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Interview with Rita Raley

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Dr. Rita Raley is associate professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of the book Tactical Media. She visited UT Austin in spring 2013 as the featured presenter of the Digital Writing & Research Lab’s annual Speaker Series, where she gave a talk entitled “Tactical Media as Speculative Practice.” Dr. Raley also sat down with former DWRL Assistant Director Dr. Trevor Hoag for the following interview, in which she characterizes tactical media as “situational, ephemeral, and self-terminating.” As such, she notes, it requires us to think beyond simple binaries like digital/nondigital, online/offline, and good/bad in order to preserve meaningful spaces for political resistance and agency in this emerging moment of digital activism. Raley urges us to investigate how instances of activism are classified and ascribed value, as well as the pedagogical interventions technology calls for and enables.

Listen to the interview in its entirety by using the embedded audio player at the top of this page, or read the edited transcript below.

Trevor Hoag: Given that the theme of this year’s DWRL Speaker Series is “digital activism”—or, more specifically, “questioning digital activism”—and the title of your lecture later today is “Tactical Media as Speculative Practice,” I thought we could begin just by talking about digital activism more broadly and then maybe work our way towards talking about tactical media as a specific form of intervention. Does that sound good? 

Rita Raley: That sounds wonderful.

Hoag: Recent social movements all over the world have employed digital media. For example, the Egyptian revolutionaries used Twitter, and in the US and all over the world the Occupy movement used everything from memes to live-streaming video, you name it. As someone who works at the intersection of the digital humanities, media, and rhetoric, I was interested in what you thought about which of these different practices were the most effective, especially from a rhetorical angle. Which ones seem to work and produce powerful effects?

Raley: I think that question can only be answered contextually or specifically with regard to the concrete circumstances of a particular situation. So a student protest on a particular campus would want to employ different rhetorical strategies, or different tactics or techniques, than a student protest at a campus in, let’s say, the UK. One can imagine differences among institutions in the US, of course, as well. Probably one always has to ask: What does one want? What is the desired goal or outcome? Does one even want to be thinking in terms of goals or outcomes? Does one simply want to make some noise and get some attention? Is it about actually becoming aware of one’s own power to act? In which case, that would involve using entirely different techniques.

I think the most powerful—and this is a generalization, it can only be that—but the most powerful movements, and I’ll think in terms of student movements for a second since we’re on a campus, have been those that have used a variety of techniques: that have involved street action or quad action, banner hanging, leafleting, culture jamming or identity correction, memes, flash mobs, sometimes even dabbling in DDoS [distributed denial-of-service][1] attacks, although that’s been less prevalent in student protest. But those that, in a way, have more of a tentacle-like approach to the problem and they’re not thinking strictly spatially: this quad or this green. They’re not thinking strictly with regards to a single target—i.e., “we want to take down this server or this particular figure”—although we have seen a lot of that with chancellors and provosts and presidents being the subject of attack or criticism. But they’re thinking in a very hybrid fashion, mixing what you might call “digital” and “non-digital,” though I don’t even know that we need to think in that binary fashion. 

Hoag: It seems like it has a lot to do with swarming and pulsing into different targets, and—depending on what target it is—choosing your own media appropriately and being very dynamic.

Raley: Right.

Hoag: That idea of hybridity and having multiple strategies leads me to another question. One of the things people are skeptical about with digital media and digital activism is this idea that you can’t build flesh-and-blood solidarity through networks. People will say stuff like, “Media intervention can’t produce long-standing communities.” I was curious what you thought about that.

Raley: Since this is following from a conversation about fandom—and this won’t translate as well to print—but fandom is a good example in the sense that you see how meaningful it is for people to think about the communities to which they belong or in which they participate. You could never tell someone who was active in the fan world that what she was doing was somehow not real or not tied to her everyday life. You know, the new Pirate Bay documentary is AFK [away from keyboard], not IRL [in real life], and of course they always say, “We refuse that distinction. We can only think in terms of the keyboard, there is no real, not real.” That aside, it is a larger concern, and it has been: How do you translate a tactical intervention into a long-term movement? And I think it’s better, or maybe more interesting, to frame the question not in terms of short-term/long-term, but in terms of solidarities: How can you build solidarities between different communities, different individuals, and even think about how aims or goals might be brought into alignment or dialogue with each other? And again, the solidarity is not across this divide between the “real” and the “digital,” but rather between this particular instantiation of a community at a particular moment and another.

