Tusovka -- a rendez-vous of political ideas, analyses and experience ... and more.
Pilot Issue

Communication Guerilla

Editors' intro: The idea to present this text to the readers of Tusovka came to us during an excited discussion about methods of social-political action by activists, representatives of various NGOs and movements from all over Europe, at a recent seminar in Geneva (Switzerland) in August 1998. Participants discussed with interest examples of using an unconventional strategy we call Communication Guerilla.
Note about translating the term "Communication Guerilla" to Russian: The word "guerilla" being little known in Russian language (though it exists in principle), the literal translation would be "communication partisanship", referring to "guerilla warfare" of the partisans in WW II. Since this term in Russian has come to be overused and stereotyped by the former Bolshevist governments and therefore carries too much historical weight. We chose to translate "Communication Guerilla" as "Podryvanie kommunikatsiy", or "subversive communication". If any of our readers have a better, more fitting idea, please tell us! We hope that the article will lead to further discussions on methods and strategies of activism, and will follow it up with examples and discussions in the following issues of Tusovka.

(Olga & Alain)

Here comes Luther Blissett, Sonja Bruenzels & The Conspirators:

A Message about Communication Guerrilla (CG) out of the deeper German backwoods...

This message is directed to those who are fed up with repressive politics at their doorsteps, who are not frustrated enough to give up a critical position and a perspective of political intervention, and who also refuse to believe that left politics need to be boring, old-fashioned and always very very serious. It also addresses those who are interested in artistic expression, using all kinds of materials including the internet to bend the rules of normality.

It is sent by some provincial communication guerrillas as an invitation to participate, criticise, renew and develop a way of doing politics which expresses the bloody seriousness of reality in a form that doesn't send the more hedonistic parts of ourselves immediately to sleep. Of course, this is a contradiction in itself: How can you be witty in a situation of increasing racism, state-control and decline of the welfare state, to name only a few. On the other hand, even Karl Marx didn't postulate boredom as revolutionary. (Neither is fun as an end in itself, anyway.)

The starting point for our reflections around CG was a trivial insight from our own politics: information and political education are completely useless if nobody is interested. After years of distributing leaflets and brochures about all kinds of disgraces, of organising informative talks and publishing texts, we don't see how all this by itself could lead to social change. After all, it doesn't really make sense to take on the attitude of a primary school-teacher while the kids have become skinheads.

This insight led to a fundamental critique of the traditional left wing concept of politics, which is fed by 18th century enlightenment: If you bring the truth to the masses, distribute the withheld news and information and unveil the distortions of bourgeois media, then everything will be alright. Today's critics of "information society" often lament about an "information overkill" making it impossible to distinguish right from wrong. But since the proclamation of Postmodernism it has become rather complicated to insist on The One And Only Truth. And if there is such a thing, it doesn't matter. Isn't the true problem of "information society" that correct facts and information, even if they are commonplace, bear no consequences?

Everybody knows that the Ozone layer is fading away. Everybody knows that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer...

To us, who believe in Communism, it is hard to understand why this knowledge doesn't lead to fundamental changes - but it definitely doesn't. Reflections on the interrelations between the reception of information, knowledge and the options to act within a social context have tackled how information becomes meaningful and how it then becomes relevant. These theories have shown that information by itself has neither meaning nor consequences - both are created only through the active reception and through the scope of action of the audience. But this basic banality has far too rarely been taken into consideration within the framework of leftist politics.

Communication Guerrilla fundamentally relies on the concept of the active and creative audience. We understand it as a form of political communication which doesn't focus on arguments and facts like most leaflets, brochures, slogans or banners. In it's own way, it inhabits a militant political position. But other than more traditional militant positions (stone meets shop window), it doesn't aim to destroy the codes and signs of power and control, but to distort their meanings. In the present situation - no mass movement, New Labour, etc etc -, this might be a more effective means of counteracting the omnipotent prattling of power. Communication Guerrilla does not intend to interrupt or destroy the dominant channels of communication, but to hijack and subvert the messages transported.

But what's new about all this? After all, there have been the Berlin Dadaists, the Italian Indiani Metropolitani, the Situationists. The roots of communication guerrilla can be traced back to legendary characters like the Austrian soldier Svejk and Till Eulenspiegel, the wise fool. Walking in the footsteps of the vanguards of earlier times, Communication Guerrilla does not attempt to boast about the invention of a new politics. Rather, it wants to re-establish a concept of politics, that doesn't just look at what's being said, but is focusing on how it is being said. Because clearly, it is not enough to confront the dominant ideology with our own truths. What is needed is a practical, material critique of the very structures of communication.

To make it quite clear: Communication Guerrilla isn't meant to replace a rational critique of dominant politics and hegemonic culture. It doesn't substitute counter-information, but creates additional possibilities for intervention. But also, it shouldn't be understood as the topping on the cake, a mere addition to the hard work of enlightenment.

Our reflections refer to western societies of late capitalism not ruled through violent coercion, but through consent and repressive tolerance. They are shaped by a certain degree of political freedom. Sometimes, however, these forms of politics have also been used under repressive conditions.

The bourgeois system takes it's strength - beyond other things - from the ability to include critique. A government needs an opposition, every opinion needs to be balanced with another one, the concept of representative democracy relies on the fiction of equal exchange. Every criticism which doesn't fundamentally shatter the legitimacy of the ruling system, tends to become part of it. Since western societies are based on the discourse of rationality, a fundamental critique of their symbolic order may be more powerfully expressed through the non-verbal, paradoxical, mythical.

Communication Guerrilla is trying to intervene without getting absorbed by the dominant discourse. We are looking for ways to get involved in situations and at the same time to refuse any constructive participation.

