Mark Hurrell

mhurrell.co.uk/prospects

Internet realism

Was moving some books around a couple weeks ago and found this Raven Row catalogue that I’d totally forgotten about. It’s designed by the always brilliant John Morgan Studio and it has a nice little Mark Fisher essay in it:

As an artist committed to radical social transformation, Brehmer nevertheless had an ostensibly modest view of what being a political artist entailed: 'I said in 1968 that the artist should become an official', Brehmer remembered in an interview with Georg Jappe. 'What I meant is that the artist should face up to the demand that she be useful to this society somewhere'. This apparent modesty contrasts tellingly with some of the more extravagant claims made on behalf of revolutionary art before and after May 1968. But the idea that the political artist could be useful to society inevitably presupposes a society that could make use of politically radical art — an idea that, in contemporary conditions of restoration and reaction, is close to utopian. What is rejected in this de-romanticised view of political art is a certain position of impotent marginality, which has become standard in anti-capitalist culture. What is affirmed is something that anti-capitalism has by and large lost in its institutional oppositionalism: a confidence that a new society can in fact be constructed, and that the role of the political artist is not to be in permanent opposition, but to assist in the production of this new normal.

... Most importantly, Brehmer shared with Stuart Hall the awareness that political activists must work with what is here and, now — which is by no means saying that they must stay stuck here: on the contrary. We are condemned to work from within the system — never more so than now — but that is the only position that remains from which an alternative can be built. Brehmer's work is a timely reminder that, to be successful, a politics aimed at overcoming capital cannot take place on the street alone. One of the famous slogans coming out of Paris in 1968 was 'structures don't walk in the streets' — but the problem today is the opposite: how can the politics of street protest make any contact with the abstract structures of capital that appear to be immune to direct action?

First, we must make those structures visible.

Mark Fisher, Politics beyond the street (2014 essay for KP Brehmer retrospective at Raven Row)


In one of life’s weird coincidences, the next book I picked up was this one from the Harun Farocki Institute which is part of an archive of Farocki’s responses to Brehmer’s ideas:

We want to create an institution that is just an office for initiating and coordinating some documentary work.

Ultimately, a national image library.

Producing material to investigate the present, the future past.

Letter by Harun Farocki (1975)

Thank you for your letter and the text concerning a national image library. Naturally it would be a good thing and there are numerous areas beyond industrial production that should be documented, however the most important side — is — industrial production.

Peter Nestler, replying to Harun Farocki’s letter (1975)

Which Tom Holert interprets:

'What ought to be done' transforms dissatisfaction with the existing into a productive realism, which Farocki formulates in the present tense. It is not meant in a utopian sense, but as an answer to 'capitalist realism' — going beyond mere analysis to expose the elements of the industry and to use them against it.

Tom Holert, writing about Harun Farocki (1996)


What I take from these writers is the importance of research in constructive criticism. As in design, although research probably won’t give you the answers it exposes the structures, and makes them visible for everyone to see. And if you can agree on the structural constraints, then maybe you have a chance of working together to address them.

I think that’s what Sonia was getting at with her reaction to Responsible Tech at the beginning of the month:

It’s good to hear calls for increased responsibility and transparency entering public discourse, however, the focus is still very much within tech communities. While there were some people talking about the need to widen the scope, much of the day still felt like a bunch of tech people talking to each other.

I believe it is vital to turn to new voices and learn with them, without the arrogance of 'we know better'. We need to facilitate a collaborative approach between practitioners across different fields if we want to imagine a better future for our human and more-than-human world.

Sonia Turcotte, Responsible Tech 2019

So little of the tech industry has anything to do with actual code. The technology we use is a product of business models, user habits and expectations, international and local legislation and the spaces that exist in-between. It’s a thousand small decisions being made every day, almost none of them by software engineers. Those structural constraints surround every software decision, and yet instead crack jokes about techbros as if they’re solely responsible.

I mean, I love ripping into techbros as much as anyone else, but it’s sort of like demonising yuppies in the 80s. Although it’s nice and simple to blame our problems on single demographic groups (and tbh it seems to be our cultural default) it doesn’t solve anything.

Talking about yuppies in the 80s didn’t fix banking, and just talking about technologists probably won’t fix the technology industry either. Idk maybe it’s time for a bit of technology realism.

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