Published in New Observations, Issue No. 101 (May/June 1994) Copy Culture, and many other publications.
This will be personal. But the personal level is the key to understanding the cultural, artistic, and political movement which is taking back technology into the personal control of anyone who has something to say, something to create. It is personal technology, anarchistic technology. It is not like cable T.V. which we were told ten years ago would liberate the person by giving him intimate and direct information and communication channels…but which today is simply more channels for the money types who have always controlled the communication flowing through mass media…just more monopolized channels for passive entertainment, selling, and manipulation of information and of reality. The only exception to this is the local access channels which are kept in the closet and are always in danger of being axed by the cable company. These access channels are a part of the personal technology.
Personal technology is basically a slip up of what I have called elsewhere “the combine plot”. I took the term “combine” from the Ken Kesey novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The combine plot is a hidden dynamic system of power, control, and interest that keeps the tools of creation and of effective change out of the hands of the common people. This keeps the people powerless, keeping the power within an elite. The tools of effective change have been kept out of the hands of the common people by false rituals of education, money, and bulky expensive equipment which took a cult knowledge to operate. Added to this maze of creative blocks were the false myths about talent and the acceptable quality levels needed to reach people, acceptable quality levels below which people are trained to not watch or listen.
All of this is too abstract and philosophical. In this article, I will try to pull these issues down into the real world by using my own artistic experiences as a context. But it is important to realize at the beginning that personal technology, anarchistic technology is still technology. All technology has hidden, built-in links to the established order of isolation and fragmentation. These links can frustrate attempts to use technology to subvert the established reality. Only by being always aware of these links to isolation and fragmentation inherent in all technology, can technology be safely used as a tool of cultural subversion. This fact again banged me over the head when I was talking to a successful musician who didn’t understand why all performers do not stop touring, considering the pollution caused by traveling…and do what he does, which is do everything through telecommunications. I just said you can not touch through phones, computers, videos…and even through writing. To restore humanity to our culture by using technology, we must know and admit the limitations of that technology.
All technology is a double-edged sword. This includes the very first communication technology…writing/reading. We usually think of the invention of writing as extremely liberating. And in so many ways it was. But in so many other ways it confined humanity. For one thing, it placed a fixed linear frame of thinking within the human brain much more than spoken language had done. Moreover, writing/reading created a very exclusive elite for most of the known human history. Before writing, everyone knew the tribal language…everyone knew how to paint, sing, dance. Information flowed both between people and within time to the future through this tribal accessible language both of spoken word and of art. If information did not flow through this tribal channel, that information was lost. All of this changed when writing was invented. Now there was a channel that was not accessible to everyone, a channel that did not easily lose information. Those who could access this channel had power. Because of this, for most of recorded history, the skill of reading/writing was monopolized by the ruling elite to maintain its power. This was true even after a larger minority gained limited access to the flowing channel of writing. One of the ways the elite maintained its control was by withdrawing the important ideas…dangerous ideas…both sacred and profane, away from the common people, withdrawing the dangerous ideas into a dead language such as Latin or Greek. Only the members of the elite who went through the rituals of education of the established order (be it religious, political, and/or class) could read or speak this dead language of power. There was another channel of flowing information which was folk art, folk music, and folk words, be it written or spoken. This folk channel was accessible to everyone. It was a dynamic, interactive channel of communication. But the full force of this folk channel was always kept in check by the elite channel with the myth that anything which comes through the folk channel was not worthy or important because it did not come from the hidden knowledge.
This control by the elite did not start to break down until the printing press became cost-accessible to the members of the common people. This opened to the common people a communication channel which was not rooted in physical time…that is, you write something and someone within another time, another place reads exactly what you thought. This is the real force which was unlocked by the printing press, and not the ability to reach mass amounts of people. Without the printing press being to a large degree accessible to the forces of change, the American and French Revolutions may not have happened.
But the elite quickly developed strategies to limit access for the common people to this printing channel. The elite spread the myth that to be really effective, a writer had to go through the rituals of the educational system, and then be blessed by being recognized by the publishing factory, which became increasingly massive and impersonal. Self-publishing was labeled “vanity press”. The presses that offered this service were seen as cons, as scams. Writers who used this service were thought of as untalented fools who got conned. The individual who believed in this myth of the power of the corporate media system to bestow access to communications, and to bestow validity through acceptance, was frozen out of any real position for subversive change.
All of this is an historical background on which I can talk about the issues of personal technology, anarchistic technology in the context of cultural subversion.
I started out in the late ’60s writing for underground papers as a political columnist…sneaking into the mimeograph room at school to run off a hundred copies under the protection of a friendly teacher. Of course, the teacher always, as well as us, got into hot water…and the access to the mimeograph machine was closed. No access, no underground paper. There was not any question about our buying our own mimeograph machine…no money.
But it took only a year or so for the underground press to move from the mimeograph stage into being run off at offset print shops. The underground press had its roots going back through the radical press of the ’20s and ’30s and in the poetry press. The kind of person who put out these papers poured all their personal money into it, then hoped by selling ads, selling papers, by magic, the paper would stay afloat. There was rarely any question of making money on it. But when your nest egg, your dead aunt’s money, ads, sales, or whatever was supporting your rag ran out, that paper of visions died. But there was always a new paper being born to fill the empty space.
There was a rejection of the old standards of quality of both form and content which had kept the common people from creating. As a result of this rejection, a new way of looking at art, politics, and life was thus created. The underground press became so effective that by the early ’70s there were over 700 of these papers and an underground press network. It became so effective that the F.B.I. targeted the underground press for destruction by a covert war. By using the fact that the underground papers rarely had direct access to a printing press, and by using the organization which developed around the underground press, the F.B.I. and the rest of the combine could bring the underground press into control, into the fold.
