"You Never Know Who's Listening" - Sherman Austin

"Sherman Austin, webmaster of RaisetheFist.com, was sentenced today, August 4, 2003, to one year in federal prison, with three years of probation. Judge Wilson shocked the courtroom when he went against the recommendation of not only the prosecution, but the FBI and the Justice Department, who had asked that Austin be sentenced to 4 months in prison, and 4 months in a half-way house, with 3 years of probation." --Raisethefist.com

Guilt by association is coming to the fore--a vicious tactic--and by this I mean that today, it seems, one can be prosecuted with "Intent to harm the State" (conspiracy) by simply linking or hosting information that could be used for dangerous actsĺ─ţlike creating explosives. Which is what has happened to Sherman Austin. After an "unnamed poster" uploaded information on explosive-making to Raisethefist.com , an FBI squad team surrounded and raided Austin's house. From there it was all over (suspicions remain, of course, as to why the poster has not been pursued--see thoughts below). The issue is not, technically, linking or hosting such information--but rather conspiring to use it with intent, for Google caches contain, host and link such information, as do libraries and (untouched) religious and conservative militias. While Austin's rhetorical intent is confrontational, there is no evidence that he was planning or even approving of violence wrought by explosives. In fact, his website is only a degree more direct than many other websites critiquing US policy and Government with an ear to considering alternate political systems--Austin's political system of choice being, not surprisingly, "anarchism" (which we also see, for example, as a debated alternative, in both theory and application, as well as to what it means "today," in Zmag.org, Nettime.org and Indymedia.org, and academic venues such as PostModern Culture and Autonomedia).

I don't support Austin's "anarchism," but it's something, and it remains startling if not ironically close, as other posters to the site have pointed out, to the politics of Thomas Jefferson, & of the "Declaration of Independence" (which one poster described as "an anarchist rant"--& it is for these same reasons that I would be weary of Austin's "anarchism," for its acceptance of a liberal humanism, inheriting a legacy that requires some thought, including "liberation" and other violent methodologies which, at their limit, mimic salvationary structures). But it shows that the very usage and mention of the word today--anarchism--is looping the circuits. The linking of "Tactical Post-Structural Anarchism" to Hakim Bey as well as Foucault, Lyotard and Deleuze (see Michael Truscullo, PostModern Culture 13.3) will have a double-effect: of at once aligning poststructuralism with a movement often shunned by the Left and philosophy in general for its apparent nałěvety, and at the same time, in the eyes of the Right, confirming their long-held suspicions that "French Theory"--if not intellectuals and academic knowledge in general--are The Enemy.

In other words, the resampling of "anarchism" makes both Left and Right uneasy. The State has clearly acted with aggression against Austin and this aggression needs to be heeded by all who continue to promote, if not simply discuss (and especially those without recognised public support), alternative models, if not simply terrains, of the political. Perhaps even their potential or possibility--are not the philosophers of anarchy next? Noam Chomsky is unlikely to be arrested. But the upcoming generations of political thinkers and activists are.

Even at this year's MUTEK--of all things, an experimental electronic music festival!--a panel I moderated on Canadian electronic music spent a good deal of the discussion touching upon the hostilities at the Canadian / US border and the difficulties of traveling in the US as a Canadian. The waves of fear spread. So does the discussion of anarchism.

Somewhere I was reading how Libertarianism, despite its massive influence on the Net, has all but been left uncommented upon by the academic Left and other political science institutions. It may have been Geert Lovink, who certainly has advanced a critique of such "Wired Ideology." But "anarchism" remains in a lurch between an image of Libertarianism and a violent reduction to simply that--violence. It is also reduced--and this will no doubt give "activists" pause in their agreement, perhaps, so far--to the myth that "direct democracy" will solve the fallacies wrought by representative democracy. Although direct democracy (non-representative decision-making) can be useful and helpful in certain scenarios, it can lead to intractable stalemates and can force a scenario of group coercion, all of which has been outlined in troubling twists in the deconstruction of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's work on the "General Will" by Jacques Derrida in Of Grammatology. Rousseau (as well as Derrida) is very much worth reading, for Rousseau spent much of his time trying to devise ways in which to recognise the "will of the people." If one historically considers the writing of Derrida's seminal tome today, one realises that there was a struggle, at the time, with similar contemporary questions. One reads it in Hunter S. Thompson's letters from the early '60s. The late-60s' radicals were doing their warm-up thinking. By this I mean that OG, for example, was directed toward a reader who was considering the debate in the atmosphere of the early-to-mid-late '60s in France, pre-1968. The questions Rousseau was considering, of the "General Will" of the people, were pertinent then--hence Derrida's "reading" and, at points, "critique" or "deconstruction" of a certain philosophy or writing, exploring its inherent dangers and risks, and its schema of necessity, of power despite its aim or stated goals (and I only speculate here)--and it is pertinent now, which also means we need to revisit (always) deconstruction.

