite a number of the in-between communities that have found their ambivalent ways into political space, we can sense disappointment with the democratic ways of participation and connecting. It has been sort of generally accepted that today every community, regardless how parallel and different it might be, and every initiative no matter how private in character, gets lost in its own procedure. It thus seems that it is necessary to profoundly rethink the manner of contemporary connecting, and thus also the relationship between the interior and the public, as established through various forms of political activity.

II. Virtual Agora: DemoKino

Contemporary artistic projects can often serve as an excellent basis for such rethinking, especially as their critical orientation can no longer be understood only as a formation of oppositional standpoints, a presentation of opposite contents, or a reflection of already existing forms. Today, these kinds of projects use the same procedures as we ourselves do in our private or public activities; they succumb to the same bureaucratic laws and participatory problems. Nevertheless, their gesture can still be uncivil - they still somehow don’t succumb to the strict contemporary demarcation of territories and to the division of labour: according to Nicolas Bourriaud, the contemporary artist is our contemporary sophist. [2] This is why it seems to me that the critical potentiality of these kinds of projects can be grasped precisely through the connections and transgressions they establish, through their performative gestures: the political power of the project is revealed by the situation through which it establishes itself as project.

At this point, we will make a reflection on the pains of contemporary political activity and contemporary connections with the help of DemoKino, a project by the Italian-Slovenian artist Davide Grassi [3]. It consists of a series of eight virtual sessions in the form of interactive short films: "Eight bills are presented to the cyber-electorate in form of a short movies that show the "pro and contra" inner dialogues of its protagonists. By means of voting the electorate leads the character around his home in a parliamentary kind of way." (DemoKino, www.demokino.net) The films depict a young man: in short dialogues (texts by the Italian philosopher Antonio Caronia), he states his views on eight topical contemporary ethic dilemmas: those of abortion, cloning, genetic manipulation, gay marriages, privatization of water sources, copyright / copyleft, euthanasia and therapeutic cloning. Each of the virtual conferences or short films takes place in a certain part of his apartment, with the ends of the films determined interactively by the electorate / spectators. At the end of each session (film), they vote for or against the issue, with the majority of the votes determining a door in the apartment which will lead the man to the next dilemma. The spectators thus take stands to the issues and the man, directing him towards the next door, which not only opens an entrance to the next room in the apartment, but also to the next dilemma, film and virtual session. The sequence of the stories, the man’s moving through the apartment, the private geography if his daily routine (going to the toilet, teeth brushing, rest, web surfing, phoning, etc.) is thus determined in a referendum-like way, leading the man through his private abode. In general, there are two, but not totally distinct possibilities of such "referendums": that of virtual individuals within a virtual community, and that of ’life’ parliamentary decision-making in the cinema hall.

The basis of DemoKino is precisely Levy’s concept of the virtual agora. With the interactive mimicry of contemporary connections, and nearly laboratorial simulation of democratic decision-making, DemoKino lucidly points out the symptoms of contemporary politics. Using the interactive form in order to practically realize the utopia of direct activity, it also demonstrates the deep problems of this kind of activity. In other words, the project reveals an impossible connection that characterizes contemporary political decision-making. In our direct co-operation as interactive spectators in DemoKino (by voting, stating our views and competing with the majority or minority in connection with the topical ethical issues), the majority of the votes does not only determine the narrative and geographic course or the film, but for some time, makes us an agreed part of a voting community. The project simulates sessions on ethical and economic dilemmas, which we witness on a daily basis, as well as the form of the political life surrounding these questions. And yet, at the end of the DemoKino project, our co-operation in this virtual agora is put under an enormous question mark. The last of the films is namely shown regardless of the course we have determined, and has not been chosen by us at all. It shows a spinning head of a clown whistling a well-known melody, with the caption saying: "What if I tell you now that everything was pre-defined?"

When DemoKino comes to an end and the virtual sessions are over, it is no longer clear to what degree our direct and interactive pleasure has been forged and simulated in advance. Wherein lies the potentiality of our decision-making, i.e. the actuality of our participation? Does our connection makes any sense at all if even the most direct forms of co-operation between the private and the public can turn into their own parodies?

III. Self-sufficiency of Procedure

Of course, a certain degree of falsification is always part of political activity itself; it seems, however, that DemoKino touches on much more than this old disappointment with the essential characteristics of politics. With the interactive participation of the spectators, DemoKino demonstrates several paradoxes of the topical democratic decision-making, which seems increasingly distant nowadays from the original classical conception of politics and political insight (phronesis), gained with public activity.