Hoag: I like that sort of approach of finding a line of flight outside of that binary between networks and “flesh-and-blood solidarity,” and instead problematizing that from the outset and showing how intertwined they are. I think that’s really smart.

Raley: I mean, as I’ll mention just briefly at the outset of my talk today, you just have to look at both Anonymous and Occupy here as very good case studies. Neither one is purely one or the other—and again, we’re dealing with this sort of artificial “digital” or “not digital.” Anonymous, obviously, is known for a certain type of activism—or “hacktivism,” more properly—but the role they played in Egypt and Tunisia is regarded as having been quite meaningful. So how, there, do you talk about a radical separation or difference between the two? Certainly you can think about a collaboration in a very meaningful way. And Occupy, with all the different types of techniques and organizational strategies—it couldn’t happen without digital technologies. But of course it also couldn’t happen without bodies in the square.

Hoag: Absolutely. Linked to Anonymous, I was curious what you thought about Anonymous and Julian Assange and that sort of approach. What do you see as the most interesting and important effects of that, for good or for ill?

Raley: So Gabriella Coleman, whose work on hacktivism and Anonymous is really quite powerful, has a nice succinct line about Operation Chanology as being a moment when a new networked form of activism is born.[2] And it’s a general statement but it’s nonetheless accurate, I think. One could point to this moment and say something different happens with Anonymous when they start to set their sights on the Church of Scientology. And I don’t know yet that we can write the history of this moment, but I have a sense that we’re in the middle or in the midst of something really powerful emerging, and I don’t think we quite know what the lifespan or what the longevity of this type of activism is going to be—or what its ultimate cultural place is.

Hoag: Speaking about things like Anonymous and making interventions, I was curious what you thought about the presence of media interventions that aren’t working for the quote-unquote “good guys,” so to speak. For example, I haven’t looked at it myself, but apparently there’s a thriving community of white supremacists online and things like that. And so I was curious, how do we both protect the right of speech, and the right for media intervention and things like that, but at the same time curtail the use of media in problematic ways? And I’m sure this ties in with the question of access too.

Raley: Yeah, certainly one would have to say that there’s no ideological kernel or ontological core of a particular technological artifact or even of a technique. DDoS attacks are not inherently good or bad: That would be my claim. They can be used for good or bad. I mean, we’re using these sort of stark terms. But we’re reminded always that these issues are framed in terms of the “bad” or the “evil.” And we’re meant to feel that it’s scary, a threat to the state, et cetera. I don’t think inherently it is, but it can be used for these purposes. So, I’m more interested in patterns and structures of use than I am in thinking about the inherent value or quality—or, again, aspects [or] identity—of any of these particular tools or techniques. Yes, white supremacists may very well avail themselves of the same techniques as Anonymous. It’s all to be expected. And I think one just has to find new ways of combatting, or new ways of negotiating or navigating, what one feels to be injurious acts or injurious speech.

Hoag: That’s a very rhetorical way to look at it too. If you think about the ancient world, the whole idea of the Sophists teaching people different forms of intervention, it’s sort of value neutral in some profound sense. You don’t tell people how to use it, it’s just there’s a tool there. It sounds like you’re interested in that deployment more than anything else.

Raley: Yeah, I think that’s the only way that one can think about these things in these terms. I mean, certainly the law—and I just mean that with a capital “L,” in a general way—would want to categorize something like a DDoS attack as inherently bad. An act of terrorism is usually how it’s framed, right?

Hoag: Right.

Raley: But why not frame it in terms of electronic civil disobedience? It could easily be spun in the same terms. I don’t think one can make a metaphysical claim one way or the other. You can make a legal claim, but I think that is always contextual.

