July 2002
volume 1, issue 1


Media and the Death of the Author
Tactical Embarrassment

By catching powerful entities off-guard, you can momentarily expose them to public scrutiny. This way, everyone sees how they work and can figure out how to control them.

  • ®TMark, Working Tactics Poster

People still believe in news media It’s a tenacious faith, possessed by many: the equivalence of "news" and "truth" in which representation is the product of a thoroughly investigated physical reality. However, there’s the progress of increasingly consolidated information-centers and the refinement of communication lines across vast distances. Through this a technological situation develops which favors the homogenized trickle-down dissemination of world events, with a media increasingly dependent on internal sources for information (as factoids pass from the Associated Press, to CNN, to large networks, to small town papers). Facts are not checked and new information is not added, as text-snippet are passed intact from source to source.

Contemporary media, reduced to a game of Operator, cannot provide the truth of our tenacious faith. It has few, if any, checks against misinformation and ‘spin’, and one of several consequences is susceptibility to use as mouthpiece for select power centers. In the lack of multiple viewpoints, ideology and economic alignments are expressed not through deliberate misinformation, but strategic (non)coverage. The results are brief and partial glosses of world news that are identical between sources, balanced out by detailed car chases, inner city shootouts, and puppy-saved-the-day anecdotes — regional, entertaining stories that reliably dominate the majority of airtime/print.

®TMark, aware of the dynamics of contemporary media, exploited this most effective but capricious method of meaning production. Their mission, to battle corporate America through "tactical embarrassment", is dependent upon media dissemination. With it, ®TMark, who targeted high-profile entities such as George W. Bush, Barbie, Beck/Geffen Records, and the New York Stock Exchange, rose to the status a David giving the big guy a bad migraine.

Here’s a description of an ®TMark event, according to rtmark.com:

In April 1999, ®TMark constructed GWBush.com, a website that at first glance appeared to be that of Republican Presidential candidate George W. Bush (his website is GeorgeWBush.com). ®TMark's first version incurred Bush's wrath, and his lawyers sent a threatening letter. . . . By the time ®TMark's second version of GWBush.com was published, with much more content, the Bush campaign had complained to the Federal Elections Commission.

These attacks resulted in a major international news story, which was then magnified by Bush's televised response to a reporter's question about the site: "There ought to be limits to freedom,". . . . The Bush campaign's intimidation tactics raised the eyebrows of several constitutional lawyers, who [argued] that although there ought indeed to be ‘limits to freedom’, restricting free speech and limiting citizens' access to the political process was not the proper place to draw the line.

Of course, ®TMark’s Bush site included some "challenging" content, like this:

First there was his rambunctious youth, in which he doesn't deny there was use of cocaine and other drugs. Then, as an unsuccessful Texas businessman, he was bailed out with millions of dollars from friends of his Vice-President father. As President, G.W. Bush wants to create an America in which everyone gets as much forgiveness, and as many chances to grow up, as he had.

One of ®TMark’s operational strategies was to piss off the target enough (through intellectual property infringements like mirror sites and name usage) that legal retaliation was guaranteed. Then any and all documents of intimidation — letters and emails — were handed to news media, in combination with polished press releases written by ®TMark. Media - print, network, cable - devoured these newsbites and disseminated enthusiastically. Retreat on the part of the corporations usually followed, due to the inevitable friction between their power exploits as publicized and their long-range PR plans.

®TMark revealed the corporate obsession with the name, tantamount with image-management and ownership. But more importantly, ®TMark revealed the ways they wield control: through active suppression, legal intimidation. And media served as the voice. With that, it’s possible that media’s servicing of these provocateurs ran into direct conflict with classic Marx & Engels on media. M & E on the subject: "The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it." (The German Ideology) How could media allow itself to participate in the subversion of the kingpins of material production (Geffen, Mattel) — which is equivalent to treason?

If mass media essentially exists to serve corporate interests, were they fooled by ®TMark, i.e. are they dumb pups who’ll eat whatever’s steak-shaped — even if it’s poo? Did ®TMark’s mastery of the language/look of the official press release obliterate media’s ability to see themselves as distributors of "subversive" content? For this to be true, we must assume that media follows this line of thought: if it sounds official, it has been allowed to be official — in process, passing through various checkpoints of institutional power, or even originating in some node of institutional power.

