Issue #10, December 1993
That we're physically addicted to electricity is obvious; the extent to which we're psychologically addicted is not. Particularly among people who try to conceive of opposition to the dominant powers in our society, psychological dependence on electricity reveals itself in a recurring tendency to imagine that those powers behave like electrical power. To a certain extent, this makes intuitive sense: electrical power plays an undeniably significant role in structuring our everyday lives. However, this isn't the only reason we make sense of power relations with an 'electrical consciousness'. Electrical power appeals to our imagination because it is described by a coherent body of concepts, a 'conceptual apparatus' with indisputable rules to guide our classifications of phenomena. Other forms of power — political, social, economic — often seem much harder to describe. Hence, people 'come to terms' with the powers that dominate them by borrowing terms used in the description of electrical power. In other words, electrical power becomes a metaphor for these other forms of power. What I will briefly discuss here are the ways in which this 'habit of mind' — habits are, after all, addictions — has conditioned many people's perception of reality in the last three decades, often with politically debilitating consequences.
The use of electrical metaphors is nothing new. Ever since the beginnings of electrical theory in the 18th century, poets philosophers, and ordinary people have been borrowing its terminology. Since the early 1960's, however, the use of electrical metaphors has attained a new level of importance. What happened in the early 1960's to radically advance the electrification of our consciousness? For one thing, people started to realize the significance of post-war technological developments. Although some intellectuals — Norbert Wiener, Jaques Lacan and any number of science-fiction writers come to mind — were already talking about cybernetics and the human being-as-machine in the mid-1950's, it took most people a little longer to recognize the significance of post-war technological innovations like the television, the transistor, and the computer. The early 1960's also marked the time at which these innovations finally went global. Television culture had ceased to be an Anglo-American phenomenon. Satellite telecommunications were starting to make possible the existence of global 'events' like the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The telephone and mass-electrification had finally been extended to the most underdeveloped portions of the globe, which, not coincidentally, were now linked to first-world states in an increasingly universal United Nations. The computer, though still not an everyday phenomenon, was beginning to be more and more of a presence in the first-world corporate workplace. Finally, the development of the integrated circuit promised a new era of low-cost, high-volume, pre-fab electrical circuits that would extend the realm of advanced electronic technology to the most mundane tools of everyday life.
These changes heralded the development of a 'global culture' in which information could be transferred across vast distances almost instantaneously. Some people were alarmed; some were elated. The work of prominent cultural theorists of the time offers excellent examples of both extremes. In his One-Dimensional Man of 1964, a seminal text for 'New Left' student movements of the 1960's, Herbert Marcuse adopts the alarmist view and worries that technological progress has outstripped our capacity to control its course. The language he uses to describe this dire situation borrows heavily, though perhaps unconsciously, from the description of electrical power. For one thing, he conceives of society as a 'closed circuit' that seemingly incorporates all of our existence. Though it is seemingly full of movement — the rapid flow of information, the breakneck pace of technological innovation — global society is, as a whole, "a thoroughly static system of life: self-propelling in its oppressive productivity (p.17)." Thus, like a circuit, society constitutes a stable system. Furthermore, society resembles an electrical circuit in that it contains and even thrives on the tension between 'positive' and 'negative' elements. Marcuse believes that being 'negative' — opposed to the status quo — no longer constitutes a challenge to the system and that a truly critical take on society must "proceed from a position 'outside' the positive as well as the negative, the productive as well as destructive tendencies in society," for "modern industrial society is the pervasive identity of these opposites — it is the whole that is in question (p.xiv.)." Society can no longer be distinguished from the technology it produces, for "in the medium of technology, culture, politics, and the economy merge into an omnipresent system which swallows up or repulses all alternatives" and that "technological rationality has become political rationality (p.xvi.)." All aspects of existence appear to be subordinated to a one-dimensional 'total system'.
Media theorist Marshall McCluhan saw liberation in the very developments that so alarmed Marcuse. In his 1967 book The Medium is the Massage he agrees with Marcuse that "the medium, or process of our time — electric technology — is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life" and that this technology "fosters and encourages unification" of societal forces into a 'total system', that the "social drama" has become the "electric drama." He echoes Marcuse's apocalyptic declaration that society has become one-dimensional, stating that "electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of 'time' and 'space'" and made it impossible for us to challenge the powers-that-be by opposing them from a position outside the system, since "the instantaneous world of electric informational media involves all of us, all at once" and "no detachment or frame is possible." For McLuhan this means that "electric circuitry is Orientalizing the West," that "the contained, the distinct, the separate — our Western legacy — are being replaced by the flowing, the unified, the fused." What's interesting to note are the remarkable similarities between Marcuse and McLuhan's descriptions of 60's society, even though they take completely opposite positions on the relative value of the technological 'progress' they describe. Both agree that society is one giant circuit into which individuals are placed like so many pre-fab integrated circuits. Marcuse details at length how the individual has become little more than an organizing principle for an assembly of 'manufactured needs'; McLuhan even peppers his book with greatly enlarged pictures of integrated circuits and at one point asks the reader about one of these pictures, "When this circuit learns your job, what are you going to do?" In the end, Marcuse and McLuhan seem like positive and negative poles in a total system they both take for granted.