Hoag: This is closely related. I know you’re very interested in teaching and pedagogy, and I was really interested to pick back up this thread of digital activism, tactical media, et cetera, and its pedagogical role. For example, Greg Ulmer talks about this idea of “electracy” and becoming electronically literate. And I was sort of interested in, as a teacher and teaching with games and other types of media, how you approach that. How do you approach media as a pedagogical intervention in terms of its use?

Raley: This might be one of these throat-clearing gestures, because one of the ways you framed the question in the list that you gave me earlier was about the sort of techniques that I think it’s most important to impart to students and what qualifies as electronic literacy at this point, which I have strong feelings about. So I want to say something about this if you don’t mind.

Hoag: I’d love to hear it.

Raley: I think search is crucial, but I also think data collection and privacy are crucial. I think students need to be aware of how they’re being—of how we’re all being—tracked and monitored, how we’re positioned, what types of information are regarded as valuable, how one can anonymize, if so desired, how one can craft a persona. This is always important in the age of social networking: how one can think about presenting the self, to use the Erving Goffman formulation. And, in a very ordinary sense, this will be important for students who go on the job market and realize their employers can look at precisely that crafting of the self over time. But if I were to just sort of ennumerate then: I think search, issues of privacy and dataveillance, and then the third having to do with the presentation of the self.

Hoag: Just for personal reasons, I want to pick up specifically on one of those lines there: the idea of perceptibility. For example, I’m interested in memory and forgetting. I’m interested in this idea of becoming imperceptible online and making the net forget you and things like that. So I was curious to hear a little bit more about what you were doing with that.

Raley: Yeah, I looked at some of your classes and saw you were doing the [Viktor Mayer-Schonberger] Delete text, which I also taught at a certain moment. I think I taught it in a class on social media. It’s important for students to think in these terms. And, of course, it has that shock effect. You know, you present certain anecdotes and they realize it could be them.

Hoag: Right. Absolutely.

Raley: But it’s important because it makes them realize that narratives can be constructed of the data that they are creating. In other words, they’re not wholly in control of their data. It depends on the search query one runs: They can be produced as a dilettante or deviant, even though they might think of themselves as being wholly in control. Anyway, the original question had to do with how I think about forgetting or memory?

Hoag: Yeah, just specifically in relation to what you were saying there about realizing—just being available and visible and what that means. Because I was shocked by how much my students really believed they were in control of the technologies that they used, that they had some kind of mastery over them. And, you know, in most contemporary philosophical thought and theoretical thought from at least Heidegger onwards, there’s this idea that technology has just as much agency as you do—if not more, right? 

Raley: This would be the rationale for having them learn a new production environment or a new interface every six months or every year in a class, which is to say they need to be put in that position of unfamiliarity and disorientation so as to be aware that they’re not fully in command of the dashboard, so to speak. Back to the issue of forgetting. I went back and actually looked at some of the congressional hearings on the proposal to develop a national data database, which were fascinating because it’s all this “database in the sky” worry, which is to say you won’t be able to have a second life because you’ll never be able to erase all of the errors and the mistakes that you made. So that worry about forgetting is there from the beginning of this, again, sort of fantasy scenario of the single database that would contain all of our information. It’s the same fantasy scenario that’s in the television show Person of Interest: There’s a single database and a single person who’s able to access and basically deploy the contents of it.

Hoag: As a transition to talking about your book, I was curious: What role does tactical media play in, say, making an intervention to break up those kind of formations and to induce forgetting and induce imperceptibility and things like that?

Raley: There have been a number of projects along these lines in the last few decades. One collective whose work interests me on this point is Preemptive Media, and they had a performance-slash-installation event that they called “Swipe,” and it was a bar setting that they would set up in different galleries. And patrons—visitors to the gallery—would go and have a drink, and the receipt would actually then detail all of the information that was collected about them in that transaction. Then they developed also a calculator that would allow you to calculate the value of all your different data points according to Experian, this database: Your address is worth this much money, or your social security number is worth this much money. So it was very much educative—letting people know just how much information is contained on the bar codes of their driver’s license, for instance—but then also had an activist component with ways of facilitating communication with one’s representative, congressional representatives, if you want to think about issues of privacy, et cetera. This was before the big battles over privacy.