With his internal monologic stands he takes regarding topical political issues, Grassi’s man [4] actually embodies the alleged essence of political activity. In his reflections on abortion, genetic technology, cloning, gay marriages, etc., he gives moral, ethical, philosophical, economical and personal arguments from different viewpoints, and thus places himself in the place of another. The interactive voting enables us spectators to be politically active participants: i.e., to think both for ourselves and for another at the same time. Describing his monologues, we could employ the words of the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who deals with the fact that political thinking always presents the opinions of others as well. This is precisely what the man in DemoKino does - he thinks in a political way: "With the help of imagination, yet without giving up my identity, I should also put myself in a place in this world that is not mine, and form my own opinion from there. The more of such viewpoints I can consider and the better I can imagine what I would think and feel if I were in the place of those who are there, the better my ability of insight (phronesis) will be developed." [5] In politics, it is mainly about the truth of facts, formed through our basic ability of reflecting, which leads to the formation of opinion. Only such kind of thinking is discoursive and can connect us, i.e. enable us to personally enter the public field of decision-making and activity. Precisely due to its basic trait of being able to put itself in the position of another, however, precisely because of the basic connection between the private and the public, this kind of thinking runs a constant risk of being totally dissolved. On the example of lie in politics, Hannah Arendt warns us that the freedom that enables us to place ourselves in the place of another and gain insight, can also very quickly become a falsified freedom. Lie in politics is indeed essential; it is in accordance with man’s manner of free activity that lie is part of political procedure. "Our ability to lie belongs to the scarce bits of information that prove that something like freedom actually exists. The conditions in which we live, and are influenced by, can only be changed because, despite all the conditionality, we are relatively free as to them. It is precisely this freedom, however, that enables lying, the very thing by which freedom is abused and perverted." [6] We could say that the main freedom and problem of the phenomenology of activity lies in the fact that, in politics, a liar has an advantage before the veracious: "No one namely raises that much doubt and danger in politics as a professional truth-teller; in difference to him, a liar does not have to use such dubious means to enforce himself politically, he has the advantage of being in the centre of politics already. Whatever he says is not a statement, but taking action; he namely speaks what he is not because he wants to change what he is." [7] It is precisely this openness and potentiality, however, that constantly puts political activity in double danger. On the one hand, political activity can turn into its own forgery, and on the other hand, it tries to enforce its power by attributing itself a direct connection with truth, which does not belong to political activity at all because political activity itself has a representative function. When lie becomes self-deceit and we begin to lie to our own selves, every potentiality of activity freezes into procedure. Public activity can thus also destroy the fundamental play which is the most essential for man’s activity: the feeling for differentiation and orientation between truth and lie.

As we have seen, the fact that, in politics, a liar has an advantage before the veracious, has always been part of man’s freedom in the history of political activity, part of his possibility to change what he is or speak what he is not. At the same time, however, this fact also represents the dangerous edge where activity turns into procedure, with lie becoming self-deceit and actually an image of constructed truth. The original phronesis turns into self-sufficiency of political procedure, where it is no longer possible to distinguish between truth and untruth. Although it seems to us that DemoKino presents an ideal image of virtual agora, where the monologues of the young man even enable us to interactively communicate in a direct way and literally place ourselves in the place of various arguments, we are finally surprised by the clown’s head and the doubt which lets us know that our freedom of activity might be abused in advance. This problem is nowadays felt as distrust of the artificial and forever falsified democratic procedure (showing e.g. in increasing voting apathy and the paradoxical belief that most people who still vote nowadays are extremists). With the intrusion of modern consultants for public relation and commercialization of political image, lie is becoming an increasingly professionalized and systematized political procedure. The representative force of activity is getting lost, i.e. the theatrical situation constantly established by activity. What is getting twisted and falsified is the representative shift from me to another and from another to me - with the tension between the originality and forgery being lost.

Let me explain now what I mean by the theatrical situation that I mentioned above. Lie can productively insist in activity as long as it is established as a basic tension or the state in-between, which is similar to the status of performing in a theatre performance: for both lie and theatre performance, it holds that the correct way of lying is only that of the veracious. What does that mean? In theatre, an act of direct address itself never triggers responsibility if it happens (e.g. in very bad moments of a theatre performance, amateur shows, political moralism); it can trigger uneasiness at best. The responsibility and the unique jouissance of the common communicative situation are triggered by the impossibility of direct address, which can not be manifested or tested otherwise as through performance. Every public address thus imposes an essential, but also impossible responsibility: I am responsible because immediately when someone addresses me, that is already a forgery; it is a forgery precisely because a person can only address me in a direct way. It is this interdependence between the direct voice and its forgery, however, that enables us to move not only along the lines of freedom of activity, but also through imagination, utopias and wishes; it enables contact, with parallel worlds and fields - it is precisely in this impossible dependence that the open political potentiality of activity is at work.