What are the political consequences of imagining that society is a 'total system' in which every social role, every position seems to be contained within a continuous circuit of power? For one thing, when we do this we are forced to revise radically our notion of political 'resistance'. Marcuse's belief that resistance no longer lies outside or opposed to the system makes perfect sense if power is conceived of in electrical terms, for resistance is an integral part of electrical circuits, one of their most basic components. Although 'resistors' act to dissipate the energy in a circuit — by producing heat or light — and therefore impede the flow of current, they do not impede the functioning of the circuit as a whole. On the contrary, they play an essential role in its smooth operation. Often resistance is even the raison-d'etre of a particular circuit. Electric light, for example, is the product of resistance put to a particular practical use. Using electrical power as a metaphor for socio-political power thus encourages us to think that resistance functions as what Marcuse calls 'structural resistance': it supports the social whole.
If, as many people — especially young ones — in the 1960's did, you still want to somehow struggle against a system you suppose to be a total circuit that makes use of everything it encompasses, including resistance to the flow of power, what are your options? Since the 60's, I would argue, two superficially opposite strategies have dominated political thinking. The first appears to assume — sometimes provisionally, sometimes not — that the conflation of electrical power and the powers that dominate us is not just a useful way of conceptualizing those difficult-to-grasp powers, but an actual fact. In other words, this strategy assumes that the problem literally is technology itself and thus holds that the renunciation of technology and the renunciation of the status quo are one and the same thing. The most committed advocates of this strategy have been associated with back-to-nature movements and, more recently, 'green' politics; with 'hippie' communes and their descendants; and, towards the right of the political spectrum, with simulations of 'frontier-living' by the sweat of one's brow such as we see on TV's Northern Exposure. The strategy itself, however, has had far wider impact than, for it deeply informs the logic of one of America's most popular leisure and vacation practices: camping.
After all, for most Americans camping is primarily a vacation from 'wired' existence, from the continuous and seemingly limitless flow of electricity itself. They drive their cars or RV's to a campsite without electricity — the weak and short-lived output of the batteries they bring with them excepted — in order to set up their often elaborate camping apparatus, get out the Weber grill and the Coleman lantern, and then spend several days in a 'nature' that has all the accoutrements of modern everyday life — cars and even traffic, high 'population density', lots of garbage — except 'real' electricity. I would argue that people who engage in this sort of camping think they are 'getting away from it all' because they think the 'all' — etymologically, the 'universe' in which their everyday lives take place — they are escaping is synonymous with the domain of electrical power. In other words, they imagine that the total system — by definition 'all-encompassing' — only holds sway over the technologized world. It seems that these people go camping to convince themselves that they can still go 'unplugged', can do a good job simulating their everyday lives without recourse to the socket. Camping thus appears to be an attempt to imagine a world not dependent on centralized power source, an 'alternative' world apart from the electrical All.
Aesthetically, the strategy that would resist the system by going 'unplugged' has lead to attempts to find and distribute 'authentic' pre-electronic or at least 'traditional' culture. In the early 1960's it was folk music, a little later blues and country. From the late 60's on, different aspects of minority, primitive, or 'third-world' cultures have appeared to offer the 'antidote to civilization'. In all these cases, the people who appropriate these 'authentic' cultures seek refuge from the system in something that appears to originate outside of its circuit of power. In a sense, then, they are 'camping' in what they take to be cultural wilderness. That their experience of 'camping' tends to consist of pre-packaged hiking tours, visits to ethnic restaurants, or shopping for world music at Tower Records means only that they strongly resemble their less culturally sophisticated fellow citizens who camp in the smog-filled Yosemite Valley. This might explain why acoustic guitars fill both the cultural haunts of those who appropriate folk cultures and your average summertime campground!
The second oppositional strategy is less optimistic about the prospects for escaping the system. Those who adopt it tend to view the first strategy as the product of wilful self-delusion. How could a total system be so easily escaped? After all, there doesn't appear to be any place left on the globe completely untouched by technology. Proponents of this second strategy thus seek not to escape the system, but to oppose it from within. They are 'turned-on' rather than 'unplugged'. The problem they face is to reconcile the desire to resist the system from within with their conviction that 'resistance' can itself be a function of the system. To do this they must differentiate themselves from the sort of structural resistance' that supports the system. This requires a more in-depth account of the relation between individuals and the power flowing through the total system.