Hoag: Closely linked to that, actually, one of the questions I wanted to ask you was about memory too, because one of the lines—I think maybe my favorite phrase—in the introduction [to Tactical Media] is that “tactical media records a memory of . . . performance,” so it operates in both directions. And so I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind unpacking that idea, because it also helps to answer the question: What does tactical media do?

Raley: That is always the question: What does it do ultimately? Yeah, and Critical Art Ensemble has always said, “We don’t think in terms of outcomes.” They want to resist this notion. And I would cite Critical Art Ensemble simply because they’re the collective whose work is most associated with the term or the rubric [i.e., tactical media]. But what I suppose has always interested me is the mantra [of Critical Art Ensemble], which is that tactical media ought to be situational, ephemeral, and self-terminating, which is to say in the moment. It has a kind of immediacy. But it’s a present that’s somehow dislocated or disoriented from the present real-time that’s lived and experienced, and because it’s somehow dislocated from the present one can imagine different futures or more possible futures. You know, the performance is oriented toward a future performance, or a future act, or a future intervention, and so forth. But because it has this kind of situational, situated aspect of things, one has to rely on ethnographic techniques in order to record. Certainly many of these interventions have been well-documented with photography, with video, with firsthand accounts, with journalistic reporting, with interviews, and so forth. But like all performative acts, or performances more generally, it lives in memory primarily. So there can be a kind of archive, but the archive is always partial. It’s always incomplete, and you rely on this sort of subjective memory, which is—of course, as we know—mutable. But then what’s interesting about that is that it does open up into community in an interesting way because it’s about transmission. It’s about telling the story about what one experienced. And with that legacy, then one thinks about the continuation or the living on of tactical media. So for all the worry of its presentism, its presentness, its immediacy, it does actually have a very strong futures component. It’s very invested in futurity.

Hoag: This is definitely a line of thought that I wanted to take up; this question of the relation between activism, tactical media, and futurity. One of the things that I thought was striking that you make very clear is this idea that we’ve entered certain global, economic, and other conditions—say, due to neoliberal capitalism—that make it so it’s really problematic to take, say, a classic revolutionary model and be like, “Tactical media will bring about some grand eschatological revolution that will be the end of history, et cetera.” It’s very ephemeral. It’s very much about swarming and quick interventions and things like that. And I was just curious to hear you say a little bit more about that distinction. About, say, media as disruption, and what about the world we live in now makes this really, in some ways, the only alternative we have.

Raley: Right. But I think there are other ways of acting or intervening—or engaging, let’s say—with power. I don’t think this is all anymore, but I don’t know that it ever was. But this is how electronic activism—and I’ll use that phrase because it’s from an early RAND [Corporation] paper, “In Athena’s Camp”—this is how electronic activism is framed: in terms of disruption. It’s disruption and destruction. And it’s about asymmetric power, of course. It’s about maintaining a certain kind of anonymity and then the power for maintaining that kind of anonymity. As we know from Anonymous, this is still hugely important, right?

But I think there’s been a really pronounced turn to making: to maker culture, maker communities, DIY. Tactical media was always invested in workshops and pedagogy, as I’ve suggested and as many people have documented. But I think there’s a strong turn toward what you might call more long-term thinking or community investment: rehabilitating housing projects, rehabilitating buildings, inner cities, and so forth. And I think there’s a turn now so that disruption is just one tactic that one can use. And in a way, what I think is interesting is the way that disruption gets situated alongside, or in dialogue with, or in solidarity with, other types of practices that you might call “affirmative”—that have to do with building communities, building networks. Development of alternative networks has, of course, been hugely important: alternative systems of exchange, Bitcoin, et cetera. So yes, disruption, certainly. One wants to think in terms of guerilla attacks, finding the system punked—to use [Alex] Galloway and [Eugene] Thacker’s phraseology, exploiting the system—but I think that has to happen in concert with the forging of connections broadly conceived. And again, I would think of that in terms of making or building.