What the self-sufficiency of procedure generates, however, is something entirely different. We do not only get an increasingly formal and flashy image of political spectacle, a PR product establishing remote and self-reflexive procedures, but also something else even more problematic. In its nature, self-deceit is some kind of ’pure performance’, where there is no longer a relationship between me and the place of another, just an obsessive persisting in a relationship that no longer exists. It is precisely this persistence in a relationship that no longer exists that marks many absurd ’procedural complications’, e.g. the pianist scandal in the Italian parliament, one of the references of the DemoKino project. Pianists are the MPs who play the role of their absent colleagues by pressing their voting buttons for them. Although absurd at first glance, the example can reveal much more - the degree of autonomy of the whole democratic procedure, with any kind of responsibility and connection lost in its self-sufficiency.

In this direction, we can also read the short film at the end of DemoKino, when, after the whole process of voting and interactive co-operation, there appears the clown’s head with the caption: "What if I tell you that everything was pre-defined?" It would be short-sighted to read this bizarre image only as a disclosure of some big Other pulling the strings from the background - a disclosure of that primal dictatorial voice, which initially strengthens and then swallows our voices. It is namely not about a lever of the Other standing behind the process and directing everything in advance, but about the fact that the process becomes its own purpose. Similarly to Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, with the machine writing its verdicts directly upon the body, the big Other now talks in the midst of our procedure, precisely when our freedom is most realized. The paranoid talk about a conspiracy is but the surface of the problematicalness of connections and is actually still redemptive in a way, as it still can be located. But the contemporary problem of the question "what if I tell you that everything was pre-defined?" lies in the fact that this question is the essence of contemporary procedure. This question is the transparent semiotics of contemporary political speech, where the representative speech has been frozen into the silence of political procedure; the authoritarian origin of lie, which has become truth, can no longer be found. What ultimately reveals to us is theatre, with all the parts brilliantly performed, but the perfection of the procedure no longer allows any space for activity, regardless of all the voting buttons pressed. When it comes to that, every potentiality of putting oneself in the place of another has been lost. The purity of the procedure no longer allows space for position and opposition; one needs to take a new stand towards both agreeing and rebellion. When this representative connection between the private and the public, which triggers activity, is frozen in the self-sufficiency of procedure, putting oneself in the place of another is impossible. Now, we but co-operate, with our co-operation producing nothing at all.

IV. Biopolitics of the interior

There is another problem, however, that puts the contemporary political activity in a very specific dilemma. How can it be possible that nothing at all is produced by co-operation - and today, at the time when questions of the private and interior are becoming topical political issues, and when we are increasingly confronted with the multilayered and parallel ways of co-operation? What is the nature of the jouissance of the private today, when we are confronted with it in the political (i.e. public) field of activity, and why does our basic connection seem so falsified? Here, we can once again help ourselves with DemoKino, which not only demonstrates the paradoxes of the activity and self-sufficiency of contemporary procedures, dealt with in the previous chapter. Let us once again have a look at the situations from the eight virtual sessions. In each of them, the young man ponders in his private abode over contemporary dilemmas which touch upon life itself, which could be private life or life of the nature and things itself (clone rights, gay marriages, therapeutic cloning, abortion, water sources). He offers various arguments for and against, and ultimately it is us who decide the end of the session by means of an interactive vote. The man of DemoKino thus somewhat resembles the resident of Schiller’s aesthetic state, who talks to himself quietly in his room, and to the whole of mankind when he comes out. The virtual agora thus comes close to Schiller’s ideal of the aesthetic state, which is a realization of the will of the whole through the individual. The individual is included into the political decision-making by means of the interactivity of the interior and the exterior, or, as Schiller says, "progressing with calm innocence through the most complex of relationships and thus not having to infringe someone else’s freedom in order to enforce one’s own, nor cast his dignity aside in order to show gentleness and grace." [8] The watching of the man’s monologues and the interactive participation of the spectators, who move the man through his private abode with their votes, also resembles this ideal relationship at first sight - as it takes place with the direct participation of both the private interior (the man of DemoKino) and the public exterior (us voters). But Schiller knows that this kind of relationship is only aesthetic in character; in his words, it can only be realized in the aesthetic state: "in the aesthetic state, man shows himself to another as an image." [9] In contemporary terms: the ideal relationship can only be achieved through meticulously formed and conceived images, posed in Romanticism by the rules of the aesthetic education and nowadays understood as the procedures of transparency and layers of representative co-operation in decision-making.