Power relations have a tendency to appear normal, even natural and certainly inevitable. They are inscribed into the rules of everyday life. Communication Guerrilla wants to create those short and shimmering moments of confusion and distortion, moments that tell us that everything could be completely different. A fragmented utopia as a seed of change.

In its search for seeds of subversion, Communication Guerrilla tries to take up contradictions which are hidden in seemingly normal, everyday situations. It attempts to distort normality by addressing those unspoken desires that are usually silenced by omnipresent rules of conduct, rules that define the socially acceptable modes of behaviour as well as the 'normal' ways of communication and interpretation. To give just a simple example: Most people will say that it is not okay to dodge paying the fare, even if there is a widespread feeling that public transport is over-expensive. If, however, some Communication Guerrillas at the occasion of an important public event like the funeral of Lady Di manage to distribute fake announcements announcing that for the purpose of participating, public transport will be free, the possibility of reducing today's expenses may tempt even those who doubt the authenticity of the announcement.

Communication Guerrilla attacks the power relations that are inscribed into the social organisation of space and time, into rules and manners, into the order of public conduct and discourse. Everywhere in this 'Cultural Grammar' of a society there are legitimations and naturalisations of power and inequality. Communication Guerrilla uses the knowledge of a 'Cultural Grammar' accessible to everybody in order to cause irritations by distorting the rules of normality: It is precisely this kind of irritations that put into question seemingly natural aspects of social life by making the hidden power relations visible and offering the possibility to deconstruct them.

Obviously this game of bending the rules of Cultural Grammar works best where these rules are most rigid, most firmly established. This is the reason why many Communication Guerrillas feel strange affection towards living in the backwoods of late capitalist society. In the field of communication, this causes an inclination towards the use and abuse of Outdated Media, such as billboards, printed books and newspapers, face-to-face, messages-in-a-bottle, official announcements, etc. And indeed: even the fabulous Hakim Bey has recently advocated the use of Outdated Media as media of subversion (Hakim Bey, Outdated Media, In: Running Idle, New York 1995 (?). Unfortunately, there is no German translation yet, while the English Original is difficult to get. As a Reference, we have only the recent Italian edition: A Ruota Libera, Castelvecchi, Bologna 1996.)

It is hardly astonishing that Communication Guerrillas don't believe the hype of the Internet as a virtual space of freedom beyond state and corporate control. We are afraid that the still existing opportunities of free interchange, the lines of information transmission beyond police control, and the corners of the Net which are governed by potlach economy and not by commercialism, will fade away. The aesthetics of the internet will not be dictated by cyberpunks but by myriads of middle-class wankers exhibiting on corporate-sponsored homepages their home-sweet-homes, their sweet-little-darlings and garden gnomes.

Of course, we appreciate ideas like the absolute absence of state control, no-copyright, the free production of ideas and goods, the free flow of information and people across all borders, as they are expressed by the Californian net-ideology of freedom-and-adventure: Liberalism leading us directly into hyperspace. But we also know that real neo-liberalism is not exactly like this, but rather: freedom for the markets, control for the rest.

Increasing attempts to police the net, to establish state and corporate control will, paradoxically, make the net more interesting for Communication Guerrillas: Possibly, even those of us who until now not even own a PC will get Wired then. Fakes and false rumours inside and outside the Net may help to counteract state control - after all, the internet is an ideal area for producing rumours and fakes. And, of course, where technological knowledge is available there are innumerable opportunities to fake or hijack domains and homepages, to spoil and distort the flux of information. But the fascination of those possibilities should not lead to a technocentric narrowing of the field of vision. The mythical figure of the Hacker represents a guerrilla directed towards the manipulation of technology - but to which end? The Hacker gets temporary control of a line of communication - but the use most hackers make of it is rather poor (see the Hacker Museum, http://www.2600.com).

In a quite different sense, Communication Guerrilla is fascinated by possibilities offered by the Internet: Beyond its reality, THE NET is also an urban myth, and perhaps the strongest and most vital of all. The NET is the mythical place where the future of our society can already be seen. Paradoxically, this gift of prophecy attributed to the net gives credibility to any information circulated there. They are believed in the "real world" because they come from the realm of virtuality, and not in spite of this.

In the German backwoods, there has been a long-lasting game called The Invention of CHAOS Days. It was, in fact, rather simple: Someone put a note in the Net telling that, on day D, all the punks of Germany would unite in the town of XY to transform it into a heap of rubble. The announcement was made, a few leaflets (let's say a dozen) were distributed to the usual suspects. That very day, processions of media hacks of all kinds encountered hosts of riot squads from all over Germany on their way to XY: Once again the forces of public order were on their way to protect our civilisation against the powers of the dark. The most astonishing about this little game is that it worked dozens of times: Obviously for the guardians of public order and public discourse THE NET is a source of secret knowledge too fascinating to be ignored.

We do not mention in detail the innumerable occasions when journalists, state officials, secret services etc. were taken in by false rumours circulating in the net - for example, the major german press agency dpa who fell for the homepage of a fake corporation offering human clones, including replicas of Claudia Schiffer and Sylvester Stallone.

The net is a nice playground for Communication Guerrillas. But we, out there in the backwoods, are telling you: don't forget to walk and talk your way through the jungle of the streets, to visit the devastated landscapes of outdated media, to see and feel the space and the power and the rule of capitalism. Such that you shall never forget what the hell all this prankstering is good for.


Take a look on the website of the autonomous a.f.r.i.k.a.-group (http://www.contrast.org/kg), where you can find also the Archive of Communication Guerrilla (most texts are in German, but there are also some texts in English and Dutch). If you want to participate in the building of the archive, send your stories and examples or your reflections to: <afrika@contrast.org>.

We are eager for comments and suggestions!
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Tusovka: Pilot Issue / Communication Guerilla  / tusovka@savanne.ch
Last updated 1999-04-24