Hoag: [W]e were talking about futurity and I know you and I are both readers of [Michael] Hardt and [Antonio] Negri. It seems like in everything they’re doing, it’s about imagining an alternative future based on an alternative conception of things like community and building a commons—or “forming multitudes,” as they put it. And it seems like everything that they’re doing has to do with networks. And so I was curious: Would you dare to speculate on the future of the kind of networked, multitudinous formations and things that we might maybe have trouble wrapping our heads around now, but we can imagine down the road being in place?

Raley: I think Alex Galloway’s work is important here because of his cautionary notes about networks and the network euphoria: that they’re sort of regarded as inherently productive. With the very careful work he’s done delineating different types of networks, he’s made clear that of course they can be forces for control, but that networks are inherently protocological. They’re not inherently utopian with a capital “U,” in other words. I do appreciate his corrective on, again, what we might call network “exuberance” or “exhilaration.” I’m more interested in thinking in terms of a commons. That, for me, would be the preferable term or concept. It allows for that same sense of connectivity and concatenation, bringing together of disparate parts. It allows for that same sense of internal variation or diversity, that you’re not thinking about a homogenous entity. I think it allows for or it invites us to think about the ways in which communication flows occur within it, but it’s not wedded to that node-edge structure. In other words, it has more of a dynamic aspect to it.

Hoag: It seems like it demands participation in a way, too, that was never before possible. Hardt and Negri, for example, are very critical of representation as a political concept. Could you say a little bit about that? How these sort of media interventions demand that participation in, say, building a common, or the common, or a commons?

Raley: Absolutely. I do think it is a turn away from representation toward being. And so, absolutely, I think the commons is, for me, the more interesting, productive, and affirmative term because it is about being and living in common. It’s embodied.

Hoag: What’s so interesting about that, too, is turning that word on its head by returning to its conception in political economies, right? When people hear that word “common,” they think, “Oh, well everyone is the same or everyone has the same experience and that’s why they’re here.” But I think—and you highlighted this really well just a second ago—these network formations, they preserve difference. I think that’s really important.

Raley: The economic history of the commons would be hugely important, and just as a reference, I think what Thacker does with this in the Global Genome piece—and there’s another essay in which he does the history of the commons as an economic formation—is brilliant.

Hoag: Well, speaking of experimenting with building commons, I know you and I decided we wanted to talk about the Occupy movement a little bit. What were you specifically interested in talking about?

Raley: I’d be interested to know what your assessment is of the futures of the Occupy movement. It’s a hard question; I don’t think anyone really has the answer. 

Hoag: Well, even just to pose it like you did, though, is really important. Because for most people, they would be like, “Occupy is dead and it’s been dead for months,” right? But one of the ways that, for example, I see that that’s clearly not the case is if you are connected to the networks that are existing, there are still fully functioning networks all over the country that are producing media, that are engaging in activities. It may not have the full force that maybe it had, say, a year ago, but it’s still fully working, right? So already to pose it in that way, to talk about its future, is I think super important.

Raley: Yeah. Do you think it’s structurally like Anonymous in that sense? That it’s a kind of force that can be deployed? And there are, of course, divisions between those for whom it’s more about the lulz or the pranks—or the fun, the enjoyment, being together—and those for whom it’s more about a dedicated political project.

Hoag: Well again, it’s this preservation-of-difference question, too. Because you have very serious activists and then you have some people that say, “Hey, I’m just here to have a good time.” I think the question of what it might look like in the future is a really interesting one. I do think that maybe the most important result in some ways of the movement was to put these networks in place, both digital networks and analog networks. And so I can imagine that in the future, say, for example, if the US declared war on country X—Iran, whatever—I could see those networks being redeployed and reactivating and it [i.e., Occupy] taking on another signification. Because in its first iteration it was primarily about economics, but to call the movement “Occupy Wall Street” is to simultaneously say, you know, “Be at home. Don’t be engaging in imperialist adventures and things like that.” And so I could see these future crises demanding its resurgence.