These kinds of procedures are not only a consequence of the complicated phenomenology of political activity (as warned by Hannah Arend), but also that of a problem brought by the entering of the private interior into political decision-making. Although the meeting of the man’s inner monologue and our direct interactive co-operation offers a seemingly ideal political situation of public activity, it is actually far from ideal. This kind of interactivity between the private interior and public decision-making needs to be read from another perspective. The character’s inner monologues in Demokino, which seemingly grant us the freedom of public decision-making on a variety of issues (no matter how private and intimate they might be), point at a very problematic aspect of contemporary politics. Although one of the crucial demands of modern political activity was the entering of inner life into public life, this kind of demand, like every decisive political event, is actually two-faced: "the spaces, the liberties, and the rights won by individuals in their conflicts with central powers always simultaneously prepared a tacit but increasing inscription of individuals’ lives within the state order (...)". [10] (Giorgio Agamben). The entrance of the interior into politics thus actually offers an even more final argument for the sovereign power, something of which the interior itself wishes to be liberated. The man of the virtual sessions of DemoKino thus openly presents his complex reflections and arguments regarding issues touching upon life itself, and it is about these issues that we, by means of direct "yes" or "no", decide with voting buttons. What initially reveals as an "ideal" situation of political decision-making, is precisely the opposite of activity itself. The biologically given becomes a political issue - or as Agamben says, politics becomes biopolitics. What emerges is a total politization of everything (Karl Lowith), even of seemingly neutral areas of life. [11] When life itself becomes a political issue, it no longer has anything to do with the essence of political activity - the insight we get by putting ourselves in the place of another. Biopolitical activity is not activity in terms of ’speaking what is not in order to change what is’. Life itself namely does not have this representative moment because it mustn’t have it at all: it is impossible to place oneself in the place of someone else’s bare life. Bare life is impossible to stage; we can only accept and realize it, put it into practice. It is precisely these dilemmas that are in the kernel of our political participation nowadays; this makes our connection between the public (exterior) and the private (interior) the more impossible, and fills us more and more with a sort of inherent powerlessness in the contemporary connecting. In a way, any kind of political decision-making is thus a publicly legitimized kind of violence; it is impossible to make decisions at all because the primal political wisdom (phronesis) is entirely powerless in this case.

What is left to the entering of interior into politics is thus primarily the procedure, or more precisely, its self-sufficiency, which today manifests itself as an illusion of direct participation regarding various issues pertaining to our corporeality, sex, privacy and intimacy, medicine and science. Or differently: with the entrance of life into the arena of politics, directness only shows itself as a strategy of political connection, as the only straw we can grasp at; but in reality, it is just another face of the self-sufficient procedure, which has changed into the only truth of activity. With the entrance of life into politics, the falsification of directness has become double: firstly, as a procedure of co-operation, which is long self-sufficient and has lost its necessarily playful and lying connection, and secondly, as an illusion of placing oneself into the place of another, since it is impossible to place oneself in the place of someone else’s bare life.

By means of his inner monologues, in which he presents ethical, moral, philosophical and religious arguments for and against ethical issues, the man of DemoKino reveals the elusive edge of contemporary politics. It is about an activity which seemingly still has something to do with the changing of the actuality and with constant negotiation, but is actually already far away from the original political activity. It namely seems as if the realization in the procedure itself and the demand for direct access to truth have joined into a monolithic unity: "the novelty of modern biopolitics lies in the fact that the biologically given is as such immediately political, and the political is as such immediately biologically given". [12] This monolithic unity is changing the field of activity, i.e. of that freedom that places itself between truth and untruth, between my place and that of another, that always manifests itself through image and thus reveals its freedom - its lying and at the same time veracious potentiality. The self-sufficiency of procedure now becomes the only truth, but that does not happen because lie would take on the status of truth, as is the case e.g. in totalitarian systems, where the authority always determines the original course of the procedure. Contemporary politics not only faces the temptation to ultimately falsify the freedom of placing oneself in the place of another and change it into a spectacular forgery - in other words, to satisfy itself by and base itself only on its own procedure. There is something much deeper at work here: today, procedure is becoming our only actuality, the only totality when bare life enters politics. Procedure is becoming our only biopolitics, determining, regulating and directing life itself.
"So - get the connect outta here"!


Bojana Kunst

Website : http://www.kunstbody.org/


[1The novel is discussed by Steven Shaviro in: Connected, or what it means to live in the network society, University of Minessota Press, Minneapolis, London, 2003

[2Nicolas Bourriaud: Formes de vie, L’art moderne et l’invention de soi, Denoel 1999.

[3In June 2007 Davide Grassi changed his name in Janez Janša.

[4In June 2007 Davide Grassi changed his name in Janez Janša.

[5Hannah Arendt: Resnica in laž v politiki, Društvo Apokalipsa, p. 73.

[6Ibid., p. 88.

[7Ibid., p. 88.

[8Friedrich Schiller: O estetski vzgoji človeka, Claritas, Študentska založba, Ljubljana, 2003, p 137

[9Ibid., p. 134.

[10Giorgio Agamben: Homo Sacer, Solvereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford University Press, 1998, p 121.

[11From: Giorgio Agamben: Homo Sacer, Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford University Press, 1998, p. 121

[12Ibid., p. 148.