I just typed the word ‘radical’ into my thesaurus and the first word it brought up as a similar option was fundamental.
My personal understanding of the word ‘radical’ comes from music, comes from the sixties, comes from cinematic and bookish antiheroes that read ‘The Outsider’ or ‘On the Road’. It is a little outdated as a term, sure, but if I were to use the word it would instinctively be to describe a piece of rock music or a strung out art theorist. An outlandish ideologue that challenges the cultural norm. Roland Barthes writing is radical, Sonic Youth’s music is radical. I do not automatically think of strands of Islam, or terrorist threat.
I blame the internet for the evolution of this linguistic enigma, and it is not alone in its peculiar metamorphosis.
The avant-garde is being threatened. I mean this in a non sensational way. Technology as a tool has grown and nationalism has intensified. This coincides with the fact that we have been through a period of history defined by terrorist threats. Surveillance is now vast, and the media is more powerful than ever. The reality is that to combat general threat, peripheral social activity is named and made into a zeitgeist. The remote has had to be identified because anything unidentified is a threat to the hegemonic. Everything can be a possible profit. The internet of things has evolved. In the time of Late Capitalism, art is purely information, and all information can be monitored.
It is information, not shock or terrorism, that has changed our era the most. A gradual building of understanding of the world through the internet and computer programmes, which are actually a far more inhibiting resource than often expressed, has channelled peoples global awareness into honed perspectives. To control images of the middle east and refine national identity we have been transformed into a state where our own cultural rebellions are cultivated and groomed for us.
Subcultures and esoterica that bloomed in the early days of the internet have rapidly been either incorporated by large businesses or are dwindling through lack of interest. They are frequently dwarfed by hierarchies of information. Giant sites such as Wikipedia and Google have become focal hubs for the online activity of everyone, not just the mainstream. People originally saw the internet as a tool of emancipation. A forum where advertising, free music and overlapping interests could meet and create intelligent intertextualities. Interesting communities emerged. It was a cultural space. In just ten to fifteen years, even the more remote spaces of the web have been bought and refined by big businesses.
I am not arguing that the change in the thesaurus has altered society, I am saying that the shift in society that has led to being preoccupied with information has altered language, and as a result culture. It was Philip K Dick that said “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.” It seems an increasingly important recognition when people are dealing with the centralised locus of knowledge and information that is the internet, its prime concern the trade of emails, articles and providing a multitude of forums for debate.
From what was originally a tool for diversity, cheap and accessible for the people, I now find largely redundant, time consuming and tedious. I realistically use perhaps five or six sites regularly. The implied universe in scope of data and social inclusion has become a formula for advertising who’s key ideas revolve, as they always have, around money making at almost any expense.
I might be alone here, but I don’t believe that technology can sustain itself as the core means of communication, business and culture. I don’t believe we are encouraging enough objectivity in people to have a true sense of what technology really does. On the whole, people still seem somewhat engaged, or at least adapted. This is changing though. There are analyses such as ‘The Shallows’, ‘You Are Not A Gadget’, and ‘Cypherpunks’ along with other studies of how the internet is not the all singing, all dancing medium that it was originally hailed to be, understanding that it changes social context, communities, and human psychology as well as the way we communicate.
So many creative forms seem somehow dependent on the internet as a whole now, imbibing as it has publishing , galleries, journals, libraries. A machine that is now undeniably in the grasp of business, resulting in an absence of room for development. This is concerning. It seems the transition between emerging artist and mainstream success has diminished to barely existent. This means trajectory from origin to audience has become a loaded experience for even the more remote creative purveyors. Capitalist trend hunters can invest in something and virtually ensure its success. The formula seems more simple than ever. Find remote talent (of which there is still enough on the web), invest and market it to Timbuktu, reap the rewards. There is no languishing in the slipstream anymore. Likewise, to opt to cultivate an offline community seems increasingly absurd and difficult in the long shadows of the net where all is assimilated into a homogenous mass and displayed on a flat screen.
What I am not talking about here is subversion through incorporation. This has been a long running and very different dialogue that has been handled well by everyone from Richard Prince’s paintings to the film Fight Club. It has brought up very interesting areas that have been rife with content. My belief is that the internet no longer allows for this ambiguity, these interpretations that allow fecundity for developing artists. Technology is rigid. When was the last time you felt emotionally vague about anything on the web?
So what defines the contemporary avant-garde? Does the radical as artists have known it even exist any more? My understanding: Lives are now marginal. Repeated invention, repeated substance of character, repeated effectiveness and statement, eschewing the definitions that are repeatedly thrust at us, over a long period of time. This is what proves an individual or group of people as challenging. Flippant remarks and gestures don’t cut it, ironic values are worthless. Resistance to corporate structure, resistance to money, resistance to capitalism. Without sounding like a Marxist bore, I feel it is more important than ever to hail the understanding that life beyond the web can be full of off beat ventures. So put your shoes on and go outside. Take a book. It’s radical.