Raley: An instant mobilization.

Hoag: Can you imagine some other scenarios where that might happen?

Raley: Catastrophic scenarios? I think we’ve seen it happen with the strike debt movement, and I think that’s probably not over by any means. And I think in a sense you do have this beast that is, sort of chained up ready to be released in any way. But that does suggest a kind of stasis and, you’re right, it’s not that. You can clearly see with the communication—Tumblr sites, memes, and so forth—that they’re active networks. But in terms of catastrophic visions—I guess I don’t want to think in those terms, but I do think the debt movement is pressing.

Hoag: Or austerity or something like that, you know. And that’s what animated movements in a lot of other places, so that would make sense. And in some sense with a catastrophe like that, I think you would see the movement even grow beyond what it originally was. Because in some ways it was kind of amazing that it appeared when it did because the problems that had been created by neoliberal globalization and capitalism had been building and building for three or four decades—it’s like what Chomsky said: After this many years, amazingly someone decides to fight back and to strike back in the class wars, so to speak. So it was responding to a crisis, but it’s a crisis that has been ongoing, so I imagine something like austerity or a war declared would just give it that much more force, I suppose.

Raley: I mean, I don’t want to temper any of this, but Mike Davis’ writing about the various oppositional and insurrectionary struggles I found to be really compelling. And he does have a line in one of the pieces that was I think in the New Left Review about spring as the shortest season. And it is a cautionary note but I think it’s an important cautionary note because it reminds us that we need to remain vigilant and continuously aware of what’s happening—that there is a kind of tendency toward stasis that we want to arrest. In other words, we don’t want it to devolve or the energy to dissipate. 

Hoag: Was it Sojourner Truth who said, “I want to keep the pot stirring,” or something to that effect? I think this is also a question of futurity. For example [Jacques] Derrida talks about this radical future to come that’s unforeseeable and sort of keeping that open, and I think perhaps the way that that’s accomplished is by keeping the pot stirring and keeping that energy even if it’s more latent than it had been, keeping it still bubbling or brewing or moving somehow. How we do that I’m not sure exactly.

Raley: What’s interested me lately is the proliferation of these how-to manuals and the guidebooks. So Anarchist’s Cookbook, of course, is old. But in the last few years there have been so many: There’s [Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution], Living as Form, et cetera. But they’re instructive and they’re consciously instructive. And what’s interesting is that art activists who are known to refuse prescription—are known to refuse that mode of the formula—are featured. And they will happily suggest—not best practices, to use that corporate phrase—but really what is a kind of relaying and documenting of experiences. I think it’s important that a knowledge base is being developed. Of course, one wants to have all the kind of skepticism that one would about prescriptive guides for action as being circumscribing and so forth, but as we know from ARGs [augmented reality games] or gaming more generally, the instructions can be interpreted more liberally. There’s a gap between the instruction and the execution. And in that gap is all. That’s where, in a sense, agency is situated.

Hoag: It’s your Deleuzian toolbox to do what you can. Well, that seems like a good place to kind of wrap things up, with this question of futurity and the to-come and everything along those lines. I’ve learned a lot. Thank you so much for sitting down and talking with us.

Raley: Sure, thank you for having me.


[1] A DoS (Denial of Service) attack is an attempt to make a website unavailable to visitors, or, in other words, to deny them service. A DDoS attack, or Distributed Denial of Service attack, is carried out by more than one machine, i.e., distributed across several computers. Generally speaking, people use these computers to flood a web server (the big computer that sends you information about websites when you try to access them) with so many requests for information that it cannot possibly fulfill them, causing many legitimate users’ requests to remain unfulfilled. DDoS attacks would later come to be associated with Anonymous after their late-2010 attacks on Amazon, Paypal, Visa, and Mastercard.

[2] “Operation Chanology” refers to a protest by members of Anonymous against the Church of Scientology. The protest began due to the church’s attempts to completely remove video of a much-publicized interview with actor Tom Cruise from the Internet. Anonymous saw that attempt as a case of Internet censorship.   

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