Around this time, I rejected politics as a means for effective subversive change, and began looking towards art and magic for an effective channel. I took a film-making course, learning the technical rituals of 16mm. 16mm was then the home movie technology. But when I did the technological rituals of lighting, shooting, splicing, etc., they took me away from the actual magic of doing. Hidden within these technological rituals are deadening roadblocks to direct personal creative communications. Roadblocks can be gotten around. But why bother when there are direct alternative routes?
After the film course, I still had no money to make films. One road would have been to put my time and energy into getting money or a position to make films. But I always have mistrusted the myth of changing the system from within. It never works. Once you compromised, modified, changed, distorted both yourself and your message to get the media channel, why bother sending the message? The system myth is a major vacuum that sucks creative power away from people by putting vast amounts of time between the person and the act of creation. Whether the myth is of waiting to get enough money, education, or power before you create, the effect is the same…waiting for Godot.
For these reasons, I created a no/low tech form of live performance which did not need money, theater space, sets, stage lighting, approval, or a particular audience size. This no/low tech form is vital to work which is culturally subversive by expanding the concept of sexuality and reality beyond the frame of taboos.
For me as a no/low tech artist, the personal technology, anarchistic technology is a very important dimension. I first realized this when I was trying to get established in N.Y.C. in the early ’70s. I could not find out about art events until after the fact when I read about them in THE VILLAGE VOICE. So I couldn’t go to them. So I couldn’t meet people with whom I could have gotten something going. One reason for this was there was very little flyering. In N.Y.C., organized crime has a monopoly on putting up posters. I did not realize how much no flyering isolated people until I moved to Berkeley where on every telephone pole, there were 10, 20, 30 flyers. Anyone who has an event, a group, a cause, something to say, can go to a xerox place, run off hundreds, or even thousands of flyers and staple them up all over town. This direct two-way form of the press plugged me immediately into the community where I could do my work.
We have to start seeing flyering, be it on telephone poles or on computer bulletin boards, as a form of personal press, and as such is protected under the freedom of press. Big Brother comes in many forms from the mafia to government (down to the anti-flyer laws as part of a city’s “beautification” campaign) to corporations such as A.T.&T. and Blockbuster Videos.
Just recently I saw the power of this direct personal press. For years I have not been able to be booked in the “alternative” performance galleries in the Bay Area for various reasons…so I put 500 “too controversial for the Bay Area” flyers up asking for leads to spaces in which to perform. From the very first flyer we put up came three good leads into the true alternative art scene. Moreover, the flyer directly exposed the true condition of the established “alternative” art world.
This direct exposing is one of the strengths of the personal technology, anarchistic technology in the context of cultural subversion. Be it a camcorder capturing police brutality or a xerox zine publishing radical heretofore unpublishable material, the effect is to decentralize power, putting it into the personal level. I noticed this again last year when Senator Jesse Helms targeted me for investigation for my art. With only one exception, no one from the regular press contacted me to get my reaction or story. Some of the art magazines printed my open letter to Helms and my article on censorship. But I reached a wide national audience when THE SPIRITUAL REVOLUTIONARY (TSR), a newsletter zine by S/R PRESS, printed both. While TSR has a small readership, other zines reprinted my two pieces from TSR, without my permission but without editing. Then still other zines reprinted the material from those zines. The effect of this anarchistic grapevine of xerox zines is I had exposure to a wide national audience which was made up of small subcultures.
The combine recognizes the uncontrollable force represented by the direct personal communications through the anarchistic technology. The combine is trying to put this genie back in the bottle. The easiest, and the most obvious way to do this is to censor the physical channels…be it phone lines, the mail, or T.V./radio waves.
But there are hidden means by which the combine can thwart the direct personal use of technology. One of these is making equipment such as computers, obsolete every six months, not for any real functional improvement, but for progress. The effect of habitual upgrading is not only that we keep having to buy new soft/hardware, but it also creates a false mystery around the computer very much like the dead language of Latin did in the Dark Ages.
But the best way for the combine to curb the use of personal technology is by the standards of “professional quality”.
When I xerox-published by first two books, I did not run into this wall of “professional quality”. This is because I sold them directly, personally at my performances, as well as by the mail through a review in BOX OF WATER.
But when S/R PRESS xerox-published by book, CHEROTIC MAGIC, we took it, along with my zine THE CHEROTIC rEVOLUTIONARY, around to bookstores. The reason why a lot of the bookstores gave for not carrying the book was not the written or the visual contents of the book, but that it had a spiral binding, rather than a regular binding. Having a regular binding would boost the cost out of the realm of personal level and into the traditional publishing with its concerns of mass sales. Kyle Griffith is fond of saying that if the book’s format is too revolutionary for a bookstore, then the content is also…so it would serve no purpose for us to try to package it differently. I must quickly add that there are quite a few bookstores that are not locked into buying solely from a distributor, that will carry personal xerox-published books and zines. Moreover, there are bookstores devoted to personal xerox publications…for example, METROPOPHOBOBIA in, of all places, Phoenix! These outlets for personal publications will multiply in the coming years.
I have dealt with the barriers of format and technology to personal direct human involvement in every medium I have tried. A lot of people have assumed this was because I was poor, did not know how to get grants, did not know how to use technology, or did not know how to use the system. In reality, even if I had tons of money, I would still use the same no/low tech, because that is the best way to take back the creative force from the combine…back into the hands of anyone with a creative urge…or, for that matter, a destructive urge.
Since we are communicating on the personal level, you can send feedback, inquiries, or whatever to me at:
P.O. Box 11445
Berkeley, CA 94712