The case of Austin Sherman also means another dangerous US legal precedent: that webmasters are responsible for all content of their websites. This would entail what an anonymous poster might write in the Comments field of a blog, for example, or in a guestbook. Are webmasters now responsible for what others say, think and write? And what of Google ads that rotate generated content? Is the webmaster now responsible for, simply, all volunteered, provided, generated, and linked information? What of RSS Feeds? How and where does a website end, in this situation, when hyperlinking has also proved to be a legal act of association?

For example, by even linking to Raisethefist.com in this journalistic context as well as in the mode of critique & citation, it could be claimed, under this unjust precedent, that one supports the site's aims of conspiratorial intent (ĺ─˙intentĺ─¨ which has been ĺ─˙provedĺ─¨ in the same manner). By linking to this blog post you could be included. And so on--which leads us to (wrongly) conclude entire swaths of the Net, if not discourse in general, as matrices of culpability. Will we live to see time when, in its final bid for supremacy, hegemonic power attempts to eradicate not only the presence of such information but all the participants and agents in and of its relay? It's not too fantastic nor hallucinatory to suggest that the current tactics of the RIAA--in arresting MP3 filesharers accused of what are, on the whole, minor infractions of outdated copyright law--are beginning to test the limits of such "outreach" tactics of State & Corporate interference to what what can be termed "inward" aggression. These are tactics of, to put it mildly, "shock and awe."

(I think it is fair, if the links of culpability are being perpetuated by the State structure itself, to begin considering culpable association as already incorporated by the State. The various networks of business, military, media and politics for example. We can speculate that what the legal system is setting in precedent is nothing less than the ways in which the State already operates; it's just using its own organisational principles, of culpable association, against its own people, what Paul Virilio called endocolonization. Slowly "legalizing" a new & different strap of constriction. Creeping control. We could also call this internal strong-arm tactics--essentially a form of protection-money. By busting a few MP3 pirates, we all quit Kazaa out of fear. To repeat: these are tactics of, to put it mildly, "shock and awe.")

Where does this leave, even, the status of my last two invigorated posts, one responding with a certain poison to the repressive tactics of, for example, the Polish religious right and its legal system? Of discussing, openly, a support for a kind of "anarchism" that would not be an anarchism as we currently know it, or yet, as a temporary exit, and not a solution? Hopefully, "not alone"--for as soon as the webmaster becomes isolated, and unsupported, as soon as the network is weakened, then a pincer operation becomes that much easier by State forces.

A wider network is a necessity, a network not of agreement or complicity, but of openness, of supporting while questioning the troublesome categories of "free speech" and "free association"-- "basic human rights," however troublesome this discourse, for by supporting it against the State, out rips a series of fault-lines--an openness to debate, to discussion, to writing-as-polylogue, to also dropping the in-fighting and presenting a show of hands when needed (& we need this in the case of Austin). But beyond this frontline support, the issue at hand is one of knowledge itself: of the way we know things, citate things, learn things. This is not only about Austin, but about the power politics of information--& thus our dreams & our realities.

(Often today we forget that writing can be speculative, or even paradoxical, or including its own debates, like a fiction writer portraying a conversation--or Plato's dialogues of Socrates and his interlocutors. We expect that it is univocal and judgmental and true, this "we" perhaps reflected in the imposed method of "discourse" today, television. Which means to say this very writing here is not television, despite its appearance on your screen. It is fighting itself to understand the current traumas of oppression being carried out at a lightning speed all but invisible to the monopolized media's radar. It is quoting itself and others in this blog without regard. It is grappling. It is risky.)

posted. Sun - August 17, 2003 @ 02:25 AM           |