Well, yes, in part. That much was clear with Barbie Liberation, which was nothing more than a slick dupe designed for a media that would look no further than CNN for a reality check. However, I’d like to give media-makers a little credit. True or untrue, ®TMark events had the same "entertainment hour" ratings value as any feel-good anecdote. The stories were novel, flashy, and no one would piss off the powers that be in giving airtime to these quirky stories about Big Brother getting a touch hot-headed. As Steve Silberman of Wired News stated on his coverage of Deconstructing Beck, "it was, I thought, a piquant little item for a Wired News Friday. I had written much more weighty stories early in the week; every day can't be the apocalypse." Plus, the public has an unquenchable appetite for stories of Big Brother faltering in limited, unthreatening ways, a hallmark of all stratified societies — from Zeus to OJ. With stories like this, viewership increases - which directly impacts leverage with sponsors - those big time corporations.

®TMark offered media news bites on media’s own terms. This itself starts to destabilize their claims for straight-on resistance. For ultimately, their attacks on corporations and government conglomerates, while amusing, didn’t even slightly affect big money’s ability to exact its needs on a global populace. And of course, the idea that one might control "powerful entities" by merely knowing "how they work" is willful hyperbole. The effect they did produce was a media that was able to preserve their symbiotic relationship with corporate interests, whilst providing a pressure-cooker vent for the public’s frustration with the powers that be. However, anything other than a hard-line critique would concede that ®TMark is more than a group of apolitical opportunists. They’re tricksters, good at making the big boys make themselves look very, very bad. In a mainstream art/cultural climate loathe to touch anything resembling a coherent politic, they’re an apt model for voicing dissent and dissatisfaction with the economy of America, preserving baldfaced literalness while striking a balance between manipulation of and pandering to mass media.

But on the baldfacedness of ®TMark: they turned the most pomo-chic trick of all: they chose to be anonymous. Is it practical? Maybe. It’s a lot harder for corporations to issue a string of threatening phone calls and fist boys to front doors, if they don’t know what or who ®TMark is. But what is the link between anonymity — their interpretation of "corporate branding" - and a critical stance on corporate power? They appropriate a hallmark privilege of conglomerate power — the power to be unknown — why, exactly? Does one have to act like a corporation to fight a corporation? (— no.) Or in dogging corporate posing, are we looking at just that — posing?

None of us can imagine anything less mysterious, less sexy, than a bunch of people picketing outside a corporate office - pimpled and ill-dressed identities splayed out for public viewing. If, just like ®TMark product, anonymity is purported to be an appropriation towards the end of critique - it also eludes a transparency that would have marked the death of ®TMark as not just politics. Who wants to be a po-faced Protester when one can be an artworld Trickster? Anonymity gives them the sexy air of the secret agent — we imagine corporate mensches by day, politicos by night, a Batmanned Bill Gates schooled in media spin. This translates as a slickly packaged subculture, which the art world, like the fashion world, desires as its meal-of-choice. Anonymity, a pastiche of otherness, provides the idiosyncrasy that artishness demands.

Death of the Author

The writer is the blind spot on any system, adrift; he is a joker, a mana, a degree zero, the dummy in the bridge game.

- Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

Anonymity speaks to a larger reality of ours of late, a swill of (sub)urbanized individuation, increasing cultural hegemony, and globalization on various fronts that strikes at traditional constructions of identity and localized communities. In an anonymous and atomized citizenry, one is only as one appears to be, as mediated and produced by various cultural/material circumstances — and these circumstances are often multiple and partial at any given point. The Sartrean symptom, alienation from a cohesive sense of self, blossoms as the pre-industrial triumverate of identity, ownership, and labor is split.

All of this is intimately linked to a classic pomo tenet: the author is dead. With alienation from one’s product, the relationship of product to authorial point of origin is a tenuous link forever located in the past. For the present and future existence of the document is owned by its readership - any and every act of consumption exacted in variable circumstances. This renders meaning a process of "forever becoming", the stuff of academic nightmares, but also wet dreams.

With ®TMark, there is an apparent acceptance of this tenet, and a move to take it further, by unmanning the post of author altogether. Anonymity and mimicry displace author status. More traditional models of art or political activism, dependent on polarized interactions, are replaced by the multiple and contingent. Opposition is preserved, but it’s manifested in mockery, and the notion of confrontation becomes convoluted in a play of invention, mass media priorities, and corporate methods (on the sides of both ®TMark and real corporations).
  1. Anybody could have performed the initial offensive acts.
  2. Everybody talks about it, bringing each piece to fruition.
  3. Nobody will claim stake on these acts, except under the corporate veil of "®TMark".

Anybody, everybody, or nobody, these are the players at hand.

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