What does it mean to be 'plugged in'? Philosopher and cultural historian Michel Foucault succinctly exemplifies the answer this second strategy builds upon when he states in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish that "power is not exercised simply as an obligation or a prohibition on those who 'do not have it'; it invests them, is transformed by them and through them (p.27)." In other words, power flows through different social positions within the total system and 'empowers' the people who occupy those positions to transform it before they pass it on. Foucault makes it clear elsewhere that the system functions efficiently when people use their 'empowerment' to be productive and increase the sum total of power within the system before passing it along: the amount of power within the system should perpetually increase in the course of its circulation. 'Productive' individuals thus come to be defined as people who receive an input — the particular 'signal' of power — and generate an output that is greater in size — a change in quantity — that is otherwise identical to the input — no change of quality. They are like amplifiers in an electrical circuit. Of course, like people, no electrical component is perfect. An amplifier will always produce 'distortion'. The input signal will be transformed into an output signal that "will not be simply an enlarged replica, but will have a different shape. (Steven E. Schwarz and William G. Oldham, Electrical Engineering: An Introduction, p.342)." Engineers seek to avoid 'positive feedback' that "is very likely to lead to instability" because the distortion keeps getting reinforced with each course through the circuit until "the circuit 'runs away' (p.347)."
The 'turned-on' oppositional strategy sees its opportunity in this tendency for distortion to build upon itself until the system is out of control. Its basic project is to make people not into 'resistors' but 'bad amplifiers' who "can produce an output in the absence of an input (p.354)" and thus transform their 'input signal' not quantitatively but qualitatively, who maximize not the volume of their output but the extent to which it deviates from their input. In other words, this strategy is based on the idea that the only way for individuals to help undermine a rational, efficient system is to 'fail' in their assigned tasks and produce the "random signals (p.363)" that constitute systemic 'noise' instead of what the system requires (more of itself). Of course, since real people do not receive input signals of an electrical nature, this is not the sort of strategy that can be directly enacted like the first one: you can renounce use of electrical power and go live in a log cabin or cave; you can't, however, really alter the shape that power takes. The sorts of responses to the system that employ this second strategy thus tend to be much more self-consciously metaphorical.
The 60's provided us with an excellent sequence of idioms to describe the process of literally 'failing' the system. People 'turned on' to drugs like L.S.D., 'tuned in' to the power they suddenly felt to be literally surging through them, and either 'dropped out' or 'burned out'. 'Burn out' is a particularly striking conceptual legacy of the 60's, for it appears to indicate the long-term effect of the systemic 'overloads' that generate noise. All of this metaphoric language is blatantly dependent on 'electrical consciousness'. Of course, as the problem of 'burn out' will attest, striving for literal failure does not make for good long-term political strategy: too many people die or go insane. For this reason, the 'turned on' oppositional strategy has predominantly inspired aesthetic responses to the system — although many of the individuals undertaking them unwittingly cross over into literal failure or self-destruction.
What form do aesthetic applications of this strategy take? In general, they strive for deliberate distortion or even the 'white noise' of incoherence. While there are numerous examples in all media of what this aesthetics leads to in practice, its effects are particularly obvious in rock music, where 'electrical consciousness' finds its most immediate expression. Since the mid-60's, when rock groups like The Who and The Velvet Underground responded to pop artists like Andy Warhol by combining sweet pop melodies worthy of Tin Pan Alley with deliberate use of feedback and distortion, one of rock's most critically lauded lineages has illustrated again and again how a 'harmonious' input signal can be transformed into something monstrous by turning up the volume to the point of overload. This lineage leads through punk, the 'college radio' or 'indie' music of the 80's on up to the mainstream 'alternative' rock of bands like Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and the Smashing Pumpkins today. Throughout its history, this lineage has convinced people that it is somehow 'oppositional' by aesthetically demonstrating a failure to process input signals efficiently. Bands like Nirvana appear to be undermining the system when they generate distortion because "when the 'true' signal is small it may become lost in the noise, and thus be unusable," for "in communications, noise is the great enemy (p.363)." In other words, they illustrate the way in which a circuit of power can be made 'useless' by amplification gone awry.
So we have two basic strategies for opposing a total system conceptualized in electrical terms: we can give up on it altogether and go hide in the woods; or we can 'fail' to play our societal role — or at least pretend to — by being 'bad amplifiers' who flood the circuits of power with incoherent noise; we can 'challenge' the system by either running away from it or self-destructing. Personally and politically, neither strategy seems a particularly effective way of bringing about change in our everyday reality. This is not to say that there is nothing pleasing about them. On the contrary, they offer very seductive pleasures as compensations for their very impotence: fantasies of escape on the one hand and a blissful self-annihilation on the other. The real problem, I would argue, is not that such fantasies are available to us, or even that we sometimes indulge in them. It is, rather, the way in which our psychological addiction to electrical power prevents us from having any other fantasies of opposition besides these two. If we realized the extent to which electrical terminology has come to inhabit our mind; if we understood that many of our perceptions of reality have been substantially altered by a decades-long and largely unconscious addiction to that terminology; if we became more self-conscious about the ways in which we use metaphors as tools; and if electrical terminology were just one of many tools available to us for conceptualizing power, these fantasies would be less pernicious. As things stand right now, however, we are at the mercy of a mind-altering metaphor that makes meaningful opposition to the status-quo seem hopeless.
Charlie Bertsch is a graduate student in English at UC Berkeley, who plans to write his dissertation on the relationship between modernist aesthetics and popular culture. He is also a member of the Bad Subjects Collective. He can be reached at the following Internet address: